This Map Shows the Ultimate U.S. Road Trip

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The concept of a road trip is as American as apple pie, and yet, devising the “best” U.S. driving route is a bit of a head scratcher. Much depends on time parameters, personal preference, and frankly, how long you want to spend behind the wheel.

In 2015, Tracy Staedter at Discovery News decided to take on that challenge, enlisting Randy Olson—the data scientist behind the famed (and super helpful) Where’s Waldo algorithm—to devise what you might call the platonic ideal of the United States road trip. The parameters were: It had to hit all of the 48 continental states; every stop had to be a National Natural Landmark, a National Historic Site, a National Park, or a National Monument; and of course, had to be confined to car travel and within U.S. borders.

With a stop in Washington, D.C. and two in California, the result is 50 points of all American awesomeness. Here are the destinations:

  1. Grand Canyon, Arizona 
  2. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
  3. Craters of the Moon, Idaho 
  4. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming 
  5. Pikes Peak, Colorado 
  6. Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico
  7. The Alamo, Texas
  8. The Platt Historic District, Oklahoma 
  9. Toltec Mounds, Arkansas 
  10. Elvis Presley’s Graceland, Tennessee 
  11. Vicksburg National Military Park, Mississippi 
  12. French Quarter, Louisiana 
  13. USS Alabama, Alabama 
  14. Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida 
  15. Okefenokee Swamp Park, Georgia 
  16. Fort Sumter National Monument, South Carolina 
  17. Lost World Caverns, West Virginia 
  18. Wright Brothers National Memorial Visitor Center, North Carolina 
  19. Mount Vernon, Virginia 
  20. White House, Washington, D.C. 
  21. Colonial Annapolis Historic District, Maryland 
  22. New Castle Historic District, Delaware 
  23. Cape May Historic District, New Jersey 
  24. Liberty Bell, Pennsylvania 
  25. Statue of Liberty, New York 
  26. The Mark Twain House & Museum, Connecticut 
  27. The Breakers, Rhode Island
  28. USS Constitution, Massachusetts 
  29. Acadia National Park, Maine
  30. Mount Washington Hotel, New Hampshire 
  31. Shelburne Farms, Vermont 
  32. Fox Theater, Michigan 
  33. Spring Grove Cemetery, Ohio 
  34. Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky 
  35. West Baden Springs Hotel, Indiana 
  36. Abraham Lincoln’s Home, Illinois 
  37. Gateway Arch, Missouri 
  38. C. W. Parker Carousel Museum, Kansas 
  39. Terrace Hill Governor’s Mansion, Iowa 
  40. Taliesin, Wisconcin 
  41. Fort Snelling, Minnesota 
  42. Ashfall Fossil Bed, Nebraska 
  43. Mount Rushmore, South Dakota 
  44. Fort Union Trading Post, North Dakota 
  45. Glacier National Park, Montana 
  46. Hanford Site, Washington 
  47. Columbia River Highway, Oregon 
  48. San Francisco Cable Cars, California 
  49. San Andreas Fault, California 
  50. Hoover Dam, Nevada

That list starts with the Grand Canyon, but you could theoretically begin anywhere as long as you drive in sequence after that. Staedter guessed it would take a little over nine days of driving straight through, but more realistically is a two- or three-month trip.

For the details on how he came up with the route, check out Olson’s blog. After determining the stops, the main goal of the algorithm was to find the shortest distance between points.

Olson wrote to Staedter: “Instead of exhaustively looking at every possible solution, genetic algorithms start with a handful of random solutions and continually tinker with these solutions—always trying something slightly different from the current solution and keeping the best one—until they can’t find a better solution any more.”

And whether or not you understand the specifics of how it was created, the map is truly a marvel and the kind of itinerary you'll probably spend all winter dreaming about. See the map here, and for additional travel goals, check out Olson’s road trip maps for South America and Europe.

A version of this story ran in 2015; it has been updated for 2023.