Driving cross country and sticking to the interstate, eh? That’s your first mistake. America’s two-lane highways reveal the splendors of this great nation—jaw-dropping scenery, mom-and-pop diners and roadside kitsch. But we get it, you’re heading somewhere awesome and just wanna get there. Trouble is, you’ve plotted your route and realize there’s no way to make it from Chicago to Denver in a day without chugging a dozen Red Bulls. That’s where so-called interstate cities come in. You know ’em: Seemingly bland cities, mere points on the map in the middle of nowhere offering fast food, a reliable place to crash—and little else. But what if we told you some are actually pretty cool? Here are 10 places roadtrippers commonly crash for a night, and how to turn a one-night stay into a vacay to remember.
Amarillo, TX on I-40
This panhandle city gets a bad name and that’s a shame. After a long I-40 drive across America’s dusty Plains, you’ll be mighty glad you decided to kick up your heels in this cowboy town for a night.
EAT The Big Texan Steak Ranch and Brewery, a Route 66 legend, beckons travelers with its banana yellow facade and come hither steer out front. If you can chow down a 72-oz steak with all the fixins’ in under an hour (you can’t), the meal is on the house. Instead, stick with a more manageable T-bone and don’t miss the killer gift shop.
DO Stunningly beautiful Palo Duro Canyon is the Grand Canyon of Texas and only 30 minutes from downtown Amarillo. Just west of town is Cadillac Ranch, a collection of vintage cars pressed nose first into the earth; it’s perhaps the most famous public art installation in the country. Grab a can of spray paint and join the fun.
STAY The Courtyard by Marriott Amarillo Downtown boasts an indoor pool and close proximity to the Sixth Street Route 66 Historic District and a ton of dive bars and honky-tonks.
Elko, NV on I-80
The drive between Salt Lake City and San Francisco along I-80 can strangle the soul, thanks to the 400 miles of lonely pavement between eastern Nevada and Reno. Do yourself a favor and idle for an evening in Elko, a city of 20,000 where the spirit of the Wild West is alive and kicking.
EAT Not actually a place to catch a few zzz’s (although you may want to after gorging yourself silly), the legendary Star Hotel (since 1910) serves up family-style portions of Basque cooking. Think thin slices of beef grilled to order, spicy grilled haddock and Basque beans, all served with a throwback ambience.
DO You might be hundreds of miles from Vegas, but this is still Nevada so go ahead and give in to those one-armed bandits. Downtown gaming halls like Commercial Casino and Stockmen’s Casino will happily take your dough. Don’t leave town without snapping a few pics of the Insta-worthy Centennial Tower.
STAY Skip the cheerful chains just off I-80 and instead opt for the Thunderbird Motel, a clean and friendly mid-century throwback in the heart of a downtown that boasts brilliant signage and a facade that has changed virtually nil since the ’60s.
Gainesville, FL on I-75
Smack in the middle of the Sunshine State, Gainesville is no ordinary stopover. If you’re heading to South Florida via New Orleans, Atlanta or points further afield, consider yourself lucky your I-75 trek includes a night in this lively university town. Go Gators!
EAT You’re spoiled for choice. On weekends, join the queue at celebrated Venezuelan food truck Arepas Milko, grab a classic smashed patty and quintessential roadside bite at Mac’s Drive Thru, or hit up The Top, a modern eatery serving up inventive American fare—and open until 2am!
DO Road tripping all day and arriving in sunny Gainesville at dusk? Perfect, that’s when the bats come out. The University of Florida Bat House (actually several structures) is home to the world’s largest occupied grouping of the winged creatures—a half million to be exact—and the time to see them is right after sunset. Now bats incredible!
STAY Located just off I-75, Wyndham’s hōm hotel + suites offers what every road tripper wants—comfy beds, competent staff, affordability and location location location.
