Road trips are defined as long journeys travelled by car. To travel the over 2,500 miles from coast to coast in the United States, people had to take trains or buses until the road trip was invented. Road trips in the USA have a vast history and have shaped the country’s culture today.
There are endless road trip routes in the USA, from beachfront highways to roads through the backwoods of America’s state and national parks. To help you plan the best trip across the country’s beautiful landscapes, we’ve listed our top 10 road trips in the USA.
History of Road Trips in the USA
Although many people had tried to travel across America, the first successful cross-country road trip in the USA wasn’t completed until 1903. The trip started in San Francisco, California and ended in New York, New York. The road trip lasted 63 days.
Road trips in the USA were changed forever with the creation of Route 66. Route 66 was one of the first highways created in the United States. It was established in 1926 and finished in the late 1930s. We have Route 66 to thank for today’s American road trip culture.
By the mid-1950s, most American families owned at least one car. With this new mode of transportation established, people from all over the country began to use their cars for work and leisure travel. This was the beginning of mass road trips in the USA.
Thanks to the expanding highway system in the United States, cross-country travel had become quicker and easier than ever before. What was once a multiple-month-long road trip became doable in days or weeks. These advancements made road trips more accessible for middle-class families and opened a new world of adventure across the country.
As the popularity of road trips in the USA increased, tourists began to come from all over the world to experience a journey across the country. Although many people consider road trips to be through multiple states or even countries, there is no minimum distance for a road trip.
Today, road trips in the USA have created a culture that has inspired lifestyles, music, and even film. Some iconic media inspired by road trips are the film series National Lampoon’s Vacation, the movie RV, and the song Life is a Highway.
Taking scenic drives isn’t just a fun thing to do; going on road trips in the USA is one of the country’s most iconic pastimes.
Top 10 Road Trips in the USA
1: Historic Columbia River Highway – Oregon
This scenic highway spans over 120 kilometres through Oregon. The Historic Columbia River Highway was the first planned scenic highway to be built in the country, making it the perfect road trip in the USA.
Since the Historic Columbia River Highway was finished in 1922, it has gained national recognition. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is considered a National Historic Landmark.
Throughout the road trip from Troutdale to The Dalles on the Historic Columbia River Highway, there are multiple breathtaking views. Tourists can see the highway’s original stonework, then are plunged into a green vista full of waterfalls. One of the waterfalls is the tallest in the US – the nearly 200-metre-tall Multnomah falls.
After the waterfalls, those driving along the highway are taken through tunnels that were carved out of the cliffsides. Also featured along the road is the Bonneville Lock and Dam, one of the first dams in the Western USA.
All along this iconic road trip in the USA are hiking trails and tourist attractions. The family-friendly Latourell Falls is a 2.5-mile-long hike near the waterfalls at the start of the highway.
Further along, you can stop at the dam to explore the visitor centre and watch as fish swim through the waters. One of the most popular fish to see is Herman the Sturgeon, a 3-metre-long sturgeon that weighs 193 kilograms and is over 60 years old.
Once you reach the end of the Historic Columbia River Highway, you end up in the City of The Dalles. Before settlers built the city, The Dalles was a major trading centre for Native Americans. Today, you can find murals that document the city’s long history and Native Indian heritage.
For a historic trip on one of the first scenic roadways in the country, the Historic Columbia River Highway is a great place to take a road trip in the USA.
2: Anchorage to Valdez – Alaska
The road trip from Anchorage to Valdez takes travellers on Alaska’s Glenn and Richardson highways. This trip is over 480 kilometres long and takes about 7 hours to drive straight through. There are many vistas and attractions along the way, however, which can expand the drive into a weekend road trip in the USA’s northmost state.
40 minutes after leaving Anchorage, visitors will come across Eagle River Nature Center. Here, you can access Chugach State Park to see Alaska’s stunning glacial rivers and valleys. Hiking and ski trails are available here for those who want to get a closer look at the cliffs and waterfalls at the park.
Also along these highways is the Eklutna Historical Park. Here, visitors can learn more about the Athabascan tribes that lived in Alaska. The settlements in the park can be traced back to 1650, making it the oldest Athabaskan settlement that has been continuously inhabited.
