Blacktop excursions: 10 dramatic drives

  • Sheep grazing in Paradise Valley on Montana's Highway 540.

As we traverse the country in The Epic Van, we are drawn to historic sites, roadside attractions, and odd museums, but sometimes the best thing is the landscape sliding past the windshield. Here are 10 (with one bonus) of our favorite drives.

Montana’s Highway 540 (East River Road), off U.S. Highway 89, from Gardiner to Livingston – This road follows the Yellowstone River through Paradise Valley, where irrigated fields meet the abrupt foothills of the the Absaroka Range and the Gallatin Range rises in the far distance. In June, spring lambs grazing along the road were fat and frolicking, and ranchers stopped their pick-ups in the middle of the road to share the news of the day.

Arkansas’ Highway 8, from Caddo Gap to Mena – This intimate two-lane byway traverses the surprising Ouachita Mountains in the center of the country. Unlike most other mountain ranges in the United States, the Ouachitas run east and west, rather than north and south. The hills are covered with oaks, loblolly pine and mockernut hickory, and the rolling road resembles the more-famous Blue Ridge Parkway. In April, fog shrouded the rolling blacktop through the Caddo Mountains, obscuring the next roller-coaster dip from each peak.

South Dakota’s U.S. 16A, in the Black Hills – Designed to be a slow, scenic route to showcase Mount Rushmore, this narrow byway with spiraling pigtail bridges and one-lane tunnels winds through the Black Hills National Forest and past Iron Mountain. It was the most challenging place for The Epic Van in the two years we’ve been out and about, the van’s awesomeness squeezing through the rock tunnels with inches to spare. But, oh, the vistas around each curve.

Wyoming’s U.S. 14A, from Dayton to Lovell – Originally a wagon trail, this road winds through the Bighorn National Forest, one of the oldest protected forests in the country. The road provides panoramic views of mesas thousands of feet below and across the Big Horn Basin west to Yellowstone. You also pass the Medicine Wheel National Historic Landmark, a sacred place where Native Americans still hold ceremonies. And if you’re lucky, you’ll see juvenile moose gnawing on brush.

Montana’s Highway 35, from Polson to Bigfork – This state highway just south of Glacier National Park hugs the eastern shore of Flathead Lake, one of the largest freshwater lakes west of the Mississippi. This wonderland, etched by glaciers, stretches out lazily under Montana’s big sky in the foothills of the Mission Mountains. It rolls past cherry, pear and apple orchards and, in July, past bright-yellow cultivated stretches of canola.

Nebraska’s Highway 2 and 27, from Broken Bow to Gordon – One May, we traversed this eerily desolate rolling road as we ran from tornados on the plains and tried to stay south of blizzards hitting the Dakotas. The Sandhills are unique mixed prairies on grass-stabilized sand dunes. The fragile, lovely contours, some reaching several hundred feet in height, are cut by tributaries to the Loup River and dotted with temporary and permanent lakes from the Ogallala Aquifer running beneath.

Montana’s U.S. 212, from Cooke City to Red Lodge – This dizzying road, an engineering marvel, goes sky high, curving around precipitous drop offs in the Beartooth Mountains, then revealing amazing waterfalls and snow-covered peaks, even in summer. Turn up the heat and put on the brakes. You’ll want to stop at every overlook.

California’s Highway 108, from Twain Harte to Sonora Pass – This mountain drive takes you through the Sierra foothills to Sonora Pass, at 9,643 feet, giving you a comprehensive Sierra Nevada experience. In the 7,500-foot climb, you move from the gold country to pines to alpine granite. In the fall, we got fog and rain, turning the peaks into misty wonderlands.

Georgia’s U.S. 17, from Darien to Richmond Hill – Get off Interstate 95, and take this road, that follows Georgia’s coast, weaving past marshes, tidelands, magnolia trees and and cypress groves. Along the way, you will see Spanish moss hanging off the live oaks, letting you know you are in the Deep South and getting you in the mood for Savannah’s squares.

Kansas’s Highway 177, from Manhattan through the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve to Strong City – This highway travels through most of the less than 4 percent remaining of the nation’s tallgrass prairie. The grasses that fed the buffalo – little bluestem, big bluestem, Indiangrass and switchgrass – once covered 140 million acres across the plains. It was preserved in this tiny sanctuary because the Flint Hills were too rocky to plow into cropland.

California’s Highway 1, from Cambria to Carmel by the Sea – The serpentine path of California’s Highway 1 hugs the rocky Pacific coastline, weaving from headlands to precipitous cliffs to Redwood groves, to historic bridges spanning sandy beaches. Around each new curve is another breathtaking vista, and there are many lookouts where you can view tall sea stacks, floating kelp and aquamarine coves. On the inland side are the Santa Lucia Mountains, the golden hills famous in California artwork. Double your time-per-mile equation for curves, traffic and stops.



  1. Reply
    Peter Corbett October 12, 2016

    This a great list of unexpected routes. I’ve only driven two of these roads– over the Beaartooth Mtns in the other direction and Us Highway 1. I so agree with those choices. I hope to sample your other picks.

    • Reply
      Judy Nichols October 13, 2016

      Peter, Beartooth is stunning. And there are always more roads to explore. Love following your explorations in Arizona. We’re making a list of things we haven’t yet seen there. Judy

  2. Reply
    Jim johnson October 13, 2016

    Been on at least 5 of them. Beartooth is our favorite. You are have some trip(s).

    • Reply
      Judy Nichols October 13, 2016

      Jim, So glad to know you have traveled some of these, too. Beartooth is amazing. We are having the time of our lives. Judy

  3. Reply
    Sunny Harvy October 14, 2016

    I think Highway 1 north of San Francisco is even better than the more popular drive through Big Sur!

    • Reply
      Judy Nichols October 16, 2016

      It’s one stunning view after another.

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