That ribbon of highway, the endless skyway…. Woody Guthrie immortalised life on the road in 1940 and it’s been sung about, written about and filmed about ever since.

So it’s no surprise that the ‘Great American Road Trip’ has a grip on all our imaginations. Anywhere else, a long car journey is nothing but a mundane chore. But you know where to get your kicks, right? Out on…oh you-know-where.

Maybe it’s something to do with the frontier myth: echoes of intrepid settlers, covered wagons, and the search for the American Dream. Or maybe it’s just that the American landscape, in all its dramatic, epic scale, makes a great backdrop for romantic adventures on four—or two—wheels.

There aren’t many places you can get this much scenic diversity without passing a single passport control. Your only problem is deciding how much ground you want to cover.

With a little forethought you can devise your own journey and, if you squint a little, maybe catch a glimpse of the American fairytale.

Mount Washington Auto Road in the White Mountains of New Hampshire USA

Mount Washington Auto Road, in New Hampshire's White Mountains

Top US self-drive routes

This country was made for epic road adventures. You could just set off and see where the road takes you, or you could use some of the following routes for inspiration.

A few tips: Don’t bite off more than you can chew! Accept you’re not going to discover America on a two-week road trip. Less is more—slow down, avoid the interstates, and steer clear of the A-list tourist hotspots. The national parks hog all the attention, but you’ll find just as much wildlife and adventure (without the crowds) in state parks, national forests, wilderness areas and national monuments.

And most importantly, plan ahead! There might be some romantic appeal to just following the open road, but in reality that can mean expensive motels, RVs camped in Walmart parking lots, and crowded roads snaking through the aforementioned over-popular national parks.

USA yosemite3

Yosemite National Park, California

The west coast in two weeks

Approx. distance: 1,700 miles

Duration: 14 days

Suggested route: Seattle, Olympic National Park, Mount Rainier National Park, Crater Lake National Park, Lassen Volcanic National Park, Yosemite National Park, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, Los Angeles.

Take in the magnificence of the western United States mountains, while also walking among some of the world’s biggest trees and get sprayed by a few of North America’s largest waterfalls on this route. This inland tour of the best mountainous parks in Washington, Oregon, and California includes crowd favourites Olympic National Park, Crater Lake National Park and Yosemite National Park.

Read more: West coast road trip

Arches national Park Utah USA

Arches National Park, in Utah

Utah's 'mighty five' road trip

Approx. distance: 1,200 miles

Duration: 10 days

Suggested route: Salt Lake City, Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Kodachrome Basin State Park, Capitol Reef National Park, Moab, Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Salt Lake City

Fiery red rock formations dot the Southwest, lighting up the landscape at sunrise and sunset with a brilliant array of colours, from red to orange to deep purple. Created by erosion over millennia, and still changing today, these sandstone wonders are the photographic highlight of most road trips across southern Utah.

Read more: Utah's 'mighty five' road trip

Redwood National Park fog in the forest

Redwood National Park

Northern California road trip

Approx. distance: 600 miles

Duration: Seven to 10 days

Suggested route: Bodega Bay, Avenue of the Giants, Redwood National & State Parks, Mount Shasta, Lassen Volcanic National Park.

North of San Francisco, California becomes less populated and wilder. Here nature dominates the landscape from the skyscraping redwood trees to the crashing waves on the rugged coast to the volcanic wonders bubbling inland. Northern California is also the place to see magnificent wild animals whether it’s the migrating gray whales off Bodega Bay or the majestic Roosevelt elk wandering around Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park.

Read more: Northern California road trip

Foothills Parkway northern Great Smoky Mountains tennessee usa

Foothills Parkway in the northern Great Smoky Mountains

Great Smoky Mountains

Approx. distance: 450 miles

Duration: Six days

Suggested route: Knoxville, Urban Wilderness, Gatlinburg, Cades Cove, Clingman's Dome, Ocoee Scenic Byway, Lookout Mountain, Knoxville.

Gorgeous scenery and outdoor adventure join forces on this Great Smokies loop, which swings past urban parks, waterfall trails and wildlife playgrounds.

Read more: Great Smoky Mountains road trip

White Mountain National Forest fall foliage on Kancamagus Highway near Hancock Notch aerial view Town of Lincoln New Hampshire NH USA

Fall foliage in the White Mountains

New England's fall foliage

Approx. distance: 700 miles

Duration: one week

Suggested route: Boston, Berkshires, MA, Mohawk Trail Scenic Drive, Vermont Hwy 100, Littleton, NH, Franconia Notch State Park, Kancamagus Highway, Wolfeboro, Lake Winnipesaukee, Boston

When to go: Foliage season runs from mid-September through mid-October

Foliage across New England puts on a brilliant display of colour in fall, with yellow, orange and deep red leaves shimmering across forested hills.

This loop passes leaf-peeping hotspots across Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire. Foliage season runs from mid-September through mid-October.

Read more: New England's fall foliage road trip

Buffalo badlands national park dakota usa

Badlands National Park

South Dakota & Badlands

Approx. distance: 400 miles

Duration: 8 days

Suggested route: Rapid City, Spearfish Canyon, Deadwood, Black Hills National Forest, Hill City, Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Crazy Horse Memorial, Custer State Park, Wind Cave National Park, Wall, Badlands National Park, Rapid City.

This figure-of-eight route takes you on an epic road trip through South Dakota’s national parks, forests, and monuments. The area is particularly rich in Native American history, including that of the past and present-day Lakota people. Although covering a smaller area than other Midwest road trips, it’s filled with plenty of arresting scenery, from the Badlands, to the Black Hills.

Read more: South Dakota & Badlands National Park Road Trip

The Best USA Road Trips

Amy Balfour

Amy has authored or co-authored 26 books on the USA for Lonely Planet. Her articles and essays have appeared in Backpacker, Every Day with Rachael Ray, Houston Chronicle, Redbook, Southern Living, Women’s Health, Vegetarian Times, the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post.

The Best USA Road Trips

Stuart Thornton

Stuart is a California-based travel writer and guidebook author. His books include Moon California Road Trip, Moon Coastal California and the forthcoming Moon Northern California Road Trips. For more about Stuart and his books, visit his website.

The Best USA Road Trips

Sarah Bence

Sarah Bence is a travel journalist based in her home state of Michigan, after living in the UK for three and a half years. She writes for Lonely Planet, Fodor's, Roadtrippers Magazine, Business Insider, and more.

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