USA Road Trips: The Northern Route

Chicago traffic
Chicago traffic. Photo: Shutterstock

In the first of our recommended driving routes across America, we explore the Northern Route, beginning on the east coast with Boston and ending with Washington state's Olympic Peninsula on the west coast.

On this route, you will encounter a collage of farmlands, ranches, wilderness, port towns, declining industrial cities, reborn urban centers, and constant reminders of the nation’s history.

The first half of the journey is largely marked and guided by water. From Boston, you follow the Atlantic coast through New England up to Maine; later, from the Albany area, your route will swing west alongside the once-busy, now-dormant Erie Canal.

The Great Lakes dominate the next portion of the trip, including Chicago, the great Midwestern crossroads at the southern tip of Lake Michigan. From here to the thriving twin cities of Minneapolis and St Paul, the tour is never far from water, most significantly when it runs right beside the mighty Mississippi. Once you reach western Minnesota, however, the character of the land begins to change. As you cut across South Dakota, the geography overwhelms: rising out of the prairie are the otherworldly Badlands, the Black Hills, and Wounded Knee – a reminder of the nation’s brutal treatment of Native Americans. Along a legendary stagecoach route come towns of the notorious Wild West. The sky here is huge and the land seems vast, characterized by small buttes and sagebrush. The route through Wyoming and Montana passes the site of Lieutenant Colonel Custer’s last stand against Native American forces.

From here, the tour passes into the northern Rocky Mountains with its gorgeous national parks. Crossing the Continental Divide on paths previously traveled by mountain tribes, gold prospectors, and homesteaders, the route cuts through the forests, lakes, and buffalo reserves of Montana, the Idaho panhandle and into the state of Washington, where the land modulates between deserts, canyons, and irrigated farmland.

The final portion of the route runs westward toward the Pacific Ocean through Seattle and the Olympic Peninsula. Suddenly, water is abundant again as you enter America’s only rainforest. This wildly beautiful spot is an ideal place to reflect upon your just-completed trans-American journey.

Northern Route


Places to see along the way


The many colleges in this historic and attractive city ensure it retains a youthful, vibrant outlook. Here’s a list of some of Boston’s not-to-be-missed attractions:

- Full-scale replicas of three 18th-century ships – Beaver II, Dartmouth, and Eleanor – sit in the harbor at the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum. They commemorate the 1773 dunking of taxed tea from Britain, an incident that fueled the flames of the American Revolution.

- Built in 1676, the Paul Revere House is the oldest residence in downtown Boston and is one of 17 historic sites along Boston's Freedom Trail; Revere lived here from 1770 to 1800. Exhibits include the saddlebags the patriot used on his famous 1775 midnight ride to warn of a British attack. 

- The oldest botanical garden in America, the Public Garden is Boston’s prettiest green space. The focus is the lagoon, surrounded by willow trees and crossed by a mock suspension bridge.

Boston Public Garden. Photo: CO Leong/Shutterstock

Appalachian Trail 

A pleasant 19-mile (31km) drive along Route 100A, then Route 100, from the town of Bridgewater Corners, Vermont, leads to one of the longest marked footpaths in the world, winding a total of 2,178 miles (3,505km) from Maine to Georgia. Benton MacKaye, who proposed the trail in 1921, wrote about his great project: “The ultimate purpose? There are three things: 1) to walk; 2) to see; 3) to see what you see... Some people like to record how speedily they can traverse the length of the trail, but I would give a prize for the ones who took the longest time.” His idea was for a super-trail running the length of the industrialized East Coast. This would be a trail that was wild, yet within reach of major urban centers and the throngs of workers who were alienated from outdoor life. He felt the trail would grace all who spent time on it with the healing tonic of wilderness. 

Winding from north to south, it traverses the many distinct ranges that make up the Appalachian chain, touching the tops of many of the states it enters. Though not the first of its kind, the Appalachian Trail remains a favorite with outdoors people, enjoying celebrity status among the great hikes of the world. 

Niagara Falls

Once known as America’s “Honeymoon Capital,” the town is fond of referring to itself as an international tourist destination. And, indeed, this remains one of the top tourist draws in all the US despite its endless tackiness. Quite simply, the 700,000 gallons (3 million liters) of water plummeting from top to bottom each second here are a wondrous assault on the senses, something that must be experienced while in America. The magnetic draw of these falls has even inspired some visitors to attempt crossing them on a tightrope or riding them in a barrel, with sometimes-tragic results; both activities are now illegal, though daredevils still occasionally try.

One of the best ways to experience the falls today is by donning the provided foul-weather gear and taking a boat ride on the Maid of the Mist

Detour to Detroit

A 45-mile (72km) drive beside Lake Erie on I-75 leads from Toledo, Ohio, to Detroit, Michigan – the Motor City. Henry Ford was the single most influential American in motoring history, forming the Ford Motor Company in 1903. Six years later, he had 10,000 orders for his newest car, the Model T, and, by 1919, was selling close to a million cars. His innovations bolstered Detroit’s economy, increased the automobile’s popularity and gave more people jobs; though the company has been severely shaken by bankruptcies and lay-offs as a result of the global financial crisis. Nevertheless, the 260-acre (105-hectare) Henry Ford Museum ( and Greenfield Village complex in the nearby town of Dearborn is the world’s largest indoor/outdoor museum, commemorating Ford’s contribution to the city. The Ford Museum holds Henry’s collection of early automobiles and historic airplanes, while the Village houses recreations of famous businesses and residences, including Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory. Detroit is also the home of Motown records, created by former Ford assembly line worker Berry Gordy, Jr, in 1958, which produced stars of the Detroit Sound such as Smokey Robinson and Diana Ross. The Motown Historical Museum charts the label’s influence from the 1960s to the present. For more information, visit

The raising of the bridges on the Chicago River. Photo: Shutterstock


Broad-shouldered and big-hearted, Chicago has had its share of ups and downs. In 1871, as the story goes, a certain Mrs O’Leary’s cow knocked over a certain lantern, starting a disastrous blaze known as the “Great Chicago Fire.” After the fire, the city became the workshop of architects like William LeBaron Jenny (the father of the skyscraper), Louis H. Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, and later Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Here are some of Chicago's highlights: 

 - Chicago's skyline is iconic. From the Chicago Water Tower and Pumping Station, the only public building to survive the Great Fire, to the Sears Tower, currently the tallest building in America, the city’s buildings and skyline are built to impress.

