Editor’s note: Due to COVID-19 concerns, the U.S. State Department is encouraging potential visitors to reconsider all travel. Read more here for updates on the situation and information on when it might be safe to travel again to destinations like the ones below.
A road trip is as American as a barbecue on the Fourth of July. The open highway. Sing-along playlists. A cooler full of sodas and snacks. Unforgettable conversations about nothing and everything.
The United States has a grand variety of road trip-suitable routes, from straight shots across deserts to stomach-churning switchbacks through the mountains. Whatever type of adventure you seek, however much time you have, and whatever you want to see, there’s a road out there for everyone. Read on to see the top road trips in the U.S.A.
Best Romantic Road Trip: Pacific Coast Highway, CA
Route: Route 1, from Monterey to Morro Bay (123 miles)
Let’s hope your partner makes your heart soar; if not, the unimaginably gorgeous views from the Pacific Coast Highway will. Frequently coined the most romantic road trip in the U.S.A., the highway jogs alongside California farms and cliff-edged beaches, across high bridges and near groves of towering redwood trees. Tour the famed Monterey Bay Aquarium, enjoy lunch at a posh Carmel-by-the-Sea cafe, see the famous waterfall at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park (check the updated status of the park here), and take a romantic sunset stroll at Big Sur. There are plenty of romantic Victorian bed and breakfasts where you can spend the night.
Where to stay to start your journey: Munras Inn, Monterey
Runner-up road trip: Charleston to Savannah, South Carolina
Best Road Trip in the Middle of Nowhere: Marathon to Presidio, TX
Route: U.S. Highway 385, FM-170 (160 miles)
The only companions you’ll have during long stretches of this paved, two-lane road through Big Bend National Park are cacti and migratory birds. This is one of the most isolated of all U.S. national parks, but it’s also one of the most dramatic, with desert, canyon, and mountain landscapes. Santa Elena Canyon is worth the detour from the main park road to see its 1,500-foot drop-offs. Stop for lunch at the 1930s-era Starlight Theatre in the historic Terlingua Ghost Town. Movie buffs will marvel at the abandoned Western film sets at Contrabando.
Where to stay to start your journey: Holland Hotel, Alpine
Runner-up road trip: Great Basin Scenic Highway, Nevada
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Best Thrill-Seeking Road Trip: The Road to Hana, HI
Route: Routes 36 and 360, from the town of Kahului to Hana and a little beyond (68 miles)
Brace yourself—literally—for the ride of your life. Maui’s Hana Highway may sound tropically dreamy, with its lush rainforests, multi-tiered waterfalls, and scenic turnouts, but it’s not for the faint of heart—or weak of stomach. The winding, narrow road encompasses hundreds of curves and dozens of bridges (many of which are one lane), and the first time a fearless local in an SUV zooms by you, you’ll wonder where your breath went. Good places to stop and find it? The Ke’anae Arboretum (just past mile marker 16), Upper Waikani Falls (mile marker 19), and Ka’eleku Caverns (mile marker 31).
Where to stay to start your journey: Maui Seaside Hotel, Kahului
Runner-up road trip: La Ruta Panoramica, Puerto Rico
Best Wildlife Road Trip: Jackson to Yellowstone National Park, WY
Route: U.S. 191 (82 miles plus mileage within the park)
Bison, elk, wolves, moose, bears, and dozens of bird species live in America’s first national park, making it one of the best places in the United States to view wildlife. While animals are abundant inside the park, you’ll likely see some species on the short drive from Jackson to the park’s south entrance, and at Grand Teton and Jackson Lake along the way.
Where to stay to start your journey: Mountain Modern Motel, Jackson
Runner-up road trip: Seward Highway, Alaska
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Best Foodie Road Trip: Stowe to Rochester, VT
Route: Route 100 (49 miles)
Farms, breweries, wineries, creameries, gourmet shops, and restaurants are nestled along the rolling pastures of Route 100, which bisects the prettiest state in New England. Take a leisurely drive along the north-south artery and its side roads, stopping to nibble artisanal cheeses at various farm shops and creameries. Sip apple cider and buy maple syrup at Cold Hollow Cider Mill in Waterbury Center, and taste robust red wines at Boyden Valley Winery in Cambridge. Browse Weston’s Vermont Country Store—its retro candies are worth the stop alone. And the grand finale? A tour of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream factory in Waterbury.
