Heading west from New Orleans, you enter bayou country, where alligators and herons splash in the swamps and Spanish moss hangs heavy overhead. Sunlight filters through, and for a glorious moment, you feel like the only driver on this scenic road.
While Louisiana’s Highway 31 is finest in spring and fall, when the weather is pleasantly cool, it’s summer that heralds peak road-trip season for much of the U.S. And we’ve compiled the best American routes just in time for you to plot your vacation.
These drives feature spectacular landscapes, roller-coaster-worthy dips and bends, and wildlife spotting (look out for bald eagles and nesting peregrine falcons along Maine’s Acadia All-American Road). For each trip, we’ve included a can’t-miss stop along the route, perfect for stretching your legs while absorbing splendor—and quirks—of your surroundings.
Take in the blazing golden poppies blooming throughout the Mojave Desert in California’s Antelope Valley as you cruise toward a lookout that offers sweeping panoramic views. Climb through rainforests and apple orchards along the Cascade Loop in Washington, stopping for the beer gardens and kitschy trinkets of the Bavarian Alps–inspired hamlet of Leavenworth. Or check out the lighthouses and underwater coral-reef parks on U.S. 1 in the Florida Keys, then brake to frolic with dolphins before crossing one of the longest bridges in the world.
Antelope Valley, California
From L.A., drive north to the town of Lancaster via Route 14, better known as the Antelope Valley Freeway. Golden poppies bloom throughout the Mojave Desert region in March, but the 1,760-acre Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve claims the finest concentration of California’s state flower—not to mention glorious showings of fiddlenecks, cream cups, gold fields, and tidy tips starting in late March.
Where to Stop: Drive the seven-mile Antelope Loop Trail within the Poppy Reserve and continue on to Antelope Butte Vista Point, a high lookout (the valley reaches an elevation of nearly 300 feet) that offers the most sweeping desert panoramas.
U.S. 1, Florida Keys
Leaving the mainland for the 120-mile-long island chain of Florida’s Keys, travelers enter a paradise of beach bars, water sports, and Parrotheads (Jimmy Buffett fans). From Key Largo to Key West, the overseas highway strings the islands together like beads, running past lighthouses, underwater coral-reef parks, and across 7 Mile Bridge—one of the longest bridges in the world.
Where to Stop: On the island of Islamorada, travelers can swim with dolphins at the historic Theater of the Sea.theaterofthesea.com
U.S. Route 9, New York
The entire route runs more than 300 miles from Delaware up to the U.S.-Canada border, but this 57-mile lower New York stretch has special appeal when the weather warms. Start in Poughkeepsie and head north toward the town of Valatie, pulling over for fresh produce and organic homemade goods at one of the many local farmers’ markets that reopen in late spring. And keep your eyes peeled for Gilded Age estates along the route, such as the Vanderbilt Mansion.
Where to Stop: The historic open-air Hyde Park Farmers’ Market, just off Route 9, opens in early June on the grounds of the ’50s-era Hyde Park Drive-In Theatre. Further north, in Columbia County, stop at Harvest Spirits Farm Distillery for a bottle of dry apple brandy.
Hana Highway, Maui
The T-shirts all say: I survived the road to Hana. It can take more than four hours to travel (takes about 2.5 hours) the 51 miles from Kahului to Hana, as you snake past steep sea-cliffs lush with blooming mango trees, buy banana bread from roadside stalls, and pull over for Jurassic vistas. In tiny Hana, a town on eastern Maui, a cinder cone shields the red sand beach where nudists and endangered monk seals bake idly in the sun.
Where to Stop: Fuel up with pancakes soaked in coconut syrup at Anthony’s Coffee Co. in the funky small town of Paia. Just beyond mile marker (49 miles) awaits Waianapanapa State Park, with black-sand beaches and trails leading to sea caves and lava cliffs.
Route 100, Vermont
Best known for its fall foliage and delicious ice cream, Vermont’s lush Green Mountains are also a great place for a drive, thanks to winding country roads like Route 100, which bisects the state from Stowe south to the Massachusetts border. The midsection, between the towns of Waitsfield and Weston, offers the best scenery.
Where to Stop: Gifford Woods State Park. On the Green Mountain crest, west of Woodstock, this patch of primeval forest has been beautifully preserved.
Columbia River Scenic Highway, Oregon
This road is a concrete realization of the idea that highways can sometimes improve on the work of Mother Nature. Designed and constructed back in the early days of the automobile, the route winds past a series of lovely waterfalls while taking in the best sights of the Columbia Gorge, east of Portland.
Where to Stop: Standing on a stony cliff top, 700 feet above the Columbia River, Vista House is a historic rest stop that doubles as a memorial to Oregon Trail pioneers. vistahouse.com
Pacific Coast Highway, California
California’s Route 1 leads you to some great beach towns, but it’s up around Big Sur that this famed route reaches new heights. Linking California’s historic capital, Monterey, with its most extravagant piece of hubristic architecture, Hearst Castle, this unforgettable 100-mile stretch of the PCH carves through cliffs high above the Pacific Ocean.
Where to Stop: Most of Big Sur has been protected from unsightly development by preservationist landowners, but the landmark Nepenthe has a dining room, bar, and cliff-top terrace that looks out over a 270-degree Pacific panorama.
Cascade Loop, Washington
Climbing from the lush rainforests of Puget Sound, U.S. Highway 2 crosses the Cascades and drops into apple orchards before reaching placid Lake Chelan. Ambitious drivers can loop back to Seattle via rugged and remote North Cascades National Park, along equally scenic Highway 20.
Where to Stop: For an unexpected treat, spend some time in kitschy Leavenworth, an old timber and railroad town that re-created itself in the 1960s as a Bavarian Alps hamlet, complete with beer gardens and lederhosen.
Texas Hill Country Bluebonnet Tour
Lady Bird Johnson led a campaign to beautify American cities, and in her native Texas, vast gardens of bluebonnets were planted across Texas Hill Country. While there are countless nature trails, first-timers should start in Austin and take U.S. 290 west to Johnson City’s lovely Wildflower Loop. Then hightail it along U.S. 281 N to the town of Burnet, the official bluebonnet capital of Texas.
Where to Stop: Tour the colorful grounds at Austin’s Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. A toll-free Texas wildflower hotline (800-452-9292) provides blooming reports, and tune in to KLBJ News Radio 590, which airs the “Wildflower Hour” featuring expert gardening tips from Mr. Smarty Plants at 8 a.m. on Saturdays.
Anchorage to Valdez, Alaska
The trip from Anchorage to Valdez, which connects Glenn and Richardson highways, runs past prehistoric glaciers and into mountain ranges with so many 14,000-foot peaks a lot of them haven’t even been named. Along the 300-mile route, the trans-Alaska pipeline pops in and out of view. The final approach to Valdez includes a 25-mile drop from Thompson Pass (2,805 elevation) to sea level through the waterfalls of Keystone Canyon, opening into Prince William Sound.
Where to Stop: Gawk at domesticated musk oxen, the Ice Age wonders of the Alaskan landscape prized for their wool, in Palmer. muskoxfarm.org
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