Revolutionary American Road Trips

The snowy Rockies have given way to barren desert and the red stone columns that rise up from the earth around Moab, a small town that's now a hive of thrill-seekers.

Jack Kerouac did it. Hunter S Thompson went on a wild version. Stephen Fry took one. Even The Griswolds embarked on a mishap-riddled drive of their own. Yes, we’re talking about the great North American road trip — that classic adventure that has been documented, fictionalised and fantasised about by generation after generation.

And it’s not surprising to see why. It’s freedom on four wheels. It’s the thrill of the open road — a tour through spectacular country, rich in scenic wonder and cultural quirks. It’s inspiring and life-affirming.

There’s no continent on Earth better suited to a road trip than North America, a wide land filled with soaring mountains, endless plains, lush valleys, harsh deserts, huge cities, tiny villages and almost everything you could imagine in between. Its roads can be twisting, looping wonders of engineering or endless stretches of arrow-straight tarmac.

Great road journeys in North America can be meticulously planned and run to perfection or they can be spur-of-the-moment things, which can be prone to disaster and wrong turns. They can be undertaken in classic cars or they can be done in whatever the hire company provides — anything that gets you out of the city and onto the freeway will do.

A car trip through North America is memorable, but there are some classic journeys in the United States and Canada that stand out. These are five of the best.

Highway 1 | California, USA

There are parts of this route which will make you think, “No way, there shouldn’t be a road here.” Whoever decided to cut a path along this rugged coastline must have had masochistic tendencies. The mountains meet the sea here, with little room between the road and the sheer cliffs that drop into the cold Pacific Ocean below. It’s a feat of engineering, and a real thrill to roar along in an American muscle car.

Your journey begins around San Luis Obispo, a small town filled with laid-back Californians, a few hours north of Los Angeles. Here, Highway 1 splits from the main freeway and meanders along a gentle coastline, passing Hearst Castle, a monument itself to tenacity. It was media mogul William Randolph Hearst’s dream home, a mansion built around the various pieces of European history that the avid collector managed to get hold of.

Back on the bitumen, the road starts to get truly spectacular around the town of San Simeon, when the hills get steeper and the passes get narrower. In just over an hour, you enter Big Sur, the famed national park of beautiful wooded mountains and steep, rugged cliffs. Highway 1 winds through forests and little villages (and past numerous hiking trails) before popping out near Santa Cruz, a well-known surf town with a relaxed vibe. Board shorts are the official uniform around here, so you might as well join in.

When to go: The weather in California is hot in summer and mild in winter, although the further north you go, the colder it becomes. If you’re planning to do this with the top down, steer clear of the cooler months between December and February.

How long will it take? Could be done in a day, but take your time over two, staying overnight in a cabin in Big Sur.

What to drive: Mustang convertible. The classic American muscle car was built for roads like these, as you’ll note from the sheer number of them doing the drive.

Where to eat: The best place to enjoy fish and chips in this part of the world is at Skippers Restaurant, a down-home diner in Cayucos, at the beginning of the drive.

Must-see:Hearst Castle is a fantastic place to stop and explore for a few hours.

Denver to Moab on the I-70 | USA

As classic road trips go, the I-70 doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue like Highway 1 or Route 66, but the journey from Colorado to Utah is deserving of the same attention. It’s a drive that takes in the spectacular Rocky Mountains, a stretch of highway seemingly suspended within a gorge and the lunar landscapes of eastern Utah. Not bad for six hours behind the wheel.

You’ll be setting off from Denver, also known as Mile High City, and heading straight into the Rockies, past ski resorts of Copper Mountain, Breckenridge and Vail. This is the heart of the range, where the road snakes through valleys closed in by soaring peaks. Just past Vail the highway begins following the Colorado River and here’s where things get really interesting.

At Glenwood Canyon the road has nowhere to go. It’s too steep to go up and too wet to go down. So it twists and turns, one lane on top of the other, right through the middle of the gorge. Attached to the cliffs, it hangs above the rocky floor deep below. It’s a staggering feat of engineering. In winter, snow clings to the cliff walls and clumps in the trees above; huge icicles hang from high ledges; cold winds whistle through the canyon.

About three hours later, the landscape changes. The snowy Rockies have given way to barren desert and the red stone columns that rise up from the earth around Moab, a small town that’s now a hive of thrill-seekers. The area is famous for mountain-biking as well as rock climbing, and Arches National Park is worthy of a short detour.

When to go: Choose your season. In summer, it will be at its warmest and safest. In winter, there will be heavy snow on the mountains and the possibility of ice on the roads. In spring and autumn, you’ll get a happy medium.

How long will it take? The entire trip can be done in a day.

What to drive: A big, tough road deserves a big, tough car — opt for one of those huge, gas-guzzling trucks so many people in America love to drive.

Where to eat: Take a picnic rug and stop at No Name rest stop, a small service station with spectacular views of Glenwood Canyon.

Must-see: You know that famous rock-climbing scene at the beginning of Mission: Impossible II? It was shot at Dead Horse Point, just past Moab. 

Route 66 | USA

This is the all-time American classic, a journey enshrined in fiction and song — John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Nat King Cole’s “Get Your Kicks on Route 66”, to name a few. Route 66 will take you on a tour through many of the places that make the US great — and a few that don’t, but it’s all part of the fun.

This one’s going to take some planning, because the road is long, and it doesn’t really exist anymore — Route 66 was officially replaced by various interstate highways back in 1985, but it lives on for the people trying to preserve the route and its history. Despite those efforts, many of the highway’s modern-day travellers take what are now merely rough alignments of the original route.

Your epic near-4000-kilometre journey begins in bustling Chicago, city of blues music and the Cubs baseball team, and a great place to hang out for a couple of days to prepare. From there, the road winds south-west out of Illinois and into Missouri. This is the American heartland, country filled with ‘mom-and-pop’ stores, huge truck stops and open plains. You’ll meet all the characters the US has to offer around here, from waitstaff who call you “hon” to proper straw-chewing country folk.

After Missouri the route takes drivers through Kansas and Oklahoma, then eventually into Texas — proper cowboy country, where the hats are big and the steaks are even bigger. Next, there are the Indian reservations of New Mexico, before a brush with the Grand Canyon as you make your way through Arizona towards California. The end of the line is the ocean as the road reaches the beach town of Santa Monica.

When to go: The route is fine to do year-round but is far more enjoyable in the warmer months between April and October.

How long will it take? A minimum of two weeks — and double that if you plan to do a little exploring along the way.

What to driveAn old Chevrolet. We’re talking bench seats, white-walled tyres and gull wings. A classic drive needs a classic car.

Where to eat: In Bristow, Oklahoma, call in to Russ Ribs for a barbecue sandwich. You won’t regret it.

Must-see: There’s a fairly big canyon in Arizona. A grand one, if you will. But don’t miss the huge neon signs and hokey motels that dot the entire route. 

The Icefields Parkway | Alberta, Canada

It’s not just a name — there really are icefields, huge sheets of the stuff in constant states of transformation, all along this spectacular 289-kilometre drive in western Canada from Jasper to Banff. This area is about as rocky as the Rocky Mountains get, with huge cliffs towering over the roadway, chiselled with glaciers or streaked by waterfalls.

Begin your day early enough in Jasper and you’ll see the most bizarre sight: Canadian national parks staff, armed with hockey sticks festooned with bright streamers, chasing herds of elk out of the town’s main street. And there are more cautious forms of wildlife around here as well that can still be easily spotted from the comfort of your car — grizzly bears, cougars and bighorn sheep among them.

At every corner of the parkway you’ll want to stop and take a photo. It’s ridiculously beautiful. Lakes sparkle in the summer sunshine, but are covered in equally spectacular blankets of snow during winter. It’s a hiker’s paradise in the warmer months and perfect for Nordic skiers the rest of the year.

As the cliffs get higher the sportspeople using them become more extreme, particularly in the winter months when waterfalls freeze into huge rivers of ice and the truly brave come armed with axes, crampons and ropes to scale them. Once again, time to stop the car for a few photos. You can spot the climbers, little more than brightly coloured dots high up the cliff face, from the roadside.

The parkway then twists and curls through valleys and past mountain glaciers, finishing up in Banff National Park. Be sure to pack good hiking boots for this one — and a spare memory card.

When to go: Year-round this is a spectacular drive, although be aware that in winter the road can occasionally be closed due to dangerous, icy conditions.

How long will it take? One day, although camp sites open in the warmer months to provide overnight stays along the parkway if you want to extend your time there.

What to drive: For safety and comfort, a 4WD is the way to go. Opt for something with a sunroof; the more views you have, the better.

Where to eat: No road trip in Canada would be complete without a ‘double-double’ from the Tim Hortons coffee shop resting in the cup holder. (Trust us, that order will make sense when you get there.)

Must-see: Even in a place as spectacular as this, the Columbia Icefield stands out as a trip highlight. You’ll reach it about a third of the way into the journey. 

The Lighthouse Route | Nova Scotia, Canada

Most people know about the Cabot Trail, the winding road that hugs the coastline of Cape Breton in the north of Nova Scotia, one of Canada’s maritime provinces. And it really is beautiful. But to avoid the tourist hordes in equally spectacular territory, head to the south of the peninsula, where the Lighthouse Route rewards those prepared to take a chance.

As the name suggests, this is lighthouse country, reflecting the rich maritime history of Nova Scotia. There are more than 30 towers dotted along the 306-kilometre route from Halifax to Yarmouth, ranging from the world famous at Peggy’s Cove (surely one of Canada’s most photographed vistas) to the huge Cape Forchu lighthouse. Then, there are also the tiny structures that rarely see tourists at their doors. Most are out of commission these days, but still stand resolute against the harsh elements.

There’s more to see on this trip, however, than lighthouses. Try Lunenburg, the fishing village and its famous King Street, nicknamed “UNESCO Fresco Street” thanks to its huge heritage-listed houses painted in the brightest colours you can imagine. And, with an eatery named Fleur de Sel Restaurant, Lunenburg also boasts some of the best food around. Everyone in Nova Scotia serves lobster, from the McDonald’s outlets to the fanciest dining rooms, but Fleur de Sel’s butter-poached version is culinary heaven.

Right outside the towns, the Lighthouse Route meanders gracefully along the Atlantic coast, hugging the ragged, rocky shores, passing dream home after dream home — stately old mansions that gaze out over the sea. There are maple-tree-lined lakes and inlets to your right, and that open lobster-filled ocean to your left. And all along the way, super-friendly Nova Scotians — the kind of salt-of-the-earth types this far-flung province is famous for — will be more than happy to help you out.

When to go: While Nova Scotia is beautiful year round, it’s breathtaking in autumn when the maple leaves turn and the landscape becomes awash with all the yellows, reds and golds.

How Long will it take? Three days.

What to drive: Forget four wheels — Nova Scotia’s quiet, winding roads are custom-made for a motorbike. Go the whole hog, so to speak, with a Harley-Davidson.

Where to eat: Fleur de Sel Restaurant is a must for Nova Scotia’s finest crustaceans. In Halifax, try the shellfish linguini at The Five Fisherman Restaurant & Grill.

Must-see: Peggy’s Cove will be packed with tour buses, but they’re all there for a reason: the area is beautiful.

Words by Ben Groundwater - Published in Voyeur January 2013
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