The last time I cruised along state Route 2 in Massachusetts, I was a minor strapped in the back seat of my parents’ car, and the road was just asphalt under our tires. When we met again a few weeks ago, we had both advanced to the next level. I was now behind the driver’s wheel, and the Mohawk Trail was a National Scenic Byway, one of the highest accolades – and greatest compliments – a U.S. road can get.
Earlier this year, the Federal Highway Administration unveiled 34 new National Scenic Byways and 15 All-American Roads in 28 states, bringing the total to 184 in 48 states. (Hawaii and Texas are two exceptions, but this could change in the Lone Star State: Its senate passed the Texas Scenic Byways bill last month.) The announcement was a long time coming. The agency, which has been running the program since 1991, last bestowed the honor in 2009.
“One of the things we know about Americans is that they love their cars and the open road. That is a big part of this,” said Mark Falzone, president of Scenic America, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the country’s beauty. “We are seeing a revival in scenic byways, and it couldn’t come at a better time because of COVID-19 and restrictions.”
To be considered for the designation, the route must satisfy prerequisites. It must be a state scenic byway, possess regional importance and exhibit one (Scenic National Byway) or two (All-American Road) of six “intrinsic qualities.” The application only requires the minimum number, but many of the roads contain several characteristics: cultural, natural, historical, recreational, archaeological and scenic. I could count the Mohawk Trail’s attributes on five fingers.
At 69 miles, the Mohawk Trail is a condensed road trip, and yet it took hours to complete. The dog-eared line about the journey eclipsing the destination applied. The road opened in 1914 as one of the country’s first leisure drives. However, Native Americans had been hunting and trading on its unpaved predecessor, hence the name of the byway and the logo of a Mohawk raising his open arms to the sky.
Because only the co-pilot had received her vaccine, my mother and I stuck to outdoor attractions. We strolled around Williams College’s torn-from-an-admissions-catalogue campus and grabbed a Mediterranean lunch in Williamstown’s one-street downtown. We explored the outbuildings of Mass MoCA, a contemporary art museum that occupies a former printing factory. I didn’t remember the microbrewery, and not because I had been barely out of juice boxes on our last family vacation here. Bright Ideas Brewing is a fairly new addition to the complex.
At several points, I scrambled out of the car to walk with soft footsteps on the Mohican-Mohawk Recreation Trail. Other reminders of the original travelers appeared through the windshield such as the “Hail to the Sunrise” statue (the image on the byway signage) and Salmon Falls in Shelburne Falls, where the Mohawks and Penobscots agreed to a hunting and fishing treaty in the 1700s. “I remember scrambling over those rocks,” my mother said of the glacial potholes at the falls, dating our earlier trip to Pre-Liability Times.
As the sun started to descend, I climbed up Poet’s Seat Tower in Greenfield, the byway’s eastern terminus. From my stone perch, I surveyed a land that did not settle for being just scenic. Here are some of the National Scenic Byways and All-American Roads from the Class of 2021 and whom they are best for based on interests.
U.S. history buffs
Cumberland Historic Byway, TennesseeWhere: Celina to Cumberland Gap, Tennessee
How far: 200 miles
The route echoes with the footsteps of pioneering explorers who traversed the northern Cumberland Plateau in search of opportunity to the west – in Tennessee and Kentucky. The Obey and Cumberland rivers supported the burgeoning lumber industry and the rise of Nashville.
Revolutionary Heritage Byway, Rhode IslandWhere: Bristol, Rhode Island
How far: 5 miles
Ignore the fact that the town’s namesake is in England. Patriotic Bristol holds one of the country’s oldest Fourth of July celebrations, which marches – and floats – down the byway. The road appeals year-round, with centuries-old estates, museums, a state park, gardens, a historic district and a waterfront that upholds the town’s shipbuilding and sailing traditions.
