Looking for Your Next Favorite Road Trip? You Need to Take a Scenic Byway!

Take a scenic byway on your next road trip

In This Land is Your Land, Woody Guthrie sang the words, “As I went walking that ribbon of highway / I saw above me that endless skyway.” If Guthrie was singing about some of the most beautiful ribbons of highway in the United States, there’s a good chance he was talking about one of the country’s scenic byways.

In both popular culture and our imaginations, we tend to romanticize road trips as epic journeys across the nation’s vast highways. The only problem is there’s nothing romantic about our nation’s highways. Either you’re sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic as you pass through a major metropolis or you’re the lone motorist on an eerily empty stretch of cornfield-lined pavement. We almost take for granted that the great American road trip should be on a highway—but we’re forgetting about a far more attractive alternative: scenic byways.

National Scenic Byways are officially designated roads that meet a set of government-defined criteria. To become a scenic byway, a road must be recognized for one or more of six intrinsic qualities which include archaeological, cultural, natural, historic, recreational, or scenic significance. As their name suggests, these roads are the most scenic way to see the country by far. Here’s why your next road trip should be on a scenic byway.

Amish Country Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The difference between a byway and a highway

On the surface, distinguishing a highway from a scenic byway might sound complicated. The differences, however, are quite obvious especially when you first make the switch from highways to byways. Highways are wide roads connecting big cities, built to facilitate the flow of heavy traffic. Though they can be found all over the country, they’re a staple of major metropolitan areas with high population density. Though highways are certainly the most efficient way to travel, they’re often not free with many requiring tolls to pass.

Byways, by contrast, tend to be narrower, secondary roads often located in rural areas. You won’t find scenic byways wrapping around major cities but rather serve as a means of connection for those living in less populated areas. They’re unstructured, unsurfaced, or even covered with grass.

The National Scenic Byways Program started in 1991 when Congress passed the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act which aimed to promote roads of special aesthetic or cultural significance. Some byways are even designated All-American Roads which must meet two (instead of just one) of the intrinsic qualities mentioned above. All-American Roads are considered to have unique features that can’t be found anywhere else in the US. Many even consider these roads to be destinations on their own.

Utah Scenic Byway 12 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why ride a byway?

If you still find yourself tempted by the efficient allure of the highway, there are plenty of reasons to give scenic byways a shot the next time you hit the road. The biggest benefit of scenic byways is the access they provide to local experiences like food, history, and scenery. From New Jersey to California and everywhere in between highways feel pretty homogenous. Byways don’t circumvent an area’s natural beauty in favor of efficiency— they take you through the heart of forests, mountains, and small towns giving you a reason to look out the window.

The Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina and Virginia, for example, gives drivers incredible views of the surrounding mountains and valleys and Rangeley Lakes National Scenic Byway in Maine gives you a sampling of Maine’s natural beauty: lakes, forests, farms, rivers, and wildlife. Meanwhile, the Mohawk Trail Byway in Williamstown, Massachusetts marks where Benedict Arnold led an army during the Revolutionary War, and where the Mohawk tribe battled the Pocumtucks. That’s a slice of culture you just can’t get on a highway.

Byways are also beneficial for local communities. Rather than spending your money at the McDonald’s in the highway rest stop, you’ll be passing through small towns. That means local shops, restaurants, and a warmer introduction to an area than you’d ever receive at a highway visitor center.

Trade the highway McDouble for some steak tips at a local barbeque joint. Rather than stretch your legs at a nondescript rest stop, park on a town’s Main Street and go exploring. A more intimate travel experience isn’t just beneficial for you but for the people living there too. Whether it’s patronizing family-owned restaurants, shopping at small boutiques, or filling up at an off-the-beaten-path gas station, the local economy will thank you.

Explore the byways

Now is actually the best time to start exploring the country’s scenic byways. These are a few byways you should keep on your radar for your next road trip.

Red Rock Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arizona: Red Rock Scenic Byway 

Winding through Arizona’s Red Rock Country, the Red Rock Scenic Byway is often called a museum without walls. Traversing incredible red rock and desert landscapes, State Route 179 runs south from Sedona through the Red Rock State Park to the junction with Interstate 17. There are also several trailheads accessed directly from the road offering numerous options for day hikes. Don’t miss the Cathedral Rock and the Bell Rock vista at the start of the southern trailhead.

