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Scenic USA Driving Routes - West

Discover some of the West's most picturesque byways.

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Big Sur Coast Highway

Big Sur Coast Highway

Photo by Betsy Malloy, About California/Southwest Guide
By Susan Breslow Sardone

When the sun comes out and the weather is fine, the impulse to get in the car and go for a scenic drive becomes nearly irresistible. And if you're willing to leave the highway, forgoing speed for other pleasures, you can find fascinating routes to take for leisurely scenic drives throughout America.

Coast to coast, the following ten drives offer historic, cultural, recreational, natural, and picturesque sights along the way, all guaranteed memory-makers. So gather your maps, load your camera, start your engines, and hit the road.

WEST
SCENIC DRIVE #1: California/Route 1, Big Sur Coast Highway

A roller coaster of a scenic drive, Big Sur Coast Highway hugs the Pacific coast, from Carmel-by-the-Sea up north to Los Padres National Forest, where trees in the Southern Redwood Botanical Area stand awesomely tall.

Full of hair-raising turns and dips as it hovers over crashing ocean waves, Big Sur Coast Highway stretches for 72 miles.

On the sinuous route you're likely to spot sea lions cavorting, cypress trees shaped by the wind, and towering canyons.

Attractions along the way include Bixby Bridge, Carmel Mission and Basilica, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, Monterey Bay Aquarium, Point Lobos State Reserve, and Big Sur's Henry Miller Memorial Library. Pause for lunch at Nepenthe. The view from the restaurant's veranda is exhilarating.

If possible, spend some more time at one of the superb coastal resorts, such as Ventana, named a "Best of the Best" by Condé Nast Travelermagazine. Or drive south to San Simeon, where you can tour magnificent Hearst Castle. If you only have one day to make the three-hour drive, try to time your scenic getaway so that you catch the sunset. You won't be disappointed.

SCENIC DRIVE #2: Oregon/Hells Canyon Scenic Byway

In Oregon's northeast corner, Hells Canyon Scenic Byway winds along the Grand Canyon-like rift separating the state with Idaho. This 218 mile-long route, designated an All-American Road by the Federal Highway Administration, travels south and east past the 10,000-foot peaks of the Wallowa Mountains to the rim of Hells Canyon. Scenery ranges from high mountain country to lush farmland.

Along the route you can see parts of where the Canal Fire of 1989 burned through some 23,000 acres; wildlife and vegetation have found their way back. Wallowa Lake, a large, glacier-formed body of water, is two miles off the route and open to boaters and hikers.

Historic Tenderfoot Wagon Road, a former mine road, is now a trail for hikers and horseback riders.

Eagle Cap Wilderness remains untamed by man. Lick Creek Guard Station, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Salmon spawn in the scenic Imnaha River. And 215,000-acre Hells Canyon National Recreation Area contains the deepest river gorge in North America. Carved by the Wild and Scenic Snake River, it plunges more than a mile down.

SCENIC DRIVE #3: New Mexico/Highway 25 Albuquerque to Santa Fe

While this 63-mile stretch of north-central New Mexico highway hasn't won any official designations I know of, it's a favorite of mine.

That's because in a little more than an hour you've left behind urban Albuquerque, started to climb, and reached Santa Fe.

The scenic high desert landscape of undulating mesas and arroyos, piñon trees and yucca flowers, and the big, big sky is a proper introduction to Santa Fe, which stands at 7,000 feet at the base of the southern Rocky Mountains.

Despite the fact that Highway 25 travels in practically a straight line from Albuquerque to Santa Fe, we once managed to get lost on this route -- and end up at a ski resort somewhere along the way. But the drive was so awesomely beautiful -- with evergreens so tall and pristine snow asparkle in the sun -- no one cared.

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