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A road trip is perhaps the epitome of the American vacation, regardless of the route you take. But a road trip that follows the nation’s most breathtaking and recreation-filled coastlines? That’s the epitome of a summertime American vacation.
The following 13 drives up, down and across the U.S. will immerse you in the best sites and experiences that the country’s greatest ocean, river and lake shorelines offer. Their unique scenic, historical and cultural landscapes have earned them a spot on the U.S. Department of Transportation’s list of “America’s Byways.”
Road trips are also ideal for this summer because you stand to save money traveling by car. The national average gas price recently dropped for 17 days straight, according to AAA. As of June 22, the national average was down to $2.28.
If you’re new to road trips, don’t be intimidated. It’s essentially impossible to screw one up — it’s about the experience and quality time with family and friends, or even just yourself. Remembering to pack road-trip essentials will make for smoother travels, though.
If you’re short on time this summer, don’t let that deter you. The following adventures can be pulled off in an afternoon, or savored for weeks. The shortest drive is 25 miles. The longest is more than 2,000 miles.
1. Pacific Coast Scenic Byway — Oregon
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This 363-mile stretch of U.S. Route 101 spans Oregon’s entire Pacific coastline (pictured above).
Highlights include the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport and the Sea Lion Caves in Florence, which boasts the nation’s largest sea cave and, yes, sea lions. Other worthy pit stops include the 630,000-acre Siuslaw National Forest and the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, where you can ride a dune buggy and go sandboarding.
If you’re on the Pacific Coast Scenic Byway on Aug. 21, you have a chance to witness the total solar eclipse that will grace a sliver of the nation that day.
2. San Luis Obispo North Coast Byway — California
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Closures have plagued the Big Sur Coast Highway on California’s State Route 1 this summer due to landslides, but to its south is another breathtaking stretch of Route 1: the San Luis Obispo North Coast Byway. This byway traces 57 miles of California’s Pacific coastline, with the city of San Luis Obispo marking its southern terminus.
Despite the byway’s relatively short length, it abounds with recreation opportunities, including hiking, biking and kayaking.
Historical highlights include the Piedras Blancas lighthouse, established in 1875. You’ll also discover the Hearst Castle, the former estate of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. The 127-acre compound includes 165 rooms, two pools, an airstrip and gardens with ocean views (pictured).
3. Creole Nature Trail — Louisiana
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For a memorable road trip along the Gulf of Mexico, hit the Creole Nature Trail. Also known as “Louisiana’s Outback,” the byway runs for some 180 miles past marshlands, estuaries and 26 miles of beaches as well as five national and state wildlife refuges. (A boardwalk in Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge is pictured.)
You might spot alligators and some 400 species of birds. Recreation includes fishing, crabbing, hunting and combing through seashells.
4. Florida Keys Scenic Highway — Florida
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This byway offers double the coastal views, with the Gulf of Mexico on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other. So you’ll be able to watch the sun rise and set over a vast body of water.
The byway follows U.S. Highway 1 across the chain of islands that is the Florida Keys, including over the Seven Mile Bridge. The drive stretches for more than 100 miles, starting in Key Largo and ending where the highway itself ends, at Mile Marker 0 in Key West.
Activities — historical, cultural, natural and water sporting — are too many to name. Highlights include John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (pictured), where you can snorkel, dive or ride a glass-bottom boat. You can even snorkel and swim at Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park after learning about the military fort’s role in American history, from the Civil War era through the Cuban Missile Crisis.
5. A1A Scenic and Historic Coastal Byway — Florida
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This 72-mile byway on State Road A1A follows the Atlantic coastline in North Florida. It makes a perfect day trip as part of a longer visit to nearby St. Augustine, the nation’s oldest city.
Historic highlights include the only national monuments located in Florida: Castillo de San Marcos (pictured) and Fort Matanzas. Both Spanish-built forts predate the founding of the U.S. itself.
But while St. Augustine’s historical sites alone are enough to merit a trip, it was the natural sites along the A1A Scenic and Historic Coastal Byway that proved to be the highlight of my vacation to St. Augustine earlier this year. It’s an ideal drive for summertime, offering breathtaking beach after beach, and park after park. And that’s coming from someone who lives 15 minutes from an Atlantic coast.
If you’re near St. Augustine around the Fourth of July, you’ll find a host of holiday activities and fireworks displays to choose from, VisitStAugustine.com reports.
6. Outer Banks Scenic Byway — North Carolina
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This byway follows North Carolina’s coastline as it veers off from the mainland, jutting east across barrier islands that separate Pamlico Sound from the Atlantic Ocean. Traveling the full length of the byway involves driving for about 138 miles and riding a ferryboat for 25 miles.
