The average annual price of gasoline declined in 2013 after three consecutive yearly increases, and the federal government’s Energy Information Administration projects the average price to continue to fall this year and in 2015.
Translation: Time to take a Great American Road Trip.
So where are arguably the best road trips in the country? These ten may take a road trip in themselves to reach, but they are worth the trouble:
No. 10: Lincoln Highway
Franklin Grove, Ill., to Fulton, Ill., 49 miles
The nation’s first transcontinental highway, the Lincoln Highway was dedicated in 1913, though it would be more than a decade before the road was fully paved through 14 states between New York City and San Francisco. The Illinois portion crosses two other historic roadways, Route 66 and the Dixie Highway.
A good place to start is the national headquarters of the Lincoln Highway Association in Franklin Grove, where you can get information on routes and other details. The route can be difficult to follow since realignments were made through the years.
From the association’s headquarters, go west on Illinois 38 through Dixon, where you can visit the boyhood home of former President Ronald Reagan. The town is also the site of the Lincoln Monument State Memorial, marking the spot where Abraham Lincoln joined the Illinois militia at Fort Dixon in 1832 during the Black Hawk War.
West of Sterling, the old highway rejoins US 30 through Morrison, and then Illinois 136 into Fulton. Visit the authentic Dutch windmill and Windmill Cultural Center and enjoy the scenic views along the Mississippi River at the Iowa border.
No. 9: Four Corners
Petrified Forest NP, Ariz., to Four Corners, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, 316 miles
Start at Petrified Forest National Park off Interstate 40 in Arizona to see petroglyphs and petrified logs. Continue east on I-40 to US 191 and head north to Canyon de Chelly National Monument. Native peoples have lived in these 1,000-foot-high cliffs for nearly 5,000 years.
Remain on US 191 north and turn left onto US 160, then right onto US 163 to Monument Valley. This site of iconic buttes and mesas served as the location of many films starring John Wayne and others. Cross into Utah on 163, then take US 191 south to US 160 east, which takes you to the only spot that intersects four states in the country. There is a slight charge by the Navajo Nation to get this unique photo of being in four states at once.
No. 8: High Road to Taos
Santa Fe, N.M., to Taos to Ojo Caliente, N.M., 195 miles
In Santa Fe, visit the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, which houses more than 3,000 works of art, about one-third by its namesake. Other attractions in New Mexico’s capital include the Santa Fe Plaza, a National Historic Landmark in the downtown area; the Loretto Chapel with the “Miraculous Staircase” that has no apparent means of support; and the Santa Fe Opera, a few miles north of Santa Fe off US 84/285.
Camel Rock at exit 175 is also worth a stop. The nearby Camel Rock Casino may be worth visiting if you play table games.
Continue north on US 84/285 to Espanola and take New Mexico 68 to Taos, where you can visit the famous Taos Pueblo. Drive north on NM 522 to US 64 to the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge for a fantastic view of the river and canyons.
Drive north on 64, then go south on US 285 to Ojo Caliente Mineral Resort and Spa for a mud bath or massage. Natural hot springs can be found to soak for free, but most require some back-road driving and hiking.
No. 7: Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Asheville, N.C., to Pigeon Forge, Tenn., 92 miles
America’s most popular national park by far and one of the few that is free to enter, the Great Smokies attracted 9.7 million visitors in 2012, more than double second-place Grand Canyon. Start at Asheville, where you can tour the 250-room Biltmore Estate and find a local treasure at Malaprop’s Bookstore.
Drive some 30 miles west on Interstate 40 to exit 27 and go south on US 74 to US 19. Head east to Soco Gap, where you can access the Blue Ridge Parkway and drive through the Cherokee Indian Reservation. Tour the authentic Indian village at Oconaluftee and check out the exhibits of early settlers at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, one of four in the 816-square-mile park.
Continue north US 441, or Newfound Gap Road, and turn left on Clingmans Dome Road. At 6,643 feet, Clingmans Dome is the highest point in Tennessee and the third highest mountain east of the Mississippi River. The observation tower offers excellent views of the park on clear days. Back on Newfound Gap, the two-mile Chimney Tops Trail is one of the most popular hiking trails in the park.