After driving past the state parks, glaciers, and beautiful mountain ranges, this USA road trip ends in the city of Valdez. Valdez is a fishing port where visitors can spend time on their waters. In addition to deep-sea fishing, skiing is also popular here.
For an awe-inspiring drive through Alaska’s icy terrain, taking a trip from Anchorage to Valdez is one of the best road trips in the USA.
3: Great River Road – Minnesota to Mississippi
One of the longest scenic highways in the country, driving along the Great River Road is an amazing road trip in the USA. This trip starts in Minnesota, takes you through 10 states in America’s Heartland, and ends in Mississippi.
Since its establishment, Great River Road has been expanded to include highways in the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Manitoba. As such, the route has been dubbed as going from “Canada-to-Gulf”. The journey along Great River Road is one of the best international road trips in North America.
Despite what the name suggests, Great River Road is actually a collection of roads that form a route from the top to the bottom of the United States. It spans nearly 4,000 kilometres and follows the Mississippi River.
The planning for Great River Road began in 1938. Governors from each of the 10 states came together to commission the building of the route. The goal of this scenic route was to preserve the Mississippi River and promote the states it passes through.
The route was planned to provide scenic views along the river and give those who travel the Great River Road the opportunity to experience the recreational activities that the river provides.
The route of the Great River Road is easily identifiable due to the green pilot’s wheel signs that decorate the roads along the route. For most travellers, this road trip takes 10 days to complete. However, it can easily be extended if you make frequent stops at attractions along the route.
Attractions along the route on the Mississippi River include state parks, biking and hiking trails, areas for bird watching, canoeing spots on the river, and even casinos if you’re looking to try your luck.
If you’re travelling down to the Gulf of Mexico and want a scenic view of the Mississippi River and surrounding areas, this road trip in the USA is one of the best.
4: Going-to-the-Sun Road – Montana
Going-to-the-Sun Road takes road trippers in the Rocky Mountains and is the only road that passes through Glacier National Park in Montana. The road was opened in 1932 with the goal of promoting tourism to the park.
Going-to-the-Sun Road was one of the first projects the National Park Service sponsored to accommodate tourists who traverse the parks by car. It was also the first road to be registered on all 3 of the following lists: National Historic Landmark, National Historic Place, and Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. To say it was an iconic project is an understatement.
Before Going-to-the-Sun Road opened, it took visitors over a week to explore the park on average. Now, this 80-kilometre-long road trip in the USA takes just 2 hours if you drive straight through. But, with all the stunning views on this route, you’ll want to make a few stops along the way.
The highest point along the road is a staggering 2,026 metres through Logan Pass. Visitors are nearly guaranteed to spot wildlife in the park below at Logan pass. It is a stunning stop on this road trip in the USA.
Also at Logan Pass is a visitor centre that is open during the summer months. Here, guests can learn more about the park and the construction of the iconic route. Logan Pass is a popular starting place for hikers, with multiple trails available nearby.
Traversing Logan Pass in the winter months can be dangerous, so the pass is typically closed during this time. To the east of Logan Pass is a section of Going-to-the-Sun Road called the Big Drift.
The Big Drift is an area of the route that consistently sees over 30 metres of snowfall each winter. Snow banks here often reach a depth of over 24 metres. The Big Drift has to be surveyed via helicopter during the winter to assess the risk of an avalanche in the area.
Other beautiful vistas along this route include the deep valleys of the park, glacial-covered mountain tops above, and cascading waterfalls reaching over 160 metres tall.
Due to blind curves and steep dropoffs along the Going-to-the-Sun Road, this route has strict speed limits. On the lower-elevation sections, a limit of 40mph is observed. As visitors reach the heights of Logan Pass, the speed limit is lowered to 25mph.
It is also important to be on the lookout for any pedestrians or wildlife crossing the road. With hiking trails and forests all along the route, backpackers and animals may walk along or across the road anytime.
If you would rather take a guided tour of this road trip in the USA, vintage Red Jammer buses are available to take you along the route. These buses are Model 706s by the White Motor Company. These buses have been providing guided tours in the park since 1914.
Whether you take a guided tour or drive at your own pace, exploring Going-to-the-Sun Road is one of the best sightseeing road trips in the USA.
