BEST AMERICAN BACKROADS

Our definitive list of epic U.S. routes for unforgettable road trips

These are the roads less traveled. From the stark beauty of California's Mojave Desert to the booming fall color in Vermont's North Country, the best of America is most often found by scrapping Google's advice and taking the backroads. These blue highways cut a glorious swatch through the country's cultural heart, and open up the most scenic—and significant—reasons for exiting the interstate. Windows down, radio up. 

Bob Wood

Bob Wood

MOJAVE HIGHWAY 62

Route: Palm Springs, CA to Las Vegas, NV Map it.

Miles: 234

Record: Calexico, Edge of the Sun

Mars via the Mojave. From Palm Springs, push deep into the desert expanse via Highway 62, and take this three-hour back way to Vegas (an old favorite of off-duty Marines stationed at Twentynine Palms) to avoid as much I-15 time as possible. Early on, the route passes through Amboy – a once-bustling throughway town where travelers would spend one last night at roadside motels like Roy’s before arriving in Los Angeles. Today it’s a dust-caked relic of yesteryear worth exploring for its abandoned refuges. From Amboy, it’s a left on Kelbaker that’ll take you through the heart of the Mojave National Preserve.


Dave Hensley

Dave Hensley

WEST TEXAS ROUTE 90

Route: Fort Stockton to Marfa, TX Map it.

Miles: 57

Record: Ryan Bingham, Mescalito

The world splits wide open here in West Texas—and the trio of towns along US Route 90 shows off an area steeped with an enduring mystique and charm. Drop in via 385 S if you’re headed from Fort Stockton, and pick up the route just outside of Marathon, known equally for the adobe-elegant, 1927-built Gage Hotel and the Texas equivalent to Ansel Adams, photographer James Evans. From there, head west toward Alpine, a railroad town home to the rancher go-to Big Bend Saddlery and the entry point to Big Bend National Park. Race the classic Sunset Limited train, visible from the highway, onward to tiny Marfa – former retreat of artist Donald Judd which now has cred with the international art crowd. 


Hank Word

Hank Word

OLD BLUES HIGHWAY

Route: Memphis, TN to Vicksburg, MS Map it.

Miles: 356

Record: Muddy Waters, Hoochie Coochie Man

The blues were born along this southbound stretch of fabled Highway 61. The two-lane ribbon runs its way through flat horizon Delta farmland and story-laden small towns, none more revered than Clarksdale. At the crossroads of 61 and 49, a trio of guitars marks the spot where Robert Johnson is said to have swapped his soul to the devil himself for a 12-bar style that would father what we know as the Blues. Pay homage by catching a set at Red’s Lounge or the New Roxy Theater. And farther south, stop off in Greenville for tamales and a Porterhouse at Doe’s Eat Place, a no-frills family steakhouse that lives in the pantheon of all-time American classics.


Apalachicola

Apalachicola

FLORIDA'S FORGOTTEN COAST

Route: Tallahassee to Mexico Beach, FL Map it.

Miles: 111

Record: Jimmy Buffett, Songs You Know By Heart

Leave the spring breakers behind and drift along the Forgotten Coast – a rural 80-ish-mile slice of Highway 98 lined with seafood shacks and fish camps, dappling nostalgia for simpler times in sun-baked old Florida. Head south from Tallahassee, sliding down to Alligator Point and Carrabelle and Apalachicola—a port city known for its robust fishing industry. Apalach’s other claim to fame? It’s the birthplace of the ice machine, invented and patented by hometown physician Dr. John Gorrie. Follow 30A along the St. Vincent Sound to Indian Pass Raw Bar for saltines and fat, tasty oysters, before rounding the Panhandle up toward Mexico Beach and its endless turquoise Gulf views. As you drive tune into a Southern Foodways Alliance oral history recorded over a decade ago with Tommy Ward of 13 Mile Oyster Company. His timeless stories of working the briny waters bring to life the historic “Mile” communities outside Apalachicola. 

Michael Janke

Michael Janke

BURR TRAIL ROAD

Route: Boulder to Bullfrog, UT Map it.

Miles: 73

Record: America, America

A testament to the Desert Southwest’s surrealist beauty, this Utah back route—which starts paved and ends up covering hard sand—is characterized by extreme switchback cuts and sandstone canyon views. Named after cattle-driving landowner John Burr, the path winds across the northern shoulder of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and exits out near Lake Powell. Photographers take note—time your trip to hit Long Canyon by mid-morning to best capture the sandstone’s orange glow. Need inspiration? Check out this motorcyclist's video capture


Jeff Turner

Jeff Turner

ANGELES CREST HIGHWAY

Route: Los Angeles to Joshua Tree, CA Map it.

