Top 10 Most Scenic Drives in America
From coast to coast across the United States there are numerous scenic drives that certainly help define America, the beautiful. From dramatic mountain roads to beautiful coastal byways there are scenic roads to satisfy the taste of every travel enthusiast. While selecting a top ten of anything represents a certain amount of subjectivity, I have selected ten of the most scenic roads across this beautiful country that represent a cross section of landscapes and terrain. So fasten your seatbelt, grab your camera, and get ready to hit the road.
Going to the Sun Road, Glacier National Park, Montana
I had the good fortune to visit Glacier National Park back in the summer of 1987. Not having access to the information that we have today I had never seen pictures of, or a detailed description of the Going to the Sun Road. Well, I can tell you that this was one of the most memorable drives that I have ever taken.
Going to the sun is certainly an accurate description of this road. If you find yourself in the northwestern corner of Montana visiting Glacier National Park this is a must do. If you are concerned about driving on a mountain road with numerous switchbacks there are alternative options that will leave the driving to others including tours and shuttles.
This 50-mile jaunt through some of the most scenic country in the United States takes visitors up and over Logan Pass at an elevation of 6,646 feet. Along the way there are a few sections that might just give you some anxiety, especially if you are traveling the road from west to east. For people sitting on the passenger side of the vehicle you may be exposed to a few sections where your heart may stop briefly, but fear not as thousands of vehicles make this trip every year without incident. Enjoy the ride.
Road to Hana, Maui, Hawaii
The fifty-two mile drive from Kahului to the small town of Hana, known as the Hana Highway, is one of the legendary scenic drives not just in the Hawaiian Islands but also throughout the world.
This drive, which should not be rushed, will take you over 59 bridges (many of them one-way) and around 620 curves in the road. While this may sound daunting, it is well worth the effort as you will be rewarded with beautiful waterfalls, flourishing rainforests, incredible pools and magnificent coastal views. Venture ten miles beyond Hana and you come to the Seven Sacred Pools of Oheo. The seven pools are feed by a series of cascading waterfalls and make for a great place to cool off. If you’re feeling energetic you may want to consider a hike up the Pipiwai trail for a dramatic view of the Waimoku Falls, which plunge 400 feet.
Expect to make this a day trip as the drive from Kahului to Hana can take from 3 to 4 hours assuming you are making plenty of stops along the way. Don’t forget to bring you bathing suit, as there are plenty of opportunities to take a dip
Pacific Coast Highway, California
Starting in Monterrey and extending south to Morro Bay, the Pacific Coast Highway (SR 1) runs for 122 miles through some of the most beautiful coastal scenery anywhere. The Big Sur section from Carmel to San Luis Obispo is designated as an All-American Road and is one of only 31 roads across the United States to receive this distinction. There is much to see along the way and this trip could easily be stretched into many days. Make it a point to stop in Monterey to visit the world-renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium and the famous Cannery Row.
Just south of Monterey is the beautiful 17-Mile Drive, which passes right through Pebble Beach and by the infamous Lone Cyprus. Continuing south takes travelers through Carmel-by-the-Sea, Big Sur and eventually to the Hearst Castle in San Simeon.
Driving the Pacific Coast Highway is an unforgettable experience. It’s one of those drives that everyone should make at least once in their lifetime, it’s that beautiful.
Seward Highway, Alaska
This 127 mile scenic highway runs from Anchorage all the way to the small harbor town of Seward. The route takes travelers along a variety landscapes as it runs alongside the Turnagain Arm, across the Kenai Peninsula and down to Resurrection Bay.
There is so much natural beauty here that it boggles the mind. From snow-capped peaks to beautiful coves and marshes to stunning waterfalls and glaciers the Seward Highway has something to offer everyone. And if all this is not enough there is always the chance that you will encounter some amazing wildlife on this drive including; bald eagles, dall sheep, moose, bear, beavers and if you are lucky maybe a glimpse of the beluga whales that patrol the waters of the Turnagain Arm.
Plan on this trip taking many hours, as you will certainly want to stop and explore as you make your way. Most visitors will plan on spending a few days in Seward, which is the gateway to Kenai Fjords National Park and a worthy destination itself.
The Overseas Highway, Florida Keys
When we made this trip in the winter of 1998 we were on our way to spend a few days in Key West. At the time I don’t remember having that great anticipation that one has when about to embark on a great journey over a scenic byway. However, all of that quickly changed once we were out over the Gulf of Mexico with nothing but a 360-degree view of the beautiful turquoise waters of the Gulf. It’s difficult to explain, but when you are out on the Overseas Highway and all you can see for miles in every direction is water you get this strange sensation that you are truly in a one of a kind place.
