USA Road Trips: The Central Route

Yavapai View overlook, (photo by Nowitz)
Yavapai View overlook

In the fourth of our series of recommended road trips across America, we explore the Central Route, which takes us on an iconic journey through the heart of the country from Washington, D.C. in the east to Los Angeles in the west.

It is perhaps fitting to begin a journey across America from the nation’s capital of Washington, D.C.; the many museums and landmarks that give a glimpse into the country’s past do much to set the scene for the rest of your trip west. We’ve chosen a “south-central” course that combines enough history and beauty to sate any traveler’s appetite.

The history lesson begins as soon as you leave Washington, heading first west and then sharply south along Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway through the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia. This was Stonewall Jackson territory and the route is sprinkled with Civil War sites. Interstate 40, which we follow for much of the trip, continues into North Carolina and through the Great Smoky Mountains, taking you past the fine old homes of Knoxville, Tennessee before reaching Nashville, the capital of Tennessee and of country music.

From there, it’s truly into small-town America as you hit Arkansas, stopping in Little Rock, with its impressive state capitol building, historic district, and hot springs. Then into Oklahoma where we pick up Route 66. Some know Route 66 from legend, others from childhood, when every weathered telegraph pole and zany-shaped motel was a milestone on a journey into a wonderland, whose roadside attractions included snake pits, live buffaloes, and Indian dancers.

Oklahoma’s piece of Route 66 passes through many interesting small towns, but also some bigger ones, such as Oklahoma City. You’ll cross the Texas Panhandle before heading into New Mexico, visiting the attractive city of Santa Fe. The state has a wealth of ancient pueblos, homes of early Native American inhabitants. As you cross into Arizona, you enter the Navajo Nation; the route passes by the Petrified Forest National Park before reaching Flagstaff, the gateway for the incomparable Grand Canyon. You’ll cross some desolate countryside in western Arizona, and again in eastern California’s Mojave Desert, before you start seeing signs of civilization as you head into the urban sprawl of Los Angeles. With some 2,900 miles (4,700km) behind you, the Pacific Ocean beckons.


The full Central Route road trip can be found in our USA On The Road guide book. Here are some of the highlights...




Planned as a city of monuments and memorials, the nation’s capital is also one of its most beautiful. Here are some of the many not-to-be-missed attractions.

• Tours of the White House are very restricted, but its Visitor Center at the Department of Commerce, 15th and E streets NW, provides a good sense of the building’s history since 1792.

• Whether you wish to retrace the path of Martin Luther King Jr, whose “I Have a Dream” speech came from these steps, or simply take a look at the huge statue of Abraham Lincoln, the Lincoln Memorial celebrates the liberty sought by the founding fathers. 

• Set aside time to explore the world’s largest museum and research complex. The Smithsonian Institute exhibits outstanding collections of artifacts and fine arts in 19 museums and galleries including the National Museum of American History, the National Museum of the American Indian, and the National Portrait Gallery.

• At first a strategic stronghold in the Civil War, the Arlington National Cemetery contained 16,000 headstones by the end of the struggle. The eternal flame at the grave of John F. Kennedy honors the fallen president, and the Tomb of the Unknowns commemorates the nameless soldiers felled in battles over the past 100 years.

• The World War II Memorial on the Mall between the Washington and Lincoln Memorials, honors those Americans who fought for their country.


Find out about even more of city's unbeatable sights, plus where to stay and eat, with our online guide to Washington, D.C.




Skyline Drive was completed in 1939. The 105-mile (169km) National Scenic Byway runs the entire length of the Shenandoah National Park, southwest of Washington, D.C. Aside from the entrance near Front Royal, there are three other access points, each about an hour from the next. The per-car fee ticket is good for a week. The speed limit is a leisurely 35mph (56kph) along the winding, two-lane road. Be in no hurry; you will want to pull off at the 82 overlooks and picnic locations for views of the Shenandoah Valley and Shenandoah River to the west and the Piedmont Plateau to the east.

At the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center, you can purchase guides for hiking and identifying flora and fauna. The Harry Byrd Visitor Center at Mile Marker 51 tells about the creation of the park and the people who once lived there.



Great Smoky Mountains National Park, 16 of whose peaks exceed 6,000ft (1,800 meters), sprawls majestically over the North Carolina and Tennessee borders. Access on the North Carolina side is gained from the town of Cherokee by taking I-40W Exit 27 (US 74) from Asheville, then Exit 103 (US 19). The resort is vital to the economy of the Cherokee Nation, whose reservation surrounds the town. 

