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Americans have a long history of loving to take a road trip. Soon after Henry Ford’s mass-produced automobiles made travel significantly more accessible and affordable, Americans began venturing further and further from home. Distances that were once unthinkable in a horse and buggy suddenly became available to anyone with $300 in their pocket. Not long after, America’s first scenic byways were born, followed by what have become our legendary historic highways. Within a few decades, travelers were cruising the interstate at previously unthinkable speeds, and cross country road trips became a rite of passage!
America’s Scenic Byways and Historic Highways
America’s first roads, however, were not up to snuff: old deep-rutted farm roads and dirt tracks were completely incapable of handling these heavy rumbling horseless carriages. Something needed to be done to facilitate vehicle traffic.
More and more Americans were traveling by car, and were driving further and further each year. US Highways such as the Lincoln Highway and the National Road began to spring up, allowing travelers the ability to “quickly” drive from coast to coast.
Coupled with economic factors like the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression forcing Midwestern families to migrate to try to find work, the American government saw the need for a more organized national roadway system… and also a means to help people get back on their feet financially by working to build new roads.
Route 66 – the “Mother Road” – was one of many roads born out of these needs. Connecting Chicago and Los Angeles, Route 66 is one of the first major interstate transportation project taken on during this period of time – the late 1920’s through early 1940’s. Many other similar routes were started and completed in this era…. and most of them still exist in some form to this day!
A Scenic Byway Road Trip is Born!
After our incredible western road trips in 2016 and 2017, my good friend Dirk and I were itching for another adventure. As I noted in the third installment of my Astrophotography series, Dirk is a phenomenal mechanic – especially with antique cars. In the summer of 2018, he and another friend drove his 1969 Porsche 911 Targa (convertible) from Pittsburgh out west. They cruised throughout much of the west coast, and eventually ended up in Reno.
Dirk stored the car in Reno for the winter. He and I started planning – and I use that term lightly – our own cross country adventure for the spring of 2019. We briefly discussed a couple ideas for our trip, but for the most part, did absolutely no planning whatsoever. Our goal was to wing it and let the chips fall where they will. Aside from booking flights and setting dates for the trip, we were going to come into it with no other agenda than to drive and camp wherever we wanted.
Dirk flew into Reno a few days before I did in order to do some routine maintenance on the car. He picked me up from the airport in the Porsche – what a cool experience that was! – and we started heading back to town. We had barely left the airport property when he looked over and asked “What do you think about following Route 66?”
America’s Historical Highways & Scenic Byways on this Trip:
- US Route 95 – a Desert Wonderland
- Route 66 – the Mother Road
- US Route 60 & 70 – High Plains Drifters
- US Route 64 – the Trail of Tears
- Blue Ridge Parkway – America’s original Scenic Byway
Mapping Out a Scenic Byway Road Trip
To be completely honest, my initial reaction was hesitation: Route 66 was cliche, it seemed pretty tacky (at least the parts I’d experienced), felt a lot like a tourist trap – and as such I knew that prices for gas & supplies were going to be inflated. I shook the feeling off pretty quickly, though – it would be a neat trip to take in such an awesome classic car… and more importantly, it was Dirk’s car! I was fortunate enough to be along for the ride, so who was I to object?
As it turned out, my hesitation was for naught – the original Route 66 (more on that later) ended up only comprising about 5% of our trip. Once we discovered what had happened to large stretches of the Mother Road, we ended up bouncing from back road to back road, ultimately experiencing several of America’s most historic scenic byways!
We ended up winging the vast majority of this trip, though I think “winging it” is a bit of a stretch. Given my own experience finding and navigating along excellent back road routes, and our joint experience building and living out excellent road trips together, this trip wound up being a balanced blend of wisdom and really, really good luck. Our primary goal was clear, though – to see America primarily from the historic back roads and scenic byways that line millions of miles of pavement across the country!
Scenic Byway: US Route 95 – a desert wonderland
After spending the first night carousing in Reno – I arrived late in the afternoon, a terrible time to start a journey when wild camping is your overnight accommodations – we stocked up on supplies before heading south to pick up Route 66. To no one’s surprise, the severely inhospitable nature of the Nevada desert means there are not many routes to pick from between Reno and Las Vegas. We went with the most direct option available to us: US Route 95.
US Route 95 – not to be confused with Interstate 95 on the East Coast – is an almost 1,600 mile route that runs from Canada to Mexico. Due to its sparsely populated rural course, US-95 is one of the few historic highways to not be replaced by a parallel interstate. In spite of passing through one of America’s major tourist destinations – Las Vegas – this dusty desert byway sees a relatively minimal amount of traffic. It was the ideal way to start our journey.
