The Roads Least Taken in America

The road less taken

Photo: saraporn/Shutterstock

One of the most attractive parts of a road trip is enjoying the views at ground level. The popularity of scenic byways supports the theory that most drivers enjoy some traffic-free scenery. Of course, car-based travel is often defined by traffic jams and speeding semi trucks, not picturesque rural landscapes.

Scenic byways aren't hard to find, but what about longer scenic routes? GPS tracking firm Geotab recently found the road in each state with the least amount of traffic. They arrived at their rankings by counting the number of vehicles per day on all major roads over 10 miles long in each state. The 50 "quietest" roads provide more than a few miles of traffic-free byway bliss. Admittedly, some cut through nondescript landscapes, but some provide more than a hundred miles of natural beauty and solitude (and, in at least one case, the potential for encountering a polar bear).

The Beartooth Highway (U.S. Route 212)

Photo: R Robinson/Wikimedia Commons

U.S. Route 212 is a 68-mile highway in Montana and Wyoming that terminates at the entrance to Yellowstone National Park. The road passes over 11,000-foot Beartooth Pass along its route. The altitude makes the trip incredibly scenic — in fact, Charles Kuralt called it "the most beautiful drive in America" — but it also means alpine snows make the road impassable for more than half the year. The pass is usually open from Memorial Day through mid-October, but snowstorms can occur even in the summer, temporarily blocking traffic or causing whiteout conditions.

The Montana portion of 212 is characterized by steep zigzags and altitude changes of about 250 feet per mile. There are 20 peaks around the highest point on the road. Along with alpine forests and valleys, these make for some scenic experiences. The steep drop-offs and severe curves and switchbacks mean that driving the 212 requires a steady set of nerves.

U.S. Route 50 in Nevada and Utah

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U.S. Route 50 is a transcontinental highway. The section in Nevada was famously named "the Loneliest Road in America" by Life Magazine in 1986. The magazine meant it as a negative, but Nevada’s tourism department saw the publicity as an opportunity and began promoting the quiet road. Interestingly, the data collected by Geotab suggests that Route 50 is not Nevada’s quietest road, perhaps due to people wanting to drive "the Loneliest Road in America." However, Route 50 is the lowest traffic road in neighboring Utah.

The loneliest road tag likely came from the lack of habitation as the road cuts across the Great Basin. In addition to "been there, done that" bragging rights, road trippers on Route 50 will see stark desert valleys and more than a dozen mountain passes. In Utah, there are canyons, passes and, as in Nevada, long distances in between service stations. A two-state trip is a daunting undertaking, with Route 50 covering 408 miles in Nevada and 334 miles in Utah.

Nebraska State Route 71

Photo: Mike Tigas/Flickr

Nebraska’s Highway 71 runs north-south for the entire length of the state. Located in the sparsely populated west, it only passes a handful of small towns. The largest of these is Scottsbluff, a city of only 15,000. In this part of the Midwest, agriculture remains the dominant industry, so most of the scenery is dominated by farm fields. However, the scenery is not as flat as you might expect.

The Wildcat Hills, in the middle of the 170-mile highway, feature unique sandstone formations. The town of Kimball, just north of the Colorado border, is near to the highest point in the state. Another interesting fact about this region is that it was once famous for its Cold War-era missile silos. Northbound drivers who continue into South Dakota might encounter more traffic, especially as they enter the popular Black Hills area.

U.S. Route 160, Arizona

Photo: Andreas F. Borchert

U.S. Route 160 starts in Missouri and runs through Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico before reaching its terminus near Tuba City, Arizona. The entire route is 1,465 miles. The 256-mile stretch in Arizona is the state’s least busy roadway. It's one of the main roads through Navajo Nation, the 27,000-square-mile Native American territory governed by the Navajo people. The large area only has a population of about 350,000, so vast stretches of desert are empty except for the highway and otherworldly rock formations.

Aside from the desert solitude, there's plenty to enjoy on this route. The strange Elephant’s Feet Rock is right next to the road. You can also see other sandstone formations, an ancient Pueblo cliff village, and "dinosaur tracks" near the end of the highway in Tuba City.

