American roads and road travel are a rich part of U.S. history, as we first built west-bound wagon roads, and later highways, in order to fulfill our manifest destiny. The modern American highway comes complete with rest stops, historical sites, roadside attractions, and government-preserved natural spaces.
Sadly, the American interstate system made many of America’s most interesting roads obsolete, while homogenizing road travel with its chain hotels, service stations, and restaurants.
Many of us have never been on some of America’s most infamous roads, even though we know them well thanks to American pop-culture. Even if you’ve driven part of the beloved Route 66, how much do you really know about the road and how it gained its notoriety?
Route 66 is America’s best-known and most-loved road, thanks to both its historical function and its widespread use in American pop-culture. Route 66 runs from Chicago to Los Angeles, coving a total span of 2,448 miles. It passes through eight states—Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California—so it was a major route west before the interstate highway system was created in 1956.
Route 66 began as a government-funded wagon road in 1857. During the Dust Bowl years of the Great Depression in the 1930s, the road was heavily traveled as farmers migrated westward to find work in California’s agricultural mecca, providing some prosperity to towns along the road. Due to its heavy use, Route 66 became America’s first completely-paved highway in 1938.
During the 1950s, Route 66 was the main highway used by Los Angles-bound Mid-Westerners, and a plethora of roadside attractions popped up along the highway. Route 66 was actually removed from the American Highway system in 1985, but it is now a National Scenic Byway and advertised by the states it runs through as “Historic Route 66.”
Route 66 is also known as the Great Diagonal Way, the Will Rodgers Highway, the Main Street of America, and the Mother Road. In American pop-culture, it is also a song and a TV show, in addition to being featured in many movies and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.
Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles
The Hollywood road and icon, Sunset Boulevard, was already pretty well-known before it became the title of Billy Wilder’s 1950 film. For all practical purposes, it is a major road running through parts of Los Angeles, linking downtown LA to the Pacific Coast Highway for a span of 24 miles. Traveling west, the road begins at Figueroa Street in downtown LA and winds through Hollywood, West Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Bel-Air, and Santa Monica to the Pacific Coast Highway.
As portrayed in the film Sunset Boulevard, the road covers both extremely wealthy and destitute areas of LA, and in Hollywood many struggling actors still take up residence along the boulevard. There are many famous places located on Sunset, including UCLA and the Beverly Hills Hotel. Also known as the Pink Palace, the Beverly Hills Hotel is featured on the cover of Hotel California, The Eagles best-selling album.
Elsewhere in pop-culture, the film Sunset Boulevard was adapted into a 1993 Andrew Lloyd Webber musical by the same name. The street was featured in a 1960s TV show called 77 Sunset Strip. A section of the road was also the subject of the 1960s Jan and Dean song Dead Man’s Curve.
Lombard Street, San Francisco
San Francisco is known as America’s hilliest city, and Lombard Street is known as the crookedest street in the hilliest city. Lombard Street is very steep and includes a series of severe switchbacks in order for cars to be able to drive down the decline. Lombard Street is also well-known because it is a beautiful brick street lined with Victorian mansions, featuring some of the most expensive real-estate in a city full of very expensive real estate.
The crest of Lombard Street happens to provide a beautiful view of the city and bay area. From the crooked part of the street, Lombard Street continues east to Telegraph Hill and Coit Tower, and it also continues west to the Golden Gate Bridge. So Lombard Street not only functions as a major road in San Francisco, but also as a major site to see (and see other sites from) while in the city.
Bourbon and Canal Streets, New Orleans
Bourbon and Canal are both very well-known streets in New Orleans’ famous French Quarter, but they may stand as an enigma to those who have never visited the city. Bourbon Street is probably the more well-known of the two, as the place to party in the city of carnivals, notably Mardi Gras. It was named after The House of Bourbon in Europe by the French Royal Family.
Bourbon Street spans the length of the entire French Quarter, known as the hub of New Orleans. The eight-block area known as Upper Bourbon Street is particularly popular with tourists, beginning at its intersection with Canal Street across from the Central Business District. The Bourbon–Canal Street corner is notorious for its plethora of strip clubs and its open-container law (in effect throughout the French Quarter).
Since Manhattan’s Canal Street, linking lower Manhattan to New Jersey, is probably even more well-known, Canal Street in New Orleans deserves its own distinction. Canal Street was designed, as the name suggests, to accommodate a canal, making it the widest street in the country to be designated a “street.”
Dividing the French Quarter from the Central Business District (formerly the American Sector of the city), Canal Street has three lanes of traffic on each side, divided by a set of street car tracks. Canal Street is formerly known as New Orleans’ main shopping district and is still home to dozens of large hotels. It’s wide streets, palm trees, views of the river, and still-running street cars give Canal Street a unique look you won’t see in Manhattan, or elsewhere.
US Highway 50
Highway 50 is otherwise known as “the loneliest road in America.” Drivers on either end of the road that begins in Ocean City, Maryland and ends in West Sacramento, California may balk at this designation, but travelers of its rural middle-section will understand the byline all too well, sometimes driving for hours without ever seeing another car.
Highway 50 was built in 1926 as part of the original US highway system. Once the interstate system was implemented, the highway provided a slower, more scenic alternative. If you’re driving across the country anytime soon and have a few extra days to spend on the road, Highway 50 is a pretty straight shot across the continent, covering just over 3000 miles through 12 states. It is far more scenic than the interstate, and it provides a much richer sense of American history and culture.