The origins of modern pleasure driving began with carriage driving in England in the early nineteenth century. Networks of well-paved scenic routes were constructed as a principal component of the landscaped parks surrounding country estates. Carriage driving was embraced wholeheartedly as a healthful activity and relaxing pastime. The opening of the carriage drives in New York's Central Park in the 1850s introduced Americans' to the social and recreational pleasures of scenic touring long enjoyed by the English. During the second half of the nineteenth century, many country estates in the United States constructed drives for pleasure driving. Scenic loops and dramatic vista points were often a part of these designs. With the exception of a very few public roads, almost all scenic driving was limited to private roads specifically constructed for carriage driving—the public roads of the nation were considered far too inferior for a pleasurable drive.
With the arrival of the motor car at the close of the nineteenth century, the concept of scenic driving gained rapid popularity. The automobile entered the public realm during the same period in which the first national parks and State park reserves were introducing Americans to the natural beauties of the land. Additionally the "See America" national tourism campaign was encouraging American's to take to the highways and experience the beauty and history of the land. As a result, the first automobile routes designed specifically for scenic driving were constructed at the beginning of the twentieth century. The Bronx River Parkway (begun in 1907) was the first modern automobile route designed for pleasure driving. The sinuous and leafy route along the newly restored landscape of the environmentally reclaimed Bronx River valley in New York incorporated modern engineering concepts and advanced safety features. The Columbia River Highway (begun in 1913) along the Columbia River and the Going-to-the-Sun Road (begun in 1921) at Glacier National Park were the first roads constructed to showcase the sublime grandeur of the American Landscape. Scenic views, vista points and rustic details for bridges, safety barriers, and signage maintained and reinforced the scenic nature of the corridor.
Park roads and parkways would be constructed nationwide during the first half of the twentieth century. Motor parkways linking park reservations in metropolitan Boston (1910s), Denver's mountain park drives (1920s) were designed specifically to provide scenic pleasure drives for urban populations. The Mount Vernon Memorial Highway, opened in 1932, linked Mount Vernon to Washington, DC via Alexandria. The road, with many scenic views and vista points was a significant departure from earlier precedents in its principal focus on history and culture. The Colonial Parkway and Blue Ridge Parkway would continue this trend of scenic routes showcasing historic and cultural qualities along the route.
During the 1920s many tour routes were promoted along designated segments of existing highways—the Rip van Winkle Trail and the Cherry Valley Turnpike (1920s), both in New York, promised colonial history, folklore, quaint villages, and pleasant accommodations. The Park-to-Park Highway designated an early multi-State touring route linking the great national parks of the West. Automobile associations such as AAA began marking routes of scenic interest during this period as well.
State involvement with the identification and promotion of scenic routes has origins in this era. Oregon established the first scenic corridor policy in 1913. Vermont designed and constructed a State scenic highway route (VT 100) in 1937 to showcase the beauty of the State. California, Maine, Minnesota, New York, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin, and others are among the states with early designation programs for scenic routes.
Many of the roads in the America's Byways® collection have their origins in earlier efforts to design or recognize roads for their scenic qualities:
These are just a few examples of the legacy of scenic routes that have been planned, built, and managed with care and enjoyed by travelers for more than a century.
With growing automobile ownership, delayed construction projects due to the Great Depression and World War II, and the new need for defense highways, most scenic road construction and designation waned in the 1950s. Still, scenic routes such as the Palisades Interstate Parkway (New York/New Jersey), the Taconic State Parkway (New York), the Baltimore-Washington Parkway (Maryland), and the extension of the George Washington Memorial Parkway (Virginia) continued the tradition of scenic and parkway design through the 1950s and into the 1960s.
In 1964 the Recreation Advisory Council, established by John F. Kennedy, recommended the development of a national program of scenic roads and parkways. The Department of Commerce, the parent agency for the Bureau of Public Roads, was commissioned to conduct a study of such a possible program. (The U.S. Department of Transportation was established in 1967.) The concept of scenic byways was reinforced in 1965 when the U.S. Congress enacted the Highway Beautification Act.
In 1973, the U.S. Congress directed a study examining the feasibility of a national scenic highway system (Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1973, Section 134(a)). The Federal Highway Administration prepared An Assessment of the Feasibility of Developing a National Scenic Highway System for congress in 1974. The report outlined five major issues:
With the establishment of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) in 1991, the National Scenic Byways Program was established.