Tell me and my partner where to go (politely)
August 14, 2011 3:36 PM   Subscribe

Help me plan the great American Road trip(s)

My partner and I are intending to take an extended vacation in the US next year. Our plan at this stage is to spend a week or two in a "hub city", then rent a car and take a road trip. We plan on doing three such trips. I've plotted out a tentative route for these drives, which I link below:

West Coast
East Coast

While I'm sure we'll have no problems finding things to do in the major cities, what I am interested in is the following:

1. Any suggested amendments or detours to the above routes.
2. We're really interested in unusual/interesting sights along the way. Christian Theme Parks, famous diners, weird museums, general Americana, unusual historical spots. If you spot something along the way worth seeing, please let me know!
3. Anything else worth considering.

I know these sort of questions have been asked before, but I wanted something specific to the routes we're intending to travel. If people are interested I can add them to the maps to allow them to add markers and points of interest. Just message me.
posted by smithsmith to Travel & Transportation (58 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Mammoth Cave in KY, it's about 100 miles from Nashville, and if you've got the time, it really is an awesome sight.
posted by deezil at 3:46 PM on August 14, 2011

Roadside America is perfect for #2.
posted by unknowncommand at 3:48 PM on August 14, 2011

I didn't see any Civil War battlefields. Gettysburg is 25 miles off your East Coast route, between York, PA, and Hagerstown, MD.
posted by mdonley at 3:49 PM on August 14, 2011

I am sooooo jealous. But I've found AskMefi to be much more helpful if my questions are more specific. We all like to chime in with info about our cities, but it would help if I knew when you are planning to be in Memphis. Meetups are fun when you come through town, also, but we need to know when to plan. What do you like to do? Food, music, dive bars, artsy? If you have enough time to use your weekly question with a more narrow focus, we can be more helpful.

So, Memphis is great in April or May, not so much in July or August. Heat and humidity are a big factor on your southern route.

The Natchez Trace is not on your map, but is pretty cool if you're in to history. The famous blues crossroads is in Clarksdale, MS, and Morgan Freeman has a neat little blues club there called Ground Zero, with decent rooms to rent right above it. For the Civil War stuff, Shiloh is also not too far off I-40 between Memphis and Nashville.

I see a lot of interstate routes, and I don't think that's going to get what you want from the experience, you really don't find the quirky stuff there.
posted by raisingsand at 3:53 PM on August 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also, your route is almost entirely on interstate highways, which are great for speed but can be absolutely soul-crushingly boring, especially on long stretches out west.

Also also, you probably know it's a big country, but, no, really, it's a BIG place. California stretches from Rejkjavik to Belfast.
posted by mdonley at 3:57 PM on August 14, 2011

Definitely check out the Dry Falls near Coulee City, Washington after Yellowstone. They are not super-publicized, but they are GORGEOUS and not to miss.

You're swinging by Death Valley, right? Right?

You must be going by the Grand Canyon, looks like. Well, near there, definitely hike through some slot canyons in Page, Arizona or Zion National Park. Strange and beautiful in a totally novel way.

In Utah, the truly unmissable park is Bryce Canyon. If you can manage it, don't look at any photos first, just trust a fellow Mefite and go there blind for a great reveal! It's so beyond worth it.
posted by Eshkol at 3:58 PM on August 14, 2011

The map is being a little wonky, but it looked like you were planning on taking the 5 the whole way from SoCal? Unless you've been there before it would be a real shame not to cut over so you could hit Big Sur. You could then drive up to SF from there. That whole part of the coast may be the most beautiful spot on the planet.
posted by Room 641-A at 4:04 PM on August 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

In California, I'd opt for either Highway 395 (along the CA/NV border) or the coast highway, instead of the relatively boring Interstate 5 that goes down the middle.
posted by jon1270 at 4:06 PM on August 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

On the west coast, it looks like your route takes you straight from Yosemite to LA through the central valley... you *could*, instead, go from Yosemite to Death Valley down the Sierras.

Also, depending on when your trip is, you may have the choice of the North Rim or the South Rim for the Grand Canyon. Very different experiences.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 4:10 PM on August 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

For the West Coast leg, what time of year are you thinking of?
posted by rtha at 4:19 PM on August 14, 2011

for west coast instead of going through salt lake city, I would suggest staying on the west edge of wyoming to south pass, little america, green river, vernal, dinosaur n.m. than on down to grand junction. And in general you will see lots more cool stuff off the interstates than on it and enjoy your trip more. My rule is to take the road with the most numbers (like I-5 has 1 number, 395 has 3, therefore better) that is still paved. And the smaller the government agency maintaining it the better, like county>state>federal. Good luck.
posted by bartonlong at 4:23 PM on August 14, 2011

From Ms. Vegetable:
1. Down in the 4 corners area (West leg of your trip) is Mesa Verde National Park. Go.
2. If you so happen to hit Roanoke or Lynchburg, VA, the diner of choice is The Texas Inn (aka "The Tavern"). You want a cheesy and a bowl all the way.
3. Portland - rose garden.
4. You ask about Christian theme parks. Similar note - the Creation Museum in KY.
5. Northern California - Ft. Bragg, North Coast Brewing Company. Have a Pranqster.
6. Northern California - Novato, Moylan's. Have a pomegranate wheat ale.
7. South leg - Smoky Mountains - western side of NC.
8. Then there is the awesomeness of Chicago, but that's like a whole 'nother list.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 4:28 PM on August 14, 2011

All I'd say is it looks like you're taking a huge detour (from Philly to NYC) to go to Atlantic City... which isn't exactly AMAZING. Don't get me wrong, I've been there many times and it's fun, but I hope you're not envisioning a kind of Boardwalk Empire kind of experience. I don't know your objectives, maybe you just want to see the what the Jersey Shore is all about, in which case go for it because for many millions of Americans that's a huge part of their lives. But, if you're thinking "woooo party town!!!!!" I'd probably suggest doing that in NYC, or spending extra time at the historical sites in Philly, or something else in those two amazing American cities.

