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Home > Close-Ups > My 20 Favorite Drives in the U.S.

 

 

My 20 Favorite Drives in the U.S.

 

 

Driving across the U.S. is my favorite past time.  Whenever I take a trip, I always try to use a different route, just as my Dad did when he drove my family around the U.S. on multi-week camping trips when I was a kid.  Between those trips of many years ago with my family and my more recent adventures, I've traveled on a lot of different routes in the U.S.  

 

It's hard to list my 20 favorite drives in the U.S. there are so many spectacular routes, but here they are listed in order.  I've included a map below and have described them below in more detail with photos. 

Hidden Text:  Map Bookmark

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Burr Trail, Utah:  Boulder to Bullfrog

Alpine Loop, Colorado:  Lake City, Silverton, Ouray

U.S. Highway 1, Florida:  Key Largo to Key West

Avenue of the Giants, California:  Pepperwood to Phillipsville

Utah Highway 12:  Panguitch to Torrey 

U.S. Highway 101, Oregon Coast:  Astoria to Brookings

Natchez Trace Parkway:  Natchez, Mississippi to Nashville, Tennessee

California Highway 1:  Monterey to San Luis Obispo

Going-to-the-Sun Highway, Glacier National Park, Montana:  West Glacier to St. Mary

North Carolina Highway 12 (Outer Banks Highway):  Kitty Hawk to Okracoke

U.S. Highway 50, Nevada:  Ely to Carson City

U.S. Highway 90 (Gulf Coast Highway):  Lafayette, Louisiana to Mobile, Alabama

Cal Barrel Road:  Prairie Creek Redwoods St. Park, California

U.S. Highway 1, Maine:  Calais to Bath

Washington Highway 20 (North Cascades Highway):  Winthrop to Sedro Woolley

U.S. Highway 15 (along the Susquehanna River), Pennsylvania:  Williamsport to Harrisburg

Interstate 90, South Dakota:  Rapid City to Sioux Falls

U.S. Highway 40 (The National Road):  Cumberland, Maryland to Vandalia, Illinois

Utah Highway 95:  Hanksville to Blanding 

Blue Ridge Parkway:  Front Royal, Virginia to Cherokee, North Carolina

 

 

My 20 Favorite Drives in America                   (Click for story and photos)

Hidden Text:  Drive #1

1.  Burr Trail, Utah:  Boulder to Bullfrog

My favorite drive in the U.S. lies in one of the most remote parts of the country, southern Utah.  The Burr Trail is actually a road (well, sort of a road).  It's 52 miles long and meanders through some of the most beautiful desert landscapes in the U.S. accessible by a 2-wheel-drive vehicle.  The western half of the Trail is paved while the eastern half, which travels through Capitol Reef National Park, thankfully remains unpaved -- though it can get dusty in the summer time.  The desert scenery along this route is unforgettable as are the names, including Muley Twist Canyon and Cohab Canyon -- and Molly's Nipple is just a few miles away.

 

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Above left:  Unfortunately, the western half of the Burr Trail was paved a few years ago -- though the landscapes remain beautiful.

Above right:  The eastern half of the Burr Trail through Capitol Reef National Park remains unpaved.  This is at the top of a series of thrilling dirt switchbacks that drop down a thousand feet to the washboardy Notom-Bullfrog road.

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Hidden Text:  Drive #2

2.  Alpine Loop, Colorado:  Lake City, Silverton, Ouray

I was fortunate enough to work in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado for six years as a BLM ranger.  Whenever I patrolled the dirt road between Lake City, Ouray, and Silverton, all I could think of was, "They're actually paying me to do this." 

 

This route travels through some of the most amazing Rocky Mountain scenery in the U.S., much more spectacular than the more famous Rocky Mountain National Park a few hundred miles north.  Although it's a 2-wheel-drive dirt road for most of its length, you will need a 4-wheel-drive to get over the passes.  The Alpine Loop is only accessible between June and September and is closed due to heavy snow during the rest of the year.  For more information on this area, see News: July 4, 2002.

 

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Above left:  The Alpine Loop road north of Silverton, at sunset.  This whole region was my patrol area when I was "Ranger Del."

Above right:  Lake San Cristobal on the east side of 12,800' Engineer Pass is the namesake for Lake City.

