5 Ways to Do the Classic Coast-to-Coast Road Trip
Nothing is more all-American than a cross-country road trip. But much like there's more than one way to skin a cat, there are also many ways to cross the country. We put together 5 routes, complete with exhilarating scenery and the sites, restaurants, bars, and hotels you need to brake for. Oh and you should definitely brake for cats.
Day 1: Seattle, WA, to Bozeman, MT (10.5 hours): Interstate 90 starts right in downtown Seattle, and a few miles south lies Geraldine’s Counter, famous for its French toast. Grab a coffee & pastry across the street at Columbia City Bakery (a double breakfast never hurt anyone) and hit I-90 East, passing through the Mount Baker Tunnel as you leave town. An hour later, you’ll wind your way through the Cascade Range via Snoqualmie Pass (elevation 3,022 ft., pronunciation uncertain), followed by a breathtaking trip across the Columbia River via Vantage Bridge.
Two and a half hours and one state later, turn off in Coeur d’Alene, ID, for Latin fusion at Café Carambola (try the Incan quinoa). Back on I-90, you’ll quickly enter Montana via the 4,725-foot Lookout Pass before following the St. Regis and Clark Fork Rivers for four hours, cruising through Missoula and then arriving in Bozeman. Feast on farm-to-table at Blackbird Kitchen, grab a beer at Montana Ale Works, and then sack out at Lehrkind Mansion Bed & Breakfast, a Queen Anne built in 1897.
Day 2: Bozeman, MT, to Rapid City, SD (7 hours): Gear up for another day on I-90 with huevos carnitas at Main Street Overeasy. Feeling adventurous? Brave the Montana Grizzly Encounter just outside Bozeman before tracing the Yellowstone River for two hours. East of Billings, I-90 dips south through the Crow Indian Reservation, where a somber moment of silence awaits at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. After crossing into Wyoming, stop in Sheridan at El Tapatio Dos, which is run out of an old house by a husband and wife team.
Back on I-90, you’ll drive through Story, Buffalo, Sleepy Hollow, and Sundance before entering South Dakota. You can veer south on the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway and either loop through the formerly infamous Wild West town of Deadwood on into the currently infamous biker town of Sturgis, or meander through the Black Hills National Forest via Highway 385, stopping at Mount Rushmore before arriving in Rapid City. Branch out with Vietnamese fusion at Pacific Rim Cafe, or go with a thin-crust pizza and a mind-boggling craft beer selection at Independent Ale House before spending your night at the fully named Hotel Alex Johnson, which has a sweet rooftop lounge.
Day 3: Rapid City, SD, to Madison, WI (11 hours): Enjoy a glimpse of the old west as you descend through the Badlands National Forest and Buffalo Gap National Grassland. Then, take in the Missouri River at Lake Francis Case before lunching in Sioux Falls at either Sanaa’s Gourmet Restaurant (healthy Mediterranean) or Mama’s Phried & Phillys (greasy fried chicken or cheesesteaks). An up-close-and-personal look at the Corn Belt awaits in Minnesota -- as you near the Wisconsin state line, I-90’s median even becomes wide enough to house several farms.
You can also take in Minnesota’s famous lakes around Albert Lea, but the most beautiful landscape today comes as you drive along Lake Onalaska and the mighty Mississippi, eventually crossing into La Crosse (get it?). Skip over the theme-parky Wisconsin Dells and head into Madison, which will actually be quiet, with the University of Wisconsin in sleepy summer mode. Drool over the creative menu at “glorious shrine to swine” A Pig in a Fur Coat, sip martinis at Genna’s Lounge near the state Capitol, and then walk a few blocks to the chic Hotel Ruby Marie, situated in a brick beauty built in the city’s 1870s railroad heyday.
Day 4: Madison, WI to Erie, PA (10 hours): Squeeze into tiny Sophia’s Bakery & Café for a quick breakfast before heading east on I-94 through Milwaukee and down the Lake Michigan shoreline. Stop in to Racine, Kenosha, or Waukegan to get a glimpse of Chicago’s gleaming skyline, and then head southeast on I-90 for an industrial contrast in Hammond and Gary. Hop back on I-94 to hug the shoreline, passing by Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, Warren Dunes State Park, and Grand Mere State Park, which Larry Johnson has unsuccessfully tried to rename Grandmama State Park.