5: Route 66 – Illinois to California
No list of iconic road trips in the USA would be complete without Route 66. Established in 1926, Route 66 was one of the first highways in the United States. The route covers nearly 4,000 kilometres and is one of the most famous roadways in the world.
Although travelling from Illinois to California may take a few extra days if you only drive on Route 66, this historical road trip in the USA is worth taking. Route 66 sparked the culture of road trips in the United States by greatly reducing the time it took to cross the country.
To generate publicity for the new highway, the U.S. Highway Route 66 Association began marketing the route across America. The first publicity attempt was hosting a footrace from Los Angeles to New York City, with the majority of the race taking place on Route 66.
During the footrace, many celebrities cheered runners on from the sidelines. The race finished at Madison Square Garden in New York. Andy Payne, a Cherokee runner from Oklahoma, won the race and claimed the $25,000 price, equivalent to nearly half a million dollars today. It took him over 573 hours across 84 days to finish the race.
In 1932, the association also marketed Route 66 to Americans as a means to attend the Summer Olympics held in Los Angeles that year. These marketing strategies were very successful and helped to make Route 66 a household name.
By the mid-1930s, the popularity of Route 66 increased as Americans used the highway to move from the Midwest to the West Coast during the Dust Bowl. Because most of the highway went through flat terrain, Route 66 was also very popular with truckers.
As more Americans travelled via Route 66, small communities and stores began to pop up along the highway. These towns provided places for travellers to rest, eat, and take a break from the road. Many of these communities still exist today and maintain the road trip culture of the time.
Route 66 became the first fully-paved U.S. highway in 1938. During WWII, the military heavily used the road to move soldiers and equipment. Route 66 continued to be one of the most popular highways in the United States until the late 1950s.
Throughout the 1950s and the 1960s, highway expansion in America led to a drastic decrease in the popularity of Route 66. As more other highways became well-travelled, Route 66 was officially decommissioned in 1985.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, many states created Route 66 Associations focused on preserving and restoring the iconic road trip route. In 1999, President Clinton signed a bill that gave $10 million towards restoring Route 66.
With this funding, the communities along Route 66 were able to restore and refurbish their towns. The popularity of Route 66 boomed, and it continues to grow today. In 2019, The Hairy Bikers aired 6 episodes along the iconic highway, helping to generate even more international fame for the route.
Today, those who drive along Route 66 can visit the communities that have served travellers since the 1930s, learn about the history of the most iconic road trip in the USA, and experience the multitude of climates, terrain, and vistas across America.
If you make this road trip, look out for the famous Gemini Giant in Wilmington, Illinois, and other Muffler Man statues at rest stops along the way!
6: Overseas Highway – Florida
The Overseas Highway takes travellers through Miami to Key West, the southernmost key. For a trip through the Florida tropics, the Overseas Highway is one of the most unique road trips in the USA.
The concept for the highway was created in 1921 due to the Florida land boom. The Miami Motor Club wanted to gain more attraction from tourists and new Florida residents. The keys were an untapped resource, with fishing areas and thousands of acres of land that had not been developed yet.
In the 1910s, the Florida Keys were only accessible by boat or train, which damaged the potential for tourism and growth. With the Overseas Highway, the keys would be more accessible.
The Overseas Highway was opened in 1928 and is 182 kilometres long. The exotic road trip route goes through the Florida tropics and savannas, a climate different from any other state in the U.S. The highway was redone in the 1980s to expand it into four lanes.
A feature of the Overseas Highway is that the route goes over 42 bridges between Florida’s mainland and its keys. The Seven Mile Bridge is the most iconic bridge on the Overseas Highway and is actually 2 separate bridges.
The older of the 2 parts of the Seven Mile Bridge opened in 1912. It supports only cyclists and pedestrians crossing the ocean between the keys. The newer bridge was built from 1978 to 1982 and is open to cars and other vehicles.
The Seven Mile Bridge is nearly 11 kilometres long, one of the longest bridges in the world. It connects Knight’s Key to Little Duck Key along the Overseas Highway. While travelling on the bridge, lighthouses, multiple white-sand beaches, and colourful coral reefs can be seen.
