There's nothing quite like the freedom of the open road, and when it comes to scenic drives, the USA boasts some of the most breathtaking routes in the world. Imagine cruising along the Pacific Coast Highway with the ocean stretching out beside you or winding through the lush forests and mountain vistas of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Whether you're a seasoned road trip enthusiast or a casual traveler looking for your next adventure, these top 12 scenic drives promise not just stunning landscapes but also unique experiences that capture the essence of America's diverse beauty. From coastal cliffs and serene lakes to historic landmarks and charming small towns, these routes offer an unparalleled journey through some of the country's most picturesque settings. Prepare for an adventure filled with captivating sights, delightful stops, and memories that will last a lifetime.

1. Pacific Coast Highway, California

The Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), officially known as California State Route 1, is an iconic American road trip that stretches over 600 miles along the breathtaking California coastline. This scenic route offers travelers stunning ocean vistas, dramatic cliffs, charming seaside towns, and a myriad of unique attractions.

Starting in San Francisco, the PCH heads south through Pacifica, Half Moon Bay, and Santa Cruz, offering numerous opportunities to stop and enjoy the rugged coastline and sandy beaches. As you continue down the highway, the route takes you through the world-famous Monterey Peninsula. Here, you can explore the historic Cannery Row, visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and take the scenic 17-Mile Drive through Pebble Beach, which boasts some of the most picturesque golf courses in the world.

One of the most captivating segments of the PCH is the drive through Big Sur, where the Santa Lucia Mountains rise abruptly from the Pacific Ocean, creating a dramatic landscape. Must-see stops include the iconic Bixby Creek Bridge, McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, and the Point Sur Lighthouse. This stretch of the highway is renowned for its breathtaking beauty and offers plenty of pull-offs for photo opportunities.

Continuing south, the PCH takes you through San Simeon, home to the opulent Hearst Castle. Farther down the coast, you'll encounter the charming Danish village of Solvang, the scenic wine country of the Santa Ynez Valley, and the bustling city of Santa Barbara, often referred to as the "American Riviera."

Finally, the PCH winds its way through Malibu's beautiful beaches and cliffs before reaching its terminus in Los Angeles. From beginning to end, the Pacific Coast Highway is more than just a road; it’s a journey through some of the most diverse and beautiful landscapes California has to offer, making it a must-drive for any road trip enthusiast.

2. Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia to North Carolina

The Blue Ridge Parkway, often hailed as "America's Favorite Drive," is a 469-mile scenic road that meanders through the heart of the Appalachian Mountains, connecting Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina. This iconic route offers an unparalleled experience of natural beauty, cultural history, and outdoor adventure.

Starting in Virginia, the parkway begins at Rockfish Gap, where it intersects with the Skyline Drive of Shenandoah National Park. As you travel south, the road takes you through the Blue Ridge Mountains, offering panoramic views of rolling hills, lush forests, and vibrant wildflowers. The parkway is designed for leisurely travel, with a speed limit of 45 mph or less, encouraging drivers to take their time and savor the journey.

One of the highlights of the Blue Ridge Parkway is the abundance of scenic overlooks and pull-offs that provide breathtaking views of the Appalachian landscape. Popular stops include the Humpback Rocks Visitor Center, which offers insights into the region's pioneer history, and the Peaks of Otter, known for its picturesque lake and hiking trails. The parkway is especially stunning in the fall, when the foliage transforms into a kaleidoscope of reds, oranges, and yellows.

As you continue into North Carolina, the parkway passes through the vibrant city of Asheville, known for its eclectic arts scene and historic Biltmore Estate. South of Asheville, the road climbs to its highest elevation at Richland Balsam Overlook, standing at over 6,000 feet above sea level. This section of the drive offers some of the most dramatic mountain vistas on the parkway.

The journey concludes at the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but the adventure doesn’t have to end there. The parkway’s serene and scenic route provides numerous opportunities for hiking, picnicking, and wildlife watching, making it a haven for nature enthusiasts and a quintessential American road trip experience.

