1: Dinosaur Diamond Scenic Byway - USA
Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park (Dreamstime)
Colorado & Utah (800km approx)
The route: Dust-dry plains, towering ranges, lush forests and fossils – lots of fossils. This loop traditionally starts at the town of Dinosaur, on the Colorado-Utah border. From there, head north toward Vernal along US40, before circling south through Ashley National Forest (US191) to the flats of Moab and returning through mountain passes.
Where to stop: Begin with a visit to the Dinosaur Quarry and National Monument, near the Utah-Colorado border. After that, let nature be your guide as you head west to Ashley National Forest and its red sandstone Flaming Gorge.
Further south, Moab is a short hop to the trails and rivers of the vast Canyonlands National Park or the burnt-sandstone weird-scape of Arches National Park. From here, twist north past numerous overlooks along the 37km Rim Rock Drive and the 2,520m-high Douglas Pass for fine views.
Take a detour? The US is packed with iconic drives, but few catch the eye like the lower reaches of California’s Route 1, around Big Sur.
2: Cape Tribulation - Australia
Cape Tribulation (Dreamstime)
Cairns • Cape Tribulation • Daintree • Cairns (730km approx)
The route: North of Cairns, the eastern coast of Queensland weaves beaches, coral reef, rock art and rainforest. Follow this route inland on the way up (Route 81), then hug the winding coast on the return, passing through the natural grandeur and sacred mountains and forests of Cape Tribulation and Mossman Gorge.
Where to stop: From Cairns, cut inland through the mountain roads of Kuranda National Park to meet up with Route 81, before heading north past mounts Malloy and Carbine. Continue up to the UNESCO-listed Quinkan rock art site (near Laura), to see its 30,000-year-old prehistoric paintings, then make your way back down to Cooktown and the Cape Tribulation-Bloomfield Road that winds through Daintree NP (you’ll need a 4WD with a just-in-case winch for this section).
After the rainforest and mangrove tours of Cape Tribulation, push on south through the UNESCO-listed Daintree rainforest to Mossman Gorge; here you can go on a Dreamtime walk under the guidance of the local Kuku Yalanji people. Continue along the coast to Port Douglas, where side-trips to the Great Barrier Reef offer front-row seats to one of nature’s most diverse ecosystems.
Take a detour? For pure isolation, the former cattle track of Gibb River Road, which crosses Western Australia’s Kimberley region, extends past gorges and far-flung cattle stations. Sandwiched between the 660km route from Derby to Kununurra (airports each end), it’s a truly remote one-way trip.
3: Mae Hong Son Loop - Thailand
Golden Buddha statue at Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai (Dreamstime)
Chiang Mai • Mae Hong Son • Chiang Mai (600km approx)
The route: Northern Thailand’s Mae Hong Son province is a patchwork of jungle-clad parks, misty peaks and honeycombed hills. It’s all easily reached from Chiang Mai on Highway 108, steering you up to the province’s capital Mae Hong Son before looping back. Novice drivers/ motorcylists should probably avoid rainy season (May-Nov), when driving conditions can be tricky.
Where to stop: Allow time to see the golden temples of Chiang Mai before hitting the road. Heading clockwise, follow the highway south through Doi Inthanon NP, where waterfall trails and treks to the summit of its namesake peak (2,565m) allow for plenty of birdspotting.
Next, head to the jungle plains of Mae Sariang, where community stays among its hill tribes, treks in Salawin and Mae Ngao national parks, and river trips on the Salween River beckon. Dramatic hairpin bends dot the route north to Mae Hong Son, before you loop back (Route 1095) past Chiang Dao, a vast limestone network of 100 caves extending some 12km underground. Wander its shrines, bats and upper reaches at will, but hire a guide and lamp to go deeper.
Take a detour? Down south, the Thai island of Phuket makes for one of Asia’s most charming coastal drives, especially its short north-east loop, which sweeps past fishing villages overlooking the islands of Phang Nga Bay.
4: The Romantic Road - Germany
Neuschwanstein Castle (Dreamstime)
Würzberg • Füssen (350km approx)
The route: From its (loose) origins as a medieval trade route, the Romantische Strasse plunges from Würzberg (an hour from Frankfurt), down past the vineyards, fairytale castles and traditional Bavaria towns, to the dramatic foothills of the Alps. Go in late summer (July-September), just as the grapes ripen on the vines, or in time for the region’s famed winter markets.