The bridge takes visitors over parts of the Florida Bay, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Gulf of Mexico. Along the Seven Mile Bridge, there are many places to stop and explore the Florida Keys. Cities, fishing spots, and even areas to swim with dolphins can be found on the keys.
There are many trails and attractions for those who opt to walk through the keys along the Overseas Highway. The Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail features picnic areas, multiple water access points, and stunning views of the waters and islands.
The Overseas Highway also features attractions for those who drive to the keys. Restaurants, oceanfront vistas, beaches, and docs are all accessible from the route. In addition, wildlife such as deer, alligators, and crocodiles are often seen on the keys during this road trip in the USA.
If you’re looking for a tropical escape or want to experience driving over the water, taking the Overseas Highway to the Florida Keys is one of the most fun and adventurous road trips in the USA.
7: Trail Ridge Road – Colorado
Trail Ridge Road is the highest continuous paved road in the United States. This scenic route, known as the “Highway to the Sky, ” provides a big dose of breathtaking natural vistas for such a short road trip in the USA.
Before Trail Ridge Road was created, the ridge was used by Native American tribes to cross the mountains. Their homelands were on the west side of the mountain ridge, and the area where they hunted was on the east side.
The road begins near the Kawuneeche Visitor Center at the park’s entrance. Along Trail Ridge Road, there are many trails to explore. Even though it takes just 2 hours to drive the entire Trail Ridge Road, you can easily make a day trip of it.
Over 11 miles of Trail Ridge Road is above the treeline of the park’s forests. The changing elevation throughout the route gives road trippers a unique view of Colorado’s landscape. From the road, you can see wildflower meadows, wildlife such as elk and moose, and various tree species covering the park.
Road trips on Trail Ridge Road also feature multiple mountain passes. Near Fall River Pass, Trail Ridge Road reaches its highest elevation point of 3,713 metres. From this point, visitors can see amazing panoramic views of Rocky Mountain National Park.
In addition to driving through, road trippers can stop and explore Rocky Mountain National Park for themselves. The park opened in 1915 and covers 265,461 acres. In 2020, the park welcomed over 3 million visitors into the Colorado wilderness.
The park has a large network of hiking trails that range from beginner to expert level. Along the trails, there are over 100 camping sites for visitors to use. In addition to hikers, horses and other pack animals can use the trails.
Rock climbing is also very popular at Rocky Mountain National Park. The highest peak in the park, Longs Peak, features a 13-kilometre climb one-way. Bouldering or climbing up a rock formation without ropes or a harness is also popular.
Fishing is allowed within the park with a permit. Among the bodies of water in Rocky Mountain National Park are over 150 lakes and 724 kilometres of rivers. During the winter months, activities such as sledding, skiing, and walking the snowshoe trails are available.
From high-up vistas to multiple hiking trails and visitor centres along the route, the trip on Trail Ridge Road is one of the most impressive road trips in the USA.
8: Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway – South Dakota
This scenic road trip route was named after the former governor and senator of South Dakota, Peter Norbeck. He is best known for securing the funding to construct the sculptures on Mount Rushmore.
Norbeck proposed the creation of the majority of the roads that make up the scenic byway. One specific route that Norbeck wanted to create went through the Needles of the Black Hills. Although he was told that the route was not possible to create, he persisted with his proposal.
The Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway opened in 1996. The route is made up of four highways that create a loop. It goes through attractions such as Mount Rushmore, the Black Hills National Forest, and Custer State Park. There are tons of things to do in South Dakota along this byway.
The Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway is nearly 110 kilometres long. The unique figure-8-style route features granite tunnels through the hills, hairpin turns, and winding bridges.
Many visitors start their road trip journey near Mount Rushmore. As they drive along the winding roads, the faces in the mountain are joined by the awe-inspiring beauty of the South Dakota landscape.
Once road trippers reach Custer State Park, they can enjoy exploring through the first and largest state park in South Dakota. The park was established in 1912 and covers 71,000 acres.
The visitor centre at the park helps guests learn about the animals on the land. A 20-minute film detailing the history and layout of Custer State Park is also available for anyone visiting the park.
Custer State Park is known for its large wildlife herds. Over 1,500 bison roam the area, along with mountain goats, elk, deer, cougars, bighorn sheep, and river otters. In fact, every year, the park hosts an auction to sell its excess bison.
