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America's best spring drives

Briana Fasone
March 28, 2012

Remember when Dorothy dozes off among scarlet poppies in “The Wizard of Oz?” Well, those vivid flowers weren’t just a figment of Hollywood magic. Similar poppies set California’s Antelope Valley ablaze in spring, luring road-trippers from L.A. and beyond.

The arrival of spring inspires us to break out from winter’s hibernation and embrace the fresh outdoors. A road trip naturally satisfies that spontaneous travel urge, and we’ve mapped America’s best spring drives—routes that bring you up-close to nature’s finest floral displays, from a California poppy tour to Texas Hill Country’s bluebonnets.

Texas Hill Country Bluebonnet Tour
The Route: 87 miles.

Lady Bird Johnson led a campaign to beautify American cities, and in her native Texas, vast gardens of bluebonnets were planted across Texas Hill Country. While there are countless nature trails, first-timers should start in Austin and take U.S. 290 west to Johnson City’s lovely Wildflower Loop. Then hightail it along U.S. 281 N to the town of Burnet, the official bluebonnet capital of Texas. The 29th Annual Bluebonnet Festival gets under way April 13, 2012. 

Acadia All American Road, Maine
The Route: 40 miles.

Pack your binoculars for this coastal drive that skirts the woodlands of Acadia National Park, a prime spot for spying bald eagles and nesting peregrine. The 27-mile Park Loop Road segment follows the high ridges of Bar Harbor down to Sand Beach and Otter Cliff and loops inland along Jordan Pond. It’s the centerpiece of the drive, which starts in Trenton, takes Route 3 south, turns on the Loop Road, then rejoins Route 3.

George Washington Memorial Parkway, Maryland and Virginia
The Route: 25 miles.

This green parkway reveals one floral show after another—591 wildflower species, from large-flowered valerians to Virginia bluebells—as you drive from the Great Falls of the Potomac through D.C. and south to Mount Vernon. The most famous are the cherry trees that bloom around the Tidal Basin in D.C. The National Cherry Blossom Festival runs March 20 through April 27, 2012, which marks the 100th anniversary of this gift from Japan.

Antelope Valley, California
The Route: 70 miles.

From Los Angeles, drive north to the town of Lancaster via Route 14, better known as the Antelope Valley Freeway. Golden poppies bloom throughout the Mojave Desert region in March, but the 17,600-acre Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve claims the finest concentration of California’s state flower—not to mention glorious showings of fiddlenecks, creamcups, goldfields, and tidytips starting in late March.

Cherokee Foothills Scenic Highway, South Carolina
The Route: 120 miles.

This National Scenic Byway sticks to an early Native American trail (the Cherokees called these foothills the Great Blue Hills of God) that weaves through the low Piedmont Hills past waterfalls, covered bridges, and brooks. To catch peach orchards and trees in full bloom, time your drive to late spring or early summer.

Historic Columbia River Highway, Oregon
The Route: 70 miles.

The Columbia River area has long been Oregon’s premier scenic attraction. See it for yourself by driving from Portland through the Columbia River Gorge and on to volcanic Mount Hood, Oregon’s highest peak at over 11,000 feet. Multnomah Falls, one of the tallest yearlong waterfalls in the U.S., is another showstopper. Beginning in late March, look for wildflowers like the bright purple Columbia kittentails that bloom on the shaded banks of waterfalls.

Louisiana Great River Road
The Route: 100 miles.

Let the Mississippi River be your guide on this winding drive from Baton Rouge through Creole Country to New Orleans. Look out for former sugar plantations and majestic antebellum plantation houses—until the Civil War this area was one of the richest in America. Giant moss-draped oak trees nearly obscure the Creole cottages, surrounded by patches of budding wildflowers.

Hana Highway, Hawaii
The Route: 52 miles.

Tropical flowers burst open each spring along the Road to Hana, which paves its way through bamboo fields, rainforests, and waterfalls like 80-foot Wailua Falls, which appeared in the credits of TV show “Fantasy Island.” Start in Kahului, and head down Maui’s northeastern coast. Just don’t be fooled by the 52-mile count—this is an intense drive that can take up to four hours as you navigate 600 hairpin turns and more than 50 one-lane bridges. The payoff comes from the spectacular views and bragging rights.

San Juan Skyway, Colorado
The Route: 232 miles.

The skyway’s biggest thrills come along the stretch between the Victorian-era towns of Ouray and Silverton that’s known as the Million Dollar Highway. While that name could easily describe the views, it actually refers to the massive amounts of silver and gold once carted through these passes. Four-wheelers can also attempt to traverse the rugged 65-mile Alpine Loop Back Country Byway past the 19th-century ghost towns of Howardsville, Eureka, and Animas Forks.

Santa Fe/Taos Loop, New Mexico
The Route: 191 miles.

Follow the (literal) High Road from Santa Fe north on Route 285 through high-elevation deserts and orchards. It leads to the cottonwood-dotted valley of Ojo Caliente, where you’ll reach pueblo communities; the Taos Pueblo compound, a UNESCO World Heritage site, was built before 1400 and is one of the oldest continuously inhabited communities in America. Loop back from Taos on the Low Road, State Route 68, which runs along the Rio Grande by some of New Mexico’s finest wineries.