Automobile ads love to show shiny vehicles cruising open highways under blue skies with mountains and beaches nearby. When was the last time you took a drive like that? For most of us, our cars are merely workhorses to haul us around town.
Still, it's possible to break out of the rut. Magnificent roads are never far: These routes slice through forests, dance along the coastlines and thread through mountain passes. They're scenic drives, yes, but they're also classically American. Once you find the right path, it's easy to rediscover the exuberant freedom of the open road.
The first cars were, by and large, playthings for the rich and powerful -- just picture Jay Gatsby winding his yellow Rolls-Royce down the parkways of Long Island -- and special scenic routes were constructed in some of the country's most beautiful spots. When more Americans started driving, it created a road-trip frenzy that lives on today.
Some of these roads are justifiably famous, including what's arguably America's most scenic drive: California's Route 1, which wraps around Big Sur. Rocky cliffs plunge down to open ocean, creating a severe distraction while drivers.
Other roads may not be household names, but are nevertheless an integral part of the American fabric. Highway 31, west of New Orleans, takes you through classic Louisiana countryside, past lazy bayous and swampy lagoons filled with alligators and herons.
And some of these great American drives are still relatively new. Between Utah's Capitol Reef National Park and its Dr. Seuss-like Bryce Canyon, Highway 12 runs past sandstone cliffs and a forest of deep green junipers. Yet this road was simply a challenging four-wheel-drive track until the last stretch was opened in 1985. And the famous Blue Ridge Parkway, a project started in 1935, wasn't fully completed until 1983. That's when the Linn Cove Viaduct, which snakes around North Carolina's Grandfather Mountain, was finished.
So next time you find yourself stuck in rush-hour traffic, take the next exit and find the iconic American road closest to you. Put yourself in that automobile ad.
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.” Photo: Mark Doliner See more of America’s Most Iconic Drives
Built in the Roaring 1920s 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. Photo: John T. Miller, MPLS, MN See more of America’s Most Iconic Drives
At roughly the geographical center of the Lone Star state, the sparsely populated Hill Country region mixes sagebrush plateaus with deep canyons and fast-flowing rivers. And just outside the idyllic hamlet of Utopia, a series of winding roads—Highways 335, 336, and 337—offer an intense taste of the rugged topography. Climbing up and down canyons and twisting along angular rock walls, these roads offer an adrenaline blast for anyone brave enough to open up the throttle. Where to Stop: The Lone Star Motorcycle Museum outside Vanderpool has dozens of vintage motorcycles, plus a good diner, the Ace Café (830-966-6103). Photo: Cody Ely See more of America’s Most Iconic Drives
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: Vista House. 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. Photo: Dalei Lang See more of America’s Most Iconic Drives
New England has many miles of great drives, but nothing beats “The Kanc”—a 26.5-mile drive along Route 112, between the towns of Conway and Lincoln. Often rated as the best fall color drive in the U.S., this road is a commerce-free climb past colonial farmhouses, scenic covered bridges, and miles of hardwood and evergreen forest. Where to Stop: Sabbaday Falls. Just east of the crest, and a quick 15-minute stroll south of the highway, the splashing cascades have been a popular picnic spot since frontier times. Photo: Courtesy of White Mountains Attractions See more of America’s Most Iconic Drives
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. See more of America’s Most Iconic Drives
Yes, it’s so famous it’s a cliché, but this 2,000-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. Photo: Chuck Coker See more of America’s Most Iconic Drives
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