My Favorite American Drives
I do spend inordinate amounts of time on the American roadways. I often get asked about my favorite roads and driving experiences. I've been meaning to collect my thoughts in a coherent and cohesive fashion for a couple years now, but finally the time has come to share some of that hard-earned "road warrior wisdom" with you in case you'd like to sample some of these backroads and byways for yourself.
I've divided them loosely into "Must Sees" and "Honorable Mentions", because, I'm just that kind of guy! A bonus section for the curious, I've also included a simple list of the "Most Tolerable Interstate Highway Drives". I have left out many of my favorites that are dirt roads into remote locations but I may devote a future article specifically to them. I also for the most part leave out the roads that primarily lie within a National Park, such as the Tioga Road at Yosemite or Going-to-the-Sun Road at Glacier. Those are pretty obvious, but also if you plan to visit those places you will use those roads. Finally, of course, I have only included roads that I have personally experienced.
And naturally, I reserve the right to come back and update this whenever I am so moved!
The Must See's
The Blue Ridge Parkway (VA and NC). Perhaps no American road captures the essence of the Depression-era achievements of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The Parkway may be the American Mother Road, stretching 469 miles between the Great Smoky Mountain National Park in North Carolina and the southern border of Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. But is the design and layout of this road that truly makes it special. In an era when cars did much less, every twist and turn, gentle climb or descent, seems to bring with it new perspective and new vistas to the traveler. Much of it is stunning scenery, particularly in the five and six thousand foot peaks and ridges of western North Carolina, some of it pastoral farmland along the southwestern Virginia Blue Ridge.
Utah Rte. 12. Connecting Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef National Parks, this road winds its way through about 150 miles of amazing and otherwordly red rock terrain punctuated with canyons, fins, and other outcrop oddities as well as the occasional ribbon of water and greenery. On the northern side of the sweeping Escalante area and spanning the high forested plateaus as well, UT 12 is worth spending a whole day taking in.
Natchez Trace Parkway (TN, AL and MS). Another National Park Service gem through the low rolling hills and forests of the deep South. The road roughly traces the overland path used by Kentucky boatmen returning home from New Orleans after floating their goods down the Tennessee or Ohio Rivers and on down the Mississippi. While the Natchez Trace only was in use for a couple decades in the early 1800s, its colorful history is a welcome excuse to travel something other than Interstate 40, 65 or 55 through the southland. Mile after mile of overhanging trees, interesting swamps and wetlands, and the occasional big sight like the Tenn-Tom Canal make this a most delightful 450 mile voyage between west Nashville TN and the banks of the Mississippi River at Natchez, MS.
California 1. From the Big Sur coast to Monterey and on to the Golden Gate, or along the rugged and barely inhabited Mendocino headlands of northern CA, the big trees, oceanside mountains, and spectacular views of the Pacific are well documented in everything from classic literature to TV commercials. But the winding road hugging the California coastline is an absolute must-see, 3 to 5 days worth of mind-boggling views and of course, lots of uniquely California cultural highlights along the way.
Mt. Evans Road, Colorado. I've driven the highest road in the Lower 48 several times, simply because the experience of getting into the high alpine zone and thin air is addictively exhilarating. Starting in the high open forests and meadows above Idaho Springs, the landscape and fauna change as you climb higher. The open alpine wildflower meadows are incredible in July, and for an easterner like me, seeing elk, bighorn sheep, marmots and pica, ptarmigan, and mountain goars will always be a thrill. It's proximity to Denver makes this a popular destination during the couple snow-free summer months when the road remains open to the 14,400 foot summit.
Nebraska 2. I know I have a fondness for mountain drives, but this drive through the central and western Nebraska sandhills from Grand Island to Alliance amazed me. It's so different - open grasslands cover dunes, prairie potholes dot the landscape, the railroad tracks for company, and the rare small town along the way all just spark my imagination and wonder. On the western end, don't miss Carhenge, a model of Stonehenge built from old cars. Uniquely Nebraska.
Beartooth Highway, US 212 (MT and WY). The northeastern approach to Yellowstone is not for the faint of heart. The mountainside is so steep that some of the switchbacks had to be build outward! Maybe the most amazing road I've ever driven.
Cherohala Skyway (TN 165/NC 143, Robbinsville NC to Tellico Plain TN). The eastern end is at the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, a 2000 plus acre tract of unlogged virgin Appalachian forest and including different 5 champion trees (largest known of their species). The mile high road across the Nantahala and Cherokee National Forests' high country is an engineering marvel and a scenic wonder.
Talimena Scenic Drive (OK 1/AR 88, Talihena OK to Mena AR). The Winding Stair is a rare mountain treasure in southeastern Oklahoma, and this scenic byway (also a CCC project) rides the ridgeline of the highest mountain range between the Appalachians and Rockies.
Utah 128. Winding its way through eastern Utah mostly along the Colorado River, the road from I-70 at Cisco over to Moab is stunning. Red rock formations, river bottoms, high alpine scenery, and western ranchlands are just the main attractions.
US 260 (Payson to Show Low AZ). High Ponderosa forests along the Mogollon Rim.
US 6 (Orleans to Provincetown MA). The sand dunes and ocean scenery of Cape Cod.
ME 15 (Orland to Stonington). The rocky Maine coast dotted with blueberry patches, mountains, islands and classic old New England feel on the road into Deer Isle. A sunset delight!
Kancamagus Highway, NH 112. Rugged White Mountain scenery at its best.
US 23 (southwest VA). Endless Appalachian scenery, coal mining history and present, and small towns in the Clinch and Powell Valleys.
US 250 (Highland County VA). The "Main Street" of the county known as Virginia's "Little Switzerland". Fall foliage is a special highlight.
VT 9 (Bennington to Brattleboro). Gorgeous southern Vermont scenery and views crossing elevations above 3,000 feet.
US 5 (VT). The slow road through time connects small Vermont and New Hampshire towns of the Connecticut River Valley.
WA 20. The main road along the big dams and salmon run rivers of Washington's rugged and remote North Cascades National Park.
Most Tolerable Interstate Highway Drives
- I-70 through Colorado and eastern Utah, also the Smoky Hills of central Kansas
- I-68, western Maryland and northern West Virginia
- I-77, Wytheville VA to Beckley WV
- I-86 (parts still NY 17) along the New York/Pennsylvania border
- I-10 from Texas Hill country out to El Paso
- I-24 Chattanooga to Murfreesboro TN
- I-26 Asheville NC to Johnson City TN
- I-64 Lexington VA to Beckley WV
- I-35/335 El Dorado to Topeka KS, through the Flint Hills