The 10 Best Fourth of July Road Trips

Great Places and the Great Roads To Get You There


  • The Circumference of the Big Island of Hawaii

    The Circumference of the Big Island of Hawaii

    The big island of Hawaii on the windward side. That's the green side. | June 27, 2013

10 Photos

Belgium you can cover in about an hour. Take four or five days and you can get to just about everything interesting in Great Britain. Monaco can be consumed in a few minutes. But America is so big and so filled with great places that getting to even a small fraction of them would take years. Years.

And this July 4th is a great time to start the American journey. This is the moment to get your car out of the garage, blow the carbon out of its injectors and set out on some driving adventures. There are places to go, people to meet and 3.9 million miles of paved roads to blast across.

To put that in perspective, if you could sustain a 60-mph average speed over all those roads, it would take you almost seven and a half years of nonstop driving to cover all of them.

So get started with these 10 great destinations and drives for the Fourth of July. We could have done, literally, a thousand of them. But your eyeballs would have cracked open by number 300.

10. Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota
What to drive: 1961 Lincoln Continental convertible so you can show up in a car named after one of the guys and look kind of presidential yourself.
What to bring: The best camera you can afford and an appreciation for the kitschy tourist attractions that surround the monument. Also brush up on your presidential history so you can explain to the kids why these four presidents deserve to be carved into a mountain.
What to leave at home: Irony.
What to wear: A shirt you're not going to be ashamed to be seen in 30 years from now when they break out the photos of this trip and you're seen grinning like a patriotic fool in front of the monument.

Even if Gutzon Borglum's amazing Mt. Rushmore presidential monument weren't in the Black Hills of South Dakota, this would still be one of the great driving destinations in America. Route 244, which slices directly past the monument, snakes among the hills with some of the best scenery on Earth. Beyond that, the roads that connect to 244 from the north and south all have twists and turns themselves worth indulging. And since it's practically in the center of the country, it's equally inconvenient to get to from virtually every population center.

We recently sent two intrepid writers on a trip to Mt. Rushmore in a Mercedes SLS AMG. They survived.

Fourth of July Road Trips

9. Goldfield, Nevada
What to drive: Any year Dodge Challenger as long as it's white.
What to bring: The Vanishing Point soundtrack, lots of water and an appreciation for futility.
What to leave at home: Any expectation of comfort.
What to wear: Sunscreen and a Barry Newman-spec perm.

Director Richard C. Sarafian filmed parts of the 1971 car-obsessed classic Vanishing Point here. Back then the Goldfield Hotel, where "Super Soul's" fictional radio station KOW was located, was on the verge of disappearing altogether. Now, 42 years later, it's the rest of the town around it that's practically gone.

Goldfield is a ghost town, so don't expect to find a rash of 7-Elevens there well stocked with fluids. But it's worth the trip not only for the Vanishing Point interest, but because the roads leading up to it are spectacular. The real fun starts just north of the town of Lone Pine, California, where California Route 168 climbs east toward Nevada and eventually becomes that state's Route 246. That eastward blast along 168/246 includes big sweeping corners, sudden elevation changes, a few longish straights to let the secondaries on your muscle car's four-barrel carb get some exercise, and scenery that alternates between lush forest and desolate moonscape. And, for the most part, it's relatively lightly traveled and lightly patrolled.

But, as we discovered, it's a road that's only going to remain undiscovered for so long.

Fourth of July Road Trips

8. Pikes Peak, Colorado
What to drive: 1987 Buick Grand National.
What to bring: An Unser and oxygen.
What to leave at home: Any relative prone to car and/or altitude sickness.
What to wear: Layers of clothing to shed or pile on since the weather will change five times during your trip up the mountain.

The Pikes Peak International Hill Climb is one of the great American races, even though the 156-turn, 12.42-mile course is now, sadly, completely paved. But the Hill Climb is in June. However, in July you can run up the course yourself: within the speed limit, of course.

When it's not being used for the Hill Climb, the 19-mile-long road is known as the Pikes Peak Highway and is maintained by the city of Colorado Springs. It rises all the way to the summit of the mountain, which at 14,115 feet is the highest spot in America to which you can drive. But the air is thin up there, so bring your own atmosphere in the form of something turbocharged. And bring along an oxygen bottle if you're not the type who deals with altitude well.

With its switchback turns and astonishing views, the Pikes Peak Highway is one of the most spectacular roads on Earth. And now that it's paved, it's easier to drive than ever before. It's an all-American, all-automotive, all-awesome mountain climbing experience that requires no actual mountain climbing.

7. Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida
What to drive: An old school bus painted Petty Blue.
What to bring: Everything you won't mind losing. Plus beer.
What to leave at home: Dignity.
What to wear: Dale Earnhardt tank top, shorts and flip-flops. Accessorize with race team radio scanner and beer.

The bad news for NASCAR is that attendance at its premier Sprint Cup events has been tanking the last few years. The good news for race fans (even casual race fans) is that tickets for Sprint Cup races are finally easy to get and often more reasonably priced.

Back in the '60s and '70s, the July race at Daytona was known as the Firecracker 400 since it was always run during the day on the 4th. Now it's the Coke Zero 400 in celebration of the marketing of flavored carbonated water and it's run the Saturday night closest to the 4th. That means this year it will be running on the evening of July 6. It's always better to be outside at night during a Florida summer. And the July race at Daytona is usually a good one.

There are no great roads to drive getting to Daytona, but experiencing NASCAR is about as all-American as you can get. Don't go nuts on the tickets, though; it's still easy to blow a grand getting all the kids into the race and NASCAR charges for everything, including garage access.

