The Guide to Driving the Back Roads

Driving the back roads is relaxing and enjoyable, taking in scenery that is unspoiled and seldom seen

Plying the back roads—the back, back roads—of rural America inevitably will present you with a gift basket of surprises.

America is home to countless back roads, side roads, country roads, scenic routes, historic routes, tourist routes, scenic byways, and historic highways—and more road trip possibilities than any one person could complete in a lifetime.

Back roads of Bluegrass Country, Kentucky © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I have a love-hate relationship with Interstates. There are times when you need to be somewhere fast and the Interstates are the only viable options. But fast is the problem. With speed limits of 70 miles per hour in most states (more in a handful of mostly western states), it’s rare to find traffic moving at the speed limit. It is often much closer to 80.

Between Moki Dugway and Mexican Hat, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When you are in an RV—a towable or motorhome—excessive speed is not your friend. The faster you go, the harder it is to stop and control your rig.

Add to that the fact that the tires on most RVs are not engineered to drive as fast as the tires on your toad/tow vehicle. Suddenly there’s a compelling case for driving the roads less traveled. But aside from safety, back roads travel can be much more enjoyable.

Related Article: Life is a Byway: The Roads Less Traveled

Burr Trail, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why drive the back roads?

On back roads, speed limits are usually 55 to 65 miles per hour. Lower speeds usually result in improved mileage. Budget stretching and safety are two top reasons you consider driving secondary roads. But there are more reasons:

  • Back roads get you closer to the countryside and the people; scenic vistas, Mom and Pop stores, and restaurants provide a real feel of the area
  • Back roads are calming; the stress of interstate driving takes a physical and emotional toll
  • Back roads make for more enjoyable road trips that can give you a much better appreciation for the country
Schnebly Hill Road near Sedona, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tips for driving the back roads

Look for two-lane state routes: Like the so-called Blue Highways, popularized in the best-selling 1982 book of the same name by William Least Heat-Moon. Here is where you will find small-town America. Don’t be afraid to pull off the highway at a park, a roadside attraction, along a riverbank or lakefront, or with a great view of the mountains or the valleys and just hang out for a while in a beautiful location.

Road to Peralta Canyon, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Beware of dirt or gravel roads: They may be tempting. But they have a way of going bad and becoming rutted and potholed. Avoid them when driving an RV. They may be doable in a Class B van or a small Class C motorhome. Dirt and gravel roads coat everything in the RV with dust in dry weather while coating the exterior in mud following rain. And stones kicked up by your tires can chip your paint job.

Related Article: Ambling Down Country Roads in Bluegrass Country

Moki Dugway, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Consider county routes with care: Some paved county roads peter out after a few miles to gravel or dirt. Others are quite narrow and offer few places for an RV to pull over or turn around. That’s why it’s wise to travel with an RV-specific GPS to navigate safely based on your vehicle dimensions. You can input your vehicle’s height, length, and weight as well as fuel information like whether or not you’re carrying propane. This will not only help you avoid steep mountain roads but also low clearance bridges, bridge weight limits, and tunnels with propane restrictions. Also, check locally regarding road conditions, especially during inclement weather.

Back roads of Parke County, Indiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Don’t rely on GPS: The more remote the country, the less reliable GPS can be. That’s why drivers need to apply a dose of common sense to a computer’s suggestions starting with not taking RVs and other vehicles that aren’t up to the task down unpaved roads. State highway maps are a must if you plan to drive the backroads. County maps are often available from regional visitor centers or local stores.

Back roads of Holmes County, Ohio © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Driving the back roads takes more planning: There are numerous RV trip planning apps available to help but you’ll want to consider places to refuel, buy groceries, find restaurants or picnic spots (county parks are often true gems), and RV parks and campgrounds.

Back roads of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ask for places to overnight: In some small towns you can camp free in local parks, churches, parking areas, or behind businesses. But, be sure to ask first. If you can’t find someone to give permission, stop by the sheriff’s office or police department. Naturally, your RV needs to be self-contained to do this. Obviously, this works best if you’re driving a small RV.

