BY Lola Mendez Freelance Journalist & Travel Writer

Nov 13th 2020

International Perspectives

7 Classic American Road Trips Expats Will Love

Nov 13th 2020

Check out our seven favorite road trips for expats ready to get to know the country on the open road.

Road trips are what Americans call a twofer: one thing with two great benefits. First, the act of taking a road trip—hitting the open road for a vacation on four wheels—is a quintessential American pastime. Second, there’s no better way for international residents to get to know this vast country’s many cultures, diverse scenery variety, and fun quirks than by seeing it all through your windshield.

These seven classic routes will take you through some of the country’s most celebrated locales, from National Parks to eccentric roadside tourist traps. The road trips range from week-long adventures to leisurely day trips, so no matter how much time you have, here are some great options for getting a car’s-eye view of the US.

The Trip: Route 66

The gist: “Heading west” is American shorthand for seeking adventure—and Route 66 embodies that spirit. Follow in the footsteps (or tire tracks) of westward American migrants from the early 20th-century through prairies, mountains, and deserts on the nation’s most famous road.

The rundown: Bobby Troup’s rhythm and blues anthem “(Get Your Kicks) on Route 66” is known the world over. Cruising down Historic Route 66 is the ultimate Americana rite of passage, sometimes called Main Street of America. Novelist John Steinbeck dubbed it the “Mother Road.” The route stretches 2,500 miles from Chicago to Santa Monica, California, crossing eight states.

The Must-see Stops

  • Launch the iconic road trip from the “Start Historic Illinois U.S. Route 66” marker on Adams at Michigan Avenue in Chicago after exploring the Windy City, including the Buckingham FountainWillis Tower, and Union Station.
  • Before you head west, pose outside the Castle Car Wash, gangster Al Capone’s hideout.
  • Continuing on the famous passageway, you’ll visit St. Louis, Oklahoma City, and Albuquerque, New Mexico.
  • Classic rock fans should stop in Winslow, Arizona to visit Standin’ on the Corner Park, which pays homage to The Eagles’ “Take It Easy.”
  • Visit the National Park Monument of the Sunset Crater Volcano in Flagstaff, Arizona
  • Don’t miss a historic pit stop at the birthplace of Route 66 in Seligman, Arizona, which inspired Pixar’s movie “Cars.” The town is a time capsule of its 1950s heyday.

The Trip: US 1 Overseas Highway

The gist: From Miami nightlife and Cuban food to the colorful conch houses of historic Key West, southern Florida is a singular experience. Fuel your tropical wanderlust by rolling down the windows and cruising through palm-tree-lined paradise.

The rundown: The US 1 Overseas Highway literally goes over the sea with 42 bridges along its 127 miles. At that length, this tropical stretch from Miami to Key West can be a day trip—but there’s no reason to rush (unless you hear an alligator hiss). Keep your eyes peeled for dolphins playing in the intercoastal waters, and enjoy the lush, seaside scenery.

The Must-see Stops

The Trip: Pacific Coast Highway

The gist: If you’ve seen a photo of a road winding between a foamy ocean and craggy, green mountains that set your heart aflame, that was the Pacific Coast Highway. This stunning stretch is what California dreams are made of.

The rundown: The Pacific Coast Highway, known as the PCH, is one of the most beautiful drives in the States. Rent a convertible and head out on Highway 1, which stretches mostly on the coast from Orange County to Mendocino County for 656 miles of scenic routes with unparalleled natural vistas. You may have seen Monterey, California’s PCH vistas on the “Big Little Lies” opening credits and countless other TV shows.

The Must-see Stops

  • Start in NorCal after wine tasting in Sonoma and hugging a gigantic tree in the Redwood National Park—both attractions are just off of the PCH.
  • Drive with the top down along breathtaking Big Sur.
  • Explore the rich history of Santa Barbara and its remarkable Spanish Colonial architecture.
  • Stargaze in Hollywood at the walk of fame and try to see who the paparazzi are photographing around town.
  • End your PCH trip at the southern end of the route in Dana Point, the self-proclaimed Dolphin and Whale Watching Capital of the World.”
  • Catch a wave at Dana Point while singing The Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” which references Dana Point’s Doheny Way.

The Trip: Southwest Rim

The gist: What are the odds that America’s most dazzling natural site would be so close to its most dazzling cityscape? The Grand Canyon and Vegas Strip are both must-experience US wonders, making this desert adventure essential for visitors.

The rundown: The Southwest Rim from Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon South doesn’t just start and end with spectacular experiences; the entire span is one of the most beautiful parts of the country with man-made monuments and National Parks. After a few nights of high jinks in Vegas, you’ll be ready to immerse yourself in nature. Just try to avoid recreating any of the scenes from The Hangover franchise.