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Hidden Text: Drive #3

3.  U.S. Highway 1, Florida:  Key Largo to Key West

Something happens to people when they drive down this balmy road, also known as the "Jimmy Buffett Highway."  Worries disappear and smiles emerge.  The road itself is pretty amazing, with long bridges that span across the Gulf of Mexico linking one key to another.  The end of the road is at Key West, the most tropical city in the continental U.S.  Get yourself a B-&-B in Old Town, catch a pedicab to the pier for the sunset, and drink a toast as you watch the sun sink into the Gulf.

 

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Above left:  Heading down Highway 1 on a seven-mile-long bridge across the keys.

Above right:  Key West lies at the end of the Highway.  Have a margarita and watch the sunset at the pier.

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Hidden Text: Drive #4

4.  Avenue of the Giants, California:  Pepperwood to Phillipsville 

Driving through a redwood grove, no matter how small, is a soothing experience.  This road winds through one of the most beautiful redwood groves in the U.S. for over 30 miles.  This is actually the old Highway 101 before engineers thankfully built a bypass that is used by about 90% of the traffic; the 10% that take this route are the smart ones.  There are three campgrounds along the Avenue of the Giants and many places to pull off and have lunch.  I videotaped this entire drive through my windshield a few years ago and watch it whenever I want to unwind.

 

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Above left:  The Avenue of Giants winding peacefully through the Redwoods.

Above right:  There are several pull-offs where you can hike to a nice spot and have lunch.

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Hidden Text: Drive #5

5.  Utah Highway 12:  Panguitch to Torrey 

The Burr Trail, my #1 Drive in the U.S., offers a primitive (though dusty) driving experience through the Utah sandstone landscape.  This route, Highway 12, is paved the whole way as it extends across southern Utah and is suitable even for RV's. 

The highlight is "The Hogback," a 3-mile stretch that travels on the top of a sandstone ridge with sharp dropoffs on either side, literally inches from the pavement.  And, if you've got time, be sure to hike to the spectacular Calf Creek Falls.  Utah 12 is a terrific drive if you enjoy solitude and breathtaking scenery.

 

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Above left:  Abandoned cabin near Cannonville, Utah on Highway 12.

Above right:  The road travels on top of and through the sandstone.  This is a beautiful route, totally unlike any other in the U.S.

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Hidden Text: Drive #6

6.  U.S. Highway 101, Oregon Coast:  Astoria to Brookings

I know the Oregon Coast Highway better than any route I've listed here, having driven the entire 363 mile length probably 30 or 40 times in my life.  As many times as I've driven the Coast Highway, though, I've never gotten tired of it and always see new things.  The rocky southern coast gives way to the sand dunes of the central coast, which gives way to the rocky northern coast.  The weather along the coast is fairly predictable: usually warm and sunny in the summer and cool and rainy in the winter.  There are over 100 Oregon State Parks along the highway, offering plenty of opportunities to camp, have lunch, or just walk on the beach.

 

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Above left:  Ecola State Park on Highway 101, near Cannon Beach in northern Oregon.

Above right:  The southern Oregon Coast near Pistol River.

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Hidden Text: Drive #7

7.  Natchez Trace Parkway:  Natchez, Mississippi to Nashville, Tennessee

The Natchez Trace Parkway is one of the most unique routes in America.  Managed by the National Park Service, the Parkway is a 2-lane road that stretches for over 500 miles between Natchez and Nashville with no commercial services, such as motels or gas stations.  Best of all, trucks are prohibited.  There are plenty of crossroads, though, if you need to visit a nearby town. 

The Park Service has interpretive sites located every few miles and there are three free campgrounds along the route.

 

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Above left:  The southern entrance to the Natchez Trace Parkway near Natchez, Mississippi.

Above right:  A farm on the Parkway near Franklin, Tennessee.

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Hidden Text: Drive #8

8.  California Highway 1:  Monterey to San Luis Obispo

I hadn't driven Highway 1 south of Monterey for several years until my recent trip around the U.S., which is a shame because I'd forgotten how beautiful it is.  It's a winding, fairly slow 30-40 m.p.h. road, but it's not nearly as winding or slow as Highway 1 north of San Francisco, which seems like one endless switchback.  If you have a few extra hours to travel between Los Angeles and the Bay Area, take Highway 1 instead of the more heavily traveled Highway 101 or Interstate 5.  You'll be glad you did.

 

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Above left:  Highway 1 road sign near San Simeon.

Above right:  Taking a break at a vista point near Lucia.

