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From the sage-bush deserts of Route 66 to the wave-whittled coastlines of the Pacific Coast Highway, the great American road trip has been immortalised in countless movies, songs, and novels. But what of the roads less travelled? The road trips across America that take you beyond the obvious?

Here, we share our top five alternative US road trips as chosen by our specialists. Whether you’re looking to avoid the most popular destinations or simply wish to take a drive into the unfamiliar, these self-drive trips offer the familiar beats of a US road trip with time away from the tourist traps.

Instead of Route 66 try… Route 66 & Route 50

Time-forgotten diners decked out in neon, colossal red buttes stretching into the horizon, wide open roads unfurling before you… There’s no road that can be compared to Route 66, which is why we can’t in good faith suggest an alternative. Instead, we recommend extending your journey along the Mother Road — which starts in Chicago and ends in Santa Monica — to include some East Coast sights on Route 50.

Starting in Maryland, historic Route 50 stretches across the continental US, but for this combined journey you’ll want to switch to Route 66 once you hit Saint Louis. Before then, you have a route that couldn’t be more different to its West Coast cousin, with dense deciduous forests, rural farming communities, and red-bricked colonial towns of seven East Coast states to explore.

Along the way, there’s myriad places for history aficionados to enjoy. You might visit the Belgian-blocked streets of Baltimore’s Fell Point or check out the oft-forgotten colonial capital of Annapolis. Route 50 darts right through the heart of Washington D.C., where we recommend taking a day or two to check out classic sights and monuments like the Lincoln Memorial.

As you pass largely through bucolic Middle America, you’ll find plenty of opportunities for detours on a road trip along Route 50. Among them, we suggest a stop to see the blue-hazed valleys of the Appalachian Mountains at Shenandoah National Park.

How long should I spend on this route? To get the most out of a combined Route 50-Route 66 road trip, you’ll need to spend at least three weeks on the road. Discounting detours, the combined route takes you through 13 states from Maryland to California.

Get me there: Add on a voyage down Route 50 to this classic Route 66 road trip across America.

Shenandoah National Park
Shenandoah National Park

Instead of the Pacific Coast Highway try… the Pacific Northwest

With its prominent Pacific-battered bluffs, zig-zagging roads, and larger-than-life cities and beaches, it’s no surprise that the Pacific Coast Highway is considered one of the top road trips across America.

But, if you’d rather an altogether gentler journey — away from the buzzing crowds of coastal California — consider heading further north to the Oregon and Washington state portions of the Pacific Northwest.

Up here, you’ll be treated to similarly rugged coastlines, winding roads, and sprawling beaches, especially along the Pacific Coast Scenic Byway to Newport. And, there are even more colourful terrains to explore as you venture inland.

You might stop over at Olympic National Park to hike prehistoric, moss-draped forests and see the triple-cascading Sol Duc Falls. Or, you could head to Rogue River for frothy, fast-flowing waters and deep volcanic gorges on the edge of the Cascade Mountains.

Away from the big cities, the landscapes here abound with wildlife. The lowlands of Mount Rainier National Park are home to over 140 bird species — including that legendary American icon, the bald eagle. And, you might like to venture further afield to Mount Saint Helens, where you’ll see how the area has healed following its 1980 eruption.

For a dose of civilisation, you’ll pass through a number of small towns on a Pacific Northwest road trip, including Cannon Beach with its unusually shaped Haystack Rocks and kitschy art galleries.

And, if you’re longing for the cities, you can easily include time in Seattle and Portland, with both offering historic museums, beatnik-style microbreweries, and farm-to-table restaurants to keep you busy between stops.

How long should I spend on this route? It takes around two weeks to complete our recommended route around the Pacific Northwest, which starts in Oregon and crosses over into Washington state.

Get me there: Explore Seattle, Cannon Beach, and Mount Rainer on a self-drive trip around the USA section of the Pacific Northwest.

Sol Duc Falls, Olympic National Park
Sol Duc Falls, Olympic National Park

Instead of New England try… the Great Lakes

A road trip through the unfurling coastal towns and clapboard-clad villages of New England makes for a compelling introduction to the colonial history and diverse sceneries of modern America.

But, if you’ve already sampled the lobster rolls of Maine and walked the Freedom Trail in Boston, you might consider a trip to the Great Lakes for a taste of the rich, down-to-earth culture and vast sights of the Midwest.

Lake Superior is the largest of the Great Lakes by volume, and for outdoor enthusiasts, we recommend a stopover at the port city of Marquette on its southeast coast. You’ll find numerous hiking trails in the area, as well as opportunities to go fishing or kayaking on the lake’s crystalline waters.

To travel further into wilderness, you might take a boat to the densely forested Isle Royale National Park. Or head over to Lake Huron for the limestone bluffs and whitewashed villages of Mackinac Island.

