The Dwight D. Eisenhower Interstate Highway System was created by the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, with then-President Eisenhower acting as a vocal proponent of the nationwide highway system. Since its inception, the Interstate Highway System, while highly traveled, has received heightened criticism from those who feel these roadways interfere with the country’s natural beauty. Some stretches of road, however, were built with this in mind and showcase the scenic landscapes they travel through.
East of the Mississippi River lie the Appalachian Mountains, and many of the most impressive interstates are found in this 1,500-mile-long (2,400-kilometer) range. Here are just a few of the interstates that run through the Appalachians and challenge the idea that highways are inherently unsightly.
Wilton Springs, Tennessee, to Old Fort, North Carolina
Achieving a balance of utility and scenery when building a highway is difficult, but Interstate 40 does just that. Heading eastward from Wilton Springs, Tennessee, Interstate 40 follows the curvy Pigeon River into the Appalachian Mountains, and with each turn, you’re reminded of the landscape’s beautiful intricacies. After roughly 60 miles (97 kilometers), near Asheville, North Carolina, the highway levels out, offering some spectacular views of the surrounding hills.
Morgantown, West Virginia, to Hancock, Maryland
While many interstates spend only a portion of their expanse tracing the Appalachians, Interstate 68 does so for its entire 113-mile (182-kilometer) length. Starting in Morgantown, the highway works its way east, crossing into Maryland before hitting the small cities of Frostburg and Cumberland. For the entire length of the highway, travelers are treated to gorgeous vistas, with several steep climbs and drops that require drivers to stay alert, but also emphasize the scale of the surrounding mountains. Once out of the mountains, Interstate 68 meets its end at Interstate 70 — the main vessel into Baltimore and nearby coastal destinations.
Lambsburg, Virginia, to Bluefield, West Virginia
If you’re heading north from the southeastern United States, you might find yourself driving Interstate 77. A particularly nice stretch of this highway (between Lambsburg and Bluefield) travels through the hills at the eastern edge of the Appalachians. And with numerous scenic overlooks, tunnels, and vistas along its route, this stretch of highway definitely qualifies as an underappreciated thoroughfare. You won’t pass through any major cities during this 68-mile (109-kilometer) stretch, though, so be prepared for a quiet opportunity to truly appreciate the majestic nature of the mountains. Eventually, the road emerges out of the mountains in Bluefield, West Virginia, leaving travelers wanting more.
Fort Indiantown Gap to Scranton, Pennsylvania
Interstate 81 traces a large portion of the Appalachian Mountains as well, and serves as the rural bypass of the busier highways to the east. One particular stretch in eastern Pennsylvania shows the extent to which the highway respects the lay of the land around it. About 25 miles (40 kilometers) east of the state capital of Harrisburg, Interstate 81 hits the Appalachians suddenly, and begins a steep climb up the mountain range. When the highway hits the top of its climb, it flattens out for several miles before descending into the Wyoming Valley, passing the cities of Hazleton, Wilkes-Barre, and Scranton. As it ascends and descends the range, the highway slopes sharply, providing numerous scenic views of the surrounding lowlands. But rather than simply cutting a straight slope into the sides of the mountains, the highway’s engineers opted to spiral around most of the steepest peaks, maintaining the mountains’ natural shapes. While this structural style actually lengthens the drive, which caps at 94 miles (151 kilometers), it seems to make the trip go by faster because it allows you to get lost in the wonders of nature.
Bow, New Hampshire, to Highgate Springs, Vermont
It’s difficult to find a boring highway in northern New England, and Interstate 89 does an excellent job of giving both seasonal tourists and roadtrippers a good time. Starting just south of New Hampshire’s capital city of Concord, the road heads northwest toward the small city of Lebanon before crossing the Connecticut River into Vermont. From there, the highway winds into the Green Mountains (a small section of the Appalachians) and provides a scenic — yet fast — route for those craving some of the fall foliage New England is known for. After passing through Montpelier, Vermont, the highway leaves the mountains behind and descends into the Lake Champlain Valley, where it hits Burlington, the state’s largest city. From there, Interstate 89 is mostly flat, but still manages to provide a worthy drive as it curves its way through the valley and onward to the Canadian border. Compared to many of the highways in the midwestern United States, Interstate 89 shows that it is possible to drive along both flat and rolling landscapes and not lose oneself in the monotony of a 191-mile (307-kilometer) stretch of road.
The Interstate Highway System is full of ideal routes for road-tripping. While the Appalachians hold some of the most striking stretches of road, the U.S. is home to plenty of other worthy highways. If you know of any that particularly strike your fancy, we’d love to hear about them in the comments below!
Header image by Alex Iby