The spring season inspires us to plan a road trip and revel in the alluring beauty of nature. Thankfully, you needn’t look far as every state in the country offers a great road trip route or two (or three). There are the obvious choices like Florida’s Overseas Highway and Hawaii’s Road to Hana, but the country offers many lesser-known – though just as stunning – scenic drives. Excited? Pack your gear and essentials, gas up your car, and map out a memorable cross-country adventure with these best road trip routes in the United States.
Despite its unfortunate name, Seward Highway is like a Chili’s appetizer sampler platter of everything that makes Alaska’s breathtaking landscape famous. The two-hour drive between Anchorage and the seaside village of Seward includes shoreline views in Turnagain Arm, looks at the jagged peaks of Chugach Mountains, and a dip into the Kenai Peninsula. The latter is famous for sea kayaking, glacier hiking, rafting, fishing, and a host of outdoor activities. The train ride along the route is a charming, old-timey way to take in the views. But driving the highway allows for time to stop — and you’ll want to stop a lot — along the way. Once in Seward, don’t miss the Alaska SeaLife Center, famous for its puffin exhibit and marine mammal facility.
Pacific Coast Highway
No road captures the essence of California’s coastal beauty like the Pacific Coast Highway (or just “PCH”). The route stretches for more than 650 miles between Leggett in Mendocino County to Dana Point in Orange County along the Pacific Ocean. It’s dramatic, almost always sunny, and every mile promises yet another eye-popping view. It’s also a great way to take in the state’s most iconic sights, including the Golden Gate Bridge, the Mendocino Headlands, Malibu, Big Sur, and San Luis Obispo. While it’s possible to drive in one long day, plan at least a couple of weeks if possible. Better yet, extend the drive north all the way to the Redwood Forest.
The Overseas Highway
The relatively short, 150-mile drive from Miami to Key West packs more eye-popping tropical views into a single road trip than any other drive in the continental United States. The southern two-thirds along Route 1 takes road trippers over more than 42 bridges and countless keys. While it takes less than four hours end to end, there are enough incredible beaches, oceanfront campgrounds, and world-class snorkeling and dive spots to make the drive a vacation unto itself. For a truly memorable experience, visit almost any Hertz car rental counter at or near the main South Florida airports to upgrade your ride down the coast. The company’s Dream Cars and Adrenaline Collection include a bevy of high-performance cars like the Chevy Camaro SS Convertible, Corvette Z06, and Porsche 911.
Route 395 doesn’t boast the same iconic, brand-name cache as the other drives on this list. For nature lovers who appreciate solitude, the open road, and mountain views, however, that’s a very good thing. The 557-mile inland route traces a north-south line through California with brief dips into Nevada. It connects some of the most bucket-list-worthy points of interest not only in California but in the entire country. Yosemite National Park, Lake Tahoe, Death Valley National Park, Mammoth Lakes, and Ancient Bristlecone Forest (home to the oldest living trees in the world) are all stops on the way. In addition to tremendous outdoor opportunities, there are also ghost towns, breweries, a famous bakery, and quaint towns where the entire population might barely fill an elevator.
The Road to Hana
The Road to Hana is Hawaii’s undisputed most popular scenic drive and with good reason. The coastal route traverses some of the most breathtaking scenery in one of the most breathtaking states in the country. In less than 60 miles, it crosses 59 bridges and passes some of Maui’s most famous spots including ‘Ohe’o Gulch (Seven Sacred Pools), Hana Lava Tube, Haleakala National Park, and the lookout at Ho’okipa (one of Maui’s best surf spots). Timing a road trip here is key. Visit in high season, and the route is a chaotic grid-lock of tourist-driven Jeeps and Mustang Convertibles. Instead, make the drive during low season (November is ideal as the weather is pleasant and the crowds have thinned out considerably) when it can sometimes feel like you have the road all to yourself.
Any roundup of America’s best scenic drives is required, by law, to include Route 66. It’s an obvious choice, but a necessary one. The so-called “Mother Road” debuted during The Great Depression as one of the country’s first highways and would go on to define a generation of cross-country road tripping. Decades after its heyday, the entire route from Chicago to Santa Monica, California is still dotted with vintage motels, quirky roadside attractions, souvenir shops, and retro chrome diners. Sadly, small-town economics are rapidly affecting the road’s infrastructure, and many of its most iconic features are crumbling or disappearing altogether. Thankfully, the National Trust for Historic Preservation is working tirelessly to save it.