Where to stop: With the opportunity to take your time, a stay in the wineries of Würzberg is its own reward, while the city itself (despite being largely destroyed in the Second World War) is the heart of medieval Franconia – drop by its Marienberg fortress and Prince-Bishop’s Residence.
From there, another Middle-Ages relic is the town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber; wander its half-timbered streets or stretch your legs in the surrounding valley on some fine trails. Next, head to Roman-founded Augsburg, before ploughing south to explore the follies of ‘Mad’ King Ludwig, from the comparatively modest Linderhof Palace to the mountain-topped glory of Neuschwanstein Castle, as the lakes and mountains get ever grander.
Take a detour: Follow in the tyre treads of the world’s first long-distance road trip, the Bertha Benz Memorial Route (194km), which recreates the journey taken by the wife of the inventor of the world’s first patented automobile, as she drove from Mannheim to Pforzheim to drum up interest.
5: Parks Tour - Costa Rica
Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica (Dreamstime)
San José • Arenal NP • San Antonio NP • Quepos (500km approx)
The route: First up: be warned that Costa Rica’s roads can be poorly signed, and make for slow going away from the paved highways. Side-trips are also often along dirt tracks, so be sure to hire a 4WD and aim for dry season (December-April). That said, the country’s central section (around San José) is more than driveable, and connects some of its wildest and most beautiful natural parks.
Where to stop: From San José, head north to La Fortuna and Arenal NP via the mountainous Route 141 for treks along old lava flows. The hot springs at nearby Tabacon are worth a stop as you round Lake Arenal to Monteverde (note: the final stretch along Route 606 is unpaved in places) for its cloud forests and canopy tours.
Next, head south, stopping at Punta Arenas for boat trips to the tranquil Isla de Chira, before continuing along the well-paved Route 34 to Manuel Antonio NP, where short hikes up its heavily forested slopes can reward with monkey and sloth sightings. Finish in the south, pausing at the small private rainforest reserve of Hacienda Barú, before flying back to San José from Quepos.
Take a detour? Route 2 (CR2) is part of the Pan-American Highway, and drops down from San Jose towards San Isidro de el General on a well-paved and dramatic route through the mountains, passing lesser-visited parks and towns.
6: Gaspésie Grand Tour - Canada
Maligne Lake, Jasper National Park (Dreamstime)
Gaspé Peninsula, Québec (880km approx)
The route: A short drive from Québec City lies the wildlife-rich Gaspé Peninsula, jutting into the Gulf of St Lawrence like a nosy neighbour peering over a fence. Trace its coast via Route 132 for vast pine forests, dusted peaks and wild trails, but go in summer (June-September) because many places shut down out of season.
Where to stop: The northern coast draws you through steep coastal mountain roads to the alpine tundra of Gaspésie National Park, which is crossed by a section of the International Appalachian Trail. Here, hike the summits of mounts Albert and Jacques-Cartier to see herds of wild caribou (June-September) at play. On the east coast, Gaspé is a good jumping-off point for whalewatching and sea kayaking in the gulf; south of here is Pérce – best known for the iconic rock that lies offshore.
It’s also the gateway for trips to Bonaventura Island, where some 300,000 seabirds (the largest colony in Canada) jostle for position. From here, follow the road south to perhaps the most scenic stop: beautiful Chaleur Bay.
Take a detour? Try the 232km-long Icefields Parkway (Hwy 93) in Alberta. This is reached via Calgary or Edmonton and can be done in a couple of days, as you weave through Banff and Jasper national parks, stretching your legs in the Valley of the Five Lakes and on the Athabasca Glacier.
7: Ruta 40 - Argentina
Peninsula Valdes, Argentina (Dreamstime)
Trelew • Esquel • Bariloche (860km approx)
The route: Ruta 40 is truly vast – a staggering 5,140km in total. It can also be tricky in places, with the latter parts going largely unpaved. Instead of doing it all, join up with the road via Ruta 25 by flying to Trelew – the gateway to Welsh Patagonia – and then heading north to Bariloche, from where you can either fly back out or explore further.
Where to stop: From Trelew, make a side-trip to Peninsula Valdes, where elephant seal and sea lion colonies can be spied year-round from Puerto Pirámides; southern right whales can also be seen here in winter, while penguin colonies lie further south in Punta Tombo.
