Traveling byways is a great way to sample local flavor and have authentic place-based experiences. The four trips below all lean into unique ecosystems and habitats or history and culture, making for particularly lovely autumn destinations.
Pine Barrens Scenic Byway, New Jersey
While New Jersey might not exactly be top-of-mind when discussing rural America, the central part of the state has colonial history intersected with a special landscape. I recently road tripped on the Pine Barrens National Scenic Byway to learn more.
Pine barrens are unique ecosystems with nutrient-poor sandy soil, acidic water, and fire-adapted plants, according to the Pinelands Preservation Alliance. The byway traverses the Pinelands, the 1.1 million acres of pine barrens in New Jersey, the largest forested area on the eastern seaboard between the Everglades and Maine. This special place is an International Biosphere Reserve, and in 1978 Congress designated it the nation’s first National Reserve to protect its unique natural and cultural resources.
My first stop, just north of the official byway, was in the Pine Barren Plains, also known as, site of the pygmy trees. New Jersey contains the world’s largest acreage of this globally rare forest community, which is predominantly pitch pine. The shrinking of the canopy height was gradual there until, beside the road, the trees were barely taller than my 6’1” son. At the Warren Grove Recreation Area, it was a surreal walk amongst the lilliputian trees. It was eerily quiet, except for the occasional bird song and the steady susurration of the wind in the pines.
Wild blueberry bushes proliferated in the undergrowth, thriving in the acidic, well-drained sandy soil. That natural abundance gave root to one of the region’s major industries. The nearby town of Hammonton, a gateway to the byway, is known as the blueberry capital of the world and celebrates it as the state fruit. According to JerseysBest.com, the high bush blueberry plant was first domesticated in the Pine Barrens, and the area has 56 blueberry farms.
Heading south, we caught the byway and its canoe signage in the quaint village of Port Republic. While the town is small, I was keen to visit. I was born in the Pinelands and lived here for a time, but this was my first visit back in more than 40 years. The town site is more than 300 years old, and it was once known as the safest harbor between Baltimore and New York. The “downtown” today consists of a small sand swimming beach, a lovely 1870s-era church and graveyard, and the public school.
Just down the byway lies Historic Smithville, now a shopping, dining, and inn center composed of historic buildings from throughout the state. The original Smithville Inn, constructed in 1787, still lies at the heart of the village. It has undergone several expansions and was a delicious place to stop for lunch.
From here, a short byway spur along the coast ends at the 48,000-acre Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge. On an active flight path of the Atlantic Flyway, the wetlands are a crucial stop for spring and fall bird migrations. The refuge can be explored via trails and an 8-mile gravel wildlife drive. During an August visit, I saw fiddler crabs, snowy egrets, osprey, swans, pipers, and seals, all within eyesight of Atlantic City and busy Jersey Shore barrier islands.
Like the blueberry farms, indigenous resources gave rise to many local industries. Centuries-old ghost towns, remnants of communities after production moved west, dot this landscape. The best-preserved example is Batsto Village in the Wharton State Forest. Bog iron, abundant in the Pinelands, was the foundation of the iron works first established here in 1766. It supplied cannonballs for the American Revolution. After the foundry declined in 1855, a glass factory capitalized on the abundant sand.
The last owner of Batsto, Joseph Wharton, established a farm in the late 1800s. He constructed a sawmill to manufacture forest products and pursued agriculture, including cranberry cultivation. The 33 remaining historic buildings include an owner’s mansion, gristmill, ice houses, and village homes. The small post office, which first opened in 1852, still processes letters that staff mark by hand. The village is a peaceful spot to stroll and imagine, though no living history was available on our weekday visit.
If I had more time to visit the area, I would have canoed the languid, tannic Mullica or Batsto Rivers, or hiked a segment of the 53-mile Batona Trail. The Pine Barrens Byway is 130 miles, with the northern loop I travelled being 70 miles. While the primary trees here are evergreens, the understory and bog plants turn brilliant autumn shades.
Be warned though, the byway has connectors and spurs, switches roads a lot, and the signage is not ever-present, so we did get lost once but easily found our way back. The Pinelands Preservation Alliance has a helpful interactive story map that shares stops on the byway.
The Cranberry Highway, Wisconsin
For a fruitful fall road trip, head to the 50-mile Cranberry Highway. It’s in central Wisconsin, the largest cranberry-producing region in the United States. Along with a taste of the harvest in fall, from late September through October, the century-old cranberry beds and surrounding trees are alight with seasonal color.
The drive is a self-guided agri-tour. Stop at Rooted in Red Farm, which offers tours, immersion experiences, and cranberry-themed events. Local stores sell everything cranberry, from sausage to hand cream, and farm-to-table restaurants incorporate the fruit in bread, cocktails, and salads.
For a longer experience, reserve a spot on the popular Splash of Red Cranberry Tours, hosted by the only cranberry science class in the nation. Tours start at Pittsville High School, include a bus ride and visit to an active marsh and processing facility, and end with lunch featuring cranberries. Details and reservations are available online through Pittsville schools.
Towns along the highway also celebrate blossom time in June with festivals and events. The region’s unique cranberry heritage is one of the primary draws for tourists, and thousands visit each year.
Cherokee Foothills National Scenic Byway, South Carolina
If the last two byways have you bogged down, head to the northwest corner of South Carolina. Called the upcountry, it is traversed by 112-mile Route 11, also known as the Cherokee Foothills National Scenic Byway. Situated in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, this scenic route is less crowded than other regional byways, but still offers abundant fall colors, scenic views, and history.
Several stops have mountainous overlooks. A fall raptor migration can be seen from the heights of Caesar’s Head State Park, and the granite view at Table Rock State Park is iconic. Several waterfalls can be accessed from the drive; Wildcat Branch Falls can be viewed from a paved turnout and a short roadside hike leads to Issaqueena Falls. A boat trip on crystal clear Lake Jocassee leads to several streams that drop into the water.
Fall is apple season, and Chattooga Belle Farm offers you-pick fruit and distilled spirits from their own produce. The route also winds past Cowpens National Battlefield and Kings Mountain National Park, where visitor centers interpret the importance of these pivotal revolutionary-era battles. The only remaining covered bridge in South Carolina, Campbell’s, is right off of Route 11.
Klamath Basin Birding Trail, Oregon & California
The Klamath Basin is a crucial migratory stop on the Pacific Flyway, hosting nearly 80% of migratory birds that pass through the region. This outdoorsy-focused trail leads to hikes, kayak-friendly lakes, and wildlife drives throughout rugged southern Oregon and northern California. The 300-mile route has 47 stops that include six National Wildlife Refuges and three National Park Service sites. More than 350 species of birds have been identified in the mix of mountains, marshlands, grasslands, old growth forest, and shallow lakes that converge here.
The Oregon section of this byway has some prime kayaking. In the Upper Klamath National Wildlife Refuge, the 9.5-mile Upper Klamath Canoe Trail ventures into marshlands. The surrounding forest hosts an abundance of nontropical migrating birds. Nearby Kimball State Recreation Site offers a boating experience on clear lagoon waters that mirror the yellows and rusts of the lakeside trees.
Peak season here is late September to late October. After a couple of years of drought conditions, locals eagerly look forward to a rich fall after a long, wet winter and spring.
To find a national or state scenic byway near you, search nsbfoundation.com/travel-byways.
To explore other National Wildlife Refuges this season, read fws.gov/story/fall-wonders.
Editor’s Note: This article was updated to remove reference to two lakes along the Klamath Basin Birding Trail in light of drought conditions in the area.