(And The Best American Cars To Do Them In)
The temptation to open this ten most beautiful places to go for a relaxing drive article with the time worn cliché; “Ahhhh the joys of the open road…” is so irresistibly great.
And so, there you go.
Seriously though, one of the most wonderful things about living in the United States is the wide variety of absolutely stunning landscapes, and the fact we as a nation had the prescience to build roads through so many of them. When it comes to enjoying scenic drives in the U.S. the biggest problem we have, rather than looking for one to take, is figuring out which one to take. Of course, we’re Americans, so we don’t have to choose, is our God-given right to do them all.
Run an Internet search for the most scenic roads in the USA and you’ll find a veritable cornucopia of sites—all touting deliciously enticing thoroughfares of unimaginable beauty. However, what you’ll find less frequently is a list of such magnificent roads, with expert advice regarding the best American cars to use on them—and why.
Which, is where we come in with this list of the Ten Most Beautiful Places To Go For A Relaxing Drive—and—the best American cars to use on them…
We begin on the second largest island of Hawaii’s archipelago, Maui. Known as the Valley Isle, Maui’s beauty owes its good fortune to a unique combination of geology, climate, and landscape. On the island’s east coast is nestled the tiny town of Hana. The road to reach it runs some 52 miles from the town of Kahului. Now keep in mind, this is no Interstate highway, so even though the distance between the two towns indicates the drive should be doable in about an hour, it’s more like 2.5 hours minimum—OK, truthfully, it’s four hours in reality. The road features some 620 curves and 59 bridges, of which only 13 have two lanes. Winding through lush tropical rainforest, and pretty much glutted with tourists—year round, this is a road you take for the views and the experience. Yes, it’d be grand to get out there in something low and sleek with telepathic steering, a tight suspension system and a screaming engine, but the reality is you’re much better off in a Jeep Wrangler. The Jeep will encourage you to take your time and enjoy the scenic beauty. You can take the roof and the doors off of the Jeep and enjoy being one with the experience— even while you enjoy all of the amenities of a modern automobile. And, when you get to where the pavement stops, in a Wrangler, you can easily continue along the rutted dirt road to Ohe’o Gulch, home of the Seven Sacred Pools in Haleakala National Park.
The stretch of the California State Route 1 (also known as the Pacific Coast Highway) running between the coastal towns of Carmel and San Simeon Calif. is one of the most incredible roads anywhere in the world. First of all, the sheer ingenuity it took to build it is absolutely amazing. Given there was no road there when it was built, in many places the heavy equipment had to be floated in on barges to cut the path the road would eventually take. And yes, it was absolutely worth doing. Big Sur boasts one of the most heavenly landscapes you’ll find on this earth. Its mountains rise directly out of the sea and stand in rows as you travel down the highway—creating some of the most magnificent silhouettes you’ll ever see. Most guidebooks say the drive takes about two and a half hours, and yes, if you run it straight through, that’s about right. Thing is, you won’t. With scenery this arresting, you’ll be taking full advantage of all of the turnouts the highway’s engineers so thoughtfully included. The Mustang packs enough speed and agility to make the drive interesting when you want to take on the challenging curves, and its droptop will let you drink in the ocean breezes and bask in the warm California sun (on the days the fog stays at bay).
Life magazine dubbed the US 50 across Nevada the "Loneliest Road In America" back in July of 1986. Making this list more because of its desolation than the sheer beauty of the countryside through which it passes, driving U.S. 50 from Carson City, Nevada to the tiny town of Baker on the Utah border near Great Basin National Park is something anyone who loves to drive should do at least once before internal combustion engines are rendered obsolete. Wide open roads like US 50 is one of the reasons Nevada didn't bother to post numeric speed limits in rural areas prior to 1973. Thus US 50 in Nevada is one of the few places in America you can truly exercise the SRT Viper. Streaking across the valley floor, as true as a beam of light streaming from a laser, the pavement appears to converge upon itself before disappearing into the distance. In one instance, the road is perfectly straight for seventy miles between two of the mountain ranges it traverses in eastern Nevada. You then go from streaking across the valley floor like a German billionaire on the Autobahn to clipping apexes and surfing sweepers through the mountain passes like Lewis Hamilton in his Formula 1 car. US 50 across Nevada is quite possibly the most exciting driver’s road in all of the United States.
