Discover America on nearly 100 scenic byways across the country
One of my favorite travel books is William Least Heat Moon's Blue Highways, a journey through the heart and soul of America in a rickety old van. The title comes from Least Heat Moon's map, which used a blue line to indicate any road that was not an interstate or major highway, and the author's vow to stick only to those smaller byways in his cross-country trek. The result was a portrait of the sort of small town USA many jaded city and suburb folk like myself figure must have disappeared by the 1960s.
It hasn't, and after a bit of exploring you, too, will find that the road map to America's doorstep is drawn using country roads, rural routes, and scenic byways.
The real America resides just down a two-lane blacktop road that winds its way through farmland and passes through the courthouse squares of countless small towns. Those four-lane highways that shoot ruler-straight across a map to link major cities pass little besides endless carbon-copy exits barnacled with identical businesses and services. What's more, the road less traveled can save you money in many small but important ways while giving you a more genuine and memorable experience while doing it.
Off the beaten path and into the savings
Not only do scenic byways give you the chance to see some of the prettiest corners our country has to offer, but they can also save you money while enriching your experience--the mark of a true Budget Travel experience.
Scenic byways, see, get you off that interstate highway treadmill of chain fast food joints and identikit exit conglomerations of mini malls and mega gas stations that have collectively conditioned us to passively pay $1.59 for a soda and $3.50 for a cinnamon bun, and to think that $89 is a great rate for a Red Roof Inn.
The back roads of America, though, are where chrome-plated diners with worn booths still charge just $3.95 for a steak, $0.35 for coffee, and $0.95 for a slice of that strawberry-rhubarb pie sitting under the plastic dome on the counter lined with locals perched atop little round stools. This is where locally-owned gas stations charge $0.50 for a can of Coke (the gas, of course, is pricey everywhere), and mom-and-pop motels--small and achingly plain, but usually clean and tidy--advertise rates of $19.95 above a neon "Vacancy" sign where the "No" bit is hardly ever lit up.
THE GOVERNMENT SEAL OF APPROVAL
Since 1996, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation has so-far declared 95 roads to be official "Scenic Byways" (byways.org), roadways that feature "outstanding archaeological, cultural, historic, natural, recreational, and scenic value." These officially designated Scenic Byways comprise more than 25,000 memorable miles of road, ranging from the 1,707-mile Great River Road that parallels the mighty Mississippi through Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota to the 4.5-mile Las Vegas Strip.
What can you see on a scenic byway? You can trace Billy the Kid's history in New Mexico, cruise the Big Sur section of California's Pacific Coast Highway, tear through the desert of Death Valley, paddle over a 3,000-year-old underwater forest in an Oregon lake, and celebrate the Mike the Headless Chicken Days on May 16-17 in Colorado (I'm not making that up: miketheheadlesschicken.org). And, it almost goes without saying, you can get your kicks on Route 66.
Indeed, in between the Tamiami Trail of Florida and the Seward Highway of Alaska, you can travel scenic byways to pay homage to such hallowed icons of Americana as the world's largest ketchup bottle in Illinois (catsupbottle.com), George Washington's bathtub in West Virginia, and the seven-foot fiberglass statue of Superman guarding the Smallville-sized town of Metropolis, Illinois.
What's more, this past Tuesday the Department of Transportation authorized an additional $24 million of the Federal Highway Administration's budget to be put into preserving and promoting officially designated scenic byways in 42 states. That money will go to supporting the local grassroots organizations and byways businesses that are devoted to preserving their own stretch of scenic road.
Free maps! (a.k.a.: planning a trip made easy)
The Scenic Byways organization lives at byways.org/, where you can find out much more about the program and its byways. It will also send you free maps--though note that you're supposed to allow two to three weeks for delivery, and they don't have nearly the sorts of depth of travel information you might hope for.
Still, the maps are a starting point, and one place to start is back at the official scenic byways Web site. In the "Search for Byways" section, you can view information route by route and peruse brief synopses of the various sights, attractions, and towns along the route (those could be longer, and definitely could be cross-linked to the individual Web sites, but again it's a start). More importantly there are long sections devoted to how each Byway qualifies in terms of those six core categories; archaeological, cultural, historic, natural, recreational, and scenic--and that's the kind of esoteric background rarely gathered together in one spot for you to explore.
The site does not, unfortunately, have links to local sources of info (town visitors centers or area city CVBs), nor to lodging or dining options along the way--though for the latter, you can try the Road Food directory at roadfood.com).
See you on the road!
Associate Editor Reid Bramblett wrote travel guidebooks for Eyewitness, Frommer's, and the Idiot's and For Dummies series (yes, both of them) before joining the Budget Travel staff in 2002.