Another famous animal attraction at Custer State Park is the “Begging Burros”. This refers to the 15 donkeys that inhabit the park. It is very common for them to walk up to cars driving through and beg for food.
Custer State Park is also home to the Peter Norbeck Center. At the centre, exhibits about the park’s cultural heritage and history are displayed. The exhibits include a display on gold prospecting in the Black Hills, wildlife dioramas, and a bunkhouse used by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Also at the park is the home of Charles Badger Clark, South Dakota’s first Poet Laureate. The home is called the Badger Hole and has been maintained in its original state. The home is open for guests to tour.
Due to its proximity to National Monuments, State Parks, and stunning scenery, there is something for everyone on a road trip on the Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway. It is one of the most scenic and relaxing road trips in the USA.
9: Avenue of the Giants – California
One of the most visually striking road trips in the USA, the Avenue of Giants takes visitors through the redwoods of Northern California. The route is 51 kilometres long and travels through the Humboldt Redwoods State Park.
The Avenue of the Giants features multiple parking lots, hiking trails, and picnic areas. While the drive can be completed in one day, stopping at the available attractions can extend the road trip to a weekend.
One of the most iconic attractions along the Avenue of Giants road trip route is the Immortal Tree. The tree is over 1,000 years old and has survived multiple logging attempts, natural disasters, and time.
In 1864, a large flood wreaked havoc on the redwood forests. In 1908, loggers made their first attempts to cut down the Immortal Tree, and at one point, the tree was even struck by lightning. The lightning strike took 14 metres off the tree, leaving it at 76 metres tall.
Today, there are visible markers along the tree’s height, marking where the flood waters hit the tree and where logging attempts are made. Although the Immortal Tree is not the oldest redwood, it is one of the most famous parts of this road trip route.
Two other redwood attractions on the Avenue of the Giants road trip route are the Shrine Drive-Thru Tree and the Tree House. The Drive-Thru Tree is a privately owned attraction along the avenue that visitors can pay to drive through.
The Tree House is an accommodation built within one of the towering redwood trees. The front door of the house is built through a hollow redwood trunk, and the rest of the house extends around the back of the tree. Tours are available on the inside of the Tree House.
Also accessible from the Avenue of Giants, Founder’s Grove is a ½-mile trail through the redwoods. Information booklets are available to visitors at the start of the hiking path and provide information on the forest’s history.
In the area surrounding the Avenue of Giants road trip route, the Humboldt Redwoods State Park is full of trails and vistas. Established in 1921, the park covers nearly 52,000 acres of land and is home to the world’s largest remaining virgin forest of coastal redwoods, which grow over 90 metres tall.
The original inhabitants of the park were Native Americans of the Sinkyone tribe. They lived in the area until white settlers began cutting down the forest to build their homes. In 1918, the Save the Redwoods League was formed to preserve the remaining redwoods.
In addition to the Avenue of Giants, the Humboldt Redwoods State Park features other activities for visitors. Over 160 kilometres of hiking trails, as well as biking and equestrian trails, run throughout the park. Fishing is allowed in the park’s rivers, and over 200 camping sites are available.
Whether you’re travelling through the redwoods or want to explore the state park, driving along the Avenue of the Giants is one of the prettiest road trips in the USA.
10: The Road to Hana – Hawaii
Opened in 1926, The Road to Hana is a 104-kilometre-long highway that spans from Kahului to Hana on the Hawaiian island of Maui. This road trip winds through the island’s lush rainforest and takes 3 hours on average to complete.
At the road trip’s starting place of Kahului, there are many attractions to visit even before you start the drive. One of the most popular attractions is the Alexander and Baldwin Sugar Museum.
The Alexander and Baldwin Sugar Museum showcases exhibits focused on the history of the Hawaiian sugarcane industry. Sugarcane milling is a large industry in Kahului. In fact, the Alexander and Baldwin company still mills sugarcane today.
The museum’s mission is to educate the public about one of Hawaii’s largest industries and how it has shaped the culture of Maui. The Sugar Museum is also used to host outdoor events and cultural festivals.
