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 national park road trips

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

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

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

Stunning sunrise in Big Bend National Park Texas usa

Sunrise over Big Bend National Park, southwest Texas

Two week US road trip routes

Austin, San Antonio & West Texas

Approx. distance: 1,000 miles

Duration: Two weeks

Suggested route: Austin, Hill Country, San Antonio, Seminole Canyon State Park & Historic Site, Big Bend National Park, Route 170 River Road, Marfa, Fort Davis, El Paso

South Congress Avenue encapsulates the best of Austin: live music at the Continental Club, tacos at Torchy’s and the quirky appeal of the I Love You So Much mural. Watching the flight of Mexican free-tailed bats from beneath the Congress Avenue Bridge is a nightly tradition (Mar-Oct).

Wildflowers, wineries and dance halls abound in the Hill Country. The Salt Lick is a popular Hill Country BBQ joint. Tour the Alamo in San Antonio then dine beside the River Walk.

It’s a long haul west to the pictographs in Seminole Canyon and mountain trails in Big Bend National Park, an International Dark Sky Park.

Follow the Rio Grande west on Route 170 then continue to Marfa for minimalist art and mysterious lights. Sunsets glow with purple-and-orange intensity behind the Davis Mountains while murals brighten downtown El Paso, the westernmost city in Texas.

Four Corners loop: Ancestral Puebloan history

Approx. distance: 1,100 miles

Duration: Two weeks

Suggested route: Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Taos Pueblo, Chaco Culture National Historical Park, Mesa Verde National Park, Monument Valley, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Zuni Pueblo, Acoma Pueblo, Albuquerque

Comprising Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah, the Four Corners region is home to the longest-surviving communities in North America, including the mesa-top villages of the Hopi Tribe and the Acoma Nation.

It’s a landscape rich with beauty and tradition but still bearing the scars of historic cruelties inflicted by white explorers and settlers. Mesa Verde and other lofty cliff dwellings, built by Ancestral Puebloans, are the photogenic hallmarks of the region, but these remote ruins were inhabited for just a short segment of the centuries-old timeline.

Other Four Corners highlights include the ruins at Chaco Canyon, the red-rock spires and buttes of Monument Valley and Spider Rock in Canyon de Chelly.

New York City to Miami: Big cities, mountain towns & the coast

Approx. distance: 1,700 miles

Duration: Two weeks

Suggested route: New York City, NY, Philadelphia, PA, Baltimore, MD, Floyd, VA, Asheville, NC, Greenville, SC, Charleston, Savannah, GA, Orlando, FL, Miami, the Everglades

From the Met to Chelsea Market, from MOMA to the latest pop-up, the Big Apple is a cultural and culinary powerhouse. A tip: Don’t try to do too much, just pick one or two neighborhoods and go deep.

For early US politics, head to Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed. Afterwards, compare Philly cheesesteaks from Pat’s and Geno’s.

In Baltimore, dive bars and seafood joints are packed tight in cobblestoned Fells Point. Mountain music catches the ear in Floyd, Virginia, part of the Crooked Road Music Trail.

Ashville is a mountain town with a sophisticated palate, for good food and drink try Burial Beer, C´urate and the Biltmore Estate.

With its tree-lined Main Street and downtown waterfall, Greenville is notably picturesque. Hit the coast for shrimp & grits, Fort Sumter and live oaks draped with Spanish moss. In Florida, sunbathe on pristine beaches, hurtle through Space Mountain at Disney World, party in South Beach and paddle the swampy Everglades.

Autumn sunset view from Little Stony Man Cliffs along the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park Virginia USA

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Best US cross-country road trip route

Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles

Approx. distance: 3,200 miles

Duration: At least three weeks

Suggested route: Washington, D.C., Shenandoah National Park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Nashville, Memphis, Oklahoma City, Albuquerque & Santa Fe, Petrified Forest National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, Las Vegas, NV, Los Angeles, CA

This cross-country trip introduces roadtrippers to America’s cultural and artistic diversity as well as its striking landscapes. Cultural highlights include the National Museum of African American History & Culture in D.C., the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, and the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque.

The art scene is varied too. Study the masters at the National Gallery of Art, step into the art at Meow Wolf and stroll the gardens at the Getty.

American-born music is another feature. Mountain music thrives at the Carter Family Fold in Virginia while country music legends perform at the Grand Ole Opry. B.B. King’s Blues Club in Memphis parties late into the night.

Natural beauty is prevalent too, from the Blue Ridge Parkway to the Mississippi River to the multi-hued grandeur of the Grand Canyon and the golden beaches of Los Angeles.

Saguaro National Park arizona usa

Classic Arizonan scenery in Saguaro National Park

Best US road trips for families

Arizona: The Wild West

Approx. distance: 625 miles

Duration: One week

Suggested route: Tucson, Fort Bowie National Historic Site, Chiricahua National Monument, Bisbee, Tombstone, Wickenburg, Prescott, Jerome, Sedona

With cacti and crusty mountains as your backdrop, this partial loop kicks off in Saguaro National Park in Tucson. From here, delve into the conflicts between the U.S. Army and the Apache at Fort Bowie and at Chiricahua National Monument, where towering volcanic rocks once doubled as a hideout for Apache warriors.

