My wife and I just returned from a vacation in the Canadian Rockies; in particular, Banff and Jasper National Parks, where they promote the Icefields Highway as one of the most spectacular drives in North America and the world. Their proclamation made me think of the best scenic drives that I have taken in North America.
Here is a description of five of my favorite scenic drives in North America, followed by a list of several others.
I invite you to send your thoughts and comments, whether you agree or disagree. If you have a favorite scenic drive that I did not mention, then I would love to hear about it. Here goes:
1) Big Sur, Highway 1
Many people consider the 100 mile drive through Big Sur the greatest drive in the world. The Big Sur road, too spectacular to be called a highway, is the crown jewel of the famed Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), many sections of which qualify for outstanding scenic status. Every mile allows you to experience the ocean crashing against the bottom of the cliffs a couple hundred feet below you or, on the other side of the road, the bright green fields of grass. If you can not travel in both directions, then I recommend starting the drive from the north end; you will be next to the ocean for the entire drive. The northern end of Big Sur, between Carmel and Carmel Highlands and 2.5 hours south of San Francisco, has one of my two favorite traffic signs: it shows the snakey line, indicating curvy road ahead, with the text “Next 84 miles.” The road passes Point Lobos (one of California's best state parks), Carmel Highlands, and soon crosses the Bixby Creek bridge, one of California's most photographed spots. Many people consider the view from Rocky Point restaurant, a little further south, as the greatest sunset in the world. In between here and Cambria, the southern end of Big Sur, you will pass Nepenthe (another world class viewing spot), Hearst Castle (the most expensive home in the US), and countless breathing photographic opportunities. The entire shoreline of Big Sur is a National Marine Sanctuary (sea otter refugee). The fog in the middle of the summer surprises most visitors. The temperature rarely raises above 70 degrees and most often is around 55. The best weather occurs between November and April, when you can see migrating whales from the road.
2. The Overseas (Florida Keys) Highway, US 1
This drive is outstanding if only for the fact that it extends 100 miles into the Florida Straits, between the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. The Keys 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 in the continental United States, Key West, only 90 miles from Cuba. You seem to spend half the drive over water and half the drive on several small islands, with names such as Duck Key and Pine Key (or Big Pine Key and Little Pine Key). One of the highlights of the drive is crossing the seven mile bridge, featured in the movie “True Lies,” and inevitably wondering if hurricanes can suddenly appear out of the blue (ocean) like their tornado cousins. Otherwise, the drive is so soothing and calming. Unlike Big Sur, you almost must drive this road in both directions, so you might as well take at least a week. Do not forget to try the conch fritters and key lime pie!
3) Tioga Road, highway 120
At 9,945 feet, Tioga Pass, Yosemite National Park's eastern entrance, is California's highest automobile pass. You can not enter this area of the park during the winter and should be able to see snow in places during the middle of 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 extra winter snow. Tuolumne Meadows is a beautiful alpine wonderland with wildflowers during the spring and summer. Tioga Road passes Tenaya Lake and Yosemite Creek along the 40 mile drive into Yosemite Valley. By far, the most spectacular scenery, however, 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 Mountains National Park, is above 11,000 feet for at least 10 miles, reaching a peak of 12,183 feet near the Alpine Visitor Center at Fall River Pass. The road crosses the Continental Divide four miles west of here at Milner Pass. I like to enter at the Fall River Ranger Station entrance, near Estes Park. Almost immediately, you will come to Sheep Lakes and, hopefully, see some bighorn sheep.
5) Teton Park Road, Grand Teton National Park, US 29
The Tetons are different from other mountain ranges, because they rise straight out of the ground and have no foothills to diminish the view. From the southern boundary of Yellowstone National Park, take US 29, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway into Grand Teton National Park. You will go past Jackson Lake and Colter Bay Visitor Center. Take Teton Park Road at Jackson Lake Junction. A special side trip is the turn off to Signal Mountain with a vast panorama of the entire park. The three tetons (Grand, Middle, and South) dominate the view as you drive south. In addition to the craggy, 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 (nicer than the 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 continental division crossing)
Durango to Silverton (Southwest Colorado)
Million Dollar Road outside Ouray, Colorado
drive around Lake Tahoe, California / Nevada border
US 1 along the Maine coast (and highway 3 into 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 portions):
I-10 west of New Orleans (through swampland)
I-15 Arizona (beautiful canyons)
I-24 Western Kentucky (beautiful landscape)
I-25 Cheyenne to Denver (incredible 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 on some of the scenic roads and byways in North America on your next vacation.