America's Most Scenic Waterside Drives
These ribbons of scenic coastal road have inspired artists to paint them, poets to praise them, and even bands to immortalize them in song. The Mamas and the Papas’s “Pacific Coast Highway” is an essential top-down driving jam whether you’re cruising that famous stretch of road or not.
However, rolling rivers and sparkling blue mountain lakes can inspire wanderlust just as much.
Kid Rock waxed about his summer, “Catching walleye from the dock, watching the waves roll off the rocks” by a lake in Northern Michigan. And Johnny Cash declared his love for Colorado’s rushing waterway when he crooned, “Oh you wild raging river like my woman’s lips you lure me.” We’ve mapped out two routes—along the shores of Lake Superior and at the Grand Lake headwaters—that will have your camera singing a similar tune (if not you as well).
From bucket-list classics down the Florida Keys and through 400 years of history on Cape Cod to more-novel waterside routes that circle Lake Tahoe, whiz by alligators in Louisiana, and ply the Maritime Highway in Alaska, it’s time to tune your radio and set your GPS for some of America’s most scenic waterside drives.
Outer Banks Scenic Byway, North Carolina
Starting Point: Kitty Hawk, NC
The Route: 91 miles along Highway 12 to Ocracoke
What to Expect: Breeze-swept beaches, towering dunes, and maritime-history museums lure wind sports enthusiasts and vacationers to this narrow skewer of barrier islands where sand piles on the two-lane highway like snowdrifts (sometimes requiring a plow), and picturesque towns are separated by lighthouses.
Where to Stop: Any of the beachside water-sport rentals; Cape Hatteras National Seashore for sand castles and a swim; car ferry to Ocracoke Island, an isolated town where Blackbeard is said to have been captured.
Creole Nature Trail All-American Road, Louisiana
Starting Point: Sulphur, LA
The Route: Roughly a 100-mile loop on LA 27 and LA 82
What to Expect: About 150 miles from Houston and 200 miles from New Orleans, the Creole Nature Trail is the definition of Louisiana outback. The swampy swath of wetlands, punctuated by moss-enrobed cypresses and 26 miles of shell-encrusted Gulf of Mexico beaches, is called home by more than 400 species of birds and alligators that outnumber humans 300 to 1.
Where to Stop: The Wetland Walkway has a boardwalk over the saltwater marsh; Rutherford Beach for shell collecting.
Schoodic National Scenic Byway, Maine
Starting Point: Sullivan, ME
The Route: 29 miles along Historic Route 1 and Highway 186 to Prospect Harbor
What to Expect: Lapped by frigid north Atlantic waters and frequented by osprey and eagles, this all-American road (one of America’s best spring drives) loops through the Schoodic Peninsula, the only mainland section of Acadia National Park, and passes small harbors bobbing with lobster boats. No surprise, coastal Maine is also a treat in fall.
Where to Stop: Blueberry Hill for the rocky shore and tide pools; Schoodic Head, the highest point (440 feet) on the Schoodic Peninsula with panoramic views.
Lake Shore Drive, Chicago
Starting Point: Hyde Park neighborhood
The Route: 16 miles on US 41 to Lincoln Park
What to Expect: Sometimes called LSD, this urban excursion along Lake Michigan’s Gold Coast is beloved by locals and tourists alike—especially in spring when approximately 143,000 tulips and pansies are in bloom. It’s bordered to the east by dozens of public parks and beaches, and to the west by dizzying skyscrapers, world-class museums, and historic neighborhoods.
Where to Stop: Any of the numerous beaches for a stroll in the sand, a game of volleyball, or a bike ride; Seven Houses on Lake Shore Drive District for grand mansions and historic architecture; Green City Market, a local favorite in Lincoln Park and one of America’s best farmers’ markets.
“The Goonies Route,” Oregon Coast
Starting Point: Cannon Beach, OR
The Route: 26 miles on Highway 101 to Astoria
What to Expect: Hundreds of miles of craggy Oregon Coast Highway are speckled with rugged parks, wildlife estuaries, and former logging towns full of friendly folks who celebrate everything from wine and food to The Goonies, the classic 1985 kids’ adventure filmed in and around Astoria, the oldest American settlement west of the Rockies.
Where to Stop: Ecola State Park and Haystack Rock, one of America’s most beautiful coastal views; the Goonies House (do your best Truffle Shuffle); the Oregon Film Museum, formerly the Clatsop County Jail and the setting for the movie’s opening scene.
North Shore Scenic Drive, Minnesota
Starting Point: Duluth, MN
The Route: 146 miles on Minnesota Highway 61 and Old Highway 61 to Grand Portage, MN, along the shores of Lake Superior
What to Expect: Vast swaths of forested wilderness and waterfall-filled parks such as Grand Portage hint at the middle of nowhere along Highway 61, which is precisely the appeal to this twin cities getaway. Keep your eyes open for local art galleries and top-notch roadside eateries that have earned the scenic byway the nickname The Culinary Highway.