Just my two cents, AC isn't a huge disaster or anything
posted by Patbon at 4:45 PM on August 14, 2011

Your "East Coast" trip leaves out the most beautiful American recreational road, the Blue Ridge Parkway. And your "South" trip entirely omits Florida and Texas, not to mention Arkansas, Virginia, and North Carolina. Your "West Coast" trip almost entirely ignores the American Rocky Mountains. Whatever view of America you obtain from your proposed trips, will leave out much of America, and American history. Viewing your trip maps, it seems you've particular unstated interests or limitations, which make it hard to advise properly.

If you do make it to Florida, don't miss the mermaid shows at Weeki Wachee Springs, the prayer meetings at Vintage Grace Church, or the do-it-yourself pancakes at The Old Spanish Sugar Mill in DeLeon State Park, where you can also swim in a spring fed pool, and be chased (or eaten) by 6 to 8 foot American alligators if you venture far beyond. And if you don't make it to Miami to eat Cuban food, or dance salsa, it's your loss, not mine.

Also, don't miss Iowa or Nebraska (especially the Platte River basin along some parts of I-80, which kind of includes the long lost Oregon Trail), no matter what you hear from other sources. There remain views of America in Grand Island, NE and Dubuque, IA that you'll never know, or even slightly understand, unless you go there.

In a lot of ways, even omitting Alaska, Hawaii, and all our territories (Guam, Puerto Rico, etc.), the USA is country so vast it defies imagination, or convenient trip planning, even for Russians, who sometimes think of Siberia. You don't really "get" us, unless you "get" nearly all of us...
posted by paulsc at 4:53 PM on August 14, 2011

Response by poster: Wow! Thank you all so much for the suggestions! I've been madly adding to the map.

Just to be clear - the routes are what Google gave me as the fastest between cities. I don't intend to follow them to the letter and would certainly prefer to take the more scenic, albeit longer, routes. I'll be adjusting it based on your suggestions.

In terms of timing - the West Coast route I intended to take counter-clockwise from March for about 3 months. I had hoped this way we might avoid the inclement weather in the north and the hotter weather around Vegas/Grand Canyon (I know it will still be pretty hot).

On preview: as per Patbon's recommendation, please also tell me if I should AVOID a particular city.

Some more info about us to help guide your suggestions:

- Both in our twenties.
- Australians (so we know how to drive long distances through hot, barren terrain).
- Absolutely LOVE food.
- Very interested in music of all sorts. 60s/70s stuff for me (Dylan, CSNY). 90s/00s indie for the lady (think Pavement, Built to Spill).
- I also have a strong interest in American history, particularly anything to do with the founding fathers.
- American literature is a strong interest as well (as we travel I'd love to be reading novels set in the regions we're driving through).
posted by smithsmith at 4:59 PM on August 14, 2011

To reiterate what others have said the Interstate Highway system is great for getting from destination to destination but is often not so great for sightseeing along the way. Roads that are federal highways (but not interstates) have a number within a white shield. These highways were the slower precursors of the Interstates. As such a lot of early- and mid-20th century Americana (diners, mom-and-pop motels, drive-ins, roadside attractions, etc.) is located along them in various states of repair. Road Trip USA is a book and website of several trips along these smaller roads. The author describes the highlights (sights, places to eat and sleep, etc.) Some of his routes overlap with your intended trips.

Roadfood will help you gain 40 lbs. in six weeks by eating like an American! It is a good way to find regional foods across the country.

If you intend to visit several National Parks and Monuments you might want to invest in a Park Service Annual Pass. The pass costs $80 and it covers entrance fees for a driver and passengers.
posted by plastic_animals at 5:01 PM on August 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Oh, and I guess we generally love pop culture - so settings of television shows and movies would also be very cool. We'd do something silly like drive out of our way to see where the Twin Peaks sign was located, as an example.
posted by smithsmith at 5:05 PM on August 14, 2011

Response by poster: You don't really "get" us, unless you "get" nearly all of us...

Yeah, I know, but we can only do so much, right? I've been to Florida before, hence the omission. The Rockies was a painful one to miss, but I'm hoping we can pick up those more central states (including Texas) on a separate trip in the future.
posted by smithsmith at 5:13 PM on August 14, 2011

I noticed you're going through Moab. I really enjoyed doing this.

Consider touring other portions of the Colorado Plateau, including Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks.

