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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 64 · No. 6 > Travelers Seek Byway Experiences

May/June 2001
Vol. 64 · No. 6

Travelers Seek Byway Experiences

by Cheryl Newman

"Before there were interstates, there was America. It's still there." -- America's Byways marketing concept

When I was young, my family took a long road trip every five years. Those were the summers in which my father received his extra 13 weeks of vacation, a prized benefit that was awarded to steelworkers in northern Minnesota.

Large Hiawatha Statue
The author's cherished postcard of Hiawatha, the world's tallest and largest Indian, located in Ironwood, Mich. The postcard states that at 50 feet (15.24 meters) high, Hiawatha can withstand 140-mile per hour (225-kilometer per hour) winds.

One cross-country adventure included my parents, two brothers, an aunt, a cousin, and me. It must have made our car and camper a little crowded, butI don't remember that part. I do remember stopping along the road for bologna sandwiches and furiously snapping pictures with my new Kodak Instamatic camera. In my scrapbook, I still have a photo of my brother standing beside Hiawatha, "the world's tallest and largest Indian," in Ironwood, Mich.

By design, and sometimes by accident, we often ended up "off the beaten track." Small towns, winding roads, frequent stops, and friendly people always added up to a wonderful time. I loved those trips as a child. As an adult, I still look forward to that type of travel experience. It can still be found along America's Byways.

Americans Hit the Road

Americans love to travel. We live in a country that is constantly on the go.

And we like to drive. The notion of the open road, a long car trip, or a cross-country jaunt still conveys a romantic allure for many of us. It's the kind of trip we'd like to take one day. Although a leisurely Sunday drive is becoming a thing of the past, we like the idea of taking a drive with no particular destination in mind, just to see where we end up.

Most trips are taken in personal vehicles. American consumers (76 percent) choose overwhelmingly to travel by auto, truck, or recreational vehicle (RV). Leisure travel by car generally increases with age, education, employment status, and income.

Research by the Travel Industry Association of America (TIA) indicates that senior travelers (age 55+) spend more time on the road than any other age group. Seniors took nearly 179 million trips in 1999 and the average duration of their trips was 4.9 nights.

Florann Grettum and her widowed friend, Jean Madsen, are examples of this growing group of mature travelers. As retirees in their mid-60s, these two adventurous Minnesota women spent three winters traveling throughout the southern part of the United States. Driving a large Winnebago motor home, with a car in tow, was no obstacle. A friend concerned about the two women traveling alone encouraged them to leave a pair of men's shoes outside the RV.

"That way it would look like we had a man traveling with us. We never left the shoes out, but it sounded like a good idea," said Grettum. They collected lots of good memories and sunshine.

Thirty million RV enthusiasts in the United States regularly hit the road according to the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association. RV owners travel an average of 5,900 miles (9,500 kilometers) annually and spend more than 23 days on the road.

The American Automobile Association (AAA) reports that most people travel within a compact geographic area. Eighty percent stay within 250 miles (400 kilometers) of home with 60 percent taking day trips. Travel to nearby locations is usually less expensive, less time-consuming, and can occur with less planning. Also, advertising by state tourism departments tends to be concentrated in nearby states.

American Demographics (AD) reports that while more Americans are taking more road trips by car, the trips are becoming less enjoyable. Traffic, other drivers, driving itself, and long periods of time in the car can take some of the joy out of road travel. Traffic jams, breakdowns, impatient kids, and boredom are part of life on the road. AD claims that these problems represent economic opportunities for wayside service providers who can offer entertainment, quick and good food, and activities within walking distance of the car.

Retirees tend to view road trips as an adventure. They are more relaxed, willing to go at a slower pace, and spend more time exploring. They don't mind being in the car hours on end. Younger travelers, with or without children, resent being in the car over long periods of time and "just want to get there."

Traveling with children also presents a unique set of challenges. For Tim and Judy Dioquino, a married couple in their late 30s with two small children, their twice-a-year car trips from Virginia to visit family in Florida are something to be endured.

