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10 scenic byways you absolutely should drive

Great River Road Scenic routes, like the Meeting of the Great Rivers National Scenic Byway, beckon to road-trippers. | Photo by Adam Alexander

It’s hard to beat the exhilaration of driving on the open road—whether you’re admiring gorgeous mountain or riverside views, scanning vast tracts of wilderness for a deer grazing on the verge, spotting a snowy egret gliding above a marsh, or pausing to join shoppers around a lively town square.

Though any road offers possibilities, our national and state scenic byways are in a class unto themselves. Each of these routes—designated by the federal government or state and local agencies for its outstanding qualities—has a distinct personality. The following 10 stellar byways offer a combination of cultural, historic, scenic, archaeological, recreational, and natural splendors. Hit the road and enjoy these memorable experiences.

1. Glade Top National Forest Scenic Byway

Glade Top National Forest Scenic Byway

The Glade Top National Forest Scenic Byway cuts through Missouri's Mark Twain National Forest. | Photo courtesy

The stunning 23-mile Glade Top National Forest Scenic Byway in southwest Missouri wends along the slim ridge that towers over an undulating countryside in the Mark Twain National Forest. Punctuating the thick woods are sunny clearings, or glades, that give the byway its name. These grassy habitats are peppered with limestone outcrops and blanketed with colorful, sometimes rare, wildflowers and other plants that make them ideal environments for wildlife.

Keep your eyes peeled for deer, rare collared lizards, and numerous birds—from painted buntings to road runners. No matter the season, you’ll want to stop frequently, whether to enjoy your lunch at the Caney Picnic Area or for the breathtaking mountain vistas at any of the many overlooks.

2. Missouri’s Route 66, St. Louis to Joplin

Route 66 Byway

A vintage gas station just west of Springfield, Missouri, recalls the heyday of Route 66. | Photo courtesy

In 1926, the debut of the 2,448-mile Route 66 that ran from Chicago to Los Angeles may have given rise to America’s love affair with the road trip. The portion of the “Main Street of America” coursing through Missouri (where officials meeting in Springfield chose the route’s name) is an old ribbon of a highway that meanders some 312 miles from St. Louis to the Kansas border.

Your journey will be chock-full of nostalgic sights that harken to another era, like Joplin’s Route 66 Mural Park, where a replica of a 1964 Corvette forms part of the art. In Carthage, the renovated 66 Drive-In still displays its original neon sign and welcomes moviegoers. From old gas pumps to vintage-style diners, photo ops are abundant along the way.

3. Ohio River Scenic Byway, Southern Indiana

Ohio River

Stop off in charming New Albany while traveling the Ohio River Scenic Byway. | Photo courtesy SoIN Tourism

Weaving this way and that over 302 miles between the Ohio and Illinois borders, the picturesque Ohio River Scenic Byway parallels its namesake river, sometimes mere feet away. The full 943-mile length extends across Ohio and Illinois. A sense of history pervades this east-west route that’s blessed with a landscape of vineyards, orchards, and other agricultural lands.

Explore an elaborate hedge labyrinth in New Harmony, the site of 2 early American utopian communities where people still seek bliss. Or visit the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial in Lincoln City to walk the Trail of 12 Stones that traces major events in our 16th president’s life.

4. Meeting of the Great Rivers National Scenic Byway

Great Rivers National Scenic Byway

The Meeting of the Great Rivers National Scenic Byway passes between limestone bluffs and scenic river views. | Photo courtesy Great Rivers & Routes Tourism Bureau of Southwest Illinois

This 33-mile, river-hugging route is part of the Great River Road that runs the entire 3,000-mile length of the Mississippi River. Navigating from Hartford to Grafton in southern Illinois, the Meeting of the Great Rivers National Scenic Byway is aptly named, given that it passes the confluence of 3 rivers: the Missouri, the Illinois, and the Mississippi.

Tall, forested bluffs dating back hundreds of millions of years cradle your route and provide a backdrop for soaring bald eagles and other birds that live in or migrate through the area. Numerous charming river towns welcome road-trippers with rich histories and modern attractions. Two examples are Hartford, where a 150-foot-tall tower commemorates explorers Lewis and Clark; and Alton, which features antique shops, eateries, and several Underground Railroad sites.

5. Glacial Hills Scenic Byway

Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum

Stop off at the Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum along the Glacial Hills Scenic Byway to learn about the legendary aviatrix. | Photo courtesy Doug Stremel/Kansas Tourism

Linking Leavenworth and White Cloud in eastern Kansas, the Glacial Hills Scenic Byway acquired its name from the area’s glacier-carved topography of undulating, wooded hills and rock-laden valleys. On this 63-mile adventure, you’ll be captivated by natural beauty and the reminders of historical figures who passed this way. Indeed, Lewis and Clark traveled this route more than 200 years ago.

