We updated the information below to reflect the latest versions of the apps, tools and books and to report on several new resources including Furkot, a trip planning website with a ton of potential for incorporating scenic routes on your drive.
If you’re anything like the vast majority of drivers on the road today your first step in getting somewhere is to pull out your phone and fire up the Google Maps app. The great and powerful Google Maps excels at getting you from point A to B as quickly as possible. Sure, you want that kind of maniacal efficiency for drives like your commute or errands. But what about your road trips?
Getting from A to B quickly isn’t what the road trip is about. Road trips are about the travel, not the arriving. The map applications on our iPhones are built around stripping wandering and wondering from the route and that may be fine for some families, but that’s not how our family rolls.
Driving our old Vanagon, we try to stay off the major highways as much as possible: it is easier on the old, tired engine, it is arguably safer to drive back roads and it is absolutely more enjoyable.
If a man can keep alert and imaginative, an error is a possibility, a chance at something new; to him, wandering and wondering are part of the same process, and he is most mistaken, most in error, whenever he quits exploring. ― William Least Heat-Moon, Blue Highways: A Journey into America
Finding these back roads — these scenic byways — is where we put most of our effort when planning a trip. Spending some time sketching out our trip around these backroads always makes for a better journey.
Blue Highways or Dotted Lines
When planning trips, I always keep Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon in the back of my mind. “On the old highway maps of America, the main routes were red and the back roads blue,” writes Least Heat-Moon. The book documents the author’s road trip around America following just the “blue highways.” If you’ve never read it, it’s definitely worth a read if you’re planning a road trip of any length!
Nowadays though it can be a bit trickier to pick out the back roads worth following on a paper map. And the more popular mobile devices are also of limited help here as neither Apple nor Google seem particularly interested in helping drivers find scenic routes.
When our family plans a trip, we usually start with paper maps from our local AAA office. These maps still denote scenic routes with a dotted-line (green for AAA, small green dots underscored with a pink line the Rand McNally road atlases we also use). We try to piece together a route that includes as many of these dotted line routes — though depending on the scale of the map we’re using, those scenic routes can be pretty sparse.
A car whipped past, the driver eating and a passenger clicking a camera. Moving without going anywhere, taking a trip instead of making one. I laughed at the absurdity of the photographs and then realized I, too, was rolling effortlessly along, turning the windshield into a movie screen in which I, the viewer, did the moving while the subject held still. That was the temptation of the American highway, of the American vacation (from the Latin vacare, “to be empty”). ― William Least Heat-Moon, Blue Highways
I’ve been buying this National Geographic book every few years when a new edition comes out. It won’t necessarily help you find the most remote scenic routes, but it is invaluable when trying to plan a big trip hitting as many scenic routes and byways as possible. I highly recommend this (always get the latest edition):
We also always keep one of these Road Atlases on hand in the Vanagon to sanity check and cross reference our plans when we’re out exploring. This Rand Mcnally Large Scale Atlas is usually the best seller on Amazon so it’s the one we go with. It marks certain routes as “Best of the Road” which is their in-house way of noting scenic routes.
Beyond Paper Maps
There are many websites that say they’ll help you track down scenic routes and incorporate them into your route. Most fall pretty short of that goal though. However, since our original writing of this piece several years ago, we have come to learn about the website ScenicByways.info. This website has become our hands-down favorite for find a comprehensive listing of scenic byways, highways, parkways, etc.
Even better though is the website Furkot which uses the ScenicByways.info data to help you plan your trip. We’ve looked at many websites/tools to help us incorporate scenic routes into our road trip plans (see below) but Furkot is the one that has the most comprehensive routes database and comes closest to actually helping you plan your route around scenic routes.
Furkot offers a huge array of features and we highly recommend spending some time with their documentation to get a better idea of all you can do with this tool. For us though, two features really stand out.
The ability to set travel start and end times per day is great. We generally don’t like to spend more than 4 hours a day driving. Give it your travel time preferences and Furkot will take this into consideration and suggest pet-friendly campgrounds (or hotels, etc.) along the way that keep you within your daily driving limits. This feature alone — the ability to say “show me all the campgrounds that are in the general area of 4 hours of driving” — is a huge time saver for our trip planning and has already helped us to scope out new areas to explore.
