What are the best (unknown) road trips in North America?

Shirley Plantation, copyright Liberty Images

Shirley Plantation, which has stood guard over the James River since its completion in 1738. The amount of history this home has seen—and hosted—is staggering.

The other night, I stumbled across this article at the helpfully-named site “The FW” (to be frank, considering the contents of the sidebar and below the article, I’m not necessarily keen on exploring it).  The article lists what the author considers “10 of the coolest road trips in North America”, and it’s not bad, really: Carl Pettit covers most of the biggies as well as a few gems. Route 66 is there, of course, as are the Pacific Coast Highway (on my bucket list), the Black Hills and Badlands, the Florida Keys;  Pettit also recognizes the beauty to be discovered along the James River and in the Brandywine Valley, places I’ve adored that not everyone is aware of (especially in the shadow of famed trips like US 50—supposedly the “loneliest road”, but really, they all are).

It is wonderful to see a few lesser-known places in the article; several I’d not thought of, and they have been duly added to my list of places to visit and shoot. But as we all know—especially those of us who love to take US road trips or dream of doing so—America is an especially vast place; no “Top 10” list could ever really satisfy, much less cover it all (though I really appreciate Pettit’s variety). Any place so expansive as the United States has great variety to choose from, whether you’re seeking kitsch, history, or beauty.

Personally, I was thrilled to see the James River tour included—any lover of natural beauty, history, and architecture knows it’s one of the finest places for such a trip. The South’s general charm is not merely a figment of anybody’s imagination, either—you are bound to love the journey. The Brandywine Valley, too, deserves inclusion for its sheer natural beauty; it is glory surely reminiscent of what the first settlers found when they arrived on America’s shores. Yet there are more road trips waiting—or waiting to be created—that Pettit couldn’t possibly fit into the article. What are a few trips I recommend? And more importantly, what road trips do YOU suggest?

First of all, there’s Route 19. We took 19 from Pittsburgh to Nashville to visit a friend, but the corridor actually runs from Erie, PA, all the way to Memphis, Florida (though the Floridian portion has a reputation for being dangerous). I only saw a slice, but

Heart Stopper! Robert E. Lee Motel, US 19. Copyright Liberty Images

The Robert E. Lee Motel in Abingdon, Virginia, was where Colonel Sanders HIMSELF opened his very first restaurant! Sadly, the motel couldn’t be saved (I had fantasies about doing so), and was demolished six months after I stumbled across it. History, lost. Again.

what a slice! The Ohio River, Pittsburgh, the New Gorge River Bridge in West Virginia—and the numerous small, wonderful towns, each with their own flavor. Unseasonably cold weather and a misty rain couldn’t keep me from photographing a few fine old signs in Weston, WV; we went a little out of our way to discover what remains of Stotesbury, WV, a town hiding in a holler—and well it might, as it was dominated by the KKK (it is Robert Byrd’s hometown, after all), so much so that blacks were forced to go to a separate church (which, for the record, was far lovelier than the other church—and remains so, though it has collapsed during a terrible winter storm not long after I documented its painful beauty).

Nearer the Tennessee border, we discovered charming Abingdon, Virginia and the now-demolished Robert E. Lee Motel, where Colonel Sanders opened his first restaurant. Dotted amidst the history and natural beauty you’ll find neon signs, old drive-ins, and movie palaces from the glory days. One of these days I’ll do the whole Route, and suggest you add this to your list of possibilities, too.

A shorter trip, though one packed with real Midwestern charm, is US 22 from Cincinnati to Newark, NJ. I’ve only traversed the bits in Ohio and Pennsylvania, but if they are any indication of the remainder, it’s well worth travelling, and just shy of 700 miles—about half the length of 19. That may sound

Detail of a fountain in Lancaster, Ohio

Detail of a fountain in downtown Lancaster, Ohio, along US Route 22.

like a long trip, but really, it’s only a few days’ worth of travel—three, perhaps, if you zip right through.  Also known as the William Penn Highway in Pennsylvania (of course!), 22 can be hairy through Steel City, but affords some beautiful views of the Ohio Valley’s many rivers and small towns, including the home towns of  Generals William Tecumseh Sherman (Lancaster) and, just up the road in Somerset, that of Philip Sheridan. Cambridge, Lancaster, and Wilmington are places I’ve spent a great deal of time in—and you’ll find some terrific antique- and vintage-hunting in many of these towns, so much so that my photographing said towns falls by the wayside.

Motorcyclists like the Ohio portions of 22 a great deal, too—citing its beautiful views, low levels of traffic, and the way the two-lane streams up hills and around sweeping curves.

Ah, summer, what power you have to make us suffer and like it.  ~ Russel Baker

Somewhere along US 30.

