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04.26.14

The U.S. Road Trips You Should Really Take

There's nothing like a classic road trip. But that doesn't mean you have to stick with the Pacific Coast Highway and Route 66. Here are ten scenic drives that are well worth the gas.

Everyone knows a road trip is the classic way to see the grand ol' USA. But what if you've already cruised the Pacific Coast Highway, rolled along the Blue Ridge Parkway and gotten your kicks on Route 66? Take a spin on any (or all) of these scenic drives, which rightfully should be much more popular than they actually are (shh, it'll be our secret). If you like these, forty-two more road trips (both popular and obscure) in the USA can be found in the award-winning USA's Best Trips.

Coastal New England
The thriving East Coast city of Boston nearly topped our experts' list for 2014. This summer, make 'Beantown' part of a classic road trip along New England's southern coast. It's a leisurely drive of less than 250 miles from Gloucester, Massachusetts to New Haven, Connecticut. You'll be feeling pleasantly waterlogged and stuffed with seafood after a full week of marine wildlife watching, maritime museums and sailboat harbors. In yachty Newport, Rhode Island, stop for gourmet pub grub and grog at the White Horse Tavern, originally opened by a 17th-century pirate. Then bed down in the seaside town of Mystic, Connecticut, with views of the wharf from your private room at the Steamboat Inn.

Ivy League Tour
What else is New England known for besides seafood, fishing villages, and coastal scenery? The hallowed halls of the Ivy League of course. Save this road trip for fall, when historic campuses are buzzing with students again and fall foliage is showing off brilliant shades of gold, orange, and red. Just outside Boston in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University may be the most world-famous of the Ivies, but it's equally fascinating to take campus tours of Yale, Brown, and Dartmouth, all on this 300-mile road trip traipsing through three states.

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In the colonial town of Concord, Massachusetts, pay your respects to two of New England's heavyweight thinkers from centuries past (both Harvard grads, naturally) at Ralph Waldo Emerson Memorial House and Henry David Thoreau's Walden Pond, now a state park in a leafy forest. Back in Cambridge, spend the night at Irving House, a quick walk from Harvard Yard. In the morning, join the intelligentsia at Cafe Pamplona, a European-style coffeehouse, also by Harvard Square.

Michigan's Gold Coast
It might be the USA's most surprising beach getaway, but the shores of Lake Michigan have been a family holiday destination since the late 19th century. Seemingly endless stretches of beach dunes, wineries, orchards and B&B-filled towns hug the water's edge along the pinky finger of what locals call 'the mitten' (just take a look at the state's vaguely hand-shaped outline on a map).

Take off during late summer, when the weather and the lake's waters are warmest, or during early autumn around harvest time. You'll cruise almost 500 miles north from New Buffalo, the Midwest's surfing hub (no really, it is!) all the way up to Mackinac Island, reached via a ferry that's also a nostalgic trip back in time. Along the way, stop at roadside farm stands for pie and apple cider, to clamber around Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, and to snap a photo of the tulip fields and windmills of Holland, where you can order a pint of Dragon's Milk Stout at New Holland Brewing Company Pub. Wind down your Gold Coast drive with a sweetly sound sleep on Mackinac Island at Cloghaun B&B, a 19th-century home embraced by flowering gardens.

Four Corners Cruise
Las Vegas isn't just for gamblers and nightclubbers anymore. It's your new adventure base camp for exploring the Southwest's iconic deserts and canyon country. Spy on the buttes of Monument Valley, made instantly recognizable by yesteryear Hollywood Westerns, then trek down to the Colorado River at the bottom of the ginormous Grand Canyon. Historic Route 66 towns like Flagstaff and Williams, Arizona are just as fascinating to wander around as the Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado. Taste the good life in Santa Fe, New Mexico, filled with art galleries, adobe hotels and flavorful restaurants.

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Anadolu Agency/Getty

And if those aren't enough reasons to make the trip, consider this: where else can you stand in four states – Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona – at once? It'd take a lifetime to get to know and understand the Four Corners region, but taking 10 days to make an 1850-mile grand circle by car from Las Vegas is a fantastic introduction. For a quicker but almost equally scenic road trip, visit both the South and North Rims of Grand Canyon National Park, then loop back to Las Vegas via Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park, an unforgettable trip of a week or less.

The Mighty Mo
One of the most unexpected US destinations our experts picked for 2014 was Kansas City, Missouri. Then again, is there really ever a bad time for slow-cooked barbecue, hot jazz and cool blues music? 'KC' also rates highly as a big-city stopover on a historical road trip beside the Missouri, North America's longest river. You'll be tracing the footsteps of early 19th-century explorers Lewis and Clark, who set off on their cross-continental journey from St. Louis, Missouri.

Starting from the same place, this epic drive covers almost 1400 miles of riverside territory along what was once the USA's frontier. Revel in Wild West lore at the Pony Express National Museum and Jesse James Home Museum in St Joseph, just outside KC. Then roll over the Nebraska border into Omaha, where train buffs can't miss the Union Pacific Railroad Museum. By the time you finally arrive at North Dakota's Fort Buford, where Lakota chief and medicine man Sitting Bull surrendered to US forces in 1881, you'll be amazed by the sweep of American history found on the long, winding road beside the 'Mighty Mo.'

