America's Most Iconic Drives
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.
Related: America's Most Scenic Roads
The first cars were by and large playthings for the rich and powerful—just picture Jay Gatsby winding his yellow Rolls-Royce down the parkways of Long Island. But at the same time, special scenic routes were constructed in what are still some of the country’s most beautiful spots. When more Americans started driving, it created a road-trip frenzy that lives on today.
Some of these roads are justifiably famous, including what’s arguably America’s most scenic drive: California’s Route 1, around the town of Big Sur. Rocky cliffs plunge down to open ocean, creating a severe distraction while you navigate this narrow road.
Other roads may not be household names, but are nevertheless an integral part of the American fabric. Highway 31, west of New Orleans, takes you through classic Louisiana countryside, past lazy bayous and swampy lagoons filled with alligators and herons.
And some of these great American drives are still relatively new. Between Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park and its Dr. Seuss–like Bryce Canyon, Highway 12 runs past sandstone cliffs and a forest of deep green junipers. Yet this road was simply a challenging four-wheel-drive track until the last stretch was opened in 1985. And the famous Blue Ridge Parkway, a project started in 1935, wasn’t fully completed until 1983. That’s when the Linn Cove Viaduct, which snakes around North Carolina’s Grandfather Mountain, was finished.
So next time you find yourself stuck in rush-hour traffic, skip the road rage. Instead, find the iconic American road closest to you and put yourself in that automobile ad.
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.”
Going-to-the-Sun Road, Montana
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, 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. lonestarmotorcyclemuseum.com
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: 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. vistahouse.com
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. cafedesamis.com
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. coolspringsroute66.com
Great River Road, Minnesota to Louisiana
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. hellsbackbonegrill.com
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. whoanelliedeli.com
Pacific Coast Highway, California
California’s Route 1 leads you to some great beach towns, but it’s up around Big Sur that this famed route reaches new heights. Linking California’s historic capital, Monterey, with its most extravagant piece of hubristic architecture, Hearst Castle, this unforgettable 100-mile stretch of the PCH carves through cliffs high above the Pacific Ocean.
Where to Stop: Most of Big Sur has been protected from unsightly development by preservationist landowners, but the landmark Nepenthe has a dining room, bar, and cliff-top terrace that looks out over a 270-degree Pacific panorama.
The Million Dollar Highway, Colorado
Spending most of its time above tree line, the evocatively named Million Dollar Highway is one of the highest roads in the country. Running between the historic gold-mining camps of Silverton and Ouray, the road forms the centerpiece of the San Juan Skyway, climbing more than two miles above sea level.
Where to Stop: At the northern end of the Million Dollar Highway, the Victorian-era mining town of Ouray enhances its historic architecture with a number of naturally heated hot springs.
Route 100, Vermont
Best known for its fall foliage and delicious ice cream, Vermont’s lush Green Mountains are also a great place for a drive, thanks to winding country roads like Route 100, which bisects the state from Stowe south to the Massachusetts border. The midsection, between the towns of Waitsfield and Weston, offers the best scenery.
Where to Stop: Gifford Woods State Park. On the Green Mountain crest, west of Woodstock, this patch of primeval forest has been beautifully preserved.
Black River Scenic Byway, Michigan
A rugged band of red and white sandstone rock wedged against the deep blue waters of Lake Superior, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is a highlight of the Midwest. Highway 513, the Black River Scenic Byway, follows the eponymous river from the town of Bessemer to the lakeshore, passing waterfalls and dense forests all the way.
Where to Stop: Sample an Upper Peninsula tradition in the former iron-mining town of Ironwood; Joe’s Pasty Shop serves up local variations on the staple food of Cornish miners, the pasty. ilovepasties.com
Mount Washington Auto Road, New Hampshire
The first car to drive to the top of New England’s Mount Washington Auto Road was the original Stanley Steamer back in 1899, which tells you how deep this road’s roots run. Short and steep—climbing nearly 5,000 feet in less than eight miles—it passes dozens of vista points, waterfalls, and alpine meadows before coming to an end at what circus-meister P. T. Barnum called the “2nd Greatest Show on Earth.”
Where to Stop: On the far side of the summit, the palatial Mount Washington Hotel at Bretton Woods is a grand resort with its own coal-fired cog railway climbing back up to the top of the mountain.
Mohawk Trail, Massachusetts
Mixing idyllic natural beauty with fine art and roadside Americana, the Mohawk Trail is a classic two-lane highway linking metropolitan Boston with the rural Berkshire countryside. Classic 1920s motor court cabins and the “Big Indian” souvenir shop line a twisting route that ends in the west at the liberal arts enclave of Williamstown.
Where to Stop: Just south of the highway, the Bridge of Flowers in Shelburne Falls is an old trolley bridge reborn as a lush arboretum, high above the Deerfield River.
Merritt Parkway, Connecticut
Though years of roadwork have diminished much of the Merritt’s original elegance, enough design details remain to make this one of America’s prettiest freeways. With zero roadside sprawl, the Merritt Parkway has more than enough sinuous curves and leafy landscaping to make driving it a true pleasure.
Where to Stop: From the east end of the Merritt Parkway, continue on to the heart of New Haven to sample another historic treat: Louis’ Lunch, the family-owned diner that claims to have served the world’s first hamburgers more than 110 years ago. louislunch.com
Skyline Drive, Virginia
Writhing along the crest of the mountains, within a few yards of some of the best stretches of the hikers’ famous Appalachian Trail, Skyline Drive earns its name with 105 miles of panoramic views over the Shenandoah Valley and Virginia Piedmont regions. Because it’s in a national park, speeds are limited to 35 mph, but the gentle curves and undulating topography make Skyline Drive a delight.