It’s 550 miles from Reno to Kingman, Arizona, where we picked up Route 66. The vast majority of Route 95, like the vast majority of Nevada, is intensely dry and intensely beautiful. Stark desert valleys stretch forbiddingly for miles in every direction, rimmed on all sides by craggy mountain peaks.
Not far north of Hawthorne – home of America’s largest military ammunition depot – travelers get a jaw-dropping break from all that desert driving: the snow-capped peaks of Mt. Grant to the west, and the pristine blue waters of Walker Lake to the east. Make sure to stop and fill up in Hawthorne as you pass through, especially if you’re driving south. There aren’t many service stations along this route!
We ended up camping a couple miles south of Goldfield – a really cool old mining village that’s worth a stop as you pass through. The picture I took of the Porsche and tent sitting by our campfire under the yawning arch of the Milky Way perfectly captured the glory of our campsite that first night. We were immersed in natural beauty during the day, and the desolation of the desert meant it was completely devoid of man-made light pollution at night. It’s the first time in my life to witness the Milky Way truly radiating light overhead – but it wouldn’t be the last time on this trip!
Things to do on US Route 95 in Nevada
- Grab a bite to eat at a number of family-owned restaurants in Fallon
- Check out the drag races at Top Gun Dragstrip
- Hike, bike, swim and camp at Walker Lake Recreation Area
- Check out the awe-inspiring displays of America’s military might at the Hawthorne Ordnance Museum
- Learn about the area’s mining history at Central Nevada Museum and Florence Mining Company
- Take goofy pictures posing in the International Car Forest
- Have an old-timey beer at the Hoist House
- Stay in a converted brothel at the Shady Lady B&B
- Spend a day exploring Red Rock Canyon
- Take an awesome side trip to Eldorado Canyon Mine Tour and jump off the cliffs at Nelson’s Landing
Historic Highway: Route 66 – the Mother Road
Another 175 dusty miles south of Goldfield, we stopped briefly in Las Vegas for a few provisions. After a quick trip past the Hoover Dam and another 100 miles south, we finally connected with Route 66 in Kingman. Given the campy nature of the places we previously experienced on the Mother Road, Kingman was surprisingly nondescript.
We continued east across Arizona, heading towards Flagstaff and Sedona. We were in for a couple surprises. The first was how quickly the landscape changed: not even an hour east of Kingman, the desert quickly gave way to grassy plains. As we cut across a low mountain range, dispersed shrubs started to dominate the scenery. As we neared the Flagstaff area, pine forests and (very welcome) cool air took over.
The second, and far more disappointing, surprise was how little of historic Route 66 still remains in eastern Arizona and beyond. Much of the historic route has now been replaced by Interstate 40. With the exception of a few quick jaunts into towns along the way, long stretches of Route 66 are now four lane interstate highway. Though it does eventually disconnect from the Interstate in the flat plains of eastern Oklahoma, we discovered that if we were going to continue with our plan, much of the trip would be on the interstate.
As a result, we ended up dipping south off Route 66 at Flagstaff. This was not a bad thing, as Arizona Route 89A wound its way down through some pretty jaw-dropping terrain towards Sedona. After spending the night wild camping in Coconino National Forest, we made our way south and east to pick up US Route 60.
Things to do on Route 66 in Arizona
- “Fill up” at Cool Spring Station in Oatman
- Cruise slowly through the historic mining town of Oatman (watch out for the burros!)
- “Fill up” again at Valentine Station
- Get some grub at the Roadkill Cafe
- Enjoy reading the Burma Shave Signs east of Seligman, because…
- Now you’re riding on I-40 until Flagstaff – one of my favorite cities out west
- Then you’re back on I-40 until the town made famous by the Eagles: Winslow
Historic Highway: US Routes 60 & 70 – High Plains Drifters
Eastern Arizona, most of central New Mexico, and the Texas Panhandle make up a good portion of the elevated and massive hellish flatland called the High Plains (think “High Plains Drifter“). Though our time on AZ-260 heading out of Sedona was a pleasant wind through the rugged and scenic Arizona desert, by the time we dropped into the suburbs of the aptly named city of Show Low to pick up US-60, the road had flattened and straightened substantially.
