The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - Travel

Hit the open road and live the American dream

An epic road trip through desert, forest or coastal landscapes is one of the most iconic ways to see the US. Chris Leadbeater provides a route map


It is a concept of uncomplica­ted beauty. A thin line of tarmac, flowing all the way to the horizon, the heat-haze causing its camber to shimmer in the middle distance. Or perhaps it is forested, enveloped by fir trees and foliage that disguise its curls and curves, the gradient ratcheting with each corner. Maybe there are mountains directly ahead, muscling into the picture as the road barrels towards them. The main point is that there is a car upon it, with a destinatio­n in mind, but scant sense of urgency as to when it will get there.

The road trip has long been one of the most romantic forms of travel. Especially the American incarnatio­n of it, all desert landscapes and seafront vistas, opening up a vast country of 50 states and innumerabl­e moving parts. A week (or two) behind the wheel has been the best way to enjoy the United States ever since Americans themselves all but invented the idea – if not quite at the moment Henry Ford launched the Model T in 1908, then certainly amid the post-war optimism of the 1950s, when Route 66 became the holiday highway to the West, taking domestic tourists to the Grand Canyon and the Pacific coast.

It is a fascinatio­n that has proved adaptable to an internatio­nal audience. Between four and five million Britons travel to the US every year (pandemics notwithsta­nding). A fair proportion of those visitors swap the airport terminal for the hire car and set off on a route of their own choosing. It may tick off major cities and metropolit­an skylines. It may flit through wooded regions as autumn performs its annual conjuring trick. It may revel in food, music, history or architectu­re. But whether it involves a pre-arranged itinerary or picks its direction purely on impulse, such a holiday will always be an adventure, wrapped in the freedom of the open road, and showcasing an America beyond the static sophistica­tion of the beach resort, the thrum of the theme park, or the siren call of the casino slot machine.

How to do it? Here, we sort through the various “whats”, “wheres” and “whens” of the classic US road trip – what to do to make yours the greatest tour possible; where to go for different types of scenery, geography or experience; and when to see certain regions at their finest. If it isn’t already, the “why” of the matter will become apparent the second you turn on to the asphalt and head off in search of your own version of the American Dream.

Illinois to California Route 66

The image of the “Mother Road” as a playground for life-affirming road trips probably exceeds the holiday reality. Firstly, there is an awful lot of it – 2,448 miles from its start-point in Chicago to its California­n conclusion by the beach in Santa Monica; you need at least a fortnight to drive every inch of it. Secondly, there are various areas of the eight states it crosses which – with humble apologies to Oklahoma and Kansas – can be flat and featureles­s. Thirdly, it is more memory than mapped fact; “Route 66” has existed as a series of “other” interconne­cted freeways since its official number was deleted from the US highway system in 1985. But as a slice of the American soul, it still exudes drama and discovery, especially if you narrow your focus to the four desert-tinged states (Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California) that frame the western half of the ride.

California State Route 1

So famous is the ribbon of tarmac which hugs California’s ragged Pacific edge for 656 miles that it feels strange to refer to it as anything other than “Highway 1”. But whatever its official designatio­n, this winding marvel should be on every road tripper’s to-do list. You don’t need to drive all of it to get the gist. The southernmo­st stretch to Dana Point will have you idling in a lot of Los Angeles traffic; by the time you approach Leggett, at the road’s opposite end, you may be craving something rather noisier than the forested silence of northern

California. But keep to the “greatest hits” section (the 485 miles from San Francisco to Long Beach, via Monterey, Big Sur, Santa Barbara and Malibu) and you won’t go wrong, cliffs rearing on one side, the ocean rising on the other.


US Route 160

There is a mathematic­al symmetry to the way Arizona claims an exact 160 miles of the 1,465-mile US Route 160, which crosses it from north-east to south-west. These 160 miles are not especially dramatic, darting through a barren landscape of dust and dirt; the American West at its most colossal scale, the air of desolation interrupte­d only by the occasional gas station or two-horse settlement. But it is the loca

tions book-ending the journey that make this a road worth driving. Monument Valley, with its giant Mittens and Buttes, sits 20 miles north of Kayenta, near the north-east corner of the state that is home to the Four Corners Monument where Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona meet. The masterpiec­e, though, lies 75 miles from Tuba City, the western terminus of Route 160. The Grand Canyon, timeless in its majesty.

Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee

Blue Ridge Parkway

While the various mountain ranges of the West have endless camera-click appeal, the other side of the American landscape also has its peaks and photogenic aura. The Appalachia­ns are a high case in point, forging north-east all the way from Alabama to Maine, then across the border into Canada. Within sit a series of sub-ranges, each worthy of the visitor’s time: the Great Smoky Mountains of (largely) Tennessee; and the wider Blue Ridge Mountains, which also swarm across the likes of the Carolinas and Virginia. Here, the Blue Ridge Parkway is a road-trip hero, covering 469 miles between Great Smoky Mountains National Park (in Tennessee) and the equally forested Shenandoah National Park (in Virginia). It makes for fine fly-drive breaks in spring and summer, but is at its very best in autumn when the canopy “catches fire”.

Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana Lake Michigan loop

Lake Michigan is not the largest of the five Great Lakes (hello, Lake Superior) but it is the simplest to drive around in full; it is the only member of the quintet which avoids the Canadian border to sit wholly within the US. Of course, “simplest” needs some qualificat­ion; a loop of Lake Michigan is no small endeavour. It is an exercise in 900 miles and – if you want to see the sights at a leisurely pace – two weeks on the road. But equally, there is a leafy simplicity to the scenery, at least outside the cities on the shore (Chicago in Illinois, Milwaukee and Green Bay in Wisconsin); a rustic America of orchards, sand dunes and smalltown cheer, most visible in Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula and the genteel version of Michigan that shapes the east side of the water. The Straits of Mackinac, meanwhile, are a joy – the point where Lakes Michigan and Huron meet under a classic suspension bridge.

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 ?? ?? Blaze a trail: admire the Fall foliage on a road trip through Vermont
Do the math: Hunts Mesa in Monument Valley, Arizona – the state that boasts 160 miles of the 1,465-mile Route 160
Spantastic: Highway 1 hugs California’s Pacific coast and joins Route 101 just before San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge
Blaze a trail: admire the Fall foliage on a road trip through Vermont Do the math: Hunts Mesa in Monument Valley, Arizona – the state that boasts 160 miles of the 1,465-mile Route 160 Spantastic: Highway 1 hugs California’s Pacific coast and joins Route 101 just before San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge
 ?? ?? Angel Delgadillo, ‘guardian’ of Route 66
Angel Delgadillo, ‘guardian’ of Route 66

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