Route 66, the Pacific Coast Highway and more – our pick of the best American road trips
Taking a road trip across America is one of the best ways to explore this expansive incredible country. And while there’s much to be said for hitting the road in an open-top Cadillac or Chevrolet, for sheer ease, value for money and fun, our choice is an RV – otherwise known as a camper van or mobile home.
With so many national parks and state parks to explore, American road trips are the ideal way to see much of the country’s beauty. With more than 16,000 campsites across the country, as well as a healthy habit for boon docking – pulling off the highway to stay at free locations with zero or limited facilities – bundling your travel companions into an RV and hitting the road gives you maximum freedom to plot your own route and have an incredible adventure.
But where to begin? Fighting it out for most iconic road in America is Route 66 and the Pacific Coast Highway. Route 66 was one of the US’s original highways and runs from Chicago, Illinois across to Santa Monica in California, while the Pacific Coast Highway runs the length of, you guessed it, the Pacific Coast, between the Canadian border at Port Townsend and the Mexican border at San Diego.
There’s no doubting these two have their attractions, and we’ll go into more detail on them below, but an American road trip can also venture off those proverbial beaten tracks and explore less well-known states, remote national parks and even take in some headline attractions, such as New York or Disney.
If you’re thinking about an American road trip Cruise America is the go-to company for RV hire, and we recently had a great chat with Tracy Thompson, its international sales and marketing manager for our Destination Conversation series available in The Holiday Insiders’ Club. We talked about what to expect on an RV holiday and she shared her insider knowledge on the RVs, the best destinations and the incredible American campsites, plus much more – watch it over in the Lives section.
Here, we’re focusing on the routes and road trips across the States. So whether you’re travelling for five days, five weeks or five months, there’s an American road trip out there for you.
Route 66 (Illinois, Arizona, California and more)
Immortalised in films, books and music, Route 66 is the big one. One of the original highways, it was established in 1926 and played a huge role in the Dust Bowl migrations west in the 1930s. Running from Chicago in Illinois, through Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, before finishing on the coast in Santa Monica, California, it was 2,448 miles of real Americana.
However, and we don’t want to get caught up on the technicalities but, note the ‘was’ – Route 66 is technically no more. From about 1964 to 1985 it was decommissioned and replaced with larger interstate highways, which bypassed many of the villages, towns and cities that were part of the attraction.
Instead, you’ll now find large stretches of Historic Route 66 along the original road – and championed by the local businesses that ‘America’s Main Street’ supported. So head to Arizona, New Mexico and Missouri in particular, and you’ll still be able to drive the iconic road; Arizona has the longest stretch of the original Route 66, at 159 miles.
Preservation efforts have continued into the 21st century. Work is currently underway on creating US Bicycle Route 66, following the nationwide route, and many of the states have designated their sections of Route 66 as National Scenic Byways.
So hire an RV in Chicago and clear the diary for a few months as you set off to get your kicks on Route 66.
The Pacific Coast Highway (California to Washington)
If you’ve only got a week or so, focus your Pacific Coast Highway adventure in California, covering the 600 or so miles from San Francisco to San Diego. It’s only about 10-12 hours of total driving time, but give yourself a week (at least) and that’s plenty of time for stop-offs, overnights and detours.
You won’t be able to miss Santa Cruz, Big Sur, the wildlife at Morro Bay, the wineries in the Santa Ynez Valley, the old-school glam of Santa Barbara and of course LA.
But if you’ve got longer, why not start further north? Much further north, in Washington State at the border with Canada. Pick up an RV in Seattle and settle in for a 1,650-mile drive south, barely ever loosing sight of the ocean and travelling through temperate rainforest in Washington to near desert in California, as well as sand dunes in Oregon and great redwood forests in Northern California.
On the way, there’s plenty of gloriously kitsch remnants of the glory days of road tripping tourism, as well as every possible type of accommodation, bijou restaurants and authentic road-side diners.
Handy tip: Driving it from north to south keeps you in the lane closest to the ocean.