"Car trips are not fun. They are really kind of stressful," said Mrs. Dioquino, who notes that the difficult task of keeping young children entertained is often compounded by road construction and traveling during holidays when traffic is heavier and progress is slower. "We would much rather fly. But for monetary reasons, we don't."

Table 1 - What is important when planning trips?
 
1980s
1990s
Getting off the beaten track
23%
45%
Visiting cultural, historical and natural treasures
27%
50%
Gaining a new perspective on life
40%
72%
Understanding culture
48%
88%
Going to a location with natural beauty
60%
73%
Source: The Harris Poll    

Travel Trends

America's Byways represents the collection of nationally designated scenic highways. Designated as either National Scenic Byways or All-American Roads, these unique roadways offer something for everyone. The way we travel has changed and travelers are increasingly seeking the types of experiences waiting for them on America's Byways.

Industry analysts have identified key trends that are shaping the future of travel and tourism. Many of these trends are generating new interest in scenic byways. And along the way, local byway communities and grassroots organizations are reaping the benefits.

Antique Cars.
Antique car enthusiasts enjoyed a 65-mile (105-kilometer) drive along the Historic Columbia River Highway All-American Road in Oregon to celebrate the roadway's designation as a National Historic Landmark.

Internet Usage

TIA found that 54.5 million adults, or 62 percent of current Internet users in the United States, have used the Internet or an online service to make travel plans in the last year. Travel planning consists of activities such as getting information on destinations or checking prices and schedules.

The National Scenic Byways Program Web site (www.byways.org) attracts more than 1 million hits each month. Travelers can take an online tour of featured byways, print maps, and access information on visitor services, suggested tours, driving times, byway attractions, and special features. In addition, many individual byways maintain official Web sites.

Weekend Trips

Weekend trips by Americans jumped by 70 percent over the last 10 years and now account for more than half of all U.S. travel, according to TIA. "Time poverty" is leading to shorter trips. Travelers are staying closer to home, within a three-hour "strike zone." Long weekend trips now comprise 53 percent of all trips, while the extended vacation (five nights or more) is declining.

Scenic byways offer affordable, quick getaways. More than half of America's Byways are less than 50 miles (80 kilometers) long. This allows plenty of time to explore the communities, attractions, and special resources along a byway during a weekend trip. For example, Florida's Tamiami Trail Scenic Highway is a 50-mile route running through one of the largest tropical wilderness areas in the United States - the Florida Everglades. The 32-mile (50-kilometer) Connecticut Route 169 connects several traditional New England towns. The byway runs past colonial homesteads, quaint churches, historic stone walls, meeting houses, and private schools. Death Valley Scenic Byway in California winds 55 miles (almost 90 kilometers) through one of the driest and hottest environments in the Western Hemisphere. The route crosses four major plant zones and passes through a complex ecosystem of pinion pine, mesquite cacti, rattlesnakes, owls, and bighorn sheep.

Visitors will find unique travel experiences waiting for them on each byway.

Eating and Shopping

TIA reports that travelers list shopping and dining as favorite activities. Regional cuisine, local crafts, and one-of-a-kind souvenirs can be found along the byways.

Peter Drinkwater in front of his store.
Peter Drinkwater owns the 5-and-10-cent store in Winter Harbor, Maine (pop 250) along the Schoodic National Scenic Byway. You can find just about anything you need at this old-fashioned variety store - household items, groceries, birthday gifts, sewing supplies, hard-to-find gadgets, and local souvenirs.

Located along the Turquoise Trail (New Mexico), Madrid was once a booming coal-mining community. The town fell on hard times in the 1950s and was a ghost town until the early 1970s when artists and craftspeople arrived and converted the old company stores and houses into shops and galleries with paintings, sculpture, pottery, textiles, jewelry, furniture, beadwork, toys, artwear, and antiques. Today, these "ghost" mining towns along the byway - Madrid, Golden, and Cerrillos - are alive with art, crafts, theater, music, museums, and restaurants.