Where to stay to start your journey: Town & Country Resort Motor Inn, Stowe
Runner-up road trip: North Carolina Barbecue Society Historic Trail
Best Motorcycle Road Trip: Los Angeles, CA to Taos, NM
Route: Interstate 40 (916 miles)
Aching to be your very own counterculture hippie on a soul-searching odyssey? Billy and Wyatt (a.k.a, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda) covered this course and then some in the 1969 film Easy Rider. They were headed to New Orleans for Mardi Gras; if you don’t have it in you to make such a lengthy trip, we suggest just covering the section from California to New Mexico (or at least Flagstaff, Arizona), with a detour to the Grand Canyon.
Where to stay to start your journey: Sheraton Gateway Los Angeles Hotel, Los Angeles
Runner-up road trip: Trail of Tears, Tennessee to Alabama
Best Fall Foliage Road Trip: Lead Hill to Hot Springs, AR
Route: Arkansas State Highway 7 (179 miles)
I’d normally select New England for autumn’s most kaleidoscopic colors, but even its most out-of-the-way back roads can be congested during peak periods. Instead, drive along Arkansas’ first state-designated scenic byway to Ozark National Forest, which has 42 different species of oak trees, plus hickories, maples, beech, and ash, among others. Such a vast variety of trees results in unimaginable colors painting the region’s low river valleys and hillsides. If you get an early enough start, have breakfast or lunch at Cliff House Inn and Restaurant overlooking Arkansas’ version of the Grand Canyon, in the town of Jasper.
Where to stay to start your journey: Hotel Seville, Harrison
Runner-up road trip: Anywhere in New England (see Scenic Autumn Drives in the Northeast)
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Best Classic America Road Trip: Beartooth Highway, MT
Route: U.S. Highway 212, from Red Lodge to Cook City, Montana (68 miles)
A zigzagging road with countless switchbacks, endless views, and steep climbs, the Beartooth Highway seems to have changed little since Civil War General Philip Sheridan led 120 men along the route. Certainly, the views are the same: snow-topped rocky mountains, the bluest of blue skies, and bypasses through Custer National Forest, Shoshone National Forest, and Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. No wonder longtime road tripper Charles Kuralt, the late CBS correspondent, called it “the most beautiful drive in America.” Note that the road is only open mid-May through mid-October.
Where to stay to start your journey: The Pollard Hotel, Red Lodge
Runner-up road trip: Pierre to Mount Rushmore, South Dakota
Best Out-of-This-World Road Trip: Dark Sky Parks, Panguitch to Torrey, UT
Route: Scenic Byway 12 (270 miles)
Utah has 11 certified International Dark Sky Parks, so why not create a road trip to all of them? In addition to the well-known Bryce Canyon, other parks with an IDA-certified designation include Capitol Reef, Goblin Valley, Cedar Breaks, and Kodachrome Basin. Along the way, you can glamp in a Conestoga wagon and yurt. If you’re feeling really ambitious, you can start at Zion and make your way through the state’s five national parks, ending at Arches in Moab.
Where to stay to start your journey: Big Cedar Lodge, Ridgedale
Runner-up road trip: Phoenix to Sedona, Arizona
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Best Mountain Road Trip: Beaver Creek to Keystone, CO
Route: Interstate 70 (70 miles)
Whether you’re planning an epic ski vacation or an outdoor adventure trip to these mountains off-season, the Rocky Mountains are your best bet for a mountain road trip. Start in Beaver Creek and then head to Vail. During summer Vail is home to “Epic Discovery,” where you can zip-line, alpine coaster, summer tube, and more. Make stops at Cooper Mountain, Frisco, and Breckenridge, then end in Keystone. Just don’t leave without having dinner at the Ski Tip Lodge.
Where to stay to start your journey: The Osprey at Beaver Creek, Beaver Creek
Runner-up road trip: Asheville, North Carolina to Gatlinburg, Tennessee
More from SmarterTravel:
- 10 (and a Half) Tips for Road Trips
- 10 Road Trip Essentials: How to Stay Safe, Sane, and on Track on the Road
- 10 Road Trip Accessories to Turn a Rental Car Into the Ultimate Vacation Vehicle
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information. Ashley Rossi contributed to this article.