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8 Scenic Highway Drives

Black Canyon Freeway, I-17 Arizona, Scenic Highway Drives

MICHAEL TUREK

Interstate 17 (I-17) is also known as Black Canyon Freeway.

Think "interstate highway" and you're likely to conjure up hours of monotony punctuated by the occasional Stuckey's. But America's ribbons of open road tie together some truly dazzling roadside scenery. Here are eight stunning drives that don't require you to risk life and limb on hairpin turns.

1. I-17, Flagstaff to Phoenix, Arizona

This isn't just a road, it's a movie: a narrative that winds, in a few hours, from the ponderosa pine–studded Colorado Plateau just south of the Grand Canyon, past grand valley vistas, through a red-rock wonderland, to the exclamation-pointed landscape of saguaro-cactus forests north of Phoenix.

Things to Do Along the Way

Look up

Before you leave Flagstaff, take a moment to drive up tree-lined West Mars Hill Road to the Lowell Observatory, where Pluto was discovered in 1930.

See red

The red-rock monoliths of Sedona, just six miles from the highway at Exit 298, change their hue as the sun moves across the impossibly blue sky.

Get the points

Most of those saguaro cacti that stretch to the horizon near Phoenix were around before your great-grandmother was born. A ten-year-old plant might only be a little over an inch tall; it can take 200 years to reach its full height of 40 to 60 feet.

Stretch Your Legs at: Exit 289

Although it was dubbed Montezuma Castle, the Aztec ruler never saw this 800-year-old cliff dwelling.

 

Multnomah Falls, Misty Water in Green Trees, Arch Bridge, 8 Scenic Highway Drives

PURESTOCK/GETTY IMAGES

Be sure to stop at Multnomah Falls when traveling on I-84, en route to The Dalles, Oregon.

2. I-84, Portland to The Dalles, Oregon

It's the waterfalls that give this length of interstate its appeal. As the Columbia River carved through the region, a high cliff formed on its southern wall, resulting in more than 20 cascades, most just a short walk from the highway.

Things to Do Along the Way

Meet a dead end

Rising like a ship out of the river 11 miles west of The Dalles, Memaloose Island was called Sepulchar Island by explorers Lewis and Clark because of its Native American burial grounds.

Fall out

Multnomah Falls is just a few feet off the highway, at a pullout about 30 miles east of Portland. Get there early in the morning to avoid the crowds.

Stretch Your Legs at: Exit 25

If you dare: Rooster Rock State Park has a public clothing-optional beach.

Joshua Tree, Yucca, Rocks, I-10 Palm Springs, California, 8 Scenic Highway Drives

MINDEN PICTURES/MASTERFILE

I-10 stretches from southern California through Arizona and beyond.

3. I-10, Palm Springs to Blythe, California

Thousands of wind turbines churn away just north of Palm Springs, one of the most reliably windy spots in North America. Utility companies have been adding windmills here for decades. The tallest stands 300 feet high, with blades approaching 150 feet in length.

Things to Do Along the Way

Get high

From Valley Station (elevation 2,643 feet) the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway (exit at Highway 111) will whisk you up to Mountain Station (elevation 8,516 feet) on 10,834-foot-high Mount San Jacinto.

Go prehistoric

The towering concrete dinosaurs at Cabazon were built as an attraction beginning in the 1960s and immortalized in Pee-wee's Big Adventure. Creationists now run the site.

Stretch Your Legs at: Exit 139

At Shields Date Gardens in Indio, see the 15-minute film The Romance & Sex Life of the Date.

Skyline Drive, Mountains, Trees, Views, 8 Scenic Highway Drives

TIM FITZHARRIS/MASTERFILE

You'll see breathtaking views of the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains when traveling from Strasburg to Roanoke on I-81.

4. I-81, Strasburg to Roanoke, Virginia

Here in the Shenandoah Valley, the sloping Blue Ridge Mountains to the east and the Alleghenies to the west are some of the oldest mountains on the earth. Unlike the in-your-face grandeur of those upstart Rockies, this topography's gentle magnificence unfolds almost unnoticed, like the black-eyed Susans and cosmos that line the roadside in summer.

Things to Do Along the Way

Go underground

This is cave country—the rocks beneath those undulating hills are honey-combed with caverns. Most famous is Luray Caverns, with its Great Stalacpipe Organ, constructed to tap out tunes on the massive rocks.

Study uncivil history

The sobering story of 1864's Battle of New Market — which threw young cadets from the Virginia Military Institute up against Union troops — is told at the Virginia Museum of the Civil War (Exit 264).

Stretch Your Legs at: Exit 279

Shenandoah Vineyards, one of the oldest wineries in Virginia, offers tours through every season.

Newark, New Jersey, Manhattan, I-78 Newark Airport to the Holland Tunnel, 8 Scenic Highway Drives

STEVE KELLEY/GETTY IMAGES

I-78 boasts great views of lower Manhattan.