A great bulk of the trip, however, will take place on the roads around Lake Michigan. At Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, you can take the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, which loops around the park’s mammoth dunes and affords you views of the tranquil Manitou Islands.

You’ll also journey parallel to the shores of the Door Peninsula, where you might visit cherry orchards, take to the wetlands, or photograph one of the 11 lighthouses along the limestone cliffs.

You’ll find the cities of Milwaukee and Chicago on Lake Michigan, too. Avid motorcyclists will know Milwaukee for its Harley-Davidson Museum, though the city also boasts many architectural points of interest, as well as a reputation for excellent beer.

Chicago is a must-stop on any trip to the Midwest. Return your keys when you enter the USA’s third largest city and explore its “Magnificent Mile” of skyscrapers, lakeside beaches, and the beanlike Cloud Gate statue at Millennium Park.

How long should I spend on this route? Travelling through the states of Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan, a road trip around the Great Lakes should take you around three weeks.

Get me there: This journey around lakes Superior, Michigan, and Huron also includes time in Chicago.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Instead of the Blue Ridge Parkway try… the Colorado Rockies

Thanks to the resplendent bright-orange and mustard-yellow foliage that blankets its mountains each year, the Blue Ridge Parkway is a popular destination for an autumn drive — but the crowds aren’t for everyone.

The Colorado Rockies provide an alternative, quieter US road trip to take if you’re in search of the colours of autumn, while also offering more opportunities for action-packed adventure.

Begin your journey in Denver, so you can acclimatise to the altitude before heading into the mountains. In the “Mile High City”, you can enjoy art galleries, independent shops, and the vibrant atmosphere of an ex-gold rush town, with the Rockies looming just past the horizon.

Sufficiently acclimatised, you’ll then drive through Martian terrains to Colorado Springs. Here, the adrenaline pumping can truly begin. You might take a hike by the tendril-like sentinels at the Garden of the Gods, trek to Pikes Peak, or walk over the suspension bridge at the endless-seeming Royal Gorge.

From there, it’s further into the mountains. Passing through historic mining towns like Breckenridge and Estes Park, you’ll reach Rocky National Park, where you can track the paths of moose along hiking trails.

You’ll also want to designate time to drive the 77 km (48 mile) Trail Ridge Road, which ascends 3,650 m (11,975 ft) into the snow-capped skies of the Rockies.

Detour-wise, there are plenty of other places to base yourself further in the Rockies. For a luxury break, head to Aspen for views of its eponymous white-bark trees from a boutique spa.

How long should I spend on this route? The trip takes place only in the state of Colorado and should take about 15 days for you to complete.

Get me there: You’ll experience gold rush towns, white-water rivers, and towering peaks on this self-drive trip around the Colorado Rockies.

Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs
Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs

Instead of The Grand Circle try… Santa Fe to Salt Lake City

Encompassing five US states and featuring many of the most iconic sights in the American West, The Grand Circle is a labyrinthine journey that could take weeks — months, if you want to take it slowly — to complete.

Whether you’re short on time or simply want to include other locations across the US, our recommended route from Santa Fe to Salt Lake City can act as a condensed version of The Grand Circle, minus the spots you might have already visited on another trip (like the Grand Canyon).

The trip starts in Sante Fe, where you’ll stay for a few days exploring baroque churches and eating some of the US’s best Mexican cuisine before heading out on the road to Taos.

Tucked away in the high desert and surrounded by the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Taos is home to a multistorey adobe complex known as Taos Pueblo, believed to have been inhabited for over 1,000 years.

A five-hour drive takes you to Mesa Verde National Park, another significant location for pueblo cliff dwellings. The sandstone plateaus here are thick with oak, juniper, and fir trees, providing shelter for you to explore the over 4,000 known archaeological sites in and around the canyons.

You’ll then have some time in Moab, where you’ll have easy access to the vibrant red arches and rugged carmine canyons of Arches National Park and the Canyonlands. The highlight here is the Islands in the Sky rock formations, which you can access by 4x4 tour or on an expert-guided hike.

On the home stretch to Salt Lake City, you’ll travel across Scenic Byway 24. This wide-open stretch of a road — one of the most striking in the US — enables you to see flat, vibrant orange sands transform into contorting red mountains on the horizon.

Then, once you reach Salt Lake City, you can swap canyons for churches as you take a look into the city’s connected history with the Church of the Latter-day Saints (the Mormons).

How long should I spend on this route? All destinations along this route are in either New Mexico, Colorado, or Utah. We recommend designating around 15 days to complete the trip.

Get me there: This route from Santa Fe to Salt Lake City includes time in the pueblos, canyons, and culturally diverse cities of the American West.

Pueblo cliff dwellings, Mesa Verde National Park
Pueblo cliff dwellings, Mesa Verde National Park