If you need ideas, check out: Red Rock Scenic Byway: All-American Road

Alabama Coastal Connection Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Alabama: Coastal Connection Scenic Byway

About 130 miles long, Alabama’s Coastal Connection showcases the best of the state’s Gulf Coast from quiet bays and wildlife-rich sanctuaries to immaculate white-sand beaches and historic forts. Alabama’s southern tip offers five different possible itineraries based on your interests, whether it’s history, food, or nature. The full route runs from Spanish Fort through Daphne and Fairhope via Magnolia Springs and Elberta to Orange Beach, along Gulf Shores to Dauphin Island and finishes in Grand Bay.

Check this out to learn more: Experience the Alabama Gulf Coast along the Coastal Connection Scenic Byway

Amish Country Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ohio: Amish Country Byway

Just 76 miles long, the Amish Country Byway might seem like a drive you can complete in a few hours but factor in the cultural and historic treasures dotted along the road and you’ll need at least a day. The road curves through and over the hills of pastoral countryside making it easy to forget about the trappings of modern life. Be sure to visit Amish museums, farms and antique shops, and enjoy some seriously good cooking in one of the many places to stop for a bite.

Here are some helpful resources:

Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

South Dakota: Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway

It twists and loops over just 70 miles yet this Black Hills byway is the perfect introduction to South Dakota’s breathtaking landscapes. The route is actually four interlacing roads including Needles Highway where the drive takes you through narrow tunnels and below towering granite pinnacles. It also cuts through Custer State Park where buffalo graze the fields and passes Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Memorial.

For more tips on exploring this area, check out these blog posts:

Scenic Byway 12 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Utah: Scenic Byway 12

At just under 123 miles, this All-American Road cuts through some of the state’s most spectacular scenery (and it’s up against some strong competition). Starting in Panguitch and unravelling east to Torrey, the road feels like it’s always been here curving past moon-grey mountains and ducking under peach-rock arches. Make a brief detour to see Escalante Petrified Forest, filled with fossilised trees. 

Read more: Scenic Byway 12: An All American Road

Colonial Parkway

Virginia: Colonial Parkway

Connecting three of Virginia’s most historically significant cities, the Colonial Parkway links Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Yorktown. Only 23 miles long, the byway is intended for sightseeing so is free of trucks and commercial vehicles and is still a remarkable example of such American parkway design. 

Check this out to learn more: Live in Colonial Times: Experience the Revolution in a Revolutionary Way

Creole Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Louisiana: Creole Nature Trail

Alligators, over 400 bird species, marshlands teeming with life, 26 miles of natural Gulf of Mexico beaches, fishing, crabbing, Cajun culture, and more can be experienced as you travel along the 180-mile Creole Nature Trail All-American Road. Affectionately known as Louisiana’s Outback, the Creole Nature Trail is a journey into one of America’s Last Great Wildernesses. Download the free personal tour app (search “creole” in your app store.) Once on the trail, open the app and make sure your location is enabled. It’s like having a personal tour guide in the vehicle with you!

Here are some helpful resources:

Russell-Brasstown Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Georgia: Russell-Brasstown National Scenic Byway

The beauty of the Chattahoochee National Forest surrounds this route as it encircles the headwaters of the Chattahoochee River. Winding through the valleys and mountain gaps of the southern Appalachians, you will find vistas atop Brasstown Bald that are jaw-dropping and the cooling mists of waterfalls are plentiful. Everywhere scenic wonders fill this region. Colorful wildflowers, waterfalls, and dazzling fall colors are some of what you will see. Hike the Appalachian Trail or fish in a cool mountain stream.

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

North Carolina and Tennessee: Cherohala Skyway

The Skyway offers the cultural heritage of the Cherokee tribe and early settlers in a grand forest environment in the Appalachian Mountains. Enjoy mile-high vistas and brilliant fall foliage, as well as great hiking opportunities and picnic spots in magnificent and seldom-seen portions of the southern Appalachian National Forests. Popular stops along and near the Skyway include Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, Santeetlah Lake, and many Cherokee sites. This byway in particular is known for its fall colors.

If you need ideas, check out:

Blue Ridge Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

North Carolina and Virginia: Blue Ridge Parkway

The Blue Ridge Parkway is a scenic roadway offering stunning long-range vistas and close-up views of the rugged mountains and pastoral landscapes of the Appalachian Highlands. The Parkway meanders for 469 miles, protecting a diversity of plants and animals and providing a variety of recreation opportunities for enjoying all that makes the Blue Ridge Mountains so special.

Here are a few great articles to help you do just that:

Worth Pondering…

I had spent the day, as Chuck Berry once sang, with no particular place to go. And getting there was half the fun.