Million Dollar Highway
Colorado’s “Million Dollar Highway” (technically U.S. Route 550) traverses a short 25-mile path between Silverton and Ouray. As the most beautiful piece of the larger San Juan Skyway, it offers literally breathtaking views of the state’s western landscape. There are no guardrails along most of its stretch as visitors climb over three extreme mountain passes, all topping 10,000 feet. The weather is severe and unpredictable year-round with record snowfalls frequently forcing the state to close the road entirely. It can prove so harrowing, in fact, that the road purportedly got its name from the countless travelers who emerged at the end to say, “You couldn’t pay me a million dollars to drive that again!”
State Route 12
Utah is home to some of the country’s most breathtaking national parks. Connecting the dots between them is one of the easiest ways to find the most scenic drives in the United States. Scenic Byway 12 may not sound all that alluring, but the 120-mile stretch between Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon is like a highlight reel of the state’s natural landscape. Outside of a handful of small, eclectic towns, there are few traditional services or signs of civilization along the way. With a limited number of entry points onto the road, it requires a bit of planning, a detailed map, and a hearty sense of road trip adventure to navigate.
Going to the Sun Road
Going to the Sun Road is the only road that traverses Montana’s incredible Glacier National Park. Since its completion in 1932, the 53-mile route has been designated a National Historic Landmark and a Historic Civil Engineering Landmark, both with good reason. The narrow, two-lane road is treacherous in parts, but the panoramic mountain views of one of the country’s most beautiful states make it worth the drive. With its location along the Continental Divide, the weather can be bleak and unpredictable, particularly in winter. Most years, the road doesn’t open until June or July, giving visitors only a four-month window to experience its beauty.
You might be surprised to learn that one of the country’s most visited national parks lies just 75 miles from the center of Washington, D.C. Shenandoah National Park is the crown jewel among Virginia’s green space with 75 scenic overlooks and more than 500 miles of trails (101 of which traverse the Appalachian Trail) stretched across 200,000 acres. It’s a diverse landscape that covers wetlands, rocky cliffs, and waterfalls, and is home to hundreds of bird species and the relatively rare black bear. Skyline Drive is the only public road through the park. The scenic drive covers 105 miles along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains with stunning panoramic views on either side. While a relatively brief ride, on a good, clear day, it takes a minimum of three hours to drive end to end. But honestly, you’ll want to take your time and linger a whole lot longer.
Acadia All-American Road
Minutes from the tiny tourist town of Bar Harbor, the Acadia All-American Road offers one of the most unique and varied drives in the United States. At its lowest elevation, the winding two-lane road hugs the Maine coastline near sea level. At the summit of Cadillac Mountain (an elevation of 1,530 feet), a scenic lookout affords sweeping views of the state’s rugged Atlantic coast. The scenic drive between both elevations offers plenty of opportunities for hiking (check out the harrowing Precipice Trail), bird-watching (the park is home to nesting falcons), and grabbing a traditional popover at the wildly popular waterfront Jordan Pond House. At daybreak, visitors can catch the first rays of sunlight to hit the continental United States from the summit of Cadillac Mountain. After dark, the park provides prime stargazing opportunities thanks to its near-zero light pollution.
Trail of the Mountain Spirits Scenic Byway
Old West towns, ancient cliff dwellings, and copper mine ruins are all just a part of the Trail of the Mountain Spirits Scenic Byway. This 93-mile scenic drive in southwestern New Mexico crisscrosses six climatic zones across the Continental Divide in the country’s first-ever national wilderness area, the Gila. It’s vast, open, dramatic, and among the most remote wilderness areas in the lower 48. The drive alone is the star of this area. But Silver City (where this loop drive begins and ends) is a worthy destination in its own right. The once-booming mining town has a fascinating and eclectic history dating back to the 1870s, and the Silver City Museum is well worth a visit to hear the complete story.
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