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Best Road Trips: Big Drives in New Directions

Action-packed, eco-conscious, restorative, and altruistic. These four world-class road trips lead you through the hottest trends in travel. Consider them drives for an ever-changing planet.
Text by Christopher Percy Collier  Map by Computer Terrain Mapping

Illustration: Map of America

Spas, ecotreks, altruistic safaris. Our ultimate road trips through the United States, Africa, and Central America let you explore the latest and greatest in adventure travel.

Coast to Coast  |  Costa Rica  |  Southwest  |  South Africa

See All Road Trips >>

The Modern American Odyssey: 10 Days
When Jack Kerouac set out on the series of cross-country rambles that inspired the ur-road trip novel On the Road, he spent months tracing America's highways. Wouldn't that be nice? These days, even epic trips must conform to the reality of desk jobs, vacation time, and family demands—but that doesn't mean they have to suffer for it. To celebrate Kerouac (this year marks the 50th anniversary of his manifesto), we've revised a portion of his route, from New York City to San Francisco. In ten days you'll hit spots the mighty Sal Paradise, Kerouac's literary alter ego, could never have imagined.

Driving Tips

Pay to Ride:
Driving Interstate 80 is pretty self-explanatory—go west—but it's not
free. Look out for tolls (and toll traffic) in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Also check for construction, closures, delays, and weather at www.fhwa.dot.gov/trafficinfo.

Rental Info:

Most car rental agencies permit vehicles to be picked up in New York City and dropped off in San Francisco—for a large fee. Not Hertz. It has no drop-off fees and a great rate ($470 a week; www.hertz.com).
If you want to forgo hotels, reserve a five-person RV online from Cruise America ($125 a day, including insurance, plus 32 cents a mile and a $2,000-to-$3,000 drop-off fee; www.cruiseamerica.com).


Day 1-2
Bridge the Water Gap
Like Kerouac, you'll start your trip in New York City, but you won't stay long. Seventy miles (113 kilometers) west of Manhattan is a forgotten jewel of the mid-Atlantic, the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, a winding gorge of white quartzite cliffs, dense deciduous forest, and slate blue water. To see the best of it, arrange an overnight canoe trip from Eshback to Smithfield Beach with Adventure Sports ($37 a day; www.adventuresport.com). Float the 14-mile (23-kilometer) stretch and spend the night at the primitive Hamilton Sights camping area (mile 9 [kilometer 14]). Then make it back to your car by mid-morning and hunker down for the long drive to Chicago.

Day 3
Paddle a Glass Canyon
"Screeching trolleys, newsboys, gals cutting by, the smell of fried food and beer in the air, neons winking." That's how Kerouac described Chicago, but you should draw your own conclusions on one of the most novel city tours anywhere. Between museums and pans of deep-dish pizza, stop by Kayak Chicago ($50; www.kayakchicago.com), which arranges paddle trips down the Chicago River, the only river in the world that's been engineered to run backward. In three hours you'll get a full architectural tour, including the Wrigley Building, Merchandise Mart, Amoco Building, and Tribune Tower.

Day 4-5
Roam the Prairie
This is the long haul, the days that buzz by in a blur of rolling Iowan cornfields and open Nebraskan prairie. Kerouac did not linger here—and neither should you—but there are some essential stops: Starved Rock State Park, 50 miles (80 kilometers) west of Chicago, is a tightly packed cluster of 18 sandstone canyons cut into the grasslands; the Devonian Fossil Gorge outside of Iowa City is a 375-million-year-old seafloor riddled with ancient corals and brachiopods; and outside of Gering, Nebraska, the Scotts Bluff National Monument is home to an 800-foot (244-meter) cliff rising improbably from interminable flatness.

Day 6-7
Hoof Into the Rockies
After a thousand miles (1,609 kilometers) of flat and rolling terrain, the 12,000-foot-high (3,658-meter-high) Medicine Bow Mountains, across the Nebraska-Wyoming line, are shocking—and absolutely irresistible. Pass through the town of Laramie, Wyoming, and make your way to the Medicine Bow Lodge ($125; www.medbowlodge.com). There, sign on for a seven-mile (11-kilometer) horsepacking trip through moose and elk terrain to 10,000-foot-high (3,048-meter-high) Phantom Lake. After a night of high-country air, ride out to the road, load into your vehicle, and use a different kind of horsepower to cruise überscenic State Route 72 back to the interstate and west toward Utah.

Day 8
Fish a Blue-Ribbon Stream
Thousands of trout per square mile (three square kilometers) can be found on the Lower Provo River, 40 minutes off I-80 near Park City, Utah. Mayflies such as blue-winged olives and pale morning duns swirl about, and foot-long (less than a half meter) wild brown trout kiss the surface of this wadable flow. The guides at Trout Bum 2 will take you to prime casting grounds, including Tressle, Pine Run, and Hoover's Hole ($275 for a half day for two people; www.troutbum2.com). At the end of the day check into the 175-room Stein Eriksen Lodge ($260; www.steinlodge.com), a chic ski chalet, or press on to the funky town of Elko, Nevada, where you can stay the night at Stockmen's Hotel & Casino ($40; www.stockmenscasinos.com), a refurbished hotel from the old mining days. Just remember to pack your oversize belt buckle. If they are still serving when you get in, grab a dinner of Basque food at the Star Hotel & Restaurant on Silver Street.

Day 9-10
Hike the High Sierra
Cross the lonely basins and ranges of Nevada, skip Reno's "twinkling Chinese streets," as Kerouac called them, and climb the steep ridges of the Sierra past Lake Tahoe to Donner Memorial State Park (www.parks.ca.gov), a mosaic of high-country lakes and granite peaks. From the parking lot, hike four miles (six kilometers) along Coldstream Canyon to the solar-powered, 3,700-square-foot (344-square-meter) Lost Trail Lodge ($69; www.losttraillodge.com), a backcountry base camp that will give you a jump on the next day's hike. After a quick breakfast (which you provide), foot it four miles (six kilometers) and 2,400 vertical feet (733 vertical meters) to the Pacific Crest Trail. From there, bang out seven more miles (11 kilometers) to Donner Summit (7,090 feet [2,161 meters]) and descend past Donner Lake to complete your own High Sierra loop. You'll be whipped by the time you finish, but in keeping with Kerouac's philosophy of perpetual motion, consider making the final push to Frisco. After all, the "long, bleak streets with trolley wires all shrouded in fog" await.

Coast to Coast  |  Costa Rica  |  Southwest  |  South Africa

See All Road Trips >>

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