When the Open Road Beckons...
If you've been feeling the itch to hit the open road, the following scenic road trips are sure to whet your appetite. Many of them have been designated as National Scenic Byways. The byways program was started in 1991 by the US Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration to help recognize and preserve selected roads. All-American Roads are chosen based on their archaeological, cultural, historic, natural, recreational, and scenic qualities. Some of these drives are simply hidden gems, easily overlooked but well worth exploring at a slower pace.
Pacific Coast Highway, California
The Pacific Coast Highway runs almost the entire length of the California coastline, a total of about 550 miles. The most dramatic scenery can be found along the central coast in a 240 mile stretch from Monterey, heading south to Santa Barbara. Driving from north to south will have you on the ocean side of the road the entire way, giving you unobstructed views of the spectacular coastline below. Highlights include the optional 17 mile drive to Pebble Beach, the artsy beach town of Carmel-by-the-Sea and the stunning beach cliffs and crashing surf that lead up to the picturesque area of Big Sur. Elephant seals crowd the beach in winter months at Piedras Blancas Beach and don't miss a visit to the legendary Hearst Castle in San Simeon. Other highlights you'll encounter before arriving in Santa Barbara include the seaside village of Cambria and the surfer communities of San Luis Obispo and Pismo Beach. Check Travel + Leisure for more points of interest along this All-American scenic drive.
Overseas Highway, Florida
Spectacular ocean views can be found in all directions when traveling from Miami to the Florida Keys on Florida's Overseas Highway. The road ends in Key West, the southernmost city in the continental United States. According to CNN, some of the best things to see and experience along this 112 mile journey include:
- The unique wildlife and flora of Big Pine Key
- The kid-friendly Turtle Hospital and Dolphin Research Center in Marathon
- Incredible fishing and amazing sunsets of Islamorada
- World-class diving, sunken shipwrecks and an underwater hotel in Key Largo
In 2009, the National Scenic Byways program named the Overseas Highway an All-American Road - the highest recognition possible under the program. With the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Gulf of Mexico to the west, you'll be surrounded by turquoise waters as you embark on this southern Florida adventure.
Route 66, Arizona
This classic American highway travels through some of the most iconic landmarks in Arizona where vintage Americana meets the Wild West. Begin your journey in the old mining town of Oatman, where sidewalks consist of wooden planks. Here, the longest unaltered stretch of Route 66 takes you through other small towns like Kingman, Hackelberry, Valentine and Winslow. Explore the museums, trading posts and visitor centers full of Route 66 memorabilia. Experience varied landscapes from the brilliant colors of the Painted Desert to the rugged pine forests in Flagstaff and Williams. In Holbrook, statues of dinosaurs beckon you to visit the International Petrified Forest Museum and Dinosaur Park. Don't miss a kitschy photo op by posing next to a concrete teepee motel room at the Wigwam Motel. Read more about the history and things to do on this All-American Road by visiting the Route 66 Association of Arizona. With nearby attractions off the main route, such as Meteor Crater and the Grand Canyon, it's a road trip you won't soon forget.
Chief Joseph Scenic Byway, Wyoming
This 47 mile designated scenic byway along Wyoming Highway 296 connects the town of Cody with the Beartooth Highway and the northeast gate of Yellowstone Park. Named after the chief of the Nez Perce tribe trying to flee from the tyranny of the U.S. Calvary, the road closely follows the path of the fleeing tribe, passing through the Shoshone National Forest to the Clarks Fork Valley. From Cody, travel 17 miles north on Highway 120 to the junction of Highway 296. At the end of the 47 mile byway, the road intersects with the Beartooth Highway, another scenic mountain road leading to historic Red Lodge Montana to the right or the wonders of Yellowstone Park to the left. More information about this historic byway can be found on the Big Sky Fishing website.
Hana Highway, Maui
You'll find so much jaw-dropping beauty on Maui's Hana Highway, you'll never complete it as a day trip if you stop at every amazing photo opportunity. However, if you get an early start with planned stops from guides like Fodor's or Bucket List Journey, you might be able to avoid navigating this twisty, sea cliff hugging road after dark. Alternatively, stay a night or two at a local resort and take your time exploring the many detours of this road through paradise. See surfers take on skyscraper sized waves at Jaws, also known as Peahi surf break. Swim in the welcoming pool water at the base of Twin Falls and experience lush ferns, tall trees and scenic overlooks on a looped path at the Waikamoi Nature Trail. Take a dip in the ocean at Waianapanapa Black Sand Beach, famous for its stunning, shiny black pebble sand. Be sure to hit up one of the many roadside stands to try Hawaiian delicacies such as coconut candy and freshly baked banana bread too.
Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia to North Carolina
Meandering through 469 miles of the Appalachian highlands through Virginia and North Carolina, the Blue Ridge Parkway connects the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on its southern end with the Shenandoah National Park on its northern end. Along the way you'll find plenty of cabin rentals, bed and breakfasts, scenic overlooks and hiking trails to keep you busy for days and allow you to explore the countryside at a leisurely pace. To help you plan your trip, Virtual Blue Ridge offers a milepost guide listing all the different types of lodging, attractions and activities available.
Columbia River Scenic Highway, Oregon
Just east of Portland, Oregon is one of the most scenic drives in the country: the historic Columbia River Highway. Along this 70 mile scenic byway, you'll see waterfalls, historic monuments and buildings, fish hatcheries and overlooks with stunning views.
The route begins by taking exit 17 to Troutdale off Interstate 84. The first cliff top panoramic view of the Columbia River Gorge is in Corbett at the Portland Women's Forum State Scenic Viewpoint. About a mile down the road, the Vista House on Crown Point offers historical displays about the area, as well as additional breathtaking views. Shortly after passing Crown Point, the highway winds around the base of five different waterfalls, including the 620-foot Multnomah Falls, the fourth largest waterfall in the nation. Heading further east, attractions include Horsetail Falls, Bonneville Lock and Dam, Bridge of the Gods and Cascade Locks. Visit Travel Oregon for more information.
Seward Highway, Alaska
Make sure you have plenty of free space on your digital camera for the 127 mile drive from Anchorage to Seward on the Seward Highway in Alaska. Passing between the shoreline of Turnagain Arm and the peaks of the Chugach Mountains, a nonstop drive takes about three hours. A leisurely sightseeing drive could easily take five to six hours. An abundant number of campgrounds, RV parks and lodging accommodations could make this road trip a five or six-day adventure. A small sample of highlights along this route includes:
- Bird Point Scenic Overlook: Look for a beluga whales in Turnagain Arm from early summer through September. Across the highway, you might see Dall sheep grazing on the rocky slopes above.
- Girdwood Highway Junction: Turn off near milepost 90 to visit the Alyeska Resort. Take the aerial tram for breathtaking views of glacial valleys, endless mountain peaks and wildlife as you travel to the top of Mount Alyeska. Enjoy more panoramic views from the mountaintop observation deck with access to telescopes.
- Alaskan Wildlife Conservation Center: Get up close viewing of Alaskan wildlife like brown bears, caribou, moose, muskoxen and any other types of native animals that have been orphaned, sick or injured.
For detailed information on dozens of other points of interest, download a copy of the Seward Highway Road Guide.
Kancamagus Highway, New Hampshire
Also known as Route 112, the Kancamagus Highway is one of New England's top scenic drives for fall foliage displays according to the Travel Channel. The 34.5-mile drive through the White Mountain National Forest is unspoiled by any private or commercial development of the land; all you see in any direction is the beauty of nature. Optimal viewing of the maple, birch and beech tree foliage begins the second week of September in the higher elevations around Kancamagus Pass and peaks along the rest of the route during the first two weeks of October. The river and waterfalls are also big attractions on this drive and the falls look most spectacular during the spring runoff. Summer is the best time to visit if you want to swim at the Swift River Lower Falls. Plan to spend at least three hours on this scenic route for a leisurely afternoon drive or make a full day of it to explore some of the numerous hiking trails. A recreation parking pass ($3 per day) is needed for designated parking areas. For more information on where to get a pass and other scenic points of interest, visit the North Conway NH Area Guide.
Going-to-the-Sun Road, Montana
Going-to-the-Sun Road is a paved, two-lane highway that bisects Montana's Glacier National Park from east to west. This spectacular 50-mile mountain road was included in the National Register of Historic Places in 1983 and two years later, it was made a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. Portions of the road in lower elevations are open year-round but sections in the alpine region don't open until late June or early July, based on snowfall and plowing progress. In early summer, waterfalls caused by the highway cutting into the mountainside spray cold runoff water over the road, delighting drivers with a cool mountain mist. Multiple stops provide access to campgrounds, picnic areas and hiking trails. Scenic overlooks provide views of cascading waterfalls, snowcapped mountain peaks and deep valleys and lakes carved out by glaciers. A free shuttle service running both directions between the east and west visitor centers and major points of interest in between is available from July through to early September. The National Park Service has more information.