Heading east into Kalamazoo, MI, take a slight detour to Saffron Indian Cuisine, which features a fantastic $11 lunch buffet. Then, you’ll pass through Battle Creek and Ann Arbor before heading south on I-75 along the undeveloped northwestern corner of Lake Erie. Cross the Maumee River in Toledo and you’re back on I-90 again. Highways 2 and 6 offer a much more scenic route across Sandusky Bay and into Cleveland, where you can marvel at some serious revitalization — and eat the finest corned beef sandwich in the Midwest at Slyman’s. All of today’s urban exploration might have you pining for a quieter night, however, so push east to Erie, PA, and the quaint Glass House Inn.
Day 5: Erie, PA to Boston, MA (9 hours): Why Erie? So you can wake early and explore Presque Isle State Park’s 11 miles of empty beaches. Two hours north on I-90, feel your stomach knot up at the awe-inspiring Niagara Falls; crossing back through Buffalo, give your belly a more strenuous workout at any of the city’s New York delis -- Marco’s, Sue’s, and Charlie the Butcher’s are all excellent. An hour east, work off some of that food by bird watching in Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge near Seneca Falls. Rochester, Syracuse, Utica, and Schenectady will pass by next, along with the Mohawk River. But the best view lies ahead in Albany, where you can grab an afternoon pick-me-up at Hudson River Coffee House and then take in the waterway that built the Northeast from Corning City Preserve.
After that, savor eastern upstate NY's rurality(?) and the rolling Berkshires of western Mass -- once you hit Springfield, it’s pretty much all beautiful, historic, outlying suburbs until you enter Boston via the Back Bay, with the James River and Cambridge to your left. Take advantage of all that waterborne proximity by sucking down phenomenal bivalves at Neptune Oyster, and then do the dive bar thing at Biddy Early’s before grabbing the best sleep in the city at Nine Zero Hotel. Extra credit? Hop on Highway 3/3A, the Highway 6, and drive to Cape Cod the next day. Pacific to Atlantic -- you just did it.
Day 1: Pismo Beach, CA, to Flagstaff, AZ (10 hours): Dip your toes in the frigid Pacific at Pismo Beach, where stunning rock formations front the coast. Grab crepes & coffee at Mon Ami, then head south on Highway 101 before skirting Los Padres National Forest on Highway 166. Reaching I-40’s western terminus in Barstow is confusing -- I-5, Highway 223, Highway 58 -- but once you start kicking up dust in the Mojave, you’ll follow the same path all the way to the East Coast.
Which is not to say that you won’t have anything to look at. Crossing the Colorado River just north of Lake Havasu unlocks one of the most stunning vistas in America, and grabbing a sandwich at Sirens’ Café in Kingman, AZ, is like feasting on the spirit of Route 66, which parallels I-40 for the next few days. Detour north on Highway 180 for a Grand Canyon glimpse, then double back for the six-course tasting menu at The Cottage Place Restaurant. Take in some jazz and blues at The State Bar before retiring to Little America Flagstaff, a quiet hotel set among 500 acres of ponderosa pine.
Day 2: Flagstaff, AZ, to Amarillo, TX (9 hours): Today’s journey is all about the drive, so fill up on chilaquiles from MartAnne’s Café before leaving Flagstaff. Pull off for pictures at Petrified Forest National Park and pick up some arts & crafts at any Navajo, Zuni, Ramah, or Acoma Pueblo reservation travel center. Gape at the dramatic peaks of Mt. Sedgwick, El Malpais National Monument, Mt. Taylor, and La Mosca. Then, balance out that big breakfast with a salad at The Grove Café & Market in downtown Albuquerque and stretch your legs at Albuquerque Botanical Garden, which overlooks the Rio Grande.
Leaving town, Sandia Crest and the Santa Fe National Forest loom to the north. Things flatten out as you hit Tucumcari and the Texas Panhandle, but have no fear: authentic barbeque is calling your name at Tyler’s, where the ribs reign supreme. Have a martini at Butlers or a glass of the finest red at Crush Wine Bar & Deli -- just be prepared to fill out an application to join the local “drinking club” as parts of Potter County are still dry. Then head out to Palo Duro Canyon for a stay at Starlight Canyon, a rustic B&B nestled in a lush six-acre oasis.
