Welcome to the Ultimate American Road Trip, a new column here on the Engine Block that explores this big and beautiful country we call home. Every month we’ll be hitting you with a new way to approach the great pastime of road tripping. From the traditional cross-country excursion to the weird roadside attractions—we’ve got the best routes, tips, tricks, and snack recommendations to make your next adventure a success.
In light of our nation’s upcoming birthday celebrations, we thought what better way to kick off the ultimate American road trip than with a patriotic route straight across the states! One that crosses this great nation right through the heartland, hitting some of the best sights without straying too far from the Lincoln Highway. (We’re running on the assumption that you all share the same deep-seated loathing for I-80 that we do.)
She looks a lot different than she did on that fateful day in 1776, but America’s got a lot to offer. So, come along as we drive from New York to San Francisco, and discover what gave this country its broad stripes and bright stars.
The Lincoln Highway
As a nod to one of our nation’s greatest presidents, as well as our country’s love affair with the automobile, the Lincoln Highway seemed like the best way to approach this trip. Conceived in 1912 by Carl Fisher (the founder of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway) and backed by many of America’s early auto barons, the Lincoln Highway was one of the earliest (and arguably the most famous) of this country’s transcontinental roadways.
It’s changed quite a bit over the years with large portions being chopped, renamed, or bypassed. But with 3,142 miles covered today, we say there’s still plenty to experience. So, let’s get going—the ultimate American road trip awaits.
First Stop: NYC
Your quest begins in Times Square, at the corner of 42nd Street and Broadway, where a teeny tiny sign labeled “Lincoln Highway” is hidden among theater posters, lingerie billboards, and fast food advertisements. There’s any number of major tourist traps you could hit in the Big Apple. But in the spirit of American history, why not opt for something a little less conventional? Grab a drink at Fraunces Tavern, one of the oldest buildings in NYC and where George Washington bid his troops farewell in 1783. Or take an aerial tram to Roosevelt Island, where you can check out the trifecta of creepiness—a lighthouse, an insane asylum, and an 18th century abandoned farmhouse. After you’ve caught a glimpse of what Manhattan’s got to offer, consult your WAZE app and get yourself to the Lincoln Tunnel for the next stop on our ultimate American road trip: New Jersey.
Hello, New Jersey!
That’s right, kids: New Jersey. Home of the 24-hour diner and New York’s garbage! Despite any reservations you may have about it, there’s actually plenty to see in the ol’ Garden State. Aside from the small towns and pleasant scenery along this meandering route, we recommend checking out some of the many Revolutionary War sites along the way—after all, this is an ultimate American road trip. Historic Walnford and New Brunswick offer a step back in time, and Princeton boasts art museums, battlefields, and taverns dating back to the 1700s.
On to: Pennsylvania
Hook up with US-1 or continue through Main Street America and make your way into Philadelphia. The city of brotherly love…and Eagles fans. There’s not nearly enough room here to mention all that this city has to offer.
From historical landmarks to incredible food, dozens of museums to… “beloved” sports teams, Philly’s got something for everyone. Solve the age-old debate of Pat’s vs Gino’s (Spoiler: Tony Luke’s will be a pleasant surprise for your taste buds).
OPTIONAL EXCURSION: Washington, DC
Whoa! What’s this? An optional side-tour?! That’s right, friends. Hop on I-95 and jet down to our nation’s capital. Or take the scenic route, by cruising down Baltimore Avenue in West Philly, picking up US-13 and DE-7, to pass through Baltimore and into DC. Explore the National Mall and you’ll have access to some of America’s greatest treasures—for free. And if you’re looking for something a little less traditional, check out this enormous list of strange and unusual attractions that are sure to keep you entertained!
