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Top 10 Scenic Highways
From the book National Geographic Guide to Scenic Highways & Byways Photo by Brent Reeves

Photo: Big Sur, California
A view from Bixby Bridge on the Big Sur Coast of California

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Top 10 Scenic Highways

1. Historic Route 66, New Mexico & Arizona
2. Florida Keys, Florida
3. Going-to-the-Sun Road, Montana
4. Route 1, California
5. Ozarks, Missouri
6. Marine Highway, Alaska
7. Great River Road, Minnesota
8. Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia & North Carolina
9. El Camino del Rio, Texas
10. Maine's Big Sur, Maine

Historic Route 66, New Mexico & Arizona

Glenrio, New Mexico, to Topock, Arizona, on I-40, US 84, Route 66, New Mexico 313, 333, 124, 117, 122, 118, and County Road 10; 974 miles (1,568 kilometers) including alternative routes; 3 to 4 days; All year. Snow can affect roads at higher elevations.

Route 66, famously called "the mother road" by John Steinbeck, has meant many things to thousands of different people. To some, it meant escape from the poverty of the midwestern Dust Bowl of the 1930s. To others, it was the road to the sunshine, glamour, and opportunity of Los Angeles. To families in the 1950s and '60s, it was the route to summer vacation fun.

Inaugurated in 1926, running 2,440 miles (3,927 kilometers) from Chicago, Illinois, to Santa Monica, California, Route 66 was known as "America's Main Street." It gave a major boost to the country's automobile culture: the world of motels, diners, gas stations, roadside attractions, and the promise of something new just over the next hill. Interstate highways have eliminated many segments of the old Route 66, but there are still stretches of the original road awaiting exploration. Here and there vintage diners and motels still stand alongside the concrete ribbon that once linked the Great Lakes with the Pacific Ocean. Be prepared to get on and off I-40 if you want to experience the history and nostalgia of Route 66.

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Florida Keys, Florida

Florida City to Key West on US 1; 126 miles (203 kilometers); 1/2 day; Fall to spring. Summers can be hot, bug-ridden, and subject to thunderstorms. The crowded tourist season runs from October through March.

Mangrove-fringed and waterbound, the Overseas Highway (US 1) links a chain of subtropical isles that arc off the tip of Florida. Delving ever deeper into a tropical terrain, the route reveals a land of hammocks and reefs, miniature deer, and, at last, the fanciful, idiosyncratic town of Key West.

Going-to-the-Sun Road, Montana

St. Mary to Apgar through Glacier National Park; 50 miles (80 kilometers); 2 hours; Late spring through fall. Closed October to early June. Best driven in the morning. Good chance of wildlife sightings. Adm. fee to park.

High in the mountains of northwest Montana, Glacier National Park sprawls over a magnificent landscape of jagged peaks, deep mountain lakes, and steep-sided valleys. Crossing the park's backbone from east to west, Going-to-the-Sun Road climbs from the fringe of the Great Plains to the Continental Divide, then drops into the lush rain forests of the McDonald Valley. The route passes ribbon-like waterfalls, vibrant wildflower meadows, and turquoise streams.

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Route 1, California

Monterey to Morro Bay; 123 miles (198 kilometers); 6 hours; All year.

This drive encompasses both Big Sur Coast Highway and the San Luis Obispo North Coast Byway. The drive 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.

Ozarks, Missouri

Salem to Eminence on Missouri 19; 44 miles (71 kilometers); 1 hour; Spring through fall.

Coursing through the peaceful farm country and upland forests of southeastern Missouri, this winding road passes near a large section of the Mark Twain National Forest and crosses the Ozark National Scenic Riverways wilderness area. Most popular in spring and fall, the highway boasts redbud and dogwood in pink and white and a palette of brilliant autumn colors. Wildflowers from last frost to first frost enhance the beauty of the roadsides.

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Marine Highway, Alaska

Bellingham, Washington, to Unalaska/Dutch Harbor, Alaska, on regularly scheduled ferries; 8,834 miles (14,220 kilometers); One-day excursions to several weeks for extensive travel along coast; Late spring through fall. Check for winter ferry schedules.

Uniquely among all America's byways, Alaska's Marine Highway carries travelers from point to point entirely by water. This is unusual for a "highway" system of course—but Alaska is an unusual state. With only a little more than half a million people in an area one-fifth the size of the lower 48 states, Alaska is a place of rugged terrain, few roads, and scattered towns and cities, where the best way to get around is often by airplane or boat.

The Alaska Marine Highway Ferry System is an official arm of the state's Department of Transportation and Public Facilities. Its operation is vital to many communities along the coasts of the Pacific Ocean and Gulf of Alaska, providing the major means of transport for both people and goods. (Even though there are roads in and around towns, many towns are not connected by highway to "the rest of the world.") Connecting with the Marine Highway system and serving a smaller area in the state's southeast corner is the Inter-Island Ferry Authority.

Great River Road, Minnesota

Itasca State Park to Iowa state line on local county and state roads, US 61, and Minnesota 26; 575 miles (925 kilometers); 3 days; All year. Some roads are unpaved, use caution in poor weather.

From Minnesota to Louisiana, the Great River Road parallels the Mississippi River. It continues for 2,552 miles (4,107 kilometers) from the North Woods to the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

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Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia & North Carolina

Rockfish Gap, Virginia, to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina; 469 miles (755 kilometers); 2 days; Spring through fall. Fine fall foliage and spring bloom. Higher elevations occasionally close in winter. Distances designated by mileposts.

Showcasing the age-old beauty of the southern Appalachians, the Blue Ridge Parkway is one of America's most popular scenic drives. Connecting Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks, the two-lane drive rides the crest of the Blue Ridge and other ranges, occasionally dipping into hollows or climbing above timberline to heights more than 6,000 feet (1,829 meters).

El Camino del Rio, Texas

Lajitas to Presidio on Farm Road 170; 50 miles (80 kilometers); 1 1/2 hours; Fall through spring. Summers are extremely hot. Be aware of steep grades, sharp curves, and poor shoulders along this route.

One of the most spectacular routes in Texas, El Camino del Rio—the River Road—plunges over mountains and into steep canyons, following the sinuous Rio Grande through the desolate but beautiful Chihuahuan Desert.

Maine's Big Sur, Maine

Ellsworth to Calais on US 1 and Maine 186, 187, 189, and 190; 197 miles (317 kilometers); 1 day; Spring through fall. Road to Schoodic Point is one way.

US 1 from Ellsworth to Calais is truly a road less traveled. Most tourists never get past Bar Harbor and miss the crashing surf at Acadia National Park's Schoodic Point, the tiny fishing villages, and the small cities near the Canadian border. This route includes the Schoodic Scenic Byway and much more.

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