From the dramatic California coast to the history-lined thoroughfares of New England, the U.S. is brimming with scenic drives, some more stunning than others. Take the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway for example, meandering past limestone caverns, clear mountain springs, and Appalachian majesty, offering different panoramic vistas depending on the season.
Sometimes it’s not just the nature but also the human-made sights that make the trip. As you cruise along Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive, the view to the west includes such iconic feats of American architecture as the Willis Tower, better known as the Sears Tower, once the tallest building in the world. And on U.S. 1 from Key Largo to Key West, travelers pass over coral reefs on the Seven-Mile Bridge to arrive at marinas where they can hand-feed tarpon and drink margaritas at beach bars blaring Jimmy Buffet hits.
Those road trips and more around the U.S., ahead.
Hana Highway, Maui
The T-shirts all say: “I survived the road to Hana.” It can take more than two and a half hours to travel the 52 miles from Kahului to Hana, as you snake past steep sea cliffs lush with blooming mango trees, ideally stopping to buy banana bread from roadside stalls and take in the Jurassic vistas at every turn. In tiny Hana, a town on eastern Maui, a cinder cone shields a red-sand beach where nudists and endangered monk seals bake idly in the sun. Just beyond where the Road to Hana terminates, about 30 minutes further, are the must-visit Pools of Oheo, a gently cascading, seven-tiered gulch in Haleakala National Park.
Blue Ridge Parkway, the Carolinas and Virginia
The nearly 469 miles of blacktop twisting through the Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah national parks was built for travelers seeking Appalachian overlooks. It’s a panoramic drive for all seasons, with undulating slopes of color in autumn, a bounty of forest canopy in summer, and ski resorts in winter. In the mines of the mineral-rich Appalachian Mountains, visitors can even pan for emeralds, amethyst, rubies, topaz, and gold. The parkway is a paradise for nature lovers, with hundreds of bird species and more types of trees than the whole continent of Europe.
Lake Shore Drive, Chicago
The rock stars of American architecture line up like soldiers facing Lake Michigan along this urban drive. Chicago’s buildings are decidedly showstopping, from the blocky staircase of the Willis Tower — formerly the Sears Tower, once the tallest building in the world — to the Belle Époque elegance of Burnham and Root’s Rookery, to the stark post-Bauhaus boxes of Mies van der Rohe. It could easily be called the greatest road for architecture-spotting on earth. Lake Shore Drive is just 15 miles long, but you’ll want to break up the brief journey with a stop at Millennium Park to visit the iconic Cloud Gate sculpture (otherwise known as “The Bean”).
17-Mile Drive, California
The so-called 17-Mile Drive loops around California’s stunning Monterey Peninsula. Stretching from the towns of Pacific Grove to Carmel, the road (privately owned by Pebble Beach) skirts the Pacific coast and runs through the parts of the Del Monte Forest belonging to an exclusive golf community. In addition to surf-beaten cliffs, colonies of harbor seals, and lookout points galore, the route offers spectacular sunset views that make it worth the $11.25 entry fee to drive it. Not too far off the 17-Mile Drive, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has sunlit kelp-forest tanks, a petting pool, and a million-gallon tank with giant sharks and sea turtles.
U.S. 1, Florida Keys
Leaving the mainland for Florida’s Keys, travelers enter a paradise of beach bars, water sports, and Parrotheads (Jimmy Buffett fans). From Key Largo to Key West, the Overseas Highway strings the islands together like beads, running past lighthouses, underwater coral reef parks, and across the Seven-Mile Bridge, among the longest bridges in the world. On the docks at Islamorada, travelers can hand-feed bait fish to tarpon more than six feet long. Further down, on Big Pine Key, you can spot some of the island chain’s most well-known residents at the National Key Deer Refuge.
Route 12, Utah
The red rock majesty of Utah is on triumphant display on State Route 12 winding between Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon national parks. The 124-mile strip has funky small towns and very few entry and exit points, so it takes some commitment to witness the steep sandstone canyons and bluffs of purple sage, and to tackle the narrow cliff-hanging ridgeline road called The Hogback around the halfway point. Stop in at Escalante’s artsy log-and-sandstone Kiva Koffeehouse, open Wednesdays to Sundays April through October, to get your caffeine fix with a stunning view of Escalante Grand Staircase National Monument.
Bluebonnet Trail, Texas
Bluebonnets are spiky blue wildflowers found in the U.S. Southwest. They’re especially abundant in Texas (where they’re the official state flower) from March to May. Start this road trip in Austin, home of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Research Center, named for the first lady who made national beautification a priority. Stop by to admire the native flower, then embark on an eastward journey via U.S. Route 290. In addition to seeing them on the side of the road, you’ll also get to admire them in full force in Brenham, the halfway point to Houston. Visit Brenham’s official tourism website for up-to-date information on where to find the best bluebonnet patches (behind a Burger King, for example), then make your way to Houston to see them blooming at Buffalo Bayou and Hermann parks.