While in the Lake Tahoe area, why not take a ride in a glider in one of the finest soaring sites in the world. Rides are offered by these guys and these guys.
posted by tss at 5:23 PM on August 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Dollywood.
posted by naturalog at 5:40 PM on August 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

2nding the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline in VA. Shenandoah National Park is my absolutely favorite park in the east. Amazing hiking: short, medium, and grueling itineraries available many with waterfalls, vistas and cool rock formations.

Also, if you do drive down through Shenandoah check out Luray Caverns. While they are privately owned and thus the gift shop is overly kitchy, the caves themselves are AMAZING.

As a matter of fact, you are missing out in general if you don't Visit Virginia.

While in the area 2nding Civil War Battlefields, especially Gettysburg (i've never been but I'm sure it's amazing)

Nthing DONT TAKE INTERSTATES THE WHOLE WAY. Especially when in rurual areas, you will miss out on so much beautiful vistas in Upstate New York, Pensilvania and (if you take my advice) Virginia.

Two other things to consider:
-Stay at a Bed and Breakfast or two (there are so many in the east just google the state or region you want). There are so many houses (especially historical ones) that were sets in various movies that I'm sure if you look you will find a B&B or two that were in a movie you've seen.

-Visit some (non battlefield) historical sites or historical reenactment villages.

in VA:
- Colonial Williamsburg. This is, in my book, THE meccca for historic districts and historic re-creation. it is 3 hours from DC on your itinerary but it is worth it. There is also a great amusement park, Busch Gardens, in Williamsburg, it has the roller coaster that Fabio got hit in the face with a duck on.

- Jefferson's House at Monticello. Also amazing.

in CT:
- One hour from Hartford CT (on your itinerary) is Mystic Sea Port. If you are into maritime history you'll love it. Many movies featuring historical boats were filmed there including Amistad.

Look around, I'm sure there are other smaller ones, if you are interested, that are closer to your itinerary.

Have Fun! I'm envious.
posted by DaftMythic at 5:41 PM on August 14, 2011

New England:

Concord, Massachusetts (So much history and literature)

See Plimoth Plantation and Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts (Mass).
Plimoth is a living history museum. It's a village with homes and actors portraying plymoth in the 1600's. Sturbridge Village is the 1840's. Many homes are not reproductions.
Also please consider Shelburne Museum in Vermont. There is no place like it in the US. It is also in a beautiful corner of Vermont on lake Champlain.

You may want to see Newport, RI. Fun town, beautiful beaches and amazing mansions from the gilded age (Edith whartons book Age of innocence).

Providence, RI and their waterfire.

Boston, of course.

You should see some New England diners and see a drive in movie.

Nantucket while reading Moby Dick and the nonfiction Heart of the Sea.

North shore in Mass is beautiful and with lots of history, Salem (epicenter of the witch hunt) and house of seven gables.

Ohh.. just found this.
posted by beccaj at 5:41 PM on August 14, 2011

And, more seriously, I remember going to the Biltmore Estate as a kid and finding it Seriously Cool. I'd love to go back as an adult.
posted by naturalog at 5:42 PM on August 14, 2011

I'd like to second the Natchez Trace for driving through Mississippi. Make frequent stops to read all the historical plaques, and see everything from Oprah's hometown to old Indian grounds.

While you are in the northern Mississippi area, you might be interested in the Tennessee-Tombigbee canal for amazing engineering. The Shiloh National Military Park is very interesting and beautiful. Corinth, Mississippi is not on the route you've mapped (it's on 72 just south of the state line with Tennessee) but if you do wind up there, be there for dinner -- assuming you are not vegetarian, Chapman's Restaurant is where you want to be, for an incredible dinner of fried quail with sawmill gravy and hot biscuits -- sorghum molasses usually available upon request to top your last biscuit. Worth a detour.

As you drive through Memphis, be sure to take a look at the FedEx airport as you drive by. Nothing to stop and see, but it's interesting to see all the FedEx planes lined up.

In general, in the northern parts of Mississippi you'll want to eat fried catfish with hush puppies, and shredded pork BBQ sandwiches served with coleslaw on top, in a hamburger bun -- this is good. BBQ in this area is primarily pork and the sauce is the thin, vinegary kind. If you are looking for food that is sometimes labeled "soul food" in this part of Mississippi, it is just called "food" as it is the general, everyday fare. Available at any diner, really.

If you have more questions about the northern Mississippi part, please let me know. My family is from that area, so I've spent quite a bit of time there.
posted by Houstonian at 5:44 PM on August 14, 2011

How did I forget this! Memphis:

It's a little touristy -- but hey, you're touring! -- go to the Peabody Hotel and see the ducks. They stay at the hotel for 3 months (and then retire, and new ducks arrive), and they ride down the elevator and arrive, led by the Duckmaster, down a red carpet at 11:00 AM and 5:00 PM.

Naturally, Graceland.

Mud Island gives a good sense of history of the Mississippi River, and is fun.
posted by Houstonian at 5:55 PM on August 14, 2011

"... If you are looking for food that is sometimes labeled "soul food" in this part of Mississippi, it is just called "food" as it is the general, everyday fare. Available at any diner, really. ..."

