Taking a road trip is a quintessential part of the American fabric. Families loaded into station wagons, on their way to adventure, have been a staple for decades, as represented in Chevy Chase’s Family Vacation. College-bound teens, set off on liberating enterprises with their friends, enjoy road trips as a rite of passage. Friendships, strengthened through long hours on the road, mishaps, and discoveries, both personal and geographic, are cemented for life.
Rising airfares have brought a resurgence of the road trip, bringing a new generation to the joys of road tripping. Lowering gas prices have been an added enticement. Perhaps it is a sense of nostalgia that drives us to relive the glory days of the famous road trips, such as Route 66, which winds from Chicago to LA.
Baby Boomers, who can forget the World’s Largest Ball of String? Or the famous Mystery Spot?
Roadside attractions popped up all over the place when Baby Boomers were kids. Hotels shaped like tee-pees or a giant beagle enticed families to stay off the beaten track on the family road trip.
While many of these older sites have begun to deteriorate, new ones are beginning to spring up, ready to delight a new generation. We are blessed to have so many scenic road trips available to us. Whether you have a day, a week, or longer, there are ideal road trips in every state in the Union, or coast to coast.
Grab a friend, or your family, and get ready to road trip. We will explore some of the most famous scenic routes, and layout some tips to ensure your road trip runs smoothly.
This is always shaky area, because everyone has his or her own opinion. I have included well-known byways that I have been able to explore on road trips. There are hundreds upon hundreds of roads with incredibly beautiful scenery, in states from coast to coast. Pick one near you, or one you have always dreamed of taking. Here are some of my road trip picks:
Highway 1 (Coastal Highway, California
There is something rugged and superb about the Pacific Coastline that literally takes my breath away every time I see it. The 90 miles from San Simeon, home of Hearst Castle, to Carmel, are known as Big Sur. If you only have a day, this is the spot to focus your road trip on, although two days makes for a more enjoyable ride. Hwy 1 is a two-lane highway, which wraps and winds around the coastline, like a snake. The driver may want to stop now and then to check out the views, and let their white knuckles regain circulation. Don’t get me wrong. The drive is intense, but the payoff is so worth it!
On this road trip you will see the majesty of the Santa Lucia Mountain range juxtaposed with the fury of the Pacific Ocean. Redwood trees stand guard over beaches covered in sea lions, and sea gulls resting lazily on the shore. During some winter months, whale sighting is possible, with binoculars.
Hwy 1 is stunning all the way north, and if you have time to travel it, be sure to check out the Marin Headlands, Pt. Reyes, and more redwood forests. The visitor’s center in Pt. Reyes is small, but impressive. They share the land with the National Park Service, and provide the training area for all the Morgan horses used by the Park Rangers. The Morgan Horse Ranch is also available for touring, and a short hike will take you to an authentic Miwok coastal Indian encampment, excavated and rebuilt on the site.
This is a great road trip for Bay Area residents or guests.
U.S. 550, The Million Dollar Highway, Colorado
This is another white-knuckle drive, but if you are adventurous, and want to take a road trip into the real Old West, the 24 miles of US 550 from Historic Silverton to Ouray, will hit the mark. You will gaze at the Uncompahgre Gorge then make your way to the summit of the Red Mountain Pass, where hairpin turns, and steep drop-offs make it as thrilling as any roller coaster. Here again, the sheer beauty of the landscape will soon convince you that your choice was sound. Watch for wildlife. Deer, elk, bear and mountain goats are highly visible in the spring, when the seemingly endless wildflowers provide ample bounty for food.
In Ouray, be sure to see the old Victorian architecture, dating back to the 1870’s, which is still in use today as shops, businesses and apartments. This road trip gives visitors a perspective on what travel was like when the west was being won.
The Sun Road (Going to the Sun Road), Montana
Glacier National Park in northern Montana is home to the Sun Road, which runs east to west tracing the movement of glaciers that carved the valley. A road trip here will cross the Continental Divide along this 50-mile stretch at a lofty 6646 feet about sea level. Bighorn sheep and mountain goat are at home
here, above the tree line where most animals dare not venture. If you watch carefully, you may see the big males battling on the steep, craggy mountainsides, and wonder how they don’t fall down.
