10 Scenic Highways Worth the Drive

From lush forests to craggy shorelines, America's highways have postcard-worthy scenes.

Twisting road surrounded by trees
Photo: National Parks Service

Interstate highways are ideal for long-haul driving. However, most of these roads are defined by concrete barriers, generic roadside shrubbery and gray-hued overpasses. There are certainly exceptions to the stereotype of monotonous highway scenery, but, for the most part, attractive landscapes are found on byways and county roads, not major national thoroughfares.

The best-looking drives provide passengers with glimpses of region-defining landscapes: deserts, mountains, lush forests (like the ones along Blue Ridge Parkway, pictured), craggy shorelines or other postcard-worthy scenes. These routes don't just offer picturesque surroundings; they provide an up-close look at scenery that is unique to their region.

Here's a collection of American drives that are worth a trip, just for the scenery.

of 10

Hawaii: Hana Highway

Photo: Fairy Lens/Shutterstock

The Hana Highway covers 64.4 miles on the eastern side of Maui. It connects its namesake town, Hana, to Kahului, which is one of the busiest retail centers on the island. The road actually stretches to Kipahulu, which is 14 miles past Hana. The highway is made up of two state routes, Route 36 and Route 360. The journey is defined by lush jungle, natural coastal scenery, hundreds of curves and 59 bridges. Some of these bridges date back more than 100 years and, though narrow, are still considered fit for use today.

The history and scenery, including numerous waterfalls, has made the Hana Highway popular with tourists. Some outfitters on Maui offer rental cars specifically for people who want to make the drive. Though Hana and Kahului are only 50 miles apart, the winding road and one-lane bridges make this a two- to four-hour undertaking (or longer for those who want to stop along the way to see waterfalls and scenic vistas). It was first listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2001.

of 10

Alaska: Seward Highway

Photo: Kate Mereand/Wikimedia Commons

The Seward Highway stretches for 125 miles. It runs through both Chugach National Forest and Chugach State Park. The route passes through pine forests, along waterways connected to the Gulf of Alaska, and next to the Kenai Mountains. Actually, the Seward is made up of two roads: Alaska Route 9 (from Seward to Moose Pass) and Alaska Route 1 (from Moose Pass all the way to Anchorage).

Because of its relative accessibility and diverse scenery, the Seward Highway has received several "scenic byway" designations. It's a National Forest Scenic Byway, a State of Alaska Scenic Byway, and a National Scenic Byway, a designation awarded by the Department of Transportation.

of 10

West Coast: California State Route 1

Photo: holbox/Shutterstock

The name Pacific Coast Highway, or PCH, is sometimes used interchangeably with California State Route 1. People usually use PCH to refer to the most scenic sections of the 650-mile Orange-County-to-Mendocino-County road. This stretch between San Luis Obispo and Monterey features the kind of sea cliffs, hidden beaches, and curving roadway that has been romanticized since the 1930s, when the first section was built near Big Sur. (And it's worth noting here that a landslide closed a portion of the road near Big Sur in spring 2017. It's not clear if or when this portion will be reopened.)

Driving the length of State Route 1 will give road trippers a diverse view of California. The 650-mile trip passes through San Diego, Los Angeles, San Jose, and San Francisco. It offers a chance to stop in the celebrity vacation haven of Santa Barbara and the famous beach community of Malibu. In the north, the road runs along the coast not far from America's most famous wine regions.

of 10

Mountain West: Trail of the Ancients

Photo: Averette/Wikimedia Commons

The Trail of the Ancients is a 480-mile National Scenic Byway in Colorado and Utah. In addition to the unique topography, namely the unusual rock formations, the byway highlights the archaeological finds and ancient culture of the Native Americans who once thrived in this region. Sites along the route include the cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde National Park, some of the sites that make up the Hovenweep National Monument, historic pueblos and the unique rock formations in Monument Valley (pictured) and the Natural Bridges National Monument.

