Tag Archives: Flint Hills Scenic Byway

American Highways

For me one of the biggest attractions in the US are the roads themselves. I have to admit I love driving so my opinion might be a bit biased, but it’s difficult to deny that highways and car culture in general, are important parts of American culture. Many countries have great roads, be it smooth German autobahns without speed limits or the narrow, twisted mountain roads of Italy, but no other country is as connected to its roads and cars as the USA.

Before my first visit to America I already had an image of its freeways, highways, pickup trucks etc. They are shown in countless movies, TV dramas and even comic books, it is virtually impossible nowadays to grow up in any modern country without being familiar with those aspects of America and its pop-culture. I still remember my first visit to America, when after landing in Miami, we were driven to Orlando (where we were about to start work in Disney World). During one of the short stops at the service station most of the guys from our bus started taking pictures in front of those massive American eighteen wheelers. Such is power of an icon.

During my first road trip in the USA I was only a passenger because I still didn’t have a driving licence. Those were two iconic trips, one from coast to coast, another one along the Pacific coast. Being both a geographer and map enthusiast I was responsible for navigation and a lot of the planning, and I loved every moment of it (even long featureless drives of west Texas). Only long drive across the entire country will help you understand how big it really is. Still, being a navigator is not the same as driving yourself. After coming back from my second trip during which we drove, among others, the famous Pacific Highway, I knew I’d be back in the USA. This time armed with a driving licence. The desire to drive myself was probably important factor why I decided to visit America again.

Since then, during many visits, I have driven thousands of miles along the interstate, state and county highways as well as special scenic byways. And I absolutely love it, every single mile of road. It doesn’t matter if it’s busy 12 lane urban freeway in LA, or empty, straight highway in western Kansas, or a twisted mountain road in Utah. They are all attractive in their own way.

There are some roads especially worth recommending. One of them, the Pacific Hwy, is in my opinion one of the most scenic drives on earth. Most people know about the stretch from San Louis Obispo along the famous Big Sur up to Monterey. It is spectacular California Hwy 1 where every twist and turn opens an amazing vista. If you can choose only one road in America make sure you choose this one. Pacific Highway is much longer however, continuing north of San Francisco through sparsely populated North California and then along the Oregon and Washington State coast. It might be a bit less wild than at Big Sur, but only a bit. On the other hand there are nice charming villages and small towns well worth visiting. Add lighthouses, sand dunes, wild beaches, huge forests and you get the picture. It is one of the roads I could drive over and over, and over again. We shouldn’t also forget about one short, but well known, part of the Pacific Hwy, the Golden Gate Bridge, which is probably one of the most photographed structures on earth. My long lasting irrational obsession with the idea of crossing it was an important factor in planning our coast to coast trip.

Another fantastic coastal road is US Hwy 1 in Florida. Connecting countless tropical islands this road run, mainly on long bridges and causeways over a turquoise tropical sea. Only 120 miles long it takes you from the hustle and bustle of metropolitan Miami to the paradise of Key West. It is a perfect drive for an open top car and offers some of the best sunsets in the world. Sadly, we didn’t drive convertible, just ordinary sedan, but there were three girls and me on-board 😉

On the other side of the eastern US there is in some ways a similar road. It’s US Hwy 2 from Vermont across the Lake Champlain to the New York State. Connecting small communities on the remote islands of North Hero and Grand Isle it has feel of a quiet end of the road as well as the end of the world. Drive it slowly, shop in some locally owned stores, try food in some no nonsense, down to earth, local restaurants and you will understand the appeal of this route.

