Taking the road less traveled is often a scary thing, unless you’re on a scenic byway. Then, well, it’s just cool. Scenic byways are making a royal comeback across the continental U.S.A.
Ever since people starting getting their kicks on Route 66 (and inspiring kids with movies such as Cars), driving off the beaten path has had a romantic quality. It’s an homage to the past and brings us back to our desire to slow down a bit and take in what once was, to feel our ancestors in the walls of an old building and fantasize about what it might have been like before the world of the selfie. Let’s take a trip down a few of these byways and see what we discover.
There are movies, songs and characters everywhere to remind travelers of Route 66. But unless you’ve driven it, shopped on it, picnicked near it, or just stood in wonder, you can’t possibly appreciate it. The largest of national scenic byways, Route 66 stretches for 1,408 miles through Illinois, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona.
In Arizona, don’t miss Red Rock Scenic Byway, which winds through Sedona’s Red Rock Country, often called a “museum without walls.” Travelers are amazed by the high desert’s power, diversity and sense of intimacy with nature. The stunning red rocks are alive with a timeless spirit and a camera lens just doesn’t do it justice. Stop in Anthem while you’re in the area. This master planned community popped onto the map just 15 years ago, but the Anthem Veteran’s Memorial is gaining worldwide acclaim. The engineering of the five-pillar memorial, which shines a natural solar spotlight on the Great Seal of the United States for just one minute a year (at 11:11 on Nov. 11), is a spectacular sight year-round.
Where the weather is a tad cooler, check out Cripple Creek, Colorado. While most of Route 66 is scenic because of its landscape, this historic town drips with history. About 45 minutes north of Colorado Springs, Cripple Creek’s glory days were as a mining town in the heyday of the Gold Rush.
Theaters and opera houses have come and gone, but one historical venue, the Butte Theater, still features original entertainment. In 1976, the Cripple Creek & Victor Narrow Gauge Railroad started taking passengers into the heart of the Rocky Mountains. An impeccably restored steam locomotive and historic 1894 station house make this a worth-it stop. The Fire Station, completed in 1900, stands as an answer to two catastrophic fires in 1896 that burned 47 acres and destroyed more than 400 buildings.
Head north a few days and find yourself in Oregon on Hells Canyon Scenic Byway, which pays homage to the Nez Perce Indians along the historic Oregon Trail. This 208-mile loop begins and ends at Hells Canyon and the Snake River, North America’s deepest gorge.
A few days of driving east and you’ll land in New Harmony, Indiana, about 30 miles north of Evansville. Established by a social reformer as a Utopian society, New Harmony became a center for advances in education and scientific research. There are two labyrinths here; one in a beautiful garden that duplicates Chartres Cathedral, a 12th century cathedral in France, the other a hedge labyrinth just south of town built in 1939 to commemorate an original built by the Harmonites. Buildings that date back to 1825 are today’s vibrant downtown, a perfect weekend getaway.
Galena, Illinois, also inspires history buffs. This scenic drive takes you to the claimed hometown of Ulysses S. Grant and his ascension from ordinary clerk in his father’s leather goods stores, to Commander of Civil War Union Forces, to President. Grant wasn’t the only notable citizen. Galena claims nine residents who reached the rank of General during the Civil War. So much of Galena’s original architecture remains that over 85 percent of the community is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Head south about five hours to land in Vandalia, Illinois, and catch the Historic National Road (also known as the Cumberland Road–yes, like the song) to Maryland, the first major highway in the United States built by the federal government. About 620 miles long, the road allows travelers to go back through 300 years of history with natural scenery to admire. Oakland, Maryland, boasts antique shops, boutiques and an old-fashioned soda fountain. Don’t miss the still-intact Tomlinson Inn in Little Meadows, Maryland. Built circa 1816 by Revolutionary War veteran Jesse Tomlinson, this stone tavern is said to have hosted the likes of Presidents-elect James K. Polk and William Henry Harrison. The full road has extensions east to Baltimore and west to St. Louis.
So put down your phone for a few days (unless you need a navigation device) and follow your heart to one of these scenic destinations. Discover what lies off the hustle and bustle of the interstate. Vow to take the road less traveled now and then. You might learn that it makes all the difference. HLM
Sources: drivethetop10.com, galenahistory.org, oregon.gov, scenicbyways.info, travelchannel.com, visitcripplecreek.com and visitnewharmony.com.