Road trips are especially popular among Americans. We understood the reason while living in the United States. It’s just the perfect country for road trips. Roads are wide and well-maintained. They offer any kind of service you’d need (gas stations, restaurants, restrooms, rest areas).
On the other hand, distances are long. If you want to see a lot in a short period of time, driving is your best option.
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During the long hours of our drives sometimes we felt that the terrain is exactly the same as it was like 6 hours ago. But sometimes it was so beautiful and varied that driving itself was a highlight of our journey. So let us share our favorite scenic drives in the US with you – in no particular order.
California State Route 1
Love the wild coastal views? Then California should be on your bucket list. So as its famous scenic coastal highway which is really the best way to explore California’s wild and breathtaking Pacific coast. Especially if you only have a couple of days.
CA 1 (also known as Pacific Coast Highway) is a major north-south state highway that runs along most of the Pacific coastline of California. It starts from Leggett, Mendocino County in the north, and ends near Dana Point, Orange County in the south.
Estimated driving time is about 15-16 hours – that’s what Google says, but nothing could be further from the truth. Because you can’t just drive along this highway. It has such scenic sections where you will stop at almost every curve to enjoy the view – and take pictures, of course.
If we also consider the stops for observing wildlife, hiking in the coastal state parks (such as Mendocino Headlands State Park, MacKerricher State Park or Point Lobos State Natural Reserve) or exploring the charming small towns along the way (such as Monterey, Carmel, Santa Barbara or Santa Monica), then this drive could easily take a week or even more.
We’ve never actually done this drive in one piece, but we’ve seen most of its famous sections. We lived in California that time, so we just planned doing parts of this drive as weekend activities.
Big Sur is by far our favorite section, because it’s very scenic all the way! It goes from around Monterey to Ragged Point and it’s a perfect one day drive. But you have millions of options to drive CA 1 or sections of it, all depends on your time and interest.
Estimated time: from 3 days to several weeks
Some of the highlights:
- Mendocino Headlands State Park
- Point Lobos State Natural Reserve
- Big Sur coastline: McWay Falls and several scenic pullouts
- Santa Barbara
- Santa Monica
Waimea Canyon Drive, Kauai, Hawaii
Waimea Canyon is often referred as ‘Grand Canyon of the Pacific’. Though it’s much smaller than ‘the’ Grand Canyon, it’s more green and full of waterfalls.
Waimea Canyon Drive goes along on Kauai’s southwest shore, and it has several breathtaking lookouts to enjoy the views of Waimea Canyon, Waipoo Falls and the famous Na Pali Coastline.
The drive ends at Pu’u O Kila Lookout which is a dead end – at least by car, because if you want to hike, then it’s the starting point of Pihea Trail. Several other hiking trails start from the pullouts and lookouts of this drive, as well, and you can take your chance to try some truly unique hikes here. Do take your chance, it’s worth it!
Estimated time: about half a day (just driving and enjoying the vista points along the way – if you plan to hike, it will be more depending on the chosen hike)
- Waimea Canyon Lookout
- Pu’u Hinahina Lookout (lookout for Nihau island)
- Kalalau Lookout
- Pu’u O Kila Lookout
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Driving through Yellowstone National Park is a scenic drive itself, anyway, but the large and colorful canyon of the Yellowstone River is definitely a place not to miss if you visit this unique park. Actually, the best way to explore Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is to drive as there’s no connected hiking trail which would let you explore all the special places and views of this area.
Instead, there’s the North Rim Drive and the South Rim Drive with a bunch of special vista points, and some short and amazing hikes. These drives are not long, but I bet you need at least half a day to stop at the vista points, wander around and take millions of pictures.
Summer months are so popular in Yellowstone that even with the huge parking lots at each vista point it can be challenging to find free spaces. Early and late hours are the least crowded.
Estimated time: about half a day (hiking not included)
Open: usually from May to late October/early November (exact dates vary each year, it’s best to check NPS website)
- Grand View(North Rim Drive)
- Inspiration Point (North Rim Drive)
- Upper Falls View (South Rim Drive)
- Artist Point (South Rim Drive)
- Brink Of Lower Falls requires a short, steep hike, but it has astonishing views of the canyon
Rim Drive of Crater Lake National Park, Oregon
This 33-mile loop surrounds a lake, but not an ordinary one: Crater Lake – the bluest lake we’ve ever seen, and also the deepest one in the United States. The road follows the caldera rim around Crater Lake and offers amazing views of this unique lake from every angle.
