The mythology of the American highway is as deep and long as the Grand Canyon – which you can, incidentally, drive along. Books, music and films have added glamour, ghosts and grit to what in other countries would be merely a long, even boring, drive. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited and Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider are perhaps the best-known celebrations of the American ideal of freedom as an open road. But there are enough pop songs to soundtrack a lifetime of coast-to-coast drives and the challenge may well be to turn off the myths – and turn down the music – and make your own experience out of the journey.
The vast, varied landscapes, small towns and big cities that fly-drivers pass through make the practical matters of hiring and insuring a car, driving on the right and learning a few new laws well worth it. In Arizona, you can park in the quaint desert town of Winslow, still “a fine sight to see”, on Route 66. Big Sur is that much bigger when you arrive in your own car, at your own pace. Florida feels a lot sunnier when you cruise with the soft top down. Monument Valley’s buttes and steeples somehow fit perfectly into a side-window.
In 1913 the Lincoln Highway was established. It was the first “improved” – hard-topped, occasionally graded – road to cross the continent, running for 3,389 miles from New York to San Francisco. In 1926, the US began to number its highways, imposing some order on the routes that criss-crossed the country and which had evolved out of earlier stage-coach, mail and cart routes. In the Fifties, President Eisenhower championed the creation of the comprehensive Interstate highway network.
The celebrated American journalist Charles Kuralt noted in his 1990 book A Life on the Road that the Interstate “makes it possible to go from coast to coast without seeing anything or meeting anybody. If the United States interests you, stay off the Interstates.” This advice still holds good. The ideal American driving holiday will involve at least some quieter state routes and back roads. Those with time to spare can try one of the long-distance epics, but even if you have only a week or less you can do some very photogenic shorter routes . The following are our favourites – though tweaking them and inventing your own routes is all part of the fun.
1. California State Route 1
The route along the Pacific coast between Dana Point, north of San Diego, and Leggett, in the heart of northern California’s redwood country, is an easy but exciting introduction to American road culture. Do the drive in summer and you’ll be sun-blessed all the way; in winter, do it north to south and chase the light and heat. Though the road skirts Greater Los Angeles and its legendary gridlocks, it does pass through Long Beach, Santa Monica, Malibu, Santa Barbara’s wine country, Santa Cruz, Big Sur, San Francisco and the Point Reyes National Seashore. Route 101, with which Route 1 occasionally merges on its 745-mile coast-hugging journey, finally takes over completely near Leggett. If you enjoyed Sideways and like to be beside the seaside, this is the one to do.
2. Route 66
One highway that ends in California is the most famous of all – Route 66, created in 1926 as one of the first numbered highways. Before then, American roads were recognised by coloured bands on telegraph poles and were often maintained by private individuals. Originally stretching 2,451 miles from Chicago to Santa Monica, Route 66 has lost sections to state roads, local roads, private drives and grass, and dwindled to a series of discontinuous “historic” byways. Some stretches remain open, most notably the 320-mile south-western Arizona section from the Petrified Forest to Kingman, via Winslow and Flagstaff – stay en route at the atmospheric La Posada hotel, where the 66 meets the equally celebrated Santa Fe railroad. To see what’s open and viable, see historic66.com and check 66in2weeks.com to work out distances.
3. Highway 61
Highway 61, officially US Route 61, connects New Orleans and the city of Wyoming in Minnesota, and runs clean south-north for 1,400 miles. It’s often nicknamed the “Blues Highway” in recognition of the region’s musical culture and the so-called Great Migration of African-Americans from the Mississippi Delta to St Louis and Chicago between 1910 and 1970. According to legend, the great blues guitarist Robert Johnson met the devil at the crossroads of highways 61 and 49.
Coast to coast
4. US Route 20
For those who want to live out an On the Road fantasy and travel coast to coast, there are several options. US Route 20, the longest road in the country, runs for 3,365 miles between Newport in Oregon and Boston, but is broken at Yellowstone National Park. Running parallel to the north is the 3,101-mile Interstate 90. To the south is Route 6, at 3,205 miles the longest continuous route. All these are fast, easy to drive and useful for those aiming to cross the US in two or three weeks without overdoing the driving.
