The Great American Summer Road Trip: Unforgettable Scenic Drives in the United States
Americans drove a record-setting 3.2 trillion miles in 2016, according to an estimate from the Federal Highway Administration. The months with the most drivers on the road were July and August, indicating that for a sizable chunk of Americans, summer travel means traveling by car. On some special byways, the journey itself can become the destination, taking you through a 3-D version of “America the Beautiful” lyrics, complete with spacious skies, purple mountain majesties, and amber waves of grain. Not to mention rugged coasts, sunset-red desert expanses, and glimpses of bygone Americana. So buckle up—here are our favorite scenic drives in the United States.
Photo: Interstate 40 East, near the Arizona-New Mexico border
Given its size and embarrassment of natural riches, California was made for road trips. The most scenic of the state’s many scenic stretches of pavement hugs the jagged sliver where North America meets the Pacific Ocean. Traveling north to south along the Big Sur Coast from Carmel to Cambria, California Route 1 twists and turns along 1,200-foot cliffs flanked by crashing waves and redwood forests. You can also see sunbathing sea lions, charming villages and artist communities, the only waterfall on the continent that empties into the Pacific, and Big Sur Bridge (AKA Bixby Bridge, pictured above), one of the most photographed sights in California. Start thinking up synonyms for “stunning” now.
- Atlantic Coast alternative: On the other end of North America, the Florida Keys Scenic Highway links 43 barrier isles via a 100-mile overseas route with endless ocean vistas extending from either side.
- Fair warning: In both California and Florida, traffic reaches its peak in the summer months. But you’re not in a hurry—that’s why you’re taking the scenic route, right?
An engineering marvel when it opened during the Great Depression, the 50-mile Going-to-the-Sun Road slices through Montana’s Glacier National Park from east to west, providing a thorough and convincing case for what makes the place special. Starting out in valleys filled with cedar forests and impossibly clear lakes, cars climb past spectacular mountain views (including of the peak the road is named after) and surprises like the Weeping Wall—a waterfall that spills right onto the road—before crossing the Continental Divide at Logan Pass, the road’s highest point at 6,646 feet. The journey is strictly a summertime proposition: Heavy snowfall makes it too dangerous to traverse from mid-fall to early June.
- Not up to the drive? If you’re not the steady-behind-the-wheel type, the road’s narrow two lanes, hairpin turns, and dizzying altitudes might be too much. In that case, you can always opt for a guided tour aboard one of the park’s vintage red buses (pictured above).
- For an even more remote experience: Take on the drive from Anchorage to Valdez in Alaska, where that state’s supercharged scenery—including glaciers, enormous mountain ranges, and sheer cliffs of ice—is on full display.
Hawaii’s Hana Highway, which runs along Maui’s northeastern shore starting in Kahului, covers 50 miles but takes at least three hours (and at most a full day) to drive from end to end. That’s partly because the road has some 600 sharp curves and more than 50 one-lane bridges, and partly because there is a host of enticing spots to get out of the car and wade into waterfall pools, breathe in the scents of wild ginger and plumeria flowers, sample bananas and mangos from roadside fruit stands, and snap photos of verdant hillsides lined with black- and red-sand beaches. The highway eventually ends up in the earthly paradise that is Hana, a still-secluded, still-unspoiled village in a coastal rainforest.
- Start early: You want to take your time on the road to Hana, but you don’t want to be stuck in a bumper-to-bumper crawl. To beat the busiest traffic times—midmorning to afternoon—start out just before sunrise.
- A Caribbean alternative: The Panoramic Route in Puerto Rico is a network of roads stretching for more than 150 miles through the island’s central mountains, past waterfalls, lush valleys, and Taino ruins.
You can’t drive on the surface of Mars, but you can easily pretend that’s what you’re doing on State Route 12 in Utah. The 120-mile scenic byway’s western end begins amid the rust-colored rock formations of Red Canyon (pictured above) before leading into the northern portion of Bryce Canyon National Park, where an eerie, orange-tinted expanse of skinny limestone towers called hoodoos fills the canyon floor. Continuing eastward, you can learn about the region’s native peoples at Anasazi State Park, pop into offbeat cafes and art galleries, and admire far-reaching views amid groves of aspen trees on Boulder Mountain. Mars, meanwhile, doesn’t even have oxygen.
- Limited access: Route 12 has only two main entry points—from U.S. Highway 89 near the town of Panguitch on the western side, and from Highway 24 in Torrey in the east. Plan accordingly.
- Quicker version: More red rocks can be viewed along the far shorter—but still ruggedly beautiful—Route 179 in Arizona, which runs about 14.5 miles between Camp Verde and the rose-hued city of Sedona.
Some would argue that the Blue Ridge Parkway upstages the two national parks it was built to connect: Shenandoah in Virginia and the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina. The parkway certainly gets more visitors—15.2 million of them in 2016, compared to 11 million for the Smokies and only about 1.4 million for Shenandoah. It’s not hard to see what attracts road trippers to the 469-mile, two-lane parkway: panoramas of hazy, blue-tinged mountains (the show-stopping peak is the nearly 6,000-foot Grandfather Mountain on the North Carolina side) as well as more intimate scenes of woods, valleys, and down-home Appalachian living. The culture and contributions of the region’s human inhabitants are represented at craft fairs, old country stores, comfort-food restaurants, the Blue Ridge Music Center in Galax, Virginia, and more picturesquely rough-hewn farmhouses than you’d find in a Thomas Kinkade Company showroom.