Patchwork Parkway, Utah
Also known as National Scenic Byway 143, Patchwork Parkway runs from the town of Parowan to Panguitch. The 55-mile long route in southwestern Utah encompasses historic towns, stunning geologic formations, forested areas and high plateaus. Short detours lead to some of Utah's most popular destinations, like Bryce Canyon, located just 30 miles from Panguitch. Once the road passes through the forested heights of Brian Head ski town, it climbs again to an elevation of 10,400 feet, the topmost rise of the "Grand Staircase" geologic formation, showcasing the 2,000-foot deep Cedar Breaks National Monument amphitheater. After driving through the beautiful aspen trees of the Dixie National Forest, the byway skirts the shoreline of Panguuitch Lake and continues east through lush pastures into the historic town of Panguitch. Utah's Patchwork Parkway features detailed information on everything this scenic byway has to offer.
The High Road to Taos, New Mexico
When traveling from Santa Fe to Taos, New Mexico, the High Road takes you through lush rolling hillsides, orchards and meadows surrounding small, picturesque Hispanic villages. From Santa Fe, head north on US 84/285 and turn right on NM 503, where the 52-mile scenic High Road begins. Follow the 503 to NM 76, which takes you to Chimayo, a traditional village with galleries featuring the work of award-winning weavers. The star attraction here is the 19th century Santuario de Chimayó, a church rumored to have healing powers that draws thousands of pilgrims each year. Shop for authentic southwestern arts and crafts in Cordova, Truchas and Ojo Sarco. Marvel at the well preserved Spanish colonial architecture of the 18th century mission church, San Jose de Gracia de las Trampas in Las Trampas. Take NM 518 a few miles out from Peñasco and continue driving through the Carson National Forest until you reach Ranchos de Taos, where you'll take US 68 into Taos. Read more about the High Road to Taos by visiting the Santa Fe Travelers.
Cherokee Foothils National Scenic Byway, South Carolina
Once used as a path by the Cherokee Indians and European fur traders, the Cherokee Foothills National Scenic Byway is a 118-mile long road that provides a scenic alternative to I-85 when traveling from the border of Georgia and South Carolina to the North Carolina state line or vice versa. This slower paced route takes you through peach orchards and passes by lakes, waterfalls, parks and roadside farm stands. Carrick Creek Falls is a popular spot to cool off by wading in the water. You'll get to see impressive landmarks such as Table Rock Mountain, visit historic bridges and get a taste of authentic Southern hospitality by staying at a bed and breakfast. Visit scenic11.com for more information on what to see and do along this scenic route.
Connecticut River Byway, New England
The Connecticut River byway spans almost 500 miles and encompasses numerous highways, byways and waterways along the Connecticut River in New Hampshire and Vermont. It follows the path of New England's longest and most powerful river and is full of history and tradition. Along this route, you'll discover delightful covered bridges, historical buildings and museums and quiet rural roads with farmers markets and farm stands. The best way to navigate the dozens of scenic roads that make up the Connecticut River Byway is with the Byway Guide, which contains 12 mapped itineraries of the different regions. You can also find itineraries for bicycling and paddling your way along the river in a kayak or canoe.
North Shore Drive, Minnesota
The North Shore Scenic Drive in Minnesota winds its way along the shoreline of Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the world. This 142-mile journey starts in Duluth, cutting a path along the edge of the Sawtooth Mountains where rivers and streams create stunning waterfalls as they plummet over the cliffs into the lake. Surrounded by forests of aspen, pine and birch, you'll find plenty of trails and historic points of interest. The Split Rock Lighthouse will keep you busy for hours or even days if you decide to camp or find lodging at a historic retreat like Naniboujou Lodge. The scenic drive concludes at Grand Portage, near the Canadian border. Midwest Weekends offers is a mile-by-mile guide of everything to see and do along the North Shore Drive.
