Byway: a secluded, private, or obscure way; an out-of-the-way path or course.American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th Edition
Maybe nothing is as quintessentially American as a road trip. Whether an arrow-straight highway through a vast desert or a hairpin one-laner wrapped around a mountain pass, byways connect us to the variety of landscapes and cultures that compose the nation.
For 100 years, special journeys have earned special recognition, identifying trips that invite slow meandering through breathtaking scenery and intriguing cultural landmarks. Federally-recognized routes are collectively called “America’s Byways,” and they encompass epic road trips like Route 66, unique communities like Amish Country, awe-inspiring geology like Volcanic Legacy, and immersive history like the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad.
There are other trails too, featuring food, music, literature, and kitsch, that have exploded in recent years. These itineraries are an expression of locality, a place-based celebration of what makes towns and regions unique. They foster pride in local citizens and assist in preserving natural, cultural, and historical resources. They are also a tourism draw, a way to entice travelers to savor quirky and sublime off-the-beaten-path (read: rural) destinations.
Economic studies show they can have a significant impact. The iconic 2,451-mile-long Route 66 demonstrated an annual direct economic benefit of $132 million in 2011. The less-known and shorter 103-mile Flint Hills Scenic Byway in Kansas generated $464,000 annually. According to the National Park Service, 15.9 million visitors to the Blue Ridge Parkway in 2021 spent an estimated $1.3 billion in local gateway regions, supporting a total of 17,900 jobs.
The following four trips are some of the most popular in the country. Not only are they fun to travel, their organizers have learned some best-practices for coordinating this kind of visitor experience that they share below.
Butler County Donut Trail, Ohio
In 2016, staff for Travel Butler County in Ohio were brainstorming creative ways to bring in visitors. One of them remarked on the high number of mom-and-pop donut shops in the county. At the time, they had nine, and further research determined it was the highest concentration in the Midwest. So, they launched the first Donut Trail in the country, not sure if it would work.
“Food trails were not as prevalent then,” said Kathryn Rawlinson with Travel Butler County. “We only knew of the Bourbon Trail.”
Turns out the county was on the cusp of a food-and-drink-themed road trip trend. Within 48 hours of announcing the trail through press releases and on social media, the first two completed passports were turned in: a brother and sister duo from Indianapolis. Since then more than 35,000 people have completed the tasty marathon, hailing from every state and 22 countries. It continues to draw new and returning visitors who come to celebrate birthdays, honeymoons, and family reunions at the now thirteen local shops.
Organizers have fine-tuned the trail experience. Visitors to all thirteen shops complete a passport and turn it in to the travel office in exchange for a themed t-shirt, updated yearly. A recent addition is a Donut Trail concierge. Along with planning visits to donut shops, they guide visitors to lodging and other area attractions like a sculpture park, skydiving facility, and drive-in movie theater. Over 1,000 people have asked for help from the concierge in the last couple of years.
An economic impact study determined travelers on the Donut Trail have spent more than $7 million at county businesses. It spurred a two-town collaboration called Donuts and Drafts, where pastries were paired with local brews.
While the county is not all rural, the trail draws people from bigger locales around I-75 to the cozier towns off the highway. Mimi’s Lil’ Kitchen in Hanover Township, pop. 8,100, specializes in the chocolate-peanut butter Mimi’s Bite and a festive Unicorn Sprinkle, both of which can be accompanied by a locally-sourced flavored milk.
Rawlinson has become a bit of a donut connoisseur and shared some of her Donut Trail tips. This is an early morning activity and some shops sell out by 10:00 AM. The full circuit takes at least four hours, which is best broken into two days. And while she was not willing — or able — to commit to her favorite flavor, she recommends trying the fleeting seasonal specials, like lemon blueberry and pumpkin.
All American Roads have the highest federal byways designation, as in the case of the Florida Keys Scenic Highway (Credit: Florida Keys Scenic Corridor Alliance).
Florida Keys Scenic Highway, Florida
There is only one way to access the Florida Keys by car: the 110-mile Overseas Highway. It crosses 43 keys (islands) on 42 bridges and passes through one of the most tropical parts of the country. The Keys have long been a travel destination and the road became a state scenic byway in 2001, but it wasn’t until Judy Hull arrived at the Islamorada Chamber of Commerce that the region began working on a national designation.
“I had previously worked on the Great River Road, and when I moved to the Keys, I was surprised it wasn’t an All-American Road,” she said. “It was definitely eligible as we have all six of the intrinsic attributes.”
One of Hull’s favorite phrases for describing the drive is “turquoise waters.” Drivers are surrounded by the sea, especially on the seven-mile bridge leading to the lower keys. Local wildlife, including dolphins, sea turtles, and diminutive Key deer, can all be spotted from stops along the road. The area is renowned for its sport fishing, water sports, beaches, and fresh seafood.