- Come back in autumn to stock up on apple butter, roam mountain orchards, and see the forested hillsides after they’ve turned yellow, orange, red, and gold.
- Rocky Mountains alternative: On the other side of the Mississippi, the best drive in the West's most iconic range is Colorado's 19-mile Pikes Peak Highway, which climbs to the top of that 14,114-foot beauty.
After a brief dash through a forest of beech and maple trees, Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive in northern Michigan, near Traverse City, opens onto dramatic views of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore—where giant, sandy bluffs tower as high as 450 feet next to sparkling Lake Michigan. Named after the lumberjack who built the road in the 1960s, the Pierce Stocking loop is only about 7.5 miles long, but there are so many good spots to stop and linger, it’ll take you a while to finish the journey. Plenty of visitors set up beach chairs in the sand to watch the sunset over the water. If you like a challenge, you can climb the dunes, though it’s a strenuous chore that might remind you of that dream where you’re trying to run up a hill but can’t make any forward progress.
- Come back in autumn to check out the foliage along the forested portion of the drive, especially near the quaint covered bridge.
- For the true dunes enthusiast: Make your way to Nebraska and drive along Highway 2 amid gently rolling, grass-covered sandhills frequented by flocks of migrating cranes in the spring.
The second-largest wine-growing region in the United States by acreage is Texas Hill Country, the lush, rolling landscape north of San Antonio. Eighteen wineries are connected along 30 miles of Highway 290, between Fredericksburg and Johnson City. In addition to seeing cultivated grapes, you can spot the region’s famous wildflowers in the spring and early summer (bluebonnets blanket the hills in March and April). Many towns in the area, including Fredericksburg, retain links to their founders‘ German heritage, on display in architecture, place names, and local restaurants serving schnitzel and strudel. Also along the route: the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park in Stonewall, where you can tour the former president’s birthplace and ranch.
- Designated driver: If you’re going to be tasting wines along 290, park your car and rely on the handy hop-on, hop-off wine shuttle.
- Wine country classic: Another great drive for appreciating American viticulture is California’s iconic Silverado Trail, a quiet country road (especially compared with nearby Highway 29) that connects Napa and Calistoga via 30 miles filled with dozens of wineries.
On the raised arm and fist that is Cape Cod, the historic Massachusetts Route 6A runs along the bicep all the way up to the knuckles. Also known as the Old King’s Highway, the 62-mile drive strings together one charming bayside village after another, starting with the Cape’s oldest town, Sandwich. You should count on making a day of it. Snap photos of 19th-century sea captains’ homes in Barnstable. Do your best imitation of a frolicking Kennedy on the beaches of the Cape Cod National Seashore. At the tip of the Cape, enjoy the hubbub of Provincetown, a resort village notable for being a brief pre-Plymouth stopover for the Pilgrims and, today, a pilgrimage site for LGBT travelers. Then turn around and retrace your route around the Cape, catching what you missed the first time.
- Summer crowds are large on the Cape, but Route 6A is often less clogged with tourists than Route 6 and, especially, Route 28. If you get caught in one of Cape Cod’s legendary traffic jams, you could always console yourself with a stop at a roadside clam shack.
- For a fuller survey of New England: Hit the nearly 500-mile Connecticut River Byway, which follows the region’s longest river through the hills, farmland, and quaint villages of three states—Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont.
Because Chicago’s winters get such bad press, it’s probably not common knowledge outside the Midwest that the city truly shines in summer, when residents—who’ve learned to seize sunny days when they get them—stream outdoors for street festivals, patio dining, and communion with their beloved lakefront. A great way to sample this yearly display of fleeting sun worship is with a trip along one of the nation’s greatest urban thoroughfares, Lake Shore Drive, which runs for nearly 16 miles from Hollywood Avenue on the north side to Marquette Drive in the south. On one side of your car: sailboats bobbing in a dazzling, bright blue Lake Michigan bordered by sandy beaches, parkland, and paved pathways bustling with joggers and cyclists. On the other side: the iconic skyline of a city famous for its innovative architecture.
- Keep driving and you can eventually work your way around the entire lake via the Lake Michigan Circle Tour, which showcases urban as well as woodsy waterside scenery in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
- Another incredible city drive is the Las Vegas Strip—and we mean “incredible” in the literal sense. No matter how many times you’ve been to Vegas, it’s still somehow difficult to believe that the neon behemoths lining its most famous thoroughfare aren’t a desert mirage after all.
For a drive that lets you look at spectacular views as well as look back at a fascinating chapter in American history, it’s hard to beat Newport, Rhode Island. This wedge of land in Naragansett Bay was the preferred summer playground for the country’s wealthiest families in the latter half of the 19th century and into the early years of the 20th—the so-called Gilded Age. Along Newport’s Bellevue Avenue and Ocean Drive loop, these rapacious industrialists built over-the-top mansions inspired by the palaces of Europe and called them “cottages,” which was either false modesty or true obnoxiousness. As you make your way along the rocky coastline, you can tour many of the homes, including the most famous, The Breakers and Marble House (pictured above), built for two generations of Vanderbilts.
- Keep looking back at Fort Adams, a former Army post in Newport that dates to 1799.
- Another chapter of history is commemorated on the Natchez Trace Parkway, which covers much of the same ground in Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi as a footpath used for centuries by Native Americans and, during the 19th century, by traders, explorers, and soldiers.