Heading west from New Orleans, you enter bayou country, where alligators and herons splash in the swamps and Spanish moss hangs heavy overhead. Sunlight filters through, and for a glorious moment, you feel like the only driver on this scenic road.
While Louisiana's Highway 31 is finest in spring and fall, when the weather is pleasantly cool, it's summer that heralds peak road-trip season for much of the U.S. And we've compiled the best American routes just in time for you to plot your vacation.
These drives feature spectacular landscapes, roller-coaster-worthy dips and bends, and wildlife spotting (look out for bald eagles and nesting peregrine falcons along Maine's Acadia All-American Road). For each trip, we've included a can't-miss stop along the route, perfect for stretching your legs while absorbing splendor-and quirks-of your surroundings.
Take in the blazing golden poppies blooming throughout the Mojave Desert in California's Antelope Valley as you cruise toward a lookout that offers sweeping panoramic views. Climb through rainforests and apple orchards along the Cascade Loop in Washington, stopping for the beer gardens and kitschy trinkets of the Bavarian Alps-inspired hamlet of Leavenworth. Or check out the lighthouses and underwater coral-reef parks on U.S. 1 in the Florida Keys, then brake to frolic with dolphins before crossing one of the longest bridges in the world.
M. Timothy O'Keefe / Alamy
U.S. 1, Florida Keys
Leaving the mainland for the 120-mile-long island chain of Florida's Keys, travelers enter a paradise of beach bars, water sports, and Parrotheads (Jimmy Buffett fans). From Key Largo to Key West, the overseas highway strings the islands together like beads, running past lighthouses, underwater coral-reef parks, and across 7 Mile Bridge-one of the longest bridges in the world.
Where to Stop: On the island of Islamorada, travelers can swim with dolphins at the historic Theater of the Sea. theaterofthesea.com
David Muench / Corbis
Antelope Valley, California
From L.A., drive north to the town of Lancaster via Route 14, better known as the Antelope Valley Freeway. Golden poppies bloom throughout the Mojave Desert region in March, but the 1,760-acre Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve claims the finest concentration of California's state flower-not to mention glorious showings of fiddlenecks, cream cups, gold fields, and tidy tips starting in late March.
Where to Stop: Drive the seven-mile Antelope Loop Trail within the Poppy Reserve and continue on to Antelope Butte Vista Point, a high lookout (the valley reaches an elevation of nearly 300 feet) that offers the most sweeping desert panoramas.
Courtesy of Dutchess County Tourism
U.S. Route 9, New York
The entire route runs more than 300 miles from Delaware up to the U.S.-Canada border, but this 57-mile lower New York stretch has special appeal when the weather warms. Start in Poughkeepsie and head north toward the town of Valatie, pulling over for fresh produce and organic homemade goods at one of the many local farmers' markets that reopen in late spring. And keep your eyes peeled for Gilded Age estates along the route, such as the Vanderbilt Mansion.
Where to Stop: The historic open-air Hyde Park Farmers' Market, just off Route 9, opens in early June on the grounds of the '50s-era Hyde Park Drive-In Theatre. Further north, in Columbia County, stop at Harvest Spirits Farm Distillery for a bottle of dry apple brandy.
Hana Highway, Maui
The T-shirts all say: I survived the road to Hana. It can take more than four hours to travel (takes about 2.5 hours) the 51 miles from Kahului to Hana, as you snake past steep sea-cliffs lush with blooming mango trees, buy banana bread from roadside stalls, and pull over for Jurassic vistas. In tiny Hana, a town on eastern Maui, a cinder cone shields the red sand beach where nudists and endangered monk seals bake idly in the sun.
Where to Stop: Fuel up with pancakes soaked in coconut syrup at Anthony's Coffee Co. in the funky small town of Paia. Just beyond mile marker (49 miles) awaits Waianapanapa State Park, with black-sand beaches and trails leading to sea caves and lava cliffs.
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