Where to Stop: The Angry Trout Café for fresh catch waterside (simply grilled, fried, in sandwiches, or fritters); the Silver Creek Cliff Trail for stellar photos from Lake Superior’s highest bluff; Iona Beach for its pink pebbles, twinkling with the rasp of lapping waves.
Lake Tahoe, California and Nevada
Starting Point: Tahoe City, CA
The Route: 72-mile loop on Highways 28, 50, and 89
What to Expect: Circling the country’s highest alpine lake (and second deepest at 1,644 feet), the windy road hugs sapphire blue water that reflects the surrounding Sierra Nevada mountains and pine forests, as well as the sun, which shines an estimated 300-plus days per year on miles of pebbly beaches, hiking trails, and state parks like Sand Harbor (perfect for a brisk dip).
Where to Stop: Emerald Bay Lookout with views of Fannette Island, the only one on the lake; hoof it one mile each way to Vikingsholm Castle, built in 1929 at the head of Emerald Bay as a private summer residence. In the summer, Sand Harbor hosts a Shakespeare Festival.
California Route 1, Santa Cruz to Pismo Beach
Starting Point: Santa Cruz, CA
The Route: 176 miles along California’s Highway 1
What to Expect: The Golden State’s famous Pacific Coast Highway offers serious California Dreamin’ bang for the buck—salty seaside towns, dramatic sea cliffs, lazy turns, pure top-down-wind-in-the-hair driving joy—especially with noted landmarks such as Hearst Castle, oft-photographed Bixby Bridge and Big Sur, and Oceano Dunes State Park, where the road trip can continue right onto the sand.
Where to Stop: Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, where the Giant Dipper wooden roller coaster turns 90 this summer; Pebble Beach’s gorgeous 17-Mile Drive; Schooners Wharf restaurant in the one-surfboard-town of Cayucos for steak and seafood with a view.
The Eastern Shore, Virginia
Starting Point: Chincoteague Island
The Route: 90 miles on Highways 179, 679, 180, and 600 to Kiptopeke State Park, VA
What to Expect: With only a handful of small rural towns with names like Temperancevile—think fishing boats, cotton fields, and pre-colonial buildings still in use—this sandy peninsula between the Atlantic Ocean and the Chesapeake Bay counts historic wild ponies among its few residents. It’s also home to Assateague, one of the best beaches on earth. Smell the salt in the air and let impulse guide you on easy, frequent detours from the main highway for the best water views.
Where to Stop: The town of Onancock for its galleries, restaurants, and Victorian-era homes; Chincoteague Island, one of America’s best little beach towns, for wild ponies running free through dunes and marsh grass.
Overseas Highway, Florida
Starting Point: Key Largo, FL
The Route: Roughly 100 miles on Highway 1 to Key West, FL
What to Expect: Convertibles were made for this Technicolor leapfrog of 40-odd bridges over expanses of turquoise seas and islands (keys), where pastel-colored houses and cafés laze beneath coconut palms. Gird yourself for Seven Mile Bridge, connecting the Middle and Lower Keys, one of the world’s scariest bridges.
Where to Stop: John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, a 70-acre underwater playground filled with rainbow-colored tropical fish and coral (book a glass-bottom boat ride); Anne’s Beach on Islamorada for a swim or picnic; Blue Heaven for some of Key West’s best Key lime pie.
Cape Cod, Massachusetts
Starting Point: Bourne, MA
The Route: 35 miles on Route 6A, The Old King’s Highway
What to Expect: Americana comes alive on Cape Cod along the longest continuous historic district in the nation—the town of Sandwich is even celebrating its 375th anniversary this year. Wind by almost four centuries of history, colonial architecture, salt-crusted beach cottages, wide sandy dunes, seafood shacks, and harbor-side towns draped in red, white, and blue.
Where to Stop: The Cape Playhouse, where Bette Davis was once an usherette; family-owned Seasuit Harbor Café in Dennis, MA, for a hefty lobster roll next to the boatyard; Rock Harbor in Orleans, MA, for blazing storybook sunsets.
Porta del Sol, Puerto Rico
Starting Point: Cabo Rojo, as base to explore all the west coast (Porta del Sol)
The Route: The byways up and down the coast, especially PR 102
What to Expect: A Caribbean getaway sans passport sets the tone for this liberating west coast drive—part of the Ruta Panorámica, one of America’s most scenic drives—filled with green-blue coves, emerald hills, and surf towns like Rincón, backed by the sound of the coquís, Puerto Rico’s miniature tree frogs that sing all night.
Where to Stop: The colonial Cabo Rojo Lighthouse for dazzling views, especially at sunset; La Playuela Beach for a swim; Surf Lessons Puerto Rico to get on the waves in Rincón; Tamboo Tavern, one of America’s best beach bars.
Hana Highway, Maui, Hawaii
Starting Point: Paia, Maui
The Route: 52 snaking miles along HI-360 on Maui’s northeastern shoreline to Hana
What to Expect: This exhilarating cliff hugger showcases stunning sea views, rainbow eucalyptus trees, and plunging rainforest waterfalls around its 620 hairpin curves and 53 single-lane bridges. Bring your camera, your hiking shoes, some rain gear, and take it slow—the route can take up to four hours. With blooming tropical flowers, it’s also one of America’s best spring drives.