US 441 climbs out of Cherokee across the Great Smoky Mountains towards Gatlinburg. As you start the trek, a sign warns of “35 miles of steep, winding road.” You soon reach the Oconaluftee Visitor Center for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which enjoys an impossibly beautiful location in a broad glade surrounded by the blue-grey mountains. 




In the 1850s Nashville was considered the most refined and sophisticated city in the South, calling itself “The Athens of the South.” In 1897, the city built a full-scale replica of the Parthenon for its centennial celebration. It still commands its imposing location on a hill in Centennial Park, complete with a 420ft (12.8-meter) -tall, gilded statue of Athena. The building also serves as Nashville’s Art Museum with a permanent collection devoted to 19th- and 20th-century American artists. The Tennessee State Museum is a comprehensive exploration of Tennessee history and culture from the days of the mastodon to the early years of the 20th century.

Despite its other attractions, Nashville is known primarily as the epicenter for country music. Musicians, singers, songwriters, and performers have gravitated to the city since 1925, when radio station WSM began broadcasting the WSM Barn Dance show on Saturday nights. The Country Music Hall of Fame occupies an entire city block along Demonbreun Street. From above, the building is shaped like a bass clef; the windows mimic piano keys; the soaring northwest corner resembles the fins of cars from the 1950s. Allow at least three hours to even casually explore the exhibits.

See more highlights in our online Nashville travel guide




The gateway to the Mississippi delta, Memphis is home of the blues, Beale Street, and the memory of two kings: Elvis and Martin Luther.

Memphis is best known, of course, for Graceland, home and final resting place of Elvis Presley. The in-depth, self-guided audio tour covers the bottom floor and basement of the mansion. Other buildings contain his awards, and concert and movie memorabilia. Arrive early: on busy days, the wait for the shuttle to the mansion can be over an hour.

Sun Studio was where “the King” recorded, but B.B. King, Ike Turner, and many other artists preceded him here. Beale Street is where it all began, and the street’s bars and nightclubs swell with the strains of the Delta blues created by W.C. Handy (1873–1958).

On Mulberry Street, the National Civil Rights Museum incorporates the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King, Jr was assassinated on April 4, 1968.

Discover more Memphis highlights




The Arkansas River carves a gateway between the Ouachita and Ozark mountains to the delta at Little Rock. The city is, therefore, first and foremost a river city. Breckling Riverfront Park is a wonderful outdoor space with great walking along the water, a fountain that’s filled with laughing kids and more than a few adults in hot weather, and the “Little Rock” after which the city is named.  

The modern history of Little Rock is inexorably linked to the ordered desegregation of Central High School. In 1957, nine black students entered the school past scores of violent protesters. The city already planned to desegregate the high school that year, but the Governor swore that Arkansas schools would remain segregated. Inside The Central High School Visitor Center, interactive displays recreate the tension-filled weeks and includes recollections of the “Central High Nine” and others who were involved at the school and in the community.




Santa Fe (in New Mexico) was the end of the Santa Fe Trail, which, beginning in 1821, ran between the Santa Fe Plaza for almost 800 miles (1,290km) to Kansas City, Missouri, and was the major Western trade and immigration route until the railroad arrived in the 1880s. You can still follow the old Route 66 alignment to the Santa Fe Plaza on Old Santa Fe Trail (Pecos Trail exit from I-25), along Water Street, out on Cerrillos Road (Highway 14), and south through Santo Domingo Pueblo and Algodones to Albuquerque; it was decommissioned in 1938, when a straighter route through Albuquerque superseded it and cut 126 miles (200km) off the journey.

Today, the traditional adobe buildings in Santa Fe’s attractive historic downtown district, with their flat roofs and large portals, are filled with intriguing museums, superb restaurants, small inns, lively bars, art galleries, and unique boutiques selling Southwestern arts and crafts. Santa Fe is known as the “City Different” because of its unique blend of Spanish history, Native American influences, and contemporary artistic culture, which make the city one of the most popular destinations in the Southwest.

The city makes a good base for visiting other highlights in northern New Mexico, including the Eight Northern Pueblos; the Santuario de Chimayó, “the Lourdes of America”; Puyé cliff dwellings at Santa Clara Pueblo and those at nearby Bandelier National Monument, as well as artsy Taos, to the north via the Rio Grande Gorge.

