The United States is a land of great geographic diversity, home to jagged mountain ranges, lush forests, awe-inspiring rivers and desert and prairie landscapes. Almost everyone who has a driver’s license has dreamed of someday taking a road trip to take in these sights. As someone who’s traveled all over America and taken almost every possible scenic route along the way, here’s my version of the top 10 most scenic drives in the United States.
10. The Great River Road
Putting the Great River Road on this list might seem a curious choice to fellow travelers who have been all over the United States. Yes, the road runs through some downtrodden towns with dilapidated housing, abandoned industrial plants and other ugliness. There are many other roads in the country that feature more natural scenic beauty. But the Great River Road boasts one feature those other roads lack — great views of the Mississippi River. The route passes through many historic towns that played a key role in United States history. The Great River Road is actually a collection of many different state, federal and local routes following the Mississippi’s course through 10 states, from its headwaters in Minnesota to its mouth in Louisiana. If you make the drive, you’ll undoubtedly be drawn to the more populous and famous cities along the way, such as Memphis, St. Louis and New Orleans. But don’t forget about smaller towns such as Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, Davenport, Iowa, and Vicksburg, Mississippi, that have their own charms — and often, nearby riverboat gambling, if that’s your passion.
9. Oregon Coast Highway
One of three drives on this list offering views of the Pacific Ocean, U.S. 101 stretches almost 350 miles from Astoria to the California border. It’s drivable in one day, but it’s much more enjoyable on a two-day journey. Along with Pacific Ocean views, you’ll pass numerous state parks, monstrous sand dunes, picturesque lighthouses and giant offshore rocks known as sea stacks. The most famous of these rocks is 235-foot Haystack Rock in Cannon Beach, accessible via a nearby state recreational area. The highlight of the drive is just north of Florence, where one of the most photographed lighthouses in the world, the Heceta Head Lighthouse, stands on a cliff above the Pacific. Just south of the lighthouse are the Sea Lion Caves, the world’s largest sea cave where you can watch these massive creatures in their natural habitat.
8. Monument Valley
Monument Valley is the image most people probably have of the American West, with weird-looking sandstone buttes standing in stark contrast to the surrounding landscape. The images have been featured in commercials and many movies—most famously in a number of popular Westerns and more recently in Forrest Gump — but they are not an accurate portrayal of the American West, because such scenery exists only in Monument Valley. U.S. Highway 163 runs 24 miles from Kayenta, Arizona, north to the Utah border, passing through some of this famous scenery. If you’re going, stop at the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park for a closer look at formations so famous, they have names: Three Sisters, Mittens, Elephant Butte, The Thumb, etc. If you’re going, be courteous while taking photographs, as this is sacred ground for the Navajo. Ask permission before photographing any local residents.
7. Going-to-the-Sun Road
Some visitors to Glacier National Park in Montana come mainly to drive this spectacular road. The 50-mile stretch of highway runs through the heart of the park, traversing canyons and twisting its way over the Continental Divide. In addition to the natural beauty, the road itself is a marvel, and is regarded as one of the greatest civil engineering feats in United States history. As with several other roads on the list, guardrails are notably absent in some dangerous spots, so exercise caution. The entire stretch of road is open from mid-June through mid-September, although portions are open year-round.
6. Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive
The Blue Ridge Parkway is a two-lane highway running 469 miles through the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and Virginia. It’s accessible at numerous points along the way, and is open 365 days a year, although certain sections may be closed during inclement weather. Because of its proximity to the East Coast population centers, the Blue Ridge Parkway draws more traffic than any other road on this list, so patience is a must if you’re going during peak times, especially in October during the leaf season. At its northern terminus, the Blue Ridge Parkway connects to Skyline Drive, which offers another 105 miles of scenic views in Shenandoah National Park.