Roaring Fork Nature Motor Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Eat local: While it is more economical and efficient to eat in your RV or at a picnic site, consider a meal in a local “Mom and Pop” restaurant or market to experience local and regional foods that aren’t pre-packaged, frozen, or microwaved. Ask the staff or other diners what you should see in the area. You’ll likely get some great suggestions.

Related Article: Barn Quilt Trail: Folksy Phenomenon

Piano Bridge near Schulenburg, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Watch for low bridges, underpasses, and low-hanging trees: Those RV trip planning apps will help here as will RV-specific GPS modules. On the interstate, overpasses are usually 16 feet or more. Along some secondary routes, 12-foot or lower bridges will pose a big-time problem to most RVs. Also be aware of low-hanging trees and branches as they can do a number on your satellite dish and air conditioner units. Trust me on this one!

Scenic Byway 24 near Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There is no hurry: The journey can be as enjoyable as the destination. Be flexible. Stop when you want, where you want. Setting a rigid agenda and over-planning may result in missing an unexpected attraction not included in travel guides—some things just happen along your journey. Take time for the unexpected!

Indian Creek Scenic Byway, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Follow the 330 Rule: The 330 rule is you stop when you have driven 330 miles or it is 3:30 in the afternoon. The idea is to get somewhere while it is still early enough to explore, chill-out, and enjoy the place when you’re not exhausted from driving mega miles. Is there anything worse than pulling into a campsite after dark? Embrace less miles and stopping early as your travel style of choice. I have found as I’ve aged that the 220 rule works even better!

Read Next: Introducing New Scenic Byways and All-American Roads

Adventure awaits! Happy trails!

Worth Pondering…

Our four simple rules: No Interstates, no amusement parks, no five-star accommodations, and no franchise food (two words which do not belong in the same sentence!)

—Loren Eyrich, editor/publisher Two-Lane Roads

On Camping and Spending Time in Nature

Spending time in nature is the best way to refuel your body and your mind

The Great Outdoors became a top travel destination in 2020 for obvious reasons: endless social distance, campgrounds within driving distance, and dramatic settings for an existential crisis. Zoom ahead to summer 2022 and the world has reopened—so has camping fallen out of favor?

Turns out, instead of returning their REI equipment, many rookies are still adding camping reservations to their travel plans.

According to Campspot, a platform for reserving campsites, there are 49 percent more bookings for this summer compared to last year and a six times jump in new campers.

33 percent more people are shopping on Amazon for camping tents this year compared to 2019 and demand for other outdoor gear (lanterns, backpacks, camp stoves) has also risen by double digits, per data analytics company Pattern.

Reunion Lake RV Resort, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Glamping’s also holding onto its pandemic popularity: Getaway, which rents tiny, posh cabins you may have seen on Instagram had its most guests ever in Q1 2022.

Between inflation, the stock market, supply-chain issues, and recession fears, people have a strong desire to find ways to disconnect from the stress and spend time in nature to help them reconnect with themselves and their family and friends.

Relaxing nature activities will rejuvenate your mind, from the simple to the life-changing.

The back roads of Kentucky’s Blue Grass Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Savor the scenery

Movies beaming with CGI (computer-generated imagery) dazzle our imaginations but the most mind-blowing spectacles are not found on a screen. When was the last time you watched the sunrise or ventured to the nearest hilltop to watch it set? Or plied the back roads?

A back road in South Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The back, back roads of South Carolina, for example, will present you with a gift basket of surprises. Looming magnolia trees and Spanish moss! Tiny, rural communities populated with folks who more than likely will be happy to spend the afternoon beguiling you with the stories of their lives. Makeshift farm stands and BBQ pits that you can sniff out a mile away. Ramshackle houses and dilapidated plantations evoking chapters from another world!

