7 East Coast Road Trips off the Beaten Path

“It is not the destination that is important, but the journey there."

From an ancient Chinese proverb, to words penned by Ralph Waldo Emerson, there are countless variations on and attributions to this oft-cited “journey-destination" quote. Regardless of its origins, the expression is as applicable to everyday life as it is to driving adventures, simply because the memories and experiences created on the road trip often are richer than the destination itself.

With that in mind, the seven drives below will encourage you to channel your inner explorer and dare to experience that road less traveled. It's where history buffs, foodies, naturalists, musicians, and fans of The Sopranos all can discover something new, and perhaps even something about themselves, along the way.


Skyline with fall leaves

Source | National Parks Service

Stretching 105 miles with 70 overlooks that provide stunning views, Skyline Drive runs the full length of Shenandoah National Park – a National Park Service property – through Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah Valley. Beginning at mile marker 0 in Front Royal, VA., and stretching south to near Waynesboro, VA., where it terminates at mile 105, the Drive's 35-mph speed limit ensures drivers and passengers get out of life's fast lane to experience natural beauty that changes with each passing season and mile. Open 24/7, but susceptible to inclement weather closures, this drive takes about three hours to complete – depending on how many stops are made at overlooks or roadside to observe the abundant wildlife.


Blue Ridge Parkway

Source | BlueRidgeParkway.org

Stretching nearly 500 miles through the mountains of Virginia and North Carolina, designated as an All-American Road, and called "America's Favorite Drive," The Blue Ridge Parkway is undoubtedly one of the most scenic, visited, and photographed byways in the U.S. Different sections along the route have their own unique natural beauty and cultural experiences, such as the bustling City of Roanoke near milepost 120 and minutes from the Parkway.

Mabry Mill

Source | National Parks Service

Founded as a railroad town in the 1800's and originally called “Big Lick," today it's a bustling small mountain city that's home to the impressive Taubman Museum of Art, along with the O. Winston Link Museum – named for the photographer and featuring many of his best-known works chronicling the dying era of the steam-powered locomotive.

Head south on the Parkway to mile marker 176.2 to visit Mabry Mill where an authentic, water-powered mill still grinds corn today, providing a gateway to the past and an authentic glimpse into rural Appalachian life.


a Crooked Road street sign

Source | BlueRidgeParkway.org

It's been called "One of the Five Best Trips in the USA" — according to Lonely Planet — and "One of America's Dozen Distinctive Destinations," — according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation — and a drive along its 300 miles through Southwest Virginia should be on every music lover's bucket list. This “Music Trail" was designated to highlight the region's diverse music and cultural heritage, and includes major music venues, music shops, birthplaces of different types of music, music festivals, and other hidden gems.

Several of the Trail's major venues include The Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol, Tenn., the Floyd Country Store and it's live street performances in Floyd, VA., and the Ralph Stanley Museum in Clintwood, VA., paying homage to the legendary bluegrass musician.


The Natural Bridge on Route 11

Source | Hiking the Appalachians and Beyond

Long before there was Interstate 81, a major, mid-Atlantic, north-south artery stretching – in Virginia – from the state's southwest corner to its northern border and featuring heavy commercial truck traffic and frequent, miles-long traffic jams, there was little old Route 11.

The “Lee Highway" is just two lanes in some spots, four lanes in others, parallels much of I-81, but that's where the similarities end. Route 11 is a scenic byway and throwback to the way Americans used to travel by car – slower, and with many stops along the way at roadside motels and tourist attractions.

In addition to the Virginia countryside's scenery and rolling hills, Route 11 is dotted with must-see attractions that are just off the beaten path. Natural Bridge is one of them. This 215-foot tall limestone bridge was formed by the Cedar Creek relentlessly carving away its soft stone over the course of countless years. Once owned by Thomas Jefferson and now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, “Bridge" as the locals refer to it, features a leisurely walk along Cedar Creek that takes visitors directly under the towering bridge.

Nearby is the historic city of Lexington – home to the Virginia Military Institute and Washington and Lee University.


Newark Bay Bridge at night

Source | Vlad Lazarenko | Wikimedia Commons

Visitors looking for an unparalleled view of the New York City skyline, or real-life scenes from HBO's hit series The Soprano's, need to know about just one route – The New Jersey Turnpike. This is the road seen in the opening credits of every Soprano's episode as the lead character takes a ticket from the toll booth and drives past the iconic landmarks that weave the fabric of northeast New Jersey's gritty, urban, industrialized landscape.

The northern section of the Turnpike offers the New York City skyline to the east, passes over the marshy Meadowlands, under expansive iron bridges, and near the NFL Giants' and Jets' stadium, as well as some of the country's most diverse culinary offerings and best diners. Even native New Jerseyans identify with it, asking, “which Turnpike exit" to determine where a fellow Garden-Stater lives.

Travel the full length of the Turnpike, however, from the high-density, traffic-clogged New York City metro area to southwestern New Jersey's more laid-back, bucolic, sandy region to see a more accurate portrait of The Garden State's many faces.


New Jersey has more diners (think old school, stainless steel exteriors, 24/7 service, stools at the counter, breakfast any time of the day or night, and huge portions) of any state in the U.S. Minutes from the Meadowlands, just off Route 3 in Lyndhurst, The Colonial bills itself as a “traditional New Jersey diner." With an exterior appearance that looks as though it hasn't changed since its 1950's founding, this diner certainly fits that stereotype.

Leave The Colonial and head north on Route 17 a mere five miles and stumble upon one of the state's most famous roadside eateries – The Bendix Diner. Its classic diner exterior and expansive parking lot at the intersections of Routes 17 and 46 undoubtedly helped it land the numerous TV commercial and movie appearances it's known for today, in addition to its great food.

From The Bendix, hop on the Garden State Parkway to perhaps New Jersey's oldest and most iconic diners – The Summit Diner. With a traditional railcar-style building manufactured by the Jerry O'Mahony Diner Company in 1938, The Summit delivers every aspect of the New Jersey-diner experience with just one visit.


Hot Dog Johnny's

Source | USA Restaurants

From Hot Dog Johnny's in Buttzville, N.J., to Rutt's Hut in Clifton, N.J., New Jerseyans take as much pride in their hot dog establishments as they do their diners. The attraction is equal parts frankfurter, personalities behind the counter, and nostalgia. Since 1944, Hot Dog Johnny's has been a landmark and local legend at the intersections of Routes 31 and 46 in northwest New Jersey's Warren County. While Johnny's has expanded since it opened in 1944, the original, tiny hot dog stand with its one serving window is still located on the property as a shrine to hot-dog lovers everywhere.

From Hot Dog Johnny's, head out County Road 519 to Route 22 in Phillipsburg, N.J., and find Toby's Cup perched just feet from the busy roadside. Toby's opened in the 1940s and is known today as much for its signature, oil-fried hot dog as it is for its tiny interior and the local, Lehigh Valley-bottled A-Treat soda it serves.

Leave New Jersey's less-crowded northwest region and head east on Interstate 78 for an hour and 10 minutes to the population-heavy New York City suburbs, and specifically Clifton, N.J., just off Route 3, to Rutt's Hutt – Home of the Ripper! They call their dogs “Rippers" because the casing splits during Rutt's signature deep-frying process. In business since 1928, Rutt's has appeared on PBS, the Food Network, the Travel Channel, and in USA Today.

Take the road less traveled, be well-fed and make unforgettable memories along the way, and when the destination is reached, begin planning the next epic driving adventure.

When have you be rewarded by going off the beaten track on a road trip? Let us know in the comments.

Last updated July 15, 2020