3. Route 66, Illinois to California

Route 66, affectionately known as the "Mother Road," is one of the most iconic highways in the United States. Stretching from Chicago, Illinois, to Santa Monica, California, this 2,448-mile route takes travelers on a journey through the heart of America, offering a nostalgic glimpse into the country's past. Established in 1926, Route 66 was one of the original highways in the U.S. Highway System and became a symbol of freedom and adventure.

Starting in the bustling city of Chicago, Route 66 winds through eight states: Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. Each state offers its own unique attractions and scenery. In Illinois, you can visit the historic Gemini Giant in Wilmington or the quaint town of Pontiac, home to the Route 66 Hall of Fame and Museum. As you cross into Missouri, don't miss the chance to explore the vibrant city of St. Louis and its iconic Gateway Arch.

In Kansas, although the stretch of Route 66 is short, it is packed with charm. The small town of Galena features the restored Kan-O-Tex service station and Cars on the Route, a nod to the animated movie "Cars." Oklahoma offers the fascinating Route 66 Museum in Clinton and the Blue Whale of Catoosa, a quirky roadside attraction.

Texas brings you to the Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, where visitors can marvel at a row of half-buried, graffiti-covered Cadillacs. New Mexico's Route 66 is rich in Native American culture and stunning landscapes, with highlights such as the historic town of Santa Fe and the mesmerizing Sandia Mountains.

Arizona offers some of the most scenic stretches of Route 66, including the Petrified Forest National Park and the charming town of Williams, the gateway to the Grand Canyon. Finally, in California, Route 66 takes you through the vibrant cities of Los Angeles and Santa Monica, where you can end your journey at the iconic Santa Monica Pier.

Traveling Route 66 is more than just a road trip; it's a journey through time, offering a unique blend of history, culture, and adventure. Whether you're exploring historic landmarks, quirky roadside attractions, or scenic natural wonders, Route 66 promises an unforgettable experience that captures the spirit of America.

4. Going-to-the-Sun Road, Montana

Going-to-the-Sun Road, located in Glacier National Park, Montana, is often regarded as one of the most spectacular drives in the United States. This 50-mile road spans the width of the park, offering breathtaking views of towering mountains, pristine lakes, and lush valleys. Completed in 1932, Going-to-the-Sun Road is a marvel of engineering, with its narrow lanes and steep, winding paths that hug the mountainside.

The journey begins at the park's west entrance near the town of West Glacier. As you start your ascent, you'll be greeted by dense forests and the sparkling waters of Lake McDonald, the park's largest lake. The road continues to climb, offering views of cascading waterfalls and verdant valleys below.

One of the first major landmarks you'll encounter is the Trail of the Cedars, a short, accessible hike through a serene forest of ancient cedar trees. As you continue along the road, the landscape becomes more dramatic, with towering peaks and expansive meadows filled with wildflowers.

The highlight of Going-to-the-Sun Road is Logan Pass, the highest point on the route at an elevation of 6,646 feet. Here, you'll find the Logan Pass Visitor Center, which offers educational exhibits and information about the park's geology, wildlife, and history. The area around Logan Pass is also a prime spot for wildlife viewing, with frequent sightings of mountain goats, bighorn sheep, and marmots.

Continuing east from Logan Pass, the road descends into the St. Mary Valley, offering stunning views of St. Mary Lake and the surrounding mountains. Be sure to stop at the Jackson Glacier Overlook, one of the best places to see a remaining glacier in the park.

The journey along Going-to-the-Sun Road is not just about the destination but the incredible scenery and experiences along the way. Whether you're taking in the panoramic vistas, exploring hiking trails, or spotting wildlife, this drive offers an unforgettable adventure through one of America's most beautiful national parks.

5. Overseas Highway, Florida

The Overseas Highway, also known as U.S. Route 1, is a unique and picturesque drive that stretches 113 miles from the mainland of Florida down to the tropical paradise of Key West. This route, which includes 42 bridges, is one of the most scenic drives in the USA, offering travelers unparalleled views of the turquoise waters of the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.

