In his famous novel "Big Sur", Jack Kerouac describes the Californian locale of the same name as a "poor haunted canyon which again gives me the willies."
For modern travelers less prone to fits of melancholy and yawning depression than Kerouac, Big Sur is actually quite pleasant. And, according to a panel of travel professionals, this particular stretch of the California coastline makes for one of the most beautiful road trips on the planet.
"You haven't understood the raw power and utter beauty of the West Coast until you've driven the Pacific Coast Highway," says Patricia Schultz, author of "1,000 Places to See Before You Die". "Particularly the short stretch around Big Sur, inarguably the drive's highlight."
Travelers needn't go all the way to the Golden State, however, to quench their aesthetic wanderlust. Spectacular thoroughfares crisscross the U.S., from the sparse scrubland of New Mexico's Turquoise Trail to the rocky Blue Ridge Parkway in the Appalachians. Even residents of New York City can plan an escape on Connecticut's bucolic Merritt Parkway.
In order to come up with our list of America's most beautiful road trips, we polled three travel professionals: Kellie Pelletier of Kayak.com, Heather Hunter of the American Automobile Association and Schultz. We collected their nominations and included those that appeared on at least two of their lists. All 10 of our top trips are on AAA's list of All-American Roads and National Scenic Byways.
Cruisin' USA—north, south, east, west
The old-fashioned road trip looks better than ever as households cut back on extravagant vacations in the midst of the recession. According to a recent poll by the Associated Press, nearly one-third of Americans have canceled at least one trip this year due to financial concerns. Fortunately, there are cheap trips for travelers in every region.
If you hail from the Midwest, look no farther than the North Shore Scenic Byway and its 150 miles of rocky coastline in Minnesota. "Leave behind the small-city charms of Duluth and head northward through sweet waterfront villages," advises Schultz. "On your right [you'll find] the infinite horizon of Superior, the world's largest freshwater lake."
Residents of the Southeast shouldn't miss the Blue Ridge Parkway. Start in Asheville, N.C., and drive through the mountains all the way to Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park. There you'll catch sweeping views of the surrounding mountains. Pelletier recommends exploring the region's myriad hiking trails and visiting nearby Monticello, former home of Thomas Jefferson.
Out West, check out Beartooth Scenic Byway
in Montana and Wyoming. But be warned: This dazzling drive is not for the faint of heart. The byway crests at 10,974 feet at the aptly named viewpoint Top of the World. "It's one big breathtaking photo opportunity," says Schultz. She recommends a pit-stop in the mountain-chic town of Red Lodge, where the Pollard Hotel makes for excellent dining, hospitality and atmosphere.
Northeasterners can take the Merritt Parkway across most of Connecticut on the way to popular destinations like Cape Cod or Martha's Vineyard. The Parkway wends through suburbs that are as woodsy as they are wealthy, laced with bridges built in the Art Deco style of the 1920s and 1930s.
What's more, this winding road is an ideal place to take a corner-hugging sports car — for intrepid journalists, a borrowed Porsche, perhaps. Just don't expect to be the only one with a nice car.
For mere mortals, if stunning sights aren't enough to entice, consider the price. A gallon of gas now costs $2.45, down 38 percent from the national average of $3.95 a year ago, according to GasBuddy.com — making a trip on one of America's best byways an unusual bargain.
If the prospect of a cross-country trip is still too daunting, there's always Kerouac; "On the Road" is a worthy approximation.