US Route 60 has undergone a number of transfigurations over the years. Starting on the Atlantic Coast in Virginia Beach, the route first terminated halfway across the country, in Springfield Missouri (cue Simpsons theme song in your head). It was part of the original Midland Trail system, a group of old cross-country routes eventually relegated to just a short scenic byway in rural West Virginia. Finally, Route 60 was extended to the Pacific Coast in Los Angeles, then replaced by I-10 from western Arizona on.
When we picked up Route 60 in Show Low, it was just the beginning of what turned into a brutally long, dreary slog across some of the most nondescript terrain I’ve ever witnessed. The landscape flattened and the road straightened as we barreled east across the expansive yellowed steppe of western New Mexico. After a frustrating search for shelter in this barren wasteland, we finally an excellent spot tucked into a small valley in the heart of Apache National Forest.
We resumed our journey the following morning, and the road droned on endlessly as we made our way toward the desolation of Roswell and central New Mexico. Miles-long straightaways strung endlessly together, demarcated by gently curved bends in the road. Rounding each corner, we were greeted sourly by the next flat straighaway reaching off to the horizon.
Eventually, we resorted to entertaining ourselves by clocking miles and timing how long each straightaway took. The radio astronomy lab’s Very Large Array of massive satellites offered us a brief intermission to our boredom. 27 incomprehensibly large dishes – 82 feet in diameter each! – splayed out in all directions on both sides of the road. Driving between and underneath the unearthly structures in our convertible gave the day a decidedly trippy feel. There’s a museum and guided tour, so if you find yourself in the area, it’s definitely worth a visit.
We stopped for provisions in Roswell, assessed the various alien-related stops to be unworthy tourist traps, and jumped onto US-70 towards Amarillo. Like Route 60, US-70 stretched from coast to coast at one time, from Atlantic Beach NC, also terminating in Los Angeles. In fact, long stretches of the two routes now run concurrently, joining and dividing again at several points in NM, AZ, and CA.
After leaving Roswell, we endured the longest straight sections of road I think either of us have ever experienced: two 25+ mile long stretches of soul-crushingly flat, straight expanses of concrete. After filming a couple short clips documenting the unbroken flatness of the area surrounding us, I remarked that for the first time in my life, I can understand why people might think the Earth is flat…!
We gutted out the last couple hours into Texas, bedding down for the night at the edge of Palo Duro Canyon Park. Needing to cover a bunch of miles the next day, it was time for our long blast across Texas and Oklahoma. Given the dismally flat nature of the landscape, we opted to *gasp* take the interstate across Oklahoma to save some time.
Things to do on US Routes 60 & 70 in New Mexico & Texas
- Visit the esoteric Lightning Field art installation in Quemado
- Have a pie in Pietown!
- Take the tour and marvel at the Very Large Array Satellite Dishes
- Head south to Alamogordo to visit the New Mexico Museum of Space History
- I am not a fan of Roswell – it’s too touristy for me. But if you’re interested, this site is a good resource.
- Go off-roading at Haystack Mountain OHV Park
- Stop in at High Plains Harley Davidson for some excellent shirts and chips
- Hike into the gorgeous – and second largest canyon in the country – Palo Duro Canyon
- Check out the world famous Cadillac Ranch outside Amarillo
Historic Highway: US Route 64 – the Trail of Tears
After spending a 550 mile day blasting across the Texas Panhandle and central Oklahoma, we finally jumped onto back roads again in western Arkansas. We spent part of the day weaving our way across the twisting roads in Ozark National Forest, then jumped on US-64 towards Memphis. Like most of the routes discussed, US-64 is also an East-West Route that spans most of the country. Like US-70, US-64 starts in coastal NC (this time just south of Nags Head on OBX), and terminates in New Mexico.
A portion of US-64 in Arkansas follows one of the original Trail of Tears migratory routes. Back in the early 1830’s, the United States passed the Indian Removal Act as a way to take ownership of Native American land that was believed to sit atop massive deposits of gold. The Native Americans were forced to migrate west, and the Cherokee tribe began to call their route the “Trail of Tears” to reflect the collective grief over what was taking place. Multiple routes were used (see map from the Britannica site linked above), one of which cut across Tennessee and Arkansas following US-64.
Our time on US-64 was relatively brief. After dropping down out of the forest, we were only on the route for about two hours or so.
Things to do on US Route 64
- Visit the Four Corners Monument, the only place in the country where four states meet
- Go skiing, mountain biking, and a lot more in Taos Ski Valley
- Check out the burgeoning art scene, historic pueblos, and much more in Taos
- Visit Graceland, Stax Museum of Soul Music, the site of Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination, and eat phenomenal BBQ in Memphis
- Take a brief detour north to visit Jack Daniel’s Distillery in historic Lynchburg
- Learn about a crucial Civil War Battle in Chattanooga
- Explore the lower edges of Nantahala National Forest and the Smoky Mountains – not to mention several of my favorite road trips on the East Coast!
