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The Great Northern Route

The Great Northern Road Trip: US Highway 2

Though many come close, no other cross-country route takes in the variety and extremity of landscape that US Highway 2 does. Dubbed the Great Northern in memory of the pioneer railroad that parallels the western half of the route, US-2 is truly the most stunning and unforgettable, not to mention longest, of all the great transcontinental road trips.

The Great Northern Road Trip: US Highway 2 Map

Starting in the west near the beautiful Pacific port city of Seattle, US-2 runs steeply up and over the volcanic Cascade Range, climbing from sea level to alpine splendor in around an hour. From the crest, the road drops down onto the otherworldly Columbia Plateau, a naturally arid region reclaimed from sagebrush into fertile farmland by New Deal public works projects like the great Grand Coulee Dam, one of the largest pieces of civil engineering on the planet. From Washington, US-2 bends north, clipping across the top of the Idaho Panhandle before climbing into western Montana, a land of forests, rivers, and wildlife that culminates in the bold granite spectacle of Glacier National Park.

The mountains of Glacier National Park rise above a glacial lake.
Grinnell Point in Glacier National Park. Photo © Jean Marie Biele/iStock.

On the eastern flank of the Rockies, the route drops suddenly to the windswept prairies of the northern Great Plains. Though empty to look at—especially when you’re midway along the 1,000-mile beeline across Montana and North Dakota, wondering how long it will be until you see the next tree or peak—this is a land rich in history, where the buffalo once roamed freely, where Plains peoples like the Shoshone, Blackfeet, Sioux, and Cheyenne reigned supreme, and where the Lewis and Clark expedition followed the Missouri River upstream in search of a way west to the Pacific.

Midway across the continent, the Great Plains give way to the Great Northwoods country of Minnesota—birthplace of both Paul Bunyan and Judy Garland—and then to the rugged lumber and mining country of Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Continuing due east, the route crosses the border into Ontario, Canada, running through the francophone environs of Montreal before returning to the United States near lovely Lake Champlain in upstate New York.

The rocky edge of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Lake Superior
Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in northern Wisconsin. Photo © dpenn/iStock/

From there, US-2 passes through the hardwood forests of Vermont’s Green Mountains and the rugged granite peaks of New Hampshire’s White Mountains, two very different ranges, though only 50 mi (81 km) apart. The route winds down to the coast of Maine, reaching the Atlantic Ocean at Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park.

Landscapes, rather than cities and towns, play the starring roles on this route. After a few days spent following US-2 through small towns and wide-open spaces, you’ll probably consider Duluth bustling and fast-paced; driving even a short stretch of the Great Northern highway is guaranteed to bring new meaning to the expression “getting away from it all.”

Sights along a US Highway 2 Road Trip

For more insight into each stop along the Great Northern road trip, our content is arranged by state. Here are some major sights along US Highway 2 where travelers aiming to follow only a section of the full cross-country route may wish to use to plan their drive:

  • Seattle, Washington – An engaging and energetic combination of scenic beauty, blue-collar grit, and high-tech panache
  • Sandpoint, Idaho – Popular for skiing in winter and mountain biking in summer, this panhandle resort community has a relaxed welcoming feel
  • Glacier National Park, Montana – Offering incredible scenic beauty and innumerable options for outdoor recreation
  • Fort Peck, Montana – The Fort Peck area features the world’s second-largest earthen dam and one of the world’s biggest concentrations of fossils
  • Devils Lake, North Dakota – Home to historic Fort Totten, one of the country’s best-preserved 19th-century military forts
  • Duluth, Minnesota – One of the most beautiful and underappreciated travel destinations in the Midwest
  • Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Wisconsin – Take a detour on our favorite summer drive and follow Highway 13 along the picturesque shore of Lake Superior
  • Mackinac Island, Michigan – No cars allowed! Park your ride and ferry over to one of the top draws in the Midwest
  • Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan – The famous lock city, “The Soo” is a great place for a break from the road
  • Ottawa, Ontario – Canada’s national capital is one of the most peaceable and pleasant of the world’s capitals
  • Montreal, Quebec – Charming and cosmopolitan, Montreal is easily the most European city in North America
  • Burlington, Vermont – Best known these days as the home of Senator Bernie Sanders and countercultural icons Ben & Jerry’s
  • Jefferson, New Hampshire – Featuring one of the state’s biggest tourist draws: Santa’s Village
  • Bangor, Maine – Take a photo with the 31-foot statue of Paul Bunyan in the largest city in northern Maine
  • Acadia National Park – Explore the natural glory of Mount Desert Island and be sure to get out of the car and head inland on foot on the park’s many hiking trails

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