The Great American Road Trip: A State-by-State Guide to Exploring the USA
The Great American Road Trip: A State-by-State Guide to Exploring the USA - Route 66: The Mother Road
Stretching over 2,400 miles from Chicago to Santa Monica, Route 66 is fondly known as the “Mother Road.” This iconic highway was one of America's first transcontinental roads, opening up the West like never before when it was commissioned in 1926.
For decades, Route 66 was the main route travelers took when moving west. It became a lifeline during the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, allowing thousands of migrant families to escape the parched Great Plains. Route 66 also served as an important military transport route during World War II.
After the war, families began using Route 66 for road trips and vacations. The road gained prominence in popular culture, featuring in songs, TV shows like Route 66, and movies. Road trips along the “Main Street of America” became a rite of passage.
Today, remnants of Route 66's golden years still exist. You can find vintage neon signs, classic diners and motor courts, quirky roadside attractions, ghost towns, and old service stations. While only 13% of the original Route 66 remains drivable, you can still get a feel for the old road.
Popular stops include the Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo with its graffiti-covered Cadillacs; the Wigwam Motel in Holbrook with teepee-shaped rooms; the Grand Canyon; the Wagon Wheel Motel in Cuba, MO; and the famous Santa Monica Pier, the western terminus of Route 66.
Crossing eight states, Route 66 offers a quintessential American road trip experience. From Chicago through Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and finally California, each section of the “Mother Road” has its own unique scenery, food, and nostalgic charm.
What else is in this post?
- The Great American Road Trip: A State-by-State Guide to Exploring the USA - Route 66: The Mother Road
- The Great American Road Trip: A State-by-State Guide to Exploring the USA - Hit the Beach on the Pacific Coast Highway
- The Great American Road Trip: A State-by-State Guide to Exploring the USA - Explore the Mountains and National Parks Out West
- The Great American Road Trip: A State-by-State Guide to Exploring the USA - See the Great Lakes and Midwest Farmlands
- The Great American Road Trip: A State-by-State Guide to Exploring the USA - Journey Down the Mississippi River Valley
- The Great American Road Trip: A State-by-State Guide to Exploring the USA - Stop at Quirky Roadside Attractions Across the Country
- The Great American Road Trip: A State-by-State Guide to Exploring the USA - Sample Local Foods as You Go
- The Great American Road Trip: A State-by-State Guide to Exploring the USA - Road Trip Planning Tips and Essentials
The Great American Road Trip: A State-by-State Guide to Exploring the USA - Hit the Beach on the Pacific Coast Highway
Feel the ocean breeze in your hair as you cruise down the Pacific Coast Highway. This epic coastal road trip takes you past some of the best beaches in the country. From surf havens to secluded coves, the beaches lining Highway 101 and Highway 1 are the highlights of a west coast road trip.
In Northern California, make stops at the dramatic cliffs and secluded beaches of the Lost Coast. Feel like you have an entire beach to yourself at Shelter Cove and Mattole Beach. Further south, Point Reyes National Seashore has over 70 miles of coastline to explore. Walk along empty stretches of sand at Kehoe Beach and Drake’s Beach. The easy coastal trails at Point Reyes offer spectacular ocean views.
Continue south to Santa Cruz for classic California beach vibes. Surfers flock to Steamer Lane and Pleasure Point. Sunbathe, swim, or fly kites at Main Beach and Natural Bridges State Beach. Boardwalk amusement rides, cotton candy stands, and wharf restaurants give the Santa Cruz shoreline a festive atmosphere.
Monterey’s coast has a rugged Big Sur feel. Exchange tourist crowds for seals and sea lions at Hopkins Marine Station Beach. Accessible only by steep stairs, San Carlos Beach is a peaceful hidden gem. Asilomar State Beach is popular with locals for its BBQ pits and beautiful cypress groves.
Further south, Hearst Castle makes a nice detour from the coast. Tour the opulent mansion then drive down to William Randolph Hearst Memorial State Beach to experience the private beach once enjoyed only by Hearst and his celebrity guests.
Big Sur is the ultimate scenic highlight. Take in the breathtaking views at Garrapata State Park before unwinding on the crescent-shaped beach. Hike down to 1857ft McWay Falls, which tumbles directly onto the beach at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park.
