The vastness of the USA makes it an ideal country to see by car, with roads leading you to anywhere you could imagine. Along these roads, hidden gems and untouched beauty are waiting. From Michelin-star restaurants to cliffside luxury resorts and chic experiences, here’s your guide to the best road trips in the United States. And, no, don’t worry. You won’t have to compromise on the finer things in life.
The Cascade Loop
Length: 440 miles (710 kilometres)
Duration: four to six days
Best time: June to October
Don’t miss: Leavenworth, North Cascades National Park, Skagit Valley
Recognised as one of the best road trips in the United States’ — and one of the most scenic — The Cascade Loop showcases the finest of Washington State’s natural beauty. Composing predominantly of Stevens Pass Greenway, North Cascades Highway, and Whidbey Scenic Isle Way, The Cascade Loop takes you on a journey through nine of the state’s most picturesque regions.
Driving along The Cascade Loop, you’ll be in awe of the natural beauty surrounding you. Diablo Lake, located in Northern Cascades, is unmissable. The lake’s aquamarine water rests calmly at the feet of an abundant alpine forest, creeping up the ridges of the surrounding mountains.
Drive an hour and a half west of Diablo Lake, and you’ll find yourself in the magical Skagit Valley. This drive will take you along the North Cascades Highway, where evergreen conifers hug the road’s edge as it softly winds around the base of snow-capped mountains. Once you arrive in Skagit Valley, you’ll find yourself in the home of the United States’ largest tulip festival. The event occurs annually in April, with the sea of colour typically only blooming for two weeks.
Another must-see of The Cascade Loop is the Bavarian-style town of Leavenworth which brings Germany to the Pacific Northwest. It’s an excellent stop if you’re doing the loop in October, as you’ll be just in time for Oktoberfest. If you head to Leavenworth from Skagit Valley, look into booking a nature-immersed night at one of Skykomish’s three in-demand Tye River Cabins. The cabins sit secluded in the heart of the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, each with its own hot tub and fire pit — an ideal stop-off for those searching for a hint of romance.
From Leavenworth, head to your final stop, the historic town of Winthrop. We recommend stopping off in Lake Chelan on the way, calling into Washington’s Winery of the Year in 2020, the Italian retreat, Tsillan Cellars.
North Cascades Highway closes each year in winter, so those hoping to complete the whole loop should avoid embarking on the drive during these months.
Length: not applicable
Duration: three days
Best time: January to April or October to December
Don’t miss: Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, Workshop Bar and Kitchen, and Joshua Tree
A two-hour drive west of Los Angeles sits the vivacious, Californian desert oasis, Palm Springs. Known for its modern mid-century style and almost constant sunshine, Palm Springs is ideal for your next long-weekend road trip. The city sits snuggled amongst four mountain ranges; Bernardino Mountains, Santa Rosa Mountains, the San Jacinto Mountains, and the Little San Berardino Mountains.
An absolute must-do on your desert road trip is the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, where you’ll find the world’s largest rotating tram car. The tramway takes you on a 10-minute trip up the sandy brown cliffs of the Chino Canyon to the barley-touched wilderness of Mount San Jacinto State Park. At an elevation of 8,516 feet (2.5 kilometres), there’s no doubt the views will be anything short of spectacular. If you’re visiting between December and March, chances are you’ll be met at the top by a blanket of soft, white snow.
In terms of food, you’ll want to make sure you add the Workshop Bar and Kitchen to your itinerary. Not only has the restaurant been awarded by London-based Restaurant and Bar Design awards as the “Best Design for the Americas” two years in a row, but it’s also a Michelin Guide-recommended eatery.
While on your desert road trip, spend the night at one of California’s premier luxury hotels, Colony Palms Hotel. This iconic Palm Springs hotel was originally opened in 1936 by Al Wertheimer, an assumed Mobster and notorious gang member, and has since hosted many of Hollywood’s foremost celebrities.
Palm Springs is the road trip for any aesthete, with an abundance of art to be seen. The options are endless, from browsing the Palm Springs Art Museum to taking an architecture tour or driving 90 minutes to the Instagram-famous Salvation Mountain.
For those looking to get in touch with nature, Joshua Tree is a destination not to pass by. From a daytime walk through the Chola Cactus Garden to the silhouetted desert plants at sunset, Joshua Tree has it all when it comes to natural beauty. The park’s beauty continues to awe as the milky way comes out to say hello, a must-see for any star-gazing enthusiast.
Length: not applicable
Duration: two to four days
Best time: May to September
Don’t miss: Yosemite Falls, Yosemite Museum and Star Parties
Yosemite National Park, located in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, is one of America’s oldest national parks and best-known road trips. A four-hour drive from San Francisco, the 1,189 square miles (3,080 square kilometres) national park is a blanket of towering ancient redwoods, shadowed by the ash granite monoliths that rise from behind.