Day 3: Amarillo, TX, to Little Rock, AR (9 hours): Fuel up with a country breakfast -- chicken fried steak, cinnamon rolls, gravy-covered fries -- at Calico County before you cross into Oklahoma and indulge in open-road nostalgia at the National Route 66 Museum in Elk City. Stop at Dead Women Crossing for no other reason than to get a picture of the road sign, and then have your mind blown by great Guatemalan at Café Kacao in OKC (migallas are a big hit). After that, take in fantastic cultural institutions -- the globally recognized Oklahoma City Museum of Art, the heart-wrenching Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum, and the American Banjo Museum -- on your way out of town.
Belying Oklahoma’s past as the epicenter of the Dust Bowl, Lake Eufaula State Park and the Sequoyah National Wildlife Refuge feature miles of scenic waterways at the confluence of the Canadian and Arkansas Rivers. Once you cross into Arkansas, quick northern and southern detours can lead you into the breathtaking Ouachita National Forest and Ozark Mountains. And Little Rock offers a unique combination of Southern hospitality, foothills charm, and… exquisite German food? Believe it at The Pantry, where truffle deviled eggs, cheese spaetzle, and jaeger schnitzel are kings. Choose from hundreds of beers at Flying Saucer, and then end your night at the Capital Hotel, the 130-year-old grand dame of downtown Little Rock.
Day 4: Little Rock, AR, to Asheville, NC (10 hours): Embrace the local food movement with breakfast at The Root Cafe before heading east toward Memphis and the mighty Mississippi. Crossing either the arches of Hernando de Soto Bridge or the cantilevered trusses of Memphis & Arkansas Bridge will take anyone’s breath away, as will the drive through the rolling hills of western Tennessee. Music Row in Nashville is a must-see, and Hattie B’s Hot Chicken is the place for authentic Southern fare. Brush up on twangy history at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Grand Ole Opry, and then take a modern swing through East Nashville via cool record stores like Fond Object and Third Man.
The scenery only gets more beautiful as you push east through Knoxville and toward the Blue Ridge Mountains. Once you turn south on I-40, Great Smoky Mountain National Park comes into full view, so take it slow as you cross into North Carolina, savoring one of the finest landscapes east of the Mississippi. Asheville is another hour away; you’ll be met with a plethora of eating and drinking options in a city that feels smaller than it is. The Admiral in West Asheville may be situated in a tiny cinder block box, but it’s a culinary adventure that rivals the best in the US. Save room for beer, though -- the Mountain City boasts 25+ breweries (Thirsty Monk, Wicked Weed, and Asheville Brewing Company to name a few). After that, you’ll be more than ready to curl up like a princess at the exquisite Princess Anne Hotel.
Day 5: Asheville, NC, to Wilmington, NC (6 hours): Only one day until the Atlantic -- kick it off with healthy, hearty Southern at Early Girl Eatery. You’ll enjoy mountain views for an hour or two east of Asheville before you dip down into the lowlands. Statesville, Winston-Salem, and Greensboro have all evolved from downtrodden former industrial centers to vibrant, creative communities, but if you’re going to take the time to pull off on this Tar Heel drive, do it in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill Triangle.
Start with shrimp and grits at Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill, where Bill Neal sparked the Southern food revolution in the early ‘80s, then get a close-up look at how a former tobacco epicenter has transformed itself at American Tobacco Campus and Brightleaf Square in Durham. After that, check out the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, which gained international acclaim for its recent expansion and embrace of energy-efficient design. Then it’s on to the historic port city of Wilmington and top-notch tapas at Circa 1922. Do your laundry, catch live music, and have a beer at The Soapbox Laundro Lounge, then celebrate your Atlantic arrival at the historic Rosehill Inn Bed & Breakfast, built a stone’s throw from the Cape Fear River in 1848. Extra credit? Do your Redneck Robert DeNiro impersonation. Or... drive Highway 17, 24, and 70 north to Cedar Island and catch the ferry to the Outer Banks -- America’s most beautiful stretch of pristine beaches.
