Best road trips for amazing scenery
5 of the best road trips for amazing scenery
Your favourite tunes on the stereo. Car windows wide open. The tarmac rolling out in front of you. You can’t beat a road trip – especially when it’s through some of the most remarkable scenery in the world.
Here at GeoCultura, our favourite road trips are those that take us back through deep time as well as being jaw-droppingly beautiful. We love seeing the story of the Earth unfold around us, while picturing the millions of people who have travelled these parts before us, from the 14th-century merchants trading spices along the Silk Road to the Vikings who first set foot on Iceland.
On these five of the best road trips through landscapes etched with history, you’ll feel as if time has stood still – even as you sing along to your ultimate road trip playlist!
1. Forget Route 66. It’s all about Utah
The ultimate American road trip for those of us with a passion for geology is the Grand Circle Road Trip. Allow no less than two weeks to really make the most of this route, which passes through two states (Utah and a little of Arizona), six national parks, and more geological features than all your old geography textbooks!
See: one of the world’s biggest natural arches in Zion National Park; colourful collections of hoodoos in Bryce Canyon National Park; the Waterpocket Fold (a 100-mile-long wrinkle in the Earth’s crust) in Capitol Reef National Park; a dream-like red-rock landscape packed with jaw-dropping rock formations in Arches National Park; vast canyons in Canyonlands National Park; and the most famous canyon of them all in Grand Canyon National Park. We suggest starting or ending your trip in Las Vegas, for a jolting leap back into the 21st century!
For an expertly guided tour in the area, join our late April 2024 Utah Road Trip instead.
2. Run rings around the Land of Fire and Ice
No geology-based road trip list would be complete without mentioning Iceland, one of the world’s most active volcanic regions. Three-quarters of the island is extinct volcanoes, active calderas, glaciers, lava fields and desert. No wonder Icelandic folklore is riddled with giants, trolls and elves. This landscape feels like another world.
Encircling the island is the Ring Road. It’s 828 miles of deep-time gloriousness! You’ll need at least a week to see even half of what this incredible landscape has on show. As you drive, stop off to see Aldeyjarfoss waterfall, where water tumbles over black columnar basalt formed by volcanic eruptions around 9,500 years ago, the divergent tectonic processes of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge in Thingvellir National Park, and more geysers and hot springs than you can shake a divining rod at!
3. Swing from ocean views to hairpin bends
This drive combines the wonders of the Norwegian fjords and valleys with a marvel of modern engineering. Opened in 1989, the Atlantic Ocean Road rises and falls for 5.2 miles across a series of viaducts, causeways, and eight bridges. The longest and most vertiginous of these is Storseisundet, a cantilever bridge which spans 260 metres and reaches a height of 23 metres above the deep blue sea below.
Part of a scenic route linking Bud and Kristiansund, the Atlantic Ocean Road joins tiny, rocky islets with the larger islands of western Norway’s coast. To the west, the Norwegian Sea is as wild and changeable as it was when the Vikings sailed these shores. It’s only 5.2 miles long so take your time. Stop to fish off one of the bridges, stroll along the walkways, and eat in one of the traditional red rorbuer that have been converted into restaurants along the way.
Then drive the 2 hours 30 minutes or so to Trollstigen, a steep mountain pass with 11 hairpin bends in the Romsdalen river valley. As you drive over a waterfall and the vertiginous cliff faces and mountains tower all around, you’ll quickly see why this valley is the cradle of Norwegian mountaineering.
4. Get salty off-road in Bolivia
Among the Bolivian altiplano, at over 3,500 metres above sea level, is the dazzling, white expanse of the Salar de Uyuni. The world’s largest salt flats cover an area bigger than Puerto Rico. You’ll need a 4X4, extra fuel, GPS, and food and drink supplies to explore these huge and disorientating plains, but bear in mind only a few car rental companies allow you to take a hire car onto them as the salt is extremely corrosive. Most people choose to go with a tour. However you choose to do it, driving across the flats is an unforgettable experience.
There are thermal springs, prehistoric lakes and perfectly conical volcanoes, llamas, vicuñas and pink flamingos. Don’t miss the eerie train cemetery on the outskirts of the town of Uyuni and grab the opportunity to spend a night in a salt hotel. In the dry season, shoot some perception photos. You know the sort – play with perspective so you appear to be balancing on your friend’s outstretched hand or walking out of a Pringles tube! In the wet season (November to March), snap the reflections in the mirror-like layer of water and mess around with the optical illusions caused by the lack of horizon.
5. Trace the most ancient road trip of them all
For a serious adventure, consider driving the 810-mile Karakoram Highway, a.k.a. the China-Pakistan Friendship Highway, between the Punjab province of Pakistan and the Chinese city of Kashgar. The highest paved road in the road follows one of the many paths of the ancient Silk Road, as evidenced by the tens of thousands of pieces of rock art and petroglyphs along the highway. Some date back to almost 10,000BC.
The highway also winds through the collision zone between the Eurasian and Indian plates and the mountain scenery is staggering. Expect views of Naga Parbat, the ninth-highest peak in the world, several glaciers, and bright blue lakes. For a significant stretch, the highway follows the Indus River to where the Hindu Kush, Himalaya and Karakoram mountain ranges meet. With such awesome scenery comes a degree of risk. Best travelled in spring or early autumn, the route is vulnerable to heavy snow, landslides, floods, and earthquakes, as well as conflict in disputed Kashmir. There are hairpin curves and dangerous drop offs to contend with too. Definitely one to tell the grandkids about!
6. And one for the road…
Not technically a ‘road trip’ as there are only 9 miles of paved roads here, and you can’t bring your car, but we want to include the Isles of Scilly because of its uniquely timeless landscape. Time really does seem to run more slowly here.
This is an archipelago of 140-odd islands, only five of which are inhabited, so swap your four wheels for a boat and sail between the white-sand-ringed islands topped by marram grass and palms. It’s easy to imagine the wildlife-rich islands as they were almost 5,000 years ago, when the first settlers arrived. Among the sub-tropical gardens, puffin colonies, and Britain’s most south-westerly pub, you can find Iron and Bronze Age burial sites, evidence of Roman occupation, and sites from the English Civil War. Beneath your boat, almost 1,000 shipwrecks bask in the turquoise and teal waters.
Uncover the secrets of these subtropical Isles on one of our small group tours to the Isles of Scilly.