North Shore Drive, Minnesota
Minnesota’s Lake Superior shoreline is a thing of glacial beauty. In Duluth, a walking path along the lake’s edge shows off the city highlights, including a rose garden and an aerial bridge. Nearby, you can get a look at ocean tankers anchored in the last inland port of the St. Lawrence Seaway as they wait to load iron or grain from America’s heartland before sending it out to the world. From Duluth, drive toward Two Harbors, only about 30 minutes away, and admire the lake’s shining waters stretching out to the right, birch and northwood maples climbing high on the left. At your destination, you’ll find the Split Rock Lighthouse, now a museum, overlooking Lake Superior’s rugged coast.
Trail Ridge Road, Colorado
Welcome to the highest continuously paved road in the U.S. Trail Ridge Road begins at the Beaver Meadows Entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park and climbs as high as 12,183 feet. Crossing over the Continental Divide (following a similar route Native Americans once took) visitors might see elk, deer, and bighorn sheep above the tree line in the dramatic tundra. After about two to three hours of driving, you’ll hit Grand Lake, Colorado’s largest natural body of water, which is also home to a historic town and year-round lake sports. Note, however, that Trail Ridge Road is not a year-round route and can only be driven in good conditions, typically from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
Kancamagus Highway, New Hampshire
Though the White Mountains are a year-round sportsperson’s paradise, the autumnal fireworks are the undisputed highlights of New Hampshire’s 34.5-mile Kancamagus Highway. Serious leaf-peepers visit in October to see the maples, alder, and birch blazing in full technicolor glory. In the spring, expect yellow violets and wood anemone.
This route starts in Lincoln and ends in Conway (or vice versa) and takes about two to three hours to drive. However, you’ll want to factor in plenty of time to pull over and explore the White Mountains on foot. One highlight is the half-mile hike to Sabbaday Falls, a three-tiered waterfall easily accessed from the road.
Going-to-the-Sun Road, Montana
One of America’s most inspiring public works projects runs along the spine of the Rockies past Glacier National Park’s snow-covered peaks, sub-alpine meadows, and lakes across the Continental Divide. The 50-mile stretch takes about two hours to drive. Snowdrifts threaten to top 100 feet in winter, so Going-to-the-Sun Road is fully open only when conditions allow (typically in the summer months). To learn more about the geology of glaciers, local Native American customs, or the park’s ecosystem, supplement your road trip with a class at the Glacier Institute.
Highway 101, Oregon
Unlike the rest of the West Coast, Oregon’s portion of the Pacific shoreline is entirely owned by the state and, therefore, open to the public. The 400-or-so miles of beaches off Highway 101 provide road trippers with perfectly preserved and unobstructed natural vistas. Between Port Orford and Brookings, about an hour’s drive, fierce sea cliffs stand in contrast to the pastoral farmland and roaming cattle of Oregon’s small towns. Pull over when you spot the roadside Tyrannosaurus rex at the Prehistoric Gardens, where 23 life-size dinosaur replicas are staged against the rainforest landscape.
Olympic Peninsula Loop, Washington
Both the scenic route and the peninsula’s only major route, Highway 101 loops around one of the largest wilderness areas in the continental U.S. From the base of the peninsula, drive counterclockwise to climb into the Hoh Rain Forest, dominated by ancient Sitka spruce and western hemlock. You can spy the San Juan Islands from the top of Hurricane Ridge, 18 miles off the loop from Port Angeles. At low tide, the pools on Olympic beaches are rife with starfish, sand dollars, and crabs. Take a break in the spooky logging town of Forks, a must for Twilight fans, but travel onward to Lake Quinault Lodge if you’re looking for a place to stay. The whole loop takes about six hours without stops.
Route 6, Massachusetts
The easternmost portion of Route 6 — which actually runs all the way to Bishop, California — links together Cape Cod’s network of sand dunes, beaches, marshes, tidal ponds, and quaint fishing towns. You can follow it to Provincetown’s music festivals and art galleries, to the bay side for family-friendly beaches, or oceanside for panoramas of the Cape Cod National Seashore. Our advice? Book a whale-watching boat tour between May and October to catch a glimpse of a big-winged New Englander (aka a humpback whale).