Day 1: San Diego to Las Cruces (10 hours): The goal with this route? Hug the southern US border as closely as possible. Start with an açai bowl and chai tea at Lazy Hummingbird, located just blocks from Ocean Beach, then enjoy the sun-baked chaparral of Cleveland National Forest as you head east on I-8. Look into Mexico as you near Yuma and come closer to the border than you can anywhere else before turning your eyes to the sky as bombers take off and land at Barry Goldwater Air Force Range. Next up are the Sonora Desert and Ironwood Forest National Monuments, followed by Tucson, where you can try one of the best Sonoran hot dogs in the universe at Aqui Con El Nene food trailer.
On I-10 for the rest of the day, you’ll pass Coronado National Forest and San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area before crossing into New Mexico and then hitting Las Cruces. Resist the urge to eat more tacos and branch out with a wood-fired pizza at Zeffiro Pizzeria, followed by a local beer or two at High Desert Brewing Company. If you really want to get into the Southwestern swing of things, try Casa de Rosie, an ultra-intimate B&B located in Las Cruces’ intricate Old Mesilla district.
Day 2: Las Cruces to Corpus Christie (10.5 hours): Belgian waffles? In a border town? Why not. You can even try the famous lamb sandwich at A Bite Of Belgium before heading south to El Paso on I-10. Take in expansive views of the Rio Grande, officially designated a Wild & Scenic Waterway, as you hug the border all the way to Van Horn, where US Highway 90 starts. Marvel at the incongruity of Marfa, an internationally recognized artist’s colony in the middle of the West Texas desert, before you wind your way through beautifully lonely outposts like Alpine, Altuda, and Marathon. Stock up on gas, water, and snacks in one of those places — this might be the most forbidding and desolate terrain in the entire United States.
Luckily, authentic Tex-Mex awaits in Del Rio at Chinto’s Super Taco, a hole in the wall popular with locals and nearby Laughlin AFB service personnel alike. Hook east on Highway 90 toward San Antonio, where you can make a quick stop at the city’s reinvigorated Riverwalk. But to complete a day of traveling from one extreme to another, power on to Corpus Christi, where you can gorge on fried seafood at Snoopy’s Pier overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. Follow that up with a glass of something that isn't cactus juice at Cactus & Vine and then a room at V Boutique Hotel, a hidden gem on Water Street.
Day 3: Corpus Christi, TX to New Orleans, LA (10 hours): Hit one of the three Hester’s Café & Coffee Bar locations in Corpus for breakfast, and then get ready for the most interesting route on our list: follow tiny Highway 35 through Texas’ rough and tumble port cities, hook out to Galveston on Highway 6, then take a free auto ferry over to Highway 87 on the Bolivar Peninsula. Take Highway 124 north until Winnie, Highway 73 to Port Arthur, Highway 82 across Sabine Pass into Louisiana, and then you’re on the Creole Nature Trail. At Cameron, a 24-hour ferry crosses the deepwater Calcasieu River/Ship Channel, followed up by a jaunt through the town of Creole. Online travel guides are pretty much nonexistent in this neck of the woods, but you’re guaranteed a good roadside stop offering up the most authentic Cajun around. No, it is not Adam Sandler.
Highway 82 eventually curves north into Abbeville, where a number of back roads go by the Tabasco Sauce Factory in Avery Island. Then Highway 90 takes over deep in Cajun country: Thibodeaux, Houma, Des Allemands, Boutte -- no other place in the world compares to Southern Louisiana, and this ultimate back road takes you right through the heart of it. Highway 90 then dumps you right into New Orleans via the Crescent City Connection, with endless eating, drinking, and lodging options. You can’t go wrong with Cochon for modernized Cajun/Creole fusion, Arnaud’s French 75 for classy cocktails, and Soniat House for boutique lodging in three landmarked French Colonial cottages from the 1700s.
