All Articles 7 scenic road trips in the US

7 scenic road trips in the US

There’s nothing quite like the freedom of the open road.

Amber C. Snider
By Amber C. SniderSep 8, 2022 6 minutes read
Pacific Coast Highway, CA at sunset
Pacific Coast Highway, CA
Image: Doug Meek/Getty Images

Flying is great for getting somewhere quick, train rides are scenic and often limited in routes, and hiking or biking is great for shorter distances. But to lay out the map—physical or digital—and choose your path based on surroundings alone… well, that’s the beginning of a beautiful trip. There’s no better way than a road trip to personally experience the wide variety of landscapes the United States has to offer. From the forested wonders in the Appalachian Mountains to the black lava fields of Hawaii, here are some of the most iconic (and underrated) road trips in America to plan yourself.

Highway 1: Leggett, CA to Duncan Mills, CA

With its dizzying switchbacks, dazzling view of the Pacific Ocean, and steep inclines, driving Highway 1—also known as the Pacific Coast Highway—is an exhilarating experience. The most northern point begins in Leggett, snaking its way around thick redwood trees, eventually opening up to panoramic seaside and mountain views. In the northern sections of the highway, watch your speed since many of the turns are nearly right angles as you make your way out of the woods. Once you hit the coastal sections, it’s hard to keep your eyes on the road with so much surrounding beauty. Luckily, there are several stop-off points, scenic vistas, and photo ops throughout the 144-mile stretch between Leggett and Sonoma County.

Bixby Bridge at Sunset, Big Sur, California
Bixby Bridge, Big Sur, CA
Image: Ian.CuiYi/Getty Images

While this particular drive will take you roughly four hours in total, add more time to your itinerary to stop for lunch at charming seaside towns like Mendocino and visit the roadside shops at historic Duncan Mills. After that, take Route 116 into Santa Rosa and continue deep into wine country to sample the best of Californian varietals on the planet. If you’d like to continue south down the entire 650-mile scenic corridor, plan for pit stops in noteworthy destinations like Carmel-by-the-Sea, Big Sur, and Santa Barbara along the way.

Blue Ridge Parkway: Virginia to North Carolina

As one of the most idyllic drives in America, the Blue Ridge Parkway takes you through the mountains, forests, and valleys of North Carolina and Virginia. Experience the iconic Appalachian Mountains and Shenandoah National Park at your own pace, with stops at Mount Mitchell in North Carolina (the highest peak in the eastern U.S.) or the Linville Gorge Wilderness, which contains the deepest gorge east of the Grand Canyon. More than 700,000 acres of the parkway are made up of five different forest types, including spruce-fir forests and cove hardwood forests.

Dawn on the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina
Blue Ridge Parkway, NC
Image: Pierre Leclerc Photography/Getty Images

You’ll pass through several areas on your 469-mile drive, including the Ridge, Plateau, Highlands, and Pisgah Regions. If you begin at the Parkway’s northern entryway in Afton, VA, and take the road down to its end in Cherokee, NC, the trip would be roughly 15 hours in total. As you head further south, the parkway intersects with the Great Smoky Mountains Region, where you can stop off to explore the cultural sights and famous microbreweries of Asheville. There are plenty of things to do along the Blue Ridge Parkway, like waterfall and hiking adventures with expert naturalists and horseback riding through the forest, with lodging and camping throughout. No matter which segment you drive, there’s no entrance fee to the Parkway and the speed limit is set at a leisurely 45 miles per hour.

The Island of Hawaii: Hilo to Kailua-Kona

They say Hawaii is best appreciated by air, but a road trip is the next best thing for an island adventure. Start on the eastern side of the Big Island in Hilo, where you can experience 10 of the world’s 14 climates. Stop at Waiānuenue Falls at Wailuku River State Park and the nearby Imiloa Astronomy Center before making your way south to the picturesque Red Road (also known as Kapoho-Kalapana Road). The road winds right in between the Pacific Ocean, black lava fields, and low overhanging trees, offering an exhilarating reflection of the island’s diverse beauty. Next, take a drive through Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park, which includes 150 miles of hiking trails and two of the world’s most active volcanoes. While in the park, take the 10-mile Crater Rim Drive around Kilauea Crater; be sure to stop at Nāhuku (also known as the Thurston Lava Tube) to walk through the remains of volcanic lava flow.

Red Road, Hawaii lined with sprawling trees and branches
Red Road, HI
Image: KennethCalif/Tripadvisor

After exploring the park, make your way north to the rich, fertile lands in Waimea (with plenty of things to do like a off-doors helicopter tour over Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa) and treat yourself to a luxurious stay nearby at the award-winning Four Seasons Resort Hualalai. End your road trip with a beach day in North Kohala and be sure to check out the black sand beach off the Pololu Valley Awini Trail.

