Best Road Trips in the United States

Heading west from New Orleans, you enter bayou country, where alligators and herons splash in the swamps and Spanish moss hangs heavy overhead. Sunlight filters through, and for a glorious moment, you feel like the only driver on this scenic road. While Louisiana’s Highway 31 is finest in spring and fall, when the weather is pleasantly cool, it’s summer that heralds peak road-trip season for much of the U.S. And we’ve compiled the best American routes just in time for you to plot your vacation. These drives feature spectacular landscapes, roller-coaster-worthy dips and bends, and wildlife spotting (look out for bald eagles and nesting peregrine falcons along Maine’s Acadia All-American Road). For each trip, we’ve included a can’t-miss stop along the route, perfect for stretching your legs while absorbing splendor—and quirks—of your surroundings. Take in the blazing golden poppies blooming throughout the Mojave Desert in California’s Antelope Valley as you cruise toward a lookout that offers sweeping panoramic views. Climb through rainforests and apple orchards along the Cascade Loop in Washington, stopping for the beer gardens and kitschy trinkets of the Bavarian Alps–inspired hamlet of Leavenworth. Or check out the lighthouses and underwater coral-reef parks on U.S. 1 in the Florida Keys, then brake to frolic with dolphins before crossing one of the longest bridges in the world.

By Rebecca Hiscott | Travel + Leisure

Antelope Valley
From L.A., drive north to the town of Lancaster via Route 14, better known as the Antelope Valley Freeway. Golden poppies bloom throughout the Mojave Desert region in March, but the 1,760-acre Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve claims the finest concentration of California’s state flower—not to mention glorious showings of fiddlenecks, cream cups, gold fields, and tidy tips starting in late March.

Where to Stop: Drive the seven-mile Antelope Loop Trail within the Poppy Reserve and continue on to Antelope Butte Vista Point, a high lookout (the valley reaches an elevation of nearly 300 feet) that offers the most sweeping desert panoramas.

U.S. 1, Florida Keys
Leaving the mainland for the 120-mile-long island chain of Florida’s Keys, travelers enter a paradise of beach bars, water sports, and Parrotheads (Jimmy Buffett fans). From Key Largo to Key West, the overseas highway strings the islands together like beads, running past lighthouses, underwater coral-reef parks, and across 7 Mile Bridge—one of the longest bridges in the world.

Where to Stop: On the island of Islamorada, travelers can swim with dolphins at the historic Theater of the Sea.

U.S. Route 9, New York
The entire route runs more than 300 miles from Delaware up to the U.S.-Canada border, but this 57-mile lower New York stretch has special appeal when the weather warms. Start in Poughkeepsie and head north toward the town of Valatie, pulling over for fresh produce and organic homemade goods at one of the many local farmers’ markets that reopen in late spring. And keep your eyes peeled for Gilded Age estates along the route, such as the Vanderbilt Mansion.

Where to Stop: The historic open-air Hyde Park Farmers’ Market, just off Route 9, opens in early June on the grounds of the ’50s-era Hyde Park Drive-In Theatre. Further north, in Columbia County, stop at Harvest Spirits Farm Distillery for a bottle of dry apple brandy.

Hana Highway, Maui
The T-shirts all say: I survived the road to Hana. It can take more than 2 1/2 hours to travel the 51 miles from Kahului to Hana, as you snake past steep sea-cliffs lush with blooming mango trees, buy banana bread from roadside stalls, and pull over for Jurassic vistas. In tiny Hana, a town on eastern Maui, a cinder cone shields the red sand beach where nudists and endangered monk seals bake idly in the sun.

Where to Stop: Fuel up with pancakes soaked in coconut syrup at Anthony’s Coffee Co. in the funky small town of Paia. At mile marker 32 awaits Waianapanapa State Park, with black-sand beaches and trails leading to sea caves and lava cliffs.

Route 100, Vermont
Best known for its fall foliage and delicious ice cream, Vermont’s lush Green Mountains are also a great place for a drive, thanks to winding country roads like Route 100, which bisects the state from Stowe south to the Massachusetts border. The midsection, between the towns of Waitsfield and Weston, offers the best scenery.

