By Sarah Rose
Updated: June 17, 2019
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“In our red rental car, we passed 617 white-knuckle switchbacks, 56 one-lane bridges, and tons of waterfalls as we traveled away from civilization,” says Kim Binsted, an astrobiology professor at the University of Hawaii who last month drove the length of Maui’s Hana Highway—one of the most heart-clutching and beautiful drives on the planet—with her best friend.

“To everyone in this country, the car represents freedom, mobility, and the control you feel over your destiny/destination,” says Callie Khouri, Oscar-winning screenwriter of Thelma & Louise.

From the dramatic California coast to history-lined thoroughfares of New England, there are countless scenic drives across the country—and some stellar standouts. We’ve picked the American routes with heart-stopping views. On the winding Blue Ridge Parkway, for example, don’t be surprised if the morning mists seduce you like a country melody. The 469-mile road, now over 75 years old, winds its way past limestone caverns, clear mountain springs, and Appalachian majesty, offering different panoramic vistas depending on the season.

But sometimes it’s the man-made sights that make the trip. As you cruise on Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive, the view to the west includes the greatest hits of American architecture, such as Willis Tower, better known as the Sears Tower, once the tallest building in the world. To the east, there are 26 miles of Lake Michigan beaches.

And on U.S. 1 from Key Largo to Key West, travelers are treated to a good time, Florida style. The island chain’s stretch of road encompasses everything from underwater coral reefs and 7 Mile Bridge, one of the longest in the world, to marinas where you can hand-feed tarpon, and beach bars filled with Jimmy Buffett fans drinking margaritas.

So bring a friend or your family and hit the road. In Khouri’s words—go see what America tastes like.

Hana Highway, Maui

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The T-shirts all say: I survived the road to Hana. It can take more than two and a half hours to travel the 52 miles from Kahului to Hana, as you snake past steep sea-cliffs lush with blooming mango trees, buy banana bread from roadside stalls, and pull over for Jurassic vistas. In tiny Hana, a town on eastern Maui, a cinder cone shields the red sand beach where nudists and endangered monk seals bake idly in the sun.

Stop: Drive past Hana to where the road ends (or becomes unpassable, according to most rental car contracts) to visit the Seven Sacred Pools, a gently cascading, seven-tiered gulch at Haleakala National Park. (nps.gov/hale; free.)

Blue Ridge Parkway, Carolinas and Virginia

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The nearly 500 miles of blacktop twisting through the Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah national parks was built for travelers seeking Appalachian overlooks. It’s a panoramic drive for all seasons, with undulating slopes of color in autumn, a bounty of forest canopy in summer, and hot-cider ski resorts in winter. The parkway has become a paradise for birders: with over 50 resident species, it boasts more diversity than the entire continent of Europe.

Stop: In the mines of the mineral-rich Appalachian Mountains, visitors can pan for emeralds, amethyst, rubies, topaz, and even gold. (emeraldvillage.com; from $10.)

Lake Shore Drive, Chicago

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The rock stars of American architecture line up like soldiers facing Lake Michigan, starting north at Hollywood and reaching south through Jackson Park, spanning 26 miles. But the downtown buildings are showstoppers, from the blocky staircase of the Willis Tower—formerly the Sears Tower and tallest building in the world—to the Belle Époque elegance of Burnham and Root’s Rookery, to the stark post-Bauhaus boxes of Mies van der Rohe. It is the greatest architecture road on earth.

Stop: In Millennium Park, listen to free summer concerts under Frank Gehry’s fretwork bandshell. (grantparkmusicfestival.com; free admission.)

17-Mile Drive, California

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The so-called 17-Mile Drive spanning California’s Monterey Peninsula clocks in at less than 10 miles long. On a privately owned strip off Highway 1, stretching from the towns of Pacific Grove to Carmel, the road runs through the Del Monte forests belonging to the exclusive Pebble Beach golf community. With surf-beaten cliffs and colonies of harbor seals, it also boasts spectacular sunsets over the Pacific that residents say are worth the $10.25 entry fee to use the private road.

Stop: The Monterey Bay Aquarium has sunlit kelp-forest tanks, a petting pool, and a million-gallon tank with giant sharks and sea turtles. (montereybayaquarium.org; $49.95 for adults, $29.95 for children.)

U.S. 1, Florida Keys

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Leaving the mainland for the 120-mile-long island chain of Florida’s Keys, travelers enter a paradise of beach bars, water sports, and Parrotheads (Jimmy Buffett fans). From Key Largo to Key West, the overseas highway strings the islands together like beads, running past lighthouses, underwater coral-reef parks, and across 7 Mile Bridge—one of the longest bridges in the world.

Stop: On the docks at Islamorada travelers can hand-feed bait fish to tarpon more than six feet long. (robbies.com; from $4.)

