6 of the best drives in North America

I have driven hundreds of thousand miles in the US and Canada and hope to do many thousands more. Being in the travel trade, people are always asking me what is your favourite place/country/drive/hotel and the answer is always different because it depends on the mood I am in and what I can remember at that instant.  But as I am just about to set off for one of the famous drives through the Smoky Mountains, I started thinking about where I had been and what had been the best.  So, for what is worth, here are my favourites.  Let me know if you agree and what I should have included.

California coast

There really is not a bad bit of this coast as you drive from the Oregon border all the way down to Baja California and the Mexican border. For the best views go from north to south so that you are as close as possible to the ocean. If you want to drive the full length I would take at least a week because there are so many highlights amongst them obviously San Francisco and Los Angeles but also places such as Carmel and Monterey with its memories of John Steinbeck and its splendid aquarium. When leaving Monterey you must take the 17-mile detour around the Peninsula to Pebble Beach this rivals even Big Sur which is my favourite for beauty,  I also love the part around Santa Ynes and Santa Barbara. The added bonus to all beauty is that some of the best hotels are along this route.  Resorts such as Pebble Beach, Post Ranch Inn, the Belmond Elcanto, Ventana and the Lodge at Torrey Pines not to speak of the giants in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Did I say a week? I think I meant two so as to enjoy the hotels as well as the views!

Highway 1

Icefields Parkway

This one is just a wow never mind which way you drive it although personally I prefer northbound from Lake Louise to Jasper. Although it is only 144 miles long, you will want to allow most of the day for the journey by the time you have stopped at the cliff edge walkway known as the Glacier Skywalk and  ridden on the all terrain Ice Explorer on the Columbia Icefield.  You will also want to stop at the unutterably beautiful Peyto Lake with its shimmering aqua marine waters reflecting the surrounding snow-capped mountains and the Weeping Falls. This only mentions the highlights on the map; you will also find hundreds of other other amazing vistas and perhaps, as the icing on the cake, a black bear wandering along the roadside.

Top of the World Highway

The Top of the World Highway is a little harder to get to than the others on this list stretching as it does between Alaska and the Yukon and being one of the most northerly highways in the world but I promise  you, it is worth the effort. The journey starts in Dawson City, Yukon,  with the George Black ferry across the Yukon River and continues for 79 miles through some of the most stunning scenery you are ever likely to see.

Dawson ferry

Never has a road been better named; you really feel you are on top of the world with views for miles in every direction.  Not all the road is paved which means you have to take it slowly but for once, you must not be in a hurry.  You pass through a few hamlets with quaint names such as Chicken where  you can see the remains of the gold mining dredges of the 1880’s and of course Boundary as this road crosses the boundary between Canada and US.

Top of the World

The tiny customs house at Little Gold / Poker Creek is unusually one single building and red tape is minimal although you do, of course, have to have the proper paperwork to be allowed to pass through. The journey ends in Tok, Alaska.  Total travel time is around 7 hours and you will have travelled just 187 miles.

Sea to Sky Highway

Another of those roads that does exactly what it says on the tin but this one is really easy to access as it joins the coastal city of Vancouver and the alpine village of Whistler travelling along the coast of Howe Sound.  You will pass the BC Ferry terminal at Horseshoe Bay, Britannia Beach where you might want to stop and explore the Mining Museum as Britannia was once the largest copper producing mine in the Commonwealth to Shannon Falls Provincial Park which would be an ideal picnic spot. A must stop is the Sea to Sky Gondola at Squamish. This amazing piece of engineering opened in 2014 to rave reviews; not only is there a 10-minute gondola ride with fantastic views over the surrounding mountains and the ocean but at the top there is a restaurant and a suspension bridge across to another rocky outcrop. Having come down from the heights, you continue on to Brackendale home to hundreds of bald eagles during the winter and Garibaldi Provincial Park topped by its iconic Black Tusk.

Sea to Sky Highway

Going to the Sun Road

The Going-to-the-Sun Road was built in 1932 and is a spectacular 50 mile stretch of highway though the middle of Glacier National Park, Montana crossing the Continental Divide at 6,646-foot-high Logan Pass. You will see almost every type of terrain in the park, from large glacial lakes and cedar forests in the lower valleys to windswept alpine tundra.

Glacier National Park

I always wondered why this road was so named and whilst writing this I actually looked it up.  According to  Warren Hanna in his  ‘The Life and Times of James Willard Schultz’ it came from a conversation between Schultz (a hunting guide) and a Blackfoot Indian named Tail-Feathers-coming-over-the-Hill as they shared a long-stemmed black stone pipe celebrating the kill of a bighorn ram within sight of a particularly beautiful mountain. They decided that this mountain should have a name and since the sun was the most important of all the gods of the Blackfoot tribe Schultz thought that it should be called Going-to-the-Sun Mountain. “With which suggestion Tail-Feathers was in complete accord, saying Good, That is a powerful, sacred name; it could not have a better one.” according to Hanna.

You can drive it in either direction and it could be fitted into a holiday exploring the National parks of Yellowstone, on a circular trip from Seattle taking in parts of Canada and the States or even on a train-touring holiday.

Cabot Trail

Last but by no means least on my list, I return to the coast and in particular the coastal road around Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia.  If you take Baddeck as your starting point you can complete the 185 mile circuit in a day, but personally I think this would be a shame because you might miss out on the chance to go whale watching from Cheticamp or hiking in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. There are several places to stay en route including the Glenora Inn and Distillery which produces Canada’s only malt whisky and the historic Keltic Lodge at Ingonish. The road itself twists and turns around the coast and across the hills with splendid vistas in every direction.  If you are really lucky you could even see a moose grazing or a humpback whale from the comfort of your car!

Cabot Trail

Sandra Potter is Founder of Frontier Travel.

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Comments (4)

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  1. Some brilliant scenic road trip drives you list here. We are so lucky in North America to have so much open space. There are incredible drives everywhere!

  2. Ainslie Cogswell says:

    I live in Cape Breton, the Cabot trail is spectacular! I love it best during the fall when the trees are in their magnificent colours. Also, new renos at the Keltic Lodge are wonderful and much needed. Thanks for having it on your list :)

  3. Danielle says:

    I’ve done the California coast, but non of the others. These all look so beautiful. Road trips are wonderful, I hope to give these a try!

  4. Becky White says:

    A great list! I particularly love the Cali coast and the Sea to Sky Highway is another brilliant drive. :) Definitely need to add Nova Scotia to the list…

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