Destination Wednesday: In The Highways, Pt. 1

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The original Lincoln Highway ran from New York to San Francisco. (Photo credit: Anthony Delanoix via Unsplash.)

Road-trip season is fast slipping away from us. But while you have a chance, or as you sit casually leafing through the Internet and dreaming of next year’s road trips, why not consider a few of our favorite historic highways?

These scattered remnants of the first transcontinental roads, such as they were, may not get you there quite as fast as the Interstates, but what you see more than makes up for the extra time you spend.

We’ll do three this week and three next week, and if you like them we might even do some more.

The Old National Road

History: Built of rocks, dirt, and wood, the National Road was the first “highway” funded by the federal government. If followed the old Cumberland Trail through Maryland, Pennsylvania West Virginia (Virginia at the time), Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, where it met the Mississippi River. Not a people road as much as a freight road, the National Road was traversed by massive, one-ton Conestoga wagons.

Where To Drive It: The road began going downhill, so to speak, in the 1850s, so there’s no original road left. Its route eventually became U.S. 40, and the trip to take on that road is from Marshall to Vandalia in southeast and south-central Illinois. There’s a National Road visitor center in Vandalia, lots of picture-perfect small towns, and plenty of fun backroad driving.

Must-Stop: U.S. 40 from the Ohio border to Indianapolis comes in a close second to the Marshall-Vandalia drive, and no trip to Indy is complete without a stop at the 3 Sisters Café for its signature lemon corncakes and other innovative vegan options, all served in the delightfully funky setting of a former hair salon.

Lincoln Highway

History: Carl Fisher, the man responsible for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Miami Beach, envisioned a hard-surfaced road that would stretch from Times Square to San Francisco, and then named it in anticipation of the Lincoln Centennial.

Completed in 1913, the Lincoln Highway was the first transcontinental automobile road. Towns prospered along “The Main Street Across America,” and it spawned Lincoln-named statues, restaurants, theaters, parks, schools, and tourist camps.

The highway also inspired the Interstate highway system, in part because President Eisenhower crossed the country on the Lincoln Highway as a young soldier in 1919.

Where to Drive It: In the east, most of the 1928 Lincoln Highway route became U.S. 30, though today’s U.S. 30 aligns with less than a quarter of the original route. Long stretches of I-80 in Wyoming, Utah and California are paved over the original gradings of the Lincoln Highway.

Must-Stop: Besides Ole’s Big Game Lodge? The Fort Cody Trading Post in North Platte, Neb., is sort of like Wall Drug with an extra helping of Old West kitsch and flowing blond locks. But if you’re looking for grub, there’s not much out of the ordinary until you get to Cheyenne and the buffalo steak with truffled wild mushrooms at Poor Richard’s.

The Yellowstone Trail

History: The Yellowstone Trail was conceived as 25 miles of good road from Ipswich to Aberdeen, S.D., but grew to become a northern transcontinental route through Yellowstone National Park, with Plymouth Rock and Puget Sound on either end. Because of its rugged northern route, the Trail was used frequently for rallies and races, though they faded quickly after the Great Depression. The main Trail Association office closed in 1930 and its successor packed it in nine years later.

Where to Drive It: Few sections of the original road remain. The most scenic are in Montana: between Livingston and Gardiner north of Yellowstone, between Three Forks and Butte, between Hunter’s Hot Springs and Billings, and on the Randolph Creek/Mullan Pass road over the Bitterroots. You’re going to want to drive them in summer.

Must-Stop: Yellowstone, of course. But for more of a must-go, keep driving. Head northwest from Yellowstone through Bozeman, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and Spokane to Coulee City, Wash., and from there take the Coulee Scenic Parkway in either direction – north to Omak or south to Moses Lake and Othello.

Photos from autogiftgarage.com, Wikipedia, and the ILWU Local 19.

Author: Kit Kiefer

As content engineer for Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, I have one of the world's great jobs. Not only do I get to write about travel, but I get to edit the work of fantastically talented contributors from around the world. Plus I get all the maple syrup I can drink.