This might be the most epic American highway you’ve never heard of.

Couple on motorcycle speeds past "Lincoln Highway" sign in rural Illinois.
In Illinois near sunset on day 1 of the road trip, only 2,390 miles remain to San Francisco. I’m sharing the road with at least one motorcycle.

It’s not Route 66, but comparisons with the “Mother Road” are inevitable.

Like 66, it’s a winding patchwork of Main Streets, state and county arteries, and other side roads, combined together to link east to west more than a generation before U.S. interstates came along.

Like 66, it was once advertised as an innovative way to criss-cross the nation, launched in the days when the notion of traveling any great distance in an automobile was still new, an exciting and novel undertaking with the promise of adventure and a decent share of risk.

Like 66, it’s no longer an official, maintained route, but groups of historical enthusiasts are working to preserve and restore its circuitous byways for posterity and the admiration of future generations. 

And like Route 66, this highway is also often described in “parental” terms, as the “Father Road” of America.

A map of the Lincoln Highway, circa 1916. (Source: Wikimedia Commons; image is in public domain.)

That transcontinental highway forbear is the Lincoln Highway: the oldest cross-country highway in the United States. Established in 1913, it predated Route 66 by 13 years, and unlike 66 (which, as Nat King Cole once sang, “winds from Chicago to L.A.”), the Lincoln takes you all the way from coast to coast: from New York City’s Times Square to San Francisco’s aptly named Lincoln Park. 

In the summer of 2012, I set out to traverse a portion of the Lincoln Highway, from Chicago westward. It’s a trip I’ll never forget, a journey of wide open spaces, cornfields and mountains, ghost towns and resort towns, giant skies and lonely desert byways (including America’s “Loneliest Road,” Route 50 in Nevada). The trip was bracketed by time two of the country’s most energizing cities — Chicago and San Francisco — but the focus here is on the long, often-stunning road in-between, traversing the Upper Midwest, Great Plains, and high desert of the West. 


Farm, hillside, car passing by on highway on a sunny summer day.
In the “Land of Lincoln,” motoring west on the old Lincoln Highway — Route 38 in this part of Illinois — on day 1 of the road trip to San Francisco.


Green farm field and telephone pole with Lincoln Highway logo.
The red-white-and-blue stripe “L” logo is seen all along the Lincoln Highway, such as on this telephone pole somewhere along the route in Iowa.
Black and white silhouette image of restaurant patrons inside the Lincoln Café, Mount Vernon, Iowa.
Breakfast time sees a bustling crowd of hungry patrons at the Lincoln Café in Mount Vernon, Iowa, July 1, 2012. The café has since closed (as of the time of writing), so I feel fortunate to have spent a little time here.
A vintage, red sports car drives down the Main Street of a small Iowa town on a sunny summer day.
Downtown Belle Plaine, IA.


A tractor, tractor trailer, and pickup truck.
Just off Route 30 near Rogers, NE.
A vintage purple roadster-style car speeds past a farm building in Duncan, Nebraska.
A vintage car speeds past a farm building in Duncan, Nebraska.


Dramatic sunlight spills through a partly cloudy sky along the highway in rural Wyoming, with windmills in the distance.
Along the Lincoln Highway in Wyoming.
A dramatic afternoon sky above an empty highway in Wyoming.
Somewhere along the Lincoln Highway in Wyoming, July 3, 2012.

They call Montana “Big Sky Country,” but Wyoming is no slouch in the big-sky department.

A garage and train tracks behind, with a dog sitting in the foreground.
Roadside and railside, a dog takes stock of the evening near the Lincoln Highway in rural Wyoming, July 3, 2012.


A landscape of the Bonneville Salt Flats in western Utah, seen at sunset.
A stunning sight at Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats just shy of the Nevada border, July 4, 2012.
A high desert landscape on a partly sunny summer day with an orange sign in the foreground reading "Watch Out for Snakes & Scorpions."
Watch out. Near a rest stop somewhere along the Lincoln Highway — which is I-80 in this part of Utah — on July 4, 2012.
A roadside statue of a cowboy ringed with colorful neon lights.
One of the first “people” to greet you in the Nevada-Utah border town of West Wendover, NV, is the larger-than-life neon visage of “Wendover Will.”


Most of my trip on the Lincoln Highway in Nevada was spent on Route 50, America’s “Loneliest Road,” as Life magazine once (in)famously quipped. See this separate gallery for images from that stretch of the journey.


At dusk, a landscape looking west to the Pacific Coast of central California.
An exhilarating view to the Pacific Coast along the Lincoln Highway in California, July 6, 2012.
Against a backdrop of tall pine trees, a sign for the "Sno-Flake Drive-In," with smaller signs for "hamburgers" and "hot dogs," in Lake Tahoe, California, on a sunny summer afternoon.
Signage for some roadside delights at Lake Tahoe, California, July 6, 2012.
A concrete marker reading "Western Terminus of the Lincoln Highway."
The highway dedicated to Abraham Lincoln ends in a park also named after him in San Francisco, CA.

All photos taken with a Canon 5D Mark II.