Day 4: New Orleans, LA, to Cedar Key, FL (10 hours): We’re hugging the coast as much as possible, so Highway 90 is in and I-10 is out. Fiend on classics at Café Beignet on your way out of New Orleans, and then pick up Chef Menteur Highway as you meander through Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge and The Rigolets into Mississippi. You’ll run right next to the Gulf in Bay St. Louis, Gulfport, and Biloxi before curving north and briefly joining I-10 through the Mobile Tunnel. After that, it’s all rural until Pensacola, when 90 winds its way along Escambia Bay. Pick up Highway 98 south to Gulf Breeze and then Highway 399 to Pensacola Beach and you’re in powder-white-sand heaven.
Get your first taste of coastal Florida at Native Café, where fish tacos and crab cakes Benedict top the menu. Take your time cruising the dunes of Gulf Islands National Seashore, then join back up with Highway 98 as it passes through Ft. Walton Beach and Destin. When you see signs for Highway 30A, turn right -- the combination of old Florida charm in Grayton Beach and nu-modern maximalism in planned communities like Seaside and WaterColor is reality-warping. Back on Highway 98, further dualities await: the tourist mecca of Panama City Beach, the rural solitude of Apalachicola and Alligator Point, the desolation of Tate’s Hell State Forest and the Big Bend. But a few hours on, take Highway 345 south to Cedar Key and you’ll be greeted with one of Florida’s funkiest waterfront communities: eat the world-famous heart of palm salad at Island Room, mix it up with the RV campers at the Low Key Hideaway’s tiki bar, and shack up at the old-school Faraway Inn.
Day 5: Cedar Key, FL, to Key West, FL (9.5 hours): Grab a smoothie and a blue crab quiche from Kona Joe’s Island Café and prepare for another day of immersion in the Florida wild. Highway 98 meanders through more rural Gulf Coast fishing communities than you thought existed before branching off into Highway 19 near the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge. Once you hit New Port Richey, though, you’re in for two-plus hours of suburban sprawl. Do stop for lunch on St. Petersburg’s hip downtown strip at Nitally’s Thai-Mex Cuisine (it works better than you’d expect) before crossing Tampa Bay on the imposing Sunshine Skyway.
Highway 19 turns into Highway 41 through Bradenton, Sarasota, Port Charlotte, Ft. Myers, and Naples -- all unique beach towns with rich histories, beautiful sand, and fun downtown districts. But our sights are set south, traversing the incredibly remote Big Cypress National Preserve and Everglades National Park as we go finally go west to east again. Jump on the Florida Turnpike to bypass Miami and then pick up US 1 in Homestead with only three hours left until the southernmost point in the United States. The Keys are full of diversions that could take up months (or years) of your life, but after driving this far and for this long, hitting the Seven-Mile Bridge that connects Marathon with the Lower Keys will have you racing to get to Key West. Eat the freshest seafood of your life at the cozy Seven Fish, knock a few back (and avoid the Duval Street insanity) at local haunt Green Parrot Bar, and don’t go to bed at the Almond Tree Inn until you take in the sunset at Mallory Square. Whew -- we made it.
Day 1: Miami to Atlanta (9.5 hours): Kick things off with your toes in the sand on South Beach, where you can dig in to a Sicilian Omelette at Front Porch Cafe. Hop on A1A across Jungle Island and take in the panoramic vistas of Miami, because it’s all inland from here on out. After a few hours on the Florida Turnpike, you’ll meet up with I-75 -- stop into downtown Gainesville's La Tienda Latina, where the mole and chile rellenos are off the chart. Next, take a quick tour west on Highway 20 and Highway 27 to Ichetucknee Springs, where you can cool off by tubing down a crystal-clear, ice-cold rural river.
Hop back on Highway 18 and Highway 441 to return to I-75 -- and then make a straight four-hour beeline for Atlanta, where a deconstructed menu of experimental new American awaits at The Spence in Midtown (go with the bread and coconut butter, bone marrow, and anything from the dessert menu). If that doesn’t fill you up, pair charcuterie and honey-drizzled fried goat cheese with sleek cocktails at Ecco before resting your head at Stonehurst Place, an eco-friendly, art-filled 19th-century mansion.