Tip: Avoid returning the same way and continue through Hana into Maui’s more arid upcountry and back to Paia via Highways 37 and 377.
Alaska Maritime Highway, Alaska
Starting Point: Anchorage
The Route: Glenn Highway (Route 1) and Richardson Highway (Route 4) to the Maritime Highway system (Valdez via Cordova to Whittier) and finally the Seward Highway (Route 9) back to Anchorage
What to Expect: Bring your zoom lens on this land-and-sea odyssey—part of this National Scenic Byway is actually one of America’s most beautiful ferry rides. Experience the grandeur of Alaska’s colossal wilderness, abundant sea life, and glaciers, capped off with a water-top trek on ferries through Prince William Sound before a return trip on the popular Seward Highway.
Where to Stop: Ramshackle Copper Center for sourdough pancakes; Columbia Glacier to watch icebergs calve and sea lions frolic; Cordova, a remote fishing village on the Orca Inlet.
Colorado River Headwaters Scenic Byway, Colorado
Starting Point: Grand Lake, CO
The Route: 69 miles along Highways 34 and 40 to State Bridge, CO
What to Expect: The mighty Colorado River starts as snowmelt into Grand Lake (the state’s largest body of water) and tumbles nearly 1,700 feet in elevation through golden meadows and forests, drifting by sprawling ranches, rugged mountains, and plenty of places to hike, canoe, fish, and observe abundant wildlife.
Where to Stop: Hot Sulphur Springs, once used by the Ute Indians, who believed in the healing powers of the mineral-rich waters.
Crater Lake Rim Drive, Oregon
Starting Point: Merriam Point, OR
Route: 33-mile scenic loop along Rim Road
What to Expect: Nowhere else can you skirt the edge of the world’s deepest volcanic lake—considered one of Oregon’s seven wonders—sapphire blue and surrounded by the sheer cliffs of the Cascade Mountains.
Where to Stop: Each of the vista points and picnic areas surrounding the caldera is worth a picture (if not an entire vacation); the Castle Crest Wildflower Garden’s nature trail through a wildflower meadow, in bloom July and August; a boat ride from Cleetwood Cove, accessible via a one-mile hike to the lake’s edge.
California’s North Coast, California
Starting Point: Bodega Bay, CA
Route: 98 miles along Route 1 to Mendocino, CA
What to Expect: Rugged inlets and cliffs topped by former logging and fur-trading towns make this an impressive ride along some of California’s most pristine Pacific coastline, another bucket-list favorite for fans of the famous stretch of PCH to the south.
Where to Stop: Bodega Bay, chosen by Alfred Hitchcock for The Birds and loved by locals for its low-key vibe and hiking trails on the bluffs above the Pacific—not to mention easy access to Sonoma wine country; the Timber Cove Inn for an overnight stay, or a glass of wine on the outdoor patio to watch the sunset; Point Arena Lighthouse, California’s tallest.
Hilo Hamakua Heritage Coast, Hawaii
Starting Point: Hilo, HI
The Route: 45 miles on Highway 19 to the Waipio Valley Lookout
What to Expect: Emerald foliage, ocean vistas, and petite plantation towns highlight one of Hawaii’s best drives on Mauna Kea’s windward side.
Where to Stop: Sites of historical interest (look for signs) on the way to the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, with 2,500 species of tropical plants and a macaw aviary; hike to the 442-foot-tall Akaka Falls, one of the island’s tallest.
Leelanau Peninsula Wine Trail, Michigan
Starting Point: Traverse City, MI
Route: 29 miles along M22 to Northport, MI
What to Expect: Whether Leelanau (lee-la-naw) is actually the native Ojibwe word for “delight of life” or a neologism is up for dispute, but the surprising beauty on Grand Traverse Bay’s western edge isn’t—it’s home to a surprising number of mom-and-pop wineries and some of the best fall colors in the state. Nearby, the one-mile-wide Old Mission Peninsula juts into the bay and is equally scenic.
Where to Stop: You can practically put your toes in the water from the Leelanau Cellars tasting room; Corky’s Beach Bistro is home to French Valley Vineyard wines and is a great place to uncork and unwind alfresco in summer.
Scenic Highway 30A, Florida
Starting Point: Panama City Beach, FL
Route: 28 miles along the Gulf of Mexico coastline in south Walton County
What to Expect: This pearl-white sandy stretch of beaches and pastel-hued towns ooze old Florida charm—pack the sunscreen, wax the convertible—and are speckled with rare coastal dune lakes and hiking trails.
Where to Stop: Any of the 15 named dune lakes for frogging, kayaking, fishing, or photographing; the perfect white-picket-fence-lined streets in Seaside, made famous in The Truman Show, for a stroll; local resident and artist Justin Gaffrey’s studio/gallery where acrylic paintings capture the vibrant colors and natural wonders of Florida’s Gulf Coast.