Pennsylvania’s a Big State…
If you took the optional side excursion, you’ll be coming up through Maryland and back into the Keystone State. Make a pit stop in Frederick to see Maryland’s largest brewery—Flying Dog—and tour a Civil War battlefield, then head on to Gettysburg to continue the history lesson. Get some Zzz’s in one of the city’s many B&B’s, then pick up US-30 and treat yourself to a stop in Pittsburgh. Do whatever you have to do to enter in through the Fort Pitt Tunnels. (Trust us, the view is worth it.) Then fuel up with a stick-to-your-ribs Primanti’s sandwich—the ultimate sustenance for the ultimate American road trip.
Enjoy a drive along the Ohio River on your way out of western PA and into the Buckeye State. Things start to get real for your tires here, as much of the original Lincoln Highway still exists—including brick-paved sections and early 20th century highway markers.
There’s plenty of historical monuments and museums along this picturesque route. But we recommend checking out the Canton Classic Car Museum, the Richland Carousel Park in Mansfield (perfect if you’ve got kids in tow) and then grabbing a bite to eat at a vintage Kewpee Hamburgers diner in Lima on your way out of town.
On to: Indiana
Your route through the Crossroads of America will take you right into Fort Wayne, where you can check out a replica of President Lincoln’s log cabin home, as well as plenty of art, theater, and good eats. Pick up US-30 again for a more direct route across the state or take the original highway up through the charming cities of Elkhart, South Bend, and La Porte.
OPTIONAL EXCURSION: DETROIT, MI
Whoa! Another one?! But of course! From Elkhart, IN it’s only about a three hour drive up to The Motor City! Motown! The Big D! The town that put the world on wheels! We’re talking about Detroit if you haven’t guessed. See everything from Van Gogh’s self-portrait to the 1952 Wienermobile. Cars, culture, music, food, and some of the worst roads in America await your arrival. After you’ve seen all this bustling city has to offer, return the way you came or take I-96 to M-14 so you can make a stop in Ann Arbor. Then pick up I-94 to cross the state, stopping in Kalamazoo, winding around the bottom of Lake Michigan and into the Windy City.
Little House on the Prairie State
Congrats, you’ve made it to the actual Land of Lincoln: Illinois. And while the original highway bypassed the great city of Chicago in favor of Joliet and crossing historic Route 66 into Aurora, we’re not sure you should miss this Toddlin’ Town on your ultimate American road trip.
Check out the city’s tourism site for an unending list of things to do. They even have a comprehensive 2-day budget-friendly sightseeing itinerary, which is perfect because by this point your wallet’s definitely feeling the burn. Stay west on IL-38 and make sure to stop in Dixon to see the Lincoln Tomb before passing into Iowa.
I-owe-ah-lotta Money On My Credit Card to Fund This Trip
Yes, Iowa…this state actually exists! And as much as 85% of the original Lincoln Highway is still drivable in the ol’ Hawkeye State. Click here to get your Lincoln Highway Map Pack, a county-by-county guide that details the original route and its varying stages of drivability. (We hope you rotated those tires after Detroit.) The state of rolling plains and cornfields has quite a few strange attractions to offer, including a 45-ton, 28-foot-tall concrete replica of a Hereford bull named “Albert” in Audubon. And if that’s not weird enough for you, there’s the Squirrel Cage Jail in Council Bluffs, the largest revolving jail in the United States. (There’s more than one?!) Experience what Roadside America calls “the horror of hi-tech Victorian criminal justice.” Spooky.
Well, friends we’re halfway through our ultimate American road trip. Chances are you’re puhretty gross by now living out of a car and taking prison baths in rest area sinks. So, let’s treat ourselves to a nice cushy stopover at where else? The Historic Lincoln Hotel. Built in 1915, right on the Lincoln Highway, stands a charming 5-bedroom B&B in the town of Lowden. (Home to roughly 775 people last time the census checked.) It’s the perfect place to take a breather before diving into the second part of this grueling trip. Unwind, put your feet up, wash the smell of stale car off you, and take in the sights and sounds of rural America. And don’t forget to check in for Part 2. Small town Iowa is nice and all, but we’ve got a road trip to finish!