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Scenic Drives

To experience the essence of America, there’s no better way to go than out on the open road.

America’s interstate highway system may be one of the best in the world at moving people quickly from place to place. But some of the country’s best scenic, historic and cultural treasures are found along smaller roads — state highways, scenic byways and parkways — that wind their ways through small communities and giant vistas.

These special road trips are well suited to groups, as they can be traveled at a leisurely pace and are full of interesting places to stop and explore along the way. They also highlight parts of the country many travelers are eager to explore.

From the coastal highways in Maine and California to the mountainous Blue Ridge Parkway and the historic Lincoln Highway and Route 66, here are five great road trips that should be a part of your group travel repertoire.


Maine’s Highway 1

Hugging a winding and rocky coastline, Highway 1 showcases classic Maine culture and some of the most scenic Atlantic oceanfront in New England.

“Route 1 goes through a lot of communities, both large and small,” said Donna Moreland, development project officer for the Maine Office of Tourism. “It gives you a real sample of everything there is to see along the Maine coast.”

The highway begins in the south of Maine and goes through York, which was the state’s original capital. A short detour off Highway 1 takes visitors to Kennebunk and Kennebunkport, where former President George H.W. Bush and his wife maintain a home, before continuing north to scenic Portland.

“The Portland Head Light is a popular stop,” Moreland said. “It’s the most photographed lighthouse in the country. You can see it on a trolley tour of downtown Portland, or take a cruise boat through the harbor that gives you a perspective from the ocean.”

A short drive up the highway from Portland brings visitors to Freeport, which has become a retail hot spot.

“It’s the home of the flagship store of L.L. Bean,” Moreland said. “There are no locks on the doors — it never closes.”

From Freeport, Highway 1 continues through a number of communities with interesting museums. Further north, the road becomes a National Scenic Byway and cuts through portions of beautiful Acadia National Park. In its northernmost reaches, it goes through what Mainers call the Bold Coast near the Canadian border.

“This is the area with the rocky coast,” Moreland said. “There are huge granite cliffs all along this portion of the coast, and it’s definitely worth it to go to the scenic overlooks.”


Blue Ridge Parkway

Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee share some of the country’s most beloved mountain scenery. They also share a scenic drive that has become one of America’s most famous: the Blue Ridge Parkway.

“The parkway celebrated its 75th anniversary a couple of years ago,” said Tom Hardy, executive director of the Blue Ridge Parkway Association. “It was originally intended and built to link Great Smoky Mountain National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina with Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.”

From end to end, the parkway stretches 469 miles, and its maximum speed is 45 miles per hour.

“We tell people to budget more like it’s 35 miles per hour,” he said. “It’s not about the speed — we really want you to enjoy the ride and the rugged mountain scenery.”

In addition to the scenery, the parkway features a number of interesting historic stops. One of the most popular is Mabry Mill, a water-powered mill in Virginia that dates to about 1900, where the National Park Service offers tours and interpretive programs.

The park service also operates two lodges along the parkway. One, called Peaks of Otter Lodge, is located about 40 miles north of Roanoke, Virginia. The other, Pisgah Inn, is located south of Asheville, North Carolina, and sits on the side of a ridge overlooking the mountains.

In addition to linking the national parks, the Blue Ridge Parkway was also designed to connect local communities in between. Hardy suggested that groups plan to stop in places like Sparta and Galax in Virginia, as well as Boone and Blowing Rock in North Carolina.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.