There are parking lots (some with restrooms and picnic benches) at each famous vista point. And there are lots of pullouts all along the way, so you can safely stop basically wherever you want.
The only lake access is the short, but steep Cleetwood Cove Trail which is absolutely worth the effort! You can even jump into the ice cold water if you want. Or just cool down your feet in this magically clear and blue lake like we did.
Estimated time: 1 day
Open: usually only in the summer months due to the heavy snowfall (exact dates vary each year, it’s best to check NPS website)
- Sinnott Memorial Overlook
- Watchman Overlook
- Cloudcap Overlook
- Pumice Castle
- Phantom Ship Overlook
- Vidae Falls
- short, but steep trail with the only lake access: Cleetwood Cove Trail
CA 190 through Death Valley, California
Death Valley National Park is not for hiking, it’s for driving through! The simple reason is that it’s too hot for hiking most part of the year – no wonder, this park holds the record for the highest reliably reported air temperature in the world (134 °F/56.7 °C).
Route CA 190 goes through the park and there’s a lot of exciting vista points and stops along the way. We were surprised how varied Death Valley actually is. Different kinds of rock formations, colors, sand dunes, hillsides covered with hundreds of joshua trees… And Badwater Basin, the driest and hottest area of the park.
Estimated time: about half a day
- Dante’s View (short detour from CA 190)
- Zabriskie Point
- Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes
- Badwater Basin (detour on Badwater Road which has a dead end at Badwater Basin)
Going-to-the-Sun Road, Glacier National Park, Montana
Want to see breathtaking mountain panorama? This scenic mountain road traverses Glacier National Park and crosses the Continental Divide.
Of course, there are several pullouts and vista points along the way, some of them with short walks to lakes or waterfalls. A lot of the hikes in Glacier National Park also starts somewhere along Going-to-the-Sun Road. This road is the heart of Glacier, and it amazed us with crystal clear lakes and snowcapped peaks even in July!
Estimated time: about half a day (hiking not included)
Open: usually from early June to mid October (exact dates vary each year, it’s best to check NPS website)
- Saint Mary Lake
- Logan Pass
- Lake McDonald
- short walks to Baring Falls, St Mary Falls, McDonald Falls
- Avalanche Creek (there’s also a short hike to Avalanche Lake which is easy and beautiful)
Overseas Highway / US Route 1 in Florida
Ever heard about Florida Keys? It’s the southest and the most Carribean like part of Florida. Actually it’s a bunch of islands connected by road – yes, this road is the Overseas Highway or US 1!
I bet you can imagine how cool is that to drive on a road with the ocean on your left side and the ocean on your right side. Beautiful colors, charming bays, some nice beaches and exotic animals… Hm? Yes, it’s that cool! 😉
The route starts from Miami and ends at Key West. It’s hard to highlight anything, because this relatively short route is the highlight itself! It completely depends on your taste which beaches you pick to stop for a swim. Oh, and it’s a snorkeling paradise, too, because of the large coral reefs.
Estimated time: the drive is not long, maybe about half a day from Miami to Key West, but you better plan at least 2 days – sure, you will want to spend some time on the beautiful beaches
Open: year-round (closed in case of hurricane warnings for the area though)
Avenue of the Giants, Humboldt Redwoods State Park, California
Do you want to look up to the tallest trees on Earth? The Redwoods of Northern California will impress you no matter how much time you spend there. Most of the redwood parks are best explored if you hike, but Humboldt Redwoods State Park is one which is for driving, too!
Avenue of the Giants is its world-famous 31-miles scenic drive in the heart of the redwoods. There are some pullouts along the drive if you want to stop, but the most amazing thing here is the drive itself. If you like hiking, you can combine this drive with some short hikes in Humboldt Redwoods State Park.
Estimated time: 1-2 hours (hiking not included)
Do you have a favorite scenic drive in the US or elsewhere?
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This post was updated in July 2019.
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