Answering the call of the open road is practically an American rite of passage. These 10 distinctive all-American road trips, inclusive of both roads less traveled and tried-and-true, pave the way through the country's finest landscapes, from California coastline to Rocky Mountain ranges to Florida beaches—and beyond. So put the pedal to the metal, crank up those tunes, and roll down those windows to gaze upon America the beautiful as it rolls by.
Seward Highway (Photo: Thinkstock)
Make way from metropolitan Anchorage into the Alaskan wild via the 127-mile, sea-and-mountain-skirting Seward Highway. Winding down in the Kenai Peninsula's port town of Seward, this easily navigable cross section of America's largely untamed Last Frontier makes a fantastic jumping-off point for wilderness adventure. Expect a scenically shifting backdrop of foraging wildlife (Dall sheep, moose, eagles), mountain peaks, thick forests, pristine fjords, and hanging glaciers, inviting camping, hiking, fishing, and picnicking just off the highway's edge. Plus, look to the Turnagain Arm of Cook Inlet for two extra-special treats: Beluga whale-watching (in summer and fall), and a twice-daily bore-tide phenomenon (that can get as high as six feet).
Dine' Tah Scenic Road
Indulge your wanderlust on wheels while exploring Arizona's Wild West. It doesn't get more all-American than the Navajo Nation's ancestral lands: Whiz by sacred mountains, canyons, forests, and desert vistas, and stop off to peruse the wares of talented local artisans or to ogle ancient cliff dwellings and prehistoric drawings. Explore the heart of Navajo lands along the 100-mile Dine' Tah (“Among the People”) Scenic Road, which stretches along Navajo Routes 12 and 64 from Window Rock (the Navajo capital) to the magnificent Canyon de Chelly. Imperative roadside stops include the Navajo Nation Museum, Window Rock Memorial Park, and the archeological and historical majesty of Canyon de Chelly.
Pacific Coast Highway
America's quintessential road trip, California's iconic Pacific Coast Highway (aka Route 1) traces nearly the entirety of the state's fabled coastline. Dig into the most divine slice of the drive via the meandering, cliff-topping 123-mile portion that twists alongside the crashing waves, towering redwoods, and barking sea lions of the rugged, sea-sculpted central California coast.
Stretching from historic Monterey (site of the superlative aquarium) to Morro Bay (with its landmark extinct volcanic cone), the route runs through the artsy enclave of Carmel-by-the-Sea and the breathtaking natural beauty of Big Sur, with diversions like over-the-top opulent Hearst Castle, the gorge-traversing Bixby Bridge, and cypress-speckled Point Lobos State Reserve making for optimized leg-stretching, photo-op stops en route.
San Juan Skyway
Roll through the Rockies via southwest Colorado's 233-mile San Juan Skyway loop, passing through two alpine national forests; four mountain passes; and a handful of charming Old West mining and railroad towns (Durango, Silverton, Telluride). Allow extra time for the 50-mile Million Dollar Highway section of the route (from Silverton to Ouray), which boasts particularly scenic curves through tunnels and atop waterfalls in the Red Mountains and Uncompahgre Gorge; stop off in the town of Ouray for a hot-springs dip; and take in wonderfully preserved Anasazi cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde National Park.
Florida Keys Overseas Highway
This 127-mile water-wonderland of a highway spans more than 40 bridges, traversing Florida Bay, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Gulf of Mexico, as it hops from isle to isle en route to quirky Key West from mainland Florida. An engineering marvel, this now vehicular-only Sunshine State stretch traces the vestiges of Henry Flagler's historic (and now-defunct) Over-Sea Railroad route, which is celebrating the centennial anniversary of its 1912 founding this year. Highway highlights include stops at the scenic Seven Mile Bridge; snorkeling, diving, fishing, and wildlife-viewing excursions; and waterfront dining and resorts in the Keys' charming fishing villages.
North Shore Drive
Stretching from Duluth to Grand Portage, the 154-mile North Shore Drive paves a scenic path through rugged Minnesotan wilderness, bordering boreal forests, the jagged Sawtooth Mountains, and a sweeping Lake Superior shoreline. The world's largest freshwater lake affords plenty of water-play activities and postcard-perfect panoramas, while the route provides easy access to eight state parks and the Superior National Forest, primed for hiking, wildlife viewing, and ogling plummeting waterfalls. For local culture, pull off in the artsy harbor town of Grand Marais, or the old fur-trading post in Grand Portage, the last town before the Canadian border.
Cayuga Lake Scenic Byway
Just four hours northwest of New York City, the bucolic Finger Lakes region comprises the surprise setting for the largest wine-producing region east of California. Oenophile road-trippers in the region can (responsibly) please their palates (Riesling and Gewurztraminer varietals reign supreme), while zipping along pastoral two-lane country roads lined by rolling vineyard-covered hills, patchworks of farmland, and the "finger"-like assortment of 11 thin, parallel, glacially carved lakes.
Hit the 87-mile Cayuga Lake Scenic Byway, which circles the Cayuga lakeshore, and provides haven for some of the region's finest wineries (try Sheldrake Point Winery), historical Women's Rights movement sites (visit the National Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls), and prime access to the region's natural bounty (don't miss Taughannock Falls State Park).
Blue Ridge Parkway
North Carolina and Virginia
Connecting two national parks—Shenandoah in Virginia with the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina—the Blue Ridge Parkway traverses 469 miles through blue-misted Appalachian highlands. Take in forest-blanketed mountain vistas, ripe for fauna (look for bear, deer, and beaver) and flora viewing (interesting factoid: the parkway's namesake "blue" haze is attributed to the hydrocarbon release from the some 130 tree species).
Picnic areas, campgrounds, hiking trails, and visitor's centers, offering programs like ranger-guided walks, abound. Come in late spring for wildflower blooms (rhododendron, azalea); or, in fall (especially around mid-October) for Technicolor foliage displays.
Mt. Hood Scenic Byway
The 105-mile Mt. Hood Scenic Byway follows a half-loop around one of Oregon's iconic landmarks: the Cascades Range's glacier-coated, 11,245-foot-high Mount Hood. Cruise past farmlands, vineyards, and orchards; temperate rain forests and alpine timberline; gushing waterfalls and rivers; and parts of the historic Oregon Trail.
Hit up the recreational hub town of Hood River (the byway's eastern entrance; its western portal is in Troutdale) to try your hand at world-class windsurfing on the Columbia River. Get out and stretch your legs amid the dramatic vistas of the Columbia River Gorge; or, pop into the historic Timberline Lodge to bunk down, refuel, or simply ride the scenic chairlift—it's celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2012.
Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway
The 70-mile Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway winds through South Dakota's storied Black Hills, weaving together towering granite formations, narrow tunnels, spiral bridges, and hairpin curves, with blockbuster sights like iconic Mount Rushmore and the nearby, yet-to-be-completed Crazy Horse Memorial. Route highlights include the winding Needles Highway, flanked by a sea of "needles"—slender granite pinnacles, popular with rock climbers; or, follow Iron Mountain Road for its unique "pigtail" bridges and postcard-perfect Rushmore-framing tunnels. Or, stop for wildlife viewing and hiking at the buffalo-laden Custer State Park; 35,000-acre Norbeck Wildlife Preserve (for elk, mountain goat, and even more buffalo); or Black Elk National Wilderness Area (site of towering Harney Peak).