The mythology of the American highway is as deep and long as the Grand Canyon – which you can, incidentally, drive along. Books, music and films have added glamour, ghosts and grit to what in other countries would be merely a long, even boring, drive.
Jack Kerouac's 'On the Road', Bob Dylan's 'Highway 61 Revisited' and Dennis Hopper's 'Easy Rider' are perhaps the best-known celebrations of the American ideal of freedom as an open road. But there are enough pop songs to soundtrack a lifetime of coast-to-coast drives and the challenge may well be to turn off the myths – and turn down the music – and make your own experience out of the journey.
The vast, varied landscapes, small towns and big cities that fly-drivers pass through make the practical matters of hiring and insuring a car, driving on the right and learning a few new laws well worth it.
In Arizona, you can park in the quaint desert town of Winslow, still "a fine sight to see", on Route 66. In San Francisco, cruise up and down the seven hills before taking the Golden Gate Bridge into wine country. In the Florida Keys, you'll want the soft-top down; in Vermont, in fall, you'll open the windows to marvel at the crimsons, ochres and pinks.
The American highway celebrates its centenary this month. On October 31, 1913 the Lincoln Highway was established. This was the first "improved" – hard-topped, occasionally graded – road to cross the continent, running for 3,389 miles from New York to San Francisco.
In the 1950s, President Dwight Eisenhower championed the creation of the comprehensive Interstate highway network.
The celebrated American journalist Charles Kuralt noted in his 1990 book 'A Life on the Road' that the Interstate "makes it possible to go from coast to coast without seeing anything or meeting anybody. If the United States interests you, stay off the Interstates".
This advice still holds good. The ideal American driving holiday will involve at least some quieter state routes and backroads. Those with time can try one of the long-distance epics, but if you have only a week or less you can still do some very photogenic shorter routes. Here are our favourites – though tweaking them and inventing your own routes is all part of the fun.
California State Route 1
The route along the Pacific coast between Dana Point, north of San Diego, and Leggett, in the heart of northern California's redwood country, is an easy introduction to American road culture. Do the drive in summer and you'll be sun-blessed all the way; in winter, do it north to south and chase the light and heat.
Though the road skirts greater Los Angeles and its legendary gridlocks, it does pass through Long Beach, Santa Monica, Malibu, Santa Barbara's wine country, Santa Cruz, Big Sur, San Francisco and the Point Reyes National Seashore. Route 101, with which Route 1 occasionally merges on its 745-mile coast-hugging journey, finally takes over completely near Leggett. If you enjoyed 'Sideways' and like to be beside the seaside, this is the one to do.
One highway that ends in California is the most famous of all – Route 66, created in 1926 as one of the first numbered highways. Before then, American roads were recognised by coloured bands on telegraph poles and were often maintained by private individuals.
Originally stretching 2,451 miles from Chicago to Santa Monica, Route 66 has lost sections to state roads, local roads, private drives and grass, and dwindled to a series of discontinuous "historic" byways. To see what's open and viable, see historic66.com and check 66in2weeks.com to work out distances.
Highway 61, officially US Route 61, connects New Orleans and the city of Wyoming in Minnesota, and runs clean south-north for 1,400 miles. It's often nicknamed the "Blues Highway" in recognition of the region's musical culture. According to legend, the great blues guitarist Robert Johnson met the devil at the crossroads of highways 61 and 49.
Coast to coast
For those who want to live out an 'On the Road' fantasy and travel coast to coast, there are several options. US Route 20, the longest road in the country, runs for 3,365 miles between Newport in Oregon and Boston, but is broken at Yellowstone National Park. Running parallel to the north is the 3,101-mile Interstate 90.
To the south is Route 6; at 3,205 miles the longest continuous route. All these are fast, easy to drive and useful for those aiming to cross the US in two or three weeks without overdoing the driving.
SMALL DRIVES, BIG VIEWS
Use Route 17 out of Phoenix, visit Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon and then head up the 160 to the cowboy film-scape of buttes and tabletops on the Arizona/Utah border. Then come down the 191 and across Interstate 40 to enter Winslow on Route 66. Combine with a Jeep drive along Diamond Creek Road, which goes along the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
The 150-mile US 1 from Miami to Key West skirts the Everglades and takes the "Ocean Highway" linking a series of keys (from Spanish cayo for "islet"), with the Gulf of Mexico on the right and the Atlantic on the left; the most spectacular section is the Seven Mile Bridge.
For a leaf-themed drive, choose between the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway (blueridge parkway.org) in southern Appalachia and the 138-mile Scenic Route 100 Byway along the edge of Vermont's Green Mountains.
HOW TO DO IT
Everybody, in their dreams, wants to cruise across the US in a classic car. This can be arranged, at a price. Blacktop Candy's (blacktopcandys.com/classic-car-hire) has a vintage Mustang and a Chevy Bel Air and offers 19-day self-drives along Route 66 (in either direction) from about €8,737 (accommodation, mechanic and fuel included) per car.
Ride Free (ridefree.com) offers guided tours (in 1960s Mustang convertibles or a vintage 1932 Ford Roadster) along Route 66, California's Route 1 or from LA to Vegas, as well as guided and self-guided motorcycle tours across the US. A five-day LA-to-Vegas-to-LA classic-car tour for two costs €3,300, including accommodation; price based on five cars leaving as a group.
All offer Route 66 as well as shorter drives across the US. All the usual suspects rent cars in the US, and websites such as kayak.co.uk, 66rentacar.com and vroomvroomvroom.com are handy for comparing deals.
Rates vary greatly depending on the season, model and pick-up point. Circular drives are always cheaper than "one-way" routes involving a (sometimes exorbitant) dropoff fee.
Driveaways – driving someone else's car from A to B and paying for the fuel – are an option: autodriveaway.com. A refundable deposit of $350 (E255) is payable, the first tank of fuel is free and drivers must be over 23 and hold an international licence and an exit visa.
TrekAmerica recently announced a one-off 80-day tour of all the 48 contiguous American states, departing Miami on May 8, 2014. From E7,636, it includes flights and all accommodation, a tour guide and transport by private van (up to 13 people).
If you want to avoid the hassle of hotels or motels, a motorhome or RV is an option; try Cruise America (cruiseamerica.com).
Greyhound (greyhound.com) operates 16,000 daily bus departures to 3,100 destinations. Celebrating its 100th birthday in 2014, Greyhound has competitive prices: a three-night trip in December from Miami to San Diego, costs from $179 (E130).
You don't have to drive to hit the road. Grand American Adventures (grand americanadventures.com) does a range of group tours by bus.
WHAT TO READ
'Travels with Charley: In Search of America' by John Steinbeck.
In 1960, Steinbeck made a 10,000-mile, 38-state circuit of the country in a homemade camper, nicknamed Rocinante (after Don Quixote's weary nag), with a poodle called Charley. Steinbeck's 'The Grapes of Wrath', published in 1939, is a classic of road literature.
'On the Road' by Jack Kerouac.
Kerouac's best novel is a flowing, breezy celebration of youth, freedom and friendship.
'Moon's Road Trip USA' by Jamie Jensen.
Use this to start researching your trip and accommodation.
The Federal Highway Administration site has lots of information. Type "history" into the search engine to get started (fhwa.dot.gov). There's an interactive map of the historic Lincoln Highway at lincolnhigh wayassoc.org/map.