Planning a road trip? Here’s everything you might need to plot a cross-country journey, a family vacation, or a solo trek.
Compared to the ultra-high-speed bullet trains of Japan, the breakneck speeds allowed on Germany’s autobahn, and the efficiency of the Swiss rail system, getting around the U.S. is often slow, inefficient, and often pretty dull. That’s thanks in large part to our reliance on decades-old freeways to get everywhere. Whether driving to and from work, across town, or between the coasts, most of the country’s traffic is restricted to the same 50,000 miles of Interstate Highways.
But, buried amid the four million total miles of marked roads criss-crossing the country are some of the most amazing drives in the world. If you’re looking for stunning, Instagram-worthy scenery and, most importantly, as few other travelers as possible, these are some of the quietest, loneliest scenic roads in America.
Dalton Highway (State Route 11)
Statistically speaking, all of the quietest roads in the United States are in Alaska. It’s twice the size of Texas, but with 28 million fewer people. And less than 5% of the state’s roads are paved. If you’re looking to get away from crowds of other road trippers, there’s no better place. But, few roads require you to truly “earn” the drive like the Dalton Highway. This rough gravel highway is quite literally in the middle of nowhere with average daily traffic of fewer than 200 cars. This is the domain of ice road truckers. In some cases, it’s a hundred miles between service stops, and travelers can expect to see few towns, houses, or signs of life along the way. So, why the hell would anyone be crazy enough to drive it? Because the 500-mile journey north from Fairbanks to Deadhorse boasts some of the most jaw-dropping scenery in the country, including pristine boreal forests, Alaska’s iconic mountain ranges, and views along the Yukon River. Time your visit right and you could witness the Northern Lights dancing over the Arctic Ocean.
U.S. Route 50
U.S. Route 50 bisects the country along a meandering 3,000-mile road that connects the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. It is, for the most part, like most other American highways. But, for road-trippers seeking a rare bit of solitude, it’s the portion that crosses central Nevada that’s most interesting. A 1986 issue of Life magazine once dubbed this portion the “Loneliest Road in America,” and so it’s been known ever since. It started as a bustling thruway during the 1850s gold rush when pioneers sought the shortest and fastest way west to a new frontier. It’s modernized, of course, in the 170 years since, but it still maintains a raw, untamed, and untouched vibe. Drivers are rewarded with more than 400 miles of stunning landscape that includes mountain passes, Great Basin National Park, a pristine reservoir, several ghost towns, desert valleys, alpine forests, and ancient petroglyphs. Aside from a few small villages and the occasional gas station, the only other company that drivers can expect is foxes, bobcats, and wild horses.
State Route 139
Few states boast as many iconic landmarks and must-visit destinations as California. For out-of-staters especially, it might seem impossible to get genuinely “off the beaten path” anywhere in the Golden State. Push north of San Francisco, Sacramento, and Reno, however, and you’ll find some of the state’s wildest and least trafficked reaches. It’s here that in-the-know road trippers can explore State Route 139. Beginning in the small town of Susanville, California, the road winds north for roughly 140 miles to the Oregon border. Along the way, drivers can visit Eagle Lake, Lava Beds National Monument, and Modoc National Forest. It’s quiet, secluded, and a great jumping-off point for hiking the state’s vast, rugged northeast landscape.
New Mexico’s Highway 104 is a textbook example of raw American Southwest scenery. From Tucumcari in the east, it devolves quickly into a seemingly never-ending expanse of dry, rugged sagebrush-laden plains. It winds for more than 100 miles — often in poker-straight lines and occasionally meandering around dramatic overlooks — with nary a car in sight. It terminates in the west at Las Vegas, New Mexico near the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the southernmost gateway to the Rockies. What little company drivers encounter along the way is likely to be motorcyclists and geocachers headed to Conchas Lake State Park. It’s among the state’s largest lakes, home to great fishing, birding, hiking, and water sports opportunities. Beyond that, there are few services and no gas stations, save for a defunct filling station near Laguna Huerfana that served as the backdrop for Javier Bardem’s creepy coin toss scene in No Country for Old Men.
