Flying may get you there quickly, but you miss out on much of what makes a vacation magical. Watching the sun rise over misty fields as you drive through southern farmland, seeing the stars come out in the limitless west Texas sky or having an impromptu slice of pie at a whistle-stop diner that hasn’t changed much since 1946 are just a few of the things you can’t enjoy on a flight. Any road trip is worth celebrating, but these seven destinations are truly unforgettable.
At the southernmost tip of Florida is a strand of more than 1,700 islands strung along US Highway 1 like pearls on a thread. Key West isn’t the final gem in the necklace, but it’s the largest and most famous. Erstwhile home to Hemingway and Tennessee Williams, something about this enchanted island inspires creativity. You could take a boat, but driving is a better way to see the keys and some breathtaking ocean views of aquamarine waters and sugar-white sands. If you fly into Ft. Lauderdale, rent a car at the airport and be sure to check out this gorgeous drive.
The Grand Canyon
The largest gorge in the world isn’t conveniently close to any major cities, but that’s a good thing; it gives you more time to take in the stark and stunning landscapes surrounding the Grand Canyon itself. If you fly into Las Vegas or Phoenix, you’ll have about half a day’s drive to the site, but the drive is almost as moving as the canyon. If you approach the South Rim, visit the Grand Canyon Skywalk; it’s a nine-mile drive down a rough road on the Hualapai Reservation, but where else will you get a chance to step into the sky?
Yellowstone National Park
One of the world’s most geologically active places is also one of the best destinations for a road trip. Yellowstone National Park’s features are world-famous; from Old Faithful to the area’s hauntingly beautiful petrified forests, you’ll encounter sights you can’t see anywhere else on earth. The family-friendly park has plenty of driving tours, but don’t miss the opportunity to take a walking tour and stretch your legs. Despite the volume of visitors to the park each year, you’ll still find moments of solitude to enjoy Yellowstone’s splendor.
If you’re anywhere in the mid-Atlantic states or New England, you aren’t far from the nation’s capital and one of the best driving destinations in America. Washington, D.C. has more monuments than anywhere else in the country, and each of them has its own quiet beauty. After paying your respects at the Lincoln and Washington Memorials, spend some time in the halls of any of the Smithsonian Institution’s museums. The Smithsonian’s labyrinth of art, natural history, aviation and aerospace museums are far too large for a single day’s visit, so expect to stay overnight and devote at least a weekend to the city’s sights.
San Francisco’s Pacific Coastline
Countless movies have filmed along the Pacific Coast Highway, less poetically named State Route 1, as it winds along the northern and central California coastline. The Golden Gate Bridge may be the highlight of your trip along Route 1, but it’s far from the only point of interest. Every curve of the road brings another gorgeous beach vista into view, and the temperate climate makes it the perfect place for cruising in a convertible. Be ready to take plenty of side trips and detours; the road is full of scenic overlooks, small towns and roadside attractions.
If it seems as though California has more than its share of great driving destinations, you’re right. Blame it on the temperate weather and the gorgeous beach views, some of which you’ll find in San Diego. The natural beauty of Mission Beach, the skyline’s architectural splendor and the biggest zoo in the country make San Diego a popular destination for drivers. Being just north of Tijuana and near some of the best surfing on the mainland doesn’t hurt either.
Its status as a honeymoon destination has given Niagara Falls an aura of sweetly romantic kitsch that’s the perfect contrast to the raw, intensity of the falls themselves. More than 6 million cubic feet of water plunge down the falls’ 165-foot drop each minute, but the best way to experience the thunderous cascade is from the Maid of the Mist, a touring boat that lets you look up at the majestic falls. Driving to Niagara Falls is easy whether you’re coming from the Canadian or the American side.
Road trip aficionados say it’s the journey, not the destination, that matters most, but when these one-of-a-kind destinations are within driving distance, why not make the stop as great as the trip?
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Jerry Nelson is an American freelance photojournalist. When not traveling, he can be found on the streets of Buenos Aires as Lead Photographer for BuenosTours, the largest private tour company in South America. Connect with Jerry on MosaicHub, Facebook or LinkedIn today. Have a story that needs to reach national media? Email him today.
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