The Guide to Driving the Back Roads

Driving the back roads is relaxing and enjoyable, taking in scenery that is unspoiled and seldom seen

Plying the back roads—the back, back roads—of rural America inevitably will present you with a gift basket of surprises.

America is home to countless back roads, side roads, country roads, scenic routes, historic routes, tourist routes, scenic byways, and historic highways—and more road trip possibilities than any one person could complete in a lifetime.

Back roads of Bluegrass Country, Kentucky © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I have a love-hate relationship with Interstates. There are times when you need to be somewhere fast and the Interstates are the only viable options. But fast is the problem. With speed limits of 70 miles per hour in most states (more in a handful of mostly western states), it’s rare to find traffic moving at the speed limit. It is often much closer to 80.

Between Moki Dugway and Mexican Hat, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When you are in an RV—a towable or motorhome—excessive speed is not your friend. The faster you go, the harder it is to stop and control your rig.

Add to that the fact that the tires on most RVs are not engineered to drive as fast as the tires on your toad/tow vehicle. Suddenly there’s a compelling case for driving the roads less traveled. But aside from safety, back roads travel can be much more enjoyable.

Related Article: Life is a Byway: The Roads Less Traveled

Burr Trail, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why drive the back roads?

On back roads, speed limits are usually 55 to 65 miles per hour. Lower speeds usually result in improved mileage. Budget stretching and safety are two top reasons you consider driving secondary roads. But there are more reasons:

  • Back roads get you closer to the countryside and the people; scenic vistas, Mom and Pop stores, and restaurants provide a real feel of the area
  • Back roads are calming; the stress of interstate driving takes a physical and emotional toll
  • Back roads make for more enjoyable road trips that can give you a much better appreciation for the country
Schnebly Hill Road near Sedona, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tips for driving the back roads

Look for two-lane state routes: Like the so-called Blue Highways, popularized in the best-selling 1982 book of the same name by William Least Heat-Moon. Here is where you will find small-town America. Don’t be afraid to pull off the highway at a park, a roadside attraction, along a riverbank or lakefront, or with a great view of the mountains or the valleys and just hang out for a while in a beautiful location.

Road to Peralta Canyon, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Beware of dirt or gravel roads: They may be tempting. But they have a way of going bad and becoming rutted and potholed. Avoid them when driving an RV. They may be doable in a Class B van or a small Class C motorhome. Dirt and gravel roads coat everything in the RV with dust in dry weather while coating the exterior in mud following rain. And stones kicked up by your tires can chip your paint job.

Related Article: Ambling Down Country Roads in Bluegrass Country

Moki Dugway, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Consider county routes with care: Some paved county roads peter out after a few miles to gravel or dirt. Others are quite narrow and offer few places for an RV to pull over or turn around. That’s why it’s wise to travel with an RV-specific GPS to navigate safely based on your vehicle dimensions. You can input your vehicle’s height, length, and weight as well as fuel information like whether or not you’re carrying propane. This will not only help you avoid steep mountain roads but also low clearance bridges, bridge weight limits, and tunnels with propane restrictions. Also, check locally regarding road conditions, especially during inclement weather.

Back roads of Parke County, Indiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Don’t rely on GPS: The more remote the country, the less reliable GPS can be. That’s why drivers need to apply a dose of common sense to a computer’s suggestions starting with not taking RVs and other vehicles that aren’t up to the task down unpaved roads. State highway maps are a must if you plan to drive the backroads. County maps are often available from regional visitor centers or local stores.

Back roads of Holmes County, Ohio © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Driving the back roads takes more planning: There are numerous RV trip planning apps available to help but you’ll want to consider places to refuel, buy groceries, find restaurants or picnic spots (county parks are often true gems), and RV parks and campgrounds.

Back roads of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ask for places to overnight: In some small towns you can camp free in local parks, churches, parking areas, or behind businesses. But, be sure to ask first. If you can’t find someone to give permission, stop by the sheriff’s office or police department. Naturally, your RV needs to be self-contained to do this. Obviously, this works best if you’re driving a small RV.

Roaring Fork Nature Motor Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Eat local: While it is more economical and efficient to eat in your RV or at a picnic site, consider a meal in a local “Mom and Pop” restaurant or market to experience local and regional foods that aren’t pre-packaged, frozen, or microwaved. Ask the staff or other diners what you should see in the area. You’ll likely get some great suggestions.