I really encourage you to stop at the Jackson Glacier Overlook for stunning views of glacial ice. If you have never seen the shade of blue produced by a glacier, you are in for a treat. Glacial ice is a luminous light blue that is utterly indescribable.
The road trip also leads through sections of a cliff they call the Garden Wall. A marvel of engineering, even still, the feat of carving into the granite cliffs is worthy of your attention.
U.S. Route 1, Maine
The coastal state of Maine changes dramatically as you head north, or as they like to say, ‘down east.’ You will find a striking difference in the scenery on this road trip. Locals tell me this is a week long road trip, and indeed, there is plenty to see and do to fill 7 days, but being from California, my sense of spacial relativity is a bit different. When I set out for Maine from southern New Hampshire, fully intending to be to my destination by nightfall, many New Englanders looked at me sideways. They rarely traveled more than 100 miles in a day. I couldn’t help but wonder why not. There are many fine road trips in New England. I was used to driving 600 miles to Disneyland in 8 hours or less, then going to the park for the day. But then again, I was younger in those days.
Maine’s shoreline is ruggedly pristine and endlessly haunting. I love the old tales of wives on the widow’s walk watching for their sailors to return home, and ghostly figures of salty Sea Captains haunting the seaside mansions dotting the coast.
Start your road trip in the town of Kittery, and leisurely drive through Ogunquit, stopping to look into a quaint antique store, or quilt show. As the road continues it takes you to Kennebunkport, where the mansions house the rich, famous and infamous alike. On toward Portland you will find any number of shops dedicated to a cerebral crowd, and bistro’s and café’s for the foodie.
Freeport is the home of L.L. Bean, which is renowned for their superior outdoor clothing and sportswear. Buy yourself some waders and spend some time wandering the Blueberry Barrens, before finishing your drive in Calais, on the border with New Brunswick.
The Road to Hana (Hana Highway) Maui, Hawaii
I told you every state had road trip material, and the Hana Hwy is special. Beginning in Paia, the Road
to Hana will take you down 60 miles of unbelievably winding, hairpin turns- 600 of them in all. The road crosses dozens of bridges, often single-lane traffic only. It can, at times, challenge even the best, most patient drivers, however if you give your driver frequent breaks to absorb the sights, sounds and smells of the island, you will never want to leave. Truly, this is paradise, and this road trip should not be rushed.
If you are an early riser, leave before dawn, and watch the sunrise over the ocean below. Take time to visit the cultural centers and the geological wonders. Waikani Falls is a threesome of stunning waterfalls, a favorite stop for locals and visitors alike. See the aftermath of a volcano, by visiting Ka’eleku Caverns, where you can explore an ancient lava tube and the underground wonders, or try a maze made of exquisite Red Ti plants. A road trip on the Hana Road will never be forgotten.
The Seward Highway, Alaska
To me, Alaska is the epitome of majestic beauty and awesome wonders. Unless you are polar bear, summertime is the premier time to visit the great state, particularly if you are road tripping. The Seward Hwy is 127 miles of scenery, dubbed an “All American Road” by the US government. Beginning in Anchorage your road trip will take you from the coastal city of Anchorage, over the Kenai Peninsula, to the lovely seaside town of Seward, on Resurrection Bay.
The highway narrows outside of Anchorage, to two lanes. Even so, the trip can be done in as little as three hours, but you will want to take your time. Depending upon your schedule and interests, you could easily spread this out over days.
Potter Marsh is a favorite stop for migratory birds, including our national bird, the Bald Eagle. Look for golden eagles, and osprey, and a plethora of waterfowl. Birders will be in hog heaven here, but even those less interested in ornithology will enjoy a stroll along two boardwalks, offering an up-close view of salmon spawning (in season). Many visitors are treated to a visit by a passing moose.
