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.