Where to Stop: Gifford Woods State Park. On the Green Mountain crest, west of Woodstock, this patch of primeval forest has been beautifully preserved.

Columbia River Scenic Highway

This road is a concrete realization of the idea that highways can sometimes improve on the work of Mother Nature. Designed and constructed back in the early days of the automobile, the route winds past a series of lovely waterfalls while taking in the best sights of the Columbia Gorge, east of Portland.

Where to Stop: Standing on a stony cliff top, 700 feet above the Columbia River, Vista House is a historic rest stop that doubles as a memorial to Oregon Trail pioneers.

Pacific Coast Highway
California’s Route 1 leads you to some great beach towns, but it’s up around Big Sur that this famed route reaches new heights. Linking California’s historic capital, Monterey, with its most extravagant piece of hubristic architecture, Hearst Castle, this unforgettable 100-mile stretch of the PCH carves through cliffs high above the Pacific Ocean.

Where to Stop: Most of Big Sur has been protected from unsightly development by preservationist landowners, but the landmark Nepenthe has a dining room, bar, and cliff-top terrace that looks out over a 270-degree Pacific panorama.

Cascades Loop
Climbing from the lush rainforests of Puget Sound, U.S. Highway 2 crosses the Cascades and drops into apple orchards before reaching placid Lake Chelan. Ambitious drivers can loop back to Seattle via rugged and remote North Cascades National Park, along equally scenic Highway 20.

Where to Stop: For an unexpected treat, spend some time in kitschy Leavenworth, an old timber and railroad town that re-created itself in the 1960s as a Bavarian Alps hamlet, complete with beer gardens and lederhosen.

Texas Hill Country Bluebonnet Tour
Lady Bird Johnson led a campaign to beautify American cities, and in her native Texas, vast gardens of bluebonnets were planted across Texas Hill Country. While there are countless nature trails, first-timers should start in Austin and take U.S. 290 west to Johnson City’s lovely Wildflower Loop. Then hightail it along U.S. 281 N to the town of Burnet, the official bluebonnet capital of Texas.

Where to Stop: Tour the colorful grounds at Austin’s Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. A toll-free Texas wildflower hotline (800-452-9292) provides blooming reports, and tune in to KLBJ News Radio 590, which airs the “Wildflower Hour” featuring expert gardening tips from Mr. Smarty Plants at 8 a.m. on Saturdays.

Anchorage to Valdez, Alaska

The trip from Anchorage to Valdez, which connects Glenn and Richardson highways, runs past prehistoric glaciers and into mountain ranges with so many 14,000-foot peaks a lot of them haven’t even been named. Along the 300-mile route, the trans-Alaska pipeline pops in and out of view. The final approach to Valdez includes a 25-mile drop from Thompson Pass (2,805 elevation) to sea level through the waterfalls of Keystone Canyon, opening into Prince William Sound.

Where to Stop: Gawk at domesticated musk oxen, the Ice Age wonders of the Alaskan landscape prized for their wool, in Palmer.

Acadia All American Road, Maine
Pack your binoculars for this coastal drive that skirts the woodlands of Acadia National Park, a prime spot for spying bald eagles and nesting peregrine. The 27-mile Park Loop Road segment follows the high ridges of Bar Harbor down to Sand Beach and Otter Cliff and loops inland along Jordan Pond. It’s the centerpiece of the drive, which starts in Trenton, takes Route 3 south, turns on the Loop Road, then rejoins Route 3.

Where to Stop: Local small towns begin buzzing in late spring. For homemade ice cream and popovers, pull over at the historic Jordan Pond House (open for the season as of May). Then put that energy to work hiking Acadia’s Cadillac Mountain, whose 1,532-foot peak overlooks the Atlantic.

Santa Fe/Taos Loop, New Mexico
Follow the (literal) High Road from Santa Fe north on Route 285 through high-elevation deserts and orchards. It leads to the cottonwood-dotted valley of Ojo Caliente and its pueblo communities. Loop back from Taos on the Low Road, State Route 68, which runs along the Rio Grande past wineries.

Where to Stop: The Taos Pueblo compound, a UNESCO World Heritage site, was built before 1400 and is one of the oldest continuously inhabited communities in America.