With over 800 miles (1,290 kilometres) of walking trails and 25 cascading waterfalls, there’s plenty to fill your days road-tripping through Yosemite with. Yosemite Falls, Tioga Road, Yosemite Museum — displaying the heritage of the Anwahnechee people who traditionally lived in the Yosemite Valley — and Ansel Adams Gallery are four attractions to add to the hit list.
When booking accommodation, those looking for a blend of luxury and nature should consider Autocamp Yosemite. With a range of options, including airstreams, cabins, luxury tents, basecamps and accessible suites, you’ll surely find what you’re looking for. A stay here includes complimentary mountain bikes, a freshwater pond, a pool, and a sundeck. Who knew camping could get this luxurious?
Head to the Ahwahnee Dining Room for dinner, where you’ll get a classic American dining experience. After dinner, head off to one of the park’s many ‘star parties’, an event where park visitors gather at a designated location with astronomy experts and guest speakers to observe the stars, planets, and other celestial sights.
Length: not applicable
Duration: three to four weeks
When: June to October
Don’t miss: Boston, Portland Freedom Trail, Maine, Cape Cod and Vermont
One of the most historic and culturally rich regions of the United States is New England. It comprises the states of Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island, each bursting at the seams with beautiful landscapes and thrilling activities.
New England’s biggest city, Boston, is one of the USA’s most historic cities and is the place where country and city fuse. While there, consider taking a tour of the pristine grounds of the country’s oldest and world-leading tertiary education institution, Harvard University, or visit the Museum of Contemporary Art.
New England played a significant role in the country’s abolishment of slavery, with Massachusetts being the first state to ban slavery in its constitution. You can uncover more of the story in Maine on the Portland Freedom Trail. While in the state, don’t miss Camden, a seaside town with 19th-century architecture, lighthouses, and many fresh seafood options.
The charming and quaint peninsula of Cape Cod comprises white stretches of sandy beach and glistening blue bays. A short ferry ride from there will take you to Martha’s Vineyard, an island of harbour towns, quirky cottages, and lush farmlands.
For those seeking nature on their New England road trip, consider visiting in the fall and joining in on one of the region’s many fall foliage tours. Acadia National Park is another great stop-off and the highest rocky headland point along the Atlantic coast.
Now the stops are down pat, it’s time to decide on accommodation. The good news is that there’s an ample collection of luxurious stays. A few recommendations are; White Barn Inn, Kennebunkport, Wheatleigh Hotel, The Berkshires and Twin Farms in the Vermont countryside.
Colorado Hot Spring Loop
Length: 800 miles (1287 kilometres)
Duration: one to two weeks
When: March to May or September to October
Don’t miss: Glenwood Spring, Ouray, Buena Vista, Pagosa Springs, and Dunton Hot Springs
Find yourself immersed deep within the serene Rocky Mountains on the Colorado Hot Springs Loop.
The state is home to 29 natural hot springs, with 23 along this specific loop and eight considered premier geothermal destinations. The road trip is located in the western part of the state, where Ute Indians discovered and used the hot springs for their healing powers.
Glenwood Springs sits in the heart of the Rocky Mountains and lays claim to the world’s largest mineral pool. You’ll want to stay here for a while. Make sure to allow time to pay a visit to the Yampah Vapor Caves, too, a naturally occurring, underground mineral steam bath.
Mt Princeton and Cottonwood Hot Springs are both located in Buena Vista. While visiting, consider staying at the elegant boutique river hotel, Surf Chateau. Pagosa Springs is another stop, surrounded by 3 million acres of bounteous national forests hiding the world’s deepest geothermal aquifer.
Referred to as the “Switzerland of America”, Ouray, located in the southwest, resides at the base of the skyscraping San Juan Mountains, giving any visitor an astounding view no matter where they look.
While not officially included in the Colorado Historic Hot Springs Loop, Dunton Hot Springs is an 1800s ghost town where you’ll now find an exclusive luxury resort alongside the natural calcium bicarbonate springs. The romantic resort hosts guests in whimsical, hand-built cabins in an alpine valley with a tumbling waterfall. It’s truly something out of this world and is entirely worth adding to your Hot Springs road trip.
Length: 2400 miles (3940 kilometres)
Duration: two weeks to a month
When: April to July
Don’t miss: Flagstaff, St. Louis, Oklahoma and the Grand Canyon National Park
Perhaps America’s most famous road trip, Route 66, “The Mother Road”, runs from Santa Monica, Califonia to Chicago, Illinois. It’s an exhilarating cross-country road trip, taking you through eight cities and three time zones, from vast deserts to fertile farmlands, metro cities and small towns. This road trip is for those wanting to see all America has to offer.
250 of the buildings, bridges, road alignments, and other sites along Route 66 are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This road trip may be one where luxury has to take a back seat at certain times; however, you’ll be spoiled for choice with a range of quirky and exciting places to stay, eat and see.