True enough, until you get about 100 miles farther south, down Highway 61, where you pickup the Mississippi Tamale Trail, and, here and there, a shot at some jukes.
posted by paulsc at 5:57 PM on August 14, 2011

Since it's right on your route when you're in Southern Oregon, make sure to stop at Summer Lake Hotsprings. We stop there every year on the way home from Burning Man, pretty unique place. Plus, Oregon Outback! How could you not go?

And since you mentioned being interested in famous film or tv locations - Astoria, Oregon is where the Goonies was filmed.

One more Oregon suggestion - Crater Lake

dammit, one of you American mefites marry me already so I can go live in Oregon!
posted by mannequito at 5:57 PM on August 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

+1 for Biltmore, Asheville, and the Blue Ridge Parkway during your time in the south.

For the trip into Yellowstone National Park in WY, I think the best entrance is from the direction of Billings, MT, via the Beartooth Highway. Excellent views and you get to see snow even in the middle of summer.

+1 on Newport, RI, if you like big (American, ridiculously conspicuous consumption) houses (I do!!) Definitely worth a morning touring the 1890s vacation homes there. Plus, I think one of the homes, Rosecliff, is in several movies.
posted by parkerjackson at 6:00 PM on August 14, 2011

What time of year are you planning to be in the Northeast? I live in New England and I would suggest visiting in late September or early October to see the fall foliage at it's best. If you are planning to visit the Northeast in the summer, go to Cape Cod and maybe the coast of Maine. If you're going to be in the Northeast in the spring, try to see the cherry blossoms in DC in early April. They're really beautiful.

For the California portion of your trip, make sure you drive through Big Sur. I also recommend Lake Tahoe on the California-Nevada border. Both Big Sur and Lake Tahoe are spectacularly beautiful. What a great trip. I'm envious.
posted by Maisie at 6:12 PM on August 14, 2011

I just moved to Charlotte, NC, and have lived a few places in the US and overseas. I would second recommendations for the Blue Ridge Parkway and Asheville, in general. What I might suggest you do is if you go to Nashville, go over to Knoxville and the Smoky Mountains, then Asheville, then up into Virginia and Charlottesville (Monticello is Thomas Jefferson's estate) and then down South. I would go from maybe Charleston, SC, pretty quickly to Florida and then maybe leisurely across the Gulf Coast. Charlotte is plenty cool and would sort of give you some of the characteristics of Atlanta (New South city with brand new skyscrapers next to Old South stuff), but less of the grinding traffic.
posted by Slothrop at 6:15 PM on August 14, 2011

I would also recommend Mesa Verde when you are near the four corners region. We stopped at the Anasazi Heritage Center and got a map that led us to smaller canyon hikes with smaller out of the way cliff dwellings and petroglyphs. This was 6 years ago, so I'd check to see if they still give those kind of directions. It was pretty amazing to explore ancient dwellings on our own and we wondered that it could continue.

Find a radio station in Navaho to listen to when traveling around four corners. Find a radio station in cajun french when in Louisiana. I was reading Stegner once on a trip thru the mountain west and it really fit.
posted by readery at 6:39 PM on August 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Good choice taking the George Washington parkway out of DC. It's a beautiful drive and the northbound lanes have two places to stop for scenic overlooks. Closer to DC, the northbound lanes also have access to Gravelly Point where you can watch planes landing and taking off at National airport.

In MD, you can avoid 270 by taking the River Road exit off the Beltway and heading through the tony neighborhoods of Potomac and beyond into the farm lands, some of which offer pick-your-own fruit and vegetables. White's Ferry is the only ferry left that crosses the Potomac river. Once in VA, you can get on 15 and cross the Potomac for a third time heading towards Frederick, MD. If you stay on highway 40 a little past Hancock, you'll come up on Sideling Hill where they cut through a hilltop, exposing the various layers of rock. Here's a map covering the MD route.
posted by hoppytoad at 6:40 PM on August 14, 2011

Best answer: *pulls up chair and sits down*

Okay. First thing you want to do in general is get a copy of this book, or just study that web site. It's got about a dozen mapped-out road trip routes, all following the two-line roads rather than the interstates. It takes you from coast to coast or border to border, and it tells you all the weird roadside attractions, all the diners, the radio stations -- it even tells you where a road just goes through strip malls and you can skip it if you want. Both the East and West coasts are covered by their own routes in the book, and there are a couple routes that go through what you call "the south."

In the specific, though, some points.


* Hearst Castle is kind of neat. You'll only be able to see a smattering of rooms, but it's an interesting view into the mind of the man.

* If you go to the Santa Cruz boardwalk -- the calliope connected to the carousel is actually a juke box, and you can spend a quarter or so and pick a song for it to play. I was probably way more amused than I should have been programming it to play The Liberty Bell March (for my own reasons).

* In San Francisco, check out Coit Tower not only for the views of the city -- but for the WPA mural in the ground floor. They are gorgeous, extensive, unabashedly lefty, and fascinating.

* It'll be a splurge, but try to stay in Deetjen's Big Sur Inn on the California coast if you can. It is LOVELY.


* You absolutely should not drive through Connecticut without a meal at Shady Glen. They serve the most amazing cheeseburgers you will ever eat in the course of your life, and I am willing to bet one of their cheeseburgers ON that claim. They also make their own ice cream, and use that ice cream in milkshakes of enormous and luxuriant size. Shady Glen is pretty much my own version of Proust's madeline, and everyone I know from Eastern Connecticut is kind of an evangelist about this.