Once you have left the marsh, the road begins to change, as you begin to creep higher into the Kenai Mountains. You can catch a great view from the Turnagain House, and sample delicious oysters, fresh from Kachemak Bay. Turnagain Arm is the area you look down on from the road above. Keep going until you find Bird Point. Fisherman find paradise in these waters and white beluga whales frolic here throughout summer and into September. Coincidentally, these are prime road trip months.
Girdwood is an artsy town, worthy of a stop to see the gorgeous flowers grown in the northern most state. With a short growing season, bolstered by nearly 24-hour sunlight, plants grow quite large in Alaska. The colors are vibrant and the blossoms big. I once saw a cabbage the size of a card table!
As you leave the mountains, lush, green wetlands avail themselves. You will pass a dead forest, destroyed by saltwater in the aftermath of the 1964 Alaskan earthquake. Tsunami waters rose this far as a result of the quake. The Seward Hwy is one of the most diverse road trips.
This road is full of wildlife and stark scenery that will amaze and delight you. The glaciers are vibrant and amazingly dry. Even my arthritic Mom was able to walk and enjoy time on the glacial ice. Stop and enjoy the wildflowers if they are blooming. Keep an eye out for animals ready to munch on sweet foliage.
Portage Valley offers spectacular views of the glaciers, especially from the Boggs Visitors Center. If you road trip in summer watch for berry pickers, and consider stopping to pick a few yourself. Eventually you will see the most resplendent view of all as you enter Seward. Resurrection Bay is actually a fjord hosting any manner of marine life. Fishing is great here, and you have a good chance of spotting otter, whales, orca, sea lions and the like.
Before You Go
There are some things you need to address before you set out , in order to ensure a safe and enjoyable road trip:
1) Get a tune-up and oil change. Check the radiator, and tire pressure. You want a safe vehicle to travel in.
2) If you already have roadside assistance, great, just be sure it is paid-up. If not, consider getting some. If you break down in the middle of nowhere, you will be happy you have someone to call.
3) If you will cross stateliness or plan to visit unfamiliar territory, be sure you know the laws, and traffic regulations. Some places allow a right turn after a stop; others do not. Road trips can be ruined by ignorance.
4) Get maps. GPS is a terrific tool, but it is fallible. A map allows you a second, accurate reference.
5) Get a lot of rest before you drive. Coffee can only help for a short time, and can make the driver jittery. Sleep well, and eat a hearty breakfast each day for the road trip.
On the Road
These are mostly common sense suggestions, easily overlooked when we are having fun:
1) Slow down. A road trip is a journey, not a destination. Driving 55 will save money in gas, and the driver will be able to enjoy some of the sights, too.
2) Especially if you have kids on board, stop frequently. Restroom breaks and meals are obvious stops, but consider stopping to play, shop and explore. That is part of the fun of a road trip.
3) Keep your gas tank full. Many of these roads are long and lonely. Fill up when you are close to 1/4 tank, so you are not stranded.
4) Bring a cooler with drinks and munchies. You will pay far less if you go to a grocery store, than at a convenience store. Keep a blanket and paper/plastic plates and utensils for an impromptu picnic.
5) Always stow valuables in the trunk, or well hidden out of sight as you road trip. Lock your car every time you leave it. Professional thieves target tourist areas, and can be quick at removing your camera, purse or IPad, in under 30 seconds.
6) Most importantly, make sure everyone wears a seat belt at all times. You may be an excellent driver, but you never know who or what you might encounter on the road.
You may have noticed that I have suggested several drives requiring strict attention to the road. Be respectful of the driver, and stop frequently so they can enjoy the views. These views are what make the journey so worthwhile. Take turns with driving so one person does not feel resentful or overly stressed.
Road trips are fun, educational and generally inexpensive. The suggestions included here, are a tiny fraction of the incredible routes this country has to offer. Discover nearby roads or travel the miles to a destination spot. I try to discourage the use of mobile devices, except GPS, and emergency phone calls, when road tripping. To me, cranking up the radio or a good CD, playing silly car games, and getting reacquainted are the highlights of a road trip. Don’t spoil it with technology.