Continuing into Southern California, you’ll find incredible beaches with year-round warm weather. Surfers love Rincon Beach near Ventura. In Santa Barbara, Butterfly Beach lives up to its name with swarms of monarch butterflies. Further south in Malibu, connect to the old Hollywood glamour days at Zuma Beach and El Matador State Beach.
As you make your final stretch into Los Angeles, don’t miss the coastal amusement parks. Ride the wooden rollercoaster at Pacific Park on the Santa Monica Pier then hit the Ferris Wheel on the pier at Balboa Island in Newport Beach. Finally, experience the surf culture of Huntington Beach, aka “Surf City USA." Stroll the Huntington Beach Pier then watch pro surfers catch waves at the famous Huntington Beach.
The Great American Road Trip: A State-by-State Guide to Exploring the USA - Explore the Mountains and National Parks Out West
America’s awe-inspiring mountains and national parks seem endless out West. As you wind your way through the high alpine peaks and deep river valleys, each bend in the road reveals new natural wonders. From snowcapped Rocky Mountain vistas to the alien hoodoos of Bryce Canyon to the deepest gorge in North America at Hells Canyon, the Western landscapes humble you with their grandiose scale and raw, untouched beauty.
Trekking through these monumental mountains and parks, you’ll understand why pioneers moving west felt so small and insignificant traversing this expansive terrain. Early explorer John Fremont described the rugged West as “a succession of deep gorges, impetuous streams, and masses of rocks.” Yet he also rhapsodized about its “sublimity,” finding divinity in the sheer enormity of Western nature.
Generations later, the most famous naturalist of them all, John Muir, galvanized support to protect these Western places from destruction and exploitation. Muir wrote rapturously of Yosemite’s trees that “speak aloud the grandest sermons” and described Sequoia National Park’s giant trees as “lordly monarchs proclaiming the gospel of beauty.”
Thanks to Muir’s tireless advocacy, places like Yosemite, Sequoia, Zion, Bryce Canyon, and Grand Canyon National Parks gained federal protection so we can still experience their glory. And the National Park Service continues preserving our shared public heritage, recently adding White Sands National Park in New Mexico and Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah.
The Great American Road Trip: A State-by-State Guide to Exploring the USA - See the Great Lakes and Midwest Farmlands
The Great Lakes region offers travelers stunning natural beauty combined with America's agricultural heartland. From pristine lakeshores to endless fields of corn and wheat, a Midwestern road trip showcases some of the country's most iconic landscapes.
Towering sand dunes, miles of white sandy beaches, and turquoise blue waters await at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore along Lake Michigan. This "Most Beautiful Place in America" stuns with its panoramic views from 400ft sand bluffs. Further up the lake, traverse Michigan's mitten handle along the Leelanau Peninsula Scenic Heritage Route to sample local wines at vineyards overlooking Lake Michigan.
Meander along Lake Superior's craggy shoreline in Minnesota's North Shore. Rugged cliffs, crashing waves, and pebbly beaches make for an exhilarating Great Lakes experience. Be awed standing under the powerful Gooseberry Falls and Split Rock Lighthouse. See why Bob Dylan found inspiration in this melancholy lakeshore.
On Lake Huron, sink your toes into Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore's multicolored sandstone beaches. Climb the monumental sandstone cliffs and behold why they’re called “pictured rocks.” Nearby, take the I-75 tunnel five stories below the Straits of Mackinac. Emerging on the Upper Peninsula’s forested shoreline feels like entering another world.
Further inland, farmlands stretch to the horizon. Cruise along scenic byways through vast fields of corn, wheat, soybeans, and sunflowers. See combines harvesting crops and Amish horse-drawn buggies clip-clopping down rural roads. At night, a canopy of stars illuminates the softly undulating farmland.
Nebraska’s Highway 2 offers a peaceful ride through America’s agricultural heart. Stop in burgeoning Omaha for steaks, breweries, and museums or get a history fix touring Willa Cather’s homestead prairie landscapes.
Meandering the Great River Road Scenic Byway alongside the mighty Mississippi provides perspectives on Americana. Riverboat cruises, civil war battlefields, Mark Twain sites, famed Memphis music scene, and antebellum mansions scatter this historic waterway.
