My wife and I just returned from a vacation in the Canadian Rockies; in particular, the Banff and Jasper National Parks, where they promote the Icefields Highway as one of the most spectacular drives in North America and the world. His proclamation made me think of the best scenic drives I’ve ever done in North America.
Here’s a description of five of my favorite scenic drives in North America, followed by a list of several others.
I invite you to submit your thoughts and comments, whether you agree or disagree. If you have a favorite scenic drive that I didn’t mention, I’d love to know about it. Here it goes:
1) Big Sur, Highway 1
Many people consider the 100-mile ride through Big Sur to be the longest ride in the world. Too spectacular to be called a highway, Big Sur Highway is the jewel in the crown of the famous Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), many sections of which qualify for exceptional scenic status. Every mile lets you experience the ocean crashing against the bottom of the cliffs a couple hundred feet below you or, across the road, fields of bright green grass. If you cannot travel in both directions, I recommend starting your journey from the far north; it will be next to the ocean for the entire trip. The north end of Big Sur, between Carmel and Carmel Highlands and 2.5 hours south of San Francisco, has one of my two favorite road signs – it shows the meandering line, indicating a curvy road ahead, with the text “Next 84 miles”. The road passes through Point Lobos (one of the best state parks in California), Carmel Highlands and soon crosses the Bixby Creek Bridge, one of the most photographed places in California. Many people consider the view from the Rocky Point restaurant, a little further south, as the best sunset in the world. Between here and Cambria, the southern tip of Big Sur, you’ll pass Nepenthe (another world-class viewing spot), Hearst Castle (the most expensive home in the US), and countless stunning photo opportunities. The entire coast of Big Sur is a National Marine Sanctuary (refuge for sea otters). The fog in midsummer surprises most visitors. The temperature rarely rises above 70 degrees and most of the time around 55. The best weather occurs between November and April, when migratory whales can be seen from the road.
2. Overseas Highway (Florida Keys), USA 1
This tour is outstanding if only for the fact that it stretches 100 miles into the Straits of Florida, between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. The Key Highway leaves the Florida peninsula just outside the Everglades, an hour south of Miami, and immediately takes you through the city and island of Key Largo. The road then continues 100 miles to the southernmost point of the continental United States, Key West, just 90 miles from Cuba. It seems like it spends half the trip on water and half the trip on several small islands, with names like Duck Key and Pine Key (or Big Pine Key and Little Pine Key). One of the highlights of the trip is crossing the seven-mile bridge, featured in the movie “True Lies,” and you inevitably wonder if hurricanes can suddenly appear out of nowhere (ocean) like their tornado cousins. Otherwise, the journey is very relaxing and calming. Unlike Big Sur, you almost have to drive this road in both directions, so it could take at least a week as well. Don’t forget to try the conch fritters and key lime pie!
3) Tioga Road, Highway 120
At 9,945 feet, Tioga Pass, the eastern entrance to Yosemite National Park, is the highest automobile pass in California. You cannot enter this area of the park during the winter and you should be able to see snow in some places during the middle of the summer. This year, the campground at Tuolumne Meadows, less than 5 miles west of Tioga Pass, did not open until July or August due to additional winter snow. Tuolumne Meadows is a beautiful alpine wonderland with wildflowers during the spring and summer. Tioga Road passes Lake Tenaya and Yosemite Creek for the 40-mile journey into Yosemite Valley. However, the most spectacular scenery is between Tuolumne Meadows and Highway 395, near Mono Lake.
4) Trail Ridge Road, Highway 34
Trail Ridge Road offers a convenient way to experience arctic tundra conditions without traveling to northern Canada or upper Alaska. This road, in Rocky Mountain National Park, is over 11,000 feet for at least 10 miles, reaching a peak of 12,183 feet near the Alpine Visitor Center in Fall River Pass. The road crosses the Continental Divide four miles west of here at Milner Pass. I like to enter through the Fall River Ranger Station entrance near Estes Park. Almost immediately, you will reach Sheep Lakes and hopefully you will see some bighorn sheep.
5) Teton Park Road, Grand Teton National Park, US 29
The Tetons are different from other mountain ranges in that they rise directly from the ground and have no foothills to obscure the view. From the southern boundary of Yellowstone National Park, take US 29, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway to Grand Teton National Park. You will pass Jackson Lake and Colter Bay Visitor Center. Take Teton Park Road at Jackson Lake Junction. A special side trip is the turnoff to Signal Mountain with a vast panorama of the entire park. All three tetons (Grand, Middle and South) dominate the view as you drive south. In addition to the rugged and steep mountains, you may see moose, elk, coyotes, or deer.
Here are some lesser-known scenic drives that represent the beauty of North America:
Icefields Highway (Alberta)
North Vancouver to Whistler (British Columbia)
Skyline Drive (better than Blue Ridge Parkway)
Highway 101 through Northern California and Southern Oregon
drive around Crater Lake, Oregon
Chain of Craters Road and Crater Rim Drive in Volcanoes NP, Hawaii
Highway 462, Pennsylvania Dutch Country
Natzhez Trace Trail (Columbus, TN to Natchez, MS)
Wolf Creek Pass, Highway 160, Colorado (best crossing of continental divisions)
Durango to Silverton (Southwest Colorado)
Million Dollar Road on the outskirts of Ouray, Colorado
drive around Lake Tahoe, California / Nevada border
US 1 along the Maine coast (and Highway 3 to Acadia Nat’l Park)
Mohawk Trail, Massachusetts
Kancamagus Highway (Highway 112), New Hampshire (Conway to Lincoln)
Highway 82, J. Davis Memorial Highway (Tifton, GA to Columbus, MS)
Highway 191 around Moab, Utah and Arches National Park
Portuguese Bend, California
Interstate highways (here are some particularly scenic parts):
I-10 west of New Orleans (through swamps)
I-15 Arizona (beautiful canyons)
I-24 Western Kentucky (beautiful scenery)
I-25 Cheyenne to Denver (amazing sunsets and scenery)
I-80 Truckee, CA to Reno, NV (Donner Pass)
I-84 Columbia Gorge, Oregon
I-90 Missoula to Billings (city dwellers should try this one)
I hope this inspires you to drive some of North America’s scenic highways and roads on your next vacation.