Next up are a string of mining towns where prospectors, cowboys and gunslingers once trod the dusty streets. Families can immerse in Wild West history at the Queen City Mine in Bisbee and the OK Corral in Tombstone.

Dude ranches near Wickenburg offer multi-day horseback-riding experiences. Several dozen multi-use trails crisscross the red rocks of Sedona, which may look familiar from classic western movies.

Southern California: Beaches, Disneyland & Hollywood

Approx. distance: 200 miles

Duration: One week

Suggested route: San Diego, La Jolla, Carlsbad, Huntington Beach, Disneyland Resort, Venice Beach, Santa Monica, Universal Studios Hollywood, Los Angeles

Kick off with koalas at the San Diego Zoo & Safari Park in San Diego then follow Hwy 101 north along the Pacific Coast, passing sea lions, snorkelling hotspots and cliffside tidepools.

Surf culture reigns on Huntington Beach, where evening bonfires are allowed. Younger kids will love the Coastersaurus and other low-scare rides at Legoland in Carlsbad.

The 14-acre Star-Wars: Galaxy’s Edge is the newest “land” at the iconic Disneyland Resort in nearby Anaheim. Street performers and an eye-catching skatepark keep Venice Beach abuzz while the Pacific Wheel on the Santa Monica Pier offers bird’s-eye views of the coast.

Tour movie sets on the backlot then scream at velociraptors on Jurassic World The Ride at Universal Studios Hollywood.

Southern New Mexico: Caverns, aliens & white sands

Approx. distance: 350 miles

Duration: Five days

Suggested route: Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Roswell, Lincoln, Capitan, Valley of Fires State Park, Three Rivers Petroglyphs Site, Alamogordo, White Sands National Park

The Natural Entrance Trail is a 1.25-mile drop from the mouth of Carlsbad Caverns to the geologic wonders of the Big Room. After touring the cavern and its formations, high-speed elevators whisk families back to the earth’s surface in minutes. Tour the International UFO Museum in Roswell to learn more about the alleged crash of an alien spacecraft here in 1947.

Wild West history roams the streets in Lincoln, where outlaw Billy the Kid escaped the local jail. Fire-fighting legend Smokey Bear is buried in nearby Capitan. Budding geologists can explore a lava field in Valley of Fires State Park and look for rock art at the Three Rivers Petroglyph Site. Learn about space exploration at the New Mexico Museum of Space History in Alamogordo then watch the moonrise during a full moon hike at White Sands National Park. Sledding down the dunes is also recommended.

Mammoth Cave National Park Kentucky USA

Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky

Best US summer road trips

Best of Kentucky: Bourbon, thoroughbreds and Mammoth Cave

Approx. distance: 275 miles

Duration: Five days

Suggested route: Lexington, Keeneland, Versailles, Bardstown, Loretto, Mammoth Cave National Park, Louisville, Frankfort, Midway, Lexington

Anchoring the eastern edge of the Bourbon Trail, Lexington is a cosmopolitan base for visiting the horse farms, distilleries and small towns dotting the rolling hills that stretch west from the city. Pull over for horse races at Keeneland (Apr & Oct; tours year round) and learn about Kentucky’s limestone-filtered water on distillery tours at Woodford Reserve, Four Roses and Buffalo Trace.

Eleven distilleries cluster near Bardstown, where boutiques and historic buildings fill the small downtown. Seal your bourbon bottle with red wax at Maker’s Mark before driving to Mammoth Cave National Park, home of the longest known cave system in the world.

Museums in Louisville spotlight native son Muhammad Ali, Louisville Slugger baseball bats and the Kentucky Derby.

Exploring the Eastern Shore

Approx. distance: 375 miles

Duration: Five days

Suggested route: Virginia Beach, VA, Chincoteague Island, Assateague Island, MD, Berlin, Ocean City, Rehoboth, DE, Cambridge, MD, Easton, St Michaels, Annapolis

Beaches, fresh seafood and wildlife refuges are plentiful on the Eastern Shore, also known as the Delmarva (Delaware, Maryland, Virginia) Peninsula. This slow-paced region, tucked between the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic, is an easy drive from Washington, D.C. and Virginia Beach.

In Virginia, Chincoteague Island hosts its wild pony swim every July, when the ponies that roam Assateague Island are brought to auction. Just north in Maryland, it’s easy to spot wild ponies while you explore Assateague Island National Seashore.

Crowds flock to Ocean City for the convivial beach-and-boardwalk scene. State parks stretch north from here along Hwy 1 to Rehoboth, known for art galleries and upscale eats.

On the western coast, immerse in centuries-old waterman culture in St Michaels and other coastal villages then crack open steamed blue crabs at Cantler’s in Annapolis.

