Thank you, William Least Heat-Moon for your 1982 book Blue Highways; it gave us a name for the smaller, more scenic roads that will still get us to our destination, but allow us to experience the places along the journey in a way that those hyper-efficient Interstates simply can’t match.
Through my own work with the U. S. National Scenic Byway Foundation, I’ve become even more aware of the joys of scenic byways, heritage highways, and themed trails (Wine Trails, Cheese Trails, the Boudin Trail.) For me, they’re one of the foundations of a perfect road trip.
Being located on a designated scenic byway is also a tourism advantage for the many small towns, attractions, and lodging that otherwise might not be able to attract visitors on their own.
The “America’s Byways” website has lists by state and maps of the designated U.S. national scenic byways and All-American Roads, but there are also hundreds of state-designated byways.
Here are some of my favorites, plus one that I have not personally experienced but that we’ve written about here on the blog.
** The Colonial Parkway in Virginia, connecting U.S. Colonial and Revolutionary history in Jamestown, Yorktown, and Williamsburg.
Take your time and look around at the foliage, views of the James River, and the lushly-treed Virginia landscape; the Parkway is only twenty-three miles long and the speed limit is 45 mph.
** The Flint Hills National Scenic Byway in Kansas will show you that no, Kansas is not all flat cornfields.
It’s so quiet out there – and always windy – but after a few minutes of tuning your ears, the sounds are easier to pick up. Whirring grasshoppers, grass rustling against itself, suddenly startled small critters diving underground, and meadowlarks tweeting in a way that does not require a phone or computer.
In between stunning vistas of some of the last tallgrass prairie left in the U.S. are charming small towns full of history, delicious places to eat, and some surprising places to spend the night including a luxury hotel in one-street downtown Cottonwood Falls.
This is another leisurely drive with a 50 mph speed limit, so don’t let yourself get too frustrated if you’re stuck behind an RV or motorcycle group that is taking its time.
I still remember the general mossy creepiness (and summertime mosquito bombers!) of the Sunken Trace at sunset – find it at milepost 41.5 in Mississippi but arm yourself with bug repellent.
It is one of the, if not THE, last preserved sections of the Trace’s heritage as a Choctaw and Chickasaw dirt footpath that ran for hundreds of miles.
Also take the time to exit and find the ghostly plantation building columns of the Windsor Ruins near Port Gibson.
The Trace is also popular for bike touring, and even has bike-only campgrounds.
Cyclists and bike tourism experts The Path Less Pedaled explored the Natchez Trace by bike from Jackson, MS to Nashville, TN.
** The Creole Nature Trail All-American Road in southwest Louisiana is a good introduction to gators in the wild, marsh birds, and maybe a little Cajun seafood and music along the way.
On the Louisiana Highway 27 section, places to stop and walk into the ecosystem include the 1.5 mile handicap-accessible Wetland Walkway boardwalk, and the Blue Goose Trail and observation deck, both contained in the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge, which is one of three wildlife refuges on the Nature Trail. There are other spots to stop for crabbing in May through September, like Hog Island Gully and Blue Crab. I saw several people with scoop nets and ice chests, patiently waiting for a crab to grab their bait.
** The multi-state Great River Road, marked with green pilot’s wheel road signs, follows the Mississippi River from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, with all of the spectacular scenery and cultural changes that you’d expect.
** In California, it is pretty hard to beat the Pacific Coast Highway, especially the Big Sur section.
** I’ve never been to Montana and my knowledge of scenic drives in the Rocky Mountain states is woefully lacking, but this Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park post from our archives makes me want to book a flight.
How can you find scenic routes?
Well, for now, you may have to go Old School, because Google Maps and Apple Maps don’t have a “show me the scenic route” option, although obviously you can Google “scenic drives OR routes in XYZ state” to start the research process.
Paper maps from AAA (the American Automobile Association) have always had dotted roads to indicate the more scenic routes. The free official travel maps that you can still pick up at Welcome Centers near state borders usually have this feature, too.
The Roadtrippers website has a trip planner focused on unique and out-of-the-way places, but the reviews of their app aren’t particularly positive.
Another source is Pinterest – do a search for “scenic drives” in a particular state and you might be surprised by how many Boards you find.
What is your favorite tip for finding scenic drives?
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