Another unique shopping experience is found in Dillsboro, N.C., just off the Blue Ridge Parkway. Founded in 1888 along the Western North Carolina Railroad, Dillsboro was a thriving commercial center until three floods in the 1890s devastated the town. Most of the businesses left. In recent years, the community has undergone a rebirth. This small walk-about town (pop. 200) has become widely known for its handmade crafts, unique shops, working studios, inns, and southern-style food. Artisans such as potters, glass artists, and pewterers can be observed practicing their trade.

With 72 byways to choose from, there is something to match everyone's shopping, dining, and traveling tastes.

Cultural and Historic Tourism

A recent Harris Poll indicated that more Americans travel for cultural enlightenment than for sports, shopping, and theme parks combined. A survey by TIA indicates that 53.6 million American adult travelers visited a museum or historic site in the past year. Thirty-three million also attended cultural events or festivals.

Historic sites are also popular family destinations; 40 percent of families include stops at historic sites during their summer travels. America's Byways offer a diverse menu of historic and cultural experiences.

View homes and estates built and operated by George Washington's brothers and their heirs along the Washington Heritage Trail in West Virginia, or visit some of America's oldest neighborhoods and churches in Santa Fe, N.M., located along "The Royal Road," the El Camino Real.

Join a wagon train in a "living history" demonstration of horse-drawn travel during the annual National Road/Pike Festival. President Thomas Jefferson signed legislation in 1806 to build the nation's first interstate highway, linking the eastern seaboard with the western frontier. The highway became known as the National Road and was built through Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. The road, which is now U.S. Route 40, carried people, livestock, mail, and goods across the growing country. Today, National Road communities reflect the cultural diversity of those who chose to make their homes along this historic transportation corridor. Reminders of National Road history - mile-markers, tollhouses, historic inns, stone S-bridges, pike towns, and remnants of brick road - are still visible along the corridor.

Tour beautiful old-fashioned gardens and antebellum homes during the Natchez Spring Pilgrimage in Natchez, Miss., and then drive the Natchez Trace Parkway. This historic 450-mile (724-kilometer) route generally follows the old Indian trace, or trail, between Natchez, Miss., and Nashville, Tenn. The trace was an important route for people who needed to get from one place to another. The Natchez, Chickasaw, and Choctaw Indians were early travelers. They were followed by French and Spanish settlers venturing into a new world and by Americans building a new nation. By 1785, American settlers in the Ohio River Valley had established farms and began floating their crops and products down the rivers to markets in Natchez or New Orleans. Returning home meant either riding or walking because even the flatboats were sold for lumber. The trail from Natchez was the most direct. As the number of boatmen grew, the crude trail was tramped into a clearly marked path. Over the years, improvements were made, and by 1810, the trace was an important wilderness road - the most heavily traveled in the Old Southwest.

History and culture come alive along scenic byways.

Sources for Travel Information, Trends, and Statistics
• Adventure Travel Society, www.adventuretravel.com, (719) 530-0171.

• American Automobile Association, www.aaa.com, (202) 942-2050

• American Demographics Magazine, www.demographics.com, (800) 529-7502.

• Bates USA Midwest, Indianapolis, Ind., (317) 686-7800.

• Consumer Reports Travel Letter, www.consumerreports.org, (800) 365-0396.

• Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, www.phil.frb.org, (215) 574-6428.

• Harris Poll, www.louisharris.com, (877) 919-4766.

• LORD Cultural Resources Planning & Management Inc., info@lord.ca, (416) 928-9292.

• National Park Service (Natchez Trace Parkway), www.nps.gov, (800) 305-7417.

• National Scenic Byways Program, www.byways.org, (800) 4BYWAYS or (800) 429-9297.

• Oregon Trail of Dreams, www.sleddogrides.com, (800) 829-2442.

• Recreation Vehicle Industry Association, www.rvia.org, (703) 620-6003.

• Travel Industry Association of America, www.tia.org, (202) 408-8422.

• Yankelovich Partners, www.yankelovich.com, (203) 846-0100.

• Yesawich, Pepperdine & Brown, www.ypb.com, (407) 875-1111.