Speaking of quirky, the Wigwam Motel chain is one of Route 66’s most iconic and unique attractions, and a night at one of them is an excellent way to get into the true style of this road trip. Other places to stay that are a little less authentic to Route 66 but a little more sumptuous include the historic and charming La Fonda On the Plaza, Tulsa Club, and The Barfield Autograph Collection.
Enough about sleeping and more about seeing. The Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, has spent the past 129 years discovering and understanding the universe. Flagstaff was the world’s first international dark sky community, and the observatory was the first place to discover Pluto. Solar viewings, Cosmo talks, and star gazing are just a few things you can spend the day doing here. Also in Arizona is Kingman, home to the historic Route 66 Museum and surrounded by the wondrous Mojave Desert.
Moving along the route to the heart of the sandy Californian desert, you’ll find Elmers Bottle Tree Ranch, an art display that’s become popular amongst Route 66 road-trippers. It’s, quite simply, a forest of glass bottle trees. The Gemini Giant is a Route 66 landmark that you’ll want to make sure you pass in Illinois at either the beginning or end of your journey.
For those craving an excuse for an alcoholic refreshment, the Budweiser Brewery Experience is an ideal candidate. Located in St. Louis, Missouri, the brewery opened in the 1850s. You can take a range of tours, a good way to mix up the sightseeing with a little alcohol education. Missouri is also home to Hammons Field, the nest of 72 major league St. Louis Cardinal baseball players — why not check out a game?
Although not exactly located on Route 66, the famous Grand Canyon National Park is well worth the slight detour north. Recognised by UNESCO as one of the most beautiful natural sights in the world, the multi-coloured, towering cliffs are something you’ll regret missing.
Napa Valley and Sonoma
Length: not applicable
Duration: two to four days
When: late August to October
Don’t miss: The French Laundry, Single Thread, Opus One Winery and Jordan Winery
The state of California produces 89 per cent of all of America’s wine, so it’s no surprise that a road trip through Napa Valley and Sonoma should be at the top of every oenophile’s bucket list.
Drive an hour out of San Francisco, and you’ll find yourself immersed in green, rolling hills covered in and met by infinite rows of grapevines. This is the home of America’s wine country.
For Pinot Noir and sparkling wine lovers, you’ll want to focus your time on Sonoma, where these wines are at their best. Sonoma County offers multiple tasting passes for those looking to try a scope of wineries during their visit at a discounted price. Single Thread, an award-winning, three-Michelin-star farm and restaurant, is highly recommended for food. Settle in for an 11-course tasting menu where you can relish the flavours of Sonoma. Spend the afternoon browsing the Sonoma County Farmers’ markets before falling asleep in the heart of wine country at The Lodge.
On the other hand, those who love Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon will want to put more time aside for Napa Valley. Considered slightly more luxurious, Napa Valley is home to some of the world’s most renowned wineries and can’t be missed.
Opus One Winery should definitely be on the itinerary. The winery receives guests by appointment only and produces one premium red wine, which they’ve been perfecting since 1978. They also provide a winemaking experience for those looking for something more hands-on. Enjoy a hot air balloon ride above the pristine Napa countryside to take in the wine country beauty. Pop into The French Laundry for a three-Michelin-star dining experience before heading to Carneros Resort and Spa to spend the night surrounded by the picture-perfect Napa Valley.
Length: 91 miles (145 kilometres)
Duration: two to four days
When: April to November
Don’t miss: McWay Falls, Bixby Bridge, Big Sur Bakery and Restaurant and Nepenthe
Last but definitely not least, the astounding stretch of Californian coastline that’s Big Sur.
Once described as the ‘greatest meeting of land and sea’, Big Sur is the section of California’s central coast where the rugged Santa Lucia Mountains rise from the pacific ocean. Running from Carmel Highlands to San Simeon, a Big Sur road trip will take you on an awe-inspiring journey across 90 miles of America’s west coast.
McWay Falls, located in the Julia Pfeiffer Burns National Park, is an essential stop-off. Hidden within a cove, you’ll find an 80-foot waterfall flowing down the rocky cliffside onto the beach below, where it gravitates across the sand to eventually meet with the ocean. Another stop you can’t drive by on any Big Sur road trip is Bixby Bridge — the Instagram-famous spot you’ve probably seen multiple times. However, don’t settle for thinking that looking at this iconic landscape through a phone screen is all you need. The bridge, the largest of its kind in the world, is one of the road trip’s most visited and scenic spots.
For a bite to eat along the way, call past the 1930s ranch-style house home to Big Sur Bakery and Restaurant for a cosy meal and chat with the locals. For those looking for something else, try Nepenthe, serving road trippers since 1949 from their cliff-edge, coastal dining location; the sunsets here are spectacular.
It’s safe to say Big Sur has no issue when it comes to the fusion of nature and luxury. Indulge in a night (or a few) at the Post Ranch Inn or the adults-only Alila Ventana. Designed to embody the surrounding environment, both resorts will serve you with a tranquil abode immersed within the Big Sur outdoors, where verdant forests and the deep sea meet.
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Lead image: Wesley Tingey on Unsplash