The Great American Road Trip: A State-by-State Guide to Exploring the USA - Journey Down the Mississippi River Valley
Meandering nearly 2,500 miles from Northern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi River Valley offers an incredible diversity of experiences along America's most famous waterway. Tracing the Mississippi River Scenic Byway and Great River Road provides perspectives on quintessential Americana. From Huck Finn adventures to Civil War history, a road trip along Old Man River introduces you to the heart of America.
In Minnesota, stroll alongside the wide river in Minneapolis, experiencing the only stretch of Mississippi waterfall as it tumbles over St. Anthony Falls. Paddlewheel riverboats in St. Paul give you Mississippi views of the city's dramatic bluffs.
As the Mississippi meanders south, explore river life in small towns like Red Wing, Minnesota, and Dubuque, Iowa. Victorian-era architecture hearkens back to the river's steamboat era. Quaint main streets are lined with shops, cafes, and B&Bs for a relaxing riverside escape.
TheQuad Cities on the Iowa-Illinois border wear their Mississippi River pride on their sleeve. Riverfront trails on both sides of the river link Davenport and Rock Island. Grab a hearty Mississippi River breakfast at Front Street Brewery in Rock Island before crossing the river.
Further south, St. Louis highlights the Mississippi River's eclectic history. Climb inside the Gateway Arch for sweeping riverfront views. Riverboats cruise past the St. Louis skyline, conjuring images of Huck Finn adventures. The haunting arch at the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial poignantly commemorates America's westward growth.
As the Lower Mississippi River pushes south, stop in Memphis to experience Elvis Presley's Graceland Mansion and the Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum. Then mosey on down to Mississippi's historic river towns like Rosedale and Greenville. Blues music seems to seep from the muddy riverbanks.
The Lower Mississippi offers poignant perspectives on slavery's dark history. Tour antebellum cotton plantations and Civil War battlefields in Vicksburg. A somber stop at the Whitney Plantation Museum provides an unfiltered look at the realities of slavery.
The Great American Road Trip: A State-by-State Guide to Exploring the USA - Stop at Quirky Roadside Attractions Across the Country
America's highways and byways are dotted with unique, kitschy, and downright weird roadside attractions. On your coast-to-coast road trip, make time to stop at these quirky curiosities and selfie-worthy photo ops. After all, how often do you get a chance to see the World’s Largest Ball of Twine or a re-creation of the Leaning Tower of Pisa?
Road trippers relish the opportunity to break up long days behind the wheel with offbeat attractions. Dubbed "tourist traps," these funky sites started popping up in the 1940s and 50s to lure travelers off Route 66 and other major highways. Competition for the tourist dollar was fierce, so roadside entrepreneurs dreamed up gimmicky attractions to grab attention.
While some of the classics have disappeared over the years, like the Cadillac Ranch and Mystery Hill in Wisconsin Dells, plenty of weird wonders remain. My favorites include Carhenge – yes, Stonehenge recreated with vintage cars – in Alliance, Nebraska. There’s also the International Banana Museum full of over 20,000 banana-related items in Mecca, California (I'm not making this up). For a photo holding up the Leaning Tower of Niles outside Chicago, head to the Leaning Tower of Niles. This half-size replica of the real deal in Pisa, Italy has been confusing Midwest road trippers since 1934.
Of course, the self-proclaimed "world’s largest" items merit a stop as well, no matter how odd. Snap a photo with the World’s Largest Twine Ball made with over 8 million feet of twine in Darwin, Minnesota. Nearby, peek into the mind of Robert Wadlow, the world’s tallest man, at his childhood home in Alton, Illinois. And yes, there really is a World’s Largest Rubber Band Ball weighing over 9000 pounds in Lauderhill, Florida.
For a healthy dose of Americana, visit Wall Drug in South Dakota – it's almost a rite of passage for families road tripping to Mount Rushmore. Peruse the expansive gift shop stocked with Route 66 souvenirs and don't miss the animatronic T-Rex. Grab a snack at the soda fountain or indulge in a famous "free ice water."