Miles: 169

Record: The Byrds, Sweetheart of the Rodeo

Los Angelenos, here's your escape route. Dynamite and determination etched out the first attempts at a pass through the canyons of the San Gabriel Mountains back in the 1800s. Today, the winding two-lane road—a scenic, get-lost-for-a-while path to Joshua Tree—is readily accessible from La Canada Flintridge, offering an elevated alternative to LA’s parking lot pace. Cruise through Douglas firs and California walnut trees, then thank your lucky stars this eastbound stretch avoided the fate of being turned into a freeway.


Wayne Silver

Wayne Silver

MICHIGAN'S SHIPWRECK COAST

Route: Marquette to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, MI Map it.

Miles: 45

Record: Sufjan Stevens, Michigan and Aretha Franklin's Aretha Now

It’s a fatal mistake to underestimate the Great Lakes. Especially Superior, the largest of the five, which has laid claim to hundreds of shipwrecks, washing up broken vessels along the shoreline of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula for as far back as men have dared to attempt the voyage. Yet Superior’s unpredictable violence also shapes some of the region’s most spectacular natural sights along the coastline drive. From Marquette, take M-28 eastbound to the Pictured Rocks—40-plus miles of sandstone cliffs sculpted over time into majestic caves, arches, and formations. And if feeling adventurous, continue the exploration through the peninsula's inner woodlands via 123 until you reach Whitefish Point, a gone-era lighthouse that still beacons all vessels entering and exiting Superior’s waters.   


Ben Roffer

Ben Roffer

NANTUCKET'S GREAT POINT

Route: Wauwinet Gatehouse to Great Point Light, Nantucket, MA Map it.

Miles: 4

Record: Sea Shanties, Rousing Songs from the Age of Sail

It’s worth every bit of maneuvering to make it to this barely-touched Nantucket beach, which requires first, having a 4x4 vehicle, and second, snagging an oversand vehicle permit from the gatehouse attendant. Bring friends to split the $65 day pass. Once you've covered those two bases, head over to the Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge (pronounced “co-skate-uh coat-oo”) for the four-mile dune bumble. Pro-tip: Lower the tires to 12 PSI and make sure to bring a shovel in case you get into the really soft stuff. And remember, this beach is beloved by conservationists, striped bass anglers and towel-toters alike, so be kind to her wavy grasses and skittery shorebirds. Before sunset, trek out to the Great Point Light, which beacons out from the northernmost point of the island despite having been rebuilt three times since its first inception in 1784.  


Hei Pei

Hei Pei

SMUGGLERS' NOTCH

Route: Route 108 from Stowe to Jeffersonville, VT

Miles: 17

Record: James Taylor, Greatest Hits Volume I and II

Pick up the narrow and twisting Route 108 in Stowe, and follow its ascent to the historic pass once used by fugitive slaves and Prohibition-era smugglers trying to reach Canada. Stop there for a hike through Smugglers’ Notch State Park, a network of trails with vistas stunning any time of year but particularly during autumn. (All important e-foliage tracker here.) Then, continue down the mountain to Jeffersonville, a base camp postcard town filled with local art galleries and vibey general stores such as Hanley’s. Note: This two-lane stretch is mostly impassable once winter hits, but come the springtime thaw, you’ll be able to maneuver the turns once again.


JT Wall

JT Wall

WHIDBEY ISLAND SCENIC WAY

Route: Seattle to Whidbey Island, WA, via Deception Pass State Park. Map it.

Miles: 126

Record: Pearl Jam, Live on Two Legs

From Seattle, head north on I-5 until you hit Burlington; then, hang a left onto state route 20, which, along with 525, comprises the only national designated Scenic Byway on an island in the entire country. This westward stretch, appropriately named the Whidbey Island Scenic Isle Way, gets increasingly picturesque from Fidalgo Island on. Skip the ferry—which early 20th century settlers used to summon by banging a saw with a mallet—and cross via car over Deception Pass Bridge, a heartstopping wonder spanning the Puget Sound and some of the most stunning landscape in the PAC Northwest. Fun fact: It cost more to repaint the bridge in 1983 than it did to build it in 1935, but you’ll never hear anyone who’s driven it complain.


THREE MORE FAVORITES

- Highway 1 in California. Nine out of 10 travelers hit SF and blaze an interstate trail inland towards Napa and Sonoma, missing out on the magical curves weaving through Mount Tam and Muir country, Bolinas, and Tomales Bay's dreamiest little roadside stopover, Nicks Cove

- Texas Hill Country, Ranch Rd 337. One of the famed "twisted sister" roads west of San Antonio, this wild flower trek passes through town charmers, Medina, Vanderpool, Leakey and Camp Wood, home a fresh-spring swimming hole that's secret to most. It's called the Quince, a few hundred yards off River Road. 

- Kebler Pass between Crested Butte and Aspen, Colorado. Home to one of the largest Aspen groves in the world, County Road 12 is a mostly dirt-and-gravel road that shimmers a brilliant gold in September and October. Ten thousand feet never looked so gorgeous.