Beginning in Miami, the highway takes you through the vibrant city of Homestead before reaching the first of the Florida Keys, Key Largo. Here, you can explore the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, the first underwater park in the United States, where snorkeling and scuba diving opportunities abound. As you continue down the highway, the landscape transitions to a series of lush islands and crystal-clear waters.

One of the highlights of the Overseas Highway is the Seven Mile Bridge, an engineering marvel that stretches over open water, offering breathtaking panoramic views. This iconic bridge connects the Middle Keys to the Lower Keys and is often featured in movies and travel magazines due to its stunning vistas. The nearby Bahia Honda State Park, with its pristine beaches and excellent snorkeling, is a must-visit for nature lovers.

Continuing south, the highway takes you through a series of charming island communities, each with its own unique character. In Marathon, you can visit the Turtle Hospital, which rehabilitates injured sea turtles, or take a fishing charter for an exciting day on the water. As you approach Key West, the southernmost point in the continental United States, the vibrant culture and lively atmosphere become palpable.

Key West itself is a destination like no other, with its historic architecture, lively nightlife, and beautiful sunsets. Be sure to visit the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum, take a stroll down Duval Street, and enjoy the sunset celebration at Mallory Square.

The Overseas Highway is more than just a road; it's a journey through one of the most beautiful and unique parts of the United States. Whether you're drawn by the adventure, the stunning scenery, or the laid-back island vibe, this drive promises an unforgettable experience.

6. Great River Road, Minnesota to Louisiana

The Great River Road is a scenic byway that follows the course of the mighty Mississippi River for 3,000 miles through ten states, from its source in Minnesota to its mouth in Louisiana. This iconic route offers travelers a chance to explore the rich history, diverse cultures, and stunning landscapes that define the American heartland.

Starting in Minnesota, the Great River Road begins at Lake Itasca, the source of the Mississippi River. Here, you can walk across the headwaters of the river and explore the surrounding Itasca State Park, known for its pristine lakes and dense forests. As you travel south, the road winds through charming river towns and vibrant cities, each offering unique attractions and experiences.

In Wisconsin, the road passes through the picturesque town of La Crosse, home to Grandad Bluff, which provides panoramic views of the Mississippi River valley. The route continues into Iowa, where you can explore the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium in Dubuque, which offers interactive exhibits on the river's natural and cultural history.

Further south, in Illinois, the Great River Road takes you through the historic town of Galena, known for its well-preserved 19th-century architecture and charming main street. The journey continues through Missouri, where the bustling city of St. Louis awaits with its iconic Gateway Arch and vibrant cultural scene.

As you travel through the southern states, the landscape transitions to expansive wetlands and lush forests. In Tennessee, the road passes through Memphis, a city steeped in musical history and the home of Elvis Presley's Graceland. In Mississippi, the route takes you through Natchez, known for its antebellum homes and rich cultural heritage.

The journey culminates in Louisiana, where the Great River Road follows the river through the bustling streets of New Orleans, renowned for its vibrant music scene, Creole cuisine, and historic French Quarter. The road finally reaches the Gulf of Mexico, where the river meets the sea.

Traveling the Great River Road is an epic adventure that offers a unique glimpse into the heart of America. From the river's humble beginnings to its majestic end, this scenic byway promises a journey filled with history, culture, and breathtaking natural beauty.

7. Million Dollar Highway, Colorado

The Million Dollar Highway, a section of U.S. Route 550 in Colorado, is renowned for its breathtaking scenery and thrilling drive. Stretching for about 25 miles between the towns of Silverton and Ouray, this route is part of the larger San Juan Skyway Scenic Byway and offers some of the most spectacular views in the Rocky Mountains.

Starting in Silverton, a historic mining town nestled in a high mountain valley, the drive quickly ascends through a series of switchbacks and steep grades. The origins of the name "Million Dollar Highway" are debated; some say it cost a million dollars per mile to build, while others claim it refers to the million-dollar views. Regardless of the origin, the stunning vistas are undeniable.