The Dalton Highway

Photo: Wenk Marcel/Shutterstock

The 414-mile Dalton Highway runs from just outside of Fairbanks, Alaska, all the way up to Deadhorse, an oil town on the Arctic Ocean. The highway is named after engineer James Dalton, who lived most of his life in Alaska and supervised the installation of an important radar system during the Cold War. The road has been called one of the World’s Most Dangerous Roads by the BBC. With August snowstorms, hundreds of miles between gas stations, and the fact that less than half of the highway is paved, it certainly seems to live up to this designation. Many vehicles on the Dalton are trucks hauling supplies to the oil field.

Does the scenery make this a worthwhile trip? The road cuts past mountain ranges, over the famous Yukon River and through Alaska’s trademark boreal forests. Drivers also get to cross the Arctic Circle. A few bus companies offer trips on the Dalton, but people who want to tackle the road on their own will need a CB radio (no cell towers here), extra tires, safety equipment and survival gear in case they get stranded. The Dalton is challenging, but it offers a kind of adventure that is just not possible on any other highway in the country.

California State Route 13

Photo: jcookfisher/Flickr

State Route 139 runs for 143 miles through northern California. It starts in the town of Susanville and ends up at the Oregon border, where it turns into Oregon State Route 39. The inland areas of northernmost California are among the least populated in the vast state. This, of course, makes for a low-traffic trip. The road passes through the 1.6 million-acre Modoc National Forest, which is known for its diverse ecosystems. The sometime-stark landscapes here were formed by volcanic activity millions of years ago.

The road was originally planned to connect Oregon with Reno, Nevada, and to improve access to the national parks, forests and monuments in the area. Development was quite slow, with sections remaining dirt or gravel even after a construction plan was in place. It is still mainly a two-lane road despite being part of the California system of highways.

New York State Route 812

Photo: Doug Kerr/Flickr

New York 812 starts in the Black River Valley in the Adirondack foothills. It runs 80.9 miles to the U.S.-Canada border crossing in Ogdensburg. Upstate New York is famous for its natural landscapes, which provide such a contrast to urban New York City. The route is stereotypically rural, and there are a few hamlets and many small lakes and rivers along the highway.

Road trippers who remember their passports can cross the border, which is defined in Ogdensburg by the Saint Lawrence River and the Ogdensburg-Prescott International Bridge. They can then drive into Ontario on King’s Highway 16. The Canadian road runs from the border town of Prescott all the way up to Ottawa. Unfortunately, it merges onto the busier Highway 416 only a short distance from the Saint Lawrence, so the "quietest international road trip" will prove relatively short-lived.

Colonial Parkway, Virginia

Photo: Pixabay

This 23-mile road in rural Virginia is officially known as State Route 90003. The road is a scenic byway, so it draws some tourist traffic. However, it's free from trucks, and cars travel at sub-highway speeds (posted limits are usually between 35-45 mph). There are few crossroads because the intersecting traffic crosses over the parkway on bridges.

"Parkway" is an apt name for this road. It's lined with trees, which can create a tunnel of shade. There are several historic towns along the parkway, and the bridges are made from brick so they fit with the Colonial theme. The road has historical markers and places to pull off and get out of the car. Because of the lack of commercial traffic and more convenient alternatives for local commuters, you'll only encounter tourists on this road, so traffic is usually light.

U.S. Route 2 New Hampshire

Photo: Doug Kerr/Flickr

U.S. Route 2 consists of two east-west segments that cross the northern United States. The road goes from Washington to Michigan, where it's interrupted by the Great Lakes. A second segment starts in upstate New York and runs through New England. The 35-mile section in New Hampshire is that state’s quietest road.

Roads are generally low-traffic in rural New Hampshire. The entire segment of Route 2 goes through Coös County, the northernmost county in the state. The road runs adjacent to White Mountains National Forest and passes Mount Washington, the highest peak in the Northeast. There are several small towns and hamlets along the way, and a couple of tourist attractions such as a Santa Claus-themed amusement park.

Pennsylvania State Route 32

Photo: Mitchazenia/Wikimedia Commons

Pennsylvania State Route 32 runs along the border with New Jersey. The 41-mile route is also known as River Road because it's on the bank of the Delaware River. If you paid attention in history class, you'll know this was the river George Washington and his troops famously crossed during the Revolutionary War. The site of that famous event is marked by an historic site next to the highway.

Because of the foliage, historic small towns, and river scenery, this is a popular route for a leisurely drive for both locals and visitors. Though traffic is comparatively light, the highway does pass through the main streets of several towns along the way. This is part of Route 32’s charm, but those seeking an uninterrupted cruise on the highway might be disappointed.