5. Pacific Coast Highway
The highlight of this drive along Highway 1 in California is the Bixby Creek Bridge, one of the most photographed bridges in the world, but there are plenty of other interesting attractions along the route. The road is bracketed by the Pacific Ocean on one side, with the Santa Lucia Mountains towering dramatically on the other. There are numerous scenic overlooks, and there are several California state parks right off the highway, featuring trails to waterfalls, rivers, canyons and other scenery.
4. Utah Byways
You could throw a dart at a map of Utah on the wall and it would probably stick on or near a scenic route. The state boasts five national parks, seven national monuments, and great landscapes in between all the attractions. For help picking a great Utah route, I digress to the experts on the best scenic drives in the United States: Reader’s Digest. RD’s seminal book, The Most Scenic Drives in America: 120 Spectacular Road Trips, is a must-read for anyone interested in seeing all the natural beauty the U.S. has to offer. The book suggests a 450-mile route following Utah highways 24 and 95 southeast from Sigurd, Utah, to U.S. 191. Unfortunately, you’ll miss Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks, but the route runs through or near Capital Reef, Canyonlands and Arches national parks, as well as Natural Bridges National Monument. Cap the drive by spending the night in Moab, where you can take a moonlight cruise on the nearby Colorado River.
3. Beartooth Highway
Longtime CBS News correspondent Charles Kuralt, who spent his career traveling extensively in the U.S., called the Beartooth Highway “the most beautiful drive in America.” The route follows U.S. 212 from Red Lodge, Montana, and switchbacks repeatedly on its way to the Wyoming border and the 10,947-foot Beartooth Pass. Along the way, you’ll be treated to views of alpine lakes, valleys and numerous 12,000-foot mountain peaks. Down the other side of the mountain, the 64-mile stretch of highway continues to the northeast entrance to Yellowstone National Park. The road is open seasonally, usually from late May through mid-October. (Photo credit: Ted via Flickr)
2. Hana Highway
It would be easy to make a Top 10 list of the most scenic drives in Hawaii alone, given the Aloha State’s natural beauty, but none can rival the world-famous Hana Highway. Located on the island of Maui, the 50-mile road follows the northern shore of the island, offering great views of the Pacific Ocean, mountains and beaches. There are many pullouts to visit waterfalls, tropical greenery and scenic overlooks. Highlights of the drive are Twin Falls and Waianapanapa State Park, a black-sand beach. Warning: The drive is not for the faint of heart, as it is full of hairpin curves and frequently narrows to one lane. Guardrails can be conspicuously absent even beside precipitous drop-offs, and many locals buzz along the road at freeway speeds. Still, the road is a must-do activity for anyone visiting the island. Be sure to leave early in the morning to allow plenty of time for the drive. Better yet, find overnight lodging in the town of Hana so you won’t have to make the roundtrip in one day.
1. Columbia River Gorge
This route makes the No. 1 spot on this list not only because of the diverse and inspiring scenery, but because so many of the attractions along the way are interactive. Spend the night in Portland, then cross the Columbia River into Washington to Hwy. 14 east. A few miles down the road, stop to climb the 850-foot Beacon Rock, the second-largest monolith in the world after the Rock of Gibraltar. Despite the rock’s imposing appearance, the trail is moderate in difficulty, but the view from the top is exceptional. Further east, stop for a tour of Bonneville Dam, where windows offer glimpses of migrating salmon. Continue another 30 miles or so to the town of Hood River, where you can cross back into Oregon. You can’t miss Hood River, as the snow-covered peak of Mount Hood towers directly over the town. Take a break with a stroll through Hood River’s historic downtown.
From Hood River, take I-84 West — possibly the most scenic stretch of Interstate highway in the U.S. — to Exit 35 and get off on the Columbia River Highway. There are several waterfalls along this historic stretch of road, highlighted by Multnomah Falls, which plunge 620 feet in two drops, making them the second-highest year-round falls in the United States. The iconic photo of the entire Columbia River Gorge can be taken a little further west at the Portland Women’s Forum State Scenic Viewpoint.