Away from the sea or lakes there are many interesting desert highways, especially in the south western United States. One of them is Utah Hwy 12 which is almost like driving in a giant open geology schoolbook as this unique road passes through some really spectacular formations. Connecting Bryce Canyon NP with Grant Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Capitol Reef NP, it is every geographers’ and geologists’ dream road, where every turn opens spectacular view of geological wonders. It is also relatively little trafficked especially outside the main summer season. Equally spectacular and much more popular is US Hwy 163 from Mexican Hat in Utah to Kayenta in Arizona. It is famous due to the spectacular vista over the rock formations of Monument Valley known to most of us from the epic western movies. Apart from some bored locals almost every car pulls over and everyone takes pictures. Yet another example of power of an American icon.

Another spectacular desert drive in the SW states include California Hwy 190 across the Death Valley and then US 395 along the eastern foothills of the magnificent Sierra Neveda. It is actually impossible to list all the spectacular desert routes here as most of the highways in Arizona, southern Utah, New Mexico, souther California or Nevada are simply fantastic.

Looking for something more on the mountainous side? One of the best mountain roads I have ever driven was not in Rockies or the Sierra Nevada, not even in the Appalachians, but in South Dakota. Yes, that’s correct. There are mountains in Southa Dakota even if they are called hills.The Black Hills to be precise. The road we are talking about is the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway. It is loop, over 68 miles long, which follows four different local highways. This road is curvy and narrow, actually very curvy and very narrow. In some places it is just ribbon of tarmac, only wide enough for one car, squeezed between the rock walls and sheer drop on the other side. There are tunnels so narrow you have to honk before entering, so you won’t have a head on collision with some oversized pick-up truck, and pigtail bridges where you make full 360 degrees circles. In general this scenic byway is more like Spanish or Italian mountain roads than an American highway.

Some of the mountain roads were built just for the pleasure of driving. One of them is the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia and North Carolina. Its construction started in 1935 during the great depression and didn’t finish until 1987 when the spectacular s-shaped Linn Cove Viaduct was opened The 469 miles long parkway is maintained by the National Park Service and runs mostly along the Blue Ridge, part of the Appalachian Mountains. The parkway doesn’t connect any settlements, uses short side roads to connect to other highways, and there are no direct interchanges with other highways. It was design to be a spectacular drive, with numerous viewpoints, often running as close to the ridge as possible and I can confirm that its designers did a good job. It is a fantastic piece of highway, well worth getting out of the main roads.

Other spectacular mountain roads include California Hwy 180 leading into the Kings Canyon – Sequoia NP, US Hwy160 from Alamosa to Cortez in Colorado or finally California Hwy 120 and 41 in the amazing Yosemite.

If you don’t really like deserts or mountains there are some other interesting drives. How about the great American rivers? One of the best trips I’ve done was driving through the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon. It is a great drive, especially if you leave the main intestate freeway and choose the old road instead. It’s not always possible but there are few preserved bits which offer spectacular vistas over the great Columbia River and some nice waterfalls as well. You can cover the most interesting part of this river in a day. But if you are looking for a more epic river drive there is no better option than the Great River Road along the mighty Mississippi. It is actually system of the US, state, and even county highways running as close to the river as possible. You can drive practically from the source to the Gulf of Mexico on either side of the river. Of course there are more and less interesting parts. My favourite part stretches from Davenport in Iowa to Minneapolis in Minnesota, especially the Wisconsin Hwy 35 from the Illinois border to the town of Prescott just few miles downriver from Saint Paul. Mississippi in this region flows between high bluffs offering some really great views. Other attractions along this route are tiny towns like De Soto, Genoa, Alma and Nelson or some slightly bigger ones like Winona or Red Wing. Being a road and infrastructure geek I also love all the bridges along the great river, especially the old narrow steel ones. Sometimes I crossed them back and forth just for the thrill of driving across them.

A lesser known river offering great roads along its banks is the St Lawrence River. The most interesting part of it stretches along the Canadian – US border from Cornwall to Kingston, which is called the Thousand Islands for a good reason. From the road you can see countless islands from big to tiny ones. Some of them are big enough for a castle (well, at least a replica of one) some are big enough for a house but on some, it is only possible to fit small hut or a birdhouse. I drove the scenic byway on the Canadian side of river but I’m sure the New York State side is interesting as well.

Many of the roads mentioned above are all relatively well known and you can find them in guidebooks and brochures. But the US is a country full of great driving experiences. I particularly like the empty roads of central United States. The best ones are designated as tourist roads but they still might not be well known outside America, or even inside the county for that matter, which is a pity. Take for example the Sand Hills Scenic Byway in Nebraska or Flint Hills Scenic Byway and Gypsum Hills Scenic Byway in Kansas. These roads gently roll across the empty but strangely interesting and wild landscape of the American prairies. For me the biggest attraction of them is this emptiness which is usually difficult to experience in Western Europe, maybe apart from Scandinavia and parts of Scottish highlands. Other less spectacular and less known scenic highways worth a drive are often designated by some states. Two of them are for example Arkansas Hwy 7 and Arkansas Hwy 21. These twisted and curvy roads run across the heavily forested parts of the Ozark Hills and are often as deserted as some roads in Wyoming. Great place to try your cornering skills 😉

But even if roads are not marked as scenic byways some of them are simple a joy to drive. I love the empty state and US highways cutting across the prairies of Dakotas and Nebraska or the farmlands of Kansas and Oklahoma. They are straight, usually smooth, with views stretching all the way to the distant horizon and the big sky above. And the lack of trees in those regions makes the horizon even further away and the sky even bigger. Great examples of such roads are US Hwy 189 in Wyoming, from Evanston towards the Jackson Hole or US Hwy 85 connecting North and South Dakota. With country music radio station turned on I can drive for hours, or even days, without getting anywhere in particular. I like it so much that probably half of my pictures taken in USA have roads or roads signs on them.

Why roads signs? I guess because they are as iconic as roads and places themselves. Imagine signs standing in the middle of nowhere and showing distances and directions to places like Death Valley, Dodge City or Deadwood. On one hand American highways are simple and logically marked, on the other hand you have to remember that apart from the federal system each state has its own highways with distinctive road numbers and road signs. I love those varied state highways shields. In Utah there is image of beehive, in Washington State, the profile of the head of George Washington, in North Dakota there is head of Native American. And those are only few examples. Compared with that, European road signs are deadly boring and logical.

Of course there is another side of the American road. Its busy urban freeways, those wide rivers of concrete and tarmac with gigantic multilevel junctions. For many it must be an image of hell on earth, like for example the infamous freeways of LA. But for me it has some strange magnetic pull. When I navigate through 12 or 16 lanes of LA or Dallas freeway it gives me some difficult to explain thrill and excitement. It’s completely opposite extreme to the empty roads of, let say, Wyoming. America is land of contrasts. Its emptiest roads are much quieter than anywhere in Europe but its busiest freeways are busier than anywhere else. Driving through some of the junctions is like entering a temple of car culture. One of these places is famous (among the road enthusiast) Texas High Five. It is a five (yes five!) level intersection of the Interstate Hwy 635, US Hwy 75 and some local roads in Dallas. And there are more of similar junctions, especially in Texas and California which are true car heavens.

So, if you really want to experience the real, non touristy, side of America you have to drive its highways, eat at the roadside fast food joints, stop for a break at the truck stops and sleep in the roadside motels. For some it might be unethical and environmentally unfriendly, for others boring and uninspiring. But if, like me, you love the smell of petrol and tarmac you will simply love it.

Wild Wild West

Kansas is one of the states I always wanted to visit. Maybe it’s not a place full of well-known world-class attractions but its name and image evokes classic pictures of America. The idea of going there was chasing me for the last few years, so planning my US trip for 2011 I decided to include it in my itinerary.

My tour of the southern plains started in Kansas City (KC) which, confusingly, is located in Missouri. Well, to make things even more complicated there are actually two Kansas Cities neighbouring each other, one in Missouri and one in Kansas. The one in Missouