by Larry Bleiberg , Special for USA TODAY |
The Great American Road Trip is a national rite of passage, says Jamie Jensen, author of Road Trip USA (Avalon, $29.99), a comprehensive guide in its sixth edition. “Before you vote, you should be required to drive across the country and see the variety of people and places,” he declares. The key, he says, is to take the journey slowly, stopping to talk to people, to take detours, and to get lost. “It’s a different mode of traveling. It’s not a to-do list. It’s kind of refreshing.” He shares some favorite routes with Larry Bleibergfor USA TODAY.
Columbia River Scenic Highway, Ore.
Unlike most highways, this nearly century-old route was built purely for scenery, and it truly delivers big time. “It’s just a fantastic drive and the landscape is breathtaking,” Jensen says. The 75-mile winding ride from The Dalles to Troutdale starts east of Portland, taking in the sights of the Columbia Gorge. Along the way, passengers are treated to waterfalls, mountain views and plenty of pull-offs, so the driver can enjoy it too. traveloregon.com
Road trip tip: Make an easy detour on the Mount Hood Scenic Loop to Timberline Lodge, a classic mountain park hotel. “It’s one of those see-it-before-you-die destinations,” he says. timberlinelodge.com
Route 66, Illinois to California
From the Grapes of Wrath to pop music to the early days of television, the Mother Road is linked to the American psyche. “It touches on some of the greatest mythology in American,” Jensen says. “It’s Manifest Destiny.” While much of the Midwest-to-Pacific route has been swallowed up by interstates, many places still preserve the original two-lane highway. “The scenery is inspiring,” Jensen says, particularly the portion across the Southwest. “Every other street scene reminds you of Rain Man or some other movie.” historic66.com
Road trip tip: While the Southwest offers the most famous scenery, don’t neglect the start of the route in Illinois. Jensen recommends the town of Pontiac, home to two great stops, the Route 66 Association Hall of Fame & Museum and the Pontiac Oakland Auto Museum, a memorable tribute to the car brands. pontiac.org
Hill Country Hideaways, Texas
This central region of the Lone Star State provides the Texas the world knows from the movies, with deep canyons, swift rivers and undulating sagebrush plains. “It’s wonderfully winding roads and proper two-lane highways,” says Jensen, who recommends making a loop of state highways 335, 336 and 337. “It’s the middle of nowhere. It’s an elemental landscape.” Traveltex.com
Road trip tip: Make sure to visit Utopia, Texas, if only for the name itself, Jensen says. “It’s tiny and very pretty, lakes and rivers and trees and paradise. There are bed and breakfasts to stay in, so you can stay and enjoy the Sabinal River.”utopiatexas.com
Great River Road, Minnesota to Louisiana
There’s no better way to appreciate the power of the mighty Mississippi River than driving its length from north to south. “From Mark Twain to Bob Dylan to Muddy Waters, it has a place in the national psyche. It’s where the West begins,” Jensen says. He suggests breaking up the trip into pieces, from the unexpected hilly terrain in Wisconsin and Iowa, to the Delta region from Memphis to New Orleans.experiencemississippiriver.com
Road trip tip: Stop for a St. Louis Cardinals baseball game at Busch Stadium, located within sight of the river and the Gateway Arch. “It ties everything together in a nice way.” cardinals.com
Pacific Coast Highway, San Luis Obispo to Monterey, Calif.
While California’s Route 1 runs most the length of the state, Jensen calls this middle section the sweet spot, featuring the stunning scenery of Big Sur, where it twists through seaside cliffs. The stretch also passes near the wine country of Paso Robles, and the arty town of Carmel. “There are mountains, oceans and thin strip of asphalt in between, that’s it. You feel like you have the whole continent at your back when you watch the sunset over the Pacific.” The trip works either way, but the driver will have the best view if you head south to north. visitcalifornia.com
Road trip tip: Don’t miss Hearst Castle in San Simeon. “It’s kind of surreal to see this Spanish cathedral dropped down in the ranchland of Southern California.”hearstcastle.org
Overseas Highway, Miami to Key West, Fla.
Driving this 120-mile route connecting the Florida Keys with bridges and causeways is like piloting a hovercraft across the ocean, Jensen says. Originally developed for the Florida East Coast Railway, the route was wiped out by a hurricane in 1935 and converted to a highway. “It’s you and the water half the time. You feel like you’re floating. It’s a wonderful sensory experience.” Although it can be driven in just a few hours, take your time to stop at seafood dives and tourist traps along the way. “There are fish and chips and cold beer and that’s always a pleasure.” fla-keys.com
Road trip tip: Take a driving break and swim with dolphins at the Theater of the Sea in Islamorada, a nearly 70-year-old roadside attraction located in a former quarry.theaterofthesea.com
Million Dollar Highway, Silverton to Ouray, Colo.
This section of U.S. Highway 550 climbs more than two miles above sea level as it twists its way between two historic gold-mining towns. Some say the route’s nickname comes from the road’s fill dirt, which came from mine waste later discovered to contain gold ore. , while others insist it cost a million dollars a mile to build. “It’s literally breath-taking because of the attitude, but it’s a beautiful part of the world, an amazing drive with a great name and it deserves it,” Jensen says. The road is part of the San Juan Skyway Scenic Byway, offering the chance for more exploration. colorado.com
Road trip tip: You can get another view of the scenery from the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, which passes along the Animas River Gorge, far above rushing waters and feels like an old west adventure.durangotrain.com
Skyline Drive and Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia and North Carolina
This Appalachian beautyfest starts just two hours west of Washington, D.C., and slowly winds its way along ridge lines and near historic towns as it traces the mountain range. With low speed limits, you have time to soak in the scenery along the 105-mile drive in Shenandoah National Park. Then connect with the parkway, which continues for another 469 miles on the way to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The highlight for many is the famed Linn Cove Viaduct, an engineering marvel that winds through the treetops along the road’s highest section. visitskylinedrive.org andblueridgeparkway.org
Road trip tip: Time your drive to spend time in Charlottesville, site of Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, and the University of Virginia. It will be a sure hit with lovers of history, shopping, food and college towns, Jensen says. visitcharlottesville.org
Black River Scenic Byway, Mich.
Often overlooked by road trippers, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula offers road trip magic, with thick forests and waterfalls, and expansive Lake Superior vistas. “People who know ocean coasts think that’s the only way to go, but lake views can be just as beautiful,” Jensen says. While State Highway 513 is labeled a scenic byway, drivers should venture off the route. “There are old roads that don’t really go anywhere but get you deep in the woods. 888-784-7328; michigan.org
Road trip tip: Wrap up your automobile adventure with a visit to auto-free Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel. “It has the world’s largest front porch and they have rocking chairs.” grandhotel.com
The Loneliest Road, Nevada
The section of U.S. Highway 50 earned its name because it passes through a largely barren uninhabited region. However, the road offers plenty of distractions as it follows the Pony Express route, skirting mining camps and crossing mountain ranges covered with juniper and pine forests. “The actual driving surface is excellent. And there are gas stations and cafes along the way.” Jensen says. travelnevada.com
Road trip tip: Stop at Great Basin National Park, which Jensen calls an under appreciated gem with forests of bristlecone pines, the oldest living thing on Earth. “The stars at night are phenomenal. “Lying on your back watching the shooting stars is something you’ll never forget.” nps.gov/grba