Scenic Drives To Help Your Winter Spirits Soar
You don’t have to wait for Spring wildflowers or Autumn foliage to enjoy a glowing cast of intense colors and vibrant views that light up a new year of road travel. America’s Scenic Byways offer intensely colored journeys in any season of the year.
America’s National Scenic Byways and All-American Roads give you dramatic beauty and help extinguish lingering effects of winter hibernation.
America’s byways are preserved and protected by the US Federal Highway Administration. Established in 1991, the National Scenic Byways Program recognized roads with archaeological, historic, cultural, natural and recreational excellence. They also were intended to promote economic development and tourism.
There are 184 National Scenic Byways and 37 All-America Roadways (a classification within these Byways for especially lovely roads). No matter where you live, chances are there is a scenic byway or roadway nearby.
The National Park Service supplies visitors with routes and entertaining visitor activities in any season, and the interactive website provides a treasure trove of ideas with maps and suggested routes and side trails for planning your trip.
A note of caution: Check road conditions to make sure it is open for travel in late winter and early spring.
Midwest and Western US
- Journey Through Time Scenic Byway
Utah’s Highway 12 strings together three distinctive and brilliant National Parks on a 124-mile route. Passing through Red Canyon, Bryce Canyon and ending in Capitol Reef National Park, the highway climbs over 4000-ft and 9000 foot passes and tunnels through bright cliffs on its way. In between, the highway dips down into deep river canyons, a layer-cake of intense red and orange rock formations. The intense colors contrast against blue skies, snow-capped mountain ranges and deep green forests. The visitor center offers native American exhibits with dinosaur-age tableaus.
- Badlands Scenic Highway & Wildlife Loop Scenic Byway, South Dakota
South Dakota's winter climate posed challenges to Native Americans and pioneers traveling by horse or foot. You can enjoy stunning wintery scenes in the Badlands from the comfort of your vehicle.
Called “The Land of Stone and Light” on the NPS website, the Black Hills of South Dakota recapture the feeling of wide-open spaces of the American West. Travel the Badlands Loop State Scenic Byway past towering pinnacles and sculpted canyons, where your vehicle might be surrounded by a pack of roaming buffalo. Chances are good you may see the majestic Bighorn Sheep clinging to the sides of a snow dusted mountain.
The Badlands’ weird rock formations and cliffs were sacred sites for First Nation peoples, but they drew hordes of European immigrants hungry to find gold.
Extend your journey with a side trip to Custer Cemetery and Little Bighorn Battlefield National Park. This small but historic site puts the Native American heritage and their challenges into perspective.
- Native American Scenic Byway, Noth Dakota
Jump into history and take in some incredible beauty while traversing the reservations of four nations, the sprawling hills lands where bison roamed by the millions. Head over to two stunning drives that display the steep, vibrant canyons and lovely valleys contained in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Named “The Grand Canyon of the Little Missouri,” the North Unit and South Unit Scenic Drives overlook golden, orange cliffs and verdant river valleys.
- Zion Park Scenic Byway, Utah
Zion Park Scenic Byway offers abundant, spectacular beauty. Heading east along Highway 9, this 54-mile trip leads through a high desert, recalling the “wild west” where mustangs and antelope roam. It continues past Zion National Park on curving mountainous roads through stacked-high red rock towers and canyons.
Traveling this Byway can take as little as 1.5 hours. Or you may extend your visit for days of fun to explore the deep slot canyons and hike the many trails. Extend your visit by heading south to see the stunning, mile-deep drop at the North Rim Plateau of Grand Canyon National Park, which offers another Scenic Byway.
- Red Rock All-American Road & Scenic Byway, Arizona
Near the city of Sedona, this remote area is classed as a “Stargazer Paradise” for its pristine skies and gorgeous pinnacles and gorges. The striated red, gold and orange scenery became familiar to the world as a backdrop of hundreds of western movies.
Side trips abound: choose an historic railroad trip through Verde Canon or tour Cathedral Rock. Navajo reservations nearby sponsor native-guided trips to sites not accessible otherwise, and well worth the cost.
- Flaming Gorge / Green River Basin Scenic Byway, Wyoming and Utah
This 100-mile, All-American Roadway, travels south on Hwy 191 to traverse the border of two states.
The route meanders through the deep, striated canyons and lakes of the Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area. Then runs past high desert flowers framing glimpses of mountain peaks to drop along the Green River on its way to join the mighty Colorado.
Keep a lookout for herds of wild horses, a scene of beauty and majesty with historic roots of Spanish Conquistadors from the 1500s.
East and Southern US
While the colorful highways of the eastern range of mountains are very popular and heavily-traveled in autumn, they are oft-ignored in winter and early spring. Take another look.
The following, lesser-known parks offer deep green forests and stark river canyon colors. Meadows of wildflowers make a brilliant splash at the end of winter or in early spring.
- Russell / Basstown National Scenic Byway, Georgia
Roaming through the Southern Appalachian mountains, this 40-mile loop route winds on the brink of canyons and climbs over gaps above the headwaters of the Chattahoochee River.
Amazing views from Basstown Bald mountain extend over the state line into neighboring Tennessee. Enjoy hundreds of waterfalls tumbling near the road, or take one of the many hikes to explore the lovely country around the byway.
- Skyline Drive National Scenic Byway, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Famous along this 105-mile trip are the 75 “overlooks” of some of the highest mountains of the eastern United States and the lush Shenandoah Valley. The Skyline byway follows the spine of the aptly-named Blue Ridge range of the Appalachian Mountains.
Cherokee, Shawnee, Mound-Builder and other first-nation people used the ridge-top route for centuries. European pioneers pushed through the “gaps” and the Shenandoah Valley. The scenes and colors of the valleys, mountains and canyons are a delight in late winter and early spring–and you will encounter fewer travelers than peak season in autumn.
- Acadia All-American Road and Schoodic National Scenic Byway, Maine
These two nearby routes encompass the clashing of the Atlantic Ocean with the mountainous cape of the Acadian Peninsula and Maine’s iconic rocky coastline. While winter can mean tall drifts of snow, late winter and early spring opens up the stunning coastal landscape.
Striped seacoast rocks and towering mountain views are within the 40 mile loop in Acadia National Park, where granite spikes, clad with spruce fir forests, soar out of the ocean. A quieter, less frequently traveled side of the Park is seen on Schoodic National Scenic Byway, where a 29-mile trip along a shore where historic fishing villages hug the rocky shore.
Observe traditional clamming, lobster fishing and visit museums and lighthouses. As the website says, “Discover the local artisans’ crafts and let the mountains, coastal islands, historic buildings, and lighthouses enchant you.”
- Connecticut River National Scenic Byway, Vermont
A Scenic Byway that transverses the whole state to unfold the stark beauty, cliffs, rapids and verdant color contrasts while journeying in the valley of the longest river in New England.
This state is a tourism magnet for its astounding show of maple trees and fall color, but travelers in the off-season can enjoy visiting “sugar bushes” and observe maple sugar and syrup creating process in groves along the way. Intense wildflower displays frame the river valley in Spring.
This route is a center for historic reenactments from the times of Native American peoples, through colonial times and industrial development. Contact the excellent website for events, attractions, museums and living history demonstrations.