Skip the traffic-jammed roads of America’s best-known scenic drives and go straight to these secret road trips.
The United States is renowned for its plethora of jaw-droppingly beautiful stretches of highway. In fact, for many travelers, the very word “America” conjures images not of bustling cities or world-class museums (though the US offers no shortage of them) but of iconic roads such as California’s Highway 1, the Southeast’s Blue Ridge Parkway, and Montana’s Going-to-the-Sun Road.
But what about the lesser-known American drives? The ones that aren’t necessarily jam-packed with road trip enthusiasts but nevertheless offer gorgeous scenery, family-friendly fun, education, and even cultural enlightenment? Here, six outstanding “secret” drives that travelers will love to boast about “discovering.”
Big Bend, Texas
Big Bend National Park, along the Texas border with Mexico, is often overshadowed by its more famous fellow parks like Yosemite and Grand Canyon. But a road trip through this gorgeous environment, with its limestone cliffs, scenic overlooks, and Rio Grande River, is a unique way to experience the American landscape. As with many US national parks, Big Bend includes small “villages” that can serve as handy milestones in planning a drive. One option is the Panther Junction-to-Rio Grande Village drive, about 21 miles (34km) passing ancient limestone, scenic overlooks, and opportunities for stopping for a short hike at Boquillas Canyon or the Rio Grande Village Nature Trail.
Cherokee Hills, Oklahoma
This is a lesser-known road trip that provides a healthy dose of cultural education as well. The Cherokee Hills Scenic Byway, in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains in eastern Oklahoma, runs about 84 miles (135km), so set aside at least two hours for the drive. But the best approach is to make many stops along the way. You’ll see some of the oldest buildings west of the Mississippi River, many predating the state of Oklahoma itself; five small towns; the Cherokee Heritage Center, where visitors learn about the painful history of the Trail of Tears but also about the modern-day initiatives of the Cherokee Nation; and natural wonders including Lake Tenkiller and Natural Falls State Park.
Door County, Wisconsin
The Door County peninsula, sometimes called the “Cape Cod of the Midwest,” is a narrow, beautiful stretch of land between Lake Michigan and Green Bay. Its Coastal Byway (Highway 42/57) is a Wisconsin Scenic Byway, covering more than 60 miles (97km) passing through the towns of Sturgeon Bay and Northport. Here, visitors discover the natural beauty and relaxing pace of this prized corner of Wisconsin – including farms known for their fresh cherries, a summer theater festival, and charming communities that hug the lakeshore, offering great food (including house-made ice cream), unique shopping, and forests perfect for easy hikes.
Brandywine Valley Scenic Byway
Sure, Delaware is one of the smallest states in the US, but it packs plenty of history and natural beauty. The Brandywine Valley Scenic Byway, in northern Delaware, takes visitors past sights as diverse as the city of Wilmington and the beautiful countryside. Officially only 12 miles (19km) along the Kennett Pike and Montchanin Road, the byway focuses on the 300-year history of the Brandywine Valley and its role in the industrial revolution and the growth of transportation across the early United States. Consider the byway as your introduction to the larger Brandywine Valley region, which stretches into Pennsylvania and includes an array of important historical homes with great art collections, such as the Winterthur Museum, Garden, and Library; the Nemours Mansion and Garden; the Brandywine River Museum; and the Delaware Museum of Art.
Beartooth Highway, Wyoming & Montana
Warning: once you’ve driven the Beartooth Highway, which adjoins Yellowstone National Park and is surrounded by national forests and the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, you may be spoiled forever. The highway, a National Scenic Byways All-American Road, is a winding route up into the Absaroka and Beartooth Mountains – achieving an elevation over 10,000ft (3,000 meters) at its zenith, it’s the highest highway in the northern Rocky Mountains – with peerless scenic overlooks, glacial lakes, waterfalls, and, before you ascend back down, a high alpine plateau above the treeline. Set aside a few hours to truly enjoy the 67 miles (108km) of highway, and get to know one of the gateway communities such as Cooke City and Red Lodge, Montana, or Cody, Wyoming.
Mississippi Blues Trail, Mississippi
For an immersion in one of America’s original art forms, the blues, head to Clarksdale, Mississippi, gateway to the Mississippi Blues Trail. Although you’ll see the beautiful sights of the legendary Mississippi Delta along the way, the Blues Trail is not primarily a scenic drive but rather a set of interpretive markers and cultural institutions that visitors can navigate to create their own personalized road trip devoted to Mississippi’s incredible musical legacy. The trip’s mileage and time frame are entirely up to you. Highlights include Clarksdale’s Delta Blues Museum (where you’ll learn about local luminaries Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson) and Ground Zero Blues Cafe; Indianola’s B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center and Club Ebony (for blues music and soul food); and Greenwood’s Blues Heritage Gallery and excellent restaurants in the historic downtown district.