Related Article: Barn Quilt Trail: Folksy Phenomenon

Piano Bridge near Schulenburg, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Watch for low bridges, underpasses, and low-hanging trees: Those RV trip planning apps will help here as will RV-specific GPS modules. On the interstate, overpasses are usually 16 feet or more. Along some secondary routes, 12-foot or lower bridges will pose a big-time problem to most RVs. Also be aware of low-hanging trees and branches as they can do a number on your satellite dish and air conditioner units. Trust me on this one!

Scenic Byway 24 near Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There is no hurry: The journey can be as enjoyable as the destination. Be flexible. Stop when you want, where you want. Setting a rigid agenda and over-planning may result in missing an unexpected attraction not included in travel guides—some things just happen along your journey. Take time for the unexpected!

Indian Creek Scenic Byway, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Follow the 330 Rule: The 330 rule is you stop when you have driven 330 miles or it is 3:30 in the afternoon. The idea is to get somewhere while it is still early enough to explore, chill-out, and enjoy the place when you’re not exhausted from driving mega miles. Is there anything worse than pulling into a campsite after dark? Embrace less miles and stopping early as your travel style of choice. I have found as I’ve aged that the 220 rule works even better!

Read Next: Introducing New Scenic Byways and All-American Roads

Adventure awaits! Happy trails!

Worth Pondering…

Our four simple rules: No Interstates, no amusement parks, no five-star accommodations, and no franchise food (two words which do not belong in the same sentence!)

—Loren Eyrich, editor/publisher Two-Lane Roads

11 Must Watch Films Shot on Route 66

Coined the ‘Main Street of America’, driving along this historic road elicits memories of days gone by when a nickel could buy you a bottle of coke and the sweet sounds of Billie Holiday crooned from every radio

No American road is as iconic as Route 66. Starting in Chicago, Illinois, and snaking cross-country to Santa Monica, California, Route 66 originally consisted of 2,418 miles of highway rich with neon-lit motels, quirky roadside attractions, and stretches of deserted landscape.

Route 66 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With such a wealth of inspiration, it’s no surprise that so many filmmakers have used Route 66 as a backdrop for their films. One of the pivotal scenes in the 1988 film Rain Man takes place at Route 66’s Big 8 Motel in El Reno, Oklahoma. Rain Man went on to win numerous accolades and prizes including four Academy Awards. While not every movie filmed on Route 66 goes home with an Oscar, there are many that are worth a watch.

So pop some corn, get yourself comfy, and binge watch these eleven must-see movies on our list.

Route 66 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Easy Rider (1969)

Filmed along Route 66, primarily in Santa Monica, California, and Flagstaff, Arizona, this 1969 film follows two “biker-hippies” (Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper) as they head to New Orleans, crossing the west and southern United States. Along the way they encounter a host of interesting characters and strange situations. The ultimate biker road-trip film, this movie had a budget under $1 million and yet went on to gross more than $60 million worldwide. This movie is especially interesting because it marked the beginning of a cinematic revolution in Hollywood. Addressing topics such as sexuality, politics, and drugs with unprecedented candor, it marked a new wave of film and was one of the first low budget movies to enjoy such a high level of success.

Route 66 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

Based on John Steinbeck’s novel of the same name, this 1940 film tells the story of an Oklahoman family heading to California on Route 66. Taking place during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl period, the poverty stricken Joad family leaves Oklahoma in search of a better life. Interestingly, Steinbeck was the person who first coined the term the “Mother Road” to describe Route 66, and many of its locations are prominently featured in this movie including spots through Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. Nominated for seven Academy Awards, this movie is also listed 230 on the American Film Institute’s 2007 list of the best movies ever made.

Related: Route 66 across Arizona

Route 66 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bagdad Cafe (1987)

This 1987 film, also known as Out of Rosenheim, is a German comedy-drama set in a remote truck-stop café and motel in the Mojave Desert in California. The story centers on two women who have recently separated from their husbands and the friendship that grows between them. The setting of this film, Bagdad, California, is a former town on Route 66 which was abandoned and eventually razed after being bypassed by Interstate 40 in 1973. While the town of Bagdad did have a Bagdad Cafe, the film was actually shot 50 miles west in the town of Newberry Springs, California, at the now titled, Bagdad Cafe. This café has since become something of a tourist destination on the route.

