By Katherine Rodeghier, Special to Tribune Newspapers
7:53 PM EST, March 5, 2013
Hurry up and slow down. That's one way to look at a road trip. You don't hop a plane and zip off halfway around the world. You slide in behind the wheel and get a grip, you feel the planet, you experience the travel. Travel becomes part of the destination.
Fortunately, the U.S. is flush with scenic roadways in every region and for every season. To find them, check out the National Scenic Byways Program at byways.org. Now's the time to start planning. Here are five of my favorites.
1. Trail Ridge Road, Colo.: U.S. Highway 34, the highest major roadway in North America, climbs to 12,183 feet on Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park. For 48 miles, it wraps around blind curves between the communities of Estes Park and Grand Lake. Though the elevation gain is significant, you will have an easy time of it on grades of 5 to 7 percent.
Dress in layers. When you pull over at scenic overlooks on the 11 miles of roadway above the tree line, you may feel the temperature drop 20 to 30 degrees. The windy alpine tundra resembles that of Arctic regions, and you may see snow clinging to 12,000-foot peaks even in July. Keep on the paths to avoid crushing tender vegetation that can take decades to grow.
Bighorn sheep can be spotted on the flanks of the tallest peaks; elk and deer move lower. Moose gather along the Colorado River, here just a narrow stream winding through meadows below its source at La Poudre Pass. Park at a trail head and hike among aspen and ponderosa pine.
You can't make the trip year round. Trail Ridge Road closes at its highest elevations, usually around mid-October to late May.
2. Overseas Highway, Florida Keys: U.S. Highway 1 strings together a necklace of islets with 42 bridges spanning breaks between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. You begin at Milepost 106 in Key Largo and end at Milepost 0 in Key West. As you drive, look for key deer along roadside mangroves, great white heron standing in the shallows, and pelicans diving for fish.
Completed in 1938, the road was built largely on the right of way of the Overseas Railroad, which had been heavily damaged in a hurricane. In the 1980s, large portions of the highway were rebuilt, and you'll see sections of the old roadway, now used for fishing and biking, alongside the new. At Bahia Honda State Park, a section of the old railroad bridge is preserved as a monument. Watch boats glide beneath its sturdy steel trusses from the beach, one of the nicest expanses of sand in the Keys.
You'll find tourist attractions flanking the roadway. An old-style South Florida motel in Marathon is now the Turtle Hospital, open for tours. In Key Largo you can ride on the original African Queen from the Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn movie. And in Key West, tour the home where Ernest Hemingway wrote "For Whom the Bell Tolls."
3. Going-to-the-Sun Road, Montana: Designed by a landscape architect to take advantage of the scenery, this road through Glacier National Park (nps.gov/glac) travels 50 miles between the east and west ends of the park. You will see its namesake Going-to-the-Sun Mountain along the way, a moniker given to the peak in an American Indian folk tale.
Narrow lanes and hairpin turns drop the speed limit to 25 mph in some areas where vehicles wider than 8 feet (including mirrors) and longer than 21 feet are banned. Sit on the passenger side driving east and you'll look straight down past the edge of the road into the valley below. If that gives you sweaty palms, book a shuttle. Among the tour options are the Red Buses, built in the 1930s. When the weather cooperates, drivers roll back the canvas tops on these 17-passenger sedans for a great view.
Leaving the town of West Glacier, stop at Lake McDonald for a photo of mountains reflected in clear glacial runoff. The road climbs to Weeping Wall, where you'll see meltwater pouring through rock, sometimes so heavy you will need to roll up the windows. The road's highest point, Logan's Pass, reaches 6,680 feet. From the visitor center you can hike a boardwalk trail to Hidden Lake or part of the Highline Trail, a 30-mile rocky path that crosses the border into Canada. Look for mountain goats, deer, marmots and bighorn sheep.
The entire roadway usually isn't accessible until sometime in June, and some sections may close by mid-September.
4. Pacific Coast Highway, California: Though it travels almost the entire length of California, the most scenic stretch of California Highway 1 lies between Monterey and Morro Bay. South of Carmel, it leaves the urban area behind to meander along wild fringes of the Pacific Coast with tight curves and steep drop-offs to the pounding surf below. In the 1880s, the road was just a narrow winding path through the Big Sur Valley and Santa Lucia Mountains. The state highway was built using convict labor in the 1920s and 1930s across canyons and cliffs and through redwood forests, with supplies arriving by mule and boat.
In the Big Sur area, stop at pull-offs at Bixby Creek Bridge, a single-span concrete arch, to admire this feat of engineering. At Point Sur State Historic Park visit a lighthouse that dates from 1889. Stop for a meal at Nepenthe (831-667-2345, nepenthebigsur.com), a roadside restaurant with a view from its outdoor seating area.
Continuing south, the terrain gradually levels out. At San Simeon, detour inland to the Hearst San Simeon State Historical Monument, better known as Hearst Castle. Begun just prior to the Roaring '20s by newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst, the estate is furnished with European architectural elements, antiques and works of art.
And when the fog rolls in, you'll feel like you're sitting on a cloud somewhere very close to heaven.
5. Skyline Drive, Virginia: Following the crest of a ridge in Shenandoah National Park (nps.gov/shen), Skyline Drive meanders 105 miles between Front Royal and Rockfish Gap. The 35-mph speed limit on the two-lane roadway will force you to slow down, so make a day of it and pull over often at some of the 75 scenic overlooks. To the east, you will see the uplands of Virginia's Piedmont, to the west the Shenandoah Valley and the rolling Blue Ridge Mountains. Park and set off on some of the 500 miles of hiking trails.
The park doesn't mow along the roadway, so wildflowers bloom: trillium in spring, azaleas in June, black-eyed Susans into fall. Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife, including several thousand deer and 300 to 500 black bears.
President Herbert Hoover, whose Rapidan Camp is on the ridge, used drought-relief funds to start construction of the Skyline Drive in 1931. The Civilian Conservation Corps later added rock barrier walls, picnic grounds and Big Meadows Lodge with dining and accommodations.
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