Driving Beyond Route 66: Four classic US road trips

Photo of Gemma Nisbet

Look past the allure of the so-called "Main Street of America" to find four great drives to experience the true spirit of the United States.

Pacific Coast

California’s State Route 1 hugs the coast and is sufficiently scenic to have been designated an All-American Road by the US Department of Transportation. Los Angeles and San Francisco make convenient start and finish points (or vice versa) and, though this isn’t a particularly long drive — about nine hours non-stop — you can take your time over two or three days to enjoy the ride. 

Where to go

One of California’s oldest towns, low-key San Luis Obispo is about halfway between LA and San Francisco and was the site of what’s said to have been the world’s first motel — it’s no longer in operation but lovers of kitsch will be drawn to the totally over-the-top interiors at the historic Madonna Inn.

For a second overnight stop, choose among coastal neighbours Carmel, Monterey and Santa Cruz. Attractions include Monterey’s well-known aquarium and Cannery Row, which featured in John Steinbeck’s eponymous novel, while Santa Cruz is best known for surfing and the historic Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, where you can ride an original 1920s wooden rollercoaster.

What to see

A small detour from Santa Barbara, not far outside LA, will take you to the wine country of the Santa Ynez Valley, where the film Sideways was set, and the quaint Danish-inspired town of Solvang.

North of San Luis Obispo, stop at the Hearst Castle — the lavish home built for newspaper magnate William Randolph Randolph William Hearst — and the Piedras Blancas elephant seal rookery, before driving through the Big Sur, a rugged stretch of coast renowned for its natural beauty. Its best known landmark is the elegant Bixby Creek bridge.

Extend the journey

After a few days in San Francisco, head across the Golden Gate bridge and on through rugged northern California and its redwood forests to Oregon along Highway 101, perhaps ending in arty Portland or Seattle.

California desert

You can easily fly from Los Angeles to Las Vegas but if the weather is on your side — that is, it’s not too hot — a road trip means you can add some classic southern California destinations and take in the desert scenery. 

Where to go

Drive a couple of hours east from Los Angeles to Palm Springs, which is a good stop for a night or more. Historically a holiday spot for Hollywood’s Rat Pack, these days it’s known for its renowned mid-century modernist architecture and designer hotels. 

From here, head to Las Vegas. And once you’ve sufficiently over-indulged in Sin City, loop back to LA via a restorative night or two amid nature in Yosemite National Park, where you’ll find a range of accommodation options.

What to see

While you’re in the Palm Springs area, make a trip to see the striking landscapes of Joshua Tree National Park — not to mention nearby Pioneertown, which began life as a 1940s Old West movie set. 

Aside from the requisite gambling and partying, in Vegas you’ll find top-notch restaurants from high-profile chefs plus a sprinkling of quirky attractions such as the Neon Museum. Take advantage of having a car to make a day trip or two: the Grand Canyon’s South Rim and Hoover Dam are popular options. 

En route to Yosemite, you might stop off in Death Valley, famed as the lowest, driest and hottest region in North America — for obvious reasons, it’s best to avoid visiting during the summer. 

Extend the journey

From either Palm Springs or Las Vegas, you could head east into Arizona, perhaps visiting the spectacular landscapes around Sedona and/or Monument Valley, or crossing into Utah to visit Zion National Park, which is regarded as one of the most scenic in the US. 

If you still have a hankering to drive at least part of Route 66, head south-east from Vegas to drive Arizona State Route 66, a stretch of the old Route 66 between Kingman and Seligman.

Lone Star State

Texas may not seem like the most obvious destination but it offers an impressive diversity of experiences — not to mention some classic American hospitality. Qantas flies direct to Dallas-Fort Worth from Sydney. 

Where to go

Begin with a couple of days exploring Dallas and neighbouring Fort Worth before heading south to the State capital, Austin. 

This gem of a city is known for its music scene, festivals and sense of eccentricity — “Keep Austin Weird” has been a local slogan for years. Check out the South Congress area for live music, bars and restaurants — and if the weather’s warm, take a dip at Barton Springs, the biggest natural swimming pool in an urban area in the US.

From Austin, you have a couple of options. You can drive west through the desert to Marfa, an isolated community which has recently become a centre of contemporary arts (don’t miss the much photographed Prada Marfa installation).

In the opposite direction is Houston, home to the NASA Space Centre and a museum district with more than 20 museums and galleries. Either way, it’s easy to loop back to Dallas to complete the circle.

What to see

The life and death of JFK is commemorated at Dallas’ Sixth Floor Museum, located in the infamous Texas School Book Depository, plus there’s a significant downtown arts district with museums and galleries.

Neighbouring Fort Worth was historically an important trading post for cowboys — check out the Fort Worth Stockyards — and has one of the top zoos in the US, plus museums and galleries.

No matter which direction you’re headed, from Austin you can detour south to New Braunfels, where floating along the river in a tube is a popular and relaxing way to pass a balmy afternoon. Neighbouring Gruene is home to the charming Gruene Hall, billed as the oldest continually run dance hall in Texas. From here it’s less than an hour to historic San Antonio, home of the Alamo.

Extend the journey

Continuing east from Houston, it’s a day’s drive to New Orleans. Keeping on westwards from Marfa will bring you to New Mexico. 

New Orleans to Chicago

Referenced in song by everyone from Bob Dylan to blues pianist Sunnyland Slim, Route 61 — or the Blues Highway — is a journey through musical heritage. Largely following the Mississippi River, it was a major route north for many impoverished African-Americans in the early 20th century. 

Where to go

Begin in New Orleans, long renowned for its lively music scene. From here, Route 61 follows the Mississippi via historic Natchez and Vicksburg, from where you might detour to Jackson — the namesake of Johnny Cash and June Carter’s famous duet, and home to the Mississippi Musicians Hall of Fame.

Continue north through the Mississippi Delta — home of the Delta blues — to Clarksdale and Memphis, perhaps stopping off at sites along the Mississippi Blues Trail. 

Route 61 continues north to Minnesota but Memphis is often regarded as the end of the Blues Highway. From here, detour to Nashville before rejoining the highway near St Louis (site of the new National Blues Museum).

Stick with the musical theme by finishing in Chicago, historically a centre for genres from blues, gospel and jazz to soul, alternative rock and house music. 

What to see

Bourbon Street in the French Quarter is New Orleans’ party street but head to the legendary Preservation Hall on St Peter Street or one of the venues along Frenchman Street in the hip Marigny neighbourhood for live music. 

Clarksdale has a significance in the history of the blues that belies its relatively small size. Catch a show (try the Ground Zero Blues Club, co-owned by actor Morgan Freeman) and visit the Delta Blues Museum, as well as the crossroads where Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his musical ability. 

In Memphis, you’ll find the blues clubs along Beale Street, the self-proclaimed “home of rock‘n’roll” Sun Studios, the Memphis Rock‘n’Soul Museum and the Stax Museum of American Soul Music — plus, of course, Elvis Presley’s Graceland.

Nashville, aka Music City, is mostly strongly associated with country music and attractions include the Country Music Hall of Fame, the historic Ryman Auditorium and the famous Bluebird Cafe, where artists including Garth Brooks and Taylor Swift kickstarted their careers. 

Extend the journey

Route 66 once stretched from Chicago to LA, and, though it has been largely replaced by modern highways, if you’d like to follow some or all of its length, you’ll find sections marked on maps as Historic Route 66.

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