By Lindsay Seventko, Communications Intern

Pack the car and make a new playlist for these five breathtaking drives through National Forests. With drastically diverse scenery from cacti and petroglyphs to Robert Frost’s mountainous muse, you’ll want to see more of these National Forests than you could by foot or by paddle. Get ready to explore these unique areas by car — but be sure to allow time to stop, relax and take in the beautiful scenery.

1. Trail of the Mountain Spirits Scenic Byway — Gila National Forest, New Mexico
You won’t be bored driving through this National Forest in New Mexico, with dramatically varied terrain and ecosystems, and combining millennia of history with stark reminders of modern activity. The drive begins in an old mining town that boomed in the late 19th century with the discovery of silver, and later of gold. As the scenic drive begins, it climbs through the lush aspens and Douglas-firs before dropping to semi-arid lowlands full of junipers and cacti. Ponderosa pines and cottonwood dot the side of the road up to a breathtaking vista overlooking the Gila River canyon and wilderness. After taking in the sights, traverse back down along the road to explore Pueblo Indian cliff dwellings dating back to the 13th century. A brief break from driving to walk on a trail will reveal ancient petroglyphs, stunning scenery and possibly one of the 10 species of hummingbird that make the National Forest their home. Be sure to also explore the nearby overlook of one of the largest open pit copper mines in the world, as well as the City of Rocks State Park that boasts volcanic rocks dating back 34 million years.

Gila Cliff Dwellings.
Gila Cliff Dwellings. Credit: John Fowler via Flickr.

2. Highway 143 — Dixie National Forest, Utah
Known as the patchwork trail to historians, Highway 143 originated with early pioneers struggling to get food and supplies during a hard winter. The deep snow could only be walked on by laying a quilt down and walking on top of it. Today, this route traverses through six major life zones in an array of differing views. Known for its rainbow of colors experienced on the 51 mile route, the road climbs to 10,400 feet at the top of the “Grand Staircase” formation and dips back down through thick aspen forests and unique geological formations, with distant views of pink cliffs and ancient lava fields.

Dixie National Forest.
Dixie National Forest. Credit: RichieBpics via Flickr.

3. Mountain Waters Scenic Byway — Nantahala National Forest, North Carolina

In this national forest, dense canopies only allow sunlight to reach the ground at noonday, inspiring the forest’s Cherokee name, Nantahala, meaning “land of the noon day sun.” Winding up the Cullasaja River Gorge, the Mountain Waters scenic byway is laced with cascading waterfalls and tranquil pools that line the route, offering pristine places to stop and wander down forested trails, picnic beside rushing rivers and cast a line in the water for rainbow and brook trout.

Cullasaja River Gorge
Cullasaja River Gorge. Credit: Frank Kehren via Flickr.

4. White Mountain National Trail — White Mountain National Forest, New Hampshire

The White Mountains in New Hampshire are home to some of the most inspiring forests in the United States — they were Robert Frost’s muse, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s retreat and Thomas Cole’s favorite subject. Explore this National Forest via a 100-mile loop of scenic byway, traversing across 800,000 acres of rugged mountain scenery, over three historic notches, under seven covered bridges and along many roadside waterfalls.

White Mountain National Forest.
White Mountain National Forest. Credit: Mattia Panciroli via Flickr.

5. Crooked Creek Pass — White River National Forest, Colorado

If you want a solitary, windows down retreat, Crooked Creek Pass Road (and its side roads!) is the place to explore. Off the beaten path of paved, populated national byways, this road ventures across the heart of White River National Forest, revealing breathtaking vistas alongside rivers and climbing ridgelines shaded by towering pines. Unlike most scenic drives, the Crooked Creek Pass, and connecting roads, are mostly unpaved red dirt roads, offering an opportunity to get out and explore less traveled wilderness areas. Traversing the area presents a greater probability of seeing wildlife — bighorn sheep, mountain goats, elk and possibly the elusive lynx.

Hat Creek Road, Crooked Creek Pass.
Hat Creek Road, Crooked Creek Pass. Credit: Bryce Bradford via Flickr.