But your roadtrip really begins when you take Ruta 25, across the steppe-like plains of Chubut, to the Ruta 40 turn-off at Tecka, just before you reach Esquel; here it’s worth detouring to visit Trevelin, the ‘green valley’ that Argentina’s Welsh settlers sought in the late 19th century – local customs and language still hark back to the ‘old world’. Continue north towards Argentina’s Lake District, past the beautiful Puelo Lake, and finish in the foothills of the Andes as you pull into Bariloche.
Take a detour? Heading south from San Martín, Ruta 40 turns into the 107km Seven Lakes Road. Skirt the Nahuel Huapi lake (and national park) and idle through artful Andean country, with plenty of trails and birdwatching en route.
8: Norwegian Coast - Norway
Bergen • Molde • Trondheim (660km approx)
The route: The E39 runs the length of Norway’s south-western coast, which makes it an attractive jumping-off point for some of Earth’s most breathtaking stretches of road. Skip across the sea on the Atlantic Ocean Road or wind 100km of switchback hairpins through Fjord Norway on the Troll’s Road. But remember: many small routes close in winter (reopening in May), and ferries can make the going slow, so budget for delays.
Where to stop: Having soaked up the cobbled streets and colourful docks of Bergen, take a detour along the Fjærland Road (Rv5) towards the Jostedal glacier, mainland Europe’s largest icecap. Further along, branch off on Hwy 60 to Hellesylt, where you can grab the ferry over the UNESCO-listed Geirangerfjord – long considered one of the dramatic fjords in the world.
North of here lies the Troll’s Road (Rv63), as you continue over the mountains to Ålesund, where you meet up with the E39 again. But the true driving highlight perhaps lies beyond Molde, in the 77km stretch between that old settlement and Kristiansund, as you skim the Atlantic north over razor-thin bridges and solitary islets towards Trondheim.
Take a detour? Head south from Bergen for the fjords of Hardanger and the Trolltunga hike – famous for its rock-ledged outlook – then loop round via Stavanger, or continue to follow the coast to Oslo for a longer adventure.
9: The Coromandel Peninsula - New Zealand
Cathedral Cove, New Zealand (Dreamstime)
Auckland • Coromandel • Rotorua (North Island; 450km approx)
The route: Take the coastal road around the Firth of Thames and link with Hwy 25. Follow this north, along the edges of Coromandel Forest Park, before dropping down to Tauranga, where you can branch off to Rotorua.
Where to stop: Heading out of Auckland, be sure to stop at Miranda’s hot springs and the Pukorokoro Miranda Shorebird Centre. Next, pass over the one-lane Kopu Bridge en route to Thames – a former gold-rush town with fine trails. Further on, the Victorian buildings of Coromandel contrast with its mining past, while the train at Driving Creek makes for a scenic detour, as do its coastal walks.
The east is the land of beaches, as you dig for hot springs on Hot Water Beach and wander the impressive Cathedral Cove. Further south, toward Tauranga, ditch the car for boat trips to the very trekkable volcanic wildlife reserve Mayor Island. Finish in Rotorua and among the Maori communities of the geyser-laden Te Puia Valley.
Take a detour? Alternatively, the South Island Circuit is a popular 2,400km circle, with the lower ‘Southern Scenic Route’ between the quiet waters of Milford Sound and Queenstown a charming route – especially its western end.
10: Central Hokkaido Route - Japan
Road running through Shiretoko NP (Dreamstime)
Hakodate • Sapporo • Asahikawa • Kushiro (900km approx)
The route: Think Hokkaido and you think ‘winter sports’, but explore the island in summer (May- October) and you’ll discover vast lakes, towering caldera, national parks and fine trails, all easily explored by car as you weave its central spine.
Where to stop: From the port town of Hakodate, get your onsen (hot spring) fix – naked or otherwise – in the steaming seaside rockpools of Mizunashi Kaihin before making for bustling capital Sapporo. From here, plough east through vast Daisetsuzan (outside Asahikawa) and Akan national parks, the latter home to Japan’s largest caldera lake, Kussharo-ko.
On the furthest north-eastern peninsula lies Shiretoko NP, where you can ditch the car for multi-day trails across its sub-alpine forests, then drive its scenic pass through mountains and beech trees. Finish in Kushiro, having first stopped by the wetlands outside the city, which cluster with Japanese red-crowned cranes year-round.
Take a detour? The northern coastal route rims the view-laden fringes of Hokkaido, taking you between Sapporo and Abashiri and all the way up to Wakkanai, the island’s most northerly point, with side-trips to the island’s inland national parks.
