After driving 4500 miles around the American West last August, I thought it would be fun to share some of our favorite parts of the drive. We saw some really gorgeous parts of the country during those 10 days, and we’ve compiled a list of some of our very favorite drives–winding roads with gorgeous scenery, inspiring outlooks, and opportunities for viewing wildlife.
A few of these road trips are through national parks, which means they aren’t free to drive. However, if you plan on doing something similar to our “Epic American Road Trip” and visiting multiple parks, consider buying an America the Beautiful Pass. They cost just $80, grant access to all national parks and many other federal sites, and are good for a full year after the month they’re purchased. If you’re a senior you can get the pass for just $10, and if you’re an American with a permanent disability you can get the pass for free.
Read on for some of the best drives to include on your next quintessential American road trip!
1. Scenic Highway 128 in Moab, Utah
If you’re heading into Moab from the east along I-70, Google Maps will tell you to take Exit 182 and US-191 to head into Moab. Don’t do it! Instead, get off the exit earlier. Take exit 214 and State Route 128 (Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway) on your way into Moab. You won’t be sorry you did, as you’ll be rewarded by a road that snakes along with the Colorado River through gorgeous canyons and the red rock formations the area is famous for. There were also cattle ranches and an abandoned rusty bridge along the way. Being a public highway, the drive, of course, is free and will probably take you about an hour–longer if you decide to stop and take pictures like we did.
2. Mt. Evans Scenic Byway, Colorado
Mt. Evans Scenic Byway has the distinction of being the highest paved auto road in North America. It’s also the only of Colorado’s 14ers that you can drive to the top of–so if you’re like us and want to see mountain goats and experience the high altitude while being surrounded with gorgeous views of the mountains all around, but you don’t want to use your legs to get there, it’s perfect! The road up is very switchback and at times a little terrifying–be sure you watch out for the crazy souls who are biking to the top along the road! On the way up you’ll see two alpine lakes, snow-capped peaks, evergreen forests, and mountain wildflowers. At the top you’ll be able to see mountain goats and bighorn sheep, explore the ruins of the Crest House, and breathe in that fresh mountain air while enjoying the spectacular mountain views. We spent most of a morning (at least three hours) driving to the top and back down the mountain. The cost to drive it is $10/vehicle, but it was free for us because of the America the Beautiful pass.
3. Monument Valley Tribal Park, Navajo Nation
If you’ve ever watched a Western, or even the first part of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, you’ve seen Monument Valley. The Navajo Nation is a lot more willing to let film crews into these lands than the National Parks service is theirs, so it’s a very popular backdrop for many TV shows and movies made in the US. And with good reason too–the rock formations and scenery are like nothing else on Earth. For $20 you can drive your vehicle through at your own pace and hike the trails. There are also booths set up throughout where you can buy authentic Navajo-crafted items too, like dreamcatchers, blankets, and turquoise jewelry. Before our trip I’d read concerns people had about the unpaved roads on their vehicles, but we didn’t have any problems when we went. It’s probably best to ask about the condition of the road if there has been recent heavy rains though! In that case you can hop on a Jeep or a horse instead for a guided tour.
4. Grand Loop Road in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Yellowstone, the world’s first national park, is hard to beat, and it’s Grand Loop Road gives you access to all the park’s wonders–forest and lake views, thermal pools and springs, waterfalls, wildlife, and trailheads to enable your further exploration of the park. This is also one of the longest drives on the trip–we did Grand Teton National Park and about a third of the Grand Loop one day and about half of it the second day, but we only did a couple of pretty short hikes. For time to see the whole loop, plus Grand Teton National Park, I think three days are needed–more if you want to do longer hikes. A seven-day vehicle pass for Yellowstone is $30 and for both Yellowstone and Grand Teton is $50 (see how the America the Beautiful pass can save you money?) and they are worth every penny.
5. Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway in Zion National Park, Utah
Zion National Park has a multitude of stunning features–Angel’s Landing, the Narrows, the Emerald Pools–but we didn’t have a lot of time on our way from Las Vegas to Salt Lake City. We decided (since we had the pass anyway) to get a taste of the park by driving the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway through the park, and we were glad we did. As you can see in the video above, we were rewarded with stunning views of the park along the switchback road. There are several tunnels along the way, including the famous 1.1-mile Zion-Mt. Carmel tunnel, an engineering marvel in itself. In busy summer months the drive can take up to two hours, and it’ll cost you $25 without a pass (good reason to only do it if you have a pass or you’ll have more than a few hours to be in the park!).
6. Desert View Drive in Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
The whole western side of Grand Canyon National Park is not drivable; to get to the viewpoints, you have to hike the Rim Trail or wait in line to take the oft-crowded shuttles to them. The east side viewpoints, however, are accessible via Desert View Drive. To be fair, the drive itself isn’t the greatest of this list. Lots of what would be sweeping views of the canyon are blocked by trees, but this means more chances for wildlife sightings. We saw elk and crows along the way. The drive does give access to six fantastic canyon viewpoints, the watchtower, and several picnic areas. Insider tip: in addition to the six named viewpoints there are five unmarked pullouts. Don’t disregard them, because they’re less crowded than the named viewpoints but aren’t any less spectacular. Which viewpoints get names is fairly arbitrary. We spent late afternoon through dusk (2-3 hours) driving the road from east to west. The permit is $30/vehicle, or free, of course, if you have the pass.
