On the Road Again: the Best Cycling Routes to Explore in the Great American Outdoors

Cycling through stunning scenery on the Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Cycling through stunning scenery on the Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia | © H. Mark Weidman Photography / Alamy Stock Photo
From the Pacific to the Atlantic, and from Canada to Mexico, America’s road network is vast and varied. There are all types of terrain for intrepid cyclists to explore, with breathtaking coastal and mountain views en route that will stop you in your tracks. Culture Trip presents the best trips to tackle on two wheels – all you need is a healthy dose of pedal power and a map.

Blue Ridge Parkway – North Carolina

This route, between Shenandoah National Park and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is one of the best in the world. At 755km (469mi), it’s clearly not meant to be ridden in one go, but there are so many scenic views you’ll be more than happy to break your journey. Highlights on the Blue Ridge Parkway include the elevated Craggy Gardens and Asheville’s Folk Art Center. The roads here are well maintained, but there aren’t many service stops, so be sure to have all the essentials on you before you set off.

The highway curves through the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina | © Cultura Creative Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Going-to-the-Sun Road – Montana

A gentle mountain climb, this romantically named route in Glacier National Park, in the Rockies, is essentially an uphill road carved into the side of the mountain. It’s 80km (50mi), so even a moderately skilled rider should find it doable, although beware the steep dropoffs and tight curves; it crosses the Continental Divide at Logan Pass – at 2,026m (6,646ft), the views of the mountains from here are spectacular. Keep an eye out for glacial lakes, cedar forests and pristine meadows in the valley, with occasional sightings of bighorn sheep.

Needles Highway – South Dakota

Tunnels carved into the granite “needles” in South Dakota are the dramatic highlight of this road high in the Black Hills. It’s a unique experience, heightened by the twisting circuit that lets you look back at the distance you’ve covered as well as rewarding you with glimpses of Mount Rushmore. You don’t get that on many routes now, do you?

A tunnel along Needles Highway in Custer State Park, South Dakota | © Dan Leeth / Alamy Stock Photo

Grand Staircase – Utah

Also known as the Escalante National Monument, this route lies beyond the national parks that tourists flock to in Utah. The surreal landscape of red rocks and arid desert is a sight in itself, but press on by bike to the elevated roads, where you’ll be rewarded with unmatched views of colourful sandstone cliffs soaring above narrow slot canyons. Take a detour to explore the Escalante Petrified Forest State Park, a superb attraction that warrants an overnight stay.

Big Sur, Highway One – California

This stretch of narrow winding road, cut into the mountains along the Pacific coast, is an iconic road trip high on many peoples’ bucket lists; the views are breathtaking as the cliffs plunge into the ocean. Pretty Carmel is worth a stop in this affluent county, while in Monterey you can visit the old cannery buildings and high-end seafood restaurants. Veer off the main highway, past Carmel and around the Monterey peninsula, to experience the exclusive 17-Mile Drive, where cars have to pay a toll but bikes can ride for free.

Bixby Creek Bridge on Big Sur, California | © Sergiy Beketov / Alamy Stock Photo

Skyline Drive – Virginia

The 169km (105mi) of winding country roads through Shenandoah National Park, in Virginia’s famous Blue Ridge Mountains, seem like the perfect ride to us, but this route does have some serious climbs to contend with. There are only a handful of refuelling points, so this is perhaps one for the more experienced cyclist. With exceptional views of the wider Piedmont region, it’s hard to believe this remote countryside is not much more than an hour’s drive from Washington DC.

Natchez Trace – Tennessee

Another lengthy trail, if you chose to ride all of it, is this Tennessee titan. The modern route can be traced back to a pathway used by Native Americans and has a number of historical sites to explore. Taking you through the Southern states of Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee, this trip starts – or ends – at the mighty Mississippi River. The moderate climbs shouldn’t be a problem even for the novice rider, and this is a well-trekked route so there are plenty of amenities and signs to help you along.

Tennessee Highway 96 from the Double Arch bridge at Natchez Trace Parkway, near Franklin, Tennessee | © Marek Uliasz / Alamy Stock Photo

Mount Greylock – Massachusetts

On a good day, the highest point in Massachusetts lets you see five states sprawl out ahead of you, but come here in autumn and you’ll struggle to see past the stunningly varied colours of the trees. There are portions of the road up to the top that are covered by a canopy, while other parts are open to the elements. Take it easy on the descent – it’s a steep one. However, you’re unlikely to forget the view from the top as it’s one of the most beautiful parts of America.

Road to Hana – Maui, Hawaii

Don’t let the relatively short span on the Hana Highway deceive you – this Hawaiian road, which hugs the east coast of Maui, packs in dozens of bridge crossings and hundreds of hairpins along 80km (50mi) of tarmac. Even if the quaint coastal village of Hana wasn’t enough of an incentive, where else can you ride through tropical rainforest and still be firmly on American soil?

The tropical coastal cliffs on east Maui | © Sean Xu / Alamy Stock Photo

Island Beach State Park – New Jersey

A beachside jaunt along the cycle lanes of this state park makes for a very pleasant outing. It’s also a practical exercise, as during the busy summer months cars are often blocked from entering some of the smaller towns on the route due to lack of parking space. Many first-timers are surprised to find the sandy dunes and windswept reeds along the coastal portions of New Jersey, so be prepared for a very different landscape to the one you might be expecting.

Gran Fondo – New York

Riding along the Hudson River just a few minutes from Manhattan is hardly what you’d call isolated, but it is surprisingly serene. The route follows the racing event based on the traditional Italian gran fondo, or “big ride”, a long-distance road race, but you can ride it at your leisure. Depending on how far you go, there’s a great view of the New York skyline to be had behind you.