Adventure Travel

TIA reports that in the past five years, one-half of American adults, or 98 million people, have taken an adventure trip, and adventure travel is one of the fastest-growing parts of the travel industry, accounting for $220 billion nationally.

Adventure travelers expect to experience varying degrees of risk, excitement and tranquility, and to be personally tested or challenged. Adventure travel runs the gamut from "soft adventure," which requires little physical risk and little or no experience (e.g., horseback riding, rafting, snorkeling, cross-country skiing), to "hard adventure," which may be very risky and which requires experience and above average physical fitness (e.g., challenging whitewater rafting trips, hang gliding, rock climbing, wilderness survival). Myriad adventures can be found along America's Byways.

Rent a jeep and explore ghost towns and historic mining sites along the San Juan Skyway in Colorado; windsurf beside the Historic Columbia River Highway in Oregon; backpack along the Appalachian Trail near the Russell-Brasstown Scenic Byway in Georgia; mountain bike miles of spectacular backcountry around Lake Tahoe-East Shore Drive in Nevada; or learn to kayak on Lake Superior along the North Shore Scenic Drive in Minnesota. Scenic byways lead to lots of personal adventures.

Traveling a byway by car is a pleasant experience, but traveling by dogsled is a thrilling one! On the Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway near Bend, Ore., you can experience the route with veteran mushers Jerry and Rachel Skdoris and their happy and eager sled dogs. This father-and-daughter team operates "Oregon Trail of Dreams," offering unique tours over a 20-mile (32-kilometer) section of the road that is closed in winter. Byway leader Robin Lee explained that although 48 miles (77 kilometers) of the byway are closed seasonally due to snow, it remains a high-use winter corridor. People continue to travel the road on dogsled, cross-country skis, and snowshoes.

Taking the Kids Along

TIA reports that nearly one-half of American adults (46 percent) included a child on a trip in the last year. Parents are increasingly bringing kids along on trips to make up for the lack of quality time spent during a harried work week. Another TIA study shows that one in five parents are taking their children out of school to take a family trip. While parents report that they view school as important, they also feel that children gain valuable knowledge while traveling. Traveling the byways teaches lessons in history, geography, archaelogy, social studies, and much more. Kids have so much fun that they don't even know they are learning.

The Creole Nature Trail in Louisiana has something special for kids. The byway is a favorite field trip for school, scout, and church groups. Young children visiting the two wildlife refuges and tourist information centers receive a Kid's Fun Box, which comes with a crawfish harmonica, an alligator water gun, crayons for decorating the box, and a button that brags, "I survived Louisiana's Outback."

"We developed the Kid's Fun Box as a means of teaching little people about the natural resources along the trail, but in a fun way," said Monte Hurley, chairman of the Board for the Southwest Louisiana Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Now, it's a tossup as to who enjoys it more - the little people or the kid in all of us."

Learning While on Vacation

People want to bring home more than a tan and a few souvenirs. In the mid-1990s, a Harris Poll published in Travel & Leisure magazine showed that the preferences of American travelers had shifted from escapism in the 1980s to enrichment in the 1990s. Research by TIA confirms that the learning aspect of travel is important to American travelers, with one in five adults - 30.2 million - having taken an educational trip to learn or improve a skill, sport, or hobby in the past three years. Eighteen percent of the travelers said that taking such a trip was the main purpose of their travel. People are searching for educational and life-enriching travel experiences.

The Seaway Trail Foundation in New York has teamed up with Elderhostel, which offers quality, affordable, educational adventures for seniors (age 55 or older). Hostelers stay in historic Sackets Harbor and enjoy a variety of workshops and field trips to learn about history, nature, and culture along the 454-mile (731-kilometer) Seaway Trail. Byway leader Teresa Mitchell believes that Elderhostel is a good fit with the National Scenic Byways Program. Local people act as instructors and field lecturers. Participants learn much more about the area that they are visiting than they would on a regular vacation experience.

"Over the four years we've been doing this, I've noticed what appears to be a healthier, more active senior," said Mitchell. "They're healthier and they want to do more." The week-long agenda also includes soft educational experiences and entertainment. Evenings might include opportunities to learn about brewing beer, yoga, and antiques. Folks enjoy outdoor picnics at a lighthouse, meals at local restaurants, and even dinners served by community church groups.

The Energy Loop combines two of Utah's scenic byways: Huntington Canyon Scenic Byway and Eccles Canyon Scenic Byway. To celebrate their national designation, the byway coordinators are organizing several events along the route that combine education and recreation. Residents and visitors will be able to take short courses in fly-fishing, outdoor photography, wildlife viewing, wildflowers, and landscapes. There will also be seminars and tours of an historic cemetery, coal mine, and power plant. It's a way to let people experience something they haven't tried before.

Authentic Travel Experiences

Visitors are searching for the "real America." They want to explore small towns and visit authentic places by car, while tracing historic themes and sampling local cultures. There are an increasing number of people who will travel across the world to have an authentic experience. In 1999, 49 million people traveled to the United States from other countries. Nearly half of the visitors came from our neighboring countries, Canada (14 million) and Mexico (10 million). America's Byways seem like a perfect match.

Travelers can increase their knowledge about Native American cultures at the Makah Museum located along the Strait of Juan de Fuca Highway (Washington state Route 112); retrace the footsteps of Americans who participated in the 1965 civil rights demonstrations that led to voting rights for all African Americans in Southern states on the Selma to Montgomery March Byway in Alabama; or learn about the Underground Railroad at sites along the Ohio River Scenic Route in Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio.

Dramatic view of the Missouri River .
The Native American Byway in South Dakota has five interpretive themes: Native American culture, high-plains ecology, Lewis and Clark, the fur trade, and the Missouri River. This dramatic view of the Missouri River is atop the bluff at the Lewis and Clark Rest Area on Interstate 90.

Along the Native American Byway in South Dakota, the history of the Sioux and other indigenous peoples unfolds. The byway winds past cultural, historical, and archaeological sites located in the heart of the Sioux nation. Buffalo still roam on the high plains above the river bottomlands. An important goal of the byway is to provide learning opportunities about native peoples and respect for the environment. Byway organizers recently created a vision statement for the byway that reflects this commitment: "The Native American Scenic Byway is a gateway to a revealing cultural experience. It is a journey through the heart of the Teton Sioux Nation. It will allow visitors appropriate access to the history, tradition, development, and future of the Sioux people. … When the visitor feels the spirit of this land, then the vision of the Byway will be complete."

Collecting Experiences

"Time is becoming the currency of the new millennium," said Shellie Williams, senior consultant with LORD Cultural Resources Planning & Management Inc. "The amount of leisure time the average American has is shrinking. In 1973, the average American had 26 hours of leisure time per week. In 1997, leisure time shrank to 17 hours. A recent study found that half of busy executives would rather take less pay for more time off. With the rise of home offices and electronic accessibility - e-mail, cell phones - peoples' work will follow them everywhere - to the little league field, the dinner table, and the theater. With less leisure time available, people are getting very choosy. Many people want a 'sure thing,' an experience they can count on. Tourism can be a trip around the world or just around your own town."

Authors Joseph Pine and James Gilmore say we are entering the "experience economy." In their book, The Experience Economy, they explain that there is a trend away from the accumulation of material goods and toward the accumulation of experiences. Consumers want rich, compelling experiences.

Our changing travel priorities reflect this need and desire to collect experiences - family, culture, history, nature, authenticity, adventure, quality, and education.

As I recall the wonderful road trips of my youth, I am very pleased that this experience can still be found along America's Byways.


Cheryl Newman joined the National Scenic Byways Resource Center in February 1999. As a byways resource specialist, she works with All-American Roads and National Scenic Byways in 16 states. She brings a background in education, administration, and volunteerism to her job. Prior to joining the resource center in Duluth, Minn., she worked for 17 years at the 3M Company in St. Paul. Newman has a bachelor's degree in education from Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn., and she is an adjunct instructor for Century College in White Bear Lake, Minn.

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