Great American road trips

By Chris Moss

Want to get your kicks behind the wheel of a classic Chevy and enjoy the freedom of the open road? As America's oldest highway marks its centenary, Chris Moss rounds up the options for a US fly-drive.

The vast, varied landscapes, small towns and big cities that fly-drivers pass through make the practical matters of driving on the right and learning a few new laws well worth it. Photo / Getty Images
The vast, varied landscapes, small towns and big cities that fly-drivers pass through make the practical matters of driving on the right and learning a few new laws well worth it. Photo / Getty Images

The mythology of the American highway is as deep and long as the Grand Canyon - which you can, incidentally, drive along.

Books, music and films have added glamour, ghosts and grit to what in other countries would be merely a long, even boring, drive. Jack Kerouac's On the Road, Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited and Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider are perhaps the best-known celebrations of the American ideal of freedom as an open road.

But there are enough pop songs to soundtrack a lifetime of coast-to-coast drives and the challenge may well be to turn off the myths - turn down the music - and make your own experience out of the journey.

The vast, varied landscapes, small towns and big cities that fly-drivers pass through make the practical matters of hiring and insuring a car, driving on the right and learning a few new laws well worth it.

In Arizona, you can park in the quaint desert town of Winslow, still "a fine sight to see", on Route 66. In San Francisco, cruise up and down the seven hills before taking the Golden Gate Bridge into wine country. In the Florida Keys you'll want the soft top down; in Vermont, in autumn, you'll open the windows to marvel at the crimsons, ochres and pinks.

The American highway celebrated its centenary late last year. On October 31, 1913, the Lincoln Highway was established. This was the first "improved" - hard-topped, occasionally graded - road to cross the continent, running for 5454km from New York to San Francisco.

In the 1950s, President Eisenhower championed the formation of the comprehensive Interstate highway network. Celebrated American journalist Charles Kuralt noted in his 1990 book A Life on the Road that the Interstate "makes it possible to go from coast to coast without seeing anything or meeting anybody. If the United States interests you, stay off the Interstates".

This advice still holds good. The ideal American driving holiday will involve at least some quieter state routes and back roads. Those with time can try one of the long distance epics, but if you have only a week or less you can still do some very photogenic shorter routes. Here are our favourites.

EPIC DRIVES

California State Route 1

The route along the Pacific coast between Dana Point, north of San Diego, and Leggett, in the heart of northern California's redwood country, is an easy but exciting introduction to American road culture. Do the drive in summer and you'll be sun-blessed all the way; in winter, do it north to south and chase the light and heat.

Though the road skirts Greater Los Angeles and its legendary gridlocks, it does pass through Long Beach, Santa Monica, Malibu, Santa Barbara's wine country, Santa Cruz, Big Sur, San Francisco and the Point Reyes National Seashore.

Route 101, with which Route 1 occasionally merges on its 1198km coast-hugging journey, finally takes over completely near Leggett. If you enjoyed Sideways and like to be beside the seaside, this is the one to do.

Route 66

One highway that ends in California is the most famous of all - Route 66 - laid in 1926 as one of the first numbered highways. Before then, American roads were recognised by coloured bands on telegraph poles and were often maintained by private individuals.

Originally stretching 3944km from Chicago to Santa Monica, Route 66 has lost sections to state roads, local roads, private drives and grass, and dwindled to discontinuous "historic" byways. Some stretches remain open, most notably the 514km southwestern Arizona section from the Petrified Forest to Kingman, via Winslow and Flagstaff - stay en route at the atmospheric La Posada hotel, where the 66 meets the equally celebrated Santa Fe railroad.

To see what's open and viable, see historic66.com and check 66in2weeks.com to work out distances.

Highway 61

Highway 61, officially US Route 61, connects New Orleans and the city of Wyoming in Minnesota, and runs clean south-north for 2253km.

It's often nicknamed the Blues Highway in recognition of the region's musical culture and the so-called Great Migration of African-Americans from the Mississippi Delta to St Louis and Chicago between 1910 and 1970. According to legend, the great blues guitarist Robert Johnson met the devil at the crossroads of Highways 61 and 49.

Coast to coast

For people who want an On the Road fantasy and to travel coast to coast, there are several options. US Route 20, the longest road in the country, runs for 5415km between Newport in Oregon and Boston, but is broken at Yellowstone National Park. Running parallel to the north is the 4990km Interstate 90. To the south is Route 6, at 5157km it's the longest continuous route.

All these are fast, easy to drive and useful to cross the US in two or three weeks without overdoing the driving.

US Route 30, which crosses Route 20, runs from Oregon to Atlantic City, New Jersey, and incorporates large sections of the Lincoln Highway - a sort of national Main Street that passes (or runs close to) the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nevada, Lincoln's cabin in Illinois, and the Big Mac Museum and giant Coffee Pot in Pennsylvania.

The southernmost route - a good winter option - is Interstate 10, from Santa Monica to Jacksonville, Florida.

SMALL DRIVES, BIG VIEWS

Monument Valley

Use Route 17 out of Phoenix, visit Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon then head up the 160 to the cowboy filmscape of buttes and tabletops on the Arizona/Utah border. Then come down the 191 and across Interstate 40 to enter Winslow on Route 66. Combine with a Jeep drive along Diamond Creek Road, which runs along the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

Florida Keys

The 241km US 1 from Miami to Key West skirts the Everglades and takes the "Ocean Highway" linking keys (from Spanish cayo for "islet"), with the Gulf of Mexico on the right and the Atlantic on the left; the most spectacular section is the Seven Mile Bridge.

Fall drives

For a leafy drive, choose between the 754km Blue Ridge Parkway in southern Appalachia and the 222km Scenic Route 100 Byway along the edge of Vermont's Green Mountains.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies daily to San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Driving there: All the usual suspects rent cars in the US, and websites such as kayak.co.uk, 66rentacar.com and vroomvroomvroom.com are handy for comparing deals. Rates vary greatly depending on the season, model and pick-up point; circular drives are always cheaper than "one-way" routes involving a drop-off fee.

Further information: See DiscoverAmerica.com and try the 'Trip Tuner' for some holiday inspiration.

- Daily Telegraph UK

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