The Blues Hwy & Cajun Country
It's all about music, food and bon temps ('good times') in the Deep South, on a 1000-mile road trip that's as much a cultural odyssey as a vacation. Start in Memphis, an early beacon for Mississippi Delta bluesmen since the early 1900s, especially the foot-stomping clubs of Beale Street. Follow Hwy 61 south, stopping at backwater juke joints and the infamous crossroads in Clarksdale, where legend says blues guitar player Robert Johnson made a deal with the devil himself. Today, Clarksdale's Delta Blues Museum honors all the greats, including Muddy Waters.

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TIMOTHY A. CLARY/Getty

Make a beeline to the end of the Blues Highway in N'awlins, the birthplace of jazz, for a few nights of voodoo magic and hot all-night jam sessions. After a night of hedonism, head out into Louisiana's Cajun Country. There the lingua franca is Cajun French, and folks love to fiddle, dance and most of all, eat. Get lost in a maze of bayous and swamps, where the crawfish boils and dance hall nights never seem to end, then finish your journey in Lafayette.

Time your trip for April, May or June when the most music festivals are happening. But whatever time of year you go, plan on eating a lot: Memphis' famous barbecue ribs from Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous; sugar-dusted beignets with chicory coffee at Café Beignet in New Orleans; and country cooking at Prejean's Cajun Dining in Lafayette.

Big Bend Scenic Loop
This West Texas drive is just over 250 miles long, but set aside at least five days – heck, why not a week? – to soak up the boundless vistas straight out of an old Hollywood Western movie.

Putter through quirky small towns, none odder than the art colony of Marfa, made famous by cameos in films such as Giant and No Country for Old Men, and home to the mysterious Marfa Lights in the big sky. Stop in little Alpine at the Museum of the Big Bend to brush up on natural history, then get lost in the vastness of Big Bend National Park, which is almost as big as the state of Rhode Island. Perfect for wildlife watching, hiking trails snake through canyons beside the swirling Rio Grande in the US-Mexico borderlands.

This trip is best between February and April, before the heat sets in. Make sure you stop for cattle ranch steaks at Reata restaurant and camp out in a safari tent, teepee or Airstream trailer at funky El Cosmico.

San Juan Hwy & Million Dollar Skyway
To experience the Rocky Mountains at their most rugged, detour along this 160-mile drive through Colorado. Don't think it's an easy trip, the twisting mountain passes inevitably slow you down. But you probably won't mind, given all the jaw-dropping peak panoramas. This land of unbroken spirit is also rife with Old West saloons and ghost towns.

From Mesa Verde National Park, where you can climb ladders to tour Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings, drive east to the historic railroad town of Durango, a hub for outdoor adventures like mountain biking and fly fishing. Then follow the San Juan Skyway north to Silverton, a boom-and-bust mining town that still celebrates its Wild West outlaws at the Silverton Museum, inside the old county jail. Skedaddle onto the equally heart-stopping Million Dollar Highway to Ouray and Telluride. Along this sky-high route, nearly every 19th-century saloon or historic hotel has a ghost story to tell.

Go in summer to capitalize on all the fun. At night, hit Durango's many brewpubs and sleep at the Historic Strater Hotel, an antiques-filled period piece.

Monument Valley & the Trail of the Ancients
If you're a fan of backcountry dirt road and 4WD routes, nothing will get your heart beating as fast as Utah's canyon country. This 300-mile road trip takes you into the heart of the Four Corners region, where modern Native American tribal lands are interwoven with the traces of the Ancestral Puebloans who came before.

Start your journey at Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, the dramatic backdrop for countless Hollywood Westerns. Hovenweep National Monument preserves archaeological sites in splendid isolation at the far western edge of Colorado and then cross back over the border again to walk underneath the towering arches of Natural Bridges National Monument. Then get ready for this road trip's biggest thrills – the hairpin turns of the Moki Dugway and a drive around the strangely shaped sandstone monoliths and pinnacles of the Valley of the Gods, just outside the one-horse town of Mexican Hat.

Best driven in spring or fall, make sure you peruse photos of yesteryear film stars and other memorabilia at Goulding's Lodge and munch on fry bread at Twin Rocks Café, in the trading outpost of Bluff.

Hwy 49 through California's Gold Country
In the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains is the incredible scenery of winding Hwy 49. This route shows off California's Gold Rush days, when hell-raising prospectors and ruffians rushed helter-skelter into the West. You only need a few days to drive the almost 200 miles along this route, peppered with Victorian-era small towns with wooden boardwalks and antiques shops, as well as summertime swimming holes and underground caves to spelunk in.

Start in Sonora, close to two of Gold Country's biggest attractions: 1897 Railtown State Historic Park, where train rides are available on weekends, and Columbia State Historic Park, an authentic gold-mining town populated by costumed living-history interpreters. Farther north, Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park is where the Gold Rush really all began and along the banks of the American River, you can try your own hands at panning for gold. Finish in Nevada City, a quaint (and hilly) historic mining town.

Go spring to fall for sunny skies. Dally at vineyard tasting rooms in Amador County's wine country, then stop for a bite to eat in Placerville, at the Cozmic Café, where tables are set up inside an old mine shaft. The Broad Street Inn, a six-room Victorian charmer, waits at the end of the route.

Originally published on Lonelyplanet.com as 5 Roads Less Travelled in the USA and Roadtripping through Lonely Planet’s Top US Destinations by Sara Benson. Reproduced with permission from Lonely Planet © 2014 Lonely Planet