5. I-78, Newark Airport to the Holland Tunnel, New Jersey

Heading for the Holland Tunnel from I-95 in New Jersey, you'll enjoy a breathtaking view of lower Manhattan from an elevated highway — plus a look at the impressive Jersey City skyline, which gives New York's a run for its money.

Things to Do Along the Way

Sneak up on Lady Liberty

From the New York City side, Lady Liberty is a distant figure. But from the vantage point of Jersey City's Liberty State Park (Exit 14B), barely more than five football fields away, she seems close enough to touch. You can also catch a ferry to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty from the park, avoiding the crowds across the Hudson at the Battery.

Be like Babs

In Liberty State Park is the grand old Central Railroad of New Jersey Terminal. Although the terminal is still closed as of April 2015 due to Hurricane Sandy storm damage, this is the spot where Barbra Streisand boarded a tugboat heading across New York Harbor in Funny Girl.

Stretch Your Legs at: Exit 14C

Exhibits at the hands-on Liberty Science Center (also within Liberty State Park) include a skyscraper gallery. The center's IMAX dome is the nation's largest.

Alligator Alley, I-75, Aerial View, Everglades, Florida, 8 Scenic Highway Drives

ROBERT BALDWIN

Florida's I-75 is also known as Alligator Alley and runs through the Everglades.

6. I-75, Naples to Broward County, Florida

The 80-mile shot through Big Cypress Swamp is called Alligator Alley: Gators loll in the canals beside the road (and sometimes on its shoulder). But the superstars of the wild around here are the endangered Florida panthers. Just 100 to 180 roam free, according to Defenders of Wildlife.

Things to Do Along the Way

Hit the boards

The Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, just northeast of Naples (23 miles east of Exit 111), features a 2.25-mile boardwalk. Keep an eye out for the occasional bald eagle.

Skip the beach

The road stops short of Fort Lauderdale, before heading south, at Weston (Exit 15), where among the cookie-cutter homes, at Peace Mound Park (1300 Three Village Road), there's a Native American burial mound.

Stretch Your Legs at: Mile Marker 63

In the heart of Big Cypress National Preserve, pull over to picnic along the Florida National Scenic Trail. Note: If a gator snaps at your sandwich, we have no good advice.

Colorado River, Glenwood Canyon, I-70, Cars on the Road, 8 Scenic Highway Drives

MICHAEL TUREK

Take a break along I-70 to explore the falls of Hanging Lake at Exit 125.

7. I-70, Denver to Grand Junction, Colorado

Environmentalists were concerned that running a stretch of I-70 through Glenwood Canyon would destroy its natural beauty, and that's why this was among the last sections of road to be built in the entire U.S. Interstate Highway System. Some might still complain, but the drive is a doozy, with the Colorado River raging just below and canyon walls soaring 1,300 feet overhead. Careful: The turns are a lot sharper than they are on conventional interstates.

Things to Do Along the Way

Go deep

The Eisenhower Tunnel, which bores through the Continental Divide 60 miles west of Denver, is the highest vehicular tunnel in the United States.

Celebrate a bison-tennial

Just over one hundred years ago the City of Denver established a bison herd 20 miles west of town; I-70 goes right through this territory, and the shaggy critters are frequently visible from the road.

Stretch Your Legs at: Exit 125

From this rest area, hike to the clear water and tumbling falls of Hanging Lake (a 2.4-mile, round-trip trail rated "moderate to difficult").

Bourbon Barrels, Warehouse, Kentucky Bourbon Trail, I-65, 8 Scenic Highway Drives

ISTOCKPHOTO

The Kentucky Bourbon Trail and Mammoth Cave National Park are just a few attractions to visit while traveling along I-65

8. I-65, Bowling Green to Louisville, Kentucky

There is a quiet beauty both under and over the rolling hills of Kentucky's mid-section. The cave-riddled limestone of the south-central portion of the state offers a range of activities for the adventurous, but as you head north to Louisville prepare to experience the more genteel pursuits of that region's "bourbon, horses, and history."

Things to Do Along the Way

Explore a subterranean wonderland

Enter a world of vast chambers and labyrinths deep beneath the Green River valley at Mammoth Cave National Park. With more than 400 miles mapped, this cave system is one of the longest in the world.

Designate a driver

You can't get this close to the historic Kentucky Bourbon Trail without making at least one stop. The Jim Beam American Stillhouse is just a couple of miles off the interstate, offering tours and tastings daily.

Stretch Your Legs at: Exit 112

Before making your way into the bustling city of Louisville, commune with nature at Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest. More than 35 miles of hiking trails are available if you're feeling energetic, or you can choose to meander among the flora in the arboretum instead.


Published 09/01/10; Updated 5/18/15

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