Author Dennis Coello: Providing photography for magazines and tour companies – and a lifelong interest in history and bicycling – have taken Coello through more than 50 countries and all the states. He is the author of 13 books and hundreds of articles.
WE’D ALL LOVE A NOVEL VACATION BREAK FROM OUR ROUTINES: MAYBE A LONG, SCENIC DRIVE THROUGH SOMEPLACE PERFECT FOR DAY HIKES AND SHORT BIKE RIDES, OR A ROUTE WITH FASCINATING NATURAL AND HUMAN HISTORY TIMED TO COINCIDE WITH AN INDIAN POWWOW, A GATHERING OF BIRDERS, OR A SMALL-TOWN PARADE, BUT WHO HAS THE TIME TO MAKE SUCH PLANS – TO RESEARCH WHEN AND WHERE TO GO?
The answer – once you’re at a keyboard – lies at your fingertips. By inputting byways.org, you enter a world of more than 150 preplanned routes in 46 states. (No computer? Just call 800-429-9297 to request information.) From these resources, you can obtain the handy 124-page American Byways brochure: Travelers’ Maps of National Scenic Byways and All-American Roads. It’s sized to fit into a glovebox – and it’s free.
A DISTINCTIVE COLLECTION OF AMERICAN ROADS
Since 1991, the goal of the National Scenic Byways Program (run by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration) has been to create “ a distinctive collection of American roads, their stories and treasured places.” Many of the national byways are located within a single state, but dozens stretch across multiple states, and some stretch more than 1,000 miles.
To help you save time, each byway on the Web site begins with a brief overview of what there is to see and experience, followed by tabs for large-scale and sometimes detailed daily travel maps, photographs, visitor services, Web site links, best seasons for travel, and dates of coming events – everything you need to plan the trip. Plus, it’s all advertisement free, because this site is paid for with your taxes.
FOUR TOURS, FOR EXAMPLE
Billy the Kid Trail – New Mexico
What? There’s a byway dedicated to a guy who lived badly and died bloody?
Well, that’s one way to think about it. Granted, in the Old West town of Lincoln on the trail, you’ll find kids (and many adults) marveling at the bullet holes still visible in the walls of the courthouse jail from which Billy the Kid escaped.
But the trail is also a good example of how not to judge a book by its cover – or a byway only by its title. Drive or bike the 11 miles to Fort Stanton, drinking in the mountain scenery as you do. There you’ll see where buffalo soldiers (black infantry and cavalry, many of them veterans of the Civil War) were stationed while trying to keep the peace between Hispanic and Anglo settlers and the nearby Mescalero Apache. It’s also where hundreds of German sailors were detained during World War II. (Real history is almost always more interesting than the movies.)
Let’s make the Billy the Kid Trail an example of how to make a single byway appeal to different interests: Open a state highway map; highlight the byway; then look at what might be of personal interest just off route by an hour’s drive. The byways Web site will suggest some of these places, but your own list of “nearbys” (to coin a term) could be of greater value.
For instance, Roswell lies only 35 miles from the Billy the Kid Trail and isn’t mentioned on the site. But Roswell’s International UFO Museum and Research Center, established here because of a mysterious crash (interstellar spacecraft?) nearby in July 1947, might fascinate a member of the family not interested in Old West tales. Even complete skeptics will marvel at the first-person accounts of those who claim to have viewed the crash debris – and the alien bodies. For a real out-of-this-world experience, time your visit for the Roswell’s annual UFO Festival and Parade. It beats Mardi Gras by light-years.
Ohio River Scenic Byway – Ohio, Indiana, Illinois
It isn’t fair. Mention the words scenic and Ohio River in the same sentence and most people who’ve never seen this noble body of water will smile, just to be kind. Mention the Rockies and they’ll go wobbly with desire, even if they’ve never gotten close to those peaks.
This unfortunate fact is something to keep in mind when choosing a byway for your vacation. The words and photos at byways.org do their best to present each route, but they help only if accepted with an open mind.
