10 Scenic Drives that are Not National Scenic Byways…but should be

What exactly do you mean by a “scenic” drive?

There’s nothing quite like packing up your car or recreation vehicle and heading out onto the open road. With over four million miles of roads crisscrossing the country, how do you choose where to travel?

In much the same way Congress set aside lands to be protected as national parks, the Department of Transportation has designated a network of spectacular drives that are protected as part of America’s Byways collection. Currently, the collection contains 184 National Scenic Byways and All-American Roads in 48 states. To become part of America’s Byways collection, a road must-have features that don’t exist anywhere else in the United States and be unique and important enough to be destinations unto themselves.

Here are 10 scenic and culturally significant roadways in America that have not been designated as National Scenic Byways…but should be.

Gold Rush Highway winds through Amador City © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gold Rush Highway

Location: California

Length: 295 miles

Gold Rush Highway through Angels Camp © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Follow in the footsteps of miners and prospectors through California’s Gold Country along Highway 49—a road named after the gold seekers or “49ers” who made their way to the state during the 1849 Gold Rush. Plan for five days to provide time to strike its rich panning for gold in the region’s rivers. You’ll also want to spend time exploring the rocky meadows and pine-covered foothills of the Sierra Nevada. 

More on scenic byways: Get in your RV and Go! Scenic Drives in America

Green Mountain Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Green Mountain Byway

Location: Vermont

Length: 71 miles

Cold Hollow Cider Mill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Green Mountain Byway travels from Stowe to Waterbury between mountain ridges. Little River, Smugglers Notch, Waterbury Center state parks, and Mount Mansfield and Putnam state forests are along the route. Stowe is a premier four-season resort destination particularly known for its alpine and Nordic recreation, mountain biking, and hiking. Here, the Von Trapp family (of Sound of Music fame) attracted worldwide attention more than 50 years ago. Along with beautiful scenery, a large variety of attractions for all ages and tastes including Ben & Jerry’s ice cream factory, Cold Hollow Cider Mill, and Vermont Ski Museum.

Heritage Driving Trail through Ligonier © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Heritage Driving Tour, Indiana

Location: Indiana

Amish Acres © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Length: 90 miles

The 90-mile Heritage Trail Driving Tour winds through Amish Country taking you down rural highways, country lanes, and charming main streets. Stop in Shipshewana to stroll the shop-lined streets where you’ll find handcrafted items, baked goods, and the Midwest’s largest flea market. Enjoy a delightful Amish meal at Das Dutchman Essenhaus in Middlebury or Amish Acres in Nappanee.

Apache Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Apache Trail Historic Road

Location: Arizona

Length: 41 miles

Apache Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This historic road covers some of the most rugged terrains in Arizona. The land surrounding the road rises steeply to the north to form the Four Peaks Wilderness Area and to the south to form the Superstition Wilderness Area. Steep-sided canyons, rock outcroppings, and magnificent geologic formations are all along the road. Water played a major role in creating the beauty of the area, and it also provides numerous recreation opportunities. Fish Creek Canyon is perhaps the most awe-inspiring section. The road hangs on the side of this high-walled canyon and winds its way along tremendous precipices that sink sheer for hundreds of feet below.

Travel Advisory: In 2019, the Woodbury Fire burned several areas on the Apache Trail, and a 7-mile section of the road from Fish Creek Hill Overlook (milepost 222) to Apache Lake Marina (Milepost 229) remains closed. 

More on scenic byways: America’s 10 Best Scenic Byways for your Next Road Trip

Spirit Lake Memorial Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Spirit Lake Memorial Highway

Location: Washington

Length: 52 miles

Mount St. Helens © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Spirit Lake Memorial Highway is the only scenic byway in the U.S. that penetrates a fresh volcanic blast zone. This scenic and historic route is a 52-mile journey into the scene of epic destruction that Mount St. Helens caused when it erupted on May 18, 1980. Along the route are four distinct interpretive and tour centers: Silver Lake, Hoffstadt Bluffs, the Weyerhaeuser Forest Learning Center, and Johnston Ridge. Each one tells a different part of the story from the natural history before the May 1980 eruption, the aftermath, reforestation efforts, and the natural recovery of plants and animals. 

Palms to Pines Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Palms to Pines Highway

Location: California

Length: 67 miles

Palms to Pines Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Coachella Valley is known for its beautiful scenery and warm weather but just a few miles to the south is a scenic drive that offers high mountain wilderness—a two-hour journey (to Mountain Center) provided you don’t stop to admire the gorgeous sights along the way. Palm trees give way to piñon pines and firs as the byway climb into Santa Rosa and the San Jacinto Mountains National Monument.

Oak Creek Canyon

Sedona-Oak Creek Canyon Scenic Road

Location: Arizona

Length: 14.5 miles

Oak Creek Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Sedona-Oak Creek Canyon Scenic Road was designated by the Arizona Department of Transportation in 1984. This route follows US 89A through the scenic canyon made popular in the 1920s when it was discovered by Hollywood. This scenic road offers a rare opportunity to study a variety of elements within a short distance. The road traverses seven major plant communities as a result of elevation changes, temperature variation, and precipitation. It begins near the town of Sedona, and runs in a northerly direction through Oak Creek Canyon to the top of the Mogollon Rim, traveling areas rich with geologic formations similar to the Grand Canyon.

More on scenic byways: Take the Exit Ramp to Adventure & Scenic Drives

Mesilla © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Scenic Highway 28

Location: New Mexico

Length: 28 miles

Rio Grande Winery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Roughly paralleling the Rio Grande River, New Mexico Highway 28 travels from Mesilla to Canutillo (at the New Mexico-Texas state line). Along the drive, the Stahmann Farms pecan trees have grown over the roadway making for a sight straight out of a fairytale. Highway 28 is also home to Chopes Bar & Café, known for its tasty New Mexican food. Rio Grande Winery Vineyard & Winery and La Viña Winery are also hot spots along the roadway and very much a testament to New Mexico’s thriving, the centuries-old wine industry.

La Sal Mountain Loop © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

La Sal Mountain Loop

Location: Utah

Length: 60 miles

La Sal Mountain Loop © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From the alpine ridges of the La Sal Mountains to the red rock desert and sandstone pinnacles of Castle Rock, this back road is an adventure. This 60-mile route is paved and starts about 8 miles south of Moab off US-191 and loops through the mountains down to Castle Valley and SR 128 where it follows the Colorado River back to Moab. It takes about 3 hours to complete this drive. The narrow winding road while suitable for passenger cars is not suitable for large RVs. The La Sals are the most photographed mountain range in Utah, providing a dramatic background to the red rock mesas, buttes, and arches below.

Ajo Scenic Loop © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ajo Scenic Loop

Location: Arizona

Length: 10 miles

Ajo Scenic Loop © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With its rich tradition as a former copper mining hub, Ajo is a casual town with relaxed charm. Enjoy its mild climate, low humidity, and clear skies. Take in the historic Spanish Colonial Revival architecture in the Downtown Historic District, Sonoran Desert flora and fauna, and panoramic views. Ajo is surrounded by 12 million acres of public and tribal land waiting to be explored. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge offer expansive hiking, camping, and birding places.

More on scenic byways: America’s 10 Best Scenic Byways for a Fall Road Trip

Ajo Historic Plaza © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This 10.4-mile-long scenic drive starts at the Historic Plaza in downtown Ajo and loops around the gigantic open pit copper mine, then through a wonderland of saguaro, organ pipe, and other diverse cacti and back to downtown Ajo where you started. The scenic loop is mostly gravel and travels through BLM land and is popular for boondocking.

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

The Amazing Story of Palms to Pines Scenic Byway

Palm trees give way to piñon pines and firs as the byway climbs into Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument

An impossibly long trailer negotiating hairpin mountain turns does not seem to be the stuff of successful movies, yet Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz had a big hit with the 1953 film, “The Long, Long Trailer”. The studio was wary of the film, thinking that people could stay home and watch the couple on TV for free.

Along the Palms to Pine Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arnaz reportedly made a $25,000 bet that the movie would make more money than the highest-grossing comedy at the time, “Father of the Bride,” starring Spencer Tracy and Elizabeth Taylor. Arnaz was right. The movie grossed an astonishing $3.9 million as people were thrilled to see Lucy and Desi up to their antics in living color.

