Written by Justin Mewse
Self-Drive Adventures in the USA’s North, South, East and West
There’s good reason America is world famous for its epic road trips – combining views for days, top-tier gas-station snacks and that famous US hospitality. The sheer variety of culture, sights, and experiences on offer makes it destination number one for a self-drive adventure. Travelling this way is particularly flexible and allows you to design a holiday that’s absolutely perfect for you – lingering in the spots you love best and skipping anything that doesn’t float your boat. Route 66, the California coast and the National Parks are some of the most popular routes, and for good reason. But there is even more to self-drive trips in the USA. The vast nature of the country, and the diversity of both landscapes and activities means the choice can be somewhat overwhelming – and that’s where we come in. Read on to find out where and what we recommend for an unforgettable US road trip – whether north, south, east or west.
Learn more: Road Tripping in the USA
The north really does have a dazzling array of landscapes to choose from. From the towering majesty of the Rockies, the stunning views on the prairies, and the largest group of freshwater lakes on Earth by total – it’s a tough call!
For a trip that blends city sights with the natural splendour of the Great Lakes, we recommend starting in Chicago. Chicago is a vibrant city with a rich and chequered history. Sitting alongside Lake Michigan, it’s famous for bold architecture, fiercely passionate sports fans, a swinging jazz scene and of course – deep-dish pizza. But scratch the surface and discover more: dive into what was previously the dark underbelly of the city and learn about one of its most famous residents, Al Capone, at the museum or on a walking tour. Then, get inspired at one of the many renowned art galleries. Don’t leave without seeing some live music – jazz is a real speciality here. From Chicago, head north to Milwaukee, famed for its breweries and baseball team.
Our next recommend is Door County – or the “Cape Cod of the Midwest”. This 75 mile long peninsula enjoys 300 miles of shoreline and is often listed in top vacation destinations in the USA. You’ll have five state parks to explore, and a plethora of quaint villages full of galleries and rustic log cabins to choose from for your overnight stay.
The Apostle Islands National Lakeshore is a national park with 21 wilderness islands and 12 miles of spectacular shoreline. Bayfield is a small but well appointed town and is an ideal gateway to the islands. Use the Upper Peninsula to Marquette for a scenic route, taking in Lake Michigan and Lake Huron on the way. Marquette offers beautiful coastline views, large swathes of state and national forests, enchanting cedar swamps and over 150 waterfalls. Sailing, fishing and hiking opportunities abound, and you can even try out snowmobiles in winter.
Some argue that the south gives the most concentrated American flavour, and they might just be right. The irresistible blend of beautiful architecture, distinctive landscapes and delicious and diverse food is hard to resist. Add to this the treasured music tradition down south – from blues, jazz, country and zydeco, and the ultimate in hospitality – you’ll be well looked after on a trip in the South.
It’s hard to pick between the southern states, and Florida definitely deserves a visit for the beautiful everglades, unique and varied wildlife (manatee watching should definitely make its way on to your list) and of course – the legendary theme parks.
We recommend a relaxed start in Atlanta – a hub of the southern states. The city’s rich history is well documented at the History Centre and Martin Luther King Junior National Historic Site. The next stop is country music capital of the world – Nashville, ideally via a stop in the scenic Appalachian Mountains. Once there, find your way to Broadway to soak up that famous atmosphere. You can’t leave without visiting Grand Ole Opry House, home of the famous stage and radio show. Next on your music history odyssey is the legendary Memphis. Made famous by the city’s favourite son, Elvis Presley, you can visit Graceland for a look at the life and times of the great man. Other attractions include the Rock & Soul Museum, Blues Hall of Fame and Stax Museum of American Soul Music.
From Memphis, stop in on Baton Rouge, via Natchez. Baton Rouge is home to the Old Louisiana State Capitol and former WWII Destroyer USS Kidd – now a fascinating museum. Another day, another stop – this time to world-famous New Orleans. Grab a streetside table and soak up the sights, sounds and smells of Jackson square, and of course – get to eating! The New Orleans cuisine has a strong Creole, Cajun and soul-food influence, meaning this is a really unique place to eat. It’s time to head out of the city and enjoy the beautiful Gulf of Mexico beaches. Seaside resort Pensacola is an excellent stopping place before you head along the Gulf Coast, where you can explore nature reserves and the visiting wildlife. Drive northeast to the charming Savannah. Here you’ll find stunning Civil War era houses, and perfectly manicured public parks. Just two hours up the coast is Charleston, where you can take a river cruise to enjoy this elegant, tree-lined town.
En route back to Atlanta, stop in on Augusta. A walk alongside the River Savannah is just the place to stretch your legs, and you can complete the musical history tour with a visit to Augusta Museum of history, which holds an exhibition on soul legend James Brown.
The east coast, home to New York, Philadelphia and the Carolinas – all worth a visit in their own right of course, but our recommendation for this part of the USA is to explore New England. One of the must culturally and historically rich regions of America, which you can explore at length in quaint towns set against staggering landscapes – from coastal to rolling mountains.