Boom or Bust Byway, LouisianaWhere: Lisbon to Vivian, Louisiana
How far: 137 miles
The byway records the highs, lows and comebacks of Louisiana industries such as oil and gas, lumber and agriculture, including cotton. Abandoned oil field equipment appears like an apparition, and Oil City stays true to its name with the Louisiana State Oil and Gas Museum. Casinos offer a personalized boom-or-bust experience.
Other options: A1A Scenic and Historic Coastal Byway, Florida; Battle Road Scenic Byway, Massachusetts; Brandywine Valley Scenic Byway, Pennsylvania; Norris Freeway, Tennessee; Sequatchie Valley Scenic Byway, Tennessee
California Historic Route 66 Needles to Barstow Scenic Byway, CaliforniaWhere: Needles to Barstow
How far: 178 miles
The western leg of the Mother Road wriggles through ghost towns, dusty outposts and the Mojave Trails National Monument, which contains the most unadulterated section of Route 66. There are places to stop for an Americana fix and pics such as Baghdad Cafe, the setting for the 1988 movie, and the “Roy’s Vacancy” sign.
Great River Road National Scenic Byway, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, LouisianaWhere: Itasca State Park, Minnesota, to Venice, Louisiana
How far: 565 miles in Minnesota, 242 miles in Wisconsin, 322 miles in Iowa, 556 miles in Illinois, 63 miles in Kentucky, 186 in Tennessee, 391 miles in Arkansas and 724 miles in Louisiana
The Great River is none other than the Mississippi, the major artery that flows with history, commerce and wildlife. Built in 1938, the road covers 3,000 miles in 10 states, eight of which earned All-American Road status for their sections. (Missouri and Mississippi earned their badges in 2000.) If Mark Twain were alive to update “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” surely he would swap out the boy’s raft for a sporty red convertible.
Other options: Historic Route 66 Missouri
Scenic Highway 30A, FloridaWhere: Inlet Beach to Dune Allen, Florida
How far: 24 miles
The two-lane road rides shotgun to the Gulf of Mexico. There are no cities along the coastal route, only towns and communities with “sea” or “beach” in their names; state parks, such as the sand dunes-studded Topsail Hill Preserve State Park; and long stretches of pearly white sand.
Bold Coast Scenic Byway, MaineWhere: Milbridge to Lubec, Maine
How far: 125 miles
Maine’s longest byway stakes out the Downeast, the area named after the directions sailing ships followed from Boston and New York. The Atlantic spills into the region’s culture, cuisine and landmarks such as the West Quoddy Head, which sits on the ocean cliffs and receives the first light of day in the Lower 48.
Wisconsin Lake Superior Scenic Byway, WisconsinWhere: Barksdale to Cloverland, Wisconsin
How far: 70 miles
The road traces the southern shore of Lake Superior and dips a big toe into the Great Lake by way of the Bayfield Peninsula. The lake isn’t the only water feature, either: There are waterfalls at Houghton Falls State Natural Area; two rivers, the Onion and Sioux; and a coastal estuary at Frog Bay Tribal National Park, the country’s first tribal national park.
Other options: River of Lakes Heritage Corridor, Florida; Whitewater Canal Scenic Byway, Indiana; Old King’s Highway, Massachusetts; Door County Coastal Byway, Wisconsin; Katahdin Woods and Waters Scenic Byway, Maine; Palisades Scenic Byway, New Jersey and New York
Pine Barrens Byway, New JerseyWhere: Tuckerton to Port Elizabeth, New Jersey
How far: 130 miles
The road’s centerpiece is the Pinelands National Reserve, a UNESCO biosphere and home to nearly 40 species of mammals, 300 bird species and 60 reptile and amphibian species. The landscape could be a setting for a Grimms’ fairy tale with a pygmy pine forest, carnivorous plants and a profusion of fungi. The reserve is also the stomping grounds of the Jersey Devil, a terrestrial Loch Ness monster.
Old Frankfort Pike Historic and Scenic Byway, KentuckyWhere: Lexington to Frankfort, Kentucky
How far: 16.9 miles
Kentucky and bluegrass go together like Sea and Biscuit, and the byway has plenty of both: The karst and phosphate-rich soil is the special sauce in raising prizewinning thoroughbreds. A canopy of hardwood trees provides cover, and old limestone walls adorn hills speckled with horse farms.
