Weird and Wondrous Scenic Byways

America’s most scenic drives? Let’s start with these three.

Turns out that taking the scenic route can pay big dividends for both traveler and towns along the trail. Look no further than these popular byways for proof.

Byway: a secluded, private, or obscure way; an out-of-the-way path or course.

—American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th Edition

Maybe nothing is as quintessentially American as a road trip. Whether an arrow-straight highway through a vast desert or a hairpin one-laner wrapped around a mountain pass, byways connect us to a variety of landscapes and cultures.

Route 66 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For 100 years, special journeys have earned special recognition identifying trips that invite slow meandering through breathtaking scenery and intriguing cultural landmarks. Federally-recognized routes are collectively called America’s Byways and they encompass epic road trips like Route 66, unique communities like Amish Country, and awe-inspiring geology like Volcanic Legacy. For history buffs, Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, and West Virginia all have trails that trace various campaigns or battles as part of the Civil War Trails network.

There are other trails too, featuring food, music, literature, and kitsch that have exploded in recent years. California’s wine country trails through Napa are well known as is Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail. New Mexico’s Green Chili Cheeseburger Trail which includes nearly 70 restaurants throughout the state was voted Best Food Trail by USA Today. Mississippi’s Gulf Seafood Trail spans 360 miles and Louisiana’s Cajun Boudin Trail appeals to lovers of spicy sausage.

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These itineraries are an expression of locality, a place-based celebration of what makes towns and regions unique. They foster pride in local citizens and assist in preserving natural, cultural, and historical resources. They are also a tourism draw, a way to entice travelers to savor quirky and sublime off-the-beaten-path (read: rural and small-town) destinations.

Economic studies show they can have a significant impact. The iconic 2,451-mile-long Route 66 demonstrated an annual direct economic benefit of $132 million in 2011. The less-known and shorter 103-mile Flint Hills Scenic Byway in Kansas generated $464,000 annually. According to the National Park Service, 15.9 million visitors to the Blue Ridge Parkway in 2021 spent an estimated $1.3 billion in local gateway regions supporting a total of 17,900 jobs.

The following three road trips are some of the most popular in the country. Not only are they fun to travel, their organizers have learned some best-practices for coordinating this kind of visitor experience that they share below.

Creole Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Creole Nature Trail All-American Road, Louisiana

Louisiana’s prairies, marshes, and shores teem with wildlife and a drive along the 180-mile Creole Nature Trail All-American Road gives visitors a chance to experience nature’s bounty up close. Signs along the route mark common spots for alligator crossings. This remote terrain, often referred to as Louisiana’s Outback, is readily accessible and includes four wildlife refuges as well as 26 miles of natural Gulf of Mexico beaches. Other features include untouched wetlands, small fishing communities offering fresh seafood, and ancient cheniers (sandy ridges studded with oak trees rising above the low-lying coasts).

Sulphur, which sat on a major deposit of the mineral for which it was named, has a rich history of sulfur mining in the area. Driving south on Highway 27 towards Cameron Parish notice a gradual change in the landscape from prairie lands to coastal marsh. Cameron Parish has more than 700,000 acres of wetlands—and Hackberry, appropriately, is a hub of shrimp and crab houses along Kelso Bayou, the once-rumored hideout of legendary pirate Jean Lafitte.

Creole Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here, the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge is a prime wintering ground for waterfowl. The Wetland Walkway, a 1.5-mile loop walk into the marsh, is home to alligators, birds, and other indigenous critters. Gators are plentiful here and can grow up to 14 feet. Further south is Holly Beach with opportunities for swimming, picnicking, and hunting for shells.

Turning west takes you along Highway 82 toward the Texas state line. Providing a nearly continuous view of the Gulf of Mexico, this stretch takes you to Peveto Woods Sanctuary—a 41-acre island that sees more than two million birds each year. Turning east takes you to the car ferry across the Calcasieu Ship Channel and into the community of Cameron.

Lake Charles offers a fusion of city life and the outdoors. It is a prime spot for casinos, Cajun cooking and shopping at the Lake Charles Boardwalk. A highlight is the Charpentier Historic District with Victorian-era homes both designed and built by carpenters.

Creole Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nearby is the Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge, a haven for wintering waterfowl and a great place for nature photography. Depending on the time of year, the Cameron Prairie Visitor Center as well as Pintail Wildlife Drive are excellent locations to spot alligators as well as a host of birds and waterfowl including roseate spoonbills.

At Highway 27’s intersection with Highway 82, turn east. Along this marshy stretch look for cranes, pelicans, and in warm weather an occasional alligator. Past the town of Grand Chenier lies the Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge. A drive along the refuge’s four-mile Price Lake Road gives visitors a close-up view of this coastal marshland and its inhabitants. Or, if you turn west you will head towards the community for which this parish was named, Cameron.

A FREE personal tour app of the Creole Nature Trail is also available in iTunes and Google Play (just search Creole). The app is available in English, French, Spanish, German, Chinese, and Japanese.