Knowing that the Iroquois named this massively broad, 980-mile waterway O-hi-o (Beautiful River) should help to pique one’s interest, as does knowing that we’ve not ruined it yet. Today, we can travel high above the wide, tree-lined river, enjoying the kind of expansive views most people think are available only in the West.
Scenic Byway 12 – Utah
Here’s another suggestion when choosing a byway: Don’t be afraid to make it even better. It’s tough to go wrong in terms of scenery in most of the gorgeous state of Utah. It seems that with every turn you bump into another national park or monument. But where you bump into it – in this case the northern or southern end of the long Capitol Reef National Park – can be important, especially if you’re a little pressed for time.
In good weather (there’s a dirt road ahead), you can turn off Scenic Byway 12 at the tiny town of Boulder and head due east toward the remarkable downhill traverse of the Burr Trail switchbacks through a geologic wonder called the Waterpocket Fold. Even after hiking through the crazy slot canyons and around the colorful limestone spires (“hoodoos”) of Bryce Canyon National Park (also on this byway), the fold is a treat.
Great River Road – 10(!) States
Old Man River. The Mighty Miss. Big Muddy. Big by any of its many names, the Mississippi River flows for more than 2,000 miles (as does this byway), and in places it’s four miles wide.
Of course, the Mississippi starts off small – a narrow stream rippling out of Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota and meandering its way toward the Gulf of Mexico. What a thrill it is to step across the 30-odd large stones separating the two banks at the river’s origin!
But who has the time for a 2,000-mile trip? Actually, most of us, if we approach it (and other byways of great length) the way so many hikers take on the Georgia-to-Maine Appalachian Trail. Do it bit by bit.
One might think the football-hero moniker All-American is applied only to the very best of the national scenic byways. You might agree, once you’ve seen them, but best – like beauty – depends upon the beholder.
All national scenic byways must have one of these six “intrinsic qualities”: historical, cultural, natural, scenic, recreational, and archaeological. All-American Roads must possess two.
But there’s more. These two or more qualities must be “nationally significant” and must “contain one-of-a-kind features that do not exist elsewhere.” An All-American Road must be considered “a destination unto itself.”
CONFUSING TERMINOLOGY, BUT A GREAT REFERENCE FOR TRAVEL
The National Scenic Byways Program (NSBP) is a wonderful resource for anyone considering a road trip almost anywhere in America, and for almost any distance. We might shake our heads when it’s time to renew our licenses, or when a highway construction project is taking too long. But with byways, the Department of Transportation has a winner!
Nevertheless, know that you aren’t alone if you’re having problems with the name. What is a byway, anyway? Dictionaries define the term as “a little-traveled side road,” which surely does not fit the 150-plus stellar routes on the National Scenic Byways list.
But the term does fit many of the state, Indian tribal land, and federal land-management agency byways from which the “nationals” were drawn. You’ve probably driven past byway signs on rural roads, some rusted with age, but still proudly proclaiming a route as important to our eyes, our history, or our opportunity for recreation.
The best of these local routes can be nominated for “national scenic” status. If found worthy after lengthy investigation, they’re accepted.
It’s easy to get confused with the hierarchy of terminology. However, you’ll see through your windshield exactly why these national routes made the grade.
NSBP literature helps with the terminology: “Our definition of ‘scenic’ reaches beyond breathtaking vistas. All of America’s byways are ‘scenic,’ representing the depth and breadth of scenery in America – natural and man-made panoramas; electrifying neon landscapes; ancient and modern history coming alive; native arts and culture .” You get the picture – almost without fail, they’re great to see.
Your first visit to the byways.org might likewise make you wonder because there’s so much to it. Take note of the good-hearted box on the right titled “Byways on a Budget.” Tap there, and you’re off to an attractive page of “Affordable Adventures” on byways across the nation, plus there are 10 photos that can be sent as postcards. They’re a great way for you or your child to invite a friend to join you for a byway trek.
Kids also might get a kick out of reporting their byway adventure on the Web site, which can be done by following the “Share Your Story” link on the home page. Don’t worry – e-mail addresses are not visible, and everyone signing up as part of this group of byway reporters must assume an alias that will appear with their stories.
Come join the fun. There’s an entire country out there to see.