Unveiling North America's most spectacular routes

A good road can turn a journey into a destination and transform a good car into a great one. Whether it's just the road itself – a winding and undulating ribbon of engagement – or it’s the landscape that surrounds it, we all know one when we find it. You grip the wheel with a little more vigour, your focus is honed and your vehicle starts to shrink around you. It can be, in a word, heavenly.

There are literally thousands of good roads connecting dots across North America, but a great many tend to call the West Coast home. Here is but a small collection of some that one can only find if they heed the wise words of The Pet Shop Boys: Go West!

Richardson Highway – Alaska

Just let the word Alaska spill from your lips and the mind races with visions of mountains, glaciers, and wildlife. Spanning just short of 600 kilometres, the Richardson Highway connects Valdez in the south, to Fairbanks in the north and promises all of these things and more. 

It is Alaska’s oldest highway, dating back to 1910 when Major Wilds P. Richardson worked to turn what was a mere footpath for gold rushing stampeders into a wagon trail.

With its length, this isn’t a Sunday afternoon-type cruise, and the scenery it presents will probably have you linger longer than you expect. Starting at mile-marker 0, your journey begins in Valdez, nestled in Prince William Sound, where the water meets the Chugach Mountains. From there, it slinks north east via the Thompson Pass, which at an elevation of 855 metres, is renowned for being Alaska’s snowiest section of road. So plan accordingly. 

If rod and reel find their way into your luggage, know that the Copper River, which this route follows, boasts some of the world’s best salmon fishing. Push just a little further and you will be greeted and gobsmacked by the Worthington Glacier – one of only a few in the world that can be driven to. 

The route continues and greets adventurers with a sojourn through the boreal forests bordering the Tanana River. This portion of North America’s snow forest is but a small chunk of what makes up one of the world’s largest biomes, which stretches latitudinally across the entire planet.

For our enthusiasts wearing the stringback gloves, the Richardson – although fully paved since the late 50s – is not a straight line. Carving through the sinuous Keystone Canyon, the drive is nothing short of engaging.

Despite its size and remoteness, there are numerous stops along the way for food, gas and lodging. And for folks who maintain the Christmas Spirit throughout the year, a visit to North Pole, Alaska – a town just before Fairbanks that Santa and his reindeer call home – is a must.

Chilcotin Bella Coola Highway – British Columbia

While the Sea to Sky Highway may be the most popular road for drivers in British Columbia, we’d argue that the Chilcotin Bella Coola Highway is actually its best for its mix of breathtaking landscapes and adventurous terrains. Running for 457 km, the Chilcotin is the only artery that connects the picturesque and tiny town of Bella Coola on B.C.’s central coast to its interior, terminating at Williams Lake along the Fraser River.

There are two ways to get to the mighty Chilcotin: a roughly seven-hour drive from Vancouver to Williams Lake (which will put you on the old Sea to Sky) or, our preferred route, via the Northern Sea Wolf ferry running from Port Hardy on Vancouver Island into Bella Coola – because every adventure deserves a ferry ride – and this will be an adventure.

The Chilcotin is the main artery for many a small town within B.C.’s central interior. As such it is sparsely populated for its entirety and extremely picturesque. Forests, mountains, desert canyons, sprawling ranches, clearwater lakes and some of the finest camping spots we’ve ever experienced await. For fans of the hit series Alone, know that one of the seasons was shot near this area, with competitors setting up camp near Chilko Lake.

The towns of Williams Lake and Alexis Creek serve as perfect spots to stock up on supplies and amenities but also for jumping off points if travel along a logging route sounds appealing.

Should you decide to stick to the beaten path, fear not as “The Hill” awaits on the western edge of the highway. Created when locals took things into their own hands and started bulldozing from either end, The Hill or Precipice lies within 137 km of Canadian gumption. Much of this portion of the route remains unpaved but is arguably the best part. Numerous switchbacks reward drivers with incredible vistas of the Coast Range via the Heckerman Pass. Peaking at just under 1,500 m, the descent into Bella Coola lasts around 9 km with grades of up to 18 per cent. While not for the faint of heart, the journey will surely imprint as one most memorable.

Whidbey Island Scenic Way – Washington

For drivers seeking something a little shorter than our previous two offerings, the Whidbey Island Scenic Way on Whidbey Island, Washington is a mere 75 km in length but is equally rewarding for its engaging roads, postcard worthy landscapes and numerous delectable stops.

While most Seattleites are battling the rain and mist of the Pacific Northwest, Whidbey Island hides in the “rain shadow” of the Olympic Mountains and its location within Puget Sound also keeps things more temperate too. As such you shouldn’t have to worry much about snow, if this is a winter trip.

Opened in 1935, the bridge at Deception Pass is arguably the main reason this route may have found its way onto your agenda. Spanning 453 m in length, the collection of two bridges sit at Whidbey’s north end and connect it to Fidalgo Island. Sitting some 55 m above the water, it provides an incredible vista. For the best photo to post, we’d recommend parking at Deception Pass State Park and walking over for ideal framing. And be sure to stick around at the park for some excellent hiking and a dip in one of their beautiful tide pools.

If you consider yourself a foodie, a stop in Coupeville is never a bad idea. One of the oldest communities on the island, it boasts more than a handful of spots for a nosh with some of the freshest seafood you’ll find. The mussels here are world famous for a reason.