Other attractions in Kahului include the Maui Nui Botanical Gardens, Kanaha Pond State Wildlife Sanctuary, and King’s Cathedral and Chapels. If you have time to extend this Hawaiian adventure from one day to a weekend, exploring Kahului is a great way to learn more about Hawaiian culture.
As you begin the road trip, the Road to Hana is windy and narrow. The highway crosses over 59 bridges and includes over 600 curves. The majority of the bridges are one-lane wide, which can add time to the road trip depending on traffic conditions.
Due to the popularity of The Road to Hana, Maui tourist brochures and guides often have sections dedicated to the road trip route. In the booklets are also lists of the attractions that can be found along the highway.
Although some of the attractions may be marked with “keep out” or “private property” signs, they are not true. In fact, all beaches in Hawaii are public land. Guidebooks often note ways to get past any gates or fences at these attractions.
Once you’ve finished the journey along the Road to Hana, the highway ends in the small town of Hana. One of the most isolated communities in Hawaii, Hana has a population of just over 1,500 people.
Despite its small size, Hana is home to many tourist attractions worth visiting. These features include multiple beaches, such as Hamoa Beach, Pailoa Bay, and Hana Beach. Visitors can relax in the sand, take a swim in the ocean, or even spend an afternoon fishing.
Hana is also home to two botanical gardens. Kaia Ranch Tropical Botanical Gardens covers 27 acres and has tropical plants and fruit collections. There is also a bed and breakfast located at the garden.
Kahanu Garden and Preserve is a non-profit botanical garden. It was established in 1972 near black lava seascapes and Hawaii’s last undisturbed Hala forest. Kahanu Garden and Preserve features collections of plants that Hawaiian and Polynesian people traditionally used.
The most popular attraction in Kahanu Garden is the Pi’ilanihale Heiau temple. The temple was built using basalt blocks during the 15th century and is the largest temple in Polynesia. Pi’ilanihale Heiau was used as a place of worship where Hawaiians made fruit offerings and prayed for health, rain, and peace.
Another must-do in Hana is visiting Waiʻanapanapa State Park. Meaning “glistening fresh water” in Hawaiian, Waiʻanapanapa State Park has many freshwater streams and pools.
Multiple times throughout the year, the tide pools in the park turn red. This is due to shrimp inhabiting them for short periods. A Hawaiian legend, however, says that the water turns red from the blood of Princess Popoaleae, who was murdered in a lava tube by Chief Ka’akea, her husband.
In total, the park covers 122 acres. The park includes hiking trails, picnic areas, campsites, and cabins. Fishing is also permitted in the park’s waters.
Just 45 minutes past the town of Hana, ʻOheʻo Gulch can be found. In this unincorporated area, there are multiple tourist attractions. One of the most popular attractions is the Pipiwai hiking trail. The trail takes visitors to the 120-metre-tall Waimoku Falls.
The burial site of Charles Lindbergh, the first person to fly non-stop from New York City to Paris, France, is also located in this community.
Another attraction in ʻOheʻo Gulch is Haleakalā National Park. The park was established in 1961 and covers over 33,000 acres. The park is named after Haleakalā, a dormant volcano within the borders of the park. The volcano last erupted around 1500 AD.
Haleakalā is Hawaiian for “house of the sun.” According to Hawaiian legends, the sun was imprisoned within the volcano by the demigod Maui to add more time to the day.
Inside the park, a winding road leads up to the volcano’s peak. Here, there is a visitor centre and an observatory. Many visitors will hike to the summit to watch the sunrise and sunset from the high point.
The long, scenic drive in Haleakalā National Park is one of the best places in the USA to observe the night sky. Local astronomers have flocked to the park for decades to see the clear views above. This activity is so popular, in fact, that telescopes and binoculars are available to rent within the park.
Road Trips in the USA are a Historic Pastime
Road trips in the USA are abundant and historical. From the very first cross-country road trip, a culture was born that still lives on today. Now, road trips can span across parks, states, or even into neighbouring countries.
No matter where you are in the United States, there is a road trip route nearby. From the tropics of Hawaii to the ice-covered mountains of Alaska, there is a road trip in the USA for everyone. Thanks to the country’s numerous climates and landscapes, there’s always something new to explore.
If you’re planning a trip to the USA, check out this list of top US travel destinations.