In downtown Leavenworth, a self-guided walking or driving tour offers insights into 20 notable sites and people, including suffragist Susan B. Anthony. Aviatrix Amelia Earhart spent her childhood in nearby Atchison, where her family’s wood-frame cottage was converted into a museum and shines a light on her legendary life.

6. Arkansas Scenic 7 Byway

Arkansas Scenic 7 Byway

Awe-inspiring vistas along Arkansas Scenic 7 Byway include a valley near Jasper dubbed Arkansas’ Grand Canyon. | Photo courtesy Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism

Crossing the Ozark and Ouachita mountains, the Arkansas Scenic 7 Byway in western Arkansas is jam-packed with gorgeous vistas along an almost 300-mile route that stretches from the Louisiana border to near the Missouri state line. It’s arguably one of America’s most scenic drives.

Just outside of Dover, the Rotary Ann Roadside Rest Area reveals dramatic views of a deep, lush valley of the Ozark Mountains. In Hot Springs National Park, Buckstaff—a still-operational bathhouse dating from the early 1900s—offers spa treatments and thermal mineral baths using the natural springs from which the town earned its name.

7. Talimena National Scenic Byway

 Talimena National Scenic Byway

The Talimena National Scenic Byway courses through the Ouachita Mountains. | Photo courtesy Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism

Named for the 2 towns that bookend this byway—Talihina, Oklahoma, and Mena, Arkansas—18 miles of the full 54-mile route cut through western Arkansas’ forested peaks of the Ouachita Mountains. Take time to stop at the roadside overlooks that offer one inspiring panorama of the Ouachita National Forest after another.

You’ll notice some dwarfed white oaks (a mere 6 feet high) owing to the extreme weather atop Rich Mountain, the state’s second-highest peak. For a serene woodland experience, stroll along the short Spring Trail in Queen Wilhelmina State Park and pause at the spring where early settlers once gathered.

You may also like: Stay at the Queen Wilhelmina Lodge and other grand lodges

 8. Bayou Teche National Scenic Byway

Bayou Teche

Along the Bayou Teche National Scenic Byway, you can also explore the bayou by boat. | Photo Courtesy Louisiana Office of Tourism

The Native Chitimacha appropriately named this zig-zaggy bayou “teche,” meaning “snake.” Tracing this slow-moving waterway, the 183-mile Bayou Teche National Scenic Byway links Morgan City and Arnaudville in southern Louisiana. Along the way, you can intimately connect with this ecologically and culturally diverse land rich in the heritage of Native Americans, Creoles, Acadians, and others.

In Breaux Bridge, hear the sounds of zydeco music and dig into crawfish étouffée. Learn how Tabasco sauce has been produced for 5 generations on Avery Island, where you may also spot snowy egrets in their gardens. And nature lovers are enchanted by the cypresses dripping with moss in Atchafalaya Basin, the country’s largest contiguous river swamp.

9. Cane River National Heritage Trail Scenic Byway

Cane River

The Cane River National Heritage Trail Scenic Byway follows the Cane River in east-central Louisiana. | Photo by Thomas Meredith

Following the Cane River—really an oxbow lake—for 71 miles from Natchitoches to Cloutierville, this byway in east-central Louisiana is steeped in reflections of its diverse inhabitants, from Native Caddo to Africans to French, who populated this fertile agricultural area where cotton crops thrived.

The byway’s grand plantations have stories to tell, including those of the free people of color who owned Melrose Plantation. In Natchitoches, the large historic quarter is meant for ambling, taking in the architectural styles that range from Queen Anne to Italianate. Make sure to sample a Natchitoches meat pie, a deep-fried pastry shell with a meat filling that resembles an empanada.

10. Natchez Trace Parkway

Cypress Swamp

Just off the Natchez Trace Parkway near Canton, Mississippi, hikers can explore a cypress swamp. | Photo Courtesy Visit Mississippi

Traveling 444 miles through Alabama, Tennessee, and Mississippi, the Natchez Trace Parkway likely follows a path (referred to as a “trace”) that mastodons and other prehistoric animals first created in prehistoric times. Over thousands of years, the track became well-trodden, used by both Native Americans and early pioneers. The byway’s longest section (309 miles) runs diagonally through Mississippi from Natchez in the southwest to the Alabama state line.

Along the way are remnants from bygone times, including Native American ceremonial and funerary mounds, such as the Emerald Mound near Natchez—one of the country’s largest Native American mounds. Dating from the 1700s, the Mount Locust historic home near Fayette is the last of the dozens of inns that once dotted this old trace.

Jeanine Barone is a contributor from New York City.

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