Sometimes the highlight of traveling is the drive itself.
By Lowell and Kaye Christie, F47246
As we journey from place to place across the country, we spend as much time planning the route as we do choosing the destination. And sometimes the route IS the destination. When you hit the road this summer, consider these particularly scenic highways, some of the best drives in North America.
1. Natchez Trace Parkway “” Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee
The original Natchez Trace was a buffalo path that animals followed from salt licks in central Tennessee to grazing lands near Natchez, Mississippi. Later it was used by American Indians and European explorers as a trade route. Today it is a National Scenic Byway that covers 444 miles. The long, narrow park extends through four different ecosystems and protects more than 100 kinds of trees and 2,000 individual plant species.
2. Scenic 7 Byway “” Arkansas
The Scenic 7 Byway provides exceptional views of the Ouachita and Ozark mountains as it runs 290 miles through central Arkansas, starting at the Louisiana border in the south and continuing to Diamond City in the north. The winding two-lane road, which has been called one of the most scenic drives in North America, passes through mountain meadows and unusual rock formations. Make sure to stop at Alum Cove Natural Bridge along the way. It’s 20 feet wide and spans 130 feet.
3. Blue Ridge Parkway “” Virginia, North Carolina
Stretching 469 miles from Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the south to Shenandoah National Park in the north, the Blue Ridge Parkway is the longest and narrowest area operated by the National Park Service. Flowering shrubs burst into bloom in the springtime, and trees of every type provide their own colors in the fall. With the higher elevations of the park exceeding 6,000 feet, you can find areas of flame azalea, mountain laurel, and catawba rhododendron still blooming in mid-June.
4. Skyline Drive “” Virginia
Either before or after taking the Blue Ridge Parkway, you might as well add another 105 miles and explore Shenandoah National Park by traveling the Skyline Drive. Take your time, as 75 overlooks invite you to view the surrounding mountains and the Shenandoah River. Although the drive goes through an area known for its population of black bear, you may see meadows filled with 50 to 100 deer at dusk each evening.
5. White Mountain Trail “” New Hampshire
Designated a National Scenic Byway in 1998, the 100-mile White Mountain Trail loop takes you past waterfalls, covered bridges, and a historic cog railway that you can ride to the summit of 6,288-foot Mount Washington. The area is covered with hiking trails both long and short; picturesque villages; and spectacular scenery. A good place to begin the circuit would be the White Mountains Attractions Visitor Center in North Woodstock, New Hampshire.
6. Scenic Byway 12 “” Utah
One of the best places to see the red-rock country of the West has to be State Route 12 in Utah. Named by Car and Driver magazine as one of the Top Ten Scenic Byways in America, this 124-mile tour cuts through or goes by three national parks and three state parks, and winds through slickrock canyons that look as though they were created for a movie set. Starting from U.S. 89 south of Panguitch, Utah, the highway eventually ends close to Capitol Reef National Park. Be sure to check that out while you’re in the area.
7. Trail Ridge Road “” Colorado
If you like the high country, Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park is the place to go. Starting in Estes Park in the east and crossing to Grand Lake in the west, it climbs through alpine meadows up to 12,183 feet, making it the highest paved through road in the United States. Watch for wildflowers that bloom only in alpine areas, and be on the lookout for resident elk and bighorn sheep.
8. San Juan Skyway “” Colorado
The San Juan Skyway is aptly named as it climbs above 10,000 feet several times and winds past peaks that rise upward of 14,000 feet. Everything is larger than life on this 236-mile highway, including the 285-foot Box Canyon Falls near the village of Ouray. The road parallels the 45-mile track of the historic Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, built in the 1880s.
9. Icefields Parkway “” Alberta, Canada
Late in the summer, Canada’s Icefields Parkway has delightfully cool air and spectacular scenery. Starting at Lake Louise and passing through Banff and Jasper national parks, you’ll drive past three massive glaciers and cross the Continental Divide. You may see moose and caribou, and perhaps even a grizzly bear, among other wildlife.
10. Beartooth Highway “” Montana, Wyoming
The late CBS News correspondent Charles Kuralt, in his travels across the country, called the Beartooth “America’s most beautiful highway.” Stretching 69 miles between Red Lodge, Montana, and Cooke City, Wyoming, the highway is named for the Beartooth Mountains, which contain thousands of small lakes and 20 peaks reaching above 12,000 feet. Most of these peaks have glaciers on their northern faces. This rugged, beautiful land is home to grizzly bears, mountain goats, and the reintroduced gray wolf.
11. Historic Columbia River Highway “” Oregon
The Columbia River Highway, a relatively narrow two-lane road, is the oldest official scenic highway in the nation. The highway was built between 1913 and 1922 and extended for approximately 75 miles, but most present-day travel along the Columbia River now takes place on Interstate 84. Portions of the old highway have been abandoned, but the charm and exceptional views of the Columbia River Gorge on the parts of the road that still exist make the drive worthwhile. From I-84, exit 17 at Troutdale (just east of Portland) leads to a 24-mile section (well signed), and exit 69 at Mosier starts the remaining 16 miles.
12. Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway “” California, Oregon
Starting at Lake Almanor near Lassen Volcanic National Park in California and extending 500 miles north, volcano by volcano, to majestic Crater Lake in Oregon, this byway illustrates how the Cascade Mountain Range was formed by mighty eruptions of lava. The tallest of the peaks, Mount Shasta, towers to 14,162 feet. There are 13 potentially active volcanoes in this range of mountains; seven of them erupted within the last 200 years.
13. Pacific Coast Highway “” California
California’s State Route 1 hugs the coastline for much of its length, but the southern portion goes through beach cities. The “real” coastal highway that we love, where you view rocky cliffs, seabirds, and sea otters, extends from Morro Bay northward to the city of Monterey, a little more than 120 miles. Check out the opulent Hearst Castle along the way if you have time, but the coastline is the main attraction. If you get nervous driving on narrow roads, travel from south to north to give yourself an extra lane between your vehicle and the cliffs’ edge. But don’t miss it.