11: North Coast 500 - Scotland
Dunrobin Castle, Scotland (Dreamstime)
Inverness • Applecross • Inverness (830km approx)
The route: Launched a couple of years ago, this 500-mile road is a wild leap from Inverness (on the A9) into the northern reaches of Scotland via coastal roads, artisan distilleries, windswept castles and lonely lochs. Summer is best for wildlife-spotting, while the darker skies of September-April are good for the northern lights.
Where to stop: The route can be done in five days, but take your time and squeeze in a Munro (a Scottish mountain over 3,000 feet/914m) or two. The most northerly is Ben Hope (927m), reached from Tongue, while a stop at Old Pulteney whisky distillery considerably lessens the residual pain. For a less punishing stroll, the grounds of Dunrobin Castle (north of Inverness) seem ripped from a fairytale, while the nearby beaches of Shandwick Bay are some of the finest en route. Wildlife abounds, too, with boat tours (Ullapool, Inverness) to spot common dolphins and minke whales (May-Oct), and trips to Handa Island putting you within squawking distance of 100,000 seabirds (Apr-Jul), before looping back to Inverness via scenic Applecross Peninsula.
Take a detour? The 95km Glencoe to Mallaig route (A82/830) through Fort William (gateway to the Caledonian Canal) is particularly scenic. At its far end, you can boat to the Knoydart Peninsula or explore the isles offshore (Eigg, Rum, Coll).
12: Wild Atlantic Way - Ireland
Stream with Mount Brandon in the background (Dreamstime)
Cork • Dingle • Kerry • Muntervary • Cork (520km approx)
The route: The full Wild Atlantic Way (2,500km) runs the length of Ireland’s west coast; to sample it in a week, you need to pick a section. One of the more dramatic drives takes in the south-western peninsulas of Dingle, Iveragh and Sheep’s Head by taking the N22 north from Cork to Tralee, then working your way back to the southern coast.
Where to stop: First up are the steep lanes of Dingle, where the towering Mount Brandon (953m) awaits. South of here lies the Ring of Kerry, popular thanks to its wild lakes and ancient ring forts. Drop in on the wilds of Killarney NP, and be sure to take a boat from Portmagee to the tiny isles of Skellig Michael – home to the UNESCO-listed beehive outposts of medieval monks.
Stop to explore the coves of St Finian’s Bay and walk snatches of the 217km Kerry Way, before continuing on to the lesser-wandered Muntervary (Sheep’s Head) peninsula, where a network of 20 looped trails offer some of Ireland’s best views.
Take a detour? Between Belfast and Donegal, the Wild Atlantic Way and Causeway Coastal routes hug the island’s northern tip for crumbling castles, potent distilleries and winding lanes.
13: Route 62 - South Africa
Landscape of Great Karoo, South Africa (Dreamstime)
Cape Town • Port Elizabeth (850km approx)
The route: Although the 513km-long Route 62 only strictly runs between Ashton and Humansdorp, links to the Western Cape’s big hubs of Port Elizabeth and Cape Town make this a handy – not to mention spectacular – escape, as you ford rural dorps (villages), winding mountain passes and semi-desert sprawl.
Where to stop: West of Cape Town, this route pours through the wine country of Paarl, Wellington and Calitzdorp (famed for its port), with plenty of vineyard stays en route. Side trips to the hot springs of Montagu and the Cango Caves of Oudtshoorn beckon further inland, before the earth starts to shrivel in the east.
From there, the road zigzags through dramatic Swartberg Pass (built in 1888), then drops to the arid wild of Great Karoo, a parched expanse that covers a third of South Africa. Spot black rhino and Cape mountain zebra on a detour to its eponymous national park, before the final dramatic stretch to Port Elizabeth.
Take a detour? The Garden Route (N2) threads the coastal winelands of South Africa’s western cape between Mossel Bay and Storms River. It’s a stunning, if well-trod, road, but if you want to extend it into something more challenging, continue past Cape Town and up the coast along Highway N7 and R363 for national parks, wild rapids and native rock art.
14: The Ring Road - Iceland
Puffins eastern fjords of Iceland (Dreamstime)
Egilsstadir • Hofn • Selfoss • Reykjavík (630km approx)
The route: The ‘Golden Circle’ loop is well-known among travellers for packing in Iceland’s icons. Far less visited, however, is the country’s frozen east, so fly to Egilsstadir then follow the Route 1 ring road as it curves west along the fjord-packed coast. It’s best driven in summer (May-September), when days are longer and the conditions more favourable (some sections of R1 are closed in winter).