Coachella Valley from the Palms to Pine Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The very long trailer used in the film was a 36-foot Redman New Moon model which could barely be turned around the sharp mountain curves featured in the movie. Many of the scenes were filmed in the Sierra Nevada Mountains on Portal Road to Mt. Whitney but some were shot on the Palms to Pines Scenic Byway, State Route 74, which climbs from Palm Desert to Mountain Center up a remarkably steep and tortuous grade.

Along the Palms to Pine Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Palms to Pines Road started from the Gillette Ranch on what was then called the Palm Springs-Indio road. Construction started in September 1929 and finished August 1933. A total of 37.1 miles requiring 747,600 cubic yards of excavation and was paid for by funds from Riverside County and the U.S. Forest Service. Before the road, the Palms to Pines Trail was used by horseback riders and intrepid outdoorsmen having been originally scratched into the steep escarpment by M.S. Gordon around 1917 following ancient Cahuilla trails.

Along the Palms to Pine Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wilson S. Howell became a familiar figure not only in Coachella Valley but throughout the county in the years of crusading for the new road. He took a 10-cent school protractor and cutting the mountainside vegetation for an improvised surveyor’s stand, he sighted a feasible way up the mountain side through wild shrubbery. Today the highway is an established route of travel, one of the most enchanting in the country.

Along the Palms to Pine Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Howell believed in San Jacinto Mountain and in Coachella valley—and in their linking highway. He acquired 2,000 acres equal distance from Hemet, Indio, and Palm Springs. Howell likely owned the land first and was a booster of the road in order to make his holdings more valuable by luring patrons up the mountain to his little Ribbonwood outpost. Either way, he certainly was the “patron spirit of the Palms-to-Pines highway.”

Along the Palms to Pine Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For almost two years before construction began on the highway in 1929, several different factions clamored for routes that would benefit them. Three routes were in contention. One was prohibitively expensive. Another was advocated by Palm Springs businessmen who wanted a route that would go directly through Palm Canyon. Others wanted a route that would go through Pinyon Flats. The Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce even tried to influence the decision by hinting that they would not make a proposed financial contribution if the highway did not go through Palm Canyon. The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians nixed the Palm Canyon route and the road was put through Pinyon Flats from Palm Desert. 

Along the Palms to Pine Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Coachella Valley is known for its beautiful scenery and warm weather but just a few miles to the south is a scenic drive that offers high mountain wilderness—a two-hour journey (to Mountain Center) provided you don’t stop to admire the gorgeous sights along the way.

Along the Palms to Pine Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We began our trip at the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains Visitor Center, located on Highway 74 in Palm Desert. Pick up a map and some visitor information but take note: the Visitor Center is closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Rising abruptly from the desert floor, the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument reaches an elevation of 10,834 feet.

Along the Palms to Pine Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Departing the Visitor Center heading south on Highway 74, we almost immediately begin winding our way up the mountain in a series of switchbacks. There are beautiful views spanning Coachella Valley and ample opportunity to take them in. Part way up the mountain is a large viewpoint with plenty of parking where we stopped to take in the sights and snap a few photos.

Along the Palms to Pine Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As we continued up the mountain, the road began to unwind itself and we started to notice a change in vegetation. Short gangly pinyon pines began to emerge from out of the rocks and as the highway unfurled through the small towns of Pinyon Pines and Pinyon Crest, it became evident how these places got their names.

Along the Palms to Pine Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The highway through this region began to unfold like a roller coaster with a series of wide ripples. Again, the vegetation changed and we noticed more pine trees as the land becomes less rocky. 

Along the Palms to Pine Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Highways 74 and 371 meet in Paradise Valley. The Paradise Valley Cafe is a popular place for travelers. For backpackers the Pacific Trail passing nearby. Here’s where we departed Highway 74 driving southeast on Highway 371 to Cahuilla and Aguanga and Highway 79 south to Warner Springs and Santa Ysabel. Our destination: the mountain town of Julian for its famous apple pies.

Worth Pondering…

Slow down and enjoy life. It’s not only the scenery you miss by going too fast—you miss the sense of where you’re going and why.

—Eddie Cantor