5. US Route 30
Crossing Route 20, this runs from Oregon to Atlantic City, New Jersey, and incorporates large sections of the Lincoln Highway – a sort of national “Main Street” that passes (or runs close to) the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nevada, Lincoln’s cabin in Illinois, and the Big Mac Museum and giant Coffee Pot in Pennsylvania. The southernmost route – a good winter option – is Interstate 10, from Santa Monica to Jacksonville, Florida.
Small drives, big views
6. Monument Valley
Use Route 17 out of Phoenix, visit Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon and then head up the 160 to the cowboy film-scape of buttes and tabletops on the Arizona/Utah border. Then come down the 191 and across Interstate 40 to enter Winslow on Route 66. Combine with a Jeep drive along Diamond Creek Road, which goes along the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
7. Florida Keys
The 150-mile US 1 from Miami to Key West skirts the Everglades and takes the “Ocean Highway” linking a series of keys (from Spanish cayo for “islet”), with the Gulf of Mexico on the right and the Atlantic on the left; the most spectacular section is the Seven Mile Bridge.
8. Blue Ridge Parkway
For a leaf-themed drive, choose between the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway (blueridgeparkway.org) in southern Appalachia and the 138-mile Scenic Route 100 Byway along the edge of Vermont’s Green Mountains.
How to do it
Who doesn’t dream of hitting the highway in a classic car? Ride Free (ridefree.com/classic_car_tours_rentals) offers guided tours (in Sixties Mustang convertibles or a vintage 1932 Ford Roadster) along Route 66, California’s Route 1 or from LA to Vegas, as well as guided and self-guided motorcycle tours across the US. The company also rents cars to people who want to drive alone – price on request.
If you prefer to book through a British-based firm, see the American Road Trip Company (theamericanroadtripcompany.co.uk), Bon Voyage (bon-voyage.co.uk) or Just America (justamerica.co.uk). All offer Route 66 as well as shorter drives across the US.
All the usual suspects rent cars in the US, and websites such as kayak.co.uk and vroomvroomvroom.com are handy for comparing deals. Rates vary greatly depending on the season, model and pick-up point; circular drives are always cheaper than “one-way” routes involving a (sometimes exorbitant) drop-off fee. Driveaways – driving someone else’s car from A to B and paying for the fuel – are an option: visit the main website autodriveaway.com for a quote. There are not always many cars available but you might get lucky and be asked to take a vintage sports car from Arizona to Niagara Falls.
If you want to avoid the hassle of planning hotels and motels, a motorhome or RV is an option; Cruise America (cruiseamerica.com) is the market leader.
Greyhound (greyhound.com), part owned by the British FirstGroup since 2007, operates around 16,000 daily bus departures to nearly 3,800 destinations.
You don’t have to do the driving. Grand American Adventures (grandamericanadventures.com), part of the TUI group, does a range of group tours by bus as well as camper van hire. See the Association of Independent Tour Operators’ website (aito.com) for a list of American holiday specialists.
What to read
Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck. In 1960, Steinbeck made a 10,000-mile, 38-state circuit of the country in a home-made camper, nicknamed Rocinante (after Don Quixote’s weary nag), with a poodle called Charley. Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, published in 1939, is a classic of road literature.
On the Road by Jack Kerouac. You don’t have to read this before you’re 20, but it helps. Kerouac’s best novel is a flowing, breezy celebration of youth, freedom and friendship.
Coast to Coast. Jan Morris’s first ever travelogue, written in the Fifties and now a romantic evocation of a more innocent America, with its long, empty highways and diners that’s still hadn’t been turned into ironic “icons” by photographers.
Moon’s Road Trip USA by Jamie Jensen is a good place to start researching your trip and accommodation.
Online, the Federal Highway Administration site has lots of somewhat hidden gems of information. Type “History” into the search engine to get started (fhwa.dot.gov; there’s an interactive map of the historic Lincoln Highway at lincolnhighwayassoc.org/map).
What to avoid
Speed limits vary by state, vehicle and time of day.
Never pass a school bus in either direction if its red lights are flashing.
You may turn right at red lights if the road is clear – unless a sign says otherwise.
If driving in the middle lane(s), expect to be overtaken on both sides.