7. Wildlife Loop Road in Custer State Park, South Dakota
Custer State Park’s Wildlife Loop Road is one that I never miss when I’m out in the Black Hills area for any period of time. The aptly-named road is probably the best for viewing bison, pronghorn, elk, deer, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, burros and other animals. From experience I can say that you’re basically guaranteed to at least see bison, pronghorn, burros and deer, but you’ll often see the others as well! And then of course, there’s the gorgeous views of forest and prairie interspersed with wildflowers. The drive will take you at least a couple of hours (more if you want to stop and take pictures – if you do, do not approach the bison! Every year or two someone gets gored or killed because they forget that they’re wild animals). A 7-day Custer State Park pass is $20, and a South Dakota state park pass is only $30, so if you plan on visiting any others throughout the year it’s definitely the better deal!
8. Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon, Colorado
I-70 through Colorado is probably one of the best interstates I’ve been on to start with–going up and down through the Rocky Mountains and evergreen forests, but the best part of it was probably the 15-mile section through Glenwood Canyon. The road is cantilevered over the Colorado River so that you can drive through the canyon hovering over the river. It’s truly a remarkable experience, and since it’s an Interstate, it’s free! There were some delays when we went through, but under normal circumstances it should take under a half hour to go through.
9. Highway 31 through Targhee National Forest, Idaho
We never expected this drive to be as enjoyable as it was–we only intended to take the best route from Idaho Falls to Jackson Hole, and this was it. We were really impressed though, at the gorgeous views as you follow a tributary of the Snake River through verdant forests and up into the mountains. A few quaint farms were sprinkled in before and after this particular road as well. In the unspoiled national forest, there were signs warning of moose, but we weren’t lucky enough to see one. The whole drive from Idaho Falls to Jackson Hole took about two hours, and Highway 31 was a relatively short part of that. Being a highway through a national forest, it also didn’t cost anything! Idaho in general was so much more beautiful than we ever expected–when first driving into the state we drove under a double rainbow (not even kidding) and then were rewarded with wonderful waterfalls, mountains and forests, and the Snake River throughout most of our drive.
10. Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Canyonlands National Park, though much larger and (in my opinion) more impressive than Arches National Park is often overshadowed by its Utah-license-plate-featured neighbor. Huge swaths of it are remote, only accessible by off-road vehicle or your own legs (and sometimes climbing gear). The more-accessible parts include the Needles district and the Island in the Sky district. The latter is the one we explored, and the one located closer to Moab. Overall Canyonlands was one of our favorite places on the trip, and in large part because of the wonderful drive through the Island in the Sky district. If mobility is at all difficult for you, Island in the Sky is where you want to be because so many breathtaking views of the canyon can be seen just from the road. This was in stark contrast to Desert View Drive of the more-popular Grand Canyon National Park, where you had to get out and walk to a viewpoint to see anything. If you don’t have a pass, Canyonlands is included, but if not a 7-day pass is $25/vehicle. We spent most of an afternoon there and were able to see many of the Island in the Sky district’s viewpoints. If you want to do any hiking, give yourself at least a full day, and if you want to be more adventurous with your rock-climbing, backpacking, or off-roading you’ll need much longer.
11. Badlands Loop State Scenic Highway, Badlands National Park, South Dakota
You might have seen pictures of Badlands National Park before without even realizing it. It’s a truly other-worldly place with layered rock formations in impossible colors, and there are often opportunities for wildlife viewing as well, like the bighorn sheep in the picture above. I especially enjoy the Badlands Loop (Highway 240) because it’s a great tour from the straight, flat monotony of I-90 if you’re heading west toward the Black Hills. If you’re heading that direction, make sure you also stop at the world-famous tourist trap, Wall Drug, for some free ice water, 5-cent coffee, and South Dakota souvenirs! The loop takes maybe an hour and a half, and probably adds about 45-minutes or an hour onto what you would have driven on I-90 anyway. A 7-day vehicle pass at this park is only $15, but of course the America the Beautiful Pass is accepted here too.
12. Dead Horse Point State Park, Utah
The drive through Dead Horse Point State Park is probably one of the shortest on our list, but we found it very enjoyable, probably at least partly because we drove it during one of the most gorgeous times of day in Utah–the golden hour before sunset. Sunset at Dead Horse Point, as you can see above, is the main attraction of the park and well worth the $10 entrance fee (good for one vehicle for 3 days). The drive itself was short, but we probably spent a good hour watching and photographing the sunset once we reached the end of the road at Dead Horse Point. If you’re in Moab or especially Canyonlands National Park don’t pass it up!
Well I hoped you’ve enjoyed this little compilation of some of our favorite drives from our road trip through the American West – South Dakota, Colorado, Arizona, Utah, Idaho and Wyoming are all represented here, and I hope that if you’re planning a road trip through any of these states you’ll keep this list in mind!
How about you? Have you driven any of these? Know of any great roads that we missed out on during our trip? Leave a comment below!