The Best Drives in the United States: Road Trip Routes From California to Maine
The best road trip routes in America aren't found on the Interstates, they're found along the California coast, in the high Adirondack mountains, above the pristine Gulf waters of the Florida Keys, in the dry deserts of the southwest USA, and on the craggy cliffs of coastal Maine. From small towns on the chilly Maine coast to the breathtaking views of the Blue Ridge Parkway, America has some of the best places to drive to in the world.
Below, we'll cover the top five routes in the lower 48 states, chosen for their undeniable beauty, photogenic vistas, and remarkable driveability. Some are challenging, like Big Sur and parts of the Blue Ridge Parkway, while others like the Overseas Highway, are sure to relax and inspire.
Intro of Zion National Park by Wolfgang Staudt
The stunning tropical drive from Key Largo to Key West
The Overseas Highway is the only road that connects the Florida Keys together, and to the mainland. Half of the fun of going to the Florida Keys is driving over these series of interconnected bridges, some spanning several miles like the Seven Mile Bridge from Knight Key to Little Duck Key in the town of Marathon.
As you drive south to Key West, you'll begin to see the tropical Caribbean colored blue water, crystal clear to the bottom. Take a moment to step out of the car and take a walk to the water's edge to get a close up look and you'll be able to see some of the clearest water in the USA, and probably some fish native to the nearby Bahamas and Biscayne National Park coral reef. Before Key West, one of America's top beaches, Bahia Honda Key Beach, can be found facing east. This stunning beach is a must-see part of your trip. Finally, the drive culminates in historic Key West, Florida. Highway 1 will end in this town, taking you to Duval Street, the best sunsets on the east coast at Mallory Square, and the southernmost point of the United States.
Photo of Overseas Highway by Lisarawkt, Creative Commons 2.0.
Key Stops Along This Route:
- Key West: The southernmost destination in the USA, and the final stop on the Overseas Highway.
- Key Largo: The beginning of the Overseas Highway. South of Biscayne National Park and Miami.
The majestic oceanside cliffs and winding roads of coastal Route 1 and Big Sur
California's coast is a remarkable sight to see. Steep oceanside cliffs with roads that cling to the precariously placed mountains of Big Sur make hairpin turns, winding through miles of gorgeous ocean scenery. Around every corner, you'll get a brand new view of the beautiful mountains, valleys, and ocean that make up Big Sur. This highway, known as the Pacific Coast Highway, or Route 1, has been acclaimed as one of the nation's most beautiful drives.The route begins near the town of Cambria and Hearst Castle, heading north towards Carmel and the Monterey Peninsula. The drive will take 2 hours and 15 minutes to get to Monterey from Cambria. Gas up before you head out on the drive, because gas stations are few and far between.
Towns and destinations you'll want to make sure you see in and near Big sur:
- Hearst Castle - San Simeon
- Morro Bay- just south of Big Sur on California 101
- Pfeiffer Big Sur Falls and State Park - located on Route 1, 31 miles south of Monterey
- Paso Robles - wine growing region 29 miles east of Cambria on Route 46
- Elephant seals beaches - many beaches along Big Sur are breeding grounds for the elephant seal. It's hard to miss them.
Photo right of the cliffs of Big Sur by The Tahoe Guy on flickr, Creative Commons 2.0.
Key Stops Along This Route:
- Hearst Castle: One of the most opulent public mansions on display in the USA, formerly owned by the William Randolph Hearst family. The first stop at Big Sur.
- Limekiln State Park: The first state park heading north, with beautiful redwood and coastal views.
- Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park: A gorgeous waterfall plummets onto a beach on the coast of Big Sur here. Walkable via a walkway that goes under Route 1.
- California Sea Otter State Game Refuge: Also the location of an isolated coastal lighthouse visible from Route 1.
- Carmel: The end point of your trip north on Big Sur.
When I want to travel, I use this as my reference
Of all of the guide books out there for travel in the US, none compare to DK Eyewitness travel guides. They're light, compact, and the perfect size for travel, yet they don't skimp on the detail. They also have beautiful illustrations on almost every page, which really "sells" some of the nicest spots in America to travel to. The cover is also durable, and the pages are glossy so they won't rip easily during your trip. To me, this is the only guide I'd take on a road trip (and I've been on quite a few).