Anchorage to Valdez, Alaska
The trip from Anchorage to Valdez, which connects Glenn and Richardson highways, runs past prehistoric glaciers and into mountain ranges with so many peaks a lot of them haven’t even been named. Along the 300-mile route in Palmer, gaze at domesticated musk oxen, the Ice Age wonders of the Alaskan landscape prized for their wool. Further along, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline pops in and out of view. The final approach to Valdez includes a 30-mile drop from Thompson Pass (2,678 feet of elevation) to sea level through the waterfalls of Keystone Canyon, opening into Prince William Sound.
Lemhi Pass, Montana and Idaho
Meriwether Lewis came to the Rocky Mountain backbone of North America, the Continental Divide, at Lemhi Pass (7,323-foot elevation) in 1805. Instead of the fabled Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean, Lewis looked west over the mountains and saw more mountains. Determined visitors with a four-wheel drive can take in the historic view on single-lane Forest Service roads from either Beaverhead Rock State Park in Montana or the Salmon-Challis National Forest in Idaho.
For the full experience, go in July to see men dressed in buckskin traveling on dugout canoes at the annual Lewis and Clark Festival in Great Falls, Montana, about three hours from Beaverhead Rock State Park.
Silverado Trail, California
Here’s a road trip where the food rivals the scenery. Flanked by dozens of vineyards and wineries, the Silverado Trail on the eastern edge of Napa Valley gives the California road tripper endless vino options and perhaps some of tastiest meals on the American culinary scene. Non-drivers must try the Estate Collection tasting flight at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, where a 1973 cabernet made headlines for beating French wines in a blind taste test. And for foodies, the three-Michelin star French Laundry restaurant in Yountville is a highlight.
Ocean Drive, Newport, Rhode Island
This 10-mile coastal route packs in historic mansions and spectacular views over the water. The Gilded-Age “cottages” of Ocean Drive — which confusingly follows Ocean Avenue, not Drive — compete with maritime scenery for jaw-dropping splendor, including opulent homes built for titans of fin de siècle industry, the Vanderbilts, Astors, and Morgans. War buffs will definitely want to visit historic Fort Adams, which remained an active United States Army post from the early 19th century up until World War II.
Park Loop Road, Maine
The loop through Acadia National Park can be completed in an hour — when summer tourists aren’t clogging the 27-mile, two-lane artery. But whatever the season, you’ll want to give yourself time to appreciate the high ridgelines, sheer rock precipices, and rugged coast of the North Atlantic along the way. An oceanside cavern dubbed Thunder Hole explodes with a plume of foamy surf as waves beat the shore. If you’ve got time to spare, spend some time on a lobster fishing boat, then take your catch home for supper.
Highway 143, Tennessee
Set out along Tennessee’s 12.5-mile Highway 143 in the Roan Highlands of the Appalachian Mountains to witness uninterrupted slopes cloaked in heather — and purple rhododendron blossoms come early summer. The highlands portion of the Appalachian Trail is famous for its “balds” (summits covered in thick grasses rather than trees). Stop to admire them on foot with a walk at Carvers Gap, just across the North Carolina border.
Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, Michigan
Only 7.4 miles long, this short-and-sweet drive along Lake Michigan’s eastern shore shows off the majesty of the giant Sleeping Bear Dunes, dense forest canopies, and a freshwater lake so wide you won’t be able to see the opposite shore. The trip would take you less than 30 minutes were it not for the lookout points over the lake and dunes to distract you. Before closing the loop, you’ll cross a covered bridge reconstructed from one Pierce Stocking himself built in the ’60s. To extend the trip slightly, head five minutes up South Dune Highway to catch the view of Glen Lake from the top of the “Dune Climb,” a sand mound estimated to be about 450 feet tall.
The High Road to Taos, New Mexico
The 77-mile route between Santa Fe and Taos delivers one photo op after another: ancient pueblos, deserts, forests, wildflower meadows, and artists’ colonies in 17th-century adobe towns. The High Road to Taos Scenic Byway passes by Chimayo, a haven for art and history, and provides canyon views over Truchas Peak at 13,102 feet. Whichever direction you choose to drive it, the High Road is bookended by two towns bursting with color and personality. If you’re in town during a sweltering summer, don’t miss attending a concert at the Santa Fe Opera.
Highway 2, Nebraska
Sandhills (grass-covered sand dunes) make up nearly one-fourth of Nebraska, undulating in slow, hypnotic curves as far as the eye can see. Drive any stretch of Highway 2, stretching 52 miles from the South Dakota border to Grand Island, for expansive views of the Great Plains and pastureland. The sand dunes are smack in the middle of the Central Flyway Migration Corridor; look out for cranes at the Nebraska Nature & Visitor Center just off Highway 2 in Wood River.