Another great feature — and this is great for Vanagon owners — is you can adjust the “my speed” setting to adjust for travel times. If you’ve ever used Google Maps in a Vanagon and chuckle at the optimism of the ETA arrival time you will totally appreciate this setting. Usually Google uses 60mph or higher as an average speed. I’ve found that adding 15% onto Google’s ETA is usually pretty accurate for trips under 6 hours. In the settings I’ve told Furkot to use 85% as my travel speed.
That said, Furkot at times presents too much data and the interface can be a real beast to control. After a few false starts trying to get a good route from NJ to Burlington, VT using as many backroads as possible, we can offer these tips to get you up to speed:
Finding Scenic Routes in Furkot
- Start by planning a trip and entering your start and end points and travel dates
- Flag whether you want campgrounds or hotels, pet-friendly accommodations, etc.
- under “Trip” tab, adjust speed to be 85% if you’re driving a Vanagon (or 50mph).
- Locate some scenic routes by going to the “Find” tab and select the Scenic Routes icon
- Here you can include auto routes and/or motorcycle routes (great source of local route knowledge).
- important This will present you with way too much data, so go to the bottom of the routes and filter out certain sources (I unselected Guides and Trails from Everytrail).
- Use the + and – zoom keys to control how much information appears on the map
Adding Scenic Routes to your trip in Furkot
This is where there is a lot of room for improvement. Once you find a good scenic highway that getsyou where you want to go, you can click either add stop (add the highway as a stop) or route (and the scenic route to your route). We had very inconsistent results with both of these option and neither seemed to really do what we wanted.
Adding the route via add stop would just adjust our route so that we touched a point on the scenic route and then route us back to the highway. What should happen instead is that Furkot should adjust your route to include as much of the scenic route as possible.
Adding the route would add all of the stops along the route both before and after our destination, again what should happen is that only the sections of the route along your route should be included. In the former case, furkot doesn’t add enough of the scenic route to your trip, in the latter, it adds too much of the scenic route to your trip. We reached out to Furkot and their support team noted that this is indeed the intended behavior.
The solution they suggested was to just manually drag points from the planned route onto the scenic byways by clicking and dragging. Furkot will then recalculate the route adding the scenic roads into your itinerary. If you want to get your Furkot route/plans onto your iPhone, see below about its compatibility with the app Scenic.
Before using Furkot we would piece together scenic routes from a variety of other websites. We still think that these tools are worth checking out as often –especially the government websites — offer up to date closure/construction information that is worth reviewing.
A good starting place is the US Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration’s America’s Byways website. This list of more than 150 Scenic Byways and All-American Roads is our first step when piecing together a route. For each route, the website offers a general map and detailed step by step directions, but more importantly the listing usually provides a link to the local or state website offering much more detailed information about the route.
Note, too, that simply Googling for a state or region + “scenic byways” can bring you to some choice regional websites detailing scenic routes that are only familiar to locals. For example, Adirondack Scenic Byways brings you to this website with great local maps and routes.
Various states’ Departments of Transportation also may have good info on scenic routes. For example, in New York, there are only three nationally-recognized scenic byways but the state recognizes dozens more and lists a few proposed routes that haven’t been fully recognized by the state DOT yet. It can be hit or miss with the state websites, though. For example, the NY state scenic byways map looks like it was drawn in MS Paint and is almost useless but with some patience you can tease out some potentially great drives.
It would be more useful if the America’s Byways website offered a map interface to finding scenic byways instead of a textual listing. To solve that problem I’ve been using another website called MyScenicDrives.com which offers a map interface to browsing scenic drives.
This site is useful when trying to piece together scenic routes from different states to get from point A to B using as many scenic routes as possible. It offers an itinerary/trip and route planning tool as well if you’re willing to set up an account. I’ve tried the planning tool but while it was useable on my computer, it was too cumbersome to use easily on my iPhone.
Also, much of the functionality here can be found in Furkot.
Rand McNally Online Trip Maker
This Rand McNally Trip Maker website is useful for planning out stops along a route but, unfortunately, doesn’t dig into the vast amount of information that McNally has compiled on scenic routes. Likewise, their Best of the Road website hasn’t been updated in a few years but could still worth looking at.