Utah’s Mighty Five and Beyond
For a jaw-dropping road trip around just one state, Utah is hard to beat. Its crimson-hued landscapes are the stuff of scenic movie dreams and it’s home to a whopping five national parks, the ‘Mighty Five’ of Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Arches and Canyonlands.
Start in Vegas for a taste of Sin City before driving off to see impressive landmark after impressive landmark, with plenty of outdoor activities in and around said impressive landmarks.
Highlights include the towering red sandstone cliffs in Zion National Park, seeing the Grand Canyon at sunset, waterspouts on the vast Lake Powell, the striking monoliths in Monument Valley, and the ancient cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde.
But it’s not just about the big things in Utah, it’s also the simple joy of sitting out under the stars at night, the short hikes through little-known canyons, and watching the sunset through a hole in a mountain, before returning to Vegas. Allow at least 10 days, two weeks or more if you can.
North east cities, coast and lakes
The north-east corner of the USA has some of the country’s most picturesque scenery and attention-grabbing cities, so makes for a very enjoyable place to spend a couple of weeks exploring by RV.
Collect your RV in New York or Newark and head south to Atlantic City for its famous Broadwalk and vast Atlantic beaches. The ‘birthplace’ of the nation, Philadelphia, is next, before heading to the capital of the nation, Washington DC – you can’t move for historic landmarks round here.
Then travel north through Pennsylvania to the shores of Lake Erie, one of the five Great Lakes spanning the USA Canada border before reaching the majestic Niagara Falls. Want to know a secret? The Falls are even more impressive from the Canadian side, so walk across the Rainbow Bridge to cross the border. And prepare for a soaking – that much water makes for a lot of spray!
Next, your road trip travels through the Adirondack Mountains, a vast area with hundreds of miles of scenic roads through the wilderness. This is THE place for star gazing and big hikes, and is a complete contrast to the next stop – New York City, where the campsite is opposite Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty and the twinkling lights of Manhattan. Round things off with a drive out along Long Island to the fashionable Hamptons and more Atlantic coastline, before returning your RV, 1,530 miles and 13 days later.
Yellowstone National Park and the Rockies (Montana, Colorado and Wyoming)
Yellowstone is the big one. As national parks go, it’s got pedigree. The world’s first, it’s home to the Old Faithful Geyser, Grand Prismatic Spring and lots and lots of wildlife (bears, wolves, bison, elk and antelope for starters). Visiting it in an RV makes sense – you can stay in the places day trippers can only dream of, and have moments of solitude away from the crowds.
Cruise America suggests a 13-day itinerary, starting from Denver, Colorado, and taking in Mount Rushmore in South Dakota before heading into the huge spaces of Wyoming. The state offers a captivating mix of cowboy country, an Arapahoe Indian reservation, and towering mountains in the Grand Teton National Park. Yellowstone and the Rocky Mountains are just the icing on the cake.
The Loneliest Road, West Coast to East Coast
If time is not an issue, set out from San Francisco and travel the 3,200 miles across the country to Ocean City, Maryland, passing through the shores of Lake Tahoe and the Sierra Nevadas before reaching ‘America’s Loneliest Road’ in Nevada.
The US-50 Highway continues into Colorado and its national parks before crossing the Mississippi River, meandering through the Appalachian Mountains and arriving in Washington DC and continuing to the coast at Ocean City.
TIME Magazine called the route ‘the backbone of America’, and as you pass through small towns, rural areas and several capital cities, it’s clear to see why.
Seward Highway, Alaska
To really get away from it all, it has to be a road trip around Alaska. Cruise America has a rental base in Anchorage, the state’s capital and home to an international airport, so start there and head out to explore snow-capped mountains, icy glaciers and coastal ports.
While some people may prefer to see Alaska by boat, the state operates a very efficient ferry system, open to RVs, between port communities. So that, combined with the Seward Highway, the 125-mile route from Anchorage to Seward that passes through such landmarks as the Kenai Mountains, Turnagain Arm, Church National Forest and the Kenai Peninsula, will satisfactorily scratch the Alaska itch.