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:
- Grand Canyon, Arizona
- Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
- Craters of the Moon, Idaho
- Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
- Pikes Peak, Colorado
- Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico
- The Alamo, Texas
- The Platt Historic District, Oklahoma
- Toltec Mounds, Arkansas
- Elvis Presley’s Graceland, Tennessee
- Vicksburg National Military Park, Mississippi
- French Quarter, Louisiana
- USS Alabama, Alabama
- Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida
- Okefenokee Swamp Park, Georgia
- Fort Sumter National Monument, South Carolina
- Lost World Caverns, West Virginia
- Wright Brothers National Memorial Visitor Center, North Carolina
- Mount Vernon, Virginia
- White House, Washington, D.C.
- Colonial Annapolis Historic District, Maryland
- New Castle Historic District, Delaware
- Cape May Historic District, New Jersey
- Liberty Bell, Pennsylvania
- Statue of Liberty, New York
- The Mark Twain House & Museum, Connecticut
- The Breakers, Rhode Island
- USS Constitution, Massachusetts
- Acadia National Park, Maine
- Mount Washington Hotel, New Hampshire
- Shelburne Farms, Vermont
- Fox Theater, Michigan
- Spring Grove Cemetery, Ohio
- Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky
- West Baden Springs Hotel, Indiana
- Abraham Lincoln’s Home, Illinois
- Gateway Arch, Missouri
- C. W. Parker Carousel Museum, Kansas
- Terrace Hill Governor’s Mansion, Iowa
- Taliesin, Wisconcin
- Fort Snelling, Minnesota
- Ashfall Fossil Bed, Nebraska
- Mount Rushmore, South Dakota
- Fort Union Trading Post, North Dakota
- Glacier National Park, Montana
- Hanford Site, Washington
- Columbia River Highway, Oregon
- San Francisco Cable Cars, California
- San Andreas Fault, California
- 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.