- Scoot north to Asheville for the life-changing drum circle and the start of the Blue Ridge Parkway
- Visit the University Scene & Research Triangle in Raleigh
- Learn about the Lost Colony on Roanoke Island and dip your toes in the ocean at Jennette’s Pier
Scenic Byway: Blue Ridge Parkway – the most beautiful back road on the East Coast
We definitely saved the best part of the road trip for last, when it comes to driving on scenic byways and historic highways! According to the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, the BRP was the first rural highway that was specifically designed and constructed to showcase its scenic views. Intended to highlight and expand the growing concept of leisure driving – as well as create jobs in a time of desperate need for the country – the BRP was built directly on the ridge of the mountain in many locations.
Riding from ridge to ridge, stopping at the countless vista points as you go, the 469 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway provides you with infinite panoramic possibilities. There’s no question why it’s called America’s Favorite Drive (and easily holds its spot in my top ten favorite drives): the jaw-dropping scenery of the rolling mountains, the dense eastern woodlands, the fresh and crisp air and the eclectic small towns and cities along the route mean that you could spend days exploring and experiencing everything there is to see and do!
Where the Blue Ridge Parkway starts and ends depends upon which direction that you’re driving. In general, it resembles a “forward slash,” running north & east from Asheville NC and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to its northern terminus at Shenandoah National Park and Skyline Drive. In addition to Asheville, the other sizable city along the route is Roanoke. Both are full of thriving art and music scenes, breweries and distilleries, and bustling shopping districts. You’ll also pass through or near a number of distinctive small towns along the way – the most unique of which has to be Little Switzerland!
It’s impossible for me to hope to effectively describe the beauty of the BRP. It’s absolutely one of those things you have to see for yourself to truly understand. The videos, the pictures I can share, the stories I can tell – they capture only very limited slices of the full experience you can have on the BRP. There’s only one real way to fully understand, and that’s to drive it. I have yet to drive the full 469 miles, but I have done roughly half – and I can’t wait to get back and finish the rest!
Live Map of Closures: Both Skyline Drive and Blue Ridge Parkway close in the winter due to inclement weather. Sections of the road occasionally close for maintenance. This link will provide you with up to date information about what’s currently open.
Parkway Milepost Guide: Most of the attractions and features along the BRP are demarcated based upon the nearest milepost. The mileposts run “chronologically” from north (MP 0) to south (MP 469), and this website has one of the most convenient breakdowns of things to see and do along the route.
Where to get gas on the Parkway: Self-explanatory!
Things to do on the Blue Ridge Parkway
- Stop at the countless overlooks and vista points to absorb the dynamic views
- Hike the miles and miles of trails available along the entire length of the Parkway
- Visit Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks
- Explore the thriving mountain cities of Asheville and Roanoke
- Enjoy Germanic styled mountain living and shopping in Little Switzerland
- Experience the rocks and rhododendrons at the Craggy Gardens
- Explore the Linville River, Linville Falls, Linville Caverns, and Linville Gorge
- Brave the walk across the Mile High Swinging Bridge
- Take the kids to the exciting museums at Mystery Hill
- Get some historical perspective on life at Brinegar Cabin
- Catch a concert at the Blue Ridge Music Center
- Visit one of the most iconic and photogenic spots on the Parkway at Mabry Mill
- Take in the panoramic view of the mountains surrounding downtown Roanoke from the Mill Mountain Star
- Walk to Otter Lake Falls and across the James River on the Appalachian Trail
- Go off-roading at the Big Levels 4×4 Trail
Concluding Our Byway Back Road Adventure
The remainder of our cross country trip was spent driving along the winding back roads of Virginia, West Virginia, and into my home state of Pennsylvania. We did drop onto the interstate for several long stretches, though. After 12 states, 9 nights of camping, a night in a hotel, and several thousand miles of driving, we were both ready to be back home.
I’ve completed a handful of lifelong, life-changing road trips with Dirk over the years. Each one has been absolutely incredible. The fact that we travel well together helps immensely. But our willingness to experience new things, follow our gut instincts about places to go and things to do (as we always say, it’s better to be lucky than to be good!) and travel the country almost entirely on back roads has been the foundation upon which our amazing trips are built!
The bottom line is simple – get out there and drive!