About time computers did something useful.


Pro tip: pee before that drive across Montana.

Nerds and their big data algorithms have made spying on Americans wherever they go a snap, so it's about time they figured out a way to make our heavily monitored travels more enjoyable. That's what big ol' nerd and self-described "data tinkerer" Randy Olson did with his big ol' nerd brain and big nerd algorithms: he plotted out the best possible road trip across America.

Well, two best possible road trips. One is the best possible version of a trip focusing on landmarks, historic sites and monuments, and the other takes you to America's top-ranked cities. What makes these the "best"? Well, in addition to hitting 50 awesome stops in each version, this algorithm solved what's called the "traveling salesman" problem—how to visit each spot in the fastest time without retracing your steps. They included (as any good Internet denizen should) a relevant XKCD comic to help explain:


I don't understand what they're saying, but I understand that it's smart! (via XKCD)

This also cuts down on the risk of road trip partners murdering each other in frustration.

The Stops, Version 1: The Monuments Men (And Women)


Recognize this map? Hint: it's the exact same one from the top of the article.

The computer program did not pick the stops, Olson's friend Tracey Staedter of Discovery News did. She created the first trip, the seeing-the-sites version, using this criteria they agreed upon:

  1. The trip must make at least one stop in all 48 states in the contiguous U.S.
  2. The trip would only make stops at National Natural Landmarks, National Historic Sites, National Parks, or National Monuments.
  3. The trip must be taken by car and never leave the U.S.

As of yet, a computer cannot rank tourist traps based on their fun level. But Tracey picked out 50 stops—one in each of the 48 contiguous states, one in D.C., and an extra one in the most populous state, California. You can see the step-by-step directions in an interactive version. Here are the first 20 stops on their list (check out the rest on their site):

  1. Grand Canyon, AZ
  2. Bryce Canyon National Park, UT
  3. Craters of the Moon National Monument, ID
  4. Yellowstone National Park, WY
  5. Pikes Peak, CO
  6. Carlsbad Caverns National Park, NM
  7. The Alamo, TX
  8. The Platt Historic District, OK
  9. Toltec Mounds, AR
  10. Elvis Presley's Graceland, TN
  11. Vicksburg National Military Park, MS
  12. French Quarter, New Orleans, LA
  13. USS Alabama, AL
  14. Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL
  15. Okefenokee Swamp Park, GA
  16. Fort Sumter National Monument, SC
  17. Lost World Caverns, WV
  18. Wright Brothers National Memorial Visitor Center, NC
  19. Mount Vernon, VA
  20. White House, Washington, DC

The Stops, Version 2: Best Cities In America


Finally, a version that will start arguments on the Internet!

If you want to hit up the real heartland of America—the urban, totally non-heartland part—you'll want to follow the alternate route for the Optimal US Road Trip. This trip derived its itinerary from a much more straightforward source—it pulled the top city for each state from a list of TripAdvisor's top 400 "Cities To Visit" in America. (See the interactive map here.)

This created a few oddities, because not every state, awkwardly, has a city on that list. For instance, North Dakota, which is just a slap in the face to the proud urbanites of Fargo (population 113,000). Here are the first 20 cities on the list, not in order of awesomeness, but in the order you would visit them:

  1. Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
  2. Wichita, Kansas
  3. Denver, Colorado
  4. Albuquerque, New Mexico
  5. Phoenix, Arizona
  6. Las Vegas, Nevada
  7. San Francisco, California
  8. Portland, Oregon
  9. Seattle, Washington
  10. Boise, Idaho
  11. Park City, Utah
  12. Jackson, Wyoming
  13. Billings, Montana
  14. Sioux Falls, South Dakota
  15. Omaha, Nebraska
  16. Des Moines, Iowa
  17. Minneapolis, Minnesota
  18. Milwaukee, Wisconsin
  19. Chicago, Illinois
  20. Indianapolis, Indiana

You can see all the stops on both routes on Randy Olson's site, as well as learn way more about how this was generated. You should also check out his other popular projects, such as the optimal method for scanning Where's Waldo pages.