Day 2: Atlanta to St. Louis (8 hours): Get prepped for another day on the road with a veggie frittata, fresh pastry, and psychic reading at Café Jonah & the Magical Attic (seriously, check out the hidden attic). Then it’s onward and upward through the Appalachian foothills, with plenty of beautiful scenery blowing by as you cross into Tennessee. Hook left onto I-24 through Chattanooga and then in between the Tennessee River and Lookout Mountain -- you can even tour an underground waterfall at Ruby Falls. After briefly dipping back into Georgia, you’ll cross the Tennessee River again and start heading northwest. Skip Nashville’s crowds and stop for lunch in Murfreesboro instead, where unassuming Opah Greek Grill offers up some of the best gyros, tabouleh, and stuffed grape leaves around (ignore the fact that it’s in a Wal-Mart strip mall).
Since you didn’t stop in Nashville, at least take the I-65 loop through downtown to plot your next Music City visit, before meeting back up with I-24 on the other side of the Cumberland River. Once you enter Kentucky, take Highway 68 across Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area for a scenic pit stop, then in Paducah head west on Highway 62 and make for Cairo, IL, a la Huck Finn. Stare in awe at the combined powers of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers at Fort Defiance State Park before hugging America’s river up Highway 3 through miles and miles of parkland. That will put you right through the Gateway Arch into downtown St. Louis, where truffle tater tots at Blood & Sand are your reward for another long day of driving. Sip a couple of beautifully crafted cocktails at Taste Bar, but save room for a nightcap at Moonrise Hotel’s rooftop bar before turning in for the night.
Day 3: St. Louis, MO, to Denver, CO: (12 hours): Fuel up at City Coffeehouse & Creperie on your way out of St. Louis because you’ll need it -- today we’re driving all the way to the Rockies. It’s I-70 or nothing as we finally turn due west, passing through Columbia and the rolling hills of Central Missouri before zooming across the grasslands of Kansas. A pit stop for Kansas City barbecue is a must, but let’s jazz it up a little at Q39, a stylish new hybrid spot with an open scratch kitchen.
Then it’s west through historic Plains towns like Topeka and Junction City until Colorado, when all thoughts turn toward Denver. But if you’ve never driven this stretch before, you might be surprised that you won’t actually see the Rocky Mountains until AFTER you hit the Mile High City. But that’s OK, as famous Fresh Bacon is on the menu at Rioja’s (Chef Jennifer Jasinski was featured as one of our 17 Best Female Chefs in America back in March), followed by throwback adult beverages at the jazzy Cruise Room, conveniently located in the lobby of the The Oxford Hotel. Don’t you just love when things work out like that?
Day 4: Denver, CO, to Salt Lake City, UT (8 hours): NOW we’re ready to hit America’s most glorious mountain range. I-70 cuts right through the heart of the Rockies and affords plenty of breathtaking views, but a plethora of awesome detours are also available: Highway 5 to the top of Mt. Evans, Highway 6 through Arapahoe Basin, Highway 91 to Leadville. Each one features hair-raising passes that top 10,000 feet, so if you’re not a lover of heights, stick to the main I-70 artery. But don’t worry -- descending through Glenwood Canyon provides one of the most adrenaline-pumping drives on the planet. Which means you’ll be plenty hungry for Polanka in Glenwood Springs, where Polish favorites like potato periogis and stuffed cabbage provide the perfect break from white-knuckling it on I-70.
If you’re feeling frisky, take a dip in Glenwood’s famous Hot Springs before heading west and fully immersing yourself in the Wild West via towns like Silt, Rifle, and Parachute, where you can take a quick scenic drive to the top of Battlement Mesa. Just west of Grand Junction, you’ll skirt Colorado National Monument and McInnis Canyon, both breathtaking natural landscapes, which is pretty much par for the course until Salt Lake City. Arches National Park in Moab sits just south on Highway 191, while that road and Highway 6 both pass the feet of several stunning Utah mountain ranges. Salt Lake City is equally beautiful, but true love can be found at intimate, upscale restaurant Forage, where the rotating, locally sourced tasting menu is divine. Keep your brew extra cold at Beerhive Pub’s ice bar, then go big with a room at the opulent Grand America, SLC’s only Forbes Four Star lodging option.
