On a Road Trip, Make Your Next Pitstop The Local Donut Shop

Donuts get you off the highway and into the community.

Standing in Joshua Tree National Park's cholla cactus garden at 6:00 a.m., I marvel at the sight of sunbursts forming in the fuzzy cacti’s prickly crevices. The sky over the Pinto Mountains shifts from neon pink to gold to cornflower blue. I left my Palm Springs hotel at 3:00 a.m. to make this journey, and after a satisfying sunrise, I remember what I really came for: donuts. 

I hop in my rental car and drive 18 miles down Pinto Basin Road, stopping just once near White Tank Campground to gawk at bulbous granite boulders before being on my way. A mile or so past the park’s exit, I find the Jelly Donut in the town of Twentynine Palms. 

A retrofitted gas station owned by a Vietnamese immigrant, Jelly Donut serves pho right alongside their glazed and chocolate-covered donuts. Inside, the space lacks frills but it's okay, because at 6:30 a.m. the case is filled with treats fresh out of the fryer.

Jelly Donut
At the Jelly Donut outside Joshua Tree National Park | Lia Picard

On a road trip, nothing beats a brief detour to a donut shop for all your caffeine and sugar cravings. Sure, you could sit in the Starbucks drive-thru located five seconds off the highway exit, but I’d much rather take a jaunt into town and see what the local donut shop has to offer. 

This often means convincing my husband to pull off of, say, US-27 in Dayton, Tennessee, so we can visit Master Donut. It's in a boring strip mall, but the donuts are great and now we can say we’ve been to Dayton, you know, should Dayton ever come up in conversation.

Whether you cast out a broad Google search or do your research ahead of time, visiting donut shops gets you off the beaten path and into the local community. In Asheville, North Carolina, a hunt for the city's best donut took me to Hole Doughnuts in the residential West Asheville neighborhood. 

“We're off the beaten path for tourists, for sure. We're not right in downtown Asheville,” says Hallee Hirsh, who co-owns Hole with her husband. "We’re in, I guess you'd say a place that's frequented more by locals.”

Hole’s dining room is sun-filled and offers a clear view of the open prep area where the pastry chefs fry yeast-raised donuts to order. They come out imperfectly shaped (which only adds to the charm) and then get doused in one of four flavor combinations, like cinnamon sugar, vanilla glaze, or a rotating flavor using local seasonal ingredients. "This week is wineberry, these delicious wild berries that are in season right now,” Hirsh says, explaining that they’ll be used to create a sweet-tart glaze.

Afterwards I stretch my legs with a walk down the main drag. Haywood Road is lined with historic buildings from the 1920s that now sport murals and house beloved eateries like Biscuit Head and The Admiral. It’s not downtown, but it’s a slice of local Asheville life that most people passing through don’t see.

Other time, getting off the beaten path just takes you to a Shell gas station 30 minutes north of Atlanta. It's easy to overlook the unassuming Marietta Donuts right next door, but then you'd miss out on their apple fritters which are bigger than your head. Bonus points for a two-for-one fueling opportunity.

Hole Doughnuts
Stopping for Hole Doughnuts in Asheville | Lia Picard

Donuts help give you a sense of place on your travels. In New England, my in-laws seek out bear claws similar to the ones made in their hometown of Westport, Massachusetts. In New Orleans, it’s practically a sin to leave without eating a beignet. And in Texas, it’s all about the kolaches: doughnut-adjacent pastries stuffed with a sweet or savory filling, brought to the Lone Star State by Czech immigrants. Universally loved, many cultures have their own donut variations, from Italian bomboloni to West African puff puffs.

"Donuts are such a simple yet expressive pastry, and they really reflect the people and the place that make them,” Hirsh says. “Really the only thing that makes a donut a donut is the fact that it's round and it has a hole in it. It can be so many different things.”

I choose a jelly donut (naturally) at Jelly Donut, and enjoy it as I take in the mountain views. Then comes the sugar rush -- that just-right spike of energy to get me back on the road. It’s one of many reasons why, on all my many road trips, I follow the donuts. More than just a roadside pick-me-up, it’s an invitation to support, and connect with, the local community -- even if briefly on your way out of town.

Lia Picard is an Atlanta-based journalist writing about food and travel. Her work appears in The Washington Post, Bon Appetit, and CNN Travel.