Roads that stretch for miles across snow-dusted mountains, along craggy ocean highways, through dusty red valleys or hidden beneath fiery fall colours, an American road trip can take many forms.
Whether you want to include just a taster of self-driving on your trip to the US, or embark on an epic drive along Route 66, there are plenty of choices to consider.
With a well maintained road system, national parks that have been designed for self-drive visitors and safe and reliable hire car options, driving here is a joy, as our specialists have discovered, from Hawaii with its relaxed pace of life and traditional Polynesian towns, to the soaring monoliths of Monument Valley.
Self-drive holiday in the Rockies
The American Rockies region, with its authentic wrangler heritage, prolific wildlife and American Indian history makes it one of the most intriguing self-drive options in the country. Despite this appeal, the roads throughout are relatively quiet, meaning you can drive through the splendour of the region without the crowds.
The route takes you through a number of prominent national parks, including Yellowstone, which is not only home to impressive geothermal activity such as Mud Volcano and Old Faithful Geyser, but also a plethora of wildlife, including wolves that were reintroduced in the 90s.
Outdoor activities abound in Grand Teton National Park and you can kayak, horse ride or swim, as well as go in search of wildlife including bison, chipmunks, black bears and bald eagles. In Glacier National Park you're treated to views of sapphire lakes protected by craggy mountains as you negotiate the Going To The Sun Road.
Away from the national parks you can explore a number of pretty towns or stay on working ranches. Cowboy culture is prevalent in Jackson, a small community at the start of this route. Its main street is lined with Western-style saloons and arches of elk antlers, often the first thing you’ll spot as you drive in.
Island hopping self-drive in Hawaii
Each of Hawaii's islands has something different to offer if you're willing to venture away from the larger resorts. One of the best ways to really get under the skin of this archipelago is on a fly-drive tour.
The Hawaiians' laid-back attitude to life extends to their driving, and you'll often see them cruising along past the coconut and pineapple shacks that line the roads. Couple this with an almost non-existent public transport network and it soon becomes obvious why a self-drive in Hawaii can be a very rewarding experience.
Hawaii Big Island, the largest and youngest of the islands, is home to the Volcanoes National Park, and is one of the very few places you can witness molten lava steaming into the ocean. The island is dominated by Mauna Kea, technically the tallest mountain in the world, and the visitor centre at around 2,700 metres offers some of the best star-gazing in the world.
The relaxed island of Maui is recognised for its blinding white sands and turquoise seas, but venture further and you'll find small Polynesian towns where a traditional way of life still holds strong. The Road to Hana is a quiet but remarkable self-drive that takes you along the island's rugged coastline, ending in one of the oldest places in Hawaii, which is yet to see large scale development.
It's also possible to circumnavigate the verdant island of Kauai by car in just a few hours, but there are countless little pockets to explore that would be missed without a car. The island's rugged interior and dramatic cliffs were the backdrop to the film Jurassic Park.
Fly-drive the USA’s Southwest
The national parks of Utah and Arizona are easily combined on a self-drive of the southwest. En route you'll travel through archetypal Wild West towns with saloons and swinging doors, and bizarrely past huts selling road-kill jerky on the side of the road. A self-drive in this part of the US provides an insight into some of the more obscure parts of American culture.
Las Vegas is often the starting point of this drive. Whether you know the city through personal experience or reputation alone, it's worthy of a few nights' stay. Despite its reputation as the gambling capital of the world, it can also satisfy those whose interests lie outside the slot machines and roulette tables. From the M&M's store and Natural History Museum — likely to appeal to families who may want to take a self-drive of the USA’s Southwest — to world-class performances such as Cirque du Soleil, there's plenty to see and do.
The national parks themselves provide a veritable mix of experiences and terrain. You'll drive through dusty desert before reaching Zion National Park, where you'll find yourself weaving through a deep, verdant canyon protected by towering red rocks.
Further afield, you'll be greeted by a landscape that overflows with soaring rock formations, known as hoodoos, in Bryce Canyon National Park. Drive along the rim of the canyon for a bird's eye view of the sunlight filtering through the rocks. Contrasting Monument Valley's red rock landscape has featured in many Westerns and sci-fi films.
The sweeping crevasse of the Grand Canyon, which can be explored from its North, South, East and West Rims, is the final national park on this route. Take in the Colorado River from an elevated position as it snakes its way through this vast UNESCO World Heritage Site, as you negotiate Desert View Drive.
Florida self-drive holidays
Home to glamorous cities, coral island hideaways and rewarding wildlife experiences (both on land and in the water), Florida has inspired playwrights, songwriters and artists alike.
It’s a relatively compact state, with a number of highlights just a short distance away from each other. As such, one of the best ways to tour around is by car.
The Overseas Highway is one of the most well-known driving routes in Florida, taking you from Miami’s thriving Cuban culture, pretty Art Deco architecture and sandy beaches, across the Florida Keys and to the cusp of the Caribbean in Key West. Along the way you can explore the Everglades National Park, with its cypress swamps and alligators, marine parks that teem with technicolour fish, and historical landmarks, including the former homes of Tennessee Williams and Ernest Hemingway.
Extend your trip on Florida’s lesser-visited west coast, where you’ll find some of the state’s best beaches, quaint marinas and unusual wildlife experiences, including swimming with manatees.
Driving along Route 66
Route 66 is perhaps the USA’s most famous drive. This grand road trip takes you through the very heart of America, crossing eight states and three time zones, through contrasting terrain and past some of the most bizarre roadside attractions in the country.
The route extends for 2,400 miles, from Chicago to Santa Monica on the Californian coast. It no longer exists in its entirety, but the allure of its dusty roads, where classic cars and small town diners are still commonplace, continues to entice visitors from far and wide. You can also take a detour to the Grand Canyon National Park, as well as taking in the bright lights of Las Vegas for a night or two.
Self-driving the Blue Ridge Parkway
Civil War history, a deeply ingrained musical heritage and an undulating landscape softened by the blue haze given off by the trees — these are just some of the highlights of a self-drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Beginning in Washington DC, this route continues through the states of Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee, before culminating in the American Indian town of Cherokee on the edge of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Explore the compact city of Charlottesville, dominated by the impressive campus of the University of Virginia, and pretty Asheville, where the grand Biltmore estate built by George Vanderbilt provides an insight into one of America’s most successful and affluent families.
In Shenandoah National Park you can spot bears, deer and bobcats, while Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a rewarding place to explore on foot, including Mile High Swinging Bridge, the country’s highest suspension footbridge.
Practicalities for a self-drive in the USA
- The roads in the US are wide and well-maintained. Outside of the major cities they are also relatively quiet, making driving a real pleasure.
- The majority of cars in the US are automatics.
- While self-driving is a great way to travel around the US, we’d recommend using the public transport system once you’re in the major cities. Traffic in America's cities can be busy, fast and frantic, so take advantage of the well-maintained public transport options.
- When parking in the USA, you always need to park in the direction of the traffic, otherwise you'll get a ticket.
- There are a number of apps available to find the cheapest parking closest to where you are. These are good to have as parking can be expensive, especially in cities.
- You can hire motorbikes as well as cars, should you prefer two wheels.
Start planning your self-drive trip to the USA
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- Self-driving through Arizona & Utah in America’s Southwest
- Self-driving in Hawaii
- Self-driving in the Rockies
- Self-drive holidays in Canada
- Tailor-made self-drive holidays
- Self-driving the Blue Ridge Parkway
- Self-drive holidays in Florida
- Driving the Mother Road: the highlights of Route 66
- Driving California's Pacific Coast Highway
- Exploring the Deep South: Georgia and the Carolinas