Route 66: New Mexico & Arizona

Approx. distance: 675 miles

Duration: Five to seven days

Suggested route: Tucumcari, New Mexico, Santa Rosa, Albuquerque, Gallup, Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona, the Wigwam Motel, Winslow, Meteor Crater, Flagstaff, Williams, Seligman, Kingman, Oatman

The completion of the interstate highway system spurred the decline of Route 66, which crossed eight states on its run between Chicago and Los Angeles. Today, the historic route draws road trippers seeking a slower and kitschier drive.

The kitsch hits its peak in the scrubby high-desert of New Mexico and Arizona. Unique lodging includes the neon-fronted motels of Tucumacari, concrete wigwams in Holbrook and a former bordello in Williams.

Quirky attractions run the gamut: a scuba friendly blue hole in Santa Rosa, fossilised logs in the Petrified Forest, the Standing on the Corner statue in Winslow and wandering burros in Oatman. In Flagstaff, taxidermied wildlife watches the roadhouse action inside the Museum Club, which opened on Route 66 in 1931.

Beale street memphis usa

Historic Beale Street, in Memphis Tennessee

Best US history & culture road trip routes

America's beginnings: Jamestown to DC

Approx. distance: 300 miles

Duration: One week

Suggested route: Jamestown, Virginia, Colonial Williamsburg, Yorktown, James River Plantations, Richmond, Monticello, Charlottesville, Mount Vernon, Alexandria, Washington, DC.

This history-themed trip spotlights the colonial era and begins at the Jamestown settlement. Established in 1607, Jamestown was the first permanent English colony in the New World. Thriving towns like Williamsburg soon followed.

More than 150 years later colonists fought for independence in the Revolutionary War. Virginia’s Historic Triangle brings Colonial history to life with interactive museums, costumed reenactors and the surviving redoubts at the Yorktown battleground.

From here, the stomping grounds of the country’s Founding Fathers stretch from Berkeley Plantation on the James River to St. John’s Church, Monticello and Mount Vernon. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are displayed at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

Tennessee & Mississippi music tour

Approx. distance: 500 miles

Duration: 10 days

Suggested route: Memphis, Clarksdale, GRAMMY Museum Mississippi, Tupelo, Natchez Trace, Muscle Shoals, AL, Nashville

Blues music spills from late-night clubs on Beale Street in Memphis while 1970s grooviness spills from every direction in the Jungle Room at Elvis Presley’s Graceland.

They say bluesman Robert Johnson made a deal with the devil at the crossroads of Hwys 49 and 61 in the Mississippi Delta, where the blues was born. Red’s is the place to hear it. Test your musical prowess at the hands-on GRAMMY Museum in Cleveland.

Elvis reappears in Tupelo, site of his childhood home. The leafy Natchez Trace Parkway ribbons north from here, passing Muscle Shoals and its historic rock-n-roll recording studios.

The enormous Country Music Hall of Fame anchors the South of Broadway (SoBro) scene in Nashville. Appreciate acoustic perfection at Ryman Auditorium then elbow into Tootsies Orchid Lounge for a raucous honky-tonk jam.

US civil rights tour: Memphis, Alabama & Mississippi

Approx. distance: 625 miles

Duration: Eight to 10 days

Suggested route: Memphis, TN, Greenwood, MS, Jackson, Birmingham, AL, Selma, Montgomery

The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis shares space with the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968.

Just south, the Mississippi Freedom Trail stops at Bryant’s Grocery near Greenwood. The historic marker here covers the murder of Emmett Till by two white men in 1955. His brutal death and the subsequent acquittal of his killers kick-started the Civil Rights movement.

At the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson, powerful displays explore the struggle for racial equality in Mississippi. The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute spotlights the 16th Street Baptist Church, bombed in 1963. State troopers and their dogs attacked peaceful marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma two years later.

In Montgomery, learn about Rosa Parks and her refusal to give up her bus seat to white passengers.

New Orleans & Southern Louisiana

Approx. distance: 350 miles

Duration: Six days

Suggested route: New Orleans, Barataria Preserve, Whitney Plantation, Breaux Bridge, Lafayette, Avery Island, New Orleans

French, Spanish, African and Caribbean cultures collide in New Orleans. The city shares this diversity through food, music and friendliness. Mardi Gras and Bourbon Street are calling cards, but full immersion includes oyster po’boys at Domilise's, live music on Frenchmen Street and a ride on the St. Charles Avenue Streetcar.

Beyond the Big Easy, trails at the Barataria Preserve bring the bayou up-close while the Whitney Plantation describes life on a sugar plantation through the lens of those it enslaved. Breaux Bridge and Lafayette are the heart of Cajun Country, where menu specialties include boudin sausage and boiled crawfish.

Zydeco and Cajun tunes keep everyone dancing at the Blue Moon Saloon. Popular regional tours include swamp tours on Lake Martin and a trip through the McIlhenny Tabasco Factory.

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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