There are two iPhone apps that I’ve played around with a bit as well when planning but neither are as useful as the combination of paper maps and the MyScenicDrives.com website (both of these apps are available for Android as well).
AAA Mobile Application
The first iPhone app I played around with was the AAA mobile application. This app will do directions and route planning and show points of interest. It also has a “scenic routes” layer that you can turn on and off. Unfortunately the scenic routes layer is not well implemented: it is laggy, only highlights scenic routes when you’ve zoomed in to some difficult-to-determine scale and there does not seem to be any way to tell the route-planning tool to use scenic routes when possible. There’s some potential with this app, it’s just not all there yet. (update: I’ve gone back to look at this again and it is still very buggy. Looks like AAA is still focussed on paper maps.)
Roadtrippers (app and website) [updated]
The more-promising iPhone app is called Roadtrippers. This is another mobile mapping applications that uses map layers to show points of interest along a route from A to B. A huge improvement to the website since the last time we looked at it is a dedicated “Scenic Routes” tool.
The list of routes it knows about is not huge (it’s still missing the Mohawk Trail through MA) but it could help you incorporate some sweet sections of asphalt into your voyage.
The website is far more user-friendly for planning your trips than the iPhone application. It took me several minutes of playing around with the iPhone app to even locate the scenic routes guide. However, if you build a route on the website you can view it on your phone, which is very helpful.
When we first looked at Roadtrippers we declared it the best of the iOS apps because it let you find things along your route. At the time, Google maps didn’t have the search along route feature. Now that Google offers that tool, although without the same kind of road-trip friendly categories as Roadtrippers, we’re not quite as sold as using our iPhone for finding scenic routes.
Since our last look at apps though, we’ve come across these two new ones that we’re going to put to use this summer:
This iPhone application is a new one for us. The Round app uses community-sourced knowledge to build a list of scenic routes in a given area. There were no routes listed in our immediate area but it did have a few of the scenic roads we’ve used in previous trips through CT and NY listed. Worth playing with.
Scenic is a GPS app for motorcyclists (who, like vanagon drivers, prefer the scenic routes!) and also has a database of scenic routes for a given area. This app looks like it is updated more frequently (or at least more recently) than Round and may also be worth a look.
Another big plus here is that you can synchronize your Furkot route onto the Scenic application. I haven’t done this yet to test it but plan on using it for an upcoming trip.
Putting it all Together
The length and complexity of the road trip dictates how we put together the route. If it’s just a few hours or a day or two of driving, we will generally just note the names of the interesting/scenic routes and keep them on the dashboard of the vanagon. For example, when heading home from Eastern Shore Maryland, I knew I wanted to find Routes 213 and 301 after reading about them on the Chesapeake Byways website so we just found the road on a paper map and then followed the signs as we drove along, not using GPS, etc.
This is where paper maps can really shine because as you drive along a particular highway from town to town, you can consult the paper map and get a sense of the scale/density of the towns you’re approaching and make a good, educated guess about whether they’ll have gas, good restaurants, etc.
Google maps or GPS doesn’t provide any way to intuit the size of towns as you drive. Sure, they’ll tell you if the town has gas but not if it’s worth stopping and exploring a bit the way a paper map can.
Before cell phones and GPS, my friends and I would drive up and down the East Coast, consulting maps, speculating which roads might have heavy traffic, which towns might have a good restaurant. There was a certain kind of freedom to that style of navigation and I feel badly for a generation of road trippers who won’t ever experience it.
On a multi-day road trip I’ll get a bit more involved with the route planning. Armed with the data from regional or state websites and maybe some suggestions from Trip Advisor or TheSamba, I’ll sit down with a paper map and some highlighters and sketch out multiple routes to and from our destination. And starting this year, I’ll be incorporating Furkot into this process.
I’ll put together a basic plan for getting from point A to B hitting as many scenic routes as possible but will also note faster routes in case the kids start to melt down and we need to get to our destination sooner.
There’s nothing worse than struggling to find a campground or restaurant when your kids are screaming and you’re tired from driving all day. We try to use all the tools available when coming up with a plan. With a few tentative routes, good paper maps and electronic tools in hand we can head out on the road and just sort of wing it. Because the best part of having a plan for a road trip is knowing you can abandon it if you find something worth checking out along the way.
Did we miss anything on this list? Please let us know!