If you need something sweet to wash down the savoury, a stop at Old Spot’s Bistro in Greenbank Farm is a must for a legendary, handmade Whidbey Pie – the Loganberry is the one you want. Trust us.

The Whidbey Island Distillery can also be found along this route and will happily provide you with some after-drive libations. They are famed for their various berry liqueurs but don’t miss out on their award-winning Bunker Rye Whiskey.

Wine to Waves (Route 128) – California

California wine country is world renowned for its Michelin rated restaurants, stunning scenery and, of course, its wines. Route 128 – better known as the Wine to Waves Route – is a winding ribbon of asphalt that takes you from the Sacramento Valley to coastal Mendocino. This road really should be somewhere near the top of everyone’s list. And let’s face it, the fact that the route begins in a place named Yolo County kind of seals the deal, right?

If you time it right (late August), your journey can begin with a celebration at The Earthquake Festival in Winters. The annual party is held to celebrate the town’s rise after a doublet of quakes hit the area in 1892.

From Winters, your drive will take you around the southern end of Lake Berryessa before entering the Napa Valley. With more than 400 wineries calling the region home, you will be spoiled for choice when it comes to reasons to stop and perhaps spend the night. While the heavy hitters in the region – Robert Mondavi, Stag’s Leap – are always worthy of a visit, a poke around the Lake Hennessey area will reveal smaller, family-run boutique wineries where experimentation in varietals may prove more prevalent. If your tummy is rumbling, know that Napa Valley boasts more Michelin Stars per capita than any other wine region in the world.

Continuing north west, Sonoma Valley welcomes with open arms and 17 different American Viticultural Areas. Don’t forget to pace yourself with breaks to take in some of the local art or a trip to Lake Sonoma itself or the Russian River. We recommend parking the car, stretching your legs and being humbled with a walk through the enormous Redwoods that call the region home.

Continuing on towards the coast, don’t be lured too quickly by the promise of crashing surf. Route 128 winds its way through the “Petit Tetons” of Yorkville and down into the Anderson Valley where you can witness the geological transformation from mountain to valley to coast before meeting California’s storied Highway 1.

Monument Valley - Utah

Few places on this Earth are as inspiring and beautiful as Monument Valley in Utah. If you’ve never visited the area before, prepare to be transported to an almost alien world or red rocks and otherworldly formations.

Set your alarm for before sunrise and begin your day by marvelling over (and photographing) the sun rising over the East and West Mittens in Navajo Tribal Park. With summits taller than 1800 m – and thumbs facing one another – the scene will no doubt lead the conversation around the breakfast table that day. We recommend the Navajo Fry Bread at The View Restaurant.

Hopping onto the Scenic Loop Road, you will undoubtedly not be alone and have little room to flex your driving enthusiast muscles. This is a popular spot – complete with park fees – and it's neither paved nor exactly smooth, so expect to cruise slowly while taking in the sites. Guides are available to hire, should you like to learn about the history and culture of the Navajo. 

A hired guide will also give you access to some off-limit areas. Most importantly, this will allow you to hike up to various formations that other folks can only admire from behind their windows.

There are 11 different sites along the looped route, and surely most will look familiar as they’ve likely been a part of a movie or two that you’ve enjoyed in the past.

Because temperatures can be quite sizzling in the area, we recommend you time your drive to the shoulder seasons and not limit yourself to this single 27-km road. From this point you are within an hour of Valley of the Gods and Natural Bridges National Monument. Moab, Canyonlands National Park and Arches National Park are also quite close, via a trip up Highway 191.

Angeles Crest – California

There may be no road nearer and dearer to a driving enthusiast's heart than the 106-km collection of twists and turns known as Angeles Crest Highway. Just minutes (or hours, depending on traffic) from downtown Los Angeles, Angeles Crest climbs to a peak of 2,409 m at the Dawson Saddle in the San Gabriel Mountains, rewarding drivers with some of the most scenic views of Los Angeles and San Bernardino County.

Of course the stellar views aren’t the only thing that Angeles Crest boasts. Rising north out of La Cañada Flintridge, the route begins fairly straight and laid back. Before you get ahead of yourself, we recommend caffeinating and tucking into a Breakfast Machaca at the Hill Street café before rolling out.

A couple of long, sweeping corners greet you before the asphalt unfurls like yarn that’s been batted around by a collection of kittens. In one 50-km section, there are more than 200 individual turns.

Road conditions are typically nothing short of exceptional since the highway’s rebuild in 2009, and it can be easy for some to overestimate the grip of their tires or their abilities – especially after successfully pushing through a couple of the more technical sections – so don’t forget to pace yourself.

There are plenty of lay-bys and scenic turnouts along the way, so if you’d rather meander than go full-on attack mode, worry not as you can let faster traffic filter through. Keep your eyes peeled for informational signs along the route as well. With its elevation, neighbouring terrain of Angeles Forest and position amongst the peaks, the route can be affected by fires, snow and rockslides.

A stop at Newcombs Ranch – a roadhouse with roots dating back to 1888 – is an absolute must. The parking lot alone delivers a car show full of classics, exotics and automotive rarities that would rival some of the best organised events you’ve ever been to. If you’re an autograph hound, keep your eyes peeled as plenty of fast-driving celebs frequent this neck of the woods, although we’d argue the drive alone is souvenir enough.

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