Blue Ridge Parkway
Automobile ads love to show shiny vehicles cruising open highways under blue skies, with mountains and beaches nearby. But when was the last time you took a drive like that? For most of us, our cars are merely workhorses to haul us around town.
Still, it’s easy to break out of the rut. Magnificent roads are never far—routes that slice through forests, dance along the coastlines, and thread through mountain passes. They’re scenic drives, yes, but they’re also classically American. And once you find the right route, it’s easy to rediscover the exuberant freedom of the open road.
Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia to North Carolina
For most of its 469-mile route, the Blue Ridge Parkway alternates between grand panoramas and up-close looks at lush forests and meadows. That’s no surprise considering that it runs atop the Appalachian Mountains between Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park and the Great Smoky Mountains of far western North Carolina. The parkway is a leisurely cruise rather than a roller coaster, with one exception—its most breathtaking section, the Linn Cove Viaduct, which skims the treetops as it winds around the parkway’s highest peak.
Where to Stop: Grandfather Mountain. Rising high above Linn Cove, this 5,837-foot peak offers great views and the famous “Mile High Swinging Bridge.”
John T. Miller, MPLS, MN
Built in the Roaring 1920s to tempt drivers to explore the national parks, Going-to-the-Sun Road is a breathtaking 50-mile drive across Montana’s Glacier National Park. Rising up between a pair of deep-blue alpine lakes, the road was cleverly crafted to show off the best vistas with the least negative impact on the park’s fragile environment. It’s closed every winter by snows, which can reach up to 80 feet in depth.
Where to Stop: Logan Pass. After cutting across the sheer escarpment of the Garden Wall, the road reaches its literal and figurative high point atop 6,646-foot Logan Pass, where herds of wild mountain goats can be seen trampling across wildflower meadows.
Hill Country Highways
Hill Country Highways, Texas
At roughly the geographical center of the Lone Star state, the sparsely populated Hill Country region mixes sagebrush plateaus with deep canyons and fast-flowing rivers. And just outside the idyllic hamlet of Utopia, a series of winding roads—Highways 335, 336, and 337—offer an intense taste of the rugged topography. Climbing up and down canyons and twisting along angular rock walls, these roads offer an adrenaline blast for anyone brave enough to open up the throttle.
Where to Stop: The Lone Star Motorcycle Museum outside Vanderpool has dozens of vintage motorcycles, plus a good diner, the Ace Café.
Columbia River Scenic Highway
Columbia River Scenic Highway, Oregon
This road is a concrete realization of the idea that highways can sometimes improve on the work of Mother Nature. Designed and constructed back in the early days of the automobile, the route winds past a series of lovely waterfalls while taking in the best sights of the Columbia Gorge, east of Portland.
Where to Stop: Vista House. Standing on a stony cliff top, 700 feet above the Columbia River, Vista House is a historic rest stop that doubles as a memorial to Oregon Trail pioneers.
Kancamagus National Scenic Byway
Courtesy of White Mountains Attractions
Kancamagus National Scenic Byway, New Hampshire
New England has many miles of great drives, but nothing beats “The Kanc”—a 26.5-mile drive along Route 112, between the towns of Conway and Lincoln. Often rated as the best fall color drive in the U.S., this road is a commerce-free climb past colonial farmhouses, scenic covered bridges, and miles of hardwood and evergreen forest.
Where to Stop: Sabbaday Falls. Just east of the crest, and a quick 15-minute stroll south of the highway, the splashing cascades have been a popular picnic spot since frontier times.
Bayou Cruise, Louisiana
West of New Orleans, the low-lying lands of the lower Mississippi River are known for languid country lanes winding past lazy bayous. Garlands of moody Spanish moss dangle from mighty oaks and cypress trees, while alligators and herons splash about in the swampy lagoons. The best road to drive is Highway 31, which winds along Bayou Teche from New Iberia to Breaux Bridge.
Where to Stop: Breaux Bridge. Get your Cajun fix at the self-proclaimed crawfish capital of the world. On Saturday mornings, head to the Café des Amis for the music-filled Zydeco Breakfast.
Route 66, Illinois to California
Yes, it’s so famous it’s a cliché, but this 2,000-mile cruise has justifiably become a part of the American fabric. For sheer driving pleasure, the best stretch has to be the mountainous run west from the Grand Canyon to the Colorado River, climbing up from a desert plateau and twisting past the old gold mines of the Black Mountains.
Where to Stop: Cool Springs Station, Kingman, AZ. With its stone arches and small museum, this restored rest station makes for a great stop along this historic route.
Great River Road
Bryan S. Spaeth
You might expect small-town charm driving alongside the Mississippi River. You might not expect the rugged “Driftless Region” on the road’s more northern stretches—an area that escaped being flattened by glaciers during the last Ice Age. Enjoy roller-coaster hills and steep canyons in Iowa, from Dubuque to the prehistoric Effigy Mounds.
Where to Stop: Galena, IL—one of the Great River Road’s greatest small towns.
Highway 12, Utah
Running between Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef National Park, Highway 12 was a challenging four-wheel-drive track as recently as 1985, when the last stretch around Boulder Mountain was finally tamed by pavement. Alongside the road, the iron-tinged rust of sedimentary sandstone cliffs stands out against a forest of deep green junipers, lending a gentle softness to what is otherwise a harsh setting.
Where to Stop: Hell’s Backbone Grill, which has its own organic farm.
Tioga Pass Scenic Byway
Thomas A. Thompson
Tioga Pass Scenic Byway, California
Head east on Highway 120—downhill—for maximum exposure to the canyon’s vertical drop-offs. But the enduring highlights are at either end of the road: the high country of Yosemite National Park in the west, and down east, the unworldly “tufa” sculptures lining the shores of magnificent Mono Lake.
Where to Stop: At the foot of the pass, overlooking Mono Lake, a local gas station has become nationally famous for its restaurant, the Whoa Nellie Deli, where fish tacos and great steaks share the menu with pizzas and Angus beef burgers.