Where to stop: In the far east, Seydisfjordur is the standout village, with its clapboard houses and buzzing arts scene. Puffin-watching (in early summer) and hiking in the neighbouring fjords of Borgarfjordur Eystri are also both musts. Another detour worth trying – though you’ll need a 4WD – is to the highlands of Kverkfjoll, which reward with volcanic plains and shiversome ice caves.
Otherwise, head south, past Djupivogur (known for its bird sanctuary), to the vast glacial lake of Jokulsarlon, where Zodiac trips spirit you among its seals and 1,000-year-old ice. From here, continue west to the epic lava field of Eldhraun and on to the volcanoes of Vik, before warming your bones in the hot springs of Seljavallalaug, not far from the capital.
Take a detour? If you’re in Reykjavík and have a couple of days to spare, tack on the original 300km Golden Circle, squeezing in the famous trio of Thingvellir NP, Gullfoss waterfall and the great Geysir.
15: Skeleton Coast - Namibia
Rhino at Skeleton Coast, Namibia (Dreamstime)
Swakopmund • Skeleton Coast NP • Windhoek • Sossusvlei (1,100km approx)
The route: Sweeping across the shipwreckstrewn flat pans of Namibia’s coast is one of the world’s most iconic routes, but be warned: it can get quite samey. So try to take in more than just the coast, starting at Swakopmund before looping down to the dunes of Sossusvlei via the country’s charming colonial capital, Windhoek.
Where to stop: Take time out in Swakopmund to stroll its Germanic streets and promenades, or explore the dunes near Walvis Bay. North of the city, the Coastal Road (C34) runs 440km to Mowe Bay, though just getting a taste is enough. With only a handful of turn-offs en route, head west at Hentiesbaai, having made a detour north to Cape Cross, where a vast reserve of Cape fur seals can be spotted during winter (November-December).
From here, head to the central highlands to explore the hilltop setting of colonial Windhoek, a five-hour drive from the coast. To finish, drop down to the towering red dunes of the Sossusvlei (via the C24/C14), where you can either climb ‘Big Daddy’ (its tallest dune at 325m) or drive the salt pans. Along the way, stop at the peaceful Naukluft Mountain Zebra Park for scenic camping and some 200 species of birdlife scattered among its cool mountain trails.
Take a detour? North of Windhoek, the B1 road stretches past Etosha NP, home to black rhinos and lions, and Waterberg Plateau NP, which lies on the slopes of Table Mountain. Return to the capital via the escarpments and baked valleys of Damaraland, with a taste of the northern Skeleton Coast thrown in.
16: The Pirate Route - Jamaica
Cliffs of Negril (Dreamstime)
Port Royal • Kingston • Montego Bay • Blue Mountains NP (600km approx)
The route: Jamaica proved a popular base for cut-throats during piracy’s ‘Golden Age’ (late 1600s), as they could easily ambush Spanish ships hauling treasures from the New World. From Port Royal, this route essentially loops the coast of the island, soaking up sea views and crumbling forts en route. Just avoid travelling during hurricane season (June-November).
Where to stop: Port Royal was once the base for Henry Morgan, a notorious pirate king whose presence (and loot) once influenced much of the island – the guns of nearby Fort Charles were said to sound when he died. Passing Kingston, drop by Bob Marley’s old house (you are in Jamaica, after all), before heading west to the Georgian streets of the islands’ old capital, Spanish Town; the ruins of its Courthouse (where dandy pirate ‘Calico Jack’ Rackham was tried) still remain. Loop north-west through Negril, until you get to Round Hill where the remains of its old hill fort offer fine views of Montego Bay. Further along the north coast, Ocho Rios affords visits to Morgan’s old hideaway, before you reach Jamaica’s eastern point: Blue Mountains NP, where hikes up its eponymous peak (2,256m) and trails past waterfalls, coffee farms and isolated communities make for fine side trips.
Take a detour? Those not wanting to climb Blue Mountain can drive it on a day trip from Kingston – though the road cutting inland to Port Maria can be treacherous (even by Jamaica’s standards) and should only be done in good weather.
Main image: Arches National Park, Utah (Dreamstime)