American Roads Revisited

It’s been a while since I last wrote about US roads. In the meantime I have visited the States a few more times and have to confess I still haven’t lost any of my fascination with American roads. Quite the opposite, I have become even more hooked on the whole American car culture and started driving a Ford Mustang every time I rent a car there. So, let me share with you a few more great rural and urban drives.

The first road I would recommend is the US Hwy 41 in Upper Michigan. It is a great empty road running through vast and sparsely populated northern woodlands. Especially fun and spectacular are the last 18 miles before it ends in Copper Harbour. It becomes a narrow and twisted road running through some spectacular forests. It is a real driver’s highway, great fun to drive in a car like a Mustang, especially outside the main summer season (when it can get busy with tourist traffic).

The US Hwy 41 is only one of the many great roads in northern Michigan. I was positively amazed because before coming there I had heard a lot of stories about how bad the roads of Michigan are. They are not, they are actually great, surprisingly well maintained and empty. And they offer some really spectacular coastal drives. No, you didn’t read wrong. Michigan might be far from the nearest sea but it offers spectacular coastal scenery due to the presence of the Great Lakes. And they are really great, much more like sea than lakes.

Some of the best coastal drives of Upper Michigan are the Michigan Hwy 28 east of Marquette, which offers spectacular views of wild and vast Lake Superior, and the US Hwy 2 running along the northern shore of Lake Michigan from Escanaba to the Straits of Mackinac.

But it’s not only Upper Michigan where you can find some good coastal drives. Lower Michigan has its share too. For example the US Hwy 23 offers a great relaxing drive along the Lake Huron coast while the US Hwy 31 offers the same along the Grand Traverse Bay on the Lake Michigan shore. These are all main roads but they often feel like they are designed for pleasure drives and there are some smaller highways offering even more fun. One of them is the Michigan Hwy 119 north of Harbor Springs. Its designation as the Tunnel of Trees Scenic Heritage Route should give you a hint of what it is all about. Yes, it is yet another narrow and twisted road running along the coast and surrounded by lush vegetation. But it is much narrower than most American roads and it is totally covered by a canopy of trees. I strongly recommend it even if you need to detour via some really local highways to get to its northern terminus.

Another great drive is the Michigan Hwy 22 running along the Sleeping Dunes National Lakeshore. It offers a great mix of small villages, sand dunes, hills and forests.

The further south you go the less interesting things get and you finally end up in the road mess of Detroit which is not fun at all.

A few months later I had the opportunity to explore some great highways of the south eastern USA. I started from the mountain roads of West Virginia. This, often overlooked, state offers some really cool drives, among them are the roads around the New River Gorge. The US Hwy 60 heading east from Charleston starts quite ordinary but gets more interesting with every turn of the Kanawha River which flows alongside. The real fun starts when you take the WV Hwy 16 south, towards Fayetteville. This is a fantastic piece of highway, pure joy to drive in a sport car. From Fayetteville head north on the US Hwy 19 and you will cross one of the most amazing bridges in the world. The magnificent steel arch of the New River Gorge Bridge rises 294 meters above the river, which is just a bit less than the height of the Eiffel Tower.

You won’t see much while you drive on it but on the north side of the bridge there is a visitor center offering some great panoramic views of the bridge and the gorge.
To really admire this amazing piece of engineering you have to head downhill, which takes you to another crazy mountain road. Mostly one way (north to south), WV Hwy 82 is a narrow and twisted road which goes all the way down to the old bridge from where you can see how huge the new bridge is. And of course it is fun to drive too. In general I had a great day driving around the New River Gorge, and I can recommend it to anyone who enjoys some good mountain roads.

But the south east is not just about mountains. There are also some great coastal drives. One of the weirdest of them is the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, a 37km long system of low bridges, tunnels, artificial islands and causeways. It is another engineering marvel but it is also fun to drive, especially around sunset when the views are breathtaking. You will feel like you are driving on sea. Further south there is another great road, the NC Hwy 12, running along the long barrier islands of North Carolina’s Outer Banks. The best part of it lies south of Nags Head and runs the spine of Hatteras Island. It is a relatively straight and wide road, there is none of the mountain roads excitement but there is this difficult to describe spirit of driving at the end of the world. Especially on stormy days (like the one when I was there) you can experience the wild side of this coast. Low sand dunes border the highway in many places and on windy days sand is blown on the road. It looks quite spectacular but it is a constant danger as well as a headache for the highway maintenance crews which have to clear it, sometimes daily. Further south NC Hwy 12 continues via a short ferry connection to sparsely populated Ocracoke Island and then again onto the ferry connecting more islands to the mainland. I didn’t have time to venture that far south but it sounds like an epic drive as well. Of course stay clear of the area when a hurricane approaches.

Driving in big cites can also be surprisingly interesting. One of the most spectacular and impressive urban highways in the US is Atlanta’s Downtown Connector. It is a concurrent section of Interstates 75 and 85 running through the center of Atlanta. This huge ribbon of concrete and tarmac must be hell on earth for environmentalists and urban hippies, but driving it offers great views of Atlanta’s skyline. Just remember that it is one of the busiest roads you will ever drive, so be careful and pay attention to local drivers, none of whom seem to known what the indicators are for. This is a bit of an inconvenience as there are 8 lanes of waving traffic in each direction. And of course avoid the whole thing during rush hour.

There are many more interesting roads but it is simply impossible to list them all here. All I can say is that after clocking more than 23500 miles in the last few years I still didn’t get bored and still love driving in America.

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