- Grant Park will show you Chicago's cultural side. Open daily are the Museum of Science and Industry on the South Side; the Field Museum, the excellent Shedd Aquarium, and the Art Institute of Chicago. 

- Dark, smoky blues clubs have long been part of the Chicago scene, ever since players and singers from fields in the rural South relocated and invented “electric blues” here. You can hear all about it at B.L.U.E.S. on North Halsted or at the relocated New Checkerboard Lounge on the city’s rougher South Side, where generations of University of Chicago undergraduates have learned about the important things in life from bluesman Muddy Waters. 

Beautiful cerulean geyser surrounded by colorful layers of bacteria, against cloudy blue sky, Yellowstone. Photo: Kris Wiktor/Shutterstock

Badlands National Park

The Badlands have been described as “Hell with the fires burned out,” but, fire has played no part in it; it has been shaped chiefly by wind and water. Spires, turrets, and ridges form a silent skyline, which changes with each gust of wind and torrential (although infrequent) downpour. Badlands National Park is not a single piece of land, but rather several chunks of territory loosely strung together and carved out of Buffalo Gap National Grassland and the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

This constantly eroding landscape has often served as a metaphor of youthful malaise and rootlessness: Terence Malick used it as a title for an acclaimed film (Badlands, 1973), and Bruce Springsteen later sang about “Badlands” on his 1978 album “Darkness at the Edge of Town.” Despite all the discouraging words, there is a rare and striking beauty to be found here – it’s well worth a detour off the interstate and the vehicle charge that it costs to enter the national park.

The part of the Badlands National Park lying within the Indian Reservation contains several sites sacred to the Oglala Lakota tribe. This land, south of Highway 44, has limited road access.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial

In the 1920s, Doane Robinson, the official historian of South Dakota, was considering various projects aimed at attracting visitors to the Black Hills. He decided on the concept of a colossal mountain carving, envisioning statues of legendary mountain men such as Jim Bridger, John Colter, and Kit Carson. But the more universally admired presidential subjects (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and, later, Theodore Roosevelt) were finally chosen.

In 1927, sculptor Gutzon Borglum (then 60 years old) was commissioned to do the work. The enormous endeavor took him the remainder of his life, and work on the mountain came to a permanent halt following Borglum’s death and then the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It’s interesting to note that Borglum had intended the figures to be carved to the waist, and had he begun from the bottom rather than the top, the US would have been left with a rather peculiar shrine to democracy.

The project was always plagued by controversy and a lack of funding, largely as a result of the Depression and Borglum’s artistic temperament and egotism. Some say he pushed for the inclusion of Roosevelt because he considered the president’s spectacles to be a particular challenge to his skills, for instance. Also controversial is the fact that the monument sits on a site considered sacred by the Sioux. 

Buffalo Bill Historical Center

Buffalo Bill rose to fame through a series of dime novels based on his character. His Wild West show hit the road in 1883 and by the 1890s was performing in Europe in front of royalty. The best sight in Cody is the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, which is actually five outstanding museums in one. The Buffalo Bill Museum is devoted to the man’s vast collection of memorabilia. He was known for his flamboyance and excess, and the collection is all the better for it. The Plains Indian Museum displays perhaps the world’s finest collections of Sioux, Cheyenne, Shoshone, Crow, Arapaho, and Blackfoot artifacts. 

Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park is both symbol and sanctuary. Located in the northwest corner of Wyoming, it was the world’s first national park – and for many people still the most magnificent. This primitive landscape, forged by fire and water, has been called the “greatest concentration of wonders on the face of the earth,” its shapes and colors “beyond the reach of human art.” It is a hotbed of geothermal activity, with more than 10,000 thermal features, as well as being one of the last remaining habitats of the grizzly bear in the United States outside of Alaska. All this, and enough canyons, cliffs, and cataracts to please the most jaded eye. 

Yellowstone encompasses an area of more than 2 million acres (800,000 hectares). Those who prefer being at one with nature can rest assured that 95 percent of this area is backcountry. For the less intrepid, there are nearly 300 miles (480km) of roads. The Grand Loop Road provides access to most of the major attractions, from Yellowstone Lake and the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone to Mammoth Hot Springs and Old Faithful.

Seattle skyline at night. Photo: Punit Sharma Photography/Shutterstock


Seattle is youthful and friendly, business-minded, busy, and beautiful: a city of the 21st century. Here’s a list of the not-to-be-missed attractions:

 - Glide into the Seattle Center, home of the Space Needle, on the monorail and explore its many attractions, from theaters and a children’s museum to the excellent Pacific Science Center.
- The Seattle Aquarium features 200 varieties of fish native to Puget Sound, plus environments simulating rocky reefs, sandy seafloors, eelgrass beds, and tide pools. It’s one part of the vibrant Waterfront area, which also has ships, piers, stores, and restaurants.
- Set in a Frank Gehry building, Experience Music Project (EMP) is a rock music museum conceived by Paul Allen of Microsoft fame, featuring artifacts like Eric Clapton’s guitar, state-of-the-art technology, and interactive exhibits.