As you leave Silverton, the road climbs toward Red Mountain Pass, which sits at an elevation of 11,018 feet. This section of the highway offers dramatic views of the surrounding peaks and deep valleys, with Red Mountain standing out due to its distinctive reddish hue from iron oxide deposits. The narrow, winding road lacks guardrails in many sections, adding to the thrill and requiring careful driving.

Continuing along the highway, you'll pass the remnants of old mining operations, which add a sense of history and intrigue to the journey. The route also features several pull-offs and scenic overlooks where you can stop to take in the awe-inspiring landscape and capture photographs.

Descending into Ouray, often referred to as the "Switzerland of America," you'll be greeted by charming Victorian architecture and the stunning backdrop of the San Juan Mountains. Ouray is known for its hot springs, ice climbing park, and numerous hiking trails, making it a perfect destination to relax and explore after the exhilarating drive.

The Million Dollar Highway is more than just a road; it’s an adventure that combines natural beauty, history, and a bit of adrenaline. Whether you're marveling at the majestic mountains or exploring the quaint towns along the way, this drive promises an unforgettable experience in the heart of Colorado's Rockies.

8. Hana Highway, Hawaii

The Hana Highway, also known as the Road to Hana, is a 64-mile stretch of Hawaii Routes 36 and 360 that runs along the northeastern coast of Maui. This scenic drive is famed for its lush tropical landscapes, cascading waterfalls, and dramatic coastal views, making it a must-do for anyone visiting the island.

Starting in the town of Kahului, the Hana Highway winds its way eastward through a lush tropical rainforest. The road features over 620 curves and 59 bridges, many of which are one-lane, adding to the sense of adventure. The drive can take anywhere from two to four hours one-way, depending on how often you stop to take in the sights.

One of the first major attractions along the Hana Highway is the Garden of Eden Arboretum, a beautifully maintained botanical garden offering panoramic views of the coastline and a variety of native Hawaiian plants. As you continue, you'll encounter numerous waterfalls, such as the Twin Falls, where you can take a short hike to see the cascading waters up close.

Further along the highway, the Ke'anae Peninsula offers a glimpse into traditional Hawaiian village life with its taro fields and historic stone church. This area is a great spot to stop for banana bread, a local favorite. Continuing on, you'll reach Wai'anapanapa State Park, known for its striking black sand beach, sea caves, and freshwater pools.

The highway eventually leads to the tranquil town of Hana, a small, unspoiled community that feels worlds away from the more touristy parts of Maui. Here, you can visit the Hana Cultural Center to learn about the area's history and culture. Nearby, the Oheo Gulch, also known as the Seven Sacred Pools, offers a series of beautiful tiered pools and waterfalls set amidst lush greenery.

While the Hana Highway is famous for its scenic beauty, it's important to drive cautiously and be prepared for narrow, winding roads. However, the journey is well worth the effort, offering a unique opportunity to experience the natural splendor and rich culture of Maui.

The Hana Highway is not just a road; it's an adventure through paradise. Whether you're marveling at towering waterfalls, exploring tropical gardens, or relaxing on pristine beaches, this drive offers a magical glimpse into the heart of Hawaii.

9. Trail Ridge Road, Colorado

Trail Ridge Road, known as the "Highway to the Sky," is one of the most awe-inspiring drives in the United States. Located in Rocky Mountain National Park, this 48-mile scenic byway connects the towns of Estes Park and Grand Lake in Colorado. As the highest continuous paved road in North America, Trail Ridge Road reaches elevations of over 12,000 feet, offering unparalleled views of the Rocky Mountains.

Starting in Estes Park, the road ascends quickly, passing through dense forests of ponderosa pine and aspen. Early on, you'll encounter the Hidden Valley area, a great spot for picnicking and hiking. As you climb higher, the road enters the subalpine region, characterized by hardy vegetation and cooler temperatures.

