Jamie Jensen, author of Road Trip USA: Cross-Country Adventures on America's Two-Lane Highways, has probably seen more two-lane blacktop than Kerouac did. Jensen has just released an updated fifth edition of his 900-page book, full of road-trip itineraries with detailed maps, trivia, roadside curiosities, and dining and accommodation recommendations. Jensen first started researching the book in 1990 and has since traveled more than 400,000 miles. We picked his brain about the Great American Road Trip. Maybe you'll be inspired to take a close-to-home trip after reading it—especially given today's reasonable gas prices.
BT: What has been your most memorable find?
If I have to choose one truly special place, it would probably be the borderland between the Sand Hills of Nebraska and the Black Hills of South Dakota. Within a couple hours drive of Mount Rushmore and Wounded Knee, you have a full spectrum of highlights, including my favorite oddball roadside monument—Carhenge, a replica of ancient Stonehenge, made out of 1970s American cars. History buffs will love Fort Robinson, where Sioux chief Crazy Horse was captured (and murdered) in 1877; also the Museum of the Fur Trade in Chadron. Feast on great milk shakes and up to 2-pound (!) hamburgers at a classic old soda-fountain diner, Sioux Sundries, in the one-stoplight town of Harrison. All that said, if you asked me again tomorrow I'm sure I'd come up with a dozen other favorite places like this, which I've found over the country.
BT: What are your top tips?
One great way to save money and still have a great time is to go camping—the USA has perhaps the best and most beautiful national and state parks in the world, yet for some reason many Americans don't take advantage of them. Not only is a campsite less than half the price of a motel (and many campsites, if you are willing and able to hike a short way away from roads and RV-ers, are free!), but since you do your own cooking the food is comparatively cheap. (And all food tastes better outdoors!)
BT: What's the most important thing to consider when putting together a road trip itinerary?
For me the most important thing is not to be too ambitious—make sure you factor in enough time to savor and enjoy the things you do on your trip. So often, people make the mistake of "over-scheduling", of feeling they ought to be moving on to the next stop, when what is important is to relax and enjoy the moments. Leave yourself enough time for spontaneity and serendipity.
BT: What are some areas of the country that are prime for road tripping but are often forgotten?
One place that great for traveling but not exactly famous is the Great Lakes, and especially the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Here you have gorgeous scenery (rugged mountains and dense forests, and of course the lakes), with a lot of history (think Paul Bunyan). [Editor's note: Budget Travel has a four-day road trip itinerary for Michigan's Upper Peninsula.]
Duluth is another one of those wonderful mid-sized American cities no one thinks of for a vacation, but which happens to be tons of fun.
Other less-known but fun cities I like: Buffalo, with its wonderful architecture and access to Niagara Falls; Memphis, with Elvis, a great minor league baseball stadium and access to the musical road trip heaven of the Mississippi Delta; and Missoula, Mont., which is a great college town right at the heart of the majestic Rocky Mountains.
Want more? Check out Jensen's website.