* Same too with Cape Cod and clam shacks. New England does seafood right.

* Back in Connecticut -- try to time your trip so you're be in Connecticut in time to catch this July 4th Parade in my hometown. It is corny as all get-out, but adorable as a result.

* Your route from Massachusetts across New York State cuts through Albany -- consider taking a more southerly route and going through the Catskills. That takes you past Woodstock (which is indeed capitalizing on its 60s connection), through the Catskill state park which has a lot of hiking, skiing, and innter tube rafting, and a lot of other pretty little towns.

* Your existing route goes through New York's Finger Lakes; this is good. Stop in Ithaca to visit the Moosewood Restaurant, the one that launched all the cookbooks.

* Philadelphia is cheaper than you'd think. A lot of the attractions are national parks and national monuments, so they're also free. One thing that's NOT is the Mutter Museum, an unusual visit.


* This is another timing suggestion -- try to AVOID hitting New Orleans in the month of August. You'll actually have a great time whenever you go, but New Orleans in august will give you a newer and more powerful understanding with the phrase "hot and humid." (Aside to ColdChef: I'm sorry -- I was there one August and I speak from experience.) However, it's my understanding that June -- when the Jazz Fest is going on -- isn't bad. Mardi Gras is okay weather too, but make your reservation NOW if you plan to be in New Orleans during Mardi Gras.

* Speaking of New Orleans -- you will have some of the best food you'll ever eat in your life.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:41 PM on August 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

This is kind of a one-guy Christian Theme Park!!!

Dear, deceased Howard Finster's amazing home, Paradise Gardens.
posted by maya at 6:43 PM on August 14, 2011

Oh, duh, knew I forgot something!

This may be a fun place to stay in the Catskills.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:44 PM on August 14, 2011

Going from Moab to the Grand Canyon, that route has you turning south a bit too soon. Go through Mexican Hat, then south through Monument Valley.

Also, you could easily add Joshua Tree. Head south to 29 Palms, then drive south through the park, then head west through Palm Springs.
posted by salvia at 6:46 PM on August 14, 2011

the West Coast route I intended to take counter-clockwise from March for about 3 months.

I dunno that I'd want to do that whole stretch from around Moab north and west before May. I've been snowed on in Yellowstone in June.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:52 PM on August 14, 2011

90s/00s indie for the lady (think Pavement

You could drive through their hometown, Stockton.

Also, the timing might be right for you to catch Coachella.
posted by salvia at 7:16 PM on August 14, 2011

Since you're headed along I-40 in western TN, you should stop for a piece of pie at Loretta Lynn's Kitchen as it's right off the highway.
posted by pappy at 7:47 PM on August 14, 2011

Your route is taking you through Utica, which is great! It is a diamond in the dilapidated rough, if you know where to look. The drive along the Erie Canal is gorgeous, the drive through the city is a great one to see wonderful houses and architecture virtually unchanged since the 20s-40s.

I'd suggest getting there around 5pm and going to the Saranac Brewery. Its over a century old, and since you're interested in American History, they have a full replica of a speakeasy and what purports to be the first ever cans of beer. You get two free drinks at the bar after the tour. Head over to The Secret Garden for dinner and grab the best Utica Riggies in town. Spend the night at the Hotel Utica, which was a favorite of the Roosevelts and maintains intact 1920s elegance at an amazing price, because no one goes to Utica.

And in the morning when you're driving out, for a real taste of America grab a bite to eat at Dinosaur BBQ in Syracuse. If you can get a seat that is. It took me two years of trying, but it was damn worth it.
posted by Chipmazing at 9:44 PM on August 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Looks like your Southern leg takes you through Macon, Georgia, and you mentioned 60s/70s music as an interest. Macon was important in the development of Southern Rock, if that's a genre you're interested in, so you might make a quick stop at the Allman Brothers Band Museum. (Additionally, Duane Allman and Berry Oakley are buried in Rose Hill Cemetery, which is a very cool historic cemetery in its own right.) There's also a statue of native son Otis Redding in a park overlooking the river. Unfortunately, the Georgia Music Hall of Fame Museum recently closed, so (as far as I know) there isn't really anywhere to get a good informational overview of the area's music.

Also, it looks like you've taken some suggestions above and added Thomas Jefferson's Monticello to your map (tentatively, perhaps). If you do end up going to Charlottesville, and you'll forgive me for maybe stating the obvious, don't forget to stop by The Lawn at the University of Virginia, the "academical village" designed by Jefferson in his retirement and another architectural treasure. (If you're hungry, I suggest The Virginian Restaurant across the street. Get the macaroni and cheese as a side.)
posted by SuperNova at 11:12 PM on August 14, 2011

Definitely get the National Parks Pass Interagency Annual Pass. It will pay for itself if you go to Yellowstone and a couple other parks. They are good for one full year from the date of purchase and can be used at a bunch of other Federal sites that charge admission that aren't National Parks.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 1:48 AM on August 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

However, it's my understanding that June -- when the Jazz Fest is going on -- isn't bad.

Jazz Fest isn't in June. Its in early May/late April. There is a reason for that.
posted by JPD at 5:08 AM on August 15, 2011

I second getting a copy of Road Trip USA. In addition to the national books, there are also regional editions that have more roads and places to see.

