As an RVer, you probably already have a bucket list of national parks and other wonders you plan to visit, but if you haven’t added National Scenic Byways to the list, you will miss some of the most exciting parts of what this country is about.
The byways showcase the historic, scenic and cultural treasures that define America. Most of them are low-traveled, two-lane roads and many wind across and through the millions of acres of remote public lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.
Some of the byways are in areas that are well served by campgrounds, but many others are in remote areas where it may be hard to find private campgrounds with hookups and other amenities. If you have honed your boondocking skills and are comfortable dry-camping in primitive government campgrounds or in the open forest or desert, you can do more than just enjoy a scenic drive. If you stay awhile, you will have time to explore hiking and biking trails, visit hot springs and waterfalls, and view historic and archeological sites.
In Idaho, for example, you can find recreation and relaxation along the 112-mile Payette River Scenic Byway. In this area, which extends from Eagle to New Meadows, there are wild and scenic rivers where you can spend from a few hours to a few days rafting the adrenaline-inducing rapids with a rafting outfitter. You can also stay a couple days in a forest service campground along the Salmon River within walking distance of hot springs that flow into rock-formed soaking pools.
At the America’s Byways website (byways.org), you can request a free map and guide to help plan your adventure. The website has detailed information on all the National Scenic Byways and All-American Roads designated by the Federal Highway Administration and also on many scenic routes designated by states or other agencies. To see a map and photos for the Payette River byway, for example, visit byways.org/explore/byways/2037.
There are 150 routes designated by the Federal Highway Administration as National Scenic Byways or All-American Roads. To qualify as a National Scenic Byway, a road must be significant for its historic, cultural, natural, scenic, recreational or archaeological qualities. To qualify as an All-American Road, it must have national significance, unique qualities and be a “destination unto itself.” Only 31 roads have achieved All-American status.
In addition to the Federal Highway Administration’s list, which it calls the America’s Byways collection, many more roads have been designated as scenic byways by states and by the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service and other agencies.
Here are some examples of notable byways in the West, a brief description of what you will find, and where you can get a map and more information online:
The Santa Fe Trail
This is one of the longest national byways, starting on U.S. 50 in Colorado at the Kansas state line and going 565 miles west through Colorado and New Mexico to the city of Santa Fe.
It follows one of America’s first great trade routes, the Santa Fe Trail, which was critical to the country’s westward expansion. Follow this trail and you will see spectacular scenery from rugged mountains to the plains, and can visit historic sites and landmarks such as Bent’s Fort, Trinidad, Raton Pass, Cimarron, Fort Union, Pecos, Point of Rocks and the cosmopolitan art-centric city of Santa Fe.
Website: byways.org/explore/byways 2287
Dinosaur Diamond Prehistoric Highway
This byway consists of a 480-mile loop through Colorado and Utah, running through the best land in the world to learn about dinosaurs. Numerous sites are available to the public where bones and tracks are still visible in the ground. The hills around the fossil-rich town of Fruita have yielded many prehistoric remains. The remains of brontosaurs and brachiosaurs, two of the largest land animals to ever walk the earth, were uncovered here. Many museums along the way add to the opportunities to see and learn about dinosaurs.
Buffalo Bill Cody Scenic Byway
Drive the Buffalo Bill Cody Scenic Byway in Wyoming and you will find endless excitement at each stop. From wildlife watching, scenery sightseeing and landscape scaling, you won’t have a dull moment. The byway covers 27.5 miles along the Shoshone National Forest in northwestern Wyoming. At the head of the Wapiti Valley, the highway enters Yellowstone National Park. Although it is not on the Federal Highway Administration list, it has been designated a scenic byway by the National Forest Service and state of Wyoming.
Missouri Breaks Back Country Byway
The Missouri Breaks Back Country Byway crosses central Montana through an area of varied geography and historical significance. Follow the byway loop beside the Missouri River, through the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, past the Missouri Breaks, and alongside the historic camps of Lewis and Clark to learn about this fascinating region.
Designated as a Back Country Byway by the Bureau of Land Management, this route covers 80 miles in Montana, east of Winifred and south of the Missouri River.