Southern Oregon: Coos Bay to Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor

The rugged coast of Oregon is one of America’s best-kept scenic gems. With its breathtaking ocean views, water adventures, countless hiking trails, and abundance of seafood, road tripping along the Southern Coast is a must. Begin your journey in the small fishing town of Coos Bay with a stop at Cape Arago State Park to hike the numerous trails, catch glimpses of sea lions, and witness the enduring roar of the Pacific Ocean. There is also the nearby Shores Acres State Park (entry is $5, cash only) just six miles away along Cape Arago Highway—known for its hypnotic waves hitting the basalt rocks below—as well as Sunset Bay State Park. Spend the night in Scandinavian-inspired cabins overlooking the windy bay at Bay Point Landing, where each rental comes equipped with an outdoor firepit and cozy, modern accommodations. They also have several RV campsites available, as well as super-sleek Airstream suites, if that’s more your style.

Sandy beach beach and rocky coast at Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor in Oregon
Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor, OR
Image: ImageBROKER/Mara Brandl/Getty Images

As you head down the coast, stop at the shops and restaurants at the historic Old Town of Bandon and check out the famous Face Rock State Scenic Viewpoint (Native American legend says it was a princess who was transformed into a rock long ago). Make your way further south to Gold Beach, stop off for a brisket sandwich at Gold Beach BBQ (a Travelers’ Choice Award winner), and enjoy the 25 miles of largely secluded beaches in the area. Stay overnight at the award-winning Pacific Reef Hotel, which has a nightly light show, or continue on directly to Samuel H. Boardman State Scenic Corridor. During this 12-mile stretch, you’ll find magnificent views of the rocky coastline, spruce trees, iconic vistas like Arch Rock, and secluded coves. With so many things to do and see here, plan on spending a night (or two) in the area.

Going-to-the-Sun Road: Glacier National Park, MT

Glacier National Park in Montana is home to one of the best scenic mountain drives in the country. Going-to-the-Sun Road—a spectacular 50-mile stretch with epic views of canyons, lakes, and rocky vistas—will take roughly two hours to complete, but you should, of course, allow for more time to explore. Must-see sights along the way include Jackson Glacier, Bird Woman Falls, and the flower-dotted meadows in Logan’s Pass. Take a half-day whitewater rafting adventure or hike to Lake Avalanche to experience the refreshingly cool waters and striking scenery.

Autumn leafed trees line the Going - To - The - Sun Road in Glacier National Park, Montana
Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park, MT
Image: Peter Unger/Getty Images

In the summer and early fall months, a vehicle reservation is required to enter the park, as well as a park pass, with seven-day rates ranging from $15–$35, depending on what time of the year you go. Note that there’s currently a nightly closure from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. in the West Entrance to Sprague Creek sections, so be sure to plan lodging or camping accordingly, too.

Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway: Klamath, CA to Berry Glen, CA

This 10-mile stretch off of Highway 101 in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park takes you through the heart of old-growth redwood forests, making it one of the most serene drives in America. The one-way parkway takes about 30 minutes in total to drive, as you wind your way through these ancient, mystical giants. That said, it's easy to extend this drive since there are numerous spots to pull over and hit the trails. Exits for the parkway can be found roughly four miles south of Klamath at either exit 765 or exit 753.

The drive along the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway, in Redwoods State Park, California
Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway, Redwoods State Park, CA
Image: Chris Babcock/Getty Images

Sleep under the tallest trees in the world at the state park's Gold Bluffs Beach or Elk Prairie Campground (reservations in advance needed for both). Along the way, be sure to visit the Big Tree Wayside, which is said to be over 1,500 years old and measures 300 feet tall. From November to May, the parkway is closed to vehicles during the first Saturday of each month, giving hikers and cyclists unspoiled access to the road. Continue your journey on Highway 101 northward to Oregon or south to the coastal towns of California.

Route 66: American Midwest and Southwest

No road trip roundup would be complete without mentioning the “Mother Road” of America: the iconic Route 66. The 2,400+ mile highway traverses the U.S., stretching from Chicago all the way to Santa Monica, CA. Plan two to three weeks (or longer!) for the entire journey, where you can explore quirky roadside attractions, old school motels, kitschy diners, and more. Solidified in the cultural zeitgeist through films, TV shows, and songs, the highway attracts road trippers from all over looking to explore America’s great outdoors.

Motorcyclists coast along Route 66 in California
Motorcyclists coast along Route 66 in California
Image: Sky Noir Photography by Bill Dickinson/Getty Images

Check out ghost towns in Arizona, Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon in Utah, hot air balloon tours in New Mexico, and celebrity homes in Beverly Hills along the western stretch of this historic route. Each state has its own distinctive highlights, including 250 sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places, so leave room in your itinerary for detours.

Amber C. Snider
Amber C. Snider is a journalist specializing in arts & culture, lifestyle, and travel with words in The New York Times, Architectural Digest, Teen Vogue, Refinery29, Lonely Planet, Fodor's, Zagat, Saveur, Elle Décor, Town & Country, and more. You can view more of her work at her website here: http://www.ambercsnider.com.