U.S. Route 160
U.S. Route 160 runs for nearly 1,500 miles from Tuba City, Arizona in the west to its eastern terminus near Poplar Bluff, Missouri. No part of the road is more worth the drive than the westernmost stretch in Arizona. The 256-mile stretch is arguably the state’s least busy road. The entire section is contained within the 27,000-square-mile Navajo Nation. With only 350,000 inhabitants, however, there are more rattlesnakes here than people. It’s easy to feel lost amid the vast, open expanse of desert and alien rock formations. There are some truly iconic stops along the way, including the Moenave Dinosaur Tracks near Tuba City, a fascinating cliff village built by the Pueblo people, and the bizarre Elephant’s Feet rock pillars.
Centennial Valley Backcountry Drive
It’s impossible to drive for more than an hour in Montana and not feel simply awestruck. As its tourism department is quick to point out, it is most definitely “Big Sky Country.” Nowhere is this more evident than Centennial Valley. Tucked into the state’s southwest corner along the Idaho border, it is arguably the most remote region of one of the country’s largest and quietest states. During the summer, the valley’s population “peaks” at fewer than 100 souls, and only a handful of those stick around in winter. If you’re after serious solitude, the aptly named Centennial Valley Backcountry Drive is a remote, 53-mile gravel “road” (we use that term loosely) that crosses the heart of the valley between Henry’s Lake, Idaho in the east and the near-ghost-town of Monida, Montana in the west (population: 2). Across its 15-mile by 40-mile expanse, the valley encompasses two large lakes and the Red Rock Lake National Wildlife Refuge. The vast wetlands here are home to wolves, grizzly bear, deer, elk, and hundreds of bird species, all living much as they have for thousands of years. Just remember to gas up before the journey and be prepared for absolutely zero cell phone reception.
Death Valley Road (Big Pine Road)
Death Valley is among the most inhospitable places not just in the United States, but in the entire world. For an epic drive along one of its loneliest roads, head to the park’s northern reaches for the stretch between Death Valley Road (a.k.a. Big Pine Road) and South Eureka Road. The roundtrip desert journey begins at Scotty’s Castle Road at the turnoff for Ubehebe Crater. Nearly all of the 200-mile trip traverses heavy washboard gravel roads, blowing dust, occasional rock slides, and frequent washouts. The weather can change in minutes, there is no hint of cell service for miles, and a high-clearance, 4×4 vehicle with a solid flat repair kit is essential. This is not a trip for the fainthearted. But, those who make it are rewarded with visits to Eureka Dunes — towering, 680-foot sand dunes believed to be the highest in the state and possibly the country — and Ubehebe Crater, the 600-foot-deep remnants of an ancient volcanic eruption.
South Point Road
The island of Hawaii seems an odd place to find one of America’s quietest and loneliest roads. Along the island’s southern coast, visitors will discover South Point Road. The quiet, one-lane road turns off of Route 11 and winds south passed cow pastures, macadamia groves, and a hulking, 30-year-old wind farm that lies rusting and disused. The road continues to narrow until, after 12 miles, it ends at Ka Lae (South Point) — the official southernmost point in the United States. It’s an area steeped in history and believed to be the spot where Polynesians first made landfall en route to Tahiti. Today, it’s quiet, impossibly beautiful, and almost eerie. Visitors might see a few fishermen or foolhardy cliff divers. Although, the latter isn’t recommended as the currents can be life-threatening, and the next stop south is Antarctica.
The drive through Centralia, Pennsylvania along Route 61 is the shortest, strangest, and arguably loneliest road on this list. It’s not “scenic” in the classic sense of the word, but for travelers who appreciate the strange beauty in Chernobyl-esque ruins, it’s a must-visit. The once-thriving town was evacuated more than 50 years ago after an underground coal mine fire grew out of control. Almost overnight, the town went ghost. The fire has continued to rage ever since and experts have abandoned all hope of extinguishing it. Today, the town is home to a population of just seven, and there’s little sign of civilization. Technically, it’s still possible to drive through Centralia. Although, given the potential for sinkholes, the ever-present toxic gases in the air, and the fact that visitors are literally “playing with fire” just by walking the grounds, it’s unwise at best. Still, it makes for a short, but fascinating road trip through the ruins of one of the country’s greatest man-made disasters.
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