The Must-see Stops:

  • Head south on I-15 to the Instagram-famous Seven Magic Mountains colorful art installation.
  • Visit the Hoover Dam, where the Colorado River dissects Nevada and Arizona.
  • Nearby is man-made Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the United States. Hike the Historic Railroad Tunnel Trail to see the remaining section of the Hoover Dam railroad system.
  • Move on to Zion National Park in Utah, where you can linger awhile with a week-long pass for $35.
  • Enter Navajo Nation in Arizona and visit the 186-mile Lake Powell and explore nearby Antelope Canyon.
  • Take a detour to see the Rainbow Bridge National Monument and Horseshoe Bend.
  • Experience the Painted Desert, which boasts an array of colors that make the terrain appear, well, painted.
  • At one end of the Painted Desert, see the surprising natural sights of Petrified Forest National Park.
  • The other bookend of the Painted Desert is the Grand Canyon National Park, one of the most spectacular gorges on Earth.

The Trip: Highway 40, South Dakota’s Heritage Sites

The gist: Experience the under-celebrated beauty of the American Midwest with the rolling prairies of South Dakota. This state is steeped in Native American history, culture, and ongoing issues of Indigenous rights in the US.

The rundown: Highway 40 runs through South Dakota, a state many news-watchers will recognize from battles over Indigenous rights, such as the Dakota pipeline controversy. This short, 84-mile drive from Badlands National Park to South Dakota’s granite Black Hills Mount Rushmore is brimming with both heritage sites and the American phenomenon of tourist traps: oddball stores and stops that compete for visitors’ dollars with bizarre experiences.

The Must-see Stops:

  • En route to Badlands National Park, make some pit stops at fun tourist traps to break up the drive such as the 1880 Train, which will transport you to the olden days of the wild west, and the Wall Drug Store for freshly made donuts.
  • Visit the Badlands’ amazing fossil beds, which include the remains of lesser-known ancient creatures, from saber-toothed cats to “big pigs.”
  • Be careful as you drive through the park; bison are known to take their time crossing the road. Be respectful (and safe), and take photos of the majestic beasts from a distance.
  • Mount Rushmore may be recognized worldwide, but in the US, its significance is under reexamination. The four American presidents’ faces were carved into a mountain known as the Six Grandfathers, which is deeply significant to the people of the Great Sioux Nation.

The Trip: US 20

The gist: It’s a testament to America’s enormity that it has two transcontinental routes worth doing. US 20 spans northern glories, from the salty sea air of the Northeast, through the American heartland, and on to the snowcapped mountains of the Northwest.

The rundown: Take in the vast natural and cultural diversity of the United States by driving from sea to shining sea on US 20 to see the full spectrum of the American experience. The border-to-border route is known as Big Daddy and spans 3,365 miles across 12 states. America’s longest road begins on Oregon’s Coast and ends in the idyllic destination of Cape Cod, Massachusetts—with many points of interest along the way worth a pit stop.

The Must-see Stops

The Trip: Great River Road

The gistThe Mississippi River looms large in American culture and history as the nation’s figurative, if not literal, center. This collection of local and state roads treats road trippers to a slice of Middle America, from the river’s chilly, Midwestern origins to its delta deep in the hot, hot South.

The rundown: You’ll understand why Mark Twain was so enamored of the Mississippi River on the Great River Road. Nature leads the way on this winding route from Minnesota to New Orleans. The north-to-south trip spans over 3,000 miles on the National Scenic Byway that follows the Mississippi river through 10 states. Along the historic route, you’ll notice the white road signs with a green pilot’s wheel graphic that denotes which roads are part of the designated Great River Road.

The Must-see Stops

  • Start in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul, where your tastes may lead you to either the 5.6-million-square-foot Mall of America or the breathtaking Minnehaha Falls—or both.
  • Head off to Alton, Illinois to enjoy dramatic scenery along the majestic river of limestone bluffs.
  • The Gateway Arch in St. Louis is a must-see on any Midwestern road trip. Take the tram to the top of the arch or hop on a vintage riverboat for an aquatic tour of the city.
  • Continue to Memphis, Tennessee, the Home of the Blues and the Birthplace of Rock and Roll, and catch a local show.
  • End your journey in the unparalleled city of New Orleans, where you’ll feel as if you’ve been transported to another country thanks to the French architecture, soul food, jazz, and non-stop festival atmosphere.

Ready to hit the road? American road trip culture varies by personality type. You can plan every moment of your adventure, or simply take off and stop whenever the scene out the window beckons—though most people end up doing to blend of both. Add in a few roadside motels and gas station snacks, and you’ll be a veteran road tripper in no time.

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