The bits and pieces of I’ve seen of US 30‘s more than 3,000 miles have been mostly in the Buckeye state, though I’ve traversed along bits of its Pennsylvanian and West Virginian portions as well—but everything has been likeable thus far! Another road of small-town charm, it’s rather like 66 in that it crosses the country and offers great deal of variety. Though the variety probably isn’t as dramatic as that of the Mother Road, where travellers journey from the green and lush Midwest to the deserts of the West, the Lincoln Highway is still promising from end to end, as it crosses the nation from NJ to Oregon. Portions of Idaho and Wyoming are supposed to be particularly lovely; like 19 and 22, I’d like to travel it in its entirety someday, entirely on the recommendation of what I’ve already seen. 2013 is the perfect year for a Lincoln Highway trip, too, as we’ll be celebrating the road’s centennial!

Last but not least is US 40, also known as National Road. It is aptly named, as none other than a 25 year-old George Washington accompanied General Braddock in blazing a portion of what is now the road—all the way to Fort Duquesne, now Pittsburgh. *swoons a little at the thought of George Washington* The route hasn’t changed much in two centuries; Braddock’s grave lies beside modern US 40, and you can still visit it today.

At 824 miles, travelling US 40 it would actually only take perhaps three to four days to travel 40—if that (if you stop at Every Single Site as I do, yes, it’ll take that long, at least!). We live not far from National Road now, just as we used to live quite near to Route 22.

Last Man Standing

Standing guard alongside Route 40, this chimney and fireplace—one of two at this site—clings to the side of the mountain foothill in Pennsylvania. Once upon a time, there must have been a fine early American home here.

For whatever reason, I’ve hit 40 in chunks—bits in Ohio (particularly now that we live here!), Maryland, West Virginia (as we’d visit Wheeling often for events at Oglebay), and Pennsylvania. As a result, though, my perception of National Road is really in bits and pieces—visiting Fort Necessity Battlefield near Uniontown; travelling back from a friend’s Washington, DC wedding; heading a little ways off 40 to check out local wineries (we’ve fooled wine experts with both PA and MI wines, by the way—they thought BOTH wines were from France, which is saying something. Yes, they were wine snobs, and absolutely horrified to learn that US wineries could produce such fine wine).

The drive along 40 itself is gorgeous, and in Pennsylvania, particularly, you’ll find multiple pulloff points—which you’ll need in order to drink in the sublime beauty. I’m a history buff, but it is difficult not to think that men like George Washington and Daniel Morgan have been awed and humbled by the very same sights. It’s not just history and wine, though—there’s plenty of fun to be found along 40, from vintage motels to kitschy Muffler Men  to giant roadside roosters and more. There’s a lot to see, and I’ve only enjoyed but a slice!

Finally, I must suggest the entire Ohio Valley. After living there for over five years, I came to deeply love the area for its rough-edged and breathtaking beauty. If you ask me, it has been overlooked, and this is a shame. Yes, there are fun places to stop, but there is a magic about the Ohio Valley—named for a river which has fascinated and enamoured Americans since it was discovered. Remember, too, that this was America’s original frontier! Even today, such as near populated areas such as Pittsburgh, much of the Ohio Valley remains wild and undeveloped. PA-68 and PA-18 run along the River itself for a ways, and is a route I often took to a farm in Pennsylvania—it’s absolutely gorgeous, twisting and turning with the mountains and the River (no photos, because believe me, there’s no room to pull over!). Having travelled that route so often for years, its beauty has been tattooed permanently into my heart and mind, and I’m forever grateful. There’s US-7 in West Virginia, too. If you’ve an opportunity to travel alongside the Ohio for a ways, do yourself a favour and take advantage. Before the Mississippi, there was the Ohio—indeed, the latter feeds the former—and the Ohio has an enormous place in our history. But the sheer gorgeousness alone of the area is enough to endear it to any a heart.

Driving Road

Curving through West Virginia’s Tomlinson Run State Park, this road is flanked by stone and tree on each side; beauty like this is almost (almost!) commonplace throughout the stunning Ohio River Valley.

Well, those are my (chatty, as always!) lesser-known USA road trip suggestions, based on my own experience. What about you? Any favourite small road trips or Sunday jaunt suggestions? Please share, because I am always looking for new places to visit and photograph!


4 thoughts on “What are the best (unknown) road trips in North America?

  1. Wow, you’ve given me some great ideas for future Retro Roadtrips! I had never even heard of Route 19, now I’m all ready to go!

    Funny I just realized that one of my goals when I graduated college was to drive Route 1 from Fort Kent ME to Key West FL. I did do a pretty serious road trip, but not that Exact Thing. Guess I should put it back on my list, along with these new ideas. Thanks!!

  2. Pingback: Route 3: A great road trip waiting to be taken? | Victory Rolls and V8s

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