Brandywine Valley Scenic Byway, Delaware
The Brandywine Valley Scenic Byway is a 12-mile route that begins in Wilmington, Delaware and travels to Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. This short drive contains a high concentration of historic sites, magnificent estates and incredible gardens, showcasing some of the finest examples of American aristocracy - namely the legacy of the du Pont family dynasty. Starting in downtown Wilmington at Rodney Square, home of the luxurious Hotel du Pont and the du Pont Theatre, the byway provides views and access to elegant estates created and maintained by heirs to the du Ponts, like Nemours, Winterthur and Longwood Gardens. Covering over 1,000 acres, Longwood Gardens features over 11,000 different kinds of plants grown both indoors and outdoors. National Geographic has more information on starting a Brandywine Valley road trip from the opposite end at Longview Gardens.
Chuckanut Drive, Washington
Washington State Route 11, better known as Chuckanut Drive, is a 21-mile scenic drive along the stunning coastline running between Burlington and Bellingham. The cliff side road hugs the base of Chuckanut Mountain, winding its way through evergreen forests with the shimmering water of the Pacific Ocean always in view from the other side. This relatively short drive has more to offer than just its scenic views. Chuckanut Manor is a popular bed and breakfast and for great seafood dining with an award-winning wine list, check out the Oyster Bar on Chuckanut Drive. The Seattle Times mile-by-mile guide features a complete list of all the attractions and points of interest.
Silver Thread Byway, Colorado
The Silver Thread Byway is a 117-mile long route on Highway 149 in southwestern Colorado. Traveling through the picturesque San Juan Mountains, the highway roughly follows the old route of the Rio Grande Railroad until it reaches Lake City. From there, it continues along what used to be stagecoach and freight roads during the late 1800s. Starting at the southern end in South Fork, the highway winds along close to the Rio Grande River and Coller State Wildlife area, where you're likely to catch a glimpse of elk or deer. When you reach the historic mining town of Creed, take a tour of the Underground Mining Museum. Shortly before you reach Spring Creek Pass, look for Forest Road 510 on the right. A short detour down this road brings you to North Clear Creek Falls, a spectacular sight of water plummeting into a box canyon. Back on Highway 149, the road gets very steep going through Spring Creek Pass and must be traveled carefully. You'll need to take a short hike at the Lake San Cristobal Overlook to see this beautiful natural lake and then the highway descends into Lake City. See an excellent example of a road trip from South Fork to Lake City documented with stunning photos by Carolyn Butler at Better Days Are Coming.
Natchez Trace Parkway, Mississippi to Tennessee
The Natchez Trace Parkway is a National Scenic Byway designated with the All-American Road title due to its stunning scenery. This 444-mile long road starts in Natchez, Mississippi and runs through the northwest tip of Alabama, finally ending in Nashville, Tennessee. It follows the historic path of the Old Natchez Trace, a trail once used by Indians, wildlife and later, white traders. The road is very popular for bicycle tours and motorcycle enthusiasts with the 50 mph top speed limit in place for everyone's safety. Discover historic homes and family-owned bed and breakfast inns with gracious hosts who will share their knowledge about all the things to see and do in each local area, including hiking trails, waterfalls, scenic overlooks and attractions. Don't miss the 2,000-year-old Native American burial mounds, the Sunken Trace and Cypress Swamp. The National Park Service offers additional information on camping, hiking and other outdoor recreational activities.
Iron Mountain Road, South Dakota
Winding its way through the rugged Black Hills of South Dakota, the Iron Mountain Road passes by one of the most iconic national landmarks in the country, Mount Rushmore. Also known as Highway 16A, the route is only 17 miles long but contains 314 curves and 14 switchbacks. Designed purposely for slower driving, the road allows visitors more time to experience the area's natural beauty. Wooden "pigtail" bridges, named for their unique corkscrew shape and tunnels cut through granite, are another interesting architectural feature. They were designed to frame Mount Rushmore as drivers pass through them.
It takes a minimum of 45 to 60 minutes to drive the Iron Mountain Road, but in addition to the majestic sculptures of the four presidents carved into the mountainside, you'll likely be slowed down by an abundance of wildlife, including bighorn sheep, bison, elk, deer and even turkey. It is also the only road that passes through Custer State Park without a fee station. For more information on Iron Mountain Road, visit the South Dakota Highway 16A Guide at Mile-by-Mile.com.
Scenic routes and byways may not be the fastest way to get from one location to another but the point is to slow down and really experience the region you are driving through. Take in all the culture, history, traditions and natural beauty a scenic byway has to offer because getting there is half the fun.