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The Best Driving Roads In The Midwestern US

Posted in driving, Featured, Road Trips, Roads by Kurt Ernst | May 2nd, 2011 | 10 Responses |

Route 212 near Beartooth Pass, MT. Image: Phil Armitage

The Midwest is best known for things like corn and tornados, neither of which are often associated with good roads or enjoyable driving. In fact, anyone who’s ever driven across Nebraska back when the speed limit was 55 knows that hell isn’t filled with lakes of fire, it’s filled with a single asphalt ribbon bisecting acre after acre of cornfields. The good news is that the Midwest also has truly entertaining roads, some spectacular scenery and some of the best local food you’ll find anywhere in the country. If you never thought of the Midwest as a road trip destination, here’s hoping the roads below will change your mind.

Calcutta, OH to Poland, OH

AMA members chose this as their 14th favorite road, and looking at it on a map it’s easy to see why. There are quite a few sweepers and even a switchback or two as you head north out of Calcutta. Locals advise that you actually pay attention to speed advisory signs; in other words “15 MPH” means “No faster than 20”, not “Let’s see how my car / bike does at 45”. The road straightens out as you approach Poland, but you’re still just west of the Pennsylvania border and deep in the rolling hills of farm country, so enjoy the scenery.

Harrisonburg, VA to Seneca Rocks, WV

I struggled with whether to include this road in the East or the Midwest, but ultimately opted for the latter. I haven’t driven this road, but looking at the map I’m asking myself “why the hell not?” Start in Harrisonburg, VA, then head northwest on Route 33. That’s it, just stay on 33, which makes this route ideal for the directionally challenged. The road has a few curves on the VA side, but it doesn’t look like anything epic until you approach the WV border. From there until Seneca Rocks, the road looks like a longer, less traveled version of The Tail of the Dragon. It’s now number one on my own personal “must drive” list.

Natchez Trace Parkway, from Natchez, MS to Nashville, TN

Like the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Natchez trace is more about enjoying the scenery on a limited access road. Don’t expect the same roller coaster thrill ride as the ride to Seneca Rocks above, but sometimes a scenic cruise is just what the doctor ordered.

Durango, CO to Ouray, CO

Here was another dilemma: is Colorado in the West, or in the Midwest? I opted for Midwest, since you can’t see the Pacific Ocean even from the top of the Rocky Mountains. Let me start by saying that there are few bad roads in Colorado, and I could name a dozen favorites just near Boulder. As good as they are, they pale in comparison to the “Million Dollar Highway”, Route 550, which stretches north from Durango to the old mining town of Ouray. If scenery is your thing, this ride won’t disappoint. If it’s technical driving that you’re after, it won’t disappoint, either. Ouray is one of my favorite places on the entire planet, so I’ll just warn you in advance: visit it once, and you’ll have a hard time finding reasons to go back home again.

Red Lodge, MT to Cook City, MT

Here’s another route that easy to follow: head south out of Red Lodge on Route 212. Stay on Route 212 (easy to do since there aren’t many other options) as it winds up and down mountain passes, crosses into Wyoming and eventually reenters near-civilization in Cook City, MT. The road is closed in winter, and there isn’t a lot in between these two towns; if you’re uncomfortable being out where the busses don’t run, this trip may not be for you. On the other hand, if you want switchbacks that rival Italy’s Stelvio Pass and scenery that will blow your mind, this is your kind of road.

Next up is roads on the west coast, so let me know if I missed any in the Midwest.

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10 Responses

  1. chugada says:

    Southern US please?

  2. Anthony says:

    I wish i could get on these roads with my car and just bolt it.. see what my Lancer can do!

  3. ptschett says:

    I live in Fargo, where we have the complete opposite of fun driving roads. I can think of a few fun ones in MN though:

    -MN-113 from Waubun to US-71 is one of my favorite destinations whenever I can spare a whole weekend morning for a drive. It crosses the Itasca Moraine where the Mississippi’s headwaters are, so it’s hilly forested country and the road meanders its way across.

    -I haven’t personally driven MN-1 from Ely to Lake Superior, but it’s on my list of places to go the next time I get close to Duluth. It sure looks like fun on the map.

    Going the other direction into ND, I like the Sheyenne River National Scenic Byway which runs from Lisbon to north of Valley City. The northern half is paved and the southern half is gravel. I used to live just a few miles from Lisbon so the byway was my default motorcycle riding route, and I still get there about once a month in the motorcycling season.

    In SD the most entertaining road I’ve personally driven is the few miles of county road through Sieche Hollow State Park. It’s very tight with several switchbacks and is closed in winter; don’t go much faster than 30 on this one on a bike, and maybe 20 in a car. Protip: on this road, if you’re through traffic you don’t have to buy a state park permit (unless you want to stop and enjoy the park of course, and it is a beautiful place in spring/summer/fall.)

    Another route I’ve never done, but want to do is the 1804/1806 highways running on both sides of the Missouri from the ND/MT border down to Pierre, SD (which you pronounce “pier” in the Dakotas, unless you want people to look at you funny.)

    Also I’m sure there’s some fun to be had in the Black Hills, but I was six the last time I was there.

  4. sam says:

    how dare you call Montana mid-western you fricken tourist!

  5. crispy says:

    Seriously, Virginia and Montana in the same part of the country?

    I’ve driven Rt 33 in West VA through the section you mention many times and it is a fantastic road. Not on the level of the Dragon in NC (well west of Rt 33 by the way), which I’ve only done on a sportbike a few times, not in a car. BTW, don’t recommend riding the Dragon in the driving rain with bald tires and a completely toasted rear shock on your Honda 900RR…it’s scary.

    But Rt 33 in WVa is a great drive; well worth the effort to go. Seneca Rocks is pretty cool too. In fact, Rt 33 west all the way to Elkins is pretty good, more of the same; just hang a left at Seneca Rocks to stay on 33.

  6. Bob says:

    I luckily drove Natchez Trace 1st & it was like Nebraska with trees-one arrow shot mile after mile but nice. No stop signs or traffic lights. I also drove the opposite going west out of Yellowstone to Red Lodge and that first part was the worst road of the those marked on a map (deep mud ruts) I have ever driven. The Beartooth Pass and beyond were great.

  7. Bob says:

    I would like to note a series of roads in New Mexico that range from flat & plain to hold on to your seat and exceed the speed limit at your own risk. West out of Caballo Lake State Park on 152 to San Lorenzo, then North via 35 then 15 to Gila Cliff Dwellings. There were no guard rails on 15 when I drove it and I wonder why.

  8. Alexander says:

    I recently rode Deal’s Gap/Tail of the Dragon, fantastic road and saw 3 cops in 3 hours. Meaning: not really any cops. I went 1pm to around 4pm though and this was on a Thursday. still fantastic road.

    • Kurt Ernst says:

      Good to know. I think the key to Dragon happiness is:

      1) Avoid weekends
      2) Avoid major events
      3) Hit it off of peak summer vacation season