Turn right on Little River Road to Gatlinburg, where you can take in a vast array of touristy sites, from Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, a surprisingly good aquarium in this mountain town, to Ober Gatlinburg Ski Resort and Amusement Park. Nearby Pigeon Forge even has a Titanic museum, which recreates that ill-fated 1912 voyage.
No. 6: Blue Ridge Parkway/Skyline Drive
Cherokee, N.C., to Front Royal, Va., 574 miles
The 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway connects the Great Smokies with Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. An All-American Road, the parkway’s southern point is Cherokee, and it winds north to Skyline Drive, a 105-mile roadway managed by a different National Park Service unit. While not a national park, the Blue Ridge Parkway was the most visited unit of the federal park system with 15.2 million visitors in 2012, almost 1 million more than Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco.
Near Asheville, stop at the Folk Art Center on the parkway just north of Highway 70. The center showcases the work of local craftspeople who often demonstrate their work and is among the most popular attractions on the road, with about 300,000 visitors annually. Mount Mitchell, the tallest mountain east of the Mississippi River at 6,684 feet, is worth a detour with a small museum and the tomb of namesake Elisha Mitchell at the summit.
You can learn about local gems and minerals at the Museum of North Carolina Minerals in Spruce Pine and mine for gems at Emerald Village in Little Switzerland. Continue north to more mountains and visitor centers to the parkway’s northern endpoint at Rockfish Gap.
From there, you can enter Skyline Drive for more stunning views, such as at Hawksbill Mountain, which at 4,050 feet is this park’s highest peak. The drive is particularly scenic in the fall when the leaves are turning various colors.
No. 5: Black Hills
Badlands NP to Mount Rushmore, S.D., 149 miles
Off Interstate 90, take exit 131 to Badlands National Park. Hike on a trail among the sandstone spires, layered in purple, red and orange-colored rock. The Ben Reifel Visitor Center displays fossil finds of saber-tooth cats and other ancient mammals in the paleontology lab. There is even a fossil exhibit trail.
On the way to Rapid City and Mount Rushmore, visit Wall Drug Store, a stop for motorists since 1931. Take Highway 16 to Mount Rushmore National Monument, where the 60-foot-high heads of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln are cut in granite. The Crazy Horse Memorial has been worked on since 1948 as Native Americans’ answer to Mount Rushmore.
No. 4: US 89
Yellowstone NP to Glacier NP, 377 miles
Yellowstone National Park was the nation’s first national park, established in 1872, and has the largest collection of geysers on the planet, including the famed Old Faithful. It also has scenic canyons, waterfalls and hot springs.
It is illegal to swim in park springs and geysers, but there is a spot on the Gardner River two miles north of Mammoth Hot Springs on the north entrance road known as Boiling River where swimming is allowed. Some call this site Yellowstone’s best-kept secret.
U.S. 89 in Montana takes you by towering mountains like the 10,992-foot Electric Peak and historical sites such as the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail on the way to Glacier National Park. If you’re really adventurous, try the 50-mile Going-to-the-Sun Road from St. Mary to Apgar. It’s closed October through early June due to snow but offers spectacular photo ops.
No. 3: Florida Keys Scenic Highway
Everglades National Park to Key West, Fla., 137 miles
If beaches and tropical places are more to your liking, the Florida Keys is the place. The stretch of US 1 between Key Largo and Key West hits the most spectacular tropical scenery you can get to in a car.
Start at Everglades National Park, the largest subtropical wilderness in the U.S. The main entrance is off US 1 near Homestead south of Miami. Stop at the Royal Palm Visitor Center a few miles past the Coe Visitor Center to hike the Anhinga Trail. Take insect repellent because mosquitoes and flies can be pesky. This is among the popular trails because of the abundance of turtles, herons, alligators and other wildlife.
Back on US 1, head south to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo, where you can take a glass-bottom boat tour through the first undersea park in the nation, dating to 1963. In Islamorado, visit Theater of the Sea to take in a show featuring dolphins, sea lions and parrots. At the Dolphin Research Center in Grassy Key, you can meet a dolphin up close and personal, and even swim with him or her for a fee.
Key West’s attractions include the Historic Seaport, Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum and Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center. Don’t miss taking a photo at the Southernmost Point marker, a colorful buoy-shaped monument that marks the most southern point in the continental United States with Cuba only 90 miles away.