Driven from north to south, you’d pick up U.S. 93 on the Canadian border at Roosville, Montana and follow it all the way down through Montana, Idaho, Nevada, and Arizona before the route terminates at the town of Nogales on the Rio Grande at the Mexican border. Along the way, you’ll see some of the most fantastic sights the American west has to offer. Alpine forests, rugged mountains, raging rivers, glaciated valleys, and two wildly different desert landscapes are all strung together by U.S. Highway 93. Oh, and just for grins, it runs through Las Vegas, Nevada too. The Lincoln MKZ Hybrid, with its emphasis on quiet luxury is ideal for this trip because of its long distance comfort, and the exceptional fuel economy its hybrid powertrain will return; plus it will look good in Las Vegas. You’ll pass through Glacier National Park and Montana’s Bitterroot Valley before crossing the Continental Divide and tracing the banks of the Salmon River into the Sawtooth Mountains and dropping into Sun Valley, Idaho. The road then slices through miles and miles of solitary desert (where you’ll pretty much be alone with your thoughts and thankful for the great fuel economy and all the entertainment options the MKZ Hybrid offers) before exploding into a neon orgasm in Las Vegas. From there, you’ll cross Boulder Dam into Arizona and on into Phoenix and the Mexican border. One of the most wildly divergent drives anywhere on earth, U.S. 93 is one seriously schizophrenic highway.
It took some 40 years for the state of Utah to complete the 122-mile scenic byway that is Utah 12. Called “A Journey Through Time Scenic Byway”, Utah 12 runs from Panguitch, Utah to Torrey, Utah—along the way providing access to Capitol Reef National Park, the Dixie National Forest, and Bryce Canyon National Park. Utah 12 is designated one of America’s Scenic Byways, and for good reason. Lightly traveled, it has a nice mix of winding sections and long open straights, all of which make it a perfect playground for a spirited sports car like the Corvette Stingray. Further, the vistas will sear your retina with their beauty and embed themselves in your memory for the rest of your life. It has been said this road comprises the best tour of Utah’s red-rock desert one can enjoy as either a day-trip, over the course of a weekend, or as a short vacation. More significant however, is the sheer diversity of colorful sights ranging from deep red sandstone canyons, to bluffs exploding with purple sage, to shivering golden Aspen leaves. The national parks at either end of the highway are just icing on an already delectable cake. Utah’s Highway 12 is an experience you’ll want to return to again, and again, and again.
Photo by Mitsubishi Motors North America
Aside from the beauty of its Rocky Mountain setting, Colorado’s Trail Ridge Road passes through Rocky Mountain National Park and holds the distinction of being the highest continually paved road in the United States. Tracing a route over the Continental Divide, at its highest point Trail Ridge Road climbs to an elevation of 12,183 feet—some 2.3 miles above sea level. Further, some eight miles of the road are above 11,000 feet. Running between Estes Park, Colorado and Grand Lake, Colorado, this is a road you’ll want to visit from late spring or early summer, to late fall—as it is usually closed in winter. The 259-horsepower turbocharged engine in the Buick Regal Turbo will shrug off the altitude, as turbocharged engines don’t really care how thin the atmosphere gets at higher elevations. Plus it’s comfortable and with its all-wheel drive powertrain the Buick will deliver great fun attacking the curves you’ll encounter. But we recommend taking your time so you can keep your eyes peeled for the elk, deer and bighorn sheep inhabiting the tundra Trail Ridge Road passes through once you get above the tree line. Trail Ridge Road’s many stonewall turnouts offer arena-like views of the scenic vistas. The views at Rainbow Curve, Forest Canyon, and Farview Curve will consume the memory card in your digital cameras in no time at all.
