1. CALIFORNIA COASTAL HIGHWAY
This twisting, cliff-hugging, 123-mile (198-kilometer) route along the central California coast takes about five hours to complete at a leisurely pace. The route starts in historic Monterey, visits the art colony of Carmel, and threads through Big Sur, where mountains plunge into the Pacific. Farther south, the landscape mellows to oak-studded hills as the road passes Hearst Castle on its way to Morro Bay
Join California Route 1 in Monterey. The town served as California’s capital under Spanish, Mexican, and American flags, and by the early 1900s boasted an important sardine industry. Surviving sites include the Royal Presidio Chapel, Monterey State Historic Park, Custom House, Casa Soberanes, Larkin House, and other adobe buildings, as well as touristy Fisherman’s Wharf and Cannery Row, home of the celebrated Monterey Bay Aquarium.
After enjoying Monterey, drive 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) south on Highway 1 to Carmel-by-the-Sea, an upscale village of quaint colorful cottages, restaurants, inns, shops, and art galleries fronted by a broad beach fringed with Monterey pines. Among the highlights are Mission San Carlos Borroméo del Río Carmelo, second of the California missions, founded by Padre Junípero Serra in 1770; Tor House, the 1919 home of poet Robinson Jeffers; and mile-long Carmel River State Beach, with its pelicans and kingfishers.
From Carmel drive 3.5 miles (5.6 kilometers) south to Point Lobos State Reserve, a 550-acre (220-hectare) park encompassing coves, headlands, meadows, tide pools, and the nation’s first undersea ecological reserve, covering an additional 750 acres (300 hectares), with kelp forests 70 feet (20 meters) high. Trails lead past Monterey cypresses, which grow naturally only here and in Pebble Beach.
After driving through Carmel Highlands, where impressive houses perch on granite cliffs above the sea, you reach the start of Big Sur, which extends 90 miles (145 kilometers) south to San Simeon. On this fabled coastline, redwood groves reach skyward, the Santa Lucia Range plunges into the sea, and waves are beaten to froth on ragged rocks.
Route 1, opened in 1937, climbs higher than 1,000 feet (300 meters) above the sea. One of the few easy-to-reach beaches is at Garrapata State Park, about 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) south of Carmel Highlands. From Soberanes Point watch for sea otters, which are protected under California state law.
En route to Bixby Bridge, six miles (ten kilometers) farther, you can choose to leave Calif. 1 and drive the 11-mile (18-kilometer) Old Coast Road, which climbs through remote forests and canyons and offers silent ocean views before ending at Andrew Molera State Park.
Much photographed Bixby Bridge is a single-span concrete arch more than 260 feet (80 meters) high and 700 feet (200 meters) long. Park at turnouts near either end to gawk or take pictures. Ahead, the highway passes Hurricane Point, for big views, and then descends to the mouth of the Little Sur River. Looking inland, you’ll see 3,709-foot-high (1,131-meter-high) Pico Blanco, distinguishable by its lime deposits. Toward the sea, sand dunes soon appear, rolling toward the 1889 Point Sur Lighthouse (tours Saturdays and Sundays, call for additional days April through October), a state historic park. In a few miles you reach Andrew Molera State Park, whose broad beach, oak and redwood forests, and stretch of the Big Sur River are accessible only by foot.
Pass through the settlement of Big Sur and head for Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, where the Big Sur River runs through 964 acres (390 hectares) of redwoods, sycamores, and ferns. Then go 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometers) south and turn right on the 2-mile (3.2-kilometer) road down Sycamore Canyon Road to the white sands of Pfeiffer Beach, where the surf roars through arched rocks.
Less than 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) farther on the highway you come to Nepenthe, an indoor-outdoor restaurant perched 800 feet (245 meters) above the sea and famous for its views. About half a mile south, on the left, look for the Henry Miller Memorial Library, perched among towering redwoods. It displays books and memorabilia of the novelist who spent 18 years in Big Sur. Also stop 8 miles (12.8 kilometers) farther at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park whose terrain ranges from 3,000-foot-high (914-meter-high) ridges to an underwater preserve. Do walk the short trail along the seaside bluff to see McWay Falls pour 100 feet (30 meters) into a picturesque cove.
