Though many come close, no other cross-country route takes in the variety and extremity of landscape that US-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.
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.
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.
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 miles 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. For nearly 2,000 miles at the heart of the route, between Seattle and the Canadian capital city of Ottawa, the biggest cities along the route are Spokane and Duluth. Still, 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.”