Drivers could potentially take several days to explore this byway, stopping at the national monuments and historic sites, some of which have campsites or accommodations.

of 10

Midwest: Great River Road

Photo: Kbh3rd/Wikimedia Commons

The Great River Road is a collection of state and local highways that run the length of the Mississippi River. The route passes through 10 states. The section from Minnesota through Arkansas is designated as a National Scenic Byway. Each of the 10 states oversees its own section of the Great River Road separately, but they all cooperate through an organization called the Mississippi River Parkway Commission.

The entire River Road covers more than 2,300 miles. The trip would take 36 hours of continuous driving, but people who drive the entire length usually take a week to 10 days to make the journey to soak in the scenery.

of 10

Southeast: Overseas Highway, Florida

Photo: pisaphotography/Shutterstock

Florida's Overseas Highway stretches for 113 miles between Key West and the Miami area. As its name suggests, large sections of this road lie just above the water. The route is actually more than a century old. The highway was partially built on the bed of a rail line that began operating in 1912.

Driving over long stretches of water is certainly a novelty, but the scenery beyond these spans does not change much over the 100-mile trip. The bigger attractions are found on or near the islands. Islamorada, for example, has dive sites and sport fishing, while the Marathon Islands have marine wildlife attractions like a turtle sanctuary and dolphin research center. Of course, many drivers simply head all the way to Key West, one of the Keys' most popular destinations.

of 10

Far North: Minnesota State Highway 61

Photo: Vladimir Daragan/Shutterstock

Minnesota State Highway 61 starts in the Great Lakes port city of Duluth and runs up to Grand Portage and the Canadian border. The length of the road is about 150 miles. Highway 61 is one of the more accessible parts of the route that makes up the Lake Superior Circle Tour. The highway sits between this coastal scenery and the Sawtooth Mountains, while a number of waterfalls flow into the lake from the inland peaks.

Several state parks can be found along the highway. In areas where the main, modern road cuts inland, an older road, now used as a scenic byway, still winds along the lakeshore. The scenery, waterfalls, rivers and shoreline are the stars of Highway 61, but there are also restaurants, art galleries, antique shops and ski resorts.

of 10

Deep South: Natchez Trace Parkway

Photo: Rita Robinson/Shutterstock

The Natchez Trace Parkway commemorates the route of the original Natchez Trace, a path that connected Nashville, Tennessee, with Natchez, Mississippi. This trail was established on routes used for centuries by Native American travelers. Now, the parkway, which covers 444 miles, is overseen by the National Park Service.

The Trace crosses hiking trails and historic sites as well as waterfalls, forests, small towns and cypress swamps. Popular stops along the route include Meriwether Lewis National Monument, the ghost towns of Pigeon Roost and Rocky Springs and the Native American burial sites of Pharr Mounds and Bynum Mounds. The parkway also runs through Civil War battlefields near Tupelo, Mississippi. The parkway's iconic bridge (pictured) offers a high-driving view of the valley below.

of 10

Appalachian Region: Blue Ridge Parkway

Photo: starryvoyage/Shutterstock

The Blue Ridge Parkway stretches for 470 miles between Shenandoah National Park and Great Smoky Mountains National Park and is overseen by the National Park Service. Since the end of World War II, the road has been the single most visited unit in the National Park System every year (with only a couple of exceptions). This means that more people drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway each year than visit the Grand Canyon!

The route is defined by valleys, mountains, forests and small towns. The NPS operates campgrounds along the route, and more formal accommodations are available in many of the populations centers along the way. The Blue Ridge Parkway is best when driven in the summer. In the winter, stretches of the route may be closed due to bad weather. This is especially common at higher elevations. Shoulder seasons—spring and autumn—bring wildflowers and colorful foliage, respectively.

of 10

New England: Connecticut River Byway

Photo: Brian S/Shutterstock

New England’s Connecticut River was designated as the country's first "National Blueway" in 2012. The Connecticut River Byway, which runs alongside the waterway as it winds between the Green and White mountains (in Vermont and New Hampshire respectively), covers 274 of the river’s 400-plus miles.

Since the Connecticut River has been a transportation artery for centuries, some of New England's most influential towns and most important historic sites are easily accessible from the river and the byway. In fact, there's so much to see and do in the river valley that suggested itineraries often advise a week or more, though an end-to-end drive could technically be completed in a single day.