Ahead of you lies the southern stretch of Big Sur. The road clings to a precipitous coastline, and the only settlements in the next 40 miles (64 kilometers) are Lucia, Plaskett, Gorda, and Ragged Point. From here onward are hills and pastureland. You’ll spy the Piedras Blancas Light Station on a point supposedly named in 1542 by Spanish explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo for its white rocks (stained with bird droppings).
After a spell away from the Pacific, the road reaches the town of San Simeon, a staging area for the five-mile bus ride to Hearst Castle, begun in 1919 by newspaperman William Randolph Hearst. Perched in the Santa Lucia Range, the 127-acre (51-hectare) estate features the 115-room main house and guesthouses, which mix classical and Mediterranean Revival styles, using European architectural elements, antiques, and artwork collected by Hearst.
Continue six miles (ten kilometers) to Cambria, nestled against hills where Monterey pines thrive in porous soil of decomposed sandstone. On the ocean side of the highway, at Moonstone Beach, look for moonstones and California jade. Drive on four miles to the colony of Harmony, where you might glimpse artists at work. Ahead on Estero Bay, the small town of Cayucos dates from the coastal schooner era of the 1860s; the pier has good fishing, plus views of pelicans and cormorants.
The end of your route is Morro Bay easily identified by its landmark Morro Rock. A turban-shaped, extinct volcanic cone about 23 million years old, it is 576 feet (176 meters) high and sits on the bay. Peregrine falcons live here. To learn about local wildlife, visit the Morro Bay State Park Museum of Natural History.
Enjoy this drive any time of year, but beware of winter mudslides. The itinerary describes a north-to-south route; if you drive from south to north, you’ll have a few extra feet of roadway between your car and the hair-raising drop-offs to the Pacific Ocean.
2. CASCADE LAKES, OREGON
This 83-mile (134-kilometer) route—running from Bend, Oregon, to Sunriver on Oregon 372 and County Roads 46 and 42—can be driven in three hours. Weaving through a classic Cascades landscape, the Scenic Byway passes massive volcanoes, murmuring streams, forests of awesome evergreens, lava flows, glittering lakes, and meadows full of wildflowers. It’s been 1,300 years since lava oozed out of the peaks of the Cascade mountain rang
Head southwest out of Bend on Oregon 372, following the signs to Cascade Lakes and Mount Bachelor. Almost immediately, you start climbing into ponderosa pine forests characteristic of the drier east side of the Cascades as you cross into the Deschutes National Forest. After five miles, you’ll see an immense swath of the eastern Cascades, including some extensive lava flows.
As you continue climbing, the forest becomes a dense mix of pine, fir, hemlock, and spruce. About seven miles, Mount Bachelor suddenly fills the horizon. After about five miles (eight kilometers) a turnoff leads up to the Mount Bachelor Ski and Summer Resort; a chairlift ascends to the 9,065-foot (2,763-meter) summit of this volcano
Back on the drive, now called County Rd. 46, you have more dramatic views of other volcanoes and mountains, with Broken Top hulking in the foreground. A side road a mile or so past the ski-area turnoff leads a half mile to a short trail with great views of Todd Lake and the snow-crowned mountains that rear above it. This is the first of many beautiful mountain lakes along the drive; most were formed when ancient lava flows dammed or redirected rivers. Forging on between Mount Bachelor and Broken Top, the road skirts the marshy north end of Sparks Lake. Stretch your legs along a short trail through forested lava fields.
Continuing on, the road curves around Devils Hill, a jumble of dark lava boulders. You can get a close-up look at this fascinating area by parking at Devils Lake and walking back along the highway to Devils Hill.
As County. Rd. 46 swings south, it edges the 283,402-acre (114,689-hectare) Three Sisters Wilderness (hiking permits available at most trailheads). Here, you pass more lakes and lava formations and more views of Mount Bachelor and other towering Cascades giants. Opportunities for hiking, fishing, boating, and picnicking abound, particularly if you make a stop at Elk Lake, where there’s even a sandy beach.
Six or seven miles past this lake, the highway pulls alongside the Deschutes River. From its source in nearby Little Lava Lake, it begins its journey to the Columbia River. For the next few miles you follow the river, only 25 feet (eight meters) wide at this stage.
