10 Coastal Drives for a Scenic Summer Road Trip

These nationally recognized roadways will treat you to the best scenery and adventure that America's oceans, rivers and lakes have to offer.

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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 drives will immerse you in the best views and experiences that the country’s greatest ocean, river and lake shorelines have to 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.”

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 a day, or savored for weeks. The shortest drive is 57 miles. The longest is more than 2,000 miles.

1. Pacific Coast Scenic Byway

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This 363-mile drive spans Oregon’s Pacific coastline (pictured above).

Highlights include the Oregon Coast Aquarium and the Sea Lion Caves, which boast the nation’s largest sea cave and, yes, sea lions. Other possible stops include Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, one of the world’s largest stretches of coastal sand dunes in a temperate climate.

2. San Luis Obispo North Coast Byway

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This byway traces 57 miles of California’s Pacific coastline.

Despite the byway’s relatively short length, it abounds with recreation opportunities, including hiking, biking and kayaking.

Historical highlights include the Hearst Castle, the former estate of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. The 250,000-acre compound includes 165 rooms, two pools, an airstrip and 127 acres of gardens with ocean views (pictured above).

3. Creole Nature Trail

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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 and beaches as well as five wildlife refuges and sanctuaries. (A boardwalk in Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge is pictured.)

You might spot alligators and some 400 species of birds. Recreation includes fishing, crabbing, swimming and combing through seashells.

4. Florida Keys Scenic Highway

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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 connects the chain of islands that is the Florida Keys, spanning more than 100 miles. The span of roads and bridges ends where the highway itself ends, at Mile Marker 0 in Key West.

Activities — historical, cultural, natural and recreational — 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

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This 72-mile byway 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 two forts that are national monuments: Castillo de San Marcos (pictured above) and Fort Matanzas.

6. Outer Banks Scenic Byway

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This byway traces barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina. Traveling the full length of the byway involves driving for 138 miles and riding a ferryboat for 25 miles.

Along the way, you’ll pass four lighthouses 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 wildlife refuges and two national seashores. (Cape Hatteras National Seashore is pictured.)

7. Great River Road

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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.

If you plan to drive the entire byway straight through, it would take about 36 hours, 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

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This byway winds through Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont for some 400 miles as it hugs the banks of New England’s longest river.

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 along the way include the American Precision Museum, which boasts the largest collection of historically significant machine tools in the U.S. The surroundings include covered bridges. (The Cornish-Windsor bridge is pictured.)

9. Great Lakes Seaway Trail

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This 518-mile byway in New York and Pennsylvania follows the shores of two of the Great Lakes, Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, as well as the locks, canals and channels of the Saint Lawrence Seaway.

Sites include 1,000 islands, 29 lighthouses and Niagara Falls State Park (pictured).

10. North Shore Scenic Drive — Minnesota

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This byway follows the shorelines of Lake Superior, the world’s largest freshwater lake, for around 150 miles.

The scenery includes cliffs, beaches, waterfalls, lighthouses, the Sawtooth Mountains and thousands of acres of forest. Possible stops include eight state parks and Superior National Forest (pictured).

Do you have a favorite road-trip roadway? Tell us about it below or over on our Facebook page.

Karla Bowsher
Karla Bowsher
I’m a freelance journalist and former newspaper reporter who has covered both personal and public finance. I've worked for a top 50 major metro daily and a community newspaper as well as ... More

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