By David and Kay Scott
The Valdosta Daily Times
A road trip is the ultimate getaway. Head for parts unknown with a friend, maps, and a cooler, but without much of a plan, and see what develops. It’s about the journey, not the destination, so don’t hurry in order to have adequate time to absorb the scenery, visit unusual attractions, eat in roadside diners, knock back a few cold ones in local taverns, and strike up conversations with strangers. Paper maps are preferable because it is easier to stumble upon unexplored roads and unusual sites that might otherwise be missed. The unexpected is part of any memorable road trip.
For many travelers, especially our European friends, the ultimate U.S.A. road trip is Route 66 that “winds from Chicago to L.A.” Referred to as the “Mother Road,” Route 66 achieved iconic road-trip status through books, movies, song, and TV. Who can forget Tod and Buz (yes, one “d” and one “z”) enjoying the freedom of traveling U.S. highways and byways in a series of new Corvettes, although we were unsure how these were paid for.
In truth, much of Route 66 is history, having been ripped up or paved over with boring interstates. Some excellent stretches survive — for example, the drive from Kingman, Ariz., to near Needles, Calif. However, intermittent sections of a once-famous highway don’t necessarily make for a great road trip.
During four-and-a-half decades the two of us have driven several hundred thousand miles throughout the U.S. in a variety of vehicles including four VW campers. We have motored up and down both coasts, back and forth between coasts, and diagonally from the Southeast to the Northwest as we traveled through all 50 states (we flew to Hawaii).
All the trips were enjoyable and educational, but five stand out. The first would be on anyone’s list of great road trips, while the second two are likely on most lists. The last two may be surprising, but only for folks who haven’t driven them.
The Pacific Coast Highway: Considered by many the USA’s premiere road trip, the coastal highway winds 1,700 miles along the Pacific Coast from southern California to Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. The scenery is simply breathtaking with stops that include Hearst Castle, Big Sur, San Francisco, Point Reyes National Seashore, Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, and Olympic National Park. Open the windows and enjoy the fresh air as you drive across the Golden Gate Bridge and watch giant container ships glide underneath. Stare in wonder at the towering redwoods of northern California. Stop in Tillamook, Ore., and enjoy a tour of the Cheese Factory. Walk the beach in the Kalaloch area of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula and renew your spirit with the ocean breeze and pounding surf. It would be easy to spend most of a summer on this spectacular road trip. We know, because we did.
Kid stops: San Diego Zoo in Balboa Park; Sea Center at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History; Skunk Train through the Redwoods in Mendocino, Calif.; Lewis & Clark National Historical Park in Astoria, Ore.; Hoh Rain Forest in Olympic National Park, Wash. State parks and beaches are accessible along much of the route. San Francisco offers so many sites and activities for children the city is worthy of a separate trip.
Florida State Highway A1A and the Overseas Highway: This 600-mile trip traces Florida’s Atlantic coastline from northeast of Jacksonville to Key West. Interesting stops along the way include St. Augustine, the oldest town in the U.S. (sort of); Daytona Beach, where you can drive on the beach; Canaveral National Seashore; and the John F. Kennedy Space Center. Highway A1A meets U.S. Highway 1 in Miami. Thus, begins the scenic 127-mile drive on the Overseas Highway that boasts 42 bridges, including famed Seven Mile Bridge. This stretch has numerous outdoor attractions where you can swim with a dolphin, stroll through a rescued bird sanctuary, and tour a turtle hospital. Much of the road parallels Henry Flagler’s Florida Keys Over-Sea Railroad that commenced operation in 1912 and was destroyed by a 1935 hurricane. The rail line was later converted to an auto route that today remains visible for long stretches. We consider Key West to be Florida’s premiere destination.
Kid stops: St. Augustine’s Marineland; John F. Kennedy Space Center; Palm Beach Zoo and South Florida Science Museum; Everglades National Park; Florida Keys Eco-Discover Center; Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory. Public beaches line the Florida coast and a variety of interesting stops for kids are scattered along the Overseas Highway.
Newfound Gap Road/Blue Ridge Parkway/Skyline Drive: This seamless and leisurely drive through three contiguous national parks offers some of the East Coast’s most scenic landscapes. Thirty-two-mile-long Newfound Gap Road cuts across Great Smoky Mountain National Park and connects with the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway, which, in turn, connects with Shenandoah National Park’s 105-mile-long Skyline Drive that follows the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains. This wonderful drive is void of billboards, traffic lights,
roadside trash, and speeding 18-wheelers.
We have taken this trip numerous times and look forward to doing it again. The ideal seasons are spring when blooming plants are plentiful and fall when foliage is near its colorful peak. Six national park lodges offer fun places to overnight along the way.
Kid stops: Ripley’s Aquarium in Gatlinburg, Tenn.; Whitewater rafting near Asheville; Roanoke’s Virginia Museum of Transportation. National Park Service visitor centers along the route offer videos, exhibits, and Junior Ranger programs that provide entertainment and excellent learning opportunities for children.