Grand Junction, CO on I-70
If you’ve made the I-70 to I-15 schlep from Denver to Vegas, then you’ve already passed through Grand Junction. This city of 70,000 is the heart of Colorado’s wine country and we assure you these fine spirits beat the watered-down freebie cocktails you’re soon to be handed on Sin City’s casino floors.
EAT Head straight downtown to Taco Party, which offers a Colorado twist on the taco craze. Everything is locally sourced, even hyper locally at times, and the ever-changing menu features only six different appetizers, six different taco varieties and soft serve. And there’s a booze, of course.
DO Most wineries have their last tastings around 5pm, but if you happen to motor into town early do check out family-owned and operated Two Vineyards Winery. Meanwhile, the biggest prize in town never closes and that’s Colorado National Monument. If you’re in town either at dusk or dawn, be sure to motor scenic Rim Rock Drive and take in the gorgeous cliff formations and canyons below.
STAY After a long day on the road, what better than to arrive at Wine Country Inn Palisade where you’ll be greeted with an evening reception featuring complimentary wines and stellar views of the massive red rock wall behind the 80-room property on one side and rolling vineyards on the other.
Kingman, AZ on I-40
The I-40 drive been Albuquerque and Los Angeles is a beast, especially if you’re doing a Grand Canyon detour. (And why wouldn’t you?) Stop in Kingman, Arizona which was name checked in the road trip song “Route 66” and uses that claim to fame to full advantage.
EAT It’s true, the legendary road runs right through the city and more than one eatery has slapped on the numbers 66 to entice hungry motorists. You can’t miss the pastel facade of Mr. D’z Route 66 Diner which is awash in ’50-era nostalgia (think checkered tiles and pics of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe). The food is typical diner fare, but who cares.
DO There’s something else brewing in Kingman besides Route 66 nostalgia. Historic Beale Street has become something of a craft beer corridor. Hit up Black Bridge Brewery for locally brewed suds, House of Hops for an eclectic beer selection and Diana’s Cellar Door Wine Bar for fine wine… and craft beer.
STAY For one of the best whiffs of Mother Road nostalgia anywhere along the route, definitely stay at El Trovatore Motel. The signage is pure vintage gold, but what we really love are the loquacious owners and the large scale mural painted around the facade that traces the entire route from Chicago to LA.
Omaha, NE/Council Bluffs, IA on I-80
It’s a long haul between Chicago and Denver along I-80 (and there’s only so much entertainment you can milk out of the World’s Largest Truck Stop). Before subjecting yourself to Nebraska’s endless endlessness, give yourself one night of pleasure in this surprisingly cool metro area.
EAT Leave your plant-based biases behind, you’re in steak country now! For a memorable meal, stick your knife and fork into a juicy cut at Johnny’s Cafe, an Omaha legend since 1922. In Council Bluffs, hit up Christy Creme for burgers and ice cream, a roadside staple since 1954.
DO Snapping a selfie in two states at once? Consider it a cinch when striking the perfect pose on the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, aka “Bob the Bridge,” which connects the Hawkeye and Cornhusker states. As for getting that Insta-worthy shot while straddling both states? It’s called “Bobbing.”
STAY You can sleep on the cheap at Harrah’s Casino and Hotel (although you might lose your dough elsewhere). In Omaha, the Magnolia Hotel, is a downtown gem housed in a building built in 1923 to replicate the Bargello in Florence, Italy. It’s surprisingly affordable, and only a stone’s throw from the Old Market Historic District.
Rapid City, SD on I-90
I-90, the largest interstate in the U.S., connects Boston to Seattle with a whole lot of gems (Cleveland, Chicago and Missoula, Montana, to name a few) and a whole lot of cornfields in between. Rapid City may sound like nothing more than a name on a map… but just you wait.
EAT Tally’s Silver Spoon is as throwback as corner diners get (the place has been around since the 1930s). But this is no ordinary greasy spoon. Sure it’s full of menu standards, but Tally’s also boasts unusual standouts like umami bone marrow, curried mussels rouille and “Foie Gras of the Moment.”
