Magnificent 7……Classic American road trips

The United States’ 46,876-mile Interstate Highway System might be the one celebrating its 50th birthday this year, but consider this enviable grid of blacktop simply your gateway to the real U.S. of A. Instead, hang a right onto the roads less travelled, the country’s two-lane highways. From the red-hued Heartland to blue-leaning coastal enclaves, sun-kissed sandy shores to soaring mountain spines, blockbuster national parks to secret state preserves, it’s a journey that defies generalization. NMTBP brings you its Magnificent 7:

Route 66 - Chicago to Los Angeles, 2451 miles

Most people have heard of Route 66. It’s iconic. It’s a classic American highway recognized in pop culture and its expanse covers many U.S. states. The route original passed through Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. Although officially removed from the United States Highway System in 1985, many portions of the original road are now National Scenic Byways under the name ‘Historic Route 66′. This route, or any section of it, is a good way to see the U.S.A. You’ll see the vast plains that define the term ‘big sky’. When you drive through the New Mexico and Arizona portions of the road, you’ll see vivid desert colours in the land juxtaposed with perfect pastel colours in the sky. The route begins and ends with serene water views. Whether you wind up staring off into the Pacific Ocean or Lake Michigan, your journey through the desert can be complemented with a well-deserved swim if that’s what you want.You’ll hit plenty of towns along this route. Among the larger towns you’ll pass through are Chicago, St. Louis, Oklahoma City, Amarillo, Albuquerque and Los Angeles. Find out more here

Pacific Coast Highway - Olympic National Park to Baja California, 2500 miles

One of the country’s most scenic drives, this two-lane highway runs about 1,500 miles from the northwest tip of the United States at Olympic National Park almost all the way to the Mexican border. It’s a feast for the senses, passing by (and through) forests, wilderness preserves, farmland, California wine country, and spiffy little seaside towns, and hugging gorgeous stretches of the coast, particularly between San Francisco and Big Sur. This 141-mile coastal route is as dramatic a drive as any: dizzying cliff side vistas alternate with redwood thickets and farms overflowing with produce. Along the way: sleepy Half Moon Bay, hip Santa Cruz, happening Monterey, chic Carmel-by-the-Sea

A few caveats: the highway can get crowded—especially during the summer months—and drivers are often so amazed by the views that they forget to keep their eyes on the road. Drive carefully

PCH highlights include redwood forests of Northern California; Big Sur (California); the views on the road between Florence and Lincoln City (Oregon) and from the scenic outlook at Cape Perpetu (just south of Yachats in Oregon); Hearst Castle in San Simeon (California); Point Lobos State Wildlife Reserve (just south of Carmel, California); and California’s Carmel Valley vineyards (esp. Bernardus Winery and Talbotts Vineyards).

The Pacific Coast Highway is easy to follow; it’s marked on maps as Route 1 in California and Route 101 farther north

Plan your route here

Great River Road - Lake Itasca, Minnesota to Venice, Louisiana, 3500 miles

The 3,000+ mile Great River Road follows the Mississippi River from its start as a cold, tiny, crystal-clear stream in northern Minnesota to its warm muddy merger with the Gulf Of Mexico in Venice, Louisiana

Created in 1938 from a jumble of local, state, and federal roads, it’s a picturesque and varied journey (parts of the route are comprised of well-maintained dirt and gravel roads) passing through forests, prairies, swamps, tiny towns, and bustling cities. Travelers have many opportunities to experience America’s own music (the blues, jazz, zydeco, and rock-n-roll were all born along this highway) and sample unique regional tastes—wild rice and walleye in Minnesota, Maid-Rite loose meat sandwiches in Iowa, artisanal cheese in Wisconsin, BBQ in Memphis, tamales in the Delta, and, of course, Creole and Cajun cooking in Louisiana

The sections with the most character, the most Mississippi-ness, are, not surprisingly, found in the state named for the river and the one immediately southwest, Louisiana. The Delta, multiple birthplaces of the blues, the antebellum mansions of Natchez — best seen during the annual spring and autumn pilgrimages, but anytime is nice — the barbecue joints of Baton Rouge, the sheer tenacity of New Orleans. You might want to turn around and drive back up again, but only if you have good air conditioning

Highlights along the Great River Road include the headwaters of the Mississippi at Lake Itasca State Park, Minnesota; Memphis, Tennessee (especially Sun Studios and Beale Street); The Mississippi Delta (especially Clarksville, Mississippi for blues fans); Vicksburg, Mississippi (for antebellum architecture aficionados); and New Orleans, Louisiana. See more information here

U.S. Route 1 - Fort Kent, Maine to Key West, Florida, 2,425 miles

The northernmost part of what’s now U.S. Route 1 dates back to at least 1636—when it took four days to make the 100-mile journey from Philadelphia to New York City. Today, this 2,425 mile circuit links Fort Kent, Maine, to Key West, Florida, traveling through a good chunk of America’s history

The road takes travellers though colonial New England, on to New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C, then onto the US’s oldest city (St. Augustine, Florida) and the thoroughly modern multicultural Miami, ending in ironically iconic Key West. Route 1 has some spectacular scenery (even the Great Dismal Swamp in southeastern Virginia/northeastern North Carolina is startlingly charming)—but it isn’t always pretty, passing through plenty of urban blight and mouldering towns that time forgot. That said, it’s an endlessly fascinating highway—every bit of it has a story to tell

The best sights along Route 1 include the Maine coastline; Okefenokee Swamp (Florida); the Florida Everglades; the Overseas Highway to the Florida Keys; the Masonic temple in Alexandria, Virginia; Washington D.C’s museums and monuments; the Old Port section of Portland, Maine; New York City; and Old Town in St. Augustine. Plan your route here

