What to know before you hit the road.
Cross-country road trips typically bring to mind coast-to-coast travels, beginning your journey in California or Washington and ending somewhere in New Hampshire, or even Maine. But there’s more than just one way to travel the country. If you’re not going east to west, you can just as easily go north to south and have an equally enjoyable experience, while touching upon major cities like Chicago, St. Louis, and Memphis, ultimately arriving in Chicago by route of Interstate 55.
Where to Find Interstate 55
Commonly mistaken for Highway 55, Interstate 55 is a major cross-country highway that traverses 964 miles from LaPlace, Louisiana to Chicago, Illinois. And, while the aforementioned cities are all necessary pit stops along this road, there are some incredible stops that one could make along this route that are lesser known.
Where to Stop
Beginning your trip at LaPlace, you’ll drive north through Louisiana for about 66 miles, and of that milage, about 20 will be spent crossing the Manchac Swamp Bridge, one of the longest water bridges in the world. If you’re willing to take a detour, the vibrant city of New Orleans is just 30 miles east via I-10 E.
If you prefer to stay in your car, consider driving down Esplanade Avenue, which spans from the stunning French Quarter all the way to City Park and boasts charming townhouses and oak-lined streets. If you’re willing to park the car and stretch your legs, hopping on a historic streetcar or taking a walk down the iconic Bourbon Street is your best bet for a quick-yet-fulfilling pitstop.
Once you’ve finished your detour and are back on Interstate 55, you’ll be ready to enter Mississippi. About 100 miles into your journey through the Magnolia State, you’ll find yourself in Jackson, Mississippi’s capital. Make a stop at the Old Capitol Museum, Jackson’s oldest building, which was built in 1839 and was the seat of the state’s government until 1903. It’s a distinguished building, topped with a copper dome, and is a beautiful example of Greek Revival architecture — a perfect photo opp for the history buff on your trip.
If you’re in the mood for a trek around the city, consider walking around Fondren District, a bustling hub of small businesses, art boutiques, and cafes. If you’re looking to educate yourself more about Jackson’s history, head to the Agriculture Museum, which looks into Mississippi’s past (and present) agricultural lifestyles.
After leaving Mississippi and entering Tennessee, you’ll find yourself in the heart of blues and rock 'n' roll — the city of Memphis. Memphis is widely known for the legends that got their musical start there, like Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash (who both recorded albums at famed Sun Studio), so you would be remiss not to tour Graceland Mansion, which shows its guests Elvis Presley’s home on an intimate level.
Keep the music alive with a trip down Beale Street, where you can tour the Memphis Music Hall Of Fame, B.B. King’s Blues Club, or take a turn down Main Street to the Orpheum Theater, a revitalized structure built in 1890 that was originally known as the Grand Opera House. What was once a classy vaudeville showroom has reinvented itself time and time again throughout the years, and now prides itself on offering Broadway shows, comedy acts, and other special events.
After stopping in Memphis, you’ll need to drive nearly 300 miles to reach St. Louis, Missouri, one of the largest cities in the Great Plains and a place that's brimming with history and culture. You’ll undoubtedly want to visit the iconic Gateway Arch and, while you’ve most likely seen an endless amount of photos of the structure that was founded by the National Park Service in 1935, there is nothing like a tram ride to the top of the Arch itself, which brings you more than 600 feet in the air to take in the soaring views atop the tallest man-made monument that we have in the U.S.
A notable attraction to stroll through is Forest Park, a 1,371-acre stretch of land that was home to the 1904 World’s Fair. And, while you might think it’s no Central Park, you may be surprised to find that it’s a whopping 528 acres larger than the famed New York City landmark.
After traversing through many states, you’ll finally reach the last — though certainly not least interesting — state of Illinois. No trip to the Prairie State is complete until you visit Springfield. Nicknamed the “Land of Lincoln,” you’ll be able to visit the final resting place of our 16th president at the Lincoln Tomb. A 117-foot-high granite obelisk is a distinctive and noble way of paying homage to President Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, as well as three of their four sons who are buried there. The interior of the memorial contains excerpts from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address, as well as 16 pilasters that are meant to honor Lincoln and the 15 presidents who preceded him. For the history buff, the Lincoln Tomb is a truly educational and informative experience.
You’ll likely end up spending time in Chicago, as Interstate 55 follows the Stevenson Expressway to U.S. 41 (the lovely Lake Shore Drive), right off of Lake Michigan. Roll down your car windows — or simply park somewhere and walk the Lakefront Trail, which hugs the gorgeous shoreline. If you’re traveling with adventurers, head to Navy Pier to hop on the famous Ferris wheel that offers unbeatable views of the city once you’ve reached the top.
If you’d like to experience some natural beauty before entering a bustling metropolis, though, stop in Lisle and spend your time at the Morton Arboretum. With nearly 2,000 acres of rolling hills and luscious foliage, it’s as whimsical as it is breathtaking. Joy Morton, the founder of the Morton Salt Company, created the vision for this botanical garden, as well as the Sterling Morton Library, which holds nearly 30,000 volumes of work dedicated mainly to botany and horticulture.
There’s plenty to offer on this road trip that brings your voyage up north — throughout this highway, busy cities blend with rural communities and nature’s lazy rivers meander their way toward iconic architecture for almost 1,000 miles. Take the time to appreciate and enjoy each of the unique destinations that are dotted along the way of this not-quite-cross-country trip.
Good to Know
Along this 964-mile-long journey, which loosely traces the Mississippi River, you'll find a fluctuating road that switches between a busy thoroughfare and a quiet, rural freeway. Expect traffic to swell and dissipate during your drive.