Silver Thread Colorado Scenic and Historic Byway, ColoradoWhere: South Fork to Blue Mesa Reservoir, Colorado
How far: 117 miles
The high-altitude route comes around – or close to – several mountains, including the San Juan Mountains and several “14ers,” peaks that exceed 14,000 feet. The road also has an impressive collection of national sites such as the Rio Grande National Forest; the Slumgullion Earthflow, a national natural landmark; and the Curecanti National Recreation Area.
Other options: Chesapeake Country Scenic Byway, Maryland; Sandhills Journey Scenic Byway, Nebraska; Western Highlands Scenic Byway, New Jersey; Bayshore Heritage Byway, New Jersey; Delaware Bayshore Byway
National parks superfans
Newfound Gap Road Byway, North Carolina and TennesseeWhere: Cherokee, North Carolina, to Gatlinburg, Tennessee
How far: 31 miles
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park connector saves drivers from having to drive around the mountain or detour out of the park. It also has brake-worthy points of interest such as Clingmans Dome Road, which leads to an observation tower at the park’s highest point, and Newfound Gap, where President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the park in September 1940.
Cascade Loop, WashingtonWhere: Most people start and end near Mukilteo, Washington
How far: 440 miles
The Cascade Loop is the papa bear byway to three baby bear byways: the Stevens Pass Greenway, the Whidbey Scenic Isle Way and the North Cascades Scenic Byway. The latter road swings through the North Cascades National Park, a free park. (The Great Smokies is also gratis.) Hiking trails and overlooks can double – or even triple – the travel time along the 28-mile section.
Zion Scenic Byway, UtahWhere: La Verkin to the east entrance of Zion National Park, Utah
How far: 54 miles
State Route 9 becomes Zion-Mount Carmel Highway inside the park. Drivers must pay the $35 entrance fee to motor down the 26-mile stretch that passes by hoodoos, slot canyons and ombre-colored mesas. The Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel is just over a mile long and about two standard cars wide. Larger vehicles require park service assistance, a $15 service that will turn the two-laner into a one-way street.
Other options: Trail of the Ancients Scenic Byway, New Mexico
Native American heritage and multiculturalism enthusiasts
Scenic Highway of Legends, ColoradoWhere: Trinidad to Walsenburg, Colorado
How far: 82 miles
The “legends” refer to several groups – Native Americans, Spanish conquistadors, gold miners and Wild West A-listers like Wyatt Earp – who left a physical, cultural or spiritual mark on the land. The route encompasses the Spanish Peaks, a sacred spot for many tribes, including the Comanche and Ute, who believed that summer thunderstorms were a magic act performed by rain gods living in the summit.
Hocking Hills Scenic Byway, OhioWhere: Rockbridge to Ash Cave in Hocking Hills State Park, Ohio
How far: 26.4 miles
The byway links several Native American sites in the park, including a mound built by the Hopewell, hominy holes used as ovens, and Ash Cave, which had been filled with campfire residue containing Native American artifacts and animal bones.
In the 18th century, the Wyandot, Delaware and Shawnee passed through the area and called the river “Hockhocking.”
St. John Valley Cultural/Fish River National Scenic Byway, MaineWhere: Dickey to Hamlin/Portage to Fort Kent, Maine
How far: 92 miles and 37 miles, respectively
The St. John Valley byway’s alternate name is Parcours Culturel de la Vallee, a nod to its Acadian roots: The French descendants moved there after the British booted them from eastern Canada.
The Fish River byway, which travels north to the New Brunswick border, also has a strong Acadian flavor. Fort Kent, for instance, is home to Bouchard Family Farm, which makes French Acadian buckwheat pancake mix, the key ingredient for ployes.
Other options: Bayou Teche Scenic Byway, Louisiana; Flaming Gorge-Green River Basin Scenic Byway, Wyoming
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