Automobile ads love to show shiny vehicles cruising open highways under blue skies, with mountains and beaches nearby. But when was the last time you took a drive like that? For most of us, our cars are merely workhorses to haul us around town.
Still, it’s easy to break out of the rut. Magnificent roads are never far—routes that slice through forests, dance along the coastlines, and thread through mountain passes. They’re scenic drives, yes, but they’re also classically American. And once you find the right route, it’s easy to rediscover the exuberant freedom of the open road.
The first cars were by and large playthings for the rich and powerful—just picture Jay Gatsby winding his yellow Rolls-Royce down the parkways of Long Island. But at the same time, special scenic routes were constructed in what are still some of the country’s most beautiful spots. When more Americans started driving, it created a road-trip frenzy that lives on today.
Some of these roads are justifiably famous, including what’s arguably America’s most scenic drive: California’s Route 1, around the town of Big Sur. Rocky cliffs plunge down to open ocean, creating a severe distraction while you navigate this narrow road.
Other roads may not be household names, but are nevertheless an integral part of the American fabric. Highway 31, west of New Orleans, takes you through classic Louisiana countryside, past lazy bayous and swampy lagoons filled with alligators and herons.
And some of these great American drives are still relatively new. Between Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park and its Dr. Seuss–like Bryce Canyon, Highway 12 runs past sandstone cliffs and a forest of deep green junipers. Yet this road was simply a challenging four-wheel-drive track until the last stretch was opened in 1985. And the famous Blue Ridge Parkway, a project started in 1935, wasn’t fully completed until 1983. That’s when the Linn Cove Viaduct, which snakes around North Carolina’s Grandfather Mountain, was finished.
So next time you find yourself stuck in rush-hour traffic, skip the road rage. Instead, find the iconic American road closest to you and put yourself in that automobile ad.
Gold Rush Highway 49, California
This winding, two-lane highway passes dozens of carefully preserved Victorian-era mining camps, dusty ghost towns, deep canyons, rushing rivers, and oak-covered foothills. Highway 49 also takes in the historic Mother Lode gold mining district, where the Golden State got its start.
Where to Stop: The Empire Mine—the oldest, richest, and largest gold mine in California—has been preserved as a state park at the heart of the gorgeous artists’ community of Grass Valley.