Some of our earliest travel impressions are formed in the back seat of a family car and at the iconic attractions we visit on family vacations. And though it may have been years since you set off on an old-fashioned road trip, America’s best tourist sites hold up as well as they ever did.
Thanks to a modern system of highways in the United States — more than 4 million miles, and unrivaled by any other country in the world — there’s no shortage of places to explore. Even if you’re not a fan of car games and sing-alongs, you have to admit, there’s no better way to take in America’s landscapes and cityscapes than through the lens of a windshield.
For church groups, the option of traveling by bus or van is much more economical than flying. According to the U.S. Travel Association, 79 percent of all leisure travel was done by road in 2012. With gas prices dropping and foreign travel costs on the rise, this trend is expected to continue as it has for the past year, making now the perfect time to take your group on an American landmarks road trip experience that members will remember for a lifetime.
Whether you are starting in Maine or California or somewhere in between, here are some classic stops to make your all-American road trip all the more memorable.
Crazy Horse Memorial
Black Hills, South Dakota
It may seem that Mount Rushmore has the corner on commemorative sculptures, but if we’re going by size, it looks like there’s a new chief in town. Seventeen miles southwest of the famous presidential landmark, you’ll find the Crazy Horse Memorial.
The same kind of Black Hills granite that memorializes the faces of four great American presidents has been carved into a nine-story rendition of the famous Indian chief. Work has begun on adding a partial torso and the namesake horse to the sculpture. When completed, it will be the largest mountain carving in the world.
Its inception occurred when the work of sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski, who had been one of the men working on the Mount Rushmore construction, caught the eye of a Sioux chief named Standing Bear. Standing Bear recruited Ziolkowski to make something that would remind the American people of the greatness of Native American heroes.
Today, groups flock to the monument on their way across country. Group rates and tours are available through the memorial, and during the winter months, canned-food donations for a local food bank are accepted in lieu of admission price.
Buses shuttle guests up to the base of the mountain for a perspective-shifting experience — the monument is taller than the Giza pyramids — and there are several interactive exhibits close by, such as the Indian Museum of North America, the Native American Educational and Cultural Center, Korczak’s Studio and Home, and the memorial’s gift shop and restaurant.
Even if you can’t name a single player in the Red Sox lineup, a trip to this legendary baseball stadium will be worth it for the hot dogs alone. Famously nicknamed “Fenway Franks” and called the “Holy Grail” of hot dogs by Boston Globe writer Jenn Abelson, the signature food of that sports venue is as American as it gets. Chow down on all six inches of goodness as you catch a game from the stands or take a tour of the park.
The park offers group rates for tours that are available in season and out — even in the middle of winter, as long as the weather isn’t “wicked” awful. You’ll get to sit atop the 37-foot-tall Green Monster, Fenway’s left-field wall; touch Pesky’s Pole; and maybe even meet Wally, the Red Sox’s beloved furry green mascot.
For those of your clan who aren’t devoted sports fans, the history of the place alone will captivate them. The park was built in 1912 and is one of the few remaining examples of an original American baseball stadium.
Unlike more modern stadiums, Fenway sits in the heart of the city, so there’s plenty to do within walking distance before and after your tour. Go see the “Make Way for Ducklings” sculpture, or chow down on local and international fare at Quincy Market. It’s the perfect spot to grab souvenirs, including maybe an iconic Red Sox hat, the true sign of a Fenway conversion.
Cincinnati Art Museum
Tucked a few miles outside the brick facades of downtown Cincinnati sits a little jewel of art and culture. The Cincinnati Art Museum is home to more than 60,000 works of art covering a period of 6,000 years. And with its convenient location near Interstate 71, it’s the perfect midcountry stop if you’re taking your group on the road.
First, let everyone stretch their legs in Eden Park, the museum’s surrounding grounds. They’ll discover fountains, sculptures and a famous magnolia garden before even setting foot inside.
The doors of the museum are open six days a week, and admission is always free. The museum building is an exhibit in itself, one of the oldest original museums in the country. Completed in 1886, it was heralded at the time as “The Art Palace of the West.” Marvel at the elegant marble staircase in the main foyer, and you will have no trouble understanding why.
Whether it’s a Van Gogh you’re after or ancient Egyptian artifacts, you’ll find them at the museum. To get the most out of your experience, take a tour with a volunteer docent, who can show you the ins and outs of the museum as well as cue your group in to some fantastic acquisition stories. You’ll be hungry after walking through the museum’s 345,000 square feet, so try a bite to eat at the on-site Terrace Café before getting back on the road.
Golden Gate Bridge
You’ve made it to California. At the end of all the gummy snacks, rest stops and “are we there yets” awaits one of America’s most beloved landmarks, the Golden Gate Bridge. What you may not know, however, is that there’s much more to do there than walk across the bridge.
Featured as a backdrop in science fiction movie classics like “Star Trek,” “Superman” and “Planet of the Apes,” the bridge lives up to every one of its fantastical appearances. At 746 feet tall, the bridge stands more than 100 feet taller at its highest point than the St. Louis Gateway Arch.
The best way to experience its epic proportions is, of course, on foot. On Thursdays and Sundays, there is a free walking tour of the bridge offered by San Francisco City Guides. Be warned: It will take you at least an hour to go over and back. If your group isn’t daunted by its length, keep going when you reach the bridge’s end, and explore one of the two sections of the Golden Gate Parks that the bridge connects.
Be sure to incorporate time at the newly opened Golden Gate Pavilion as part of your group’s stop. There you can learn stories of the bridge’s construction and the important role it has played in San Francisco’s history.
The bridge is located near numerous San Francisco attractions. You’ll be just a stone’s throw away from the famous California Route 1. It may be the perfect excuse to embark on yet another road trip.