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Top 10 Scenic Highways

July 5th, 2017 - 9:29 AM

Finding the scenic route for your trip

Picture this: You’re zooming past the most gorgeous vistas you’ve ever seen.  The weather is perfect. Your family stops at an overlook to take in the beautiful coastline, and you get the perfect picture. Post that to Instagram® before getting back in the car for a leisurely drive. Then stop at a great little restaurant to try the local cuisine. For a trip like this, the journey truly is the destination.

Whether you’re setting out for a road trip or looking to find a scenic route as you travel across the country for a long-distance move, the road you take can make all the difference. Learn the different types of scenic roads you might encounter when driving across the United States and check out our list of the top 10 scenic highways.

The Pacific Coast Highway is a great scenic route.

The different types of scenic routes

While venturing across America, you may notice signs for several different things: scenic routes, scenic byways, and more. Or maybe you’re stopped at a gas station and hear someone mention a nearby scenic highway. What do each of these mean?

  • Scenic highways or scenic roads are typically just known for being a beautiful drive. Some may have special signage depending on the area, but most are undesignated.
  • Scenic routes are special roads designated along the U.S. highway system. You’ll see special banner signs along these roads to let you know you’re on a scenic route.
  • Scenic byways can include roads or parts of routes designated by the state, nation, USDA Forest Service, or Bureau of Land Management as scenic due to unique characteristics. These may have special programs like visitor centers, information stops, or signage.
  • National Scenic Byways are recognized by the United States Department of Transportation for having one of six “intrinsic qualities” (archeological, cultural, historical, natural, recreational or scenic).
  • All-American Road is the top designation for a route or drive. It’s a signifier by the US DOT that the road includes two of the characteristics of a National Scenic Byway. There are 31 All-American Roads (it would make a great bucket list to drive them all).

While the titles may vary, at the end of the day, each of these beautiful drives provides something interesting, memorable and distinctive.

The most scenic drives in America

This is a tough list to narrow down. Do you like coastal bluffs or red rock deserts? What about thick forests or quaint villages? Want a long drive that will take all day or a short trip? There are so many ways to rank these scenic routes, but we’ve created a list that should give you what you’re looking for. In no particular order, here are 10 of the most beautiful scenic byways, roads, and drives in the country:

1.US Route 1 in Florida (Florida Keys Scenic Highway)

The entire highway runs 545 miles along the east coast of Florida, but the Florida Keys Scenic Highway (or the Overseas Highway) is a stretch running from mile marker 110 north of Key Largo all the way to mile marker 0 in Key West. Drive to the end to see the southernmost point in the continental United States. When hopping from island to island (or key to key), you’ll drive over amazing blue-green waters and long bridge crossings, passing lighthouses, beaches and several communities. While driving this All-American Road, don’t miss Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen (at mile marker 99.5) where they serve the best Key lime pie in the area!

2.    Blue Ridge Parkway through Virginia and North Carolina

This drive through the Great Smoky Mountains is 469 miles in length, taking you from Shenandoah National Park to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. And the road (which is an All-American Road) is actually America’s longest linear park. It’s perfect for a leisurely drive over several days since there are many sights to take in along the way. Make sure to stop and hike to the Humpback Rocks at the northern end, where you can see the natural formations and learn about local history! Sections of the Blue Ridge Parkway may be closed during winter when the tunnels freeze, so check road conditions before heading this way.

3.    Scenic Byway 12 in Utah

Drive this All-American Road across 124 miles from Bryce Canyon to Wayne through a National Park, state park, National Recreation Area, National Monument and National Forest. Since you’ll be traveling through remote areas, there may not be cell phone service, so take a map. And watch out for livestock and wildlife, as it’s not unusual to see elk and mule deer along the route. The breathtaking red rocks and canyons are the highlight of this trip. Don’t forget to bring a camera!

4.Going-to-the-Sun Road in Montana

As a part of Glacier National Park, this 50-mile scenic road provides unbelievable sights. Allow for plenty of time for hiking, picnics, and wildlife viewing. Get great looks at Jackson Glacier from the overlook between Logan Pass and St. Mary.  Portions of Going-to-the-Sun Road are open year round, but the entire route is open typically June/July to October, based on snowfall and plowing. Check dates online to make sure you can take the full drive.

5.Pacific Coast Highway, Highway 1 in California

While the total highway covers 655 miles, the sections between Los Angeles and San Francisco, and San Luis Obispo to Carmel, are typically known as the scenic portions. You’ll wind along the Pacific Coast and see highlights like the Golden Gate Bridge, California redwoods, and Hearst Castle. For the iconic California road trip, Route 1 is it.

6.Park Loop Road in Maine

Winding through Acadia National Park for 27 miles, this scenic drive provides amazing coastal views. Plan to stop at Cadillac Mountain, which is the highest point on the North Atlantic seaboard. It’s also the first place to view the sunrise in the United States October through March. Start the trip at the Hulls Cove Visitor Center and wind around the rocky coast. Portions of the road are one-way, so sit back and enjoy the ride! Plan your visit before coming since most of the road closes for winter.

7.San Juan Skyway in Colorado

This All-American Road stretches 236 miles across the Old West of Colorado through Durango, Telluride, and Mesa Verde National Park. Give yourself at least a day or two to drive, and hit the road when the weather is nice. The section of this route from Ouray to Silverton is known as the Million Dollar Highway because of its challenging drive cut into the mountain. Along the way, stop for a pick-me-up at Rocky Mountain Funnel Cakes in Silverton for their decadent fried confections. 

8.Highway 101 in Oregon

U.S. Route 101 hugs the coastline from the Columbia River to the California border, taking you through 363 miles of beauty while crossing through coastal communities, fishing villages and recreational areas. Movie lovers will want to stop in Astoria, where “The Goonies” was filmed. Many scenes were shot at Cannon Beach, so don’t miss it. Foodies will be excited about the Tillamook cheese factory where you can take tours and sample the local delicacies.

9.Arizona State Route 89A

Passing from Prescott to Flagstaff through heart of red rock country in Sedona, this 84-mile drive is packed with amazing views. When passing through Oak Creek Canyon, you’ll see the sandstone cliffs along the river gorge. Try local food in Sedona at SaltRock Southwest Kitchen and sample local fusion cuisine. For even more sightseeing, detour to the Grand Canyon nearby.

10.U.S. Route 50 in Nevada

Nicknamed “The Loneliest Road in America,” the entire highway stretches from California to Maryland. But the 408-mile section through Nevada is especially scenic, taking you through desert valleys, across mountains, through basins and 17 mountain passes. Travel from Lake Tahoe West to Utah, exiting near Great Basin National Park. Because this can be pretty desolate terrain, get fuel and snacks when available. Grab a Route 50 passport at the starting Visitor’s Center and get it stamped along the trip. You can mail it in and get a certificate that you survived the drive!

Which scenic highways are on your list?

Have you traveled down a memorable scenic route? Which ones are on your “must drive” list? We’d love to hear about the highlights of other scenic roads and byways in the comments.