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America’s scenic byways offer the finest roadside panoramas

Kancamagus Scenic Byway Try not to let the fall colors along the Kancamagus Scenic Byway’s route through the White Mountain National Forest distract you from keeping your eyes on the road. | Photo by Erin Paul Donovan/Alamy Stock Photo

With international travel restricted over much of the last year and fewer travelers boarding planes, many Americans seeking fresh scenery have rediscovered a love for hitting the road. Among sought-after routes are the 150 scenic byways designated in 46 states.

Congress established America’s National Scenic Byways program 30 years ago to recognize, preserve, and enhance select roads throughout the United States based on one or more archaeological, cultural, historic, natural, recreational, and scenic qualities.

“Scenic byways are paths to adventure and meaningful experiences for all of us,” writes National Park Foundation President and CEO Will Shafroth. “They offer opportunities to explore national parks, admire stunning geologic features, connect with our shared heritage, and #RecreateResponsibly.”

Those opportunities are likely to grow. The Reviving America’s Scenic Byways Act of 2019 sought nominations for new roads to be designated, and 63 proposals were under review at press time.

In the meantime, pack the car and hit the road. Here are four beauties: scenic routes where the journey is the destination. Visit fhwa.dot.gov/byways for more information.

New Hampshire: Kancamagus Scenic Byway

One-way distance: 34.5 miles

Locally dubbed the “Kanc,” this east-west route slices through the heart of the White Mountain National Forest in northern New Hampshire. The road climbs through a mountain pass and twists and turns as it follows the banks of the Swift and Pemigewasset rivers. Several trails lead to waterfalls or mountaintops. Pullouts and picnic areas are plentiful.

Don’t miss: The short walk to Sabbaday Falls, with three tiers of tumbling cascades.

New Mexico: Billy the Kid Trail

Total distance: 84 miles

This historic loop road, flanked by the sprawling Lincoln National Forest in southeastern New Mexico, travels through Old West towns, once the stomping grounds of notorious outlaws and lawmen. Acres of grassy plains and rolling ranchlands bump up against the lofty peaks of the Sierra Blanca and Capitan mountain ranges, which offer expansive vistas.

Don’t miss: A visit to Lincoln Historic Site, including the courthouse where Billy the Kid made his most famous escape.

Alabama: Coastal Connection

One-way distance: 130 miles

Slow down and savor the water views (and fresh seafood!) on this southern meander along the Gulf Coast. There are plenty of places to pause, including small fishing villages, like Bayou La Batre, known as the Seafood Capital of Alabama. Still backwaters and wildlife preserves offer opportunities to see nesting sea turtles and hundreds of species of migratory birds.

Don’t miss: Fort Morgan State Historic Site, with a museum, nature trails, beaches, and picnic areas.

Kansas: Flint Hills Scenic Byway

One-way distance: 48 miles

Welcome to the Heartland. This ribbon of road in central Kansas conjures up images of early settlers riding wagons westward. You’ll have many of the same views: miles and miles of rolling native grasses and wildflowers, comprising North America’s largest remaining tallgrass prairie. Break up the trip with stops in historic towns like Council Grove, home to the Kaw Mission State Historic Site and Museum.

Don’t miss: Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, with hiking and biking trails, and ranger-led tours of the Spring Hill Ranch. 

Scenic state routes

Some states have established their own byway programs to highlight gorgeous drives that are worth exploring. Here are a few of our favorites that aren’t part of the National Scenic Byways program.

Hawai‘i: Holo Holo Kōloa

One-way distance: 19.5 miles

Hear the whispers of ancient ancestors on this south shore drive on Kaua‘i, with archaeological, natural, historic, and cultural points of interest. And, yes, scenic ocean views!

Don’t miss: McBryde Garden, with the largest ex situ collection of native Hawaiian flora in the world. 

Louisiana: Toledo Bend Forest Byway

One-way distance: 76 miles

Skirt the shores of the South’s largest man-made body of water, lined with towering stands of stately pines. 

Don’t miss: South Toledo Bend State Park, a nesting ground for bald eagles, with nature trails and an observation deck.

Washington: North Cascades Highway

One-way distance: 140 miles

Part of the North Cascades Highway in Washington runs through North Cascades National Park. | Photo by James Schwabel/Alamy Stock Photo

Part of the North Cascades Highway in Washington runs through North Cascades National Park. | Photo by James Schwabel/Alamy Stock Photo

Jagged mountain peaks, plunging waterfalls, deep valleys, and pristine lakes provide the backdrop on this sinewy, up-and-down ride through an area dubbed the “North American Alps.”

Don’t miss: Diablo Lake Overlook with views of impossibly blue waters rimmed by towering mountain peaks.

New England–based writers Diane Bair and Pamela Wright cover food and travel for several publications and are frequent Boston Globe contributors.

AAA Travel Alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.

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