Route 12, Utah

Stefan Baeurle

The red rock majesty of Utah is on triumphant display on State Route 12 winding between Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon national parks. The 124-mile strip has funky small towns and very few entry points, so it takes a map and determination to witness the steep sandstone canyons and bluffs of purple sage, and to tackle the narrow cliff-hanging ridgeline road called The Hogback.

Stop: The log-and-sandstone Kiva Koffeehouse in Escalante supplies travelers with art, coffee, and views of Escalante Grand Staircase National Monument. (kivakoffeehouse.com.)

Bluebonnet Trail, Texas

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Between Austin and Houston lies the Lone Star State’s most beautiful scenery, especially from March to May when the wild bluebonnets are out in force. From Austin, you’ll pass a chain of seven interconnected lakes on the Colorado River, including Lake Buchanan, a wilderness resort area popular with fishermen and artists.

Stop: To admire more of the state’s native flowers, visit the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Research Center, named for the first lady who made national beautification a priority. (wildflowers.org; $12)

North Shore Drive, Minnesota

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Lake Superior’s Minnesota shoreline is a thing of glacial beauty. As you drive from Duluth toward Two Harbors, Gitche Gumee’s “shining big sea waters” stretch out to the right and birch and maple northwoods climb high on the left. You’ll also get a look at ocean tankers anchored in the last inland port of the St. Lawrence Seaway as they wait to upload iron or grain from America’s heartland before sending it out to the world.

Stop: Duluth’s four-mile lakeside sports path shows off the city highlights: a rose garden, pre-Prohibition brewery, an aerial bridge, and the largest grain elevators in the world. (visitduluth.com)

Trail Ridge Road, Colorado

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Welcome to the highest continually paved road in the U.S.: the Trail Ridge Road winds as high as 12,183 feet through Rocky Mountain National Park. Following a route traced over the Continental Divide by Native Americans for thousands of years, visitors can see elk, deer, and bighorn sheep above the tree line in the dramatic tundra. 

Stop: The imposing Victorian splendor of the Stanley Hotel, in Estes Park, CO, was Stephen King’s inspiration for The Shining(stanleyhotel.com)

Kancamagus Highway, New Hampshire

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Though the White Mountains are a year-round sportsman’s paradise, the autumnal fireworks are the undisputed highlights of New Hampshire’s 36-mile Kancamagus Highway. Serious leaf-peepers visit in October to see the maples, alder, and birch blazing in full Technicolor glory. In spring, expect yellow violets and wood anemone.

Stop: Take the half-mile hike to Sabbaday Falls, near Waterville, NH, to visit a three-tiered waterfall with easy access to the road. (kancamagushighway.com; free.)

Going to the Sun Road, Montana

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One of America’s most inspiring public-works projects winds through Glacier National Park’s snow-covered peaks, sub-alpine meadows, and lakes across the Continental Divide on the spine of the Rockies. Snowdrifts threaten to top 100 feet in winter, so the road is open only from May to October.

Stop: To learn more about the geology of glaciers, local Native American customs, or the park’s ecosystem, sign up for a day class at the Glacier Institute. (glacierinstitute.org; from $65 per person, per day)

Highway 101, Oregon

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The state owns the entire coast of Oregon and has preserved unobstructed natural vistas along 300 or so miles of beaches off Highway 101. Between Port Orford and Brookings, fierce sea cliffs stand in contrast to the pastoral farmland and roaming cattle of Oregon’s small towns.

Stop: Pull over when you spot the roadside Tyrannosaurus rex at the Prehistoric Gardens, where 23 life-size dinosaur replicas are staged against the rainforest landscape. (prehistoricgardens.com; $12)

Olympic Peninsula Loop, Washington

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Both the scenic route and the peninsula’s only major route, Highway 101 loops around the largest road-free area in the continental U.S. Starting in Seattle, head northwest to climb into the Hoh River rainforest, dominated by ancient Sitka spruce and western hemlock. You can spy the San Juan Islands from the top of Hurricane Ridge, and at low tide, the pools on Olympic beaches are rife with starfish, sand dollars, and crabs. (nps.gov/olym)

Stop: Take a break at the spooky logging town of Forks, a must for Twilight fans.

Route 6, Massachusetts

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This 118-mile route links Cape Cod’s network of sand dunes, beaches, marshes, tidal ponds, and quaint fishing towns. You can follow it to Provincetown’s music festivals and art galleries, to the bay side for family-friendly beaches, or ocean-side for panoramas of the Cape Cod National Seashore.

