The sights, people, food — and sheer beauty — of the country are best experienced on the road.

Share story

I didn’t know it at the time, but a few summers ago, I began planning a life-changing trip with my boyfriend.

Having romanticized the cross-country road trips we read about in novels and watched in movies, we pulled out a map and began devising a coast-to-coast journey across the U.S. The route would take us in a circle, making stops at all the places (national parks, landmarks, restaurants and bars) that had long lived on our bucket list.

We would kick off from our home in New York City, head down the coast to Georgia, go through the South until we reached Los Angeles, then up the California coast by way of Highway 1, and back to the Big Apple while hitting the northern states.

So we packed our bags, climbed behind the wheel of our Honda Civic (on loan from his parents), rolled down the windows, and hit the open road in true Jack Kerouac style. One month, 35 states, 7,000 miles and thousands of priceless photos later, we returned with one major takeaway: The journey is just as important as the final destination.

With that in mind, here are nine reasons everyone should embark on a cross-country road trip in the U.S.

You’ll discover hidden gems

Sure, there are can’t-miss attractions like Mount Rushmore, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Hollywood sign, but did you know there’s a place where you can check out dinosaur tracks in Arizona? Or how about a spot where you can feed alligators behind an antique store in Louisiana? Or several eerie ghost towns in Texas? And the list goes on.

In addition to all the staples (Statue of Liberty, White House, Space Needle), natural wonders (Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite), and neighborhoods (French Quarter, Haight-Ashbury, Little Five Points), there are endless hidden gems scattered throughout the country. Don’t be afraid to meander away from your itinerary — it’s worth the detour.

You’ll meet unforgettable characters

The country’s diverse attractions were only enhanced by its colorful cast of characters. There was the fertilizer salesman in Idaho, who passionately talked our ear off about his trade; the group of small-town Alabama locals, who went out of their way to give us detailed directions; the cop in New Mexico, who pulled us over for speeding, but offered a travel recommendation instead of a ticket; and the South Dakota truck driver who shared jaw-dropping tales of life on the road.

Each personality we encountered was more unique than the next, but there was one common thread: they were welcoming, ready to drop knowledge, lend out a helping hand and enlighten us with eye-opening anecdotes.

The Grand Canyon stuns with its beauty.
The Grand Canyon stuns with its beauty.

You’ll be enveloped by beauty

Pictures just don’t do some sites justice. From the highest peaks in the Pacific Northwest and towering skyscrapers in Chicago to the lowest valleys in the Grand Canyon and flattest farmland in middle America, driving through the country is akin to traveling the world. Not only will you come face-to-face with varied landscapes, such as San Diego’s sun-soaked beaches and Colorado’s rocky trails, you’ll experience an array of cultures, like Montana’s cowboy-laden rodeos and San Francisco’s artsy, hipster hoods.

And aside from the major players, there are plenty of other natural beauties that will leave you lifting your jaw off the ground. Head to Utah’s Monument Valley, a fiery-red desert region that’s studded with sandstone buttes. Here, you’ll feel like you’ve stepped inside an old Western film. There’s also New Mexico’s Shiprock, a 1,583-foot jagged peak that unexpectedly juts out in the horizon; Carlsbad Caverns, the mesmerizing stalagmite- and stalactite-packed caves; and, well, pretty much anywhere in Wyoming. If you have the time, don’t miss Louisiana’s plantations and the scenic — albeit sometimes terrifying — drive down California’s Highway 1.

You’ll see a lot for less

Coming from a place that charges $15 for cocktails and movie tickets, much of America feels really affordable. On average, we were able to get by spending under $50 a day. That included food and drink, lodging (we stuck to wallet-friendly hotels, motels and crashing on friends’ couches), entertainment and gas. Who would have thought the U.S. could be a budget-friendly travel destination?

You’ll eat unbelievable food

While traveling on a budget, eating at Michelin-star restaurants wasn’t exactly high on our to-do list. So you can imagine our surprise when we discovered mouthwatering fare on the cheap. With an assortment of cultures came something mind-blowingly delicious at every corner.

File the following under grub that’s worth the trek across the nation: finger-licking good barbecue and Mexican fare in Texas; gumbo, grits, jambalaya and muffalettas galore in New Orleans; and the freshest sushi imaginable in San Francisco.

Adventurous appetites will also enjoy out-of-the-box options like boudin noir (blood sausage) and cracklin (fried pieces of pork fat). That’s not to say there were no unpalatable meals, but on the whole, there was one major impression: If the way to your heart is through your stomach, you need not look further than the U.S.  

You’ll learn to roll with the punches

Over the course of the month, we ran into some relentless rainstorms, bumped into cockroaches at the laundromat and encountered elk crossing the road while leaving Yellowstone National Park. But the tale that really tested our limits was the time we almost got stuck in Death Valley.

A drive through Death Valley taught the author to roll with the punches.
A drive through Death Valley taught the author to roll with the punches.

It was over 115 degrees when we decided to drive through the desert valley. We stopped at a gas station (the only one until you’re out on the other side) for some food, fuel and water. “You better get more than two bottles, honey,” the attendant advised. I grabbed a couple more.

Upon arriving, it was so hot that we could only spend a few minutes outside — just enough time to snap a few photos standing atop the sand dunes. Our already overworked Honda Civic began to overheat. The only way to fix it? Roll down the windows and turn on the heat. Then, the water, including the extras I bought, began running out.

Without a soul in sight (who would be crazy enough to trek through Death Valley in the middle of August, after all?), we were sure the car would break down, leaving us stranded and fighting off cougars.

Even worse, we ended up on an unpaved road that our GPS couldn’t track. After a couple of hours — and an eerie encounter at a military base — our GPS picked up our location, directing us back out into familiar territory.

There’s a saying that goes: “Travel far enough, you meet yourself.” In that moment, that’s exactly what happened.

You’ll have the chance to experience other sides of America

Having grown up in New York City, there was nothing quite as eye-opening as driving through a town with a whopping population of two dozen. What was even more jaw-dropping was the sheer quantity of these towns. While some were charming, adorable spots, others were eerily empty with nothing but a grocery store and post office. This offered a glimpse into rest of the country beyond the city and its suburbs. Likewise, those from smaller towns can get a taste of city life as they pass through the many different cities in the U.S.

You’ll cross off many parks and attractions off your bucket list

Why kill two birds with one stone when you can check off more than two handfuls of attractions in one trip? From the quirky Idaho Potato Museum and Houston Space Center to the Willis Tower, Alamo and Alcatraz Island, you’ll feel thoroughly accomplished. If you’re planning to hit several national parks, it’s wise to opt for the annual America the Beautiful pass, which grants entry more than 2,000 federal recreation sites.

You’ll be encouraged to step out of your comfort zone

Having mapped out only a stop or two in each state, we ended up winging much of the trip. Because we follow a fairly regimented routine back home in New York City, we did this on purpose. It allowed us to be spontaneous and nimble, try new things (like a helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon — a pretty stellar way to conquer my fear of heights), talk to locals, bring home loads of epic stories and embrace the unexpected surprises along the way. Yes, even that trip to Death Valley in the dead of summer.

Read the original story, 9 Reasons Everyone Should Go On a Cross-Country Road Trip in the U.S., by Alisha Prakash, on Oyster.com.