A road trip is the ultimate getaway. It’s the journey, not the destination, so don’t hurry. Absorb the scenery, visit unusual attractions, eat in roadside diners, knock back a few cold ones in local taverns, and strike up conversations with strangers. The unexpected is part of any memorable road trip. During 4 1/2 decades, the two of us have driven more than 250,000 miles while touring the USA in a variety of vehicles including four VW campers. We have motored through all 50 states (we flew to Hawaii). All the trips were enjoyable and educational, but five stand out. The first would be on anyone’s list of great road trips, and the second two are likely on most lists. The last two may be surprising, but only for folks who haven’t driven them. We’ll see you on the road.
The Pacific Coast Highway.
The USA’s premiere road trip winds 1,700 miles along the Pacific Coast from southern California to Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. The scenery is breathtaking with stops that include Hearst Castle, Big Sur, San Francisco, Point Reyes National Seashore, Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area and Olympic National Park. Open the windows and enjoy the fresh air as you drive across the Golden Gate Bridge and watch giant container ships glide underneath. Stare in wonder at the towering redwoods of northern California.
Stop in Tillamook, Ore., and enjoy a tour of the Cheese Factory. Walk the beach in the Kalaloch area of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula and renew your spirit with the ocean breeze and pounding surf. It would be easy to spend most of a summer on this spectacular road trip. We know, because we did. Kid stops: San Diego Zoo in Balboa Park; Sea Center at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History; Skunk Train through the Redwoods in Mendocino, Calif.; Lewis & Clark National Historical Park in Astoria, Ore.; Hoh Rain Forest in Olympic National Park, WA. State parks and beaches are accessible along much of the route. San Francisco offers so many sites and activities for children the city is worthy of a separate trip.
Florida State Highway A1A and the Overseas Highway.
This 600-mile trip traces Florida’s Atlantic coastline from northeast of Jacksonville to Key West. Interesting stops along the way include St.
Augustine, the oldest town in the U.S. (sort of); Daytona Beach, where you can drive on the beach; Canaveral National Seashore; and the John F. Kennedy Space Center. Highway A1A meets U.S. Highway 1 in Miami. Thus begins the scenic 127-mile drive on the Overseas Highway that boasts 42 bridges, including famed Seven Mile Bridge. Swim with a dolphin, stroll through a rescued bird sanctuary, tour a turtle hospital. Much of the road parallels Henry Flagler’s Florida Keys Over-Sea Railroad that commenced operation in 1912 and was destroyed by a 1935 hurricane.
The rail line was later converted to an auto route that today remains visible for long stretches. We consider Key West to be Florida’s premiere destination. Kid stops: St. Augustine’s Marineland; John F. Kennedy Space Center; Palm Beach Zoo and South Florida Science Museum; Everglades National Park; Florida Keys Eco-Discover Center; Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory. Public beaches line the Florida coast; interesting stops for kids are scattered along the Overseas Highway. Newfound Gap Road/Blue Ridge Parkway/Skyline Drive.
This seamless, leisurely drive through three national parks offers some of the East Coast’s most scenic landscapes. Newfound Gap Road (32 miles long) cuts across Great Smoky Mountain National Park and connects with the Blue Ridge Parkway (469 miles), which connects with Shenandoah National Park’s Skyline Drive (105 miles).
This wonderful drive is void of billboards, traffic lights, roadside trash, and speeding 18-wheelers. We have taken this trip many times and look forward to doing it again. The ideal seasons are spring, for blooms, and fall, for colorful foliage. Six national park lodges along the way offer fun places to overnight. Newfound Gap Road was closed by a major landslide in January 2013, but is expected to open for traffic in mid-May. Kid stops: Ripley’s Aquarium in Gatlinburg, Tenn.; whitewater rafting near Asheville; Roanoke’s Virginia Museum of Transportation. National Park Service visitor centers along the route offer videos, exhibits and the entertaining, educational Junior Ranger programs. U.S. Highway 2.
The northernmost U.S. highway zigzags through mountain ranges, traverses the northern Great Plains, and swings around lakes as it connects Everett, Wash., with Houlton, Maine. The entire route, including a 700-mile stretch in Canada, covers 3,300 miles. In the West it crosses the North Cascades and the Rocky Mountains. In the East it meets the Green and White mountain ranges. In between it passes through small towns with local museums and inviting coffee shops. In western Montana the highway curves around the southern border of magnificent Glacier National Park. Here, take a short detour on Going-to-the-Sun Road that bisects the park. Driving through Minnesota (including Duluth, birthplace of Bob Dylan) will make clear why the state bills itself “the land of 10,000 lakes.”
The trip offers a peek at three Great Lakes: Superior, Michigan, Huron. In the Canadian section spend time in Ottawa, the country’s beautiful capital city. After a visit to Montreal, the road turns south and reenters the US. Arriving in Bangor, Maine, consider Alternate 1 and visit Acadia National Park. Kid stops: Coulee Dam tour and light show; Spokane’s Riverfront Park; Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site near Williston, ND; Bemidji’s Headwaters Science Center; Soo Locks at Sault Ste. Marie; Ottawa’s Parliament Building and changing of the guard; Montreal Biodome; Vermont Capitol tour in Montpelier.
U.S. Highway 395.
Connecting southern California with the Canadian border, this 1,300-mile drive traverses high deserts and mountain valleys through a large portion of the scenic West. The highway runs in a north-south direction through some of the most beautiful, but uncrowded sections of California, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington. The best portion is arguably California’s Owens Valley, which bisects two major mountain ranges. Stop in the small town of Lone Pine, Calif., where many western movies were filmed nearby. Take side trips to Death Valley National Park and Lake Tahoe before stopping in Reno for inexpensive lodging and entertainment.
The drive through northern California, Oregon and Washington passes through small towns and offers great vistas on an uncrowded highway that crosses the mighty Columbia River three times. Kid stops: Bodie State Historic Park, a ghost town near Bridgeport, Calif.; Virginia & Truckee Railroad train ride from Carson City to Virginia City, NV; Reno’s Discovery Museum; Pendleton (Ore.) Family Aquatic Center; Sacajawea Interpretive Center in Pasco, Wash.; Spokane’s Mobius Kids Children’s Museum & Science Center.
The cars we took there