No. 2: Route 1, Pacific Coast Highway
Monterey, Calif., to Morro Bay, Calif., 123 miles
Drive south from Monterey to get unobstructed views of the California coast along this winding 123-mile route that features narrow shoulders and steep drop-offs in places. The drive includes the Big Sur Coast Highway and the San Luis Obispo North Coast Byway, both of which are among just 31 roadways in the country designated as All-American Roads for their scenic beauty.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium is a top-flight attraction, though some say tickets that start at $39.95 for adults are pricey. Point Lobos State Reserve has a unique undersea ecological reserve, where divers can view 70-foot high kelp forests, rockfish, seals, sea otters and even whales.
Further south, Big Sur winds more than 70 miles among majestic cliffs and redwood groves. A good place to stop to take in the view is Garrapata State Park just south of Carmel Highlands. The park has a sandy beach, but the pounding waves generally make it too dangerous for even wading.
Down the road is San Simeon, known for the famous Hearst Castle, the 127-acre estate of media mogul William Randolph Hearst. Tour tickets start at $25 for adults, less than the smaller Biltmore Estate in North Carolina. You can hunt for jade and moonstone – a type of feldspar gem with a pearly and opalescent luster – at Moonstone Beach in Cambria. Wind up in Morro Bay at the landmark Morro Rock, a 576-foot high extinct volcanic cone that is some 23 million years old.
No. 1: Route 66
Chicago to Santa Monica, Calif., 2,451 miles
The Main Street of America or the Mother Road, Route 66 was one of the original highways formed in 1926. The interstate highway system gradually replaced the two-lane roadway, which was officially removed from the national system in 1985. Portions of the road through Illinois, Missouri, New Mexico and Arizona have been designated a National Scenic Byway, and some maps highlight Historic Route 66.
If you drive the Illinois portion, stop at the Cozy Dog Drive-In in Springfield, where the late Ed Waldmire Jr. and Don Strand laid claim to serving the first corn dog in the 1940s. The Route 66 Association of Illinois Hall of Fame and Museum in Pontiac and Berwyn Route 66 Museum near Chicago are worth visiting.
Other potential stops along portions of Route 66 include:
* Will Rogers Memorial Museum, Claremore, Okla.
* Oklahoma Route 66 Museum, Clinton, Okla.
* National Route 66 Museum, Elk City, Okla.
* U-Drop Inn, Shamrock, Tx.
* Cadillac Ranch, Amarillo, Tx.
*Route 66 Auto Museum, Santa Rosa, N.M.
* Wigwam Motel, Holbrook, Ariz.; another Wigwam is in San Bernadino, Calif.
* Route 66 Mother Road Museum, Barstow, Calif.
* California Route 66 Museum, Victorville, Calif.
* 66 to Cali, Route 66 shop at Santa Monica Pier, the route’s western end.
Honorable Mention Great American Road Trips
Maine’s Big Sur, Ellsworth to Calais, 197 miles
Natchez Trace Parkway, Natchez, Miss., to Nashville, Tenn., 444 miles
Arkansas Scenic 7 Byway, El Dorado, Ark., to Harrison, Ark., 290 miles
Texas Hill Country, Oak Hill, Tx., to New Braunfels, Tx., 280 miles
Utah 12 Scenic Byway, Bryce Canyon NP, Utah, to Capitol Reef NP, Utah, 122 miles
Zion National Park Scenic Byway, Interstate 15 to Mount Carmel, Utah, 54 miles,
Peak to Peak Scenic Byway, Central City, Colo., to Estes Park, Colo., 55 miles
Hells Canyon Scenic Byway, La Grande, Ore., to Hells Canyon, 218 miles
Columbia River Gorge, Troutdale, Ore., to Goldendale, Wash., 90 miles
Olympic Peninsula, Aberdeen, Wash., to Hoodsport, Wash., 278 miles
Tioga Pass, Oakhurst, Calif., to Yosemite NP’s Mono Lake, 119 miles
Seward Highway, Seward, Alaska, to Anchorage, 127 miles
Crater Rim Drive, Hawaii Volcanoes NP, 11 miles
Hana Highway, Kahului, Maui, to Hana, 68 miles,