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Hidden Text: Drive #9

9.  Going-to-the-Sun Highway, Glacier National Park, Montana:  West Glacier to St. Mary

The most scenic road in America that travels through the Rocky Mountains is, I believe, the Alpine Loop in Colorado (see above).  The Going-to-the-Sun Highway, though, is probably the most scenic paved road that travels through the Rockies.  The scenery is similar to the Columbia Icefields Parkway that travels through Alberta and Jasper National Parks in Canada.  With the steep grades and sharp drop-offs, you really feel like you're Going to the Sun.  Due to heavy winter snowfall, the road is open only between about May and October.

 

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Above left:  On the west side of Logan Pass, going to the sun.

Above right:  Fog drifting down into the cirque valleys.  The road is visible on the left.

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Hidden Text: Drive #10

10.  North Carolina Highway 12 (Outer Banks Highway):  Kitty Hawk to Okracoke

I like this route because I love riding on ferries.  Highway 12 travels through the Outer Banks including the entire length of Okracoke Island, a 15-mile-long sand barrier island with endless beautiful beaches.  Okracoke is accessible only by ferries at both ends and, for that reason, there isn't a whole lot of traffic there.  Highway 12 also passes by Cape Hatteras where you can see the lighthouse that was recently moved inland by the Park Service.  Kitty Hawk and the site of the Wright Brothers first flight at Kill Devil Hill is at the northern end of the route.

 

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Above left:  Vehicles can get to Okracoke Island only by a fleet of ferries.  The tiny ferries zip around each other and dodge the constantly shifting sand bars.

Above right:  The distinctive spiral colors of the Cape Hatteras lighthouse, at its location in 1995.  The National Park Service recently moved the lighthouse (very slooowly) inland about a quarter-mile to keep it from falling into the sea.

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Hidden Text: Drive #11

11.  U.S. Highway 50, Nevada:  Ely to Carson City

This is a great route if you like empty highways and wide-open vistas.  In fact, a magazine several years ago dubbed this road, "The Loneliest Highway in America."   Highway 50 winds for 350 miles across the endless Nevada sagebrush landscape.  It's a bit like a roller coaster as it climbs over a range, drops into a basin, only to cross over another range.  There are only a handful of towns on this route, but each is interesting with many abandoned buildings left over from the silver mining days of the 1800s.

 

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Above left:  Some people call U.S. 50 through Nevada the "Loneliest Highway in America."  Maybe that's why I like it.

Above right:  The basin-and-range country of central Nevada.  Not too many folks out here, but lots of sagebrush.

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Hidden Text: Drive #12

12.  U.S. Highway 90 (Gulf Coast Highway):  Lafayette, Louisiana to Mobile, Alabama

U.S. 90 hugs the Gulf of Mexico as it travels through the Cajun country of southern Louisiana from Lafayette ("Loff-yet") to the wonderful city of Mobile, Alabama.  As you travel on the Gulf Coast Highway through Louisiana, be sure to tune into one of the Cajun radio stations that plays infectious, toe-tapping Zydeco music.  Be aware, though, that you won't see the bayou landscapes here of swamps filled with Bald Cypress trees and Spanish Moss; those are a little farther north (check out the town of Pierre Part or Sam Houston Jones State Park, near Lake Charles).  You will, however, see lots of interesting old towns and will experience a culture unlike anywhere else in the U.S.

 

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Above left:  Sunrise over the marshes at Cypremort State Park in Louisiana.  This is one of my few sunrise shots... because I'm usually sleeping then!

Above right:  Unidentified stud on the Mississippi Gulf Coast trying in vain to get a tan.

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Hidden Text: Drive #13

13.  Cal Barrel Road:  Prairie Creek Redwoods St. Park, California

At only three miles long, this is the shortest route on my list.  Cal Barrel Road is a wonderful gravel road located in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park in northern California, just off the Newton Drury Parkway (old Highway 101).  The road winds slowly through the redwoods and dead-ends at a trailhead parking area which is a great lunch stop.  There are also several places you can pull off and stroll through the peaceful redwoods.  I like this route because there isn't much traffic, you can drive as slowly as you like, and you can get a feeling for what driving through the redwoods must have been like before the roads were paved.

 

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Above left:  Though only three miles long, the graveled Cal Barrel Road is a very pleasant drive.

Above right:  Lunch among the redwoods.

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Hidden Text: Drive #14

14.  U.S. Highway 1, Maine:  Calais to Bath

This route travels through the "Down East" part of Maine, which is much less populated and urbanized than areas on the coast further west (the Maine coast generally extends east-west).  There are lots of small, scenic fishing towns along U.S. 1 and a slower pace pervades here.  A highlight is eating at one of the many "Lobster Pounds," a type of self-serve lobster restaurant where they boil the lobster you pick out.  Two of my favorite stops include the southwestern part of Acadia National Park and the Maritime Museum in Searsport.