For more wildlife, turn off at the Osprey Point and Crane Prairie Reservoir. Here, a short trail through the forest opens onto the reservoir, where dead trees cradle the nests of a variety of birds, including ospreys. About three miles past Osprey Point, this route separates from the America’s Byway official Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway and turns east onto County. Rd. 42 where it passes groves of ponderosa pines. About three miles from the junction, the Deschutes River reappears.
For the next 15 miles (24 kilometers) or so the drive leads through a mix of pristine and cut-over pine forests. Soon houses begin to reappear, heralding a return to civilization and the end of the drive in the town of Sunriver, a resort community catering to summer vacationers and winter skiers. To visit Sunriver, turn left on South Century Drive.
The best time to drive this route is summer through fall. Portions of the route are closed in winter. Both the High Desert Museum and Newberry National Volcanic Monument, a few miles south of Bend on U.S. 97, tell the story of the rugged landscape and the flora and fauna unique to the area.
3. OLYMPIC PENINSULA, WASHINGTON STATE
The snow-topped peaks of the Olympics are a mercurial sight from Seattle, vanishing in fog and rain only to reappear again when the skies clear. First explored by non-natives only in 1890, the Olympics and their peninsula of 3,600 square miles are still wild. Even now no roads traverse the interior protected by Olympic National Park. This drive goes 330 miles around the peninsula counterclockwise.
Start in Seattle by crossing the Hood Canal Bridge to reach the Olympic Peninsula, connect with 101, then quickly turn right on Highway 20 for a quick detour to Port Townsend known for its Victorian architecture. Back on 101, proceed toward Sequim, inside the peninsula’s rain shadow leaving clear skies.
Beyond Sequim, turn north to see the Dungeness Spit, one of the world’s longest natural sand spits. The area was declared a national wildlife refuge in 1915 because of the abundance of bird species—over 250—that you find here.
A bit father along 101, as you continue moving counterclockwise around the northeast corner of the peninsula, you reach Port Angeles. From this coastal logging town at the doorstep of Olympic National Park, take a day trip out to Hurricane Ridge, which offers a panoramic view of snowy peaks, glaciers and beautiful coastline.
Soon the road forks. If you bear right and take Highway 112, you’ll end up at Neah Bay, the westernmost point reachable by car in Washington State and the Makah Indian Reservation. You can camp, hike, or fish in the vicinity.
If you bear left at the fork, and stay on Highway 101, you’ll soon be along the shores of Lake Crescent, “the most beautiful lake in the United States,” boasts one local. Each bend opens another vista more transcendent than the last. The road traces the southern shore of the lake, dipping inside the park boundary. The views rival anything in the Alps.
Also in the park is Sol Duc Hot Springs offering cool hikes in misty forests and hot soaks in heated pools.
As Highway 101 rounds the corner and turns south, watch for the turnoff to 110, leading to La Push, a town surrounded by the coastal section of Olympic National Park and just outside the Quileute Indian Reservation for views of the Pacific surf and nearby sea stacks.
Back on 101, heading south, you’re soon in the logging town of Forks. Stop at the Forks Timber Museum with displays of equipment and artifacts dating back to the 1870s.
One of the real highlights of the drive is a hike in the Hoh Rain Forest in the heart of the national park. Here Sitka spruce and western hemlock reach heights of up to 300 feet (91 meters), the moss-covered giants thriving on some 150 inches (381 centimeters) of rainfall a year. Enjoy the Hoh Rain Forest Visitor Center, campground, picnic area, and self-guided trail.
As wonderful as the Hoh is, some locals prefer the Quinault Rain Forest farther south along the loop. With fewer tourists, enjoy a lake, river, and hiking trails. Drive the 30-mile (48-kilometer) loop around Lake Quinault for great views of forests and mountains. Visit Lake Quinault Lodge which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Drive on to Grays Harbor on the peninsula’s southern end, where you pick up Highway 12. Stop in Hoquiam to see the national wildlife refuge, a habitat for shorebirds, and the Polson Museum, a local history museum housed in a former private mansion dating to 1924.
Rounding the southern end of the loop and heading back north on 101 as it follows the Hood Canal. As you close out the loop, there are a number of state parks where you can stop along the way to stretch your legs or camp overnight. Before rejoining 104, take a detour drive—about five miles south of the town of Quilcene—to the summit of Mount Walker. The four-mile (six-kilometer) gravel road is narrow and steep but okay for passenger cars. The payoff at the top are broad views of Mount Rainier, Puget Sound, and Seattle.