DO Where to start? Rapid City is within a stone’s throw of Badlands National Park, the Black Hills National Forest, Mount Rushmore and Wild West throwback Deadwood. But if you’re truly just passing through, go for impressive animal encounters at either Reptile Gardens or Bear Country USA.
STAY Step back in time at the Hotel Alex Johnson, a Tudor-style hotel built in 1928 now boasting a rooftop cocktail bar, Irish pub and Starbucks. Six presidents have stayed here—apparently so have numerous ghosts.
Redding, CA on I-5
Not all marathon road journeys are east-west. If you’re zipping from LA to the Pacific Northwest in a hurry, I-5 is the way to go, but it’s not exactly a thrill ride. Redding offers a near perfect halfway point and may also just be California’s best-kept secret.
EAT You’re smack in the middle of Northern California so expect farm-to-fantastic eateries. Hit up Woody’s Brewery for a beer paired with highly addictive garlicky tator tots or try an amazing burger, topped with smoked gouda, caramelized onions, kale and tomato jam on a pretzel bun, at Mosaic.
DO The city’s marquee (and by that we mean most Instagrammable) attraction is the Santiago Calatrava-designed Sundial Bridge, a pedestrian and cycling bridge spanning the Sacramento River and, yes, its gorgeous spire is a functioning sundial. Don’t worry if you arrive in town after hours—at night it lights up!
STAY Motels shouldn’t be this cool, but the Americana Modern Hotel adds a dash of hipster to downtown Redding. A former fleabag motel, the makeover includes new wood and metal features and completely renovated guestrooms. If you’re heading to Portland, you might swear you’re already there.
Las Cruces, NM on I-10
West Texas is lonely, dusty and seemingly infinite. If you’re traveling west on I-10 from Austin or San Antonio, you’ll be itching to ditch the Lone Star State by day’s end. Skip El Paso in favor of Las Cruces just one hour further and way more interesting that you ever imagined.
EAT While digging the pueblo architecture and tiled murals of the historic Mesquite District, dig into Tex-Mex eats at La Nueva Casita Cafe, a local icon. It’s only open for breakfast and lunch so consider it fuel before hitting the road. Sick of Southwest cuisine? Try Luna Rossa Winery & Pizzeria just a stone’s throw from the interstate.
DO What can’t you do in Las Cruces? Arrive in time to explore White Sands Monument‘s 224 square miles of undulating, white gypsum sand dunes. Feeling Starry Eyed? Visit Spaceport America, home to SpaceX and VirginGalactic and perhaps the future of travel. Tours are now available.
STAY Hotel Encanto de Las Cruces offers everything a road tripper needs at day’s end including swimming pool, fitness center, full-service spa, lounge and restaurant/cantina, but with Southwest touches and a perfectly affordable price point.
Fayetteville, NC on I-95
Boston, NYC, Philly, Jacksonville, Miami and so many others: Road trippers trekking along I-95 are spoiled for choice, but the drive between DC-Baltimore and Savannah, Georgia begs for a stopping point. Meet Fayetteville, the charming Tar Heel city you’ve never considered spending a vacation on.
EAT Housed inside a turn-of-the-century hardware and department store now on the Registry of Historic Places, Huske Hardware House is a combination downtown restaurant and brewery serving craft suds alongside pub grub and a handful of Southern classics.
DO Using the Old Town Hall as a starting point, stroll the pretty and historic downtown and check out more than 100 small businesses and cool buildings. “Babe” Ruth hit his first home run and earned his nickname here; snap a pic in front of the downtown sign that pays tribute.
STAY It’s not wrong to say Fayetteville is lacking in charming B&Bs and small inns. Try Tru by Hilton Fayetteville I-95, a bright and cheerful option close to the freeway featuring an outdoor communal area, free breakfast buffet and 24-hour fitness center.
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