Poet Robert Frost famously wrote about “The Road Not Taken” in 1916. More than a century later, the concept of taking a lesser-known route from Point A to Point B is even more poignant with the advent of commercial air travel.
In fact, if you’re traveling long distances, it’s common to take advantage of the efficiency that airplanes offer, searching for the shortest flights between your origin and your destination. But, sometimes it’s worth the extra time to take “the road not taken” — or, the actual road.
To honor all that the road truly offers, we’ve compiled a list of lesser-known locales scattered across the United States east of the Mississippi River.
BELLOWS FALLS, VERMONT
Vermont is known for its quaint, New England-style town centers, with brick facades that look out over narrow streets full of mom-and-pop shops and independent cafés. While driving up the highway through southern Vermont, you’ll notice an exit sign for Bellows Falls. And, since any place with the word “falls” in its name is worth exploring, get off the highway and confirm just how wonderful a town it is. Located right on the Connecticut River, Bellows Falls is the perfect place to spend an afternoon window-shopping for antiques, sipping hot chocolate in a cozy café, and admiring the view of the river.
Bellows Falls is located right off of Interstate 91 en route between New York City, Connecticut, and Western Massachusetts and northern Vermont or Montreal.
LAND BETWEEN THE LAKES, KENTUCKY/TENNESSEE
Just southeast of Paducah, Kentucky, and spanning part of the border between Kentucky and Tennessee is the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area. This stretch of forest is rightfully named, as it’s nestled between Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley, and is accessible via few roads. Although approaching the park from either side gives off the impression that the area won’t make much of an impact due to its lackluster scenery of grassy hills and scattered trees, once you cross the first lake and enter the park, lush trees suddenly surround the road and make you feel like you’ve entered a mythical forest. For this reason alone, you can’t just drive through and not stop to hike the park from end to end. If you have the time, we encourage you to do so. It is a truly spectacular experience to immerse yourself in such beautiful, untouched nature.
The Land Between the Lakes is located along U.S. Highway 68, south of Interstate 24, en route between the northeastern U.S. and the Gulf Coast.
CHEROKEE, NORTH CAROLINA
On the western edge of North Carolina, at the foot of the Great Smoky Mountains, lies Cherokee, a Native American village that serves as both a destination in its own right and as a beautiful introduction to the majesty of the mountains. Old, wooden, one-story shops line its main street, where you’ll see plenty of tourists and locals out and about for a walk. The village does a great job of maintaining its traditional feel, and is sure to make you fall a bit more in love with North Carolina. So why not make a pit stop on your way to the Smoky Mountains?
Cherokee is conveniently located on U.S. Highway 19, not far off of Interstate 40, for those coming from Nashville, Knoxville, Charlotte, or Raleigh.
CORRIDOR H, WEST VIRGINIA
John Denver was right when he sang that West Virginia is a “mountain mama.” One way to experience the truly impressive geography of the state is to drive the stretch of U.S. Highway 48 known as Corridor H. Though it was built for the purpose of providing better access to some of the Appalachian communities from the east and west, Corridor H is also a draw for road-trippers near and far. The strikingly impressive mountain ranges continue to appear before you as you drive this 71-mile (114-kilometer) route, making you feel like you’ve found an American version of the Swiss Alps.
If you’re driving from Washington, D.C. and heading west of the Appalachians, or simply looking to escape to the mountains, Corridor H is the perfect scenic route to take.
In the market for fresh, homemade ice cream at a reasonably-priced, old-fashioned parlor? Look no further than Ypsilanti, Michigan (pronounced “ipp-sill-ANN-ti”). While this small city outside of Ann Arbor has its share of small shops, the city’s greatest treasure lies in a hole-in-the-wall down a narrow alleyway. Go! Ice Cream is a vintage-style creamery where customers are allowed, and encouraged, to sample each of the day’s flavor selections (we recommend the honey flavor if it’s in season). Once you’ve settled on which flavor you want, take the ice cream to go, explore the rest of the city center, and visit its other shops. There are plenty of nooks and crannies to wander, so be sure to dedicate a couple of hours to Ypsilanti before moving on.
For those visiting the Ann Arbor area, detour slightly to the east on Michigan Route 17 or Interstate 94 to experience Ypsilanti’s local charm.
It has been deemed a truly American experience to road-trip long distances around the U.S. But such an experience is not just American — it is human. We are lucky to live on a planet with such diversity and little-known beauties, such as small towns, nature reserves, rural highways, and culinary hideouts. And the truth is, those locales simply cannot be explored from the air. The next time you’re thinking about taking a vacation, consider following Robert Frost’s advice and take the road not taken. Your car and your future self will thank you.
Header image by Justin Lawrence