>> Get more tips for driving Creole Nature Trail

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Trail of the Ancients, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah

This 480-mile route looping around the Four Corners area is the only National Scenic Byway dedicated to archaeology. It is full of riches: the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde National Park, UNESCO World Heritage Site, Chaco Culture National Historical Park, Hovenweep National Monument, and Canyon of the Ancients National Monument which has more than 8,000 recorded archaeological sites, the highest known density in the U.S. The trail also connects five additional national monuments, tribal businesses, and small towns.

The Trail of the Ancients, federally designated in 2005 can be tricky to navigate. While the three state sections have the same name, the marketing and educational materials are separate. Much of the trail is remote and GPS systems are not reliable. Some of the cultural sites are on dirt tracks off of gravel roads causing visitors to question whether they are on the correct route.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Colorado just installed 95 wayfinding signs along its 116-mile stretch. They also have a detailed physical map produced by National Geographic available at the Colorado Visitor Center in Cortez. Curious travelers can access more than a hundred short stories while on the road through the Autio app.

Small businesses and remote parks benefit from their placement on the trail. The increased traffic brings more visitors to stops like the Yellow Car Winery and Dolores River Brewery. And while much of the experience focuses on archaeology there are a lot of hands-on experiences. Visitors can explore a kiva at Lowry Pueblo, grind corn at the Canyon of the Ancients National Monument Visitor Center, and examine an Indigenous study area at Crow Canyon Archaeological Center.

The Trail of the Ancients is immersive where visitors can engage. It’s not just a selfie stop.

>> Get more tips for driving Trail of the Ancients

Amish Country Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Amish Country Byway, Ohio

Take a break from the fast-paced world of cell phones, computers, fast cars, and demanding schedules and enjoy the simple life found along the Amish Country Byway in Ohio. At first, you may feel as if time is standing still but you’ll soon discover that the Amish folk are highly enterprising and productive. They have simply chosen to maintain their traditional beliefs and customs continuing a lifestyle uncomplicated by the ways of the modern-day world.

As you travel the Amish Country Byway sharing the road with horses and buggies you will experience first-hand the Amish way of life. You will also take in plenty of beautiful scenery and have a wide variety of recreational opportunities to pursue.

Amish Country Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Country roads crisscrossing Holmes County are roughly equidistant from Cleveland and Columbus but couldn’t be more different from Ohio’s urban strongholds.

When driving the Byway, the word charm keeps coming to mind. It’s such an appropriate word to describe the experience that you’ll even see it appear on a sign. You’re not hallucinating. The tiny community of Charm is home to a handful of restaurants, gift shops to browse, and of course, the charisma its name suggests.

One of the Byway’s highlights is a visit to Guggisberg Cheese, home of the original Baby Swiss. Immigrating from Switzerland in the 1940s, Alfred and Margaret Guggisberg established their Ohio facility in 1950; the cheese is so exquisite that it won U.S. first prize in 2019 out of over 2,500 entries from 35 states. Today you can tour the factory and of course take home some
championship cheese of your own.

Amish Country Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Millersburg is the Byway’s anchor village and feels a lot bigger than its population of 3,200 would imply. As Holmes County’s seat, it maintains a quaint small-town feel despite the solidity of its historic brick and stone buildings. Stop here for lunch, a brochure at the Holmes County Tourism Bureau, or a glimpse at the mesmerizing Millersburg Glass Museum.

Returning to rural landscapes, views of gentle, tree-specked hills roll away like a dream as you listen to the timeless clip-clop of traditional buggies sharing the roadway. The Amish Country multicultural community life depends upon and draws from the Byway, its path forged and designed by early settlers.

As you honor local culture, realize you are visiting a settlement where one of every six Amish lives worldwide. With fervent religious convictions to ground them, the Amish way of life enriches and influences the entire community and those who visit. As you’ll quickly learn in these parts, simple does not equal boring.

There is no one source to research every trail or itinerary in the country but the National Scenic Byway Foundation is dedicated to education about the almost 1,000 official state and federal byways. Their website, travelbyways.com is a helpful resource for the real—or armchair —taveler who wants to explore some uniquely American places.

>> Get more tips for driving Amish Country Byway

Colonial Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A Brief History of National Byways

  • 1922: Completion of Oregon’s Historic Columbia River Parkway, the first state scenic byway. Its rest areas and scenic pull-offs make it desirable to travel at a more leisurely pace.
  • 1938: The Great River Road became the first national byway designated by an act of Congress. It originally spanned five states along the Mississippi River.
  • 1988-89: Two separate byway programs designated 137 National Forest Service Byways and 54 Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Back Country Byways.
  • 1992: The Federal Highway Administration launched the National Scenic Byways Program. Federally-recognized Scenic Byways must have at least one intrinsic quality: archeological, cultural, historic, natural, recreational, or scenic. More selective All-American Roads must have at least two intrinsic qualities and be considered a destination unto themselves.

More on scenic byways:

Worth Pondering…

Look for chances to take the less-traveled roads. There are no wrong turns.

—Susan Magsamen