Skyline Drive © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Skyline Drive is a beautiful Virginia byway that goes straight through Shenandoah National Park and the picturesque Blue Ridge Mountains. It’s not exactly a well-kept secret, but if you hit the road early enough to catch a misty sunrise, you might be able to beat some of the crowds. At just over 100 miles long, it makes for a great half-day drive.

Walking a trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wander the wilderness

Walking is good for you, but not all walks are created equal. Cruising urban streets doesn’t provide the same mental boost as hiking a local trail or feeling the sandy beach between your toes. You don’t have to have a specific destination in mind, either—your goal isn’t to hike a particular number of miles but to aimlessly immerse yourself in the natural world around you. The Japanese call this “forest bathing” and it can rejuvenate a weary mind.

Enchanted Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Short, sweet, and steep are the best descriptors of the flagship trail at Enchanted Rock State Natural Area. Characterized (and named for) a massive pink granite dome—the same unique Texas pink granite that was used to build the State Capitol building—this park is a popular outing for those visiting Central Texas. From the top of the steep Summit Trail, you’ll see unparalleled 360-degree views of untouched terrain. For more entertainment, Fredericksburg, a charming German-Texan small town, is only a 20-minutes drive away.

Bird watching in Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Meditate on the music

Not the music playing in your headphones. Leave your electronics behind and listen to the melodies nature has to offer: babbling brooks, bird songs, wind whistling through the trees, and the scurrying of animals through the canopy. It’s a lot more relaxing than the honking horns and text message alerts you’re all too used to and it offers the opportunity to practice some meditative mindfulness in your tranquil surroundings.

Pack a picnic

Load a basket with your favorite healthy goodies and have lunch among the flora and fauna. A picnic is a perfect way to spend quality time with friends and family without the distractions of the modern-day world. And nature makes socializing with others easier so it’s the perfect place to build stronger relationships with those you love.

Fishing at Lynx Lake in Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go fish

Fishing puts you outside, near a body of water, and it rewards patience. All of those are good things. Even if you don’t catch (and release) anything, you’ll both forge a treasured, lifelong memory. With a little luck, you reel in a perch that will grow into a marlin after multiple retellings of the story at family events.

Bird watching © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Look, up in the sky

Thousands of people who watch birds as a hobby are on to something: There’s a special thrill when you can recognize a bird by sight or by its sound. Odds are, a nearby Audubon location offers free birding walks that are open to the public. Or, turn to the internet for free resources to help you identify the birds in your area. Either way, bird watching gives you the perfect excuse to relax in nature with your head in the clouds. That’s a great way to fend off stress.

Camping in Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sleep beneath the stars

Now you’re getting serious. Why not disconnect entirely for several days or more and make nature your home? Camping lets you get further away than a simple day trip allows. Or, if roughing it isn’t your style, consider glamping where you can maintain some of the creature comforts you love, but still be away from it all.

Camping in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located in the rugged Black Hills of South Dakota, Custer State Park protects 71,000 acres of terrain and a herd of some 1,300 bison who are known to stop traffic along the park’s Wildlife Loop Road from time to time. The park has nine campgrounds to choose from including the popular Sylvan Lake Campground. Many sites include electric hookups and dump stations.

If you take your phone, use it for that cool star-gazing app (or emergencies, of course) but not for scrolling social media 24/7. Forget the Fear of Missing Out and try the Joy of Missing Out instead. #JOMO!

World’s Largest Roadrunner at La Cruces, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What’s that giant roadrunner doing there? Read about the weird world of giant roadside attractions

Listen up: This is the only summer playlist you’ll need

Looking for a memorable road trip: Choose a location and route that aligns with your passions

Applegate River Valley, Oregon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

More trip ideas: These are the best things to do this summer

And finally: Here’s what to expect at national parks this summer

Worth Pondering…

Take time to listen to the voices of the earth and what they mean…the majestic voice of thunder, the winds, and the sound of flowing streams. And the voices of living things: the dawn chorus of the birds, the insects that play little fiddles in the grass.

—Rachel Carson