5 Underrated Scenic Roads in the U.S.

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Have you ever wanted to just get in the car one Saturday morning and take a road trip somewhere you’ve never been? If you’re thinking, “No, I’d rather stay home and clean the gutters,” stop reading here. If you’re someone who has wanderlust in your heart, though, you’ve probably got a favorite scenic route or two, like the one you drive every fall to see the colors. But maybe you’re looking for a new experience. Here are a few great scenic American roads that seem vastly underrated and might be worth checking out on your next road trip.


5. Cherohala Skyway

The Discovery Channel rated the Cherohala Skyway one of the best motorcycle rides in North America. © Gorilla Girl via Flickr

This fun, relatively short (43 miles) scenic route cuts through the heart of the Cherokee and Nantahala national forests in North Carolina and Tennessee. We’ve driven this route several times since it opened in the mid-1990s and always marveled that the road is still relatively unknown. That might not be true for much longer. The Discovery Channel voted it one of the Top 10 Motorcycle Rides in North America, and other national media have started to catch on. There’s a general consensus that the views along this road are just as good, and maybe even better, than on the nearby Blue Ridge Parkway. Yet the Cherohala Skyway is far less crowded, especially during the fall leaf season.


4. Sky Island Scenic Byway

The Sky Island Scenic Byway cuts through the rugged Santa Catalina Mountains.

With a name this exotic, you know it’s going to be a fun drive. That’s the official National Scenic Byway designation, but this route northeast of Tucson is known by several other names, including the Catalina Highway, Mount Lemmon Highway, and General Hitchcock Highway. This 27-mile road climbs thousands of feet from the Sonoran Desert into the rugged Santa Catalina Mountains, with plenty of scenic turnouts along the way. At the top of Mount Lemmon sits the tiny resort village of Summerhaven. The Sky Island Scenic Byway is fairly well known to Tucson residents, but if you’re passing through the area it’s definitely worth a few hours of your time.


3. Indian River Lagoon National Scenic Byway

The Indian River Lagoon features more species of plants and animals than anywhere else in North America. © OhFalcon 72 via Flickr

The Indian River Lagoon along Florida’s Atlantic coast is regarded as the most environmentally diverse area in North America, with thousands of species of plants and animals. The 150-mile route through this lush landscape provides access to a national seashore, state park and several national wildlife refuges. It’s a great trip for families with young children; stop at one of the above sites for a ranger-led wildlife tour or educational program. After you’ve seen the best nature has to offer, follow the Indian River Lagoon byway to Kennedy Space Center and take a tour highlighting some of mankind’s greatest achievements.


2. Wichita Mountains Byway

The view from Mount Scott, overlooking Lake Lawtonka.

The sublimely beautiful Wichita Mountains are certainly no secret to Oklahoma residents. But the designation of the Wichita Mountains Byway in 2010 has brought even more visitors to the area. Stretching 93 miles along several state highways through Southwestern Oklahoma, you’ll see plenty of great natural scenery, like the above scene on Mount Scott overlooking Lake Lawtonka. You’ll probably also see some interesting wildlife, from hawks to bison. There are several small communities along the Wichita Mountains Byway and places to grab a bite to eat, including the Meers Store & Restaurant in Meers. It’s home of the Meersburger, rated one of the best hamburgers in the U.S. by aficionados.


1. Ebbetts Pass National Scenic Byway

Expect plenty of twists turns on the mountainous Ebbetts Pass Byway. © Craig Howell

California has so many great scenic routes, you could drive a dozen popular roads before you even thought about this road that crosses Ebbetts Pass in the Sierra Nevadas. Located in Central California, this 61-mile drive between Arnold and Markleeville passes a stunning variety of geological and scenic features, with volcanic peaks, lush valleys, canyons, alpine lakes and even giant sequoias along the way. If you’re headed to Yosemite National Park or Lake Tahoe from the coast, this drive is worth the few extra miles on a detour. If you’re into extreme roads, this road will not disappoint. It’s ridiculously steep (24% grade), with hairpin turns, unmarked pavement and no guardrails. And it’s less than two lanes in spots. Use caution, but enjoy.

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The author is a longtime professional journalist who has interviewed everyone from presidential contenders to hall of fame athletes to rock 'n' roll legends while covering politics, sports, and other topics for both local and national publications and websites. His latest passions are history, geography and travel. He's traveled extensively around the United States seeking out the hidden wonders of the country.