Route 66 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

No Country for Old Men (2007)

This picture, based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name, is a tension building cat and mouse drama which follows a Texas welder and a Vietnam veteran in the desert landscape of west Texas. Interestingly however, The Desert Sands Motel in the final scene, while depicted as El Paso, Texas, was actually filmed in the Route 66 town of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Critically acclaimed, this film took home four Academy Awards as well as numerous other prizes.

Route 66 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

This 2006 film follows the motley Hoover crew as they pile into a canary yellow Volkswagen bus, embarking cross-country to get the seven-year-old protagonist, Olive, to a beauty pageant in Redondo Beach, California. Portions of the road trip were filmed in Route 66 locations including Chandler, Phoenix, and Flagstaff. Interestingly, this film, while having a relatively small budget of $8 million made a profit exceeding $100 million worldwide. Watch it for the great locations, but stay for the weird family antics.

Route 66 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983)

In this classic movie, starring funny man Chevy Chase, the Griswold clan drove from Chicago to Los Angeles to visit the theme park Wally World. Downtown Flagstaff, Arizona, and other Arizona highway locations were used in this comedy. Other locations close to Route 66 included Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon which the cast actually visited (unlike the cast of Thelma and Louise). This film was a box-office hit earning more than $60 million and increasing the popularity of the National Lampoon series.

Related: Get Your Kicks (And Burros) On Route 66

Route 66 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Starman (1984)

Although filmed in numerous locations throughout the United States, this 1984 film featured the Meteor Crater Trading Post, just west of Winslow, Arizona, on Route 66. Telling the story of an alien who has come to Earth in response to the Voyager 2 space probe’s gold phonograph record, this crater location served as the movie’s rendezvous point where the main character (Starman) was to meet and return to his ship. Interestingly, this film represents a rare instance where a film from the science-fiction genre received an Academy Award nomination for acting (Jeff Bridges for Best Actor).

Route 66 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Beneath the Dark (2010)

Located along Route 66 in the heart of the Mojave Desert sits Amboy, California, the backdrop for this 2010 mystery thriller film. Set largely in Roy’s Motel and Cafe (used over the years in many horror films), this movie introduces us to a couple driving through the desert to attend a wedding. When they end up at Roy’s for a roadside rest stop, it proves to be a strange and unsettling place where uncomfortable secrets will be revealed. Once a popular spot to stop along the route, Amboy struggled after the opening of Interstate 40 in 1973 and is now largely abandoned. Turn this movie on to be spooked, but take in a little piece of Route 66 history while you watch and get out and pay a visit to Roy’s for yourself.

Route 66 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wild Hogs (2007)

In this 2007 film, a group of middle-aged suburban bikers hit the open road on a quest for adventure. These “Wild Hogs” soon find they’ve gotten a little more than they bargained for when they encounter a New Mexican biker gang called the Del Fuegos. Filmed in a variety of locations in the Route 66 town of Albuquerque, New Mexico, this comedy flick has led to an influx of recreational bikers to the area. One key spot to visit is The Library Bar & Grill, a Central Avenue (Route 66) location in Albuquerque that was featured as a friendly biker bar in the film.

Natural Born Killers (1994)

One of the darker films on our list, this 1994 satirical film about serial killers on a murder spree was filmed in a variety of locations on Route 66 (Illinois, New Mexico, and Arizona). Following Mickey and Mallory Knox as they drive down the highway in their Dodge Challenger, murdering every few miles, this controversial film focuses on how mass media can irresponsibly glorify individuals. Shot in a unique frenzied and psychedelic style making use of animation, different color schemes, and a variety of camera angles, filters and special effects, this film, while not the archetypal road trip film, is definitely a must-watch.

Related: Route 66: The Road to Adventure

The Outsiders (1983)

Shot on location in Tulsa, Oklahoma (Route 66 runs through the heart of the city), this 1983 coming-of-age drama is an adaptation of the S.E. Hinton novel of the same name. In this film a teen gang (the Greasers) are continually at odds with a rival group (the Socials). When a brawl ends in the death of a Social member, the consequences for everyone involved are serious and tragic. A well acted and crafted film that stars some of Hollywood’s biggest names when they were still young and up-and-coming, this movie performed well at the Box Office, and solidified its place on our list.

Read Next: Road Trips Ratings: America’s Classic Routes Analyzed

Worth Pondering…

If you ever plan to motor west
Travel my way
Take the highway that’s the best
Get your kicks on Route 66

—Bobby Troup (1946)