Many people enjoy a great day trip to unwind and experience the freedom of the open road, but so many of our scenic byways have become over-shared and over-visited.
Below are three of my favorite scenic back roads in the U.S. You’ll note that none of them are highly publicized—hence, the reason I love them! You won’t find too much traffic or many touristy activities at these destinations; just peace and quiet in the midst of Mother Nature’s beauty.
If you travel straight through, each drive might take you about 3 hours. But if you are like me and enjoy exploring the area, you could easily make these trips last at least a full day or two. So take your time and enjoy Alaska, Texas and North Carolina at your leisure.
Breathtaking beauty is an overused descriptor, but for the drive along Richardson Highway from Glennallen to Valdez, Alaska, the term is spot on. In fact, I couldn’t find enough adjectives to convey my sense of awe to friends and family. (Let’s just say that all five of your senses will be kicked into overdrive on this tour.)
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park
Begin your tour south of Glennallen at the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve Visitors Center, where nine of the nation’s 16 tallest mountain peaks reside. The park itself is vast in size, equaling six Yellowstone national parks, with steam venting from its only active volcano, Mount Wrangell. From interior to coastal tidewater glaciers, this gem is the largest property in the national park system.
There are only a couple of roads through this wilderness, but one leads to the village of McCarthy and the Kennecott Mines. If you are ready for an interesting side trip, abandon your RV and take the toad (or fly in) to explore this remote landmark. Just be aware that the last 60 miles is very rough road and can only be traveled at less than 35 mph.
Once back to the Richardson Highway (otherwise known as Highway 4) the road will follow the Copper River through several Athabascan villages like Copper Center and Tonsina before turning southwest and rising toward Thompson Pass.
This U-shaped valley will enchant you with mountains rising abruptly on both sides of the road, shimmering with green ground cover (if traveled in summer). Waterfalls spurt from above, carrying snowmelt to the rivers below—all of this creates an otherworldly feel, as if you’ve entered a Tolkien trilogy.
Soon a huge slab of blue ice will appear on the mountainside to your right. When you see this landmark, take the exit to Worthington Glacier. It’s well worth the stop to see Mother Nature in action—slow erosion at its best.
Just past Worthington is the top of Thompson Pass. Take note of the roadside snow markers to envision just how much snow falls each winter. As you descend toward Valdez, you’ll be rewarded with thousands of wild columbines blooming along the road.
The highway meanders through a tight canyon of rock walls as you near the coast, and just about every corner turned produces another waterfall. These are spectacular reminders of winter’s end, carrying ice-cold liquid off the mountains to land at your feet. (Note: I counted over two dozen waterfalls along this route, so keep your eyes peeled!)
End of the road
The little port town of Valdez (rhymes with “yes PLEASE!”) lies at the end of this scenic highway. Filled with boats, buoys, and fisherman, the town is situated on the edge of Prince William Sound. You will want to take a boat ride to see the diversity of sea life in the area (Think: whales, sea lions, and puffins), and a hike near town during the warmer months will almost always conjure up a black bear or two hunting for salmon.
Grab a bite to eat at the Fat Mermaid overlooking the port, but don’t pick up anything at the local supermarket unless you are prepared for sticker shock. It seems there is a premium to pay for living at “the end of the road.”
Bluebonnet trail in Texas
It’s true! Everything is bigger in Texas—especially the wildflower fields. Spring brings out the bluebonnet hunters, who shoot with big DSLR cameras or cell phones, not rifles. It’s become quite the competition to discover your own secret pocket of these intense blue and purple lupines. But if you’re in Central Texas from mid-March through April, here is a drive that should garner you some amazing images and memories.
Using Burnet, Texas (the official bluebonnet capitol of the state) as your home base, you’ll find no shortage of wildflowers. Head south on US 281 toward Marble Falls. Just north of town on the west side of the highway is “The Bluebonnet House.” Normally the fields alongside this abandoned stone house are full of wildflowers, but recent road construction may have disturbed the seeds, as I saw nothing there this spring. But there’s always the hope for better luck next year!
When you reach Marble Falls, follow FM 1431 east to Turkey Bend Recreational Area. I’ll just let the picture do the talking here:
Take FM 1431 back to Marble Falls and continue on to Kingsland. You’ll find some abandoned railroad tracks and a bridge that are usually full of the signature flower. Just beware as you hike along the tracks: there are rattlesnakes out here! (These pictures are only for the brave, cowboy-boot-wearing photographers!)
If you continue west on FM 1431, you will soon intersect with Highway 29. Follow it west to Llano, Texas, then turn south on Highway 16 to Fredericksburg. The drive along this road should provide miles of wildflower viewing. And if you’re looking for even more sightseeing, take a slight detour on the Willow Loop for visions of bluebonnets and Texas paintbrush through your view finder.
If you’re looking for concentrated lupine all in one place, head east on US 290 from Fredericksburg. Just a few miles from town is Wildflower Farms. What better place to discover fields of the Texas state flower?
You can continue east on US 290 to Johnson City, where you’ll pick up US 281 back to Burnet. When you arrive back at the beginning of your tour, be sure to whisper “Thank you!” to Lady Bird Johnson, who began the program of wildflower seeding along highways in Texas, and is partially responsible for the vast beauty you just experienced. Even my dog enjoyed reveling in her handiwork!
Waterfall tour of North Carolina
If you are enticed by mountain waterfalls, then you’ll love a tour between the towns of Rosman and Murphy, North Carolina. The Waterfall Byway showcases almost 200 cascades in this section of the Tarheel State. Just follow Highway 64 from Rosman as it meanders through forests and mountains to the west to experience the soothing sounds of tumbling water. Here a just a few of the waterfalls you will encounter on your drive: Toxaway Falls, Silver Run Falls, Glen Falls, Secret Falls, Schoolhouse Falls, Cullowhee Falls, Bridal Veil Falls, and Quarry Falls (also known as “Bust Your Butt Falls”).
Find your own scenic back roads
The best way to enjoy these three tours through the back roads of our country? Rent an RV from Outdoorsy and unlock the freedom to find some of your own off-the-beaten-path destinations—places that speak to your heart with astounding scenery supplied by Mother Nature.
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