Our journey starts in Boston, cultural and financial centre of New England. Home to the Boston Marathon, the bar from Cheers, Fenway park and what Americans mistakenly call baked beans. The city’s history of innovation sits alongside a colonial past, a blend which makes it a fascinating visit, told in its many museums and exhibitions. The 16-stop Freedom trail is a great way to explore it, followed by a visit to the hallowed avenues of Harvard, and watching a Red Sox game is not to be missed. Leaving Boston, you’ll head along the spectacular New England coast, through Massachusetts to Salem. Best known for Witch Trials of 1692, this vibrant city has a rich seafaring tradition vividly retold in the museums of the town. On your way out of town, swing by Rockport, inhabited by painters such as Winslow Homer, who was inspired by the landscape. Travel on Portsmouth, a port city on the Piscataqua River. An historic seaport, and popular as a summer destination, Portsmouth is worth a visit all year round. The Portsmouth Center tells its history through exhibitions and walking tours, and the decommissioned former research submarine, USS Albacore, is open for tours.
Maine is your next destination, and where better to start than Ogunquit, named by the Abenaki tribe, which translates to ‘beautiful place by the sea’. Shake off the cobwebs with a walk along the Marginal Way ocean path. Maine is home to a dramatic rocky coastline, a diverse maritime history and the stunning Arcadia National Park islands. Kennebunkport is a great place to explore this history, an area home to major shipbuilders, who built enormous mansions as a testament to their success, some of which you can now stay in.
It’s high time you had a beach day – and where better than the seven miles of sandy bay at Old Orchard beach, with a fabulous pier over the Atlantic Ocean. Once you’ve shaken the sand off, pick up your route to Portland.
As you leave, divert via one of the six lighthouses that dot the coast here. As you enter the mid-coast region of Maine, you’ll encounter charming New England cottages, sleepy coves and more dramatic viewpoints. For lunch, we recommend Rockland, aka “Gateway to Penobscot Bay”, a still-functional harbour town with some exceptional restaurants. End the day in Camden, where the mountains meet the sea. Another foodie heaven, wander the quaint streets, take in the towering schooners and browse local art galleries before a sumptuous dinner.
There are plenty of potential stop offs on the shoreline of Penobscot Bay as you head to Blue Hill – keep your camera close by. Bluetown is a chilled retreat and a gateway to the Acadia National Park. Dramatic mountains and thriving wildlife abound to the soundtrack of the ocean. For hikers, Bethel is one of Maine’s most popular mountain villages and the ideal base for outdoor sports. If you want more, head to the White Mountains, passing Mount Washington on the way – Pinkham Notch has to be seen to be believed.
As you choose your route to Londonderry, make sure to include Albany Covered Bridge, Flume Bridge, Franconia Notch State Park, Hanover (home to Dartmouth College), and Woodstock, Vermont. Londonderry is a charming and scenic town, particularly stunning in autumn. More natural splendour is on offer year-round in Vermont, particularly noteworthy is the Green Mountains National Forest, where outdoors enthusiasts and fair-weather fans will all be well-served. Head south to the Connecticut coast and check out Westport, Old Saybrook and Mystic – all offering unique architecture and rich heritage for you to explore at leisure. A scenic drive past Rhode Island and its scenic sandy beaches gets you to Newport where the great and good of America used to flock in their droves, reflected in the grand buildings and luxurious vibe. From here you can travel to world-renowned Cape Cod, a famous summer retreat for well-heeled Americans and the gateway to celebrity favourites, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.
The West Coast of America is home to some of the nation’s most stunning national parks, and world-famous cities like LA and San Francisco. The variety of landscape on offer is staggering – you can find sandy beaches, desolate deserts, snowy mountain ranges and verdant forests here, with a vast selection of outdoorsy activities to match.
For a self-drive trip here with a difference, we recommend striking out to Oregon and Washington State. Almost anywhere you land on the Oregon coast is going to be a winner due to its rugged coastline, varied wildlife and quaint coastal towns, but for us, an absolute must-see is Portland. Art buffs are going to be in seventh heaven, and there’s something for everyone in the eclectic shops.
There’s a buzzing food scene, and to work up an appetite, we recommend the International Rose Test Garden and the Japanese Gardens – stunning at any time of year.
Coos Bay, due south from Portland is a thriving coastal destination, with easy access to stunning state parks, and the appropriately named “Adventure Coast”. Something you might not expect from Oregon is the Willamette Valley, where you can explore some of the area’s 300 wineries, set against a dramatic landscape. For hiking fans, head to Mount Rainier and Mount Hood on your way between Seattle and Portland. Mount Rainier is a national park home to an active volcano that lends the park its name, which is the highest volcanic peak in the contiguous United States. Both offer amazing hiking experiences for seasoned climbers, and more relaxed routes for day-trippers. On the subject of National Parks, Olympic National Park in Washington State offers unrivalled views of the Pacific Ocean, from deep amongst the hallowed ancient forests.
To take a totally different look at the area, head to Seattle. No visit here is complete without a trip to the eponymous Space Needle and world-famous Pike Place Market. Puget Sound ferries allow you to gain a different perspective of the city, and just wandering around the vibrant neighbourhoods and sampling the excellent cafes and restaurants could easily take up several days.
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