What could be more American than taking a road trip? The USA has changed greatly since Jack Kerouac roamed the highways, but getting out on the open road remains intoxicating. We’ve chosen five majestic USA road trips that showcase some of America's finest natural landscapes, history and music.
1. Los Angeles to Vancouver
Leave Los Angeles and get on the 101 – the Pacific Coast Highway – to enjoy southern California at its most striking. This is not the fastest route to San Francisco, but no traveller should be in a rush, especially on this, perhaps the most iconic of USA road trips. After all, California is the land of the laidback. It can be hard to tear yourself away from San Francisco itself, a city of great charm and stunning views – not to mention some of the best burritos in America – but there's plenty more to see. Back on the PCH, you find northern California is changing, the land getting lusher while the coast is wilder.
Your next stop is Portland, Oregon, one of the coolest cities in the USA and a centre of alternative culture, then Seattle, Washington, a blustery port city full of creative energy three hours' drive north. Seattle is home to the Microsoft-funded Experience Music Project, a state-of-the-art museum dedicated to popular culture. Prodigal sons Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix both get deserved attention. Continue on the I-5 from here and you'll cross the border into Canada, reaching Vancouver in around three hours.
The iconic Pacific Coast Highway winds through southern Oregon © Ashley Hadzopoulos/Shutterstock
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2. Pigeon Fort to Memphis, Tennessee
This most unique of USA road trips route starts in Pigeon Fort, Tennessee, location of Dolly Parton’s surprisingly engaging theme park, Dollywood, and five miles away from Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where there’s excellent hiking and fishing, and historic sites to explore.
Once you've exhausted "the Smokeys", get on highway 24, stopping in Chattanooga, an attractive small city on the Tennessee River, en route to Nashville. This is an ugly city full of beautiful music, although East Nashville now offers a viable alternative to the Tennessee capital’s desolate downtown.
Your final destination, Memphis, Tennessee, is just over three hours' drive down the Music Highway. This great southern city has had a profound influence on American music and is home to Graceland (Elvis’s mansion and now an enjoyably tacky museum), Sun Studios (a small museum commemorating where Elvis and many others got their start) and the Stax Museum of American Soul (where Otis Redding and many other R&B greats began their careers). You'll also find the excellent National Civil Rights Museum here, which is built around the site of Dr Martin Luther King’s murder. The city boasts many bars although, oddly, few good live music venues. Luckily there are a host of impressive BBQ restaurants to compensate. Sticky fingers, y’all!
Graceland – Elvis Presley's Memphis home © Malgorzata Litkowska/Shutterstock
3. Houston to New Orleans
There's plenty to recommend the Lone Star State's largest city, Houston – great museums, epic rodeo and all kinds of music, from opera to blues to country, rock and rap – but its sheer size and intensity ensure you’ll eventually want to hit the road and head east. In less than a two-hour drive, you can find contrast in Beaumont, a gracious small city with a sizeable amount of early-twentieth-century architecture.
Keep heading east and you'll cross into Louisiana, where things start to get seriously swampy. Aim to stay in Lafayette, a small city that is the epicentre of Cajun Country. Here you can find bars and dance halls playing Cajun and zydeco music, and restaurants serving gumbo and jambalaya.
From Lafayette, you can take either the I-10 – the main highway – or the Route 90 – the old road – to New Orleans. The 10 is faster and takes you through epic swamps while the 90 rolls through small-town Louisiana, but both routes are a treat. On reaching New Orleans, the greatest live music city in the world, we recommend you park the car as soon as possible, head for Frenchmen Street and join the party.
Driving Louisiana will take you through swathes of forests and swampland © Lacey Hoosier/Shutterstock
4. Chicago to Yellowstone
Extreme weather and striking architecture characterise Chicago. The city's attractions could keep you occupied for weeks, so be sure to allow yourself plenty of time to explore.
When it’s time to leave the soaring skyscrapers behind and look forward to one of the best USA road trips, get on highway 90 and head for Minneapolis, a lively Mid Western city that is a day’s drive away. The city's many charms include some of the best cycling routes in the USA – so consider hiring bikes for a day or two when you arrive.
Continue your journey northwest on the I-94 and you'll hit Fargo, a city with more charm than the movie and TV series suggest. From here the drive takes you through the vast emptiness of North Dakota and into Montana’s gorgeous, expansive ranch land. Roll further along the 94 and you'll reach Yellowstone National Park. This is America at its most epic, with some of the most impressive geothermal activity and wildlife in the world. Remember, don’t approach the bears or buffalo...
Yellowstone National Park, home to some of the USA's most spectacular scenery © Alberto Loyo/Shutterstock
5. Tuscon to Austin
The final route on the list of our favourite USA road trips starts in the desert city of Tucson, Arizona, an atmospheric place with a lively arts scene and superb architecture. Make sure you check out Hotel Congress, a historic building that has been stripped back to its 1930s fittings.
The trip proper starts as you drive east on highway 10. Initially, you'll pass through fields of cactus before the desert gets raw and barren. After five hours you briefly cross into New Mexico to reach White Sands National Monument. This astonishing landscape, quite lunar in its eerie white sand dunes, is unlike anywhere else in the USA.
Trundle on down the highway you'll enter Texas. Pass El Paso, the border city twinned with Ciudad Juarez in Mexico (at the current time a place best avoided), and aim for Austin. It’s eight hours' drive, but you'll want to head straight out into the warm and inviting Texan night as soon as you arrive.
Explore the wilds of Texas and Arizona on an interstate road trip © D Guest Smith/Shutterstock
Top image: Pacific Coast Highway in Southern Oregon © Ashley Hadzopoulos/Shutterstock