Planning a trip? Read our online travel guide to Santa Fe




A 182-mile (293km) journey from Flagstaff, Arizona, leads to one of the most famous sights in the Southwest. Monument Valley is easily recognized from far away thanks to scenes from countless Westerns, especially those by director John Ford, who often used it as the backdrop for his movies. With its serene rock formations dominating the surrounding desert plains, the valley’s mesas were not just attractive to Hollywood, but also served as significant religious monuments for local Native Americans. Medicine men once climbed the Rain God Mesa – home to a sacred burial ground – to pray for rain. The Totem Pole formation served as a center for mythical incidents in folklore, while the Yei-Bi-Chei resembles holy Navajo figures performing a traditional dance. Like the Grand Canyon or Sedona, the timeless mystery of these rocks is humbling. What seems an impossible creation is the result of ageless erosion of the sandstone and shale, which leaves the harder stone intact. Monument Valley lies entirely within the Navajo Nation reservation, and the tribe conducts tours through its desolate beauty. Catch a sunrise or sunset at the Visitor Center, from which many famous formations can be seen. To venture further into Monument Valley, you’ll need to obtain a permit from the Navajo Nation. Visit for further information.




The South Rim of the Grand Canyon, which can be reached by traveling about 40 miles (64km) north on US 180 from Williams, is open around the clock every day of the year, although the Visitor Center and most park facilities operate only from 8am to 5pm. A good place to start your visit is at the Canyon View Information Plaza opposite Mather Point. This spacious center has wall-size maps, exhibits, and guides that set the canyon in a larger context and help you get oriented. Park rangers are on hand to answer questions. From here, continue west to Grand Canyon Village, a hub of tourist facilities.

Free canyon shuttle buses operate from March through November from the village, west along the 7-mile (11km) Hermits Rest Route, giving visitors access to nine of the best canyon overlooks and a hiking trail along the canyon rim. Private cars are only allowed along this stretch of road in winter. The road ends at Hermits Rest, which has a gift shop, concession stand, and restrooms. Returning to the village, another road, Desert View Drive, follows the canyon rim for 25 miles (40km) to the east. Overlooks along the way display still more spectacular canyon scenery.

Going to the Grand Canyon? Buy the fabulous Insight Guide to Arizona & the Grand Canyon 




A desert drive of 101 miles (163km) from Kingman, Arizona, on US 93 leads straight to Sin City. At latest count, nearly 40 million visitors spend over $9 billion annually on gaming alone in this capital of frivolity, greed, and gluttony – not to mention plain old fun. For a long time after gambling was legalized in 1931, Las Vegas remained a sleepy desert town. It took visionary underworld hit man Bugsy Siegel to free this seething neon dragon. In 1946, Siegel opened the Flamingo Hotel, sparing no expense in mob finances for its plush interior, which sported a flashing pink neon facade and set a new standard in sheer swank. From a high-roller’s point of view, Las Vegas is divided into two parts. First is the Strip, where modern hoteliers vie with each other to offer the latest in accommodation extravaganzas, replicating Venice, Paris, Rome, ocean liners, and Egyptian pyramids. Then there’s Downtown – the original Vegas – also known as Glitter Gulch. As for gambling, either way you lose, but Downtown casinos are said to afford better odds. The best advice is simply enjoy it: win, lose or draw, there’s nothing quite like the Strip at night, ablaze with electric light and self-indulgence. The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority is at


Take a look at our range of fantastic Vegas guidebooks


Plan your US road trip


To read more about what to see in the United States, visit Insight's USA destination pages. Or choose from one of our fantastic USA travel guides, including US on the Road...



Northern route – east coast Boston to west coast Washington state

Atlantic route – New York City to Key West, Florida


Pacific Route – from San Diego to Seattle

• Tips on renting a car for your journey

• Road trip survival skills

• A tour of the best locations from US road movies


• A guide to eating your way across America


• Hotels, motels and wigwams – planning where to stay on your road trip

• June competition to win DVDs of five road movie classics 


This June we're exploring the highways and inroads of the United States of America as our destination of the month. For more updates keep following the Insight blog, or check us out on Twitter @InsightGuides or on our Insight Facebook page, or why not look at some lovely travel photography on Pinterest.

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