 

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Above left:  West Quoddy Head lighthouse near Lubec, Maine, the easternmost point in the U.S.

Above right:  Southwest Harbor in Acadia National Park.

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Hidden Text: Drive #15

15.  Washington Highway 20 (North Cascades Highway):  Winthrop to Sedro Woolley

This is one of the least-traveled yet most-scenic routes in America and travels through the scenic North Cascades National Park.  The craggy, snowy Cascades mountains hug both sides of the highway and provide "Oh, wow!" exclamations at nearly every bend in the road.  This area gets more snow than any other part of the U.S., with 10,700' Mt. Baker setting a world snowfall record a few years ago.  Consequently, Highway 20 closes for the winter each year.  During the few months when it's open, though, this road is spectacular.

 

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Above left:  Washington Pass on Highway 20.

Above right:  Ross Lake in the Washington Cascades.

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Hidden Text: Drive #16

16.  U.S. Highway 15 (along the Susquehanna River), Pennsylvania:  Williamsport to Harrisburg

Highway 15 travels along the Susquehanna River, one of the most beautiful rivers in the U.S.  Because of the geology in this area, the Susquehanna River cascades in a series of steps as it drops through eastern Pennsylvania, with long stretches of flat water interrupted with periodic fall lines where it cuts through the strata.  And be sure to stop at Three Mile Island near Harrisburg where you can get a healthy "glow"!

 

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Above left:  Fall line along the Susquehanna River.

Above right:  Williamsport, Pennsylvania and the Susquehanna River.  Williamsport is the site of the Little League World Series, played each summer.

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Hidden Text: Drive #17

17.  Interstate 90, South Dakota:  Sioux Falls to Rapid City

There are so many beautiful and interesting routes in the Midwest that I had a hard time choosing one over the other for this list.  Despite my general dislike for Interstate freeways, though, I decided to pick Interstate 90 through South Dakota.  I've driven this route three times and enjoy watching the endless fields pass by on this 300-mile-long, straight stretch of concrete, as I try to take in the vast emptiness of South Dakota -- while counting down the miles to Wall Drug.

 

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Above left:  Interstate 90 at Chamberlain where it crosses the Missouri River.

Above right:  The world's only Corn Palace is in Mitchell, South Dakota, just off Interstate 90.

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Hidden Text: Drive #18

18.  U.S. Highway 40 (The National Road):  Cumberland, Maryland to Vandalia, Illinois

I had to include this route because I'm a history buff and U.S. 40, developed in the early 1800s, was the first road that extended from the East Coast to the Midwest.  The route's heritage is evident as you pass through countless old towns and admire the architecture and scores of historic, old buildings.  Traveling on U.S. 40 is like stepping back into the 19th century.

 

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Above left:  Lewisville, Indiana, one of many quaint towns along the National Road.

Above right:  Sign, sign, everywhere a sign...

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Hidden Text: Drive #19

19.  Utah Highway 95:  Hanksville to Blanding 

My bias for scenery in southern Utah is probably clear, since I've already listed two other Utah routes in my Top 20 list.  However, I couldn't leave Highway 95 off my list.  Paved in 1976 and known as the Bicentennial Highway, this is a spectacular route, passing by scores of red sandstone side canyons.  Much straighter than either the Burr Trail (my #1 route) or Utah Highway 12 (my #5 route), Highway 95 drops down from Hanksville to Lake Powell and the Colorado River then slowly climbs to Blanding, winding through numerous canyons.  It's a great road to roll down the windows and let the wind blow through your hair.

 

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Above left:  Along Highway 95 with Lake Powell and the Colorado River bridge in the background.

Above right:  The Highway 95 road cut through Comb Ridge near Blanding.

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Hidden Text: Drive #20

20.  Blue Ridge Parkway:  Front Royal, Virginia to Cherokee, North Carolina

The Blue Ridge Parkway extends from Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina.  Like the Natchez Trace Parkway, it's a two-lane paved road with no commercial facilities or commercial vehicles (i.e., trucks) allowed, providing an unusual driving experience.  And, like the Natchez Trace Parkway, there are pullouts every few miles.  If you enjoy driving on what seems to be the top of the world, this route is for you.  

 

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Above left:  Cruising on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Above right:  A National Park Service interpretive site on the Parkway in Virginia.

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