One of the highlights of Trail Ridge Road is the Many Parks Curve Overlook, which provides sweeping views of the mountain valleys below. Further along, you'll reach the Forest Canyon Overlook, offering breathtaking vistas of the rugged canyon and the distant peaks of the Continental Divide. This is a popular spot for wildlife viewing, with frequent sightings of elk, bighorn sheep, and marmots.

As you continue to climb, the landscape transitions to the alpine tundra, a unique ecosystem found only at high elevations. The Tundra Communities Trail offers a short walk through this fragile environment, where you'll find an array of colorful wildflowers and resilient plants adapted to the harsh conditions.

At the highest point, near Rock Cut, Trail Ridge Road reaches an elevation of 12,183 feet. Here, the Alpine Visitor Center provides educational exhibits and stunning panoramic views. The descent into Grand Lake offers equally spectacular scenery, with lush meadows, glacial lakes, and dense forests.

Trail Ridge Road is more than just a drive; it's an exploration of Colorado's diverse ecosystems and breathtaking landscapes. Whether you're taking in the majestic mountain views, hiking along alpine trails, or spotting wildlife, this road promises an unforgettable adventure through one of America's most beautiful national parks.

10. Kancamagus Highway, New Hampshire

The Kancamagus Highway, affectionately known as "The Kanc," is a 34-mile scenic byway that cuts through the heart of the White Mountains in New Hampshire. This iconic drive, part of Route 112, offers some of the most stunning landscapes in the Northeast, especially during the fall when the foliage transforms into a vibrant tapestry of reds, oranges, and yellows.

Starting in Lincoln, the Kancamagus Highway quickly leaves the bustling town behind, winding through the serene and scenic White Mountain National Forest. Early on, you'll find the Flume Gorge, a natural granite gorge extending 800 feet at the base of Mount Liberty. A boardwalk allows visitors to walk through the gorge and experience its cascading waterfalls and lush surroundings up close.

As you continue along The Kanc, you'll pass several scenic overlooks and picnic areas, including the Pemigewasset Overlook, which offers breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains and valleys. The highway also crosses the Swift River, providing numerous spots to stop and enjoy the tranquil waters and picturesque settings.

One of the most popular stops along the Kancamagus Highway is Sabbaday Falls. A short, easy hike leads to these stunning falls, which cascade through a narrow gorge, creating a beautiful and serene setting. The nearby Lower Falls is another great spot for a refreshing dip in the summer months.

Further along, you'll reach the Kancamagus Pass, the highest point on the highway at an elevation of nearly 3,000 feet. The views from here are particularly spectacular, offering sweeping panoramas of the White Mountains. As you descend towards Conway, the scenic beauty continues with more overlooks and opportunities to explore the forest trails.

The Kancamagus Highway is especially renowned for its fall foliage, attracting leaf-peepers from all over the country. The vibrant colors of the leaves create a stunning contrast against the evergreen trees and rugged mountain terrain, making this drive a must-do in the autumn months.

Whether you're exploring waterfalls, hiking through the forest, or simply enjoying the scenic views, the Kancamagus Highway offers a quintessential New England experience. This drive promises a journey filled with natural beauty and outdoor adventure in the heart of the White Mountains.

11. Natchez Trace Parkway, Mississippi to Tennessee

The Natchez Trace Parkway is a 444-mile scenic drive that follows the historic path of the Old Natchez Trace, an ancient trail used by Native Americans, European settlers, and traders. Stretching from Natchez, Mississippi, to Nashville, Tennessee, this parkway offers a peaceful and picturesque journey through the heart of the American South, rich with history, natural beauty, and cultural heritage.

Starting in Natchez, a charming city known for its antebellum homes and rich history, the parkway winds through rolling hills, dense forests, and open meadows. Early on, you'll find the Emerald Mound, one of the largest Native American mounds in the United States, providing a glimpse into the region's ancient past.