The highway earned All-American Road status in 2009. The federal designation brings two important benefits. The first is a recognition of the road as one of the best in the country — there are fewer than 60 total — which draws international travelers. The second is the opportunity to apply for significant grant dollars that can be used for road improvements, marketing, and maps.
To preserve the All-American qualities of the Florida Keys Scenic Highway, communities have banned any new billboards and ensured the entire span is adopted for clean-up. Organizers received a grant for marketing that funded a cell phone driving tour. It safely notifies drivers when they are approaching a notable view or activity.
While it is hard to suss out the economic benefit of the All-American Road designation because the Keys are such a popular tourist destination, Hull says people do report on surveys that the drive was a significant draw. It is for her, too. She has already lined up the scenic byways she will travel on her vacation this summer to Colorado. “It is hard to get the designation, so I know they really have to be gorgeous,” she said.
The Extraterrestrial Highway, Nevada
Nevada’s collection of road trip itineraries was first imagined back in the 1970s, when a Life Magazine reporter warned travelers that a particularly desolate drive required pre-planning and preparation. To lean into the notoriety, the state created the Loneliest Road itinerary to highlight worthy stops along the route.
The Extraterrestrial Highway was added in 1996 and is currently the most popular. It brushes by the mysterious Area 51 at the Nevada Test and Training Range (which is not open to the public) and traverses a region known for frequent UFO sightings. The businesses along the route, like the Alien Research Center, embrace the out-of-this-world vibe. Earthlings are welcome to enjoy an Alien Amber Ale and Saucer Burger before turning in at the Little A’Le’Inn.
Natural elements also contribute to the space allure. The town of Tonopah has a stargazing park to get up-close views in this dark-sky friendly region. A side trip leads to Lunar Crater. While actually an extinct volcano, it so closely resembles real moon craters that astronauts in the 1970s trained here in preparation for a genuine lunar mission.
What makes this road trip so special is the characters. There are the fellow travelers, fascinated by the whole extraterrestrial lore. And there are those who live and work in the town of Rachel, pop. 48, dubbed the UFO Capital of the World.
“This area is quite remote, and the people who choose to call it home have a reason,” said Tracie Barnthouse with Travel Nevada. “They love to be out in the desert and are happy to tell visitors stories of the things they see in the sky.”
Trail of the Ancients, Colorado-New Mexico-Utah
This 480-mile route looping around the Four Corners area is the only National Scenic Byway dedicated to archaeology. It is full of riches: the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde National Park, UNESCO World Heritage Site Chaco Culture National Historical Park, and Canyon of the Ancients National Monument, which has more than 8,000 recorded archaeological sites, the highest known density in the U.S. The trail also connects five additional National Monuments, tribal businesses, and small towns.
The Trail of the Ancients, federally designated in 2005, can be tricky to navigate. While the three state sections have the same name, the marketing and educational materials are separate. Much of the trail is remote and GPS systems are not reliable. Some of the cultural sites are on dirt tracks off of gravel roads, causing visitors to question whether they are on the correct route.
Brian Bartlett with Mesa Verde Country explained Colorado just installed 95 wayfinding signs along its 116-mile stretch. They also have a detailed physical map, produced by National Geographic, available at the Colorado Visitor Center in Cortez. Curious travelers can access more than a hundred short stories while on the road through the Autio app.
Small businesses and remote parks benefit from their placement on the trail. The increased traffic brings more visitors to stops like the Yellow Car Winery and Dolores River Brewery. And while much of the experience focuses on archaeology, Bartlett explains that there are a lot of hands-on experiences. Visitors can explore a kiva at Lowry Pueblo, grind corn at the Canyon of the Ancients National Monument Visitor Center, and examine an Indigenous study area at Crow Canyon Archaeological Center.
“The Trail of the Ancients is immersive, where visitors can engage,” Bartlett explained. “It’s not just a selfie stop.”
A Brief History of National Byways
- 1922: Completion of Oregon’s Historic Columbia River Parkway, the first state scenic byway. Its rest areas and scenic pull-offs make it desirable to travel at a more leisurely pace.
- 1938: The Great River Road became the first national byway, designated by an act of Congress. It originally spanned five states along the Mississippi River.
- 1988-89: Two separate byway programs designated 137 National Forest Service Byways and 54 Bureau of Land Management Back Country Byways.
- 1992: The Federal Highway Administration launched the National Scenic Byways Program. Federally-recognized Scenic Byways must have at least one intrinsic quality: archeological, cultural, historic, natural, recreational, or scenic. More selective All-American Roads must have at least two intrinsic qualities and be considered a “destination unto themselves.” There are currently 184 America’s Byways in 48 states.
Source: National Scenic Byway Foundation / Federal Highway Administration.
There is no one source to research every trail or itinerary in the country, but the National Scenic Byway Foundation is dedicated to education about the almost 1,000 official state and federal byways. Their website, travelbyways.com is a helpful resource for the real — or armchair — traveler who wants to explore some uniquely American places.