Stop: Book a summertime whale-watching boat tour and keep your eyes peeled for a big-winged New Englander or humpback whale. (whalewatch.com; $53)

Anchorage to Valdez, Alaska

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The trip from Anchorage to Valdez, which connects Glenn and Richardson highways, runs past prehistoric glaciers and into mountain ranges with so many 14,000-foot peaks a lot of them haven’t even been named. Along the 300-mile route, the trans-Alaska pipeline pops in and out of view. The final approach to Valdez includes a 25-mile drop from Thompson Pass (2,771 elevation) to sea level through the waterfalls of Keystone Canyon, opening into Prince William Sound.

Stop: Gaze at domesticated musk oxen, the Ice Age wonders of the Alaskan landscape prized for their wool, in Palmer. (muskoxfarm.org; tours $11 per adult.)

Lemhi Pass, Montana and Idaho

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Explorer Meriwether Lewis came to the Rocky Mountain backbone of North America, the Continental Divide, at Lemhi Pass (7,323-foot elevation), in 1805. Instead of the fabled Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean, Lewis looked west over the mountains and saw….more mountains. Determined visitors with a 4 x 4 can take in the historic view on single-lane Forest Service roads from either Beaverhead Rock State Park in Montana or the Salmon National Forest in Idaho.

Stop: Go in August to see the annual Lewis and Clark Festival’s historic reenactments, with men dressed in buckskin traveling on dugout canoes. (beaverheadchamber.org; free.)

Silverado Trail, California

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Here’s a road trip where the food rivals the scenery. Flanked by the rolling vineyards of more than 40 wineries, the Silverado Trail on the eastern edge of Napa Valley road passes a who’s who of the American culinary scene. Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, where a 1973 Cabernet made headlines, and Yountville, home to the French Laundry restaurant, are two highlights.

Stop: Experience an Estate Collection tasting flight at Stag's Leap Wine Cellars. (cask23.com; $45)

Ocean Drive, Newport, RI

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The 10-mile coastal route packs in historic mansions and spectacular views over Narragansett Bay. The Gilded Age “cottages” of Ocean Drive compete with maritime scenery for jaw-dropping splendor, including opulent homes built for titans of fin de siècle industry, the Vanderbilts, Astors, and Morgans.

Stop: War buffs can visit historic Fort Adams, which garrisoned soldiers for more than 125 years. (fortadams.org; $15.)

Park Loop Road, Maine

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The loop through Acadia National Park can be completed in an hour—when summer tourists aren’t clogging the 27-mile, two-lane artery. But whatever the season, you’ll want to give yourself time to appreciate the high ridgelines, sheer rock precipices, and rugged coast of the North Atlantic along the way. An ocean-side cavern dubbed Thunder Hole explodes with a plume of foamy surf as waves beat the shore.

Stop: Spend the day on a lobster fishing boat and take your catch home for supper. (robertsonseatours.com)

Highway 143, Tennessee

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Set out along Tennessee’s Highway 143 in the Roan Highlands of the Appalachian Mountains to witness the world’s longest uninterrupted stretch of grassy heaths. Purple rhododendron blossoms carpet the slopes in early summer.

Stop: The highlands portion of the Appalachian Trail is famous for its balds (summits covered in thick grasses rather than trees); catch the trailhead at Carver’s Gap. (appalachiantrail.org)

Great River Road, Louisiana

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There are tons of entry and exit points along the Great River Road, which follows both sides of the Mississippi through 10 states. But when it hits Louisiana, the road offers a special peek into the world of antebellum southern living. Between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, drive under broad oak canopies and forests dripping with kudzu to view the colonnaded, plantation-era “Big Houses.”

Stop: Take a tour of Oak Alley on select days to hear “The Colonel” recount the effects of the Civil War on the lives of plantation families. (oakalleyplantation.com)

Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, Michigan

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Only 7.4 miles long, this short-and-sweet drive along Lake Michigan’s eastern shore shows off the majesty of giant bald sand dunes, dense forest canopies, and a freshwater lake so wide that you can’t see the opposite shore.

Stop: The Dune Climb up steep 450-foot sand dunes is a fun challenge—but not half as fun as the run back down. (nps.gov/slbe)

The High Road, New Mexico

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The 56-mile route from Santa Fe to Taos delivers one photo-op after another: ancient Indian pueblos, deserts, forests, wildflower meadows, and artists’ colonies in 17th-century adobe towns. The High Road climbs from the Sangre de Cristos to the Rocky Mountains, with canyon views over Truchas Peak at 13,102 feet.

Stop: The Sante Fe Opera for summer concerts (santafeopera.org)

Highway 2, Nebraska

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Sandhills (grass-covered sand dunes) make up nearly one-fourth of Nebraska, undulating in slow hypnotic curves as far as the eye can see. Take Highway 2 for expansive views of the Great Plains and pastureland that’s more than twice the size of Rhode Island.

Stop: The sand dunes are smack in the middle of the Great Plains Migratory Flyway; look out for cranes at the Nebraska Nature & Visitor Center. (nebraskanature.org)

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