10 great American road trips

/ Source: Special to msnbc.com

There's a Wilco song that goes, "We could use a hand full of wheel and a day off." Good advice indeed, because a road trip is the ultimate quick escape from the daily grind. But with 3.9 million miles of road in this country, abundance presents a problem: Where exactly should we point the car? Here are 10 great one-day continental U.S. driving adventures -- selected for scenery, cultural attractions and geographical diversity -- to unleash your inner Kerouac.

Massachusetts, Cape Cod

"If you're linear in your thinking," says Fodor's senior editor Paul Eisenberg, who worked on the Great American Drives series, "you're probably going to do best with something along a coast." His favorite is Cape Cod's eastern shore, from Bourne to Orleans. These 40 miles along the Old King's Highway (state Route 6A) are sprinkled with beaches, inns and museums. Plus, Eisenberg adds, "I like knowing I don't have to sweat the directions going back."

Vermont, Stowe to Smugglers' Notch

Autumn's hottest show? The deciduous trees of Vermont. For front-row seats, head south from Stowe along state Route 100, treating your sweet tooth at the Ben & Jerry's factory in Waterbury and your eyes to 100 miles of blazing fall foliage, much of it within Green Mountain National Forest. As a finale, the Smugglers' Notch mountain pass features 1,000-foot cliffs and, if you're lucky, peregrine falcons. Leaf hotline: (800) VERMONT.

Tennessee, Johnson City to Gatlinburg

So dang gorgeous, these 90 miles of rural Tennessee might inspire you to grab a banjo and strum an Appalachian love song. Take U.S. Route 11E toward Davy Crockett's birthplace (Everyone: "Born on a mountaintop..."). At Greenville, where two homes of Andrew Johnson anchor a presidential historic site, veer onto U.S. Route 321, skirting the majestic Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Next day, depending on your preference, visit the park or, for mountains of a different kind, nearby Dollywood.

Florida, Overseas Highway

Only car-crazy America would link a 105-mile long chain of islands -- from Key Largo, just south of Miami, west to Key West -- with a highway, U.S. Route 1. "You're on either a bridge or a causeway, surrounded by shimmering water," says Janet Groene, author of Great Eastern RV Trips. "It's a lovely, lovely drive." Two tips: Crowds are smaller during spring and early summer, and catch the sunset at Key West's Mallory Square Dock.

South Dakota, Pierre to Mount Rushmore

Mythic Mount Rushmore does not disappoint, even after driving more than 200 miles across jaw-droppingly cool scenery. From Pierre, follow U.S. Route 83 across the Missouri River and striking grasslands to Interstate 90, going west. The good stuff isn't visible from the interstate, so be sure to turn off at Murdo for buffalo burgers, Badlands National Park for dusty canyons and Rapid City for dead presidents carved into the Black Hills.

Texas, El Paso to Marathon

Plenty of trucker hats in these parts, atop both legitimate truckers and Brooklyn hipsters. Artsy types are flocking to the remote West Texas town of Marfa, home to the Chinati Foundation's minimalist art collection. Head east from El Paso along Interstate 10 (and the U.S.-Mexico border), turning south at Van Horn onto U.S. Route 90 -- about 230 miles total. When you tire of Chinati's aluminum boxes and fluorescent light bulbs, focus on the desert landscapes of Big Bend National Park, an hour from Marathon.

Montana, Great Falls to Missoula

"History-themed tours are always good," Groene says. "You could build a whole trip around Civil War sites or black history sites." Or you could honor the bicentennial of Lewis and Clark's (and Sacagawea's) expedition with a drive through Montana's Bitterroot Range. Fine-tune your route at the excellent Great Falls interpretive center, heading east on whatever roads visit the sites that interest you most. (Estimate 150 miles.) As you cross the Continental Divide, note the lack of a Northwest Passage for boats.

Washington, Everett to Ellensburg

From the shores of Puget Sound, take U.S. Route 2 east and upward into the Cascade Mountains. Looming to your right is 10,541-foot-high Glacier Peak. At only 135 miles, albeit twisty ones, your journey allows time to explore one of the frequent hiking trails and the faux (but fun) Bavarian charms of Leavenworth, after which you'll head south on U.S. Route 97. End point Ellensburg is a cool college town of pretty streets and renowned rock climbing.

San Francisco, Scenic Drive

At only 49 miles, San Francisco's official self-guided driving tour is one of this list's shortest trips. Given the beautiful city's heinous traffic, however, it could take the longest. Begin anywhere you see one of the Scenic Drive signs with the big seagull, and follow the looping route counterclockwise to Mission Dolores, Coit Tower and other postcard-pretty highlights. Just spend rush hour at a café.

California, Monterey to Morro Bay

Like you needed reminding that state Route 1 along California's central coast ranks as one of America's -- heck, the planet's -- best road trips. South of Monterey begins 125 miles of windy highway within incredible scenery, most amazing at Big Sur, where the Santa Lucia Range slopes steeply into the Pacific. By the time you hit San Simeon, the Hearst Castle's architectural wonders will barely register against what Mother Nature just showed you.

Finally, regardless of your road trip, travel pros urge folks to plan their routes in advance and to pack a map, not just directions spat out by a Web site. "You have to be prepared for the old-school way of driving," says Fodor's Eisenberg. "No matter what guide books you use, go to AAA for a good map."

Happy trails!

Ian Hodder is a writer based in New York.