The United States abounds with scenic routes and picturesque drives, but the beauty of the Northeast offers landscapes you can't see anywhere else in the country. They chase rivers and scale mountains; they wind through the United States' most adorable small towns and along its most storied coastline. As the East Coast is famous for its fiery autumn colors, many of these trips are especially striking during the fall. However, each season offers something uniquely enjoyable and you can enjoy these drives at any time of the year.
Upper Delaware River Valley
If you've seen those car commercials that show a slick vehicle navigating a wildly undulating mountain road, there's a good chance it was State Route 97 in the Upper Delaware River Valley of Upstate New York. This twisting highway traces the Delaware River, which forms a natural border between New York State and Pennsylvania. The most famous part is a section known as the Hawk's Nest, which covers the 70 miles from Point Jervis to Hancock. It takes about an hour and a half to complete the route, so even though it isn't the fastest way to travel between the cities, it's undoubtedly the prettiest.
Apart from the stomach-churning turns and breathtaking views, travelers should also stop at landmarks along the route including the Minisink Battleground Park, which hosted a skirmish during the Revolutionary War, and Roebling's Delaware Aqueduct, a canal bridge and engineering marvel built in 1848.
Letchworth State Park
Letchworth State Park in Upstate New York has been nicknamed the "Grand Canyon of the East" for its dramatic gorge that drops 600 feet into the Genesee River below. The best place to get into the park is at the southern entrance in the town of Portageville, which is just over an hour from either Rochester or Buffalo. You can drive the length of the entire park and come out at the north end, which isn't even 20 miles long. But factor in plenty of time for pulling over, taking pictures, and hiking around the gorge. You'll see plenty of waterfalls during your trip through Letchworth, but if they leave you wanting for more, Niagara Falls is just an hour and a half away by car.
In the remote northeastern part of New York's Adirondack Park, there are 46 rounded peaks that soar roughly 4,000 feet or more toward the sky, but you don't need to hike them for glorious views. This scenic drive starts in North Creek, New York—about an hour and a half north of Albany. From North Creek, drive on Route 28N as it loops around through the forest and mountains. Once you reach Blue Mountain Lake, Route 28N turns into Route 28S, but continue weaving through the many charming lakes until you reach Old Forge. The entire route is nearly 90 miles and has plenty of opportunities for stopping the car and enjoying nature.
Along the way, allow time for a scenic Gondola Skyride at Gore Mountain. And don't miss the splendid Adirondack Experience, The Museum on Blue Mountain Lake, a sprawling complex that brings to life the people who've explored, settled, and cherished this wilderness. It's one of the top things to do in New York State.
The Vermont Shore
Yes, Vermont has a coast: a freshwater one along Lake Champlain. And the town of Shelburne—just a few miles south of Burlington—is a picturesque spot to start a drive that affords fabulous views of the lake and its majestic backdrop, the Adirondack Mountains across the border in New York.
Start at Shelburne Farms, a 1,400-acre working farm built on Lake Champlain as a model agricultural estate in the late 19th century. Pick up Route 7 South to Mount Philo State Park in Charlotte, where you can drive to the summit for panoramic lake views. Continue on Route 7 South to Route 22A through Vergennes and out to Button Bay State Park, where you can hike along a bluff overlooking Lake Champlain or even rent a boat and get out on the water. Not including time out of the car, the drive should take just about an hour.
The Mohawk Trail
A path blazed by five Native American tribes became New England's first official scenic route in 1914. Automobiles have come a long way since then, but the 63-mile Mohawk Trail—Route 2 between Williamstown and Athol in western Massachusetts—still leads to bucolic scenes that seem little altered over the past century. Famous for its sharp Hairpin Turn, which looks out over the Hoosac Valley, it's a drive you'll particularly want to savor in the fall. Allow time to hike a portion of the Mahican-Mohawk Trail that runs through Mohawk Trail State Forest in Charlemont. It follows the original footpath trod by New England's earliest inhabitants.
The Kancamagus Highway
New England's ultimate scenic route—especially in the fall—is the 36 miles of Route 112 between Conway and Lincoln, New Hampshire. Known by its Native American name, the Kancamagus Highway (pronounced kank-ah-MAU-gus but called "the Kanc" by locals) was completed in 1959, connecting these towns on the east and west sides of the 800,000-acre White Mountain National Forest. There are overlooks, hiking opportunities, historic sites, and campgrounds along this famed roadway, but even if you just motor through (be prepared to ride your brakes when fall traffic peaks), you'll be thrilled by the views of densely forested mountains and the boulder-strewn Swift River.
Connecticut's National Scenic Byway
Think of this as your "serenity now" route. Connecticut's first National Scenic Byway—Route 169 from North Woodstock to Lisbon—is a supreme leaf-peeping route that glides for 30 miles past farmlands, stone walls, and nearly 200 homes built before the Civil War. Worthy stops on your trip include Historic New England's Roseland Cottage in Woodstock, Mashamoquet Brook State Park in Pomfret for lore and hiking, and Martha's Herbary in Pomfret for aromatic gifts. Time your drive to coincide with the Brooklyn Fair, the oldest continuously-held agricultural fair in the U.S., which takes place in late August each year.
Set your GPS for 1460 Ocean Road, Narragansett, Rhode Island, and begin this road trip at one of New England's prettiest lighthouses: Point Judith Light. Although you can't venture inside, you can stroll the grounds of this still-active beacon built in 1857. From here, you'll follow Ocean Road north to the Narragansett Town Beach, where surfers ride vigorous waves year-round and The Towers—all that remain of the Gilded Age Narragansett Pier Casino—are an enchanting backdrop. Drive Route 1A North, and you'll pass Historic New England's Casey Farm, established in 1750 and still operating and open for tours.
From there, take Route 138 East across the Jamestown Bridge, exit onto Conanicut Island, and follow local roads south to Beavertail State Park on Beavertail Road. Here, you'll see the 1856 stone Beavertail Lighthouse and you can venture inside the museum in the assistant keeper's house. Look east, and you'll bring your lighthouse count up to three: Castle Hill Light is visible in the distance.
If you're a fan of fried clams, lobster, and fresh fish, this is the road trip for you. It starts in Gloucester, Massachusetts—the oldest seaport in the U.S.—and follows Route 127A to Route 127 along the coast north of Boston, then turns inland toward Essex on Route 133 and north once again on Route 1 to Newburyport. Along the way, you'll see Gloucester's Good Harbor Beach, one of the prettiest in New England, and the petite fishing village of Rockport, where the art scene thrives.
You'll be distracted at practically every turn by seafood shacks, but you may want to save your appetite for Essex, where fried clams were invented by Chubby Woodman. His descendants still prepare them the same way at Woodman's of Essex, and some say the golden beauties at The Clam Box up the road in Ipswich are even better, so you'll want to try both. If you're still hungry when you reach Newburyport, finish with a scenic drive along Plum Island, stopping at the no-frills but delicious Bob Lobster on the way. The entire drive is about 45 miles.
Acadia's Park Loop Road
The 27-mile Park Loop Road through Maine's Acadia National Park is as exhilarating a drive as you'll find anywhere. Even though it's not a long route, expect to spend at least three to four hours driving, including stops to get out and enjoy the scenery (it can be even longer during the busy summer months due to traffic). The Atlantic waves crashing against the forests make for a truly dramatic landscape, made all the better by the towering Cadillac Mountain—and you can drive to the summit. This national park does charge an entrance fee, but your admission is good for seven days of visits, so make the most of your visit by staying nearby or even camping in the park.