This 272-mile drive between the Nebraska towns of Grand Island and Alliance starts out pretty much like you’d expect a drive across one of the states comprising the Great Plains to do. Flat featureless grasslands are dotted with large bovines enjoying their carefree lifestyle grazing the day away. However, as you enter the Platte River Valley, waterfowl replace the cattle and the road begins to meander in sympathy with the twists and turns of the river. The beauty of Chrysler’s 300C is it is perfectly suited to both types of roads. When the way is straight, the big Chrysler delivers a smooth and comfortable ride. Then when the roads starts to twist back and forth, the supple chassis dynamics give way to remarkably confident handling. The marshes and wetlands host an abundant variety of wildlife, in addition to some positively gorgeous scenery. If this were all there was to this drive, it’d be quite enough. But wait, there’s more. Nebraska’s Sandhills comprise a collection of the most extensive set of sand dunes in the Western Hemisphere. They also represent the largest remaining grassland ecosystem in the United States still virtually intact for both native flora and fauna. Covering approximately 13 million acres, the Sandhills cover an area about as large as Vermont, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island combined.
Minnesota’s North Shore Scenic Drive lovingly caresses Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the world (by surface volume). The tribe of native people to the area, the Ojibwe, called the lake gichigami, which in English translates to mean to "be a great sea." But we digress. Stretching 145 miles between Duluth, Minnesota and Grand Portage, Minnesota on the Canadian border; the North Shore Scenic drive is another one of those runs quoted at 2 hours and change, but will more than likely take you along the lines of four hours because there is so much to see, and you’ll definitively be stopping to see it. We recommend doing the drive in mid-autumn to relish the riot of color the birch and maple trees display just before winter sets in. Whenever you do it though, the treanquil waters of the lake borders miles of unspoiled wilderness. A multitude of cliffs and waterfalls punctuate the drive magnificently. Cadillac’s SRX makes a perfect platform from which to take it all in, with its smooth ride, palatial luxury appurtenances, and elevated seating positions.
While all of the other drives on this list are about flora, fauna, and natural scenery, this one is an urban celebration of American architecture. Lining some 26 miles of the shoreline of Lake Michigan in Chicago is a collection of some of the most extraordinary buildings in the United States. The majesty of the former Sears Tower (once the tallest building in the world and now called the Willis Tower) as well as the solid strength of the John Hancock Building stand proudly among a host of incredible edifices penned by many of the greats of American architecture. The best time to do this drive is on a lazy summer evening with the top dropped on a car like the Chrysler 200 Convertible. This is a drive you’ll want to have the ability to look up and out, and you’ll want a car that won’t be goading you into seeing how quickly you can make the trip. The Chrysler’s decidedly laid-back attitude is absolutely perfect for this mission. Dial up some sweet satellite music on the stereo and let those warm evening Midwestern summer breezes wash over you, while marveling at some of the most amazing work humankind has ever undertaken.
Many people who have never driven the Blue Ridge Parkway are stunned to learn the 469-mile scenic route has a speed limit of 35 miles per hour. And frankly, many people who have driven the Parkway never gave the speed limit a single thought. So stunning is the beauty of this road, most people wind up simply meandering just the same. Probably wouldn’t mater if the speed limit were 50 or even 65 miles per hour. OK, that’s dreaming, but seriously, the last thing on most people’s minds as they wind through the gorgeous Appalachian Mountain scenery is speed. And, if you have the good fortune to visit in the fall when the trees go all Technicolor on your ass… We chose the all-new Chevrolet Impala for this one because it large windows afford you the best views, while the comfort of Chevrolet’s top line model is unrivalled. Every luxury feature you could possibly want is there, and should you decide to meander into a few of the towns along the way, the Impala will show in good stead. After all, Impala is America’s favorite four-door.