Dragon’s Tail, Lost Coast, Lead Secret List of Best U.S. Roads

A coastal road wends through trees and hills in California. The road is in an area known as the Lost Coast. Photographer: Jason H. Harper/Bloomberg

A fellow car journalist, well into his cups, recently told me about his secret road. Bless the Jameson Irish whiskey as he revealed its many twists and turns, lack of traffic and proximity to Los Angeles. He might even have mentioned the paucity of law enforcement.

I like cars, but I love roads. A classic Mustang ragtop is nothing without a canvas to drive it on. Now that long weekends are approaching and good weather has warmed mountain lanes, the great American road trip is calling.

My criteria are simple: Spectacular scenery; good food (check out Jane and Michael Stern’s “Roadfood” for the local and offbeat); and the primary route should be a back way rather than a freeway, preferably with more twists than an M. Night Shyamalan movie.

One good turn deserves another: I’m willing to spill a few secrets of my own.

California’s Highway 1 is everyone’s favorite for good reason: Sublime oceanside vistas and the road itself is twisty-turny nirvana. But traffic congestion means the stultifying death of a good road trip, and its vertiginous hairpins are beset by herds of slow-moving RVs and terrified tourists in rented Sebrings.

Don’t give up the dream, just go further north.

Ocean Drive

Last year my wife, Miranda, and I thundered up from San Francisco in a Land Rover LR4. From Mendocino on, the classic Highway 1 didn’t disappoint, with massive rocks lancing over the crashing ocean below. Unlike the road near Santa Barbara and Big Sur, traffic was scant.

We were making for the Lost Coast, the spectacular stretch north of Fort Bragg which is mostly inaccessible and undeveloped.

In the mid-1900s, rather than facing the cost of continuing Highway 1 over rugged terrain like a 4,000-foot mountain, engineers gave up and turned the road inland, where it meets its demise by linking up with Highway 101. The miles between are the Lost Coast.

The area’s best base is Shelter Cove, a seaside village that time has forgotten. Reachable only by a sketchy mountain road, it has desolate beaches and limitless hiking trails.

Driver’s note: The inland stretch of Highway 1 leading to 101 is superb -- one of the smoothest, curliest patches of road I’ve ever encountered. Not a single RV, either.

Follow the Bikes

One way of sniffing for squiggly stretches to test that new Porsche is to check road maps for names that include “canyon” or “skyline.” Another is to follow local motorcyclists.

Imagine then if there was a place where the nation’s motorcyclists converge to test their mettle. There is, it’s called the “Tail of the Dragon.”

The infamous “Tail” is an 11-mile section of U.S. Route 129, near the border of Tennessee and Georgia. It has more than 300 difficult corners through steep and forested backcountry. Bikers and driving enthusiasts make pilgrimages to try it.

The speed limit is 30 mph because of the dangerous curves and chronic speeders. Nearly every year there are multiple fatalities. Caution is tantamount, but even when driving slowly the rhythm is beguiling -- a masterpiece of road engineering.

If that’s too intense, make for the nearby Cherohala Skyway, which gains some 4,000 feet of elevation along the Unicoi mountains -- the views are unbelievable and the sweeping corners a joy.

Albuquerque to Santa Fe

As a native of New Mexico, I’d be remiss not to mention one of the best drives in the Southwest. Most tourists land in Albuquerque and travel to Santa Fe and its northern neighbor Taos by the quickest route, Interstate 25. Mistake.

Rather, explore centuries-old Hispanic villages, Indian pueblos and former mining towns by a series of rural routes through the sun-soaked high desert.

Negotiate from Albuquerque to Santa Fe by way of the Turquoise Trail, which swings around the Sandia Mountains and through the hippy town of Madrid. Then pick up the High Road, some 80 miles of rural routes that connect Santa Fe and Taos via the top of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

I’m not sure which I love best: The double lanes running precariously at the edge of the world; the glorious light that has attracted artists from Frederic Remington to Georgia O’Keeffe; or the villages like Chimayo and Las Trampas, which seem straight out of a magical-realism novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Topless Chevy

The first time I drove the scary tracks was in my teens, on a driver’s permit (sorry, mom!). I recently revisited in a topless Chevy Corvette, where I could smell the pinon trees and fully experience the explosion of crimsons and violets as the sun set. Glorious and, yep, pretty magical. Garcia Marquez would approve.

I could talk, too, of Chief Joseph Scenic Highway in Wyoming, or Route 100 through Vermont. Or even of my colleague’s secret L.A. county road and my own special drives an hour outside of New York City.

But I don’t want to give away all my secrets. Buy me a few Jamesons and I just might spill. Maybe.

(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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