In praise of the great American road trip
The first road trip I can remember was one my family took to visit a great-aunt in Florida.
There were six of us packed into a Volkswagen Beetle – parents in the front, baby brother, when not sitting in someone’s lap, in a rear-facing car seat that was loosely attached to the back of the front seat, my grandmother, myself and luggage in the back seat, and little sister packed into the car’s small luggage compartment behind the back seat.
We traveled down the highway sans seatbelts in a car with no air conditioning that packed a whopping 60 horsepower and an engine in the rear. In other words, by today’s standards it was a death machine.
But the funny thing is, I remember that road trip. I remember the cheap motel in southern Georgia where we stopped to spend the night, and I remember my great-aunt’s St. Augustine house with the screened-in porch where we slept.
And that’s the great thing about a road trip – parts of it might make you miserable, you might punch your siblings, yell at your kids or play stupid, mindless games like “I Spy” for hours, but it’s going to be memorable.
The road trip was born almost as soon as the automobile, but by the 1920s, the automobile had become the primary means of transportation for vacationing families. We are all familiar with the once-vibrant-but-now-dilapidated motels that were located every few miles along major highways such as Route 66 – killed by the interstate system and our desire to get there in a hurry.
Author William F. Dix wrote in the early 20th century that the automobile “opens up the countryside to the city dweller, [and held out the promise of] great national highways stretching from ocean to ocean and from North to South.”
Over those highways, would sweep “endless processions of light, graceful and inexpensive vehicles … carrying rich and poor alike into a better understanding of nature and teaching them the pure and refreshing beauties of the country.”
So, in honor of the great American road trip, here are the Travel Channel’s top 10 road trips across our great, expansive and beautiful country – several of which I have been fortunate enough to experience.
Black Hills of South Dakota
Begin on I-90 and take exit 131 for the Badlands Scenic Byway. As you travel through the Black Hills, make sure to stop at Wall Drug, Custer State Park and Mount Rushmore. And keep your eyes peeled for bison.
Head out on Coastal Route 1, also known as the Lobster Trail. Starting in Kittery the road hugs the rocky coastline “down east” through quaint New England fishing villages like Belfast and Rockland.
Blue Ridge Parkway
The 469-mile drive that connects two national parks – Shenandoah in Virginia to the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina – is the most visited road controlled by the U.S. National Parks System. Starting at Front Royal in Virginia, travel along Skyline Drive to Luray Caverns and on south to the Natural Bridge and into North Carolina, where you can stop in Asheville before seeing the attractions of the Great Smoky Mountains.
Pacific Coast Highway
You can opt to drive California’s longest highway north to south or south to north along the often-dramatic Pacific coastline. Either way, it’s 653 miles from Dana Point in Orange County to Leggett in Mendocino County. Key attractions include Malibu, San Simeon, San Luis Obisbo, Big Sur, Monterey, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Mendocino Headlands.
Jackson, Wyoming to Glacier, Montana
Take a week and make as many stops as possible in Big Sky Country to enjoy some of the most stunning and diverse landscape features anywhere in America – from the steep cliffs and racing rivers of the Grand Tetons to the geysers and wildlife of Yellowstone and the dramatic falls and glacial formations of Glacier.
The route starts at Bodie Lighthouse in the north and passes the narrow spits of land that make up the barrier islands protecting North Carolina’s mainland from the Atlantic Ocean. Sights along the way include the Oregon Inlet, Pea Island Wildlife Refuge and the historic Hatteras Lighthouse, where the highway continues as a boat -the Hatteras Ferry is part of Route 12 and crosses Pamlico Sound to join up with the road again on Ocracoke Island.
The 59-mile highway around the eastern side of Maui between Kahului crosses black sand beaches, waterfalls and 59 bridges. Stops include ‘Ohe’o Gulch (Seven Sacred Pools), the Pipiwai Trail, and Waimoku Falls at Haleakala National Park, Hana Lava Tube, and the Ho’okipa lookout, where you can view Maui’s famed surfers taking the waves.
Set out from Seattle for a 300-plus-mile road trip west across the Olympic Peninsula. Enjoy gorgeous scenery and many stopping points for hikes. Within the Olympic National Park itself, you can drive through the lush Hoh Rainforest, one of the largest temperate rainforests in the U.S.
At over 2,500 miles, Route 66 is the quintessential cross-country road trip. Though travel on the Mother Road peaked in the 1940s and 1950s before the interstate highway system was established, travelers can still follow the tire treads of so many who came before. While there are countless sights as you journey between Chicago and Los Angeles, ending on the Santa Monica Pier, Route 66 may be most famous for its quirky roadside attractions like the Cadillac Ranch in Texas, the World’s Largest Catsup Bottle in Oklahoma, and this giant sculpture of Abe Lincoln on a wagon in his hometown of Springfield, Illinois.
The 150-mile drive from Miami through the Florida Keys on the iconic Route 1 is famous from countless car commercials and movie chases. The Overseas Highway, as it’s often called, crosses 42 bridges, including the Seven-Mile Bridge over Pigeon Key.
Susan Campbell may be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.