Your Hidden Local Driving Roads: America's Scenic Byways

Tail of the Dragon is a world famous driving road, but Tennessee might be quite the drive for you. Sometimes you just want to go for a great drive, but it's frustrating to think you're stuck without any good driving roads nearby. Fortunately for drivers in the USA, we have roads and highways labeled Scenic Byways, and odds are there's one near you. These highways might offer grand views, historical significance, or a fantastic destination, but they're all great roads. Come along as we drive one.

rocks and water scenery

Source | Andy Jensen

For Drivers, Not Commuters

First off, driving is not to be confused with commuting. Both take place behind the steering wheel, but commuting is much further down the list of enjoyable activities, somewhere between visiting the dentist and assembling Ikea furniture. Commuting has a long and documented damaging history, contributing to stress, weight gain, loneliness, pollution, and wasted money. We aren't talking about that. We're talking driving great roads.

Maybe you live in Boringville, and think finding a great local road is as unlikely as inserting a USB drive correctly on the first try. If you're open to the description of a “great driving road" as being more than just hundreds of hairpin turns within a few dozen miles (although that does sound great), then the wider definition opens up a lot of potential. Uncle Sam can help you out here.

At the national level, the Department of Transportation's Federal Highway Administration manages the National Scenic Byway System, dating back to the first Ford Explorer in 1991. “Scenic Byways" are their term for a collection of 150 different roads and highways designated for their unique characteristics. Scenic Byways earn their distinction by having one or more of six "intrinsic qualities": archeological, cultural, historic, natural, recreational, and scenic. “All American Roads" is another fancy term they use for byways that have two or more of the intrinsic qualities.

landscape shot with rocks and water

Source | Andy Jensen

Scenic Byways Near You

Think historic Route 66, Woodward Avenue, and the Las Vegas strip as famous examples of Scenic Byways. There's also the series of open ocean bridges connecting the Florida Keys Scenic Highway, then Highway 101 up the Pacific coast, and the Great Lakes Seaway Trail north of New York. That's quite a variety of roads, and it's all due to the open-ended nature of the program. Your state or local governments also get in on the act, designating their own version of the byway system, with the goal to “help recognize, preserve and enhance selected roads throughout the United States."

The Highway Administration's website currently shows 46 states with Scenic Byways or All American Roads. While they say everything is bigger in Texas, that sure isn't true here, as Texas has zero federal Scenic Byways. In that case, just look up your state byway system and you'll find great drives in the Lone Star State, like Davis Mountains Scenic Loop, and Texas Swiss Alps Scenic Drive.

Google is your best bet for finding your state/local scenic byways, but there are a few other clues. Check with your local state parks, as they are often in beautiful areas with awesome winding roads. If you're more into off-roading, check out the Bureau of Land Management's Back Country Byways. Some can be navigated with a stock Subaru, while other “roads" need a serious off-road machine. If you're not up for a four-hour road trip alone, bring along a friend or relative that doesn't get on your nerves. It's also smart to do proper road trip prep, even if one of these byways isn't a long trip.

curving road with rocky hills

Source | Andy Jensen

Remember that scenic is a subjective opinion. Here it means far more than just sweeping vistas. In addition to breathtaking natural wonders, you'll find man-made landscapes, neon masterworks, ancient or modern history (or both), Native American cultural sites, or places that are great to stop and hang out with your passengers. Even non-car people will appreciate the scenery, especially if you stop at viewpoints of wide-open panoramas, wildlife lookouts, or tourist centers for the history nerds.

Driving one of these scenic byways is road therapy. It's the opposite of a driverless vehicle, but also the opposite of a boring meeting or a stressful boss. It's alone time, disconnected from “must do" errands and a digital detox from the attention economy of your cell phone. It's getting away from it all, but also where you're in control. Whether you have a modern supercar or a decades old truck, mile after mile becomes a kind of zen, where you really feel that “it's the journey, not the destination." It's time to go for a drive.

Ever hit up a National Scenic Byway, or the local alternative? Let us know what to visit, in the comments below.

Last updated August 11, 2020