Sometimes it’s about the journey, sometimes it’s about the destination, and in the case of these classic road trips, it’s about both.
Pacific Coast Highway
Arguably the most stunning drive in all the United States, the Pacific Coast Highway (known as the PCH) passes quaint towns, barking elephant seals, a famous mansion and plenty of spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean. Those views are no more dramatic than in Big Sur, a rugged 90-mile stretch between California’s Carmel and San Simeon that’s known for its hairpin turns and seaside cliffs. To get the full experience, start in Port Townsend and head south along the Washington, Oregon and California coastlines until you hit San Diego. Highlights along the way include Olympic National Park, the Tillamook Cheese Factory (with free samples!), Redwood National Park, Hearst Castle, San Francisco, the beach towns of Southern California and so much more.
Along Highway 1 from Key Largo to Key West, make the transition from mainland Florida to the tropical islands that constitute the southernmost portion of the continental United States. You’ll have plenty of above-water vistas, but for a different perspective, put on some diving gear and check out the Spiegel Grove, a navy ship launched in 1955 that was intentionally sunk in 2002 to create an artificial reef. After you’ve worked up an appetite, seek out some local sustenance—conch fritters, fresh fish and Key lime pie are all good choices. At the end of the 113-mile road, you’ll find yourself in legendary Key West. Here, visit Ernest Hemingway’s home, where about 50 six-toed cats still roam.
Historic Columbia River Highway Scenic Byway
When Oregon’s Multnomah County was looking for an engineer to design a 70-mile highway along the Columbia River, they turned to Samuel C. Lancaster, known for his work on Seattle’s Lake Washington Boulevard. The project was a special, challenging one—it was the country’s first scenic byway—and was considered one of the greatest engineering feats of its time. Lancaster took the responsibility of preserving the beauty of the area seriously. “There is but one Columbia River Gorge [that] God put into this comparatively short space, [with] so many beautiful waterfalls, canyons, cliffs and mountain domes,” he wrote. Finished in 1922, the road is still a sight to behold.
In the land of paradise (aka Maui), the foliage is green, the mangoes are fresh, and the waterfalls are cascading. And as you’ll find out if you embark on the Hana Highway, the roads are winding. This 52-mile route from Kahului to Hana was created with hand tools and racks up an impressive 600 curves and 50-something narrow bridges. Four-wheel drive and steel nerves are both recommended. If you’re up for the adventure, you’ll be rewarded with gorgeous black-sand beaches, swimming holes, waving bamboo, and the feeling like you’ve retreated to the real Hawaii.
Door County Coastal Byway
Take a step back in time in Door County, a Wisconsin destination marked by endless slices of cherry pie, entertaining fish boils, lighthouses standing tall on sandy beaches and small towns with big personalities. Get a good lay of the land by taking the 66-mile coastal byway around the peninsula. The curvy road forces you to take things slow, which fits the overall vibe of the picture-perfect communities you’ll pass through along the way. In the fall, the leaves changing color makes the drive all the more beautiful.
Great Platte River Road
What do the Oregon Trail, the Mormon Trail, the California Gold Rush Trail, the Pony Express Trail, the first Transcontinental Railroad and the Lincoln Highway—the nation’s first transcontinental road—have in common? All followed the Platte River through Nebraska. You can travel a similar route today; area attractions include Toadstool Geologic Park, with moonscape-looking terrain; the store headquarters for outdoors outfitter Cabela’s; Fort Robinson, where Crazy Horse met his demise; and Old West–themed Ogallala, a terminus for the old cattle drives from Texas and a funnel for many of those historic trails.
It’s worth a tank of gas to visit our state’s very own Chuckanut Drive, a dramatic cliff-side route. The 21-mile stretch starts just north of Burlington and ends in Fairhaven, a historic community in Bellingham. Sandwiched between the base of Chuckanut Mountain and the rocky shoreline of Chuckanut Bay, the road meanders by plenty of sights that will catch your interest, including views of the San Juan Islands on a clear day; Taylor Shellfish Farms, where you can pick up fresh oysters; and prime spots to watch migratory birds fly through. At mile marker 15, enter Larrabee State Park (Washington’s first designated state park), where beaches, tide pools and trails await. If you can time it right, sunset is a particularly beautiful time to be on the road.
Texas Hill Country
The Lone Star State has plenty of miles to crisscross, but some of the prettiest are in Hill Country. Start in the historic town of Gruene, home of well-known Gruene Hall, which has hosted live music and dancing since 1878. From here, take Highway 306 northwest, around Canyon Lake, to Highway 484. Cut up to Highway 32, where you’ll head west to Highway 281 into Blanco, known as the Lavender Capital of Texas. Turn left on Highway 1623 and stop by Lyndon B. Johnson State Park. From there, drive west on 290. You might want to make a short detour to Luckenbach, a tiny town with just two main buildings (a dance hall and a general store/saloon) that was name-checked in a Waylon Jennings/Willie Nelson song. Then go northwest to Fredericksburg, a German community known for its wildflowers, cycling and many wineries.
Mt. Washington Auto Road
Climbing to the top of New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington, this road is short and sweet—and steep. Rising almost 5,000 feet in less than eight miles, the road took serious effort on the part of workers, who didn’t have the benefit of dynamite or machinery in 1854 when construction began. It opened in 1861, with the first motorized ascent in 1899 (completed by Freelan Oscar Stanley, of Stanley Steamer fame). With hairpin turns, precipitous drop-offs and a non-paved portion, the route—which requires an entrance fee and is open from mid-May to mid-October—is akin to a thrill ride as much as it is a road trip. Once your adrenaline is in check, savor the views from the top, and don’t be surprised if the weather changes a few times while you’re here.