Pend Oreille Scenic Byway
From north of Sandpoint in Idaho, this National Scenic Byway goes 33 miles east to the Montana state line. Visitors to the Pend Oreille Scenic Byway find an abundance of recreational opportunities, postcard-quality scenery and historical elements. There are numerous recreational opportunities along the shoreline of Lake Pend Oreille, the Clark Fork River and in the surrounding forests, all bordered by immense natural beauty within the byway’s corridor.
International Selkirk Loop
Designated an All-American Road, this loop goes through Idaho and Washington and extends into British Columbia, covering 280 miles.
Marvel at the awesome beauty of the International Selkirk Loop as it encircles the wild Selkirk Mountains. Drive along crystal-clear rivers and lakes, hike mountain trails to view snowcapped peaks, and experience a wide diversity of wildlife. The route takes you by two of the largest lakes in the West—Kootenay Lake and Lake Pend Oreille. Stop off to explore small communities with fascinating history, fun festivals and picturesque settings.
Websites: byways.org/explore/byways/2486 and selkirkloop.org
Strait of Juan de Fuca Highway
Travelers on the Strait of Juan de Fuca Highway (Washington State Route 112) are in the most northwest point of the United States mainland. See bald eagles diving, gray whales spouting and otters splashing. Experience excellent birding, hiking trails to Cape Flattery and to wild beaches, and the acclaimed Makah Museum of the Makah people in Neah Bay. The National Scenic Byway starts in Port Angeles and goes west 61 miles to the Makah Indian Reservation.
Historic Columbia River Highway
Travel in Oregon to magnificent overlooks that provide views of the Columbia River and numerous waterfalls, including the magnificent Multnomah Falls. A scenic biking trail, closed to vehicular traffic, follows part of the historic highway through tunnels and past scenic viewpoints high above the river. Oneonta Gorge’s botanical treasure has over 50 different species of plants residing in its perpetually cool and moist shelter. The Columbia River formed the last leg of the Lewis and Clark Expedition and was part of the early route of the Oregon Trail. This All-American Road starts near Troutdale and goes 70 miles east to The Dalles.
Pyramid Lake Scenic Byway
This National Scenic Byway in Nevada starts at Wadsworth and eventually splits in two directions, going to Sutcliffe on one side of Pyramid Lake and to Nixon and beyond on the other side. The distance is 30 miles.
Located on the Paiute Indian Reservation, landlocked Pyramid Lake, with its sparkling waters and sandy shores, is like a bright jewel in the Nevada desert landscape. The Pyramid Lake Scenic Byway circles the southern edge of the lake surrounded by desert and mountains. Famous for its unique natural tufa rock formations and eerily crystal-clear water, it is a resting place for migrating waterfowl and hosts one of the largest nesting colonies of American white pelicans in North America.
Route 1—San Luis Obispo North Coast Byway
This All-American Road along the Central Coast of California takes you from San Luis Obispo 57 miles north to the county line near Ragged Point Vista. Along the way, you can visit historic Mission de San Luis Obispo and the magnificent Hearst Castle. You can also kayak in Morro Estuary at the foot of the monolithic landmark of Morro Rock and camp at Montaña de Oro State Park, where waves batter the coastal bluffs. Add hiking and biking, and the corridor offers something for everyone.
Red Rock Scenic Byway
At 7.5 miles, this is one of the shortest national byways, but you could spend hours exploring this Red Rock Country south of Sedona, Arizona. This area has been called a “museum without walls.” Travelers are amazed by the high desert’s power, diversity and sense of intimacy with nature. Inhabited for thousands of years by prehistoric people like the Puebloans, this area of stunning red rocks is alive with a timeless spirit that captivates and inspires. This byway is an All-American Road.
These short thumbnail sketches of selected scenic byways only lightly touch all the recreational and scenic opportunities that await your magic carpet. Go to the byways.org website to get your free map and to learn more about these and many more of America’s great scenic byways.
Bob Difley was a full-time RVer for 17 years and a regional general manager for a national RV rental and sales company. His articles and photos have appeared in numerous publications.