Day 5: Salt Lake City, UT, to Portland, OR (12 hours): Time for a marathon final day -- but since we’ll be traversing some of the most beautiful terrain in the United States, all should be well. Grab a ham hash and shortcake with homemade jam at Pig and a Jelly Jar before heading north out of SLC on I-84, which provides a good look at Great Salt Lake. Once you cross into Idaho, natural pit stops abound: Craters of the Moon National Monument, Sawtooth National Forest, and the stunning Snake River. But wildly diverse lunch options are also ahead in Boise, ID, like Argentine empanadas at Tango’s, Balkan fusion at Bosnia Express, and Basque goodness at Bar Gernika.
Just north of Boise, turn west onto Highway 26, which winds through three different national forests -- Malheur, Umatilla, and Ochoco -- before turning northwest and ascending 11,250-foot Mt. Hood. If you’re feeling extra scenic, head north on Highway 35 to Hood River, where you’ll meet back up with I-84 and hug the mighty Columbia River into Portland. Reward yourself at the end of another long trip with Mucca Osteria’s hearty Italian, before walking two blocks to Kask, a dimly lit, atmospheric bar that, like most of Portland, takes itself and its concoctions very seriously. Treat yourself to a room at the Hotel Monaco Portland -- and if you’re looking for extra credit, light out for the coast the following morning via Highway 26 before hopping on Highway 101 and crossing Columbia River and Pacific Ocean confluence via the 4.1-mile-long Astoria-Megler Bridge.
Day 1: Los Angeles, CA, to Durango, CO (12 hours): Today’s going to be a long one, so let’s start with a quick dip in the Pacific and a Super Cro-Jo and Veggie Rad at Flake in Venice Beach. Once you push through a couple hours of LA traffic on I-10, hop on Highway 62 in Palm Springs to skirt the northern end of Joshua Tree National Park, stopping for Asian food and bubble tea at Passion Desert Chinese Restaurant in Twentynine Palms. Then hit Highway 95 north to Las Vegas, saving the Strip for another trip and turning east on I-15.
In Hurricane, hop onto Highway 9 to twist and turn your way through Zion National Park before joining up with Highway 89, the only road that traverses the southern end of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Highway 98 turns southeast at Lake Powell and enters Navaho Nation, with Highway 160 eventually breezing right by Four Corners Monument and entering the former mining town of Durango. You’re in the heart of the Old West now, so belly up for an elk tenderloin at Mahogany Grille and then grab a beer at Carver Brewing Company and maybe a little live music at Moe’s Starlight Lounge before bedding down for the night at the Strater Hotel, an imposing brick behemoth built in 1887.
Day 2: Durango, CO, to Wichita, KS (11 hours): Fill up with an Anasazi Benedict and home fries at College Drive Café before heading west again on Highway 160. Savor every view of the rugged San Juan Mountains and dense Rio Grande National Forest, because in a couple of hours you’ll hit the Eastern Plains, trading snow-capped peaks for the Great Sand Dunes National Park. Highway 10 to La Junta is as empty as it gets, but don’t despair -- mouth-watering Mexican is your reward at no-frills Lucy’s Tacos.
Just outside La Junta on Highway 50, sample a slice of vintage Plains life at Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site and then settle in for the flatlands -- Holly, just west of the Kansas state line, is the lowest point (3,392 feet) in Colorado. Take Highway 56 into Dodge City for a quick look at Boot Hill Museum before Wyatt Earp Blvd. traces the area’s prodigious railroad network. Then head south to Highway 40 to have a look at the area’s historic cattle feedlots. Be prepared for rural quietude all the way to Wichita, but it’s worth it: you can get high on the hog at Pig In Pig Out, which displays its barbeque medals proudly, then grab a beer at the speakeasy-like Public in Old Town. Speaking of, a room at the Hotel At Old Town, a converted warehouse, will have you well rested for your long-awaited journey into the eastern half of the country.
