5 Scenic U.S. Byways Through Surreal Landscapes

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The term “scenic byway” conjures images of two-lane road rolling through picturesque mountains, alongside sparkling rivers, or both. The U.S. Department of Transportation founded the National Scenic Byways Program in 1991 to publicize and help protect 150 byways in 46 states. You’ll find plenty of soaring mountain peaks, grand rivers, lush forests and other natural wonders along these byways — along with some more unusual environments, from other-worldly volcanic landscapes to rare grassland prairies to Louisiana wetlands. Here are five picturesque and intriguing scenic byways to consider the next time the urge for a road trip grabs you.


5. Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway

The Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway goes by several volcanic-related sites.

Lassen Volcanic National Park; Don Graham

There is truth in advertising for this byway’s name, which stretches from the steam vents and sulphuric odors of Lassen Volcanic National Park in California past the soaring 14,000-foot peak of Mount Shasta north to the surreal blue volcanic lake in Oregon’s Crater Lake National Park. You could easily spend several days exploring just those three sites along this 500-mile route (the longest route on this list). If that’s not enough volcanic activity for you, check out Lava Beds National Monument, where you can walk through ancient lava tubes. Once you’re all volcanoed out, there are some other worthwhile attractions along the route, such as the historic town of Weed, and the Pacific Crest Trail.


4. Creole Nature Trail

The Creole Nature Trail goes through an area often referred to as Louisiana's Outback.

Photo credit: CreoleNatureTrail.org

This 180-mile byway cuts through the heart of what’s been dubbed “Louisiana’s Outback,” a land of remote prairies and marshes in the southwestern part of the state. Yes, chances are good you’ll spot an alligator somewhere along the way, either in the road or on a trail, but the main draw here is birdwatching; the Creole Nature Trail is widely regarded as one of the top birding spots in the United States. More than 300 species of birds have been spotted along the trail, with heavy activity in all seasons. In fact, winter is a prime time for catching migratory birds passing through. Be sure to check out the Wetland Walkway in Sabine National Wildlife Refuge where you might catch a glimpse of a gator, rare bird or other wild animal in the marsh. Most of this byway follows Louisiana highways 82 and 27. You can drive the route in half a day, with a few stops, but where’s the fun in that? Spend a couple of days enjoying the wildlife, scenery and some excellent Cajun food. Rooms are available in towns such as Lake Charles, but bring a tent or camper to really get in touch with this rugged wilderness.


3. Flint Hills Scenic Byway

The Flint Hills feature the largest remaining area of tallgrass prairie in the United States.

Photo credit: Clancey Livingston

Take this byway through the tallgrass prairie land of eastern Kansas and you’ll quickly understand why this area has been referred to as a “Grassland Sea.” This is the largest remaining region of what once were some 150 million acres of tallgrass prairie in the U.S. The 48-mile route from Cassoday — which touts itself as the “Prairie Chicken Capital of the World” — north to Council Grove on Kansas 177 cuts right through the heart of the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. Unlike the other drives on this list, this one can easily be enjoyed in a couple of hours.


2. Amish Country Byway

The Amish Country byway is like taking a trip back through time.

Photo credit: Scott Griffith

A trip along this rural byway in northeastern Ohio is like traveling back through time to America’s past, where life was simpler, farming was the predominant occupation, and horses and buggies were everywhere. You’ll definitely encounter some Amish along the way, whether in the fields, in the small towns, or on the road. The route is separated into two sections, totaling about 76 miles in length. The eastern half includes most of the cultural attractions on this drive. The town of Berlin features both the Amish and Mennonite Heritage Center and the Berlin Creek Gallery, the largest selection of Amish art in America. Or bring a bike along and enjoy the Rails to Trails Holmes County Trail in historic Millersburg. This drive is enjoyable enough done in one day, or turn your getaway into a weekend by spending the night in the state capitol of Columbus, about an hour away.


1. Old Canada Road Scenic Byway

The Old Canada Road Scenic Byway can be enjoyed year-round.

Photo credit: Maine Office of Tourism

This 78-mile byway through Northern Maine gives you a taste of the remote Maine North Woods without the isolation of that vast wilderness. The route also crosses the Appalachian Trail, giving you a great opportunity to park and walk for an afternoon — or for a couple of days. Boat rentals are available for a float on some of the picturesque lakes and rivers along the byway. Winter is a prime time to enjoy this pristine wilderness, as the area around the Old Canada Road features one of the premier snowmobile trail systems in the U.S. Snowmobile rentals and cabins are available.


More: America’s Scenic Byways

Here’s a link to the America’s Byways website where you can begin planning your own road trip.


The author has driven on more than 120 of the 150 byways in America. He has yet to find a bad one.


Written by

The author is a longtime professional journalist who has interviewed everyone from presidential contenders to hall of fame athletes to rock 'n' roll legends while covering politics, sports, and other topics for both local and national publications and websites. His latest passions are history, geography and travel. He's traveled extensively around the United States seeking out the hidden wonders of the country.