Many of America’s most famous scenic roads twist and turn their way through the mountains. Think about the Blue Ridge Parkway, Montana’s rugged Beartooth Highway and the Kancamagus Highway in New Hampshire. Yet there are a few notable scenic routes along the U.S. coast featuring wonderful views, picturesque small towns … and, of course, the ocean. Some of these roads even run through mountainous areas along the coast. Even if you’re a “mountain person” who doesn’t care for the beach, here are five must-see scenic coastal highways.
5. Acadia National Park (Park Loop Road)
Acadia is one of the jewels of the National Park System, and the Park Loop Road covers most of the highlights of this spectacular park in Maine. You can drive to the summit of Cadillac Mountain, the highest point on the Eastern Seaboard, for a sweeping view of the Atlantic and surrounding Cranberry islands. The loop road offers access to many popular hiking trails. Wrap up the day with dinner in the nearby town of Bar Harbor.
4. Overseas Highway (U.S. Route 1)
Most people who drive this road are on their way to a destination (Key West, Key Largo, etc.), but it’s a fun out-and-back drive if you’re ever in South Florida with a day to spend exploring. It’s about 160 miles from Miami to Key West, and the Overseas Highway covers roughly 125 miles; it will take three to four hours to drive that segment all the way to Key West. There’s plenty to do along the way. One popular destination is John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, where you can take a tour in a glass-bottom boat.
3. Oregon Coast Highway (U.S. Route 101)
California’s Pacific Coast Highway gets all the publicity, but this 363-mile highway along the length of Oregon’s coast is just as scenic. Two of our favorite sites are Haystack Rock, an enormous sea stack just offshore in Cannon Beach, and the Heceta Head Lighthouse, one of the most picturesque lighthouses in the U.S. There are several historic towns along the route worth checking out for shopping or a meal. Astoria, at the northern end of the route, is home to the Astoria Column, a 125-foot-tall tower adorned with murals.
2. Outer Banks National Scenic Byway (Highway 12)
No highway gets you closer to the ocean than North Carolina Highway 12; sections of the 150-mile highway are often washed away by hurricanes. There are great views of the Atlantic here, but history is also a big part of the allure. NC 12 passes Kill Devil Hills, home to the Wright Brothers National Memorial. Not far away is Roanoke Island, site of the ill-fated 16th century colony that mysteriously vanished. Tour the Elizabeth II, a reproduction of the ship that brought those English settlers to America. There are too many other superlatives to mention here, from Jockey’s Ridge State Park — which features the tallest sand dune on the East Coast — to the 208-foot-tall Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, the tallest brick lighthouse in the U.S. Off-season visits can be nice, as prices are lower and there’s much less traffic.
1. Pacific Coast Highway (State Route 1)
There are several stretches of State Route 1 along the California coast, but the roughly 125-mile stretch through the Big Sur region is the most spectacular in terms of scenery. The route is worth taking just for the drive across the Bixby Creek Bridge. There are several different side routes nearby, including the 25-mile-long Nacimiento-Fergusson Road, filled with hairpin turns and breathtaking views of the Pacific. Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park is regarded as one of the most scenic state parks in the U.S., with an easy half-mile walk to see the 80-foot plunge of McWay Falls. Further south, take a tour of Hearst Castle, the longtime home of publishing giant William Randolph Hearst. (Editor’s note: Rockslides have closed portions of Highway 1; the route is expected to reopen in September 2017).