Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina in Fall colors. Looking straight down at the road.

Discover America’s Scenic Parkways and Byways

Beyond the stunning scenery, the country’s top driving routes open up access to countless cultural and recreational opportunities worth exploring.

Cruising down a scenic open road, sunglasses on and wind in your hair—it’s an image as American as apple pie. The quintessential road trip is a bedrock of our culture, and no wonder: The U.S. has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to gorgeous driving routes. In fact, these roads are a kind of public land. The government has designated thousands of miles of pavement across the country as official scenic drives, selected for qualities like their beautiful landscapes, rich history, or cultural importance. You’ve heard of Route 66, the “Mother Road” that connects historic sites, kitschy antique stops, and public art installations across eight states—but did you know that drive is just the tip of the iceberg? 

What kinds of official scenic drives are there?

On a federal level, the U.S. uses three designations to classify its best drives. National parkways are beautiful roads and the strips of land surrounding them, many including frequent pullouts so drivers can stop and enjoy the view. They’re meant for slower speeds and more relaxed driving. Many date back to the 1930s, when the National Park Service designed them as job-creation projects. National scenic byways must demonstrate at least one of six “intrinsic qualities” (archeological, cultural, historic, natural, recreational, and scenic), and its features must be considered regionally significant. The best of these are upgraded to All-American Road status, which means they have at least two intrinsic qualities, have features that can’t be found anywhere else, and are considered destinations unto themselves. The National Forest Service also names its own National Forest Scenic Byways, and the Bureau of Land Management has its Back Country Byways. Somewhat confusingly, a route can be more than one of the above. The Natchez Trace Parkway, for example, is also an All-American Road.

Who manages them?

National parkways fall under the National Park Service, while the U.S. Dept. of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration handles national scenic byways and All-American Roads. The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management also play a role in their own designated byways. 

What can you do there?

Well, drive, of course—but also road bike, have a roadside picnic, explore historic and cultural sites, and take photos. Some roads even offer recreation opportunities on the adjacent land, including trails for hiking and horseback riding, fishing streams, and campsites. 

Bixby Bridge and Pacific Coast Highway at sunset

America’s Top Scenic Drives to Cruise

Beartooth Highway, MT

The prettiest way to access Yellowstone National Park is this 69-mile All-American Road through the rugged Beartooth Mountains.

Expect: Sweeping views of snow-capped peaks, tight curves, and wildflowers.

Don’t miss: Excellent wildlife-watching opportunities abound here, including for grizzly and black bears, bald eagles, and moose.

Blue Ridge Parkway, NC/VA

This 469-mile stretch through the heart of the Appalachians is perhaps the most famous of the parkways. 

Expect: Endless views of crinkly mountains, several museums and art centers, and a higher-than-average number of opportunities to hike, camp, fish, and climb. 

Don’t miss: The Blue Ridge Parkway connects two of the Southeast’s loveliest national parks, Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah

Colonial Parkway, VA

The parkway extends 23 miles from Yorktown to Jamestown via Williamsburg, linking some of the most important historic sites of America’s colonial period starting in the 1600s.

Expect: Living history reenactments, battlefield stories, hardwood forests.

Don’t miss: Colonial National Historical Park, on the parkway’s eastern end, takes visitors from pre-Colonial times through the Civil War.

Great River Road All-American Road, MN/WI/IA/IL/MO/TN/AR/KY/MS/LA

Extending for 2,069 miles along the Mississippi River, the Great River Road tells the stories of Indigenous cultures, French voyageurs, escaped enslaved people traveling the Underground Railroad, lumberjacks, steamboat captains, and many more.

Expect: Riverside views, bluffs, locks, historic towns, and a slew of museums, state parks, and historic sites.

Don’t miss: It’s tough to pick just one highlight on a road that traces 10 states (it’s on both sides of the river), but the Delta Blues Museum in Mississippi, St. Louis’s Gateway Arch, and Wisconsin’s Maiden Rock Bluffs are all standouts.

Natchez Trace Parkway, AL/MS/TN

Follow in the footsteps of countless Native Americans, soldiers, and settlers on this 444-mile drive that hugs a historic travel corridor (and that caters to road-bike use with five free campsites set aside as cyclist-only).

Expect: Deep woods, cypress swamps, sparkling waterfalls, and preserved buildings.

Don’t miss: The Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail runs approximately parallel to the road, offering 60 miles of hiking through prairie, wetlands, and hardwood forests.

Route 1—Big Sur Coast Highway All-American Road, CA

See California at its best along this 72-mile length of state highway (aka the Pacific Coast Highway, or PCH).

Expect: Stunning ocean views, cliffs, and whale sightings.

Don’t miss: The southernmost stands of naturally occurring redwoods are here, in the Southern Redwood Botanical Area.

Trail of the Ancients National Scenic Byway, CO/UT/NM

This 480-mile loop drive through the Four Corners region explores the “archeological heartland of America,” focusing on Native peoples such as the Ancestral Puebloans. 

Expect: Desert views, mesas, ruins, and cultural centers.

Don’t miss: The byway includes Mesa Verde National Park, Hovenweep National Monument, and Ute Mountain Tribal Park.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.