U.S. Highway 2: The northernmost U.S. highway zigzags through mountain ranges, traverses the northern Great Plains, and swings around lakes as it connects Everett, Wash., with Houlton, Maine. The entire route, including a 700-mile stretch in Canada, covers approximately 3,300 miles. In the West, it crosses the North Cascades and the Rocky Mountains; while in the east, it meets the Green and White Mountain ranges. In between, it passes through small towns with local museums and inviting coffee shops. In western Montana, the highway curves around the southern border of magnificent Glacier National Park. Here you should choose a short detour on Going-to-the-Sun Road that bisects the park. Driving through Minnesota (including Duluth, the birthplace of Bob Dylan) will make clear why the state bills itself “the land of 10,000 lakes.” The trip offers a peek at three Great Lakes: Superior, Michigan, and Huron. In the Canadian section spend time in Ottawa, the country’s beautiful capital city. Following a visit to Montreal, the road turns south and reenters the U.S. Arriving in Bangor, Maine, consider Alternate 1 and visit Acadia National Park.
Kid stops: Coulee Dam tour and light show; Spokane’s Riverfront Park; Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site near Williston, N.D.; Bemidji’s Headwaters Science Center; Soo Locks at Sault Ste. Marie; Ottawa’s Parliament Building and changing of the guard; Montreal Biodome; Vermont Capitol tour in Montpelier.
U.S. Highway 395: Connecting southern California with the Canadian border, this 1,300-mile scenic drive traverses the high deserts and mountain valleys through a large portion of the picturesque West. The highway runs in a north-south direction through some of the most beautiful, but uncrowded sections of California, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington. The best portion is arguably California’s Owens Valley that bisects two major mountain ranges. Stop in the small town of Lone Pine, Calif., where numerous Western movies were filmed nearby. Side trips include Death Valley National Park and Lake Tahoe before stopping in Reno for inexpensive lodging and entertainment. The drive through northern California, Oregon, and Washington passes through small towns and offers great vistas on an uncrowded highway that on three occasions crosses the mighty Columbia River.
Kid stops: Bodie State Historic Park, a ghost town near Bridgeport, Calif.; Virginia & Truckee Railroad train ride from Carson City to Virginia City, Nev.; Reno’s Discovery Museum; Pendleton (Ore.) Family Aquatic Center; Sacajawea Interpretive Center in Pasco, Wash.; Spokane’s Mobius Kids Children’s Museum & Science Center.
Other Road Trips to Consider
U.S. Route 50: Spanning nearly 3,000 miles from coast to coast, the quality of this road trip is neck and neck with U.S. Highway 2. Start in Ocean City, Md., and head west through Cincinnati, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Sacramento. Stop in Mesa Verde National Park along the way. Included is a stretch following the old Pony Express trail across central Nevada that Life magazine called “The Loneliest Road in America.” We have driven it several times and Life magazine had it exactly right.
Natchez Trace Parkway: The parkway is administered by the National Park Service and stretches 444 miles from Natchez, Miss., to just south of Nashville, Tenn. Stop in Tupelo, Miss., and visit the King of Rock and Roll’s birthplace home. Not as scenic a drive as the Blue Ridge Parkway, but still a pleasant two- or three-day road trip through some beautiful country.
Trans-Canada Highway: Lots of time is required to complete this 5,000-mile trip across our northern neighbor. Stretching from St. John’s, Newfoundland, to Victoria, British Columbia, the highway crosses all 10 of Canada’s provinces, but none of its three territories. As with U.S. Route 2, it is the western portion, the part through Alberta and British Columbia, that is the most scenic stretch. We spent two summers in Newfoundland and found it to be like no other place we have visited and truly a world of its own. We highly recommend it as a vacation destination.
U.S. Route 1 (Connecticut to Maine): This 800-mile stretch of Route 1 follows the Atlantic Coast of Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine, ending at Fort Kent on the Canadian border. It is the rugged Maine coast that makes this such a great road trip. Acadia National Park and Roosevelt Campabello International Park are each a short distance off Route 1. Take time to stroll through Camden, Maine, a picture-perfect New England village.
U.S. Route 66: OK, “America’s Main Street” is on nearly every traveler’s bucket list so we include it, but keep in mind that much of the original “Mother Road” is long gone. A considerable portion of the highway that stretched nearly 2,500 miles from Chicago to Santa Monica has been covered by a series of interstates. Still, buildings and sites remain to be savored and there is the feeling of following in the footsteps of Tod and Buz. Stay overnight in Holbrook’s (Ariz.) Wigwam Motel. Route 66 Museum in Kingman’s (Ariz.) old powerhouse building is a fun stop. Don’t miss the beautifully restored Harvey House in Barstow, Calif. Acquire a good guidebook because much of the original road can be difficult to locate.
This article by David and Kay Scott was published in USA Today and USA Weekend and is reprinted with permission of Gannett Company, Inc. that holds the copyright. The Scotts live in Valdosta and are the authors of “Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges” (Globe Pequot).