Scenic Merritt Parkway, Connecticut
Though years of roadwork have diminished much of the Merritt’s original elegance, enough design details remain to make this one of America’s prettiest freeways. With zero roadside sprawl, the Merritt Parkway has more than enough sinuous curves and leafy landscaping to make driving it a true pleasure.

Where to Stop: From the east end of the Merritt Parkway, continue on to the heart of New Haven to sample another historic treat: Louis’ Lunch, the family-owned diner that claims to have served the world’s first hamburgers more than 115 years ago.

Great River Road, Minnesota to Louisiana
You might expect small-town charm driving alongside the Mississippi River. You might not expect the rugged “Driftless Region” on the road’s more northern stretches—an area that escaped being flattened by glaciers during the last Ice Age. Enjoy roller-coaster hills and steep canyons in Iowa, from Dubuque to the prehistoric Effigy Mounds.

Where to Stop: Galena, IL—one of the Great River Road’s greatest small towns.

Mohawk Trail, Massachusetts
Mixing idyllic natural beauty with fine art and roadside Americana, the Mohawk Trail is a classic two-lane highway linking metropolitan Boston with the rural Berkshire countryside. Classic 1920s motor court cabins and the “Big Indian” souvenir shop line a twisting route that ends in the west at the liberal arts enclave of Williamstown.

Where to Stop: Just south of the highway, the Bridge of Flowers in Shelburne Falls is an old trolley bridge reborn as a lush arboretum, high above the Deerfield River.

Ohio River Scenic Byway, Cincinnati to Louisville
Crossing three states, the Ohio River Scenic Byway stretches nearly a thousand miles. Follow the river downstream from Cincinnati to Louisville, and stay at the city’s hottest hotel, the 90-room 21c Museum Hotel, which has a $10 million collection of artwork, photos, and video installations.

Where to Stop: For a slight detour from the byway, pick up a map for Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail at the Louisville Visitors Center and head out to taste more than 50 bourbons from nearby distilleries such as Jim Beam, Woodford Reserve and Maker’s Mark. The trail stops at 21c’s Proof on Main restaurant and bar.

Bayou Cruise, Louisiana
West of New Orleans, the low-lying lands of the lower Mississippi River are known for languid country lanes winding past lazy bayous. Garlands of moody Spanish moss dangle from mighty oaks and cypress trees, while alligators and herons splash about in the swampy lagoons. The best road to drive is Highway 31, which winds along Bayou Teche from New Iberia to Breaux Bridge.

Where to Stop: Breaux Bridge. Get your Cajun fix at the self-proclaimed crawfish capital of the world. On Saturday mornings, head to the Café des Amis for the music-filled Zydeco Breakfast.

Going-to-the-Sun Road, Montana
Built in the Roaring 1920s (completed in 1932) to tempt drivers to explore the national parks, Going-to-the-Sun Road is a breathtaking 50-mile drive across Montana’s Glacier National Park. Rising up between a pair of deep-blue alpine lakes, the road was cleverly crafted to show off the best vistas with the least negative impact on the park’s fragile environment. It’s closed every winter by snows, which can reach up to 80 feet in depth.

Where to Stop: Logan Pass. After cutting across the sheer escarpment of the Garden Wall, the road reaches its literal and figurative high point atop 6,646-foot Logan Pass, where herds of wild mountain goats can be seen trampling across wildflower meadows.

Black River Scenic Byway, Michigan
A rugged band of red and white sandstone rock wedged against the deep blue waters of Lake Superior, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan is a highlight of the Midwest. Highway 513, the Black River Scenic Byway, follows the eponymous river from the town of Bessemer to the lakeshore, passing waterfalls and dense forests all the way.

Where to Stop: Sample an Upper Peninsula tradition in the former iron-mining town of Ironwood; Joe’s Pasty Shop serves up local variations on the staple food of Cornish miners, the pasty.

San Juan Skyway, Colorado
The skyway’s biggest thrills come along the stretch between the Victorian-era towns of Ouray and Silverton that’s known as the Million Dollar Highway. While that name could easily describe the views, it actually refers to the massive amounts of silver and gold once carted through these passes. Four-wheelers can also attempt to traverse the rugged 65-mile Alpine Loop Back Country Byway past the 19th-century ghost towns of Howardsville, Eureka, and Animas Forks.