Along the way, you’ll pass two inlets and 21 coastal villages — whose residents “continue the same living traditions that have been a way of life on these islands for generations,” says the byway’s website. Possible pit stops include two national seashores, Cape Hatteras (pictured) and Cape Lookout, and two national wildlife refuges, Cedar Island and Pea Island.
If you’re on the Outer Banks around the Fourth of July, you’ll find festivities and fireworks, according to the byway website.
7. Great River Road — 10 states
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The Great River Road must be the mother of all American road trips. It traces the shoreline of the mighty Mississippi River for more than 2,000 miles, winding through 10 states. From north to south, those states are:
If you plan to drive the entire byway straight through, it would take about six days, according to the byway’s website. But don’t rush, or you’ll miss out on the more than 70 Great River Road interpretive centers along the way.
They include Minnesota’s National Eagle Center (pictured), where you can see bald and golden eagles up close, and Louisiana’s Poverty Point World Heritage Site, where you’ll find massive earthen monuments built by Native Americans a few thousand years ago.
8. Connecticut River Byway — 3 states
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This byway winds through Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont for nearly 500 miles as it hugs the banks of New England’s longest river, which goes all the way up to the Canadian border.
The byway’s website cites “its vivid history, its deeply rooted farming heritage, its cultural vigor, the call of the railroad, [and] an array of recreational adventures, all in a natural setting …”
Quirky museums include the American Precision Museum, which boasts the largest collection of historically significant machine tools in the U.S. The surroundings include the Cornish-Windsor bridge (pictured), which spans the Connecticut River to connect Cornish, New Hampshire, and Windsor, Vermont. At 449.5 feet, it’s among the longest covered bridges in the U.S.
For more covered bridges, hit up Indiana. We recently cited the Hoosier State’s covered bridges in “The One Thing You Simply Must See in Each State.”
9. Ohio River Scenic Byway — 3 states
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This 943-mile byway follows the banks of the Ohio River from its conjunction with the Mississippi River in Illinois westward across Indiana’s and Ohio’s river banks. The eastern terminus is near the Ohio/Pennsylvania state line.
The Ohio River Scenic Byway offers “almost continuous views of the river,” says the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Along the way, you’ll drive through Illinois’ Shawnee National Forest (pictured) as well as Indiana’s Hoosier National Forest. Historical highlights include the birthplace of former President Ulysses S. Grant and the tomb of former President William Henry Harrison, both in Ohio.
10. Colorado River Headwaters Byway — Colorado
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If you drive the full length of this byway — variously listed as 70 to 80 miles in length — you’ll experience a 1,700-foot change in elevation. Gore Canyon (pictured) is at one end, and Rocky Mountain National Park is at the other.
Hot spots along this stretch of the Colorado River include mineral hot springs and Grand Lake, Colorado’s largest natural lake. It’s at Grand Lake that snowmelt forms the headwaters, or source, of the river.
Activities include fishing, canoeing and rafting.
11. George Washington Memorial Parkway — Virginia
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At 25 miles, this is the shortest byway in this article, but it makes a perfect day trip as part of a longer visit to Washington, D.C. The nation’s capital sits on the east side of the Potomac River, right across from this byway hugging the west side.
Part of the George Washington Memorial Parkway’s allure is “sweeping views of our nation’s capital,” says the Department of Transportation.
The byway’s namesake draw is Mount Vernon (pictured), which was home to the nation’s first president, George Washington, and his wife, Martha. The estate includes the mansion, gardens, a museum and education center, and the tombs of the presidential couple.
12. Great Lakes Seaway Trail — 2 states
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This 518-mile byway follows Lake Ontario and Lake Erie as well as the locks, canals and channels of the St. Lawrence Seaway in New York and the northwest corner of Pennsylvania. Its western terminus is the Ohio/Pennsylvania border.
Sites include 1,000 islands, 29 lighthouses and a plethora of state parks — including Niagara Falls State Park (pictured).
13. North Shore Scenic Drive — Minnesota
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This byway follows the shores of Lake Superior, the nation’s largest freshwater lake. It starts in the city of Duluth and stretches northward for about 150 miles.
The scenery includes cliffs, beaches, waterfalls, lighthouses, the Sawtooth Mountains and thousands of acres of forest. Sights include eight state parks and Superior National Forest (pictured). Activities include hiking, backpacking and trail-running on the Superior Hiking Trail, a footpath that stretches more than 300 miles from the Duluth area to the Canadian border.
Do you have a favorite road-trip roadway? Tell us about it below or over on our Facebook page.