As much as iconic trips like Route 66 and Highway 1 justify their fame, they can also attract crowds and traffic. If you’re looking for a unique road trip experience in the US, here are 10 suggestions to get you off the beaten track.
1. Mammoth Lake, California
Instead of California Coast, try… Mammoth. California’s Highway 1 is on many a bucket list, but it’s far from the only road trip in the state. Highway 395 takes you through some of California’s most captivating inland landscapes, from the Mojave Desert all the way through the Sierra Nevada mountains and up to Mammoth Lake. There are plenty of gorgeous distractions along the way — stop off at Mono Lake and go kayaking around the crazy tufa rock towers, or take a quick hike at the nature reserve. The road technically finishes up at the Canadian border, but you can wrap things up in Lake Tahoe.
Distance/time: 1,150km; allow 10 days at a leisurely pace.
How: Fly into LA and out of San Francisco with Aer Lingus; aerlingus.com; visitmammoth.com
2. West Cornwall Bridge, Connecticut
Instead of Maine, try… Connecticut. If you want to see the fall foliage, any state in New England will bring the goods. But while Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire are stunning in the autumn, the roads can get crowded with leaf peepers. Connecticut, however, is a little off the beaten track, and it’ll be a whole lot easier to get there this year with the relaunch of Aer Lingus’s direct route from Dublin to Hartford. Make your way to the pretty towns around Litchfield Hills (the inspiration for Stars Hollow in Gilmore Girls), then head into Mohawk State Forest and Kent Falls State Park for some hiking.
Distance/time: 182km; allow five days for lots of stops.
How: Fly to Hartford with Aer Lingus; ctvisit.com
3. Bryce Canyon Park, Utah
Instead of the Mighty Five, try… Scenic Byway 12. If you want to tick off killer scenery, charming little towns and the kind of landscapes unique to this corner of the US, Utah’s Scenic Byway 12 is unbeatable. Though it hits two of Utah’s five national parks — Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef — the road is quieter than the well-trodden paths around Zion and Arches. And the scenery is every bit as stunning, with vast canyons, giant red boulders and insane rock formations at the side of the road, making you want to pull in and snap photos every few minutes. The full route is 198km long, stretching from Capitol Reef to the edge of Bryce Canyon, a mesmerising valley filled with thousands of hoodoo rock towers.
Distance/time: 935km; allow 7-10 days.
How: Fly into Salt Lake City and out of Las Vegas indirect with United; united.com; visitutah.com
4. Natchez Trace Parkway, Tennessee
Instead of Route 66, try… Natchez Trace Parkway. Sure, Route 66 is probably the most famous of all the American road trips. But unless you’ve got the time to drive across the country, the Natchez Trace Parkway is just as historically significant, but a lot more manageable at 714km. The route starts in Nashville and weaves through Tennessee, Mississippi and a tiny bit of Alabama, following a trail once used by Native Americans. As well as beautiful forests and charming little towns, you can stop off at Elvis’s birthplace Tupelo and Graceland. The road ends in Natchez, with great live music and soul food, but drive another few hours and you can finish up in New Orleans.
Distance/time: 997km to New Orleans; allow 7-10 days.
How: Fly to Nashville or New Orleans indirect with Delta; delta.com; nps.gov
5. Lassen Volcanic National Park, California
Instead of Yosemite, try… Volcanic Legacy. There’s no denying that Yosemite is a beaut, but if you want something a little different, the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway is a great shout. It starts off in California at Lassen Volcanic National Park, about four hours from San Francisco. For the next 800km, you’re looping around some of the most striking volcanic landscapes in the US, along with steaming fumaroles and pools of bubbling mud. Drive the whole thing, and you end up in Crater Lake National Park in Oregon — Seattle is around a seven-hour drive away, or you can head back to San Francisco through the mountains of Northern California.
Distance/time: 1,894km to and from San Francisco; allow two weeks to do this one at leisure.
How: Fly to San Francisco with Aer Lingus; volcaniclegacybyway.org
6. Lake Michigan, Michigan
Instead of Great Lakes, try… Lake Michigan. If you want to do a full road trip around the Great Lakes, you’ll be driving for quite some time. Best then to focus on the waters around the Michigan peninsula. Start off in Chicago, and make your way along the shoreline of Lake Michigan, so immense you can’t believe it’s not an ocean. At the top of the Upper Peninsula, you’ll find cute fishing towns, bright red lighthouses and great hiking trails that weave into National Forests. Drive around the whole coast, then along the shores of Lake Erie, and you’ll reach Cleveland, Ohio, which will be served with direct flights from Dublin with Aer Lingus from May.
Distance/time: 1,500km; allow two weeks.
How: Fly to Chicago with Aer Lingus or United; michigan.org
7. Florida Keys Overseas Highway
Instead of Orlando, try… Florida Keys. A lot of people whizz straight to Key West at the end of the Florida Keys, but you get a lot more out of it if you take your time. There are more than 1700 islands in the chain, and the Overseas Highway that connects them is one of the most scenic roads in America. Start in Miami and make your way south, stopping off at the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park for some snorkelling, and Bahia Honda State Park for some of the best beaches in the US.
Distance/time: 290km; allow three days.
How: Fly to Miami with Aer Lingus or American Airlines; fla-keys.com
8. Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia and North Carolina
Instead of the Pacific Coast Highway, try… Blue Ridge Parkway. The Pacific Coast Highway is one of the most iconic road trips in America, but it’s not the only one with a view. The Blue Ridge Parkway is a 755km drive through the Appalachian Mountains, with some of the most stunning views of the East Coast. The road winds through Virginia and North Carolina, with plenty of opportunities to stop off and hike the Appalachian Trail or visit the Biltmore Estate, the largest privately owned house in the US.
Distance/time: 755km; allow seven days.
How: Fly to Charlotte, North Carolina or Richmond, Virginia with Aer Lingus indirect; blueridgeparkway.org
9. Outer Banks, North Carolina
Instead of Myrtle Beach, try… Outer Banks. Myrtle Beach is a classic family holiday destination, but if you’re looking for something a little more low-key, the Outer Banks in North Carolina is a great alternative. There are plenty of beach towns to explore, from Nags Head to Kitty Hawk, and a whole lot of history to discover. The Wright Brothers National Memorial is located here, marking the spot where the first powered flight took place, and the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is one of the most iconic on the East Coast.
Distance/time: 250km; allow three days.
How: Fly to Raleigh-Durham with Aer Lingus indirect; outerbanks.org
10. Black Hills, South Dakota
Instead of Grand Canyon, try… Black Hills. The Grand Canyon is one of the most awe-inspiring natural wonders in the world, but it’s not the only one worth visiting. The Black Hills in South Dakota are home to Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Memorial and the Badlands National Park, all of which are worth the trip alone. But the drive between them is just as spectacular, with winding roads that take you through pine forests and past rolling hills.
Distance/time: 1,000km; allow seven days.
How: Fly to Denver with Aer Lingus indirect; blackhillsbadlands.com