I took a cross-country road trip in 2005 that covered most of the country except the Southeast, and also parts of Ontraio, Canada. My trip primarily hit most of the major tourist attractions, so I don't know if I have much to add. If I were to do it again, I would take more time off work (I took 3 weeks) so I didn't feel like I was rushing everywhere, and I'd try to wake up earlier so I got to places I wanted to see before they closed.

If you have extra time, I would HIGHLY recommend taking US 550 through western Colorado. There is an absolutely beautiful section of that road near the town of Ouray that is called the Million Dollar Highway. I am so glad I drove that route on my trip.

I used to live in New England (various parts of Massachusetts and New Hampshire), and now I live in Maryland. I also suggest of the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia/North Carolina, as well as Skyline Drive immediately north of it. Also, especially if you're planning to be in New England in the fall, take a drive on the Kancamagus Highway (State Route 112) in northern New Hampshire. Also, instead of I-90 in Massachusetts, opt for State Route 2. It's far more scenic, plus if you drive that way from Boston you can easily stop in Lexington and Concord, since you mentioned an interest in American history. Walden Pond is also off Route 2.

I went to Cornell for my undergrad degree, and I second the recommendation of Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca, NY.

I haven't read through these answers in detail yet, but it looks like you've got a lot of good suggestions. If I think of anything else, I'll post here.
posted by tckma at 6:29 AM on August 15, 2011

Thanks, JPD -- my advice was more "visit during jazz fest" than it was "visit in June," so please amend my advice accordingly.

And while I'm here:

* I see that your "east coast" trip veers into Chicago. If you have the time for a detour, the Cahokia Mounds are somewhat awe-inspiring. It'd probably take you a day out of your way, but it's worth it. (Illinois isn't that big, actually; I think I got from Indiana to some point west of St. Louis in a day, and that INCLUDED stopping at Cahokia and the Gateway Arch and a stop at a diner to pee, so a detour south to Cahokia before turning back north to Chicago is very do-able.)

* The Rock and Roll hall of fame is a little overpriced, but I still dug it. If only for how exhaustive they can get for some of their special exhibits; Bruce Springsteen was the guy spotlighted when I went, and they had the most trivial ephemera on display, including a yearbook with some of his college poetry (which -- sorry, fans, but it was kind of cringeworthy), and a sign he'd made by ripping the corner off a poster or something that read "GUYS, KEEP YOUR HANDS OFF MY FOOD!" In the U2 display they also had a couple notes from Edge to Larry from when they were still teenagers, nagging him to show up for practice or something. The museum on the whole is kind of small, but the special displays are very rich.

* A general note -- Youth Hostels are your friends. You don't need a membership to stay in them, and there is no age limit, and for the bigger cities you may need to reserve in advance, but you cannot beat the price with a stick. There's a hostel in Philadelphia that's only about $25 a night for members, and it's in a GORGEOUS park right bang in the middle of Philadelphia.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:30 AM on August 15, 2011

Hell, I've just accepted that I'm going to be adding to this a lot over the course of the day. Sorry, all.

* A literature note: John Steinbeck is de rigueur for central California. Steinbeck wrote Cannery Row while he was in Monterey, CA, and was indeed doing the kind of amateur marine biology studies that the doctor he talks about was doing.

* West Coast: Carmel, CA is pretty, had a weird Stepford's-Wives feel to it that felt vaguely creepy. Nearby Monterey is a little more tourist-friendly -- but shun Monterey's Cannery Row, as it's mostly a theme park now. (Or, if you do go, at least go with that understanding; sometimes kitsch-watching can be great fun.)

* Speaking of kitsch -- I see you are indeed planning on stopping over in Vegas. That is the best kitsch EVER. You don't really need to gamble -- the last time I went, the only "gambling" I did was, I saved up all my loose coins for a month, and that was the money I used on the slot machines. But even then, all I did was just carry all that money around with me on my wanderings, and every so often as the fancy struck me I dropped a couple in a slot machine, and if I won anything I cashed right out and moved on. I think I had about seven dollars' worth of change, and on my last quarter I made fifteen bucks. I stopped all my gambling for the trip because I realized I could then claim that "I doubled my money in Vegas," and I think I blew it all on breakfast the next day. The sightseeing will be sufficiently mind-blowing.

* If you get sick of Vegas, about an hours' drive north -- near the Hoover Dam -- is a Nevada state park called Valley of Fire. It is one of the most alien-looking landscapes you will ever see; the land has a lot of brilliant red sandstone, and the wind patterns have carved it into some freaky-looking shapes; and on top of that, there has been about a thousand years' worth of petroglyph activity there. And it's also got some extensive film history as well.

* Back on the East Coast -- Okay. Hartford, CT does have a couple of noteworthy attractions -- The Wadsworth Atheneum is a fine museum, and there's a couple small Mark Twain-related things. But aside from that -- and I grew up in Connecticut, so it somewhat pains me to say this -- Hartford is kind of boring. Make it a quick day trip at most.