Fourth of July Road Trips

6. Hoboken, New Jersey, for the Macy's Fourth of July Fireworks on the Hudson
What to drive: 1988 Chevrolet Camaro IROC-Z with T-tops.
What to bring: Attitude, hair gel and an iPod full of Springsteen.
What to leave at home: Anything that smacks of New York. Or worse, California.
What to wear: Think Jersey Shore.

On the New York side of the Hudson River, Macy's will celebrate the 4th with a giant fireworks display and a show featuring Mariah Carey, Tim McGraw and Nick Cannon. It's likely the largest display in the country. Alternatively, you can skip the celebrities, head over to the Jersey side of the Hudson and witness the same fireworks with less hassle.

That means Hoboken is the place... for at least this one night. Any claim that there's a great and interesting drive to Hoboken seems kind of ludicrous. But a big Jersey crowd during a big Jersey party makes this a unique destination. So go.

Fourth of July Road Trips

5. Santa Barbara, California, via Route 33
What to drive: Porsche 911 (any vintage).
What to bring: A shovel, blankets and Merlot.
What to leave at home: UCLA or USC student IDs.
What to wear: UCSB hoodie over an SBCC hoodie over swim trunks.

When Porsche launched the latest version of the 911 it did so with an event for the international press in Santa Barbara. Not because Santa Barbara is a beautiful town, but because of its easy access to some of the best driving roads on Earth. And the best of them all is state Route 33 between Maricopa (in San Luis Obispo County, with neighboring Santa Barbara County to the south) and Ojai (in Ventura County, south of Santa Barbara County).

Route 33 has everything. It rolls across the Santa Ynez Mountains and plunges into the Cuyama Valley in relentlessly interesting ways. That includes midcorner elevation changes, off-camber hairpins, tightening-radius sweepers and straights long enough to hit terminal velocity. It's 72 miles of pure entertainment.

Once you're off the road, wind up in Santa Barbara for one of the best fireworks shows around. It's not that big, but it's all launched over the city's harbor and the best viewing sites are from pits dug along the beach. Yes, it's crowded and Santa Barbara often gets cold and overcast in July, but there's nothing else quite like its fireworks show.

4. The Texas Hill Country between San Antonio and Austin
What to drive: 2005 Dodge Ram SRT-10.
What to bring: A laidback ease with yourself.
What to leave at home: Any cowboy hat that you haven't been wearing every day for the last three years.
What to wear: Jeans, boots and the biggest belt buckle you ever won for steer roping.

There aren't many truly beautiful parts of Texas, but the Hill Country is prime real estate. Think, rolling hills that crest over to reveal lakes and streams, prairie grass that waves in amber glory with the breeze and roads that stretch on for days of easygoing driving. And no, it's not all right to calculate your mileage by the number of empty beer cans rattling in the truck's bed.

The trick to getting the most out of Hill Country driving is simply staying off Interstates 10 and 35. Just stick to the Farm to Market roads that meander through towns like Boerne, Kerrville, Fredericksburg and Marble Falls. Wind up in either Austin or San Antonio and there are more good restaurants, great honky-tonks and insanely fantastic music than just about any place in the country.

Fourth of July Road Trips

3. The Blue Ridge Parkway through Virginia and North Carolina
What to drive: Any Corvette.
What to bring: Wonder, awe and a radar detector.
What to leave at home: Kids and anyone impatient.
What to wear: A look of constant bemusement.

The Blue Ridge Parkway starts in the south at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and ends 469 miles north of there at the entrance to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. That's 469 miles running along the top of the Blue Ridge that caps a good portion of the Appalachian Mountains. Yeah, as Top Gear discovered a few years ago, the speed limits can be frustrating. But there isn't a more beautiful roadway on Earth.

While construction started in 1935, it took a full 52 years to complete the highway. And it's a brilliantly engineered road, too, with curves that follow the natural terrain so perfectly that it actually looks better than nature would on its own.

That's 469 miles, though. So don't expect to consume it all in one day. But drink it all in over a few days and it's America's finest.

Fourth of July Road Trips

2. Alabama Route 25
What to drive: 1967 Shelby Cobra.
What to bring: An encyclopedic knowledge of the War of Northern Aggression and a "Roll Tide" license plate frame.
What to leave at home: Your macrobiotic diet.
What to wear: Alabama Crimson Tide sweatshirt over Auburn War Eagle T-Shirt. Change as loyalties develop.

If Alabama is the heart of Dixie, then Route 25 between Leeds (just outside Birmingham) and Pine Hill about 170 miles south is its aorta. Through densely forested central Alabama, 25 runs as often under the shade of trees as it does out in the sun, rising and dropping as it follows the terrain and caroms around the hills. The road is in great shape and relatively lightly traveled.

Once you've landed in Pine Hill, reroute another 130 miles south down to Gulf Shores on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico. The beaches there are spectacular white sand that lead into aquamarine waters. For Northerners it's a revelation that Alabama can be so beautiful.

There are fireworks planned for Gulf Shores on the 4th. Be there.

1. The circumference of the big island of Hawaii
What to drive: Rented Mustang Convertible.
What to bring: Sunscreen and Aloha attitude.
What to leave at home: Every worry you've ever had.
What to wear: As little as possible.

It takes about 222 miles to get all the way around the circumference of the island of Hawaii. And it's still the only drive in the United States that includes stopping to look at active volcanoes.

It's impractical to bring your own car to Hawaii unless you live there. So rent a convertible of some sort and start on the leeward side of the island, where the landscape is almost barren and dry. Then make your way around to the windward side where it's lush and green and much cooler.

But the highlight will be the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park on the windward side about 30 miles southwest of Hilo. There you'll see the Kilauea volcano that has been erupting with lava nonstop since 1983. It's spectacular in a way that will impress even the most jaded traveler.

Best of all, after you've circumnavigated back to your seaside hotel and returned your rental car, you're still in Hawaii.

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