The Overseas Highway runs for 127.5 miles from Miami all the way to Key West. Opened in 1938 the Highway encompasses 42 bridges including the famous Seven Mile Bridge. The trip from Miami to Key West will take you approximately 5 hours with stops and if you’re visiting Key West then most likely you will also be driving back so you get to make this scenic drive twice.
Trail Ridge Road, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Located in the heart of Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the great mountain roads in the United States and another member of the All-American Road Club.
Traveling just 48 miles from Grand Lake in the west to Estes Park in the east, this road quickly rises in elevation and takes visitors up to an astonishing 12,183 feet in elevation and over the Continental Divide. Trail Ridge Road has the distinction of being the highest continuous paved road in the United States and eleven miles of it are up above the tree line above 11,500 feet.
Not only does Trail Ridge Road offer unparalleled mountain views but it also provides visitors with the opportunity to see Elk, Bighorn Sheep, Mule Deer, Moose and Golden Eagles. Located just 65 miles from Denver, Rocky Mountain National Park and the Trail Ridge Road can be done as a day trip. As always, when traveling in high mountain terrain always come prepared for any conditions as the weather can turn quickly.
Kancamagus Highway, New Hampshire
Located in the heart of New Hampshire’s White Mountains is perhaps the most scenic road in the country for viewing the Fall Foliage. Known locally as “The Kanc”, this 34.5 mile drive follows New Hampshire’s Route 112 from Conway in the east to Lincoln in the west.
Surrounded by the lofty White Mountains the Kanc cuts a path through the White Mountain National Forest and takes visitors by rivers and cascading waterfalls. If you happen to be here in the fall you will be greeted with a carpet of brilliant color as the landscape transforms itself in all its colorful glory.
Denali Park Road, Denali National Park, Alaska
Located in one of the most remote National Parks in the country, a trip onto the Denali Park Road is a journey into one of the most beautiful and pristine National Parks.
As the only road into Denali National Park, and paved for only the first 15 miles, this 92 mile road takes visitors through valleys and across mountain passes as it draws closer to Mount McKinley. But for a few rest stop areas with limited facilities, there are no buildings to be seen along most of this road until you arrive at the very end of the road at Kantishna. With auto traffic limited to just a few days each year, for most visitors the preferred way onto the Denali Park Road is on one of the National Park shuttle buses that will take you into the park. While here hopefully you catch a glimpse of the Big Five, as they are known: Grizzly Bear, Moose, Caribou, Dall Sheep and Wolf.
Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina & Virginia
The 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway just may be the longest of America’s most scenic drives. Alternating between beautiful mountain vistas and lush green forests this highway runs along the top of the Appalachian Mountains.
If you’re heading north or south on the east coast and want to avoid the traffic and congestion of the I-95 corridor then take this scenic and leisurely alternative. For a great break along the way visit Mount Mitchell, which at 6,366 feet is the highest peak east of the Mississippi River.
Olympic Peninsula Loop, Washington
Amazingly, a good portion of the Olympic Peninsula was virtually unmapped until as late as the mid 1960’s. Today, visitors can explore the beautiful Olympic Range, visit a dense rainforest, and explore rugged coastal scenery all in one amazing drive.
Whether you do the entire 329-mile loop or just a portion of it you will be driving through some of the countries most rural natural areas. There is much to see along this drive including a trek up to Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park. The views from the ridge are spectacular as you climb up to an elevation of 5,329 feet. Further along on the loop is the Hoh Rainforest, which is the one of the few remaining temperate rainforests in the United States. The Hoh Rainforest receives about 170 inches of rainfall every year that results in this lush, green rainforest. Continuing along the loop eventually takes visitors to the Pacific coastline and the opportunity to explore this rugged yet beautiful stretch of shoreline.
Whether you’re taking just a day trip onto the Olympic Peninsula or spending many days you will be sure to experience another one of the countries great scenic roads.
Ocean Drive, Newport, Rhode Island
For a bonus eleventh drive I am including Ocean Drive in Newport, RI. This ten-mile drive takes visitors from the mansions of Newport along the scenic coastline of this historic summer community. In just 10 short miles visitors will travel past Hammersmith Farm (former summer home of Jackie Kennedy), the famous Breakers Mansion, Fort Adams, and some amazing views of the coastline. If you find yourself in southern New England be sure to plan a trip to Newport and the beautiful Ocean Drive.
I was born and raised in Rhode Island so I felt compelled to include Ocean Drive. While I may be just a tad biased in including this drive, I don’t think you will be disappointed.
What's your choice for America's most scenic road?
© 2012 Bill De Giulio