Where to Stop: Mesa Verde National Park, famous for Anasazi Indian cliff dwellings that were abandoned 200 years before Columbus arrived in America. And at Dunton Hot Springs Resort, in a restored ghost town, soak in waters ranging from 85°F to 106°F and rich in calcium bicarbonate, iron, and manganese.

Highway 2, Nebraska
Sandhills (grass-covered sand dunes) make up nearly one-fourth of Nebraska, undulating in slow hypnotic curves as far as the eye can see. Take Highway 2 for expansive views of the Great Plains and pastureland that’s more than twice the size of Rhode Island, but populated by only 12,000 souls.

Where to stop: The sand dunes are smack in the middle of the Great Plains Migratory Flyway; look out for cranes at the Nebraska Nature & Visitor Center.

Route 66, Illinois to California
Yes, it’s so famous it’s a clichĂ©, but this 2,451-mile cruise has justifiably become a part of the American fabric. For sheer driving pleasure, the best stretch has to be the mountainous run west from the Grand Canyon to the Colorado River, climbing up from a desert plateau and twisting past the old gold mines of the Black Mountains.

Where to Stop: Cool Springs Station, Kingman, AZ. With its stone arches and small museum, this restored rest station makes for a great stop along this historic route.

Rockefeller Parkway, Wyoming
Meandering along the banks of the Snake River, Highway 191 from Yellowstone to Jackson Hole lacks the roller-coaster thrills of many other Rocky Mountain roads, but it more than makes up for the absence of adrenaline with mile after mile of breathtaking views. Gaze up at the spectacular peaks of the Grand Tetons from the lush riparian meadows below.

Where to Stop: South of the Grand Tetons, the Wild West town of Jackson Hole mixes well-heeled luxury with the rough-and-tumble charms of the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, where leather saddles take the place of bar stools.

Highway Z, Missouri
The biggest peaks between the Blue Ridge and the Rockies, the Ozark Mountains offer a refreshing change of scene from the otherwise low-lying Great Plains. Here, winding roads like Hwy-Z cut through deep wooded canyons carved by powerful rivers. This road twists and turns through the area known as Devil’s Elbow, where a tight turn in the Big Piney River forms a deep and scenic gorge.

Where to Stop: Bikers and BBQ fans flock to the Elbow Inn (573-336-5375), a roadside shack that’s been in business for nearly a century.

Route 12, Utah
The red rock majesty of Utah is on triumphant display on State Route 12 winding between Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon national parks. The 124-mile strip has funky small towns and very few entry points, so it takes a map and determination to witness the steep sandstone canyons and bluffs of purple sage, and to tackle the narrow cliff-hanging ridgeline road called The Hogback.

Where to Stop: Hell’s Backbone Grill, which has its own organic farm.

Mount Washington Auto Road, New Hampshire
The first car to drive to the top of New England’s Mount Washington Auto Road was the original Stanley Steamer back in 1899, which tells you how deep this road’s roots run. Short and steep—climbing nearly 5,000 feet in less than eight miles—it passes dozens of vista points, waterfalls, and alpine meadows before coming to an end at what circus-meister P. T. Barnum called the “2nd Greatest Show on Earth.”

Where to Stop: On the far side of the summit, the palatial Mount Washington Hotel at Bretton Woods is a grand resort with its own coal-fired cog railway climbing back up to the top of the mountain.

Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia to North Carolina
For most of its 469-mile route, the Blue Ridge Parkway alternates between grand panoramas and up-close looks at lush forests and meadows. That’s no surprise considering that it runs atop the Appalachian Mountains between Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park and the Great Smoky Mountains of far western North Carolina. The parkway is a leisurely cruise rather than a roller coaster, with one exception—its most breathtaking section, the Linn Cove Viaduct, which skims the treetops as it winds around the parkway’s highest peak.

Where to Stop: Grandfather Mountain. Rising high above Linn Cove, this 5,837-foot peak offers great views and the famous “Mile High Swinging Bridge.”


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Travel Magazine: Best Road Trips in the United States
Best Road Trips in the United States
Travel Magazine
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