* This is more a driving advisory -- there is an Interstate cutting across the south coast of Connecticut, I-95. Whatever you do -- even if you do not listen to ANY OTHER of my advice except for this one thing -- AVOID THE STRETCH OF I-95 BETWEEN NEW HAVEN AND NEW YORK CITY AT ALL COSTS. The southwest portion of Connecticut is home to a lot of commuters who work in New York City, and I-95 is also a big thoroughfare for people driving from New York to Boston, so that stretch of road is home to THE WORST TRAFFIC YOU WILL EVER SEE. No matter what time you go, no matter how fast or slow you drive, you will end up stuck on I-95 in gridlock for about an hour and a half MINIMUM. Your route currently spares you from that stretch of road -- be VERY GLAD of that, and DO NOT change your mind and decide to try I-95. TRUST me.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:56 AM on August 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also, there is a book series I particularly like of each state's scenic roads (at least in New England). For example this one for New Hampshire.
posted by tckma at 7:01 AM on August 15, 2011

Oh yes, avoid I-95 in Connecticut at all costs. The Merritt and Wilbur Cross Parkways (both part of Connecticut Route 15) are just slightly north of I-95, and are a much better and more scenic alternate route.
posted by tckma at 7:04 AM on August 15, 2011

Head east out of Idaho Falls and go over the Tetons to Jackson, WY, and then turn north toward Yellowstone. There will be tourists, but it's one of the most scenic drives in the U.S. Stop a lot, a lot!, in Teton Park, for the many overlooks, trails, incredible vistas. Get out and walk as much as you have time for. Great mountain air, and 90% of the tourists disappear once you're a hundred yards off the road. In the town of Jackson, tour the many shops and stores. Lots of tourist crap, but also some really impressive Western art. Good eats at the Cadillac Grill (on the square) and many other restaurants. You can take wagon rides through an elk herd at the National Elk Refuge. Float trips down the Snake River include slow, scenic bird-watching trips, or high-energy white-water thrill rides -- your choice. Fun old-timey theater plays at a the Pink Garter Theater.

Lots of movies made in Jackson and the Tetons. And think of the best of the Western art that you'll see as "historical pop culture." Most of the legends of the West began as dime novel stories with almost no relation to reality, but swept the country into its mythos anyhow.

Looks like a lot of great ideas for your trip(s). Nthing the "get off the interstate" suggestion. Small roads, and lots of walking. Have fun!
posted by rexknobus at 8:02 AM on August 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

What a fantastic trip you have planned., you will get to know the US better than most Americans. The three itineraries will show you three very different parts of the US. All great, it's a nice sampling. Of course you're not seeing everything, but this is a good start.

If you like the great outdoors, spend some time researching the National Parks. Particularly around Southern Utah, there's a lot of amazing places there and you could easily spend weeks doing nothing but hiking / rafting / biking / climbing. You'll want to buy a yearly access pass, saves you a lot of money.

General road trip advice: plan on no more than 200-250 miles a day at the most. Stay off the interstates. Avoid chain restaurants if at all possible; the local dives are almost always OK and definitely more interesting. But for hotels, stay in chain hotels. Grab a copy of guides to Super 8, Best Western, Travelodge, etc; they're pretty reliable. For camping out, in addition to the parks you can camp in most National Forest land without any special permission or planning.

On a long trip like this you'll want some company. Take advantage of your social connections (and Metafilter!) to meet up with folks along the way.
posted by Nelson at 8:39 AM on August 15, 2011

Near Pocatello (Idaho) I highly recommend Craters of the Moon, a gigantic lava flow park!

Also, if you're interested, the Grand Canyon Railway has you ride an older train from a nearby town to the Grand Canyon and back. If you're driving through, not so much. Also, the north rim is a lot less touristy.

Your "East Coast" trip looks to be more of a "Midwest/New England" trip. East coast would have you coming down through Virginia and the Carolinas, but there are a fair number of suggestions for that already.

Don't just take 90 west and back! I-90 is a somewhat-expensive toll road through there, and talk about boring, retracing your route. I'd either go back through Michigan/Canada, or swing down through Kentucky and West Virginia, then back up the coast. Also, avoid the Great Lakes during winter, if that's the time frame you're looking at, because you'll run into "lake effect snow", which is awe-inspiring but hard to drive in.
posted by bookdragoness at 8:40 AM on August 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have two more general notes! I realized I wrote my first comment before I figured out you're coming from Australia, and mayhave assumed some knowledge you didn't have.

* I spoke of San Francisco's Coit Tower, and the "WPA mural" in the first floor. "W.P.A." stands for "Works Progress Administration," which was a big umbrella organization which the U.S. government founded in the 1930's to create jobs during the Great Depression. There were a lot of smaller units within the WPA -- the Engineering division did things like create or renovate roads, buildings, airports, and bridges; a conservation department sent work crews to create, restore, and maintain parks by planting trees, clearing brush, and building or maintaining hiking trails.

However, they also had programs for artists of various stripes -- there was a theater division (about which I'll only say "do a Google Search for 'United States Federal Theatre'," because it's too long and fascinating a story to go into here), a writers' division (they commissioned writers to write travel guides for each state -- if you can find any of them in your travels, that'd make for a great souvenir), and a visual artists division, which ended up sending painters to do a lot of informational and promotional posters for everything from tourism to public health warnings (think Jackson Pollack doing a poster about the Heimlich Manoeuver, say). But they also had them do murals in a lot of public buildings -- post offices, schools, libraries, etc. You may want to keep your eyes open for other WPA murals in your travels -- here's a list of some WPA murals in each state, and information on whether you can see it still or whether it's been painted over, purchased by private collectors, or what.