Day 3: Wichita, KS, to Louisville, KY (11 hours): But first, get one more taste of the west with comfort food at the Doo Dah Diner (monkey bread with spicy chorizo and jalapeno bacon = required). Highway 400 heads east and then south to Joplin, MO, where you can pick up I-44 into Springfield. If you’re feeling adventurous, try a blend of Thai and Mexican at The Wheelhouse food truck, or go with the chopped brisket sandwich option at City Butcher & Barbecue. Either way, just make sure you take Highway 60 out of town so that you can link up with Highways 63 and 32 to drive through the heart of Mark Twain National Forest and clear to Twain’s beloved Mississippi River in Ste. Genevieve.
It isn’t easy to cross America’s greatest river, so head downstream on I-55 to Cape Girardeau, then across Highway 146, which runs right through Shawnee National Forest. Ready for more twists and turns? North on Highway 1, across the Ohio River on Highway 56, then Highway 60 to Owensboro, then across the Ohio again on Highway 231, then follow the Ohio on Highway 66 through Hoosier National Forest, then finally link up with I-64 as you pull into Louisville… We know -- all that confusion definitely necessitates a drink and a good meal. Knock both out of the park at Hammerheads in a Germantown basement, where the mac and cheese balls, baby back ribs, and truffle fries are to die for. Treat yourself to a bourbon neat after that at Haymarket Whiskey Bar, but save room for a nightcap before bed at the 21C Museum Hotel.
Day 4: Louisville, KY, to Scranton, PA (11 hours): In the morning, check out the Louisville Slugger Museum for a quick peek at the city’s most famous product, and then grab biscuits and duck gravy and coffee at Gralehaus. Stick with the southern I-64 route out of Louisville, passing through Lexington and then the rugged Daniel Boone National Forest. Further Appalachian beauty lies ahead once you cross into West Virginia, as does amazing vegetarian food at Bluegrass Kitchen in Charleston (try Dem 2 Brothers And A Grill for heartier soul food fare). Don’t think twice about tracking south on I-64 after that, though, because you’ll crisscross the Appalachian Mountains with the stunning Monongahela and George Washington & Jefferson National Forests to your north.
Pick up I-81 next and enjoy the panoramic mountain views over the next few hours as you head northeast again, crossing through Maryland and then Pennsylvania. Shenandoah National Forest, Harpers Ferry, Gettysburg, the Susquehanna River, Fort Indiantown Gap -- this is a veritable cradle of American history. Eventually, the road turns more easterly and crosses through Harrisburg and Wilkes-Barre before arriving in Scranton, where you can go the American steakhouse route at Carl Von Luger or the Brazilian steakhouse route at Ipanema Grille. Wash it all down with a beer at the traditional Backyard Ale House or Jack’s Draft House before shacking up at the posh The Colonnade to prep for tomorrow’s arrival in buttoned-up New England.
Day 5: Scranton, PA, to Maine: Soak up brunch at JJ McNally’s before hitting the road because your options are limitless today: you could stop in Portland, ME, after only seven hours, or continue all the way to the Canadian border in 12 hours. Whatever your decision, the day begins with I-84 east through the Poconos into New York, then across the Hudson River into Connecticut. History abounds as you drive through Danbury, which was settled in 1685, then Waterbury (1674), New Britain (1687), then Hartford (1623). That history is updated at On20, however, where mouth-watering American food meets sweeping views of the Connecticut River from the 20th floor of One State Street.
Back on I-84, you’ll enter Massachusetts, where can bypass Boston via I-495. At the Merrimack River, take 1A east to the Atlantic Ocean and hug the Seacoast through Hampton, NH, into charming Portsmouth, with its intimate downtown, clapboard houses dating to the 1700s, and a naval shipyard that maintains a link to the area’s salty past. Crossing the Piscataqua River on US 1, head east through Kittery on Highway 103 to stay close to the coast, then blaze your own path on Highways 1, 1A, 9, and 77 as you near Portland. Considered one of the United States’ most underrated cities, you could easily end your trip here exploring the multitude of restaurants, bars, art galleries, and lighthouses that dot this gorgeous slice of the Eastern Seaboard. Or you could keep heading north to the Pine Tree State’s vast northern wilds: Penobscot Bay, Acadia National Park, Mt. Katahdin, Presque Isle. Extra credit? Drive into the Canadian Maritimes, get lost on the New Brunswick-Prince Edward Island-Nova Scotia loop, and vow to never leave. It’s just that beautiful.