Blue Ridge Parkway - Rockfish Gap, Virginia to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina, 469 miles

There are two national parks (Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains) along the 469 miles of this National Scenic Byway that winds through Virginia and North Carolina (with a tiny piece hanging over in Tennessee). The words ‘Blue Ridge’ refer to the section of mountains in the Appalachians, and it’s these 250 miles that are the most riveting, often providing breathtaking panoramas through Virginia and North Carolina. The second-most- stunning portion of the route may well be the 105-mile Skyline Drive, the only public road through Shenandoah. There are enough activities along the entire parkway to keep generations entertained, including hiking, biking, fishing, swimming and golfing. Or you can just sit in the vehicle with your jaw dropped and your camera out (keep your eyes peeled for bears)

Make sure to stop in the Southern Highland Folk Art Center for hands-on demonstrations, and make a turn off the parkway to Asheville for fried green tomatoes and goat’s cheese grits at the Tupelo Honey Cafe, to prepare you for the next leg. To get on the trail of the lonesome pine, click here

The Loneliest Road - San Francisco to the Chesapeake Bay, 3,200 miles

Running coast-to-coast through the heart of America from sea to shining sea, US-50 passes through a dozen different states and four state capitals, as well as the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C. Along the route are some of the country’s most magnificent landscapes: the Sierra Nevada and the Appalachian and Rocky Mountains, the endless farmlands of the Great Plains, and the desiccated deserts of Utah and Nevada. It follows the footsteps of pioneers, and gives a reverse time line of national development. Heading west to east, you can travel back in history from the cutting-edge high tech of contemporary Silicon Valley, across the Wild West frontier of the mid-1800s, and through lands the likes of Daniel Boone and countless others pioneered in the 1700s, before arriving at the Atlantic Ocean near some of the oldest and best-preserved colonial-era landscapes in the United States

All the way across the country, US-50 passes through literally hundreds of timeworn small towns, the great majority of which have survived despite the modern onslaught of Wal-Marts and fast-food franchises. Blue Highways author William Least Heat-Moon writes about US-50, “for the unhurried, this little-known highway is the best national road across the middle of the United States.” The route offers such a compelling cross-section of the nation that Time magazine devoted nearly an entire issue (July 7, 1997) to telling the story of the road it called the ‘Backbone of America’

From its start at San Francisco, the route cuts across California’s midsection, passing the state capital at Sacramento before following the route of the old Pony Express up into the Sierra Nevada to the shores of Lake Tahoe and into Nevada. The Nevada portion of the route, dubbed ‘The Loneliest Road in America’ by travel writers and tourist boards, is one of the most compelling long-distance drives in the country—provided you find miles and miles of little more than mountains, sagebrush, and blue sky compelling. The Great Basin desert continues across half of Utah, but then the route climbs over the Wasatch Front and onto the national park–packed red-rock country of the Colorado Plateau

Continuing east, you cross the Continental Divide atop the Rockies, then follow the Arkansas River along the historic Santa Fe Trail. For fans of vanishing Americana, the route really comes into its own here across the Great Plains, with its hypnotically repetitive landscape of water towers, windmills, railroad tracks, and one small town after another

After bisecting Missouri from Kansas City to St. Louis, US-50 crosses the Mississippi River into a much older and more settled landscape, through the agricultural heartlands of Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. After climbing into the Appalachian backwoods of West Virginia, US-50 emerges suddenly into the wealth and power of downtown Washington, D.C., before passing through the still perfectly picturesque fishing and farming communities of Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Plan your journey here

The Road to Nowhere - Westhope, North Dakota to Brownsville, Texas, 1834 miles

Once the only entirely paved route from Canada to Mexico (as hard-to-find postcards along the route still say), US-83 is still the shortest—from Westhope, North Dakota, dead south to Brownsville, Texas, and beyond to Matamoros, Mexico, seemingly without turning once. Its grim nickname, ‘The Road to Nowhere’, is alternately unfair and then not severe enough, for the route navigates some of the widest and most aesthetically challenged landscapes in the country: the yawn-inducing rolling grasslands of the northern Great Plains, the beefy expanses of western Nebraska and Kansas, and the mesmerizing heat of the Texas/Oklahoma Panhandle, before following the lower Rio Grande south to the Gulf of Mexico. Yet on US-83 you’ll also take in some phenomenal country: verdant farmland dotted with really small towns, endlessly shifting prairie grassland, winding Missouri River roadways, and plain, isolated, where-the-hell-am-I agricultural expanses

Following roughly along the 100th Meridian, US-83 marks the historic divide between the ‘civilized’ eastern United States and the arid western deserts. Physiography aside, this route’s cultural landscape centres around small but self-sufficient farm or cattle communities that date back to the last days of the Wild West and that are far enough off the tourist trail to retain an unselfconscious, aw-shucks quaintness. For endless miles in every direction, telephone and power poles provide some of the only signs of life between the highway and the distant horizon, though the towns—where average speeds drop suddenly from 70 mph to radar-enforced 25 mph or slower—are spaced just often enough along the highway to serve your food-and-fuel needs

Best of all, US-83 manages to trans navigate this broad, odd nation, albeit north-to-south, without once grazing a conventional tourist attraction. Here in the nation’s heartland, conversations over a daybreak breakfast, afternoons spent cooling off by municipal swimming pools, and twilight American Legion baseball games provide the stuff of truly memorable Road Trip diversions, and for that reason alone, US-83 remains a must-do long-distance byway. Plan your journey here

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  1. San Diego Plumber

    May 29, 2012

    Wow! Great tips! Reading your post made me want to schedule a trip and go to all of the places you mentioned here. I’ve been longing for a good view amid my very busy schedule and I think it’s time for me to take a break.

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