- 800 pages to help plan your cross country road trip
- Features National Parks, cities, maps, restaurants, festivals, hotels, scenic routes, museums, beaches, history, and shops to discover in the US
- A well received guide, with 4.5 stars on Amazon
The northeast's most tranquil and scenic coastal region
The little known area north of Acadia National Park is actually some of the best coastline in the United States. Besides Down East Maine, there are no spots on the US east coast shoreline that have mountainous views right alongside the ocean. Some have called it "Maine's Big Sur." The rugged, cliff covered coastline here is best explored via Route 1, 191, and 189. Ending at Quoddy Head State Park, which has one of the most photographed lighthouses in America, you will be able to gaze across the Quoddy Narrows to Canada and New Brunswick here. A drive from Acadia National Park to the Canadian border will take approximately 2.5 hours, but is best enjoyed at your own leisurely pace.
Photo right of puffins in Maine by Emil Kepko.
Glorious Colorado River carved canyons, vistas, and Native American culture
There are just too many National Parks in America's Southwest to name just one, two, or a handful of them. They're best seen grouped together in one incredible trip, which can be done in about 10-15 days. The destinations on this route sometimes nicknamed The Grand Circle include Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Zion National Park, Monument Valley, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Chaco Culture Historic Park, Canyon de Chelly, Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Capitol Reef, and the Four Corners region of the U.S.
The most logical way to enter this "circle" if traveling first via plane is through Salt Lake City, Phoenix, or Santa Fe. If driving here from the west, it's only 8 hours to drive to the Grand Canyon from Los Angeles. Zion National Park can be driven to on a 12.5 hour drive from San Francisco. There is no official road connecting all of these destinations, yet they're all loosely tied together through Native American artifacts and the weathering from the Colorado River. For lovers of nature, National Parks, and history, the Grand Circle makes the ultimate road trip.
Photo of Capitol Reef National Park by Alaskan Dude.
Key Stops Along This Route:
- Grand Canyon: Located in northern Arizona, this ancient natural spectacle needs no introduction, does it?
- Glen Canyon National Recreation Area: The southwest's premiere boating destination, located in southern Utah, north of Grand Canyon and I-89.
- Zion National Park: The Virgin River has carved one of the most gorgeous spots in the southwest here.
- Great Basin National Park: A remote park on the Utah-Nevada border, with beautiful Mount Wheeler and the enigmatic Lehman's Caves.
- Bryce Canyon National Park: Relatively close to Zion, Bryce is one of the most photographed areas of America's southwest for its stunning rock spire ampitheater.
- Capitol Reef National Park: The earth's crust wrinkles at Waterpocket Fold in Capitol Reef.
- Canyonlands National Park: In Moab, there are two awe inspiring parks. Canyonlands is one of them, and has been carved by the mighty Colorado River for centuries.
- Arches National Park: The largest collection of natural sandstone arches in the world.
- Four Corners National Monument: Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah share a common meeting ground at this monument.
- Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park: Like many other Grand Circle destinations, Black Canyon of the Gunnison has been carved by the Colorado.
Don't leave without the proper guide books for your trip!
What do all of these guide books have in common? Great reviews and travel tips that are actually useful, on the field and before you go. Each book below has received 4.5 stars or higher on Amazon, so rest assured you'll be getting your money's worth.
Is this America's most beautiful drive?
The Blue Ridge Parkway is a 469 mile National Parkway that runs from Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. Though not an official National Park, the roadway is just as extraordinary. Any season here you can view unparalleled views of the Appalachians, though autumn is a tourist's favorite.
On your drive down Blue Ridge Parkway, be sure to visit the following highlights:
- Humpback Rocks
- James River
- Cumberland Knob
- Linn Cove Viaduct
- Craggy Gardens
- Mount Pisgah
- Waterrock Knob
Sunsets and sunrises here are especially stunning, so be sure to plan on seeing one or both. Nearby towns along the parkway include Roanake, Asheville, Galax, and Lexington.
Key Stops Along This Route:
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park: The southern terminus of the parkway.
- Shenandoah National Park: The northern terminus of the parkway.
Photo above of Blue Ridge Parkway mountain road by Brian Leon, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.