As you continue north, the parkway takes you through Mississippi's lush landscapes, with numerous stops for hiking, picnicking, and exploring. The Rocky Springs site offers a look at the remnants of a 19th-century ghost town, complete with a church, cemetery, and walking trails.

One of the most scenic sections of the Natchez Trace Parkway is in Alabama, where the route passes through the Tennessee River Valley. The Colbert Ferry site provides a perfect spot for a riverside picnic and offers stunning views of the waterway. This area is also home to the Cypress Swamp, where a short boardwalk trail allows you to explore the unique wetland ecosystem.

In Tennessee, the parkway continues through rolling farmland and dense woodlands. The Meriwether Lewis Park, dedicated to the famed explorer of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, features a monument and burial site for Lewis, along with hiking trails and historical exhibits.

The journey concludes in Nashville, a city renowned for its vibrant music scene and rich cultural heritage. Here, you can explore historic sites, enjoy live music, and immerse yourself in the local culture.

The Natchez Trace Parkway is more than just a scenic drive; it's a journey through time, offering a unique blend of natural beauty and historical significance. Whether you're exploring ancient mounds, hiking through lush forests, or learning about the region's history, this parkway promises an unforgettable adventure.

12. Highway 12, Utah

Highway 12, also known as Scenic Byway 12, is a 122-mile route that traverses some of the most stunning landscapes in southern Utah. This scenic drive connects the towns of Panguitch and Torrey, taking travelers through a diverse array of natural wonders, including red rock canyons, high mountain forests, and expansive desert landscapes.

Starting in Panguitch, Highway 12 quickly takes you through Red Canyon, where vibrant red rock formations and towering hoodoos create a dramatic and otherworldly landscape. This area offers several hiking trails and viewpoints, allowing you to explore the unique geology up close.

As you continue east, the highway ascends into the Dixie National Forest, offering cooler temperatures and lush pine forests. The drive through Boulder Mountain provides stunning vistas of the surrounding landscape, including views of the Aquarius Plateau, one of the highest plateaus in North America.

One of the highlights of Highway 12 is its passage through Bryce Canyon National Park. Famous for its distinctive hoodoos and vibrant colors, Bryce Canyon offers numerous viewpoints and hiking trails, such as the popular Navajo Loop and Queens Garden trails, where you can immerse yourself in the park's unique beauty.

Further along, the highway takes you through the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, a vast and rugged area known for its stunning slot canyons, expansive desert vistas, and rich geological history. Popular stops include Calf Creek Falls, where a short hike leads to a beautiful waterfall, and the Escalante Petrified Forest State Park, which features ancient petrified wood and scenic hiking trails.

The journey on Highway 12 concludes in Torrey, a gateway to Capitol Reef National Park. This lesser-known park boasts dramatic cliffs, domes, and canyons, offering plenty of opportunities for exploration and adventure.

Highway 12 is more than just a scenic byway; it's a journey through some of Utah's most spectacular and diverse landscapes. Whether you're hiking through red rock canyons, exploring high mountain forests, or marveling at ancient geological formations, this drive promises an unforgettable adventure in the heart of the American Southwest.

From the coastal beauty of the Pacific Coast Highway to the rugged mountain views of the Blue Ridge Parkway, these scenic drives offer road trip enthusiasts a chance to explore some of the most stunning landscapes in the USA. The Pacific Coast Highway presents awe-inspiring ocean vistas, dramatic cliffs, and charming seaside towns, while the Blue Ridge Parkway immerses you in the majestic Appalachian Mountains, with its lush forests, vibrant wildflowers, and breathtaking overlooks. These drives provide not just a journey, but an experience, inviting you to uncover hidden gems, enjoy local culture, and connect with nature in ways you never imagined. Whether you're seeking adventure, tranquility, or a bit of both, these routes promise unforgettable memories. Pack your bags, hit the road, and let these scenic drives inspire your next great adventure. There's no better way to discover the diverse beauty of America than from behind the wheel.

Stay connected with more travel tips and road trip inspiration at Woke Waves Magazine.

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Jun 7, 2024

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