Where to Stop: Midway along the Skyline Drive, a rustic restaurant and overnight lodge known as Skyland marks the highway’s highest point.
The Dare Trail, North Carolina
Linked together by ferry crossings, and never rising more than a few feet above sea level, Highway 12 skips along the series of barrier islands that form Cape Hatteras, separating the usually placid waters of Pamlico Sound from the frequently raging Atlantic Ocean. Though many sections were flooded and damaged by Hurricane Sandy, Highway 12 is an unforgettable drive, winding past sand dunes, landmark lighthouses, and historic villages.
Where to Stop: If you’ve ever wanted to try hang gliding or kite surfing, you’ll find outfitters all along Cape Hatteras.
Ohio River Scenic Byway, Indiana
Running across three states and stretching for more than 900 miles, this official National Scenic Byway mixes history, scenery, and driving pleasure in equal measures. The best stretches follow the river downstream from Cincinnati to Louisville, KY, around the town of Madison, IN, where a postcard-perfect Main Street still welcomes visits from paddle-wheel steamboats.
Where to Stop: Visit historic downtown Madison and enjoy a milkshake at Hinkle’s Sandwich Shop, open since the 1930s. hinkleburger.com
Highway 61 Along Lake Superior, MN
Running north and east from Duluth, this breathtaking highway clings to the rugged shores of Lake Superior, giving uncluttered views of granite cliffs, dense North Woods forests, and photogenic Great Lakes lighthouses.
Where to Stop: Flanked by flower gardens, with the waters of Lake Superior lapping at the back door, the New Scenic Café outside Duluth is famous for its locally sourced seasonal food and fresh berry pies. sceniccafe.com
Highway Z, Missouri
The biggest peaks between the Blue Ridge and the Rockies, the Ozark Mountains offer a refreshing change of scene from the otherwise low-lying Great Plains. Here, winding roads like Hwy-Z cut through deep wooded canyons carved by powerful rivers. This road twists and turns through the area known as Devil’s Elbow, where a tight turn in the Big Piney River forms a deep and scenic gorge.
Where to Stop: Bikers and BBQ fans flock to the Elbow Inn (573-336-5375), a roadside shack that’s been in business for nearly a century.
Rockefeller Parkway, Wyoming
Meandering along the banks of the Snake River, Highway 191 from Yellowstone to Jackson Hole lacks the roller-coaster thrills of many other Rocky Mountain roads, but it more than makes up for the absence of adrenaline with mile after mile of breathtaking views. Gaze up at the spectacular peaks of the Grand Tetons from the lush riparian meadows below.
Where to Stop: South of the Grand Tetons, the Wild West town of Jackson Hole mixes well-heeled luxury with the rough-and-tumble charms of the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, where leather saddles take the place of bar stools. milliondollarcowboybar.com
Highway 50, Nevada
The stretch of U.S. Highway 50 dubbed the “Loneliest Road” is one of the great drives in the wide-open western U.S. The road is anything but boring; it climbs over ranges of pine- and juniper-covered mountains and winds past old mining camps and Pony Express outposts. The “loneliness” in the road’s name comes from its lack of civilization.
Where to Stop: In the semi–ghost town of Dayton, the Old Corner Bar has welcomed everyone from gold miners to Marilyn Monroe in its 150 years of existence.
Pacific Coast Highway, Oregon
Most people associate “PCH” with California, but the great road runs all the way from Canada to Mexico. Some of the best stretches are in Oregon, where the road winds along rocky coves and rugged mountains, through a series of quaint small towns like Cannon Beach, where Lewis and Clark ended their cross-country tour in 1805.
Where to Stop: At the Ocean Road Scenic Area near idyllic Yachats, an outmoded stretch of highway is now an access path leading to gorgeous tide pools and panoramic coastal views.
Cascades Loop, Washington
Climbing from the lush rainforests of Puget Sound, U.S. Highway 2 crosses the Cascades and drops into apple orchards before reaching placid Lake Chelan. Ambitious drivers can loop back to Seattle via rugged and remote North Cascades National Park, along equally scenic Highway 20.
Where to Stop: For an unexpected treat, spend some time in kitschy Leavenworth, an old timber and railroad town that re-created itself in the 1970s as a Bavarian Alps hamlet, complete with beer gardens and lederhosen.
Salmon River to Sun Valley, Idaho
From the raging whitewater and sun-baked wilderness of the Snake River to the glamorous streets of Sun Valley, U.S. Highway 93 takes in a little of everything Idaho has to offer. River rafters, cattle ranchers, and trout fishermen all savor the twists and turns as this lazy highway makes its way from Montana to Nevada.
Where to Stop: Take the old Highway 93 route up into the angular Sawtooth Mountains. Here, in the town of Stanley, you’ll find wooden sidewalks, log cabins, and historic saloons.
Beartooth Highway, Montana
This 69-mile drive between Red Lodge, MT, and Yellowstone National Park offers amazing mountain views and up-close sightings of mountain goats and elk. Closed by snow from mid-October to May, this top-of-the-world road runs well above tree line for many miles, zigzagging in steep switchbacks to climb over its 10,947-foot-high point.
Where to Stop: At the eastern end of the highway, the historic town of Red Lodge is home to one of the Wild West’s most agreeable old haunts—the luxurious Pollard Hotel, where Calamity Jane and Buffalo Bill both stayed overnight.
Gold Rush Highway 49, California
This winding, two-lane highway passes dozens of carefully preserved Victorian-era mining camps, dusty ghost towns, deep canyons, rushing rivers, and oak-covered foothills. Highway 49 also takes in the historic Mother Lode gold mining district, where the Golden State got its start.
Where to Stop: The Empire Mine—the oldest, richest, and largest gold mine in California—has been preserved as a state park at the heart of the gorgeous artists’ community of Grass Valley. empiremine.org