* Also spoke about the "two-line roads" -- that was a typo. I meant "two-LANE" roads, and what THOSE are, are the "highways" that existed before the big huge highway system was developed. Route 66 was the most famous example; the book I recommended is exclusively made up of these roads. (In some cases, portions have had big highways laid over them; but the book/website does a good job of saying so.)

Those two-lane roads are where you are going to find all the tacky roadside Americana -- the "world's biggest ball of twine" types of things, the diners, the gloriously hokey small town festivals. Some of the best stuff is stuff you will spontaneously discover on the way (I got to see the World's Biggest Hand-Dug Well off one such road, which I didn't even know was a thing). Stick to those and you'll not only avoid traffic, you'll be steeped in roadside stuff. There's a slightly greater chance you'll get lost, but that's also where people will be more likely to help you (I got totally lost somewhere in Kansas and pulled into a fried chicken place in the middle of nowhere, and two waitresses and a trucker not only gave me directions to Witchita but recommended which of my CDs would be best for driving music).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:30 AM on August 15, 2011

For the East coast leg:

-I would not do this trip between November and April. The Midwest/East Coast is tempestuous in the spring, lovely in the summer, and beautiful in the fall, but winter? A slog of snow.

-Your route has you stopping in Toledo. Booooo. One hour North is Detroit, which contains Greenfield Village and The Henry Ford Museum. These were both opened by Henry Ford in the 1920s as a way of chronicling the everyday life of Americans, from colonial times through the early 20th century. You can easily spend a day at each (the Museum focuses more on vehicles and industry whereas Greenfield Village contains houses, costumed presenters, and craft demonstrations [glass-blowing, pottery, printing, etc.]) Stop there (during the summer ideally), take a Model T ride, and eat hamburgers at Miller's Bar afterward.

-Ann Arbor is a fun town that's worth an afternoon. Lots of fun, weird shops, and Zingerman's Deli is wonderful.
posted by Turkey Glue at 11:37 AM on August 15, 2011

On the western leg of the trip, sticking to Highway 1 and then 101 as much as possible will net you some gorgeous views of the Pacific. However, the 1 is scary as hell if you're not a confident driver: lots of windy mountainous roads with no guardrails and lovely views of the surf crashing onto the rocks hundreds of feet below. A tense but memorably awesome part of our own Pacific Road Trip from a few years ago.

Also, if you can spare the time and like scenic drives and nature (and can add a day to the trip), detour west from Portland and stick to 101 most of your way to Seattle. You will go through Astoria of The Goonies fame and Forks, the setting of Twilight, which are both fun if you're into US film/pop culture. Almost the whole trip, the vastly awesome Olympic National Park will be on your right, and a stop in the otherworldly rainforests of Hoh is a must. You'll also see Lake Crescent, which is very picturesque, and pass through tons of cool little logging towns. I could (and hope some day to) spend a couple days exploring this whole area.
posted by HenryGale at 3:48 PM on August 15, 2011

On the literary aspect, I'm guessing you're a Jack Kerouac kinda guy. I confess I've only read Big Sur but would highly recommend that (and Nth-ing, that stretch of the California coast is awesome). On the Road would be another obvious choice.

I also enjoyed A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius not only for its own merits but some geographical references as well..
posted by raider at 5:40 PM on August 15, 2011

For the southern route, I would consider staying on I-10 and driving straight from New Orleans to Jacksonville and then turning north rather than going through the middle of Alabama and Georgia. There is not much to see in Montgomery or Macon. There isn't much to see in Northern Florida either, but Tallahassee and Jacksonville are both much larger cities. More importantly though, you would get to see some of the best beaches the U.S. has to offer on the Gulf Coast. Following the coast rather than the interstate would be a lot of fun and give you a lot of the off the beaten path stuff, but it will be slow. Even if you just pop down to the coast somewhere between Pensacola and Panama City it will be well worth it though. The beaches on the Gulf are nothing like what you will see on the Atlantic and will be pretty at any time of year.
posted by horses, of courses at 11:36 AM on August 16, 2011

Montgomery, Alabama is important if you are looking for historical sights, from Native American, to the beginnings of the Confederacy, through the Civil Rights movement. If you are excitedly awaiting Bob Dylan's upcoming "The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams," then it might be worthwhile to feed that excitement by visiting the Hank Williams Museum in Montgomery. While driving to Montgomery, you might select from the writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Fitzgerald.
posted by Houstonian at 5:05 PM on August 16, 2011

If I were you I'd definitely go to Asheville and see the Blue Ridge Parkway, and angle south to Charleston and Savannah from there. Maybe head back to Atlanta from Savannah and skip southern Georgia entirely.

You should visit one college town during your time in the States, preferably a big football school in the South on a game day. Auburn, Columbia (SC), maybe Knoxville or Athens are all not too far from your route.

Watch out for speed traps in Macon. I can't count the number of people I know who have been pulled over there, and if you don't have a southern accent they won't have a lot of sympathy.
posted by dd42 at 2:08 PM on October 15, 2011

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