The Great American Road Trip: A State-by-State Guide to Exploring the USA - Sample Local Foods as You Go
One of the greatest joys of a cross-country road trip is getting to sample iconic regional foods as you travel through different states and cities. From lobster rolls in Maine to deep dish pizza in Chicago to Tex Mex in San Antonio, every area has its own specialties that reflect local culture, history, and ingredients. Indulging in these local food favorites helps you experience the unique personality of a place.
Epicurious blogger Matt Gross recounts savoring buttery lobster rolls at Red's Eats in Maine, taking "juicy, delicious bites of ocean-fresh meat just yards from the source" after watching lobster boats unload their catch. Meanwhile in Philly, he learns why locals instinctively order cheesesteaks "wit wiz" thanks to the cheese whiz's "ideal melting consistency and salty, earthy flavor."
On a Southern road trip, one must sample Nashville hot chicken, biscuits and sawmill gravy in Appalachia, sweet potato pie in the Carolinas, and gumbo or po' boys bathed in Tabasco sauce in Louisiana. The regional differences in barbecue alone make a road trip down south a mouthwatering experience. Texas Monthly's BBQ editor Daniel Vaughn suggests sampling smoked brisket in central Texas, Memphis dry rub ribs in Tennessee, and vinegar-sauced pulled pork sandwiches in North Carolina.
In the Midwest, has any road trip been complete without grabbing Chicago-style deep dish pizza, Kansas City burnt ends, Nebraska Runza sandwiches, and Ohio buckeye candies? Don't pass through Wisconsin without indulging in squeaky cheese curds and New Glarus Spotted Cow beer. Or cruising along Route 66 without an old-fashioned milkshake and slinger diner specials featuring hash browns and hamburgers.
Out West, sopapillas and green chile smothered burritos hit the spot in New Mexico. Cool down with paletas, Mexican popsicles, as you explore the Arizona desert and don't miss the fish tacos along California's beaches. In Vegas, late night stops for chili cheese fries will surely satisfy.
The Great American Road Trip: A State-by-State Guide to Exploring the USA - Road Trip Planning Tips and Essentials
The thrill of the open road calls to every traveler’s wild spirit. Yet nothing dampens that wanderlust faster than a disastrous road trip derailed by poor planning. Heading out on a coast-to-coast adventure without thoughtful preparation leads to frustration from unpredictable costs, delays, and vehicle issues. Proper planning not only prevents headaches, but enhances the entire journey.
Speaking from extensive personal experience, certain tips help ensure smooth travels on even the longest hauls. First, get your vehicle road-trip ready with a thorough maintenance checkup. Breakdowns in the middle of nowhere can ruin your whole trip. Ask your trusted mechanic to inspect critical systems like brakes, tires, belts and hoses. Update any fluids and replace worn parts.
Packing light is essential for comfort during long days driving. Don't haul heavy suitcases that weigh down your vehicle. I prefer using a backpack and small carry-on for maximum mobility. Organize essentials like clothes, toiletries and electronics in packing cubes, bags and pouches to stay tidy. A cooler stocked with snacks and lots of water keeps you fueled up and hydrated for the long stretches between stops.
Leave wiggle room in your itinerary rather than packing each day. Trying to cover too many miles is a recipe for exhaustion. Build in buffer days for unexpected delays or side trips. I aim to drive about 6 hours and less than 400 miles per day. Getting an early start lets you take advantage of daylight hours and gives time to stop at attractions. I gas up at half a tank since stations are few and far between in rural areas.
Lodging and camping reservations provide peace of mind. For spontaneity, I use same-day booking apps but have backup reservations in case of no vacancies. Avoid driving after dark when possible by planning overnight stops. I splurge on hotels every few nights for a comfortable bed, hot shower, and laundry facilities.
Use apps like Roadtrippers, GasBuddy, iExit, and TruckerPath. I always have an old-school paper map or atlas as backup. Offline navigation keeps you on track in areas with no cell service. Download maps and playlists when you do have wi-fi. Portable chargers and car adaptors keep devices powered up.
Apps like Turo and Outdoorsy open up more transportation possibilities if your own car isn't ideal. Rental RVs allow you to have your hotel and vehicle in one, while still stopping conveniently at campsites. But test-drive any rentals thoroughly first, as handling can take adjustment.