Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman succeeded in making the term, “Bucket List” a household name. The funny and entertaining film gave us all perspective on things we would like to see and do before our lifetime comes to a close.
Being the dedicated gearhead that I am, I’ve read many articles and lists about the Top Ten Best Driving Roads in the World or Top Ten Scenic Drives of America, but I decided to combine these elements into a “bucket list” of drives I’d love to experience before my wheel man days are over.
I’ve been fortunate enough in the last decade to have driven many of the iconic roads that carve their way across this vast landscape we call America. I’ve cruised the Overseas Highway to Key West, crossed the lofty reaches of Beartooth Pass and Trail Ridge Road, two of the highest altitude paved roads in the country. I’ve rounded the twisting curves of Needles Highway, the lazy bends and vistas of the Blue Ridge Parkway, and the vast open reaches of the Bonneville Salt Flats. One can never forget the stunning Rim Road of Grand Canyon National Park, the dance of light on the Vegas Strip, the towering palm trees of Hollywood Boulevard, the twisting switchbacks of Mulholland Drive, or the lonely cactus that decorate the miles of the Mother Road, Arizona’s Route 66.
There are more experiences of lesser known ribbons of pavement, but what follows is a list, in no particular order, of the trails of asphalt I still hope to travel someday. The experience of man and machine is one to be relished, but much more so when the journey and destination are rare and filled with breath-taking sights to behold.
Tail of the Dragon, Deals Gap, North Carolina
There are many two-lane winding roads that cut through various paths of the Appalachian Mountain range but few are as celebrated as Rt129 through Deals Gap. This is one of those shame-on-me locations since it is within a day drive of my home, but I have yet to visit in much the same way New Yorkers rarely set foot on Liberty Island.
The Dragon has gained tremendous notoriety for its 318 turns within an 11 mile stretch of pavement. As it borders Great Smoky Mountain National Park, there are no side roads to intrude, and this beckoned spirited motorcycle riders and sports car drivers from near and far. I have no desire to tame the Dragon, nor do I wish to challenge my cars limits, I just want to dance.
There are two photo ops that bear witness of this experience, one is the Tree of Shame, decorated with all manner of scrap parts, unwittingly donated by those who challenged the Dragon and lost (hopefully not with life or limb but certainly with mechanical calamity) The other is a Dragon sculpture made from car and motorcycle parts. I doubt these were all donated via wrecks near Deals Gap, but I think it’s a fabulous metaphor for the road and its ongoing legend. I’m looking forward to an “I rode the Dragon” photo with this unique selection of welded art, smiling and all in one piece.
Road America, Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin
Post WWII, America became enamored with sports cars and road racing. This form of motorsport had long been a savored challenge in Europe, but the famed Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) came together to sanction events here in the USA.
After a tragic spectator death in 1952, road racing on public courses was outlawed, and in 1955, Road America opened its gates to what would be regarded as the most beautiful and challenging road course in the country. Today, Road America still lives up to its legendary heritage, but the byways that made up the original road course have been historically marked and preserved.
I had the good fortune to be able to drive a similar experience with the Watkins Glen course, and it was like rolling back though time. To traverse the same pavement that was driven in earnest by the early legends was thrilling, but to do so around Elkhart Lake would be like driving hallowed ground. Historic markers have been placed for each section, and they stand as quiet sentinels for all those who blazed the trail for modern sports car racing. History can be an exciting thing when it lets you participate, even for a scant few minutes.
Pikes Peak Highway
Known by the Ute Indians as the “Sun Mountain,” the Arapaho as “Long Mountain,” and early Spanish explorers as “El Capitan,” the highest mountain east of the Rockies is known today as Pikes Peak. One of 53 fouteeners in Colorado (meaning those reaching higher than 14,000 ft, Pikes Peak stands the tallest at 14,115 ft above sea level.
The Pikes Peak International Hill Climb or Race to the Clouds was first run in 1916. The course used the upper reaches of the Pikes Peak Highway and changed from pavement to dirt and gravel halfway to the summit. In 2011, the road was fully paved and today provides a stunning vista of the surrounding landscape. So captivating is the view that Katherine Lee Bates wrote the song, America the Beautiful after visiting Pikes Peak. A commemorative plaque bearing the lyrics resides on the summit in her honor.
The Race to the Clouds has always been a perilous one for its daredevil hairpin turns and lack of guardrails. Full pavement has helped reduce slides that ended in terror, but the spectacular road still commands respect at any speed. This is another legendary stretch of motorsport history, and a thrilling drive through the pages of American heritage.
Monument Valley, Arizona
Some places are so awe-inspiring that they become iconic images of our culture. This picture probably looks quite familiar even to those who have no clue where it actually is located. Close Encounters of the Third Kind was partially shot here, even though Devils Tower is much farther north. Forrest Gump was also shot here during his marathon of running across the country. Monument Valley captures the haunting image of desolation with its enormous monoliths rising majestically above the desert floor below.
Route 163 often stretches to the horizon, seemingly leading to oblivion, but to me it represents the essence of the early pioneers that braved an unknown frontier. They set out with all they had in wagons or carts, seeking a new way of life. How spectacular must it have been to behold this vast landscape for the first time? To many it must have been daunting, while others saw it as a gateway to greater things. Today we cover in hours what took them days or even weeks, but the stones of Monument Valley have born silent witness to all our travels.
Pacific Coast Highway, Santa Barbara to Monterey, Northern California
I was fortunate enough to experience a small portion of the PCH from San Diego to northern Los Angeles, but have often been told the most beautiful part of the coastal road if the northern leg of California. So many of the Sunshine State’s well known landmarks reside on or near this stretch of road, and the west coast chapter of the convertible message board I belong to makes an annual pilgrimage down the PCH in “top down” weather conditions. No matter if its on my own or with like-minded friends, an open top ride to soak in the amazing views of the Pacific Ocean along with the sounds of crashing waves and the intoxicating aroma of salt air is something not to be missed.
Pacific Northwest, Oregon and Washington locations.
While the Northern section of the PCH in California has an allure all its own, where the coastal road extends into Oregon possesses a rugged beauty unique to the area. To the east, the view from the ring road around Crater Lake is one of those locations (like Grand Canyon) where no photo can do it justice. With a massive lake that fills the mouth of a dormant volcano, it must be like riding on the precipice of the world.
Just outside of Portland, Oregon, the Columbia River Highway follows the river gorge east, affording expansive views of the lush valley along with the Vista House, and Multnomah and Latourell Falls. It is claimed to be a 75 mile marvel of visual engineering, and how can you resist a drive that carries that kind of reputation?
To the northeast, in Washington State, is the town of Soap Lake, and the mineral-rich body of water by the same name. Soap Lake has been prized for it healing properties since the early history of local Native Americans, whose tribes would call truce over any conflict to mutually enjoy the benefits of the waters. A compelling monument is situated nearby of an eagle-feathered tribal medicine man, holding a water-bearing maid as he reaches outward, calling to the healing waters. The beautiful sculpture doubles as the world’s largest monument sundial.
Soap Lake sets at the base of a geographic gemstone, tied by canals to a string of lakes, they reach northeast through a rugged showcase of Ice Age, erosion-sculptured landscape that terminates at Dry Falls State Park. Route 17 snakes along the valley floor and the lake edges as it cuts its way to the amazing rock formations of Dry Falls, left by the collapsing glaciers and subsequent flood they set free on the lake beds below.
Going to the Sun Road, Glacier National Park, Montana
This 50 mile stretch is a civil engineering landmark as it climbs to 6,646 ft through Logan’s Pass, crossing the Continental Divide. It is also one of the most difficult roads to clear from snow, taking the Park service roughly 10 weeks even with heavy equipment. The majority of the twists and turns lack guardrails or barriers of any kind, not for lack of trying, but the snow avalanches unleashed by the mountains have carried away any barriers previously built. The road traverses the width of the park from entrance to entrance and image of Saint Mary Lake reflecting the sky on sunny days is one of the most photographed locations in the park. Sun Mountain is also part of Blackfeet Indian tribe lore.
Le Mans, France, and the Circuit de La Sarthe
Everyone must have a dream to shoot for, and this one is mine by far. Chances are good I may never make it to Europe, but if I do this is a must-see location. I have always been torn between attending the madness and beauty that is the 24 Hours of Le Mans, or visiting the sleepy French countryside when the race weekend is not in action. To be able to walk freely among the town squares, visit the Cathedrale Saint-Julien, and drive what would surely be a rental car along the famed Mulsanne straight, down the route to Indianapolis, around the corner to Arnage, and past Mansion Blanche would be a fantasy come to life.
As a bonus, to drive through the gates of the Circuit and visit the Musee’ de Automobile de La Sarthe would be equally thrilling. Housed inside those walls are the legends of almost a century worth of the greatest spectacle of motorsport on the planet. The men whose names are carried today by their proud marques, the daring drivers who set record after record, and the ground-breaking machines they drove to victory. There is no other automotive museum in the world that holds such rich history, and none that embody the ultimate grand prix of endurance, efficiency and performance.
I know that I shall never turn a lap around that hallowed course, but to drive there and touch the pages of history, to stand in the presence of the most incredible racing cars in the world has to be brushing the ethereal plane. To pause, listen closely with heart and soul, and almost hear the sounds of begging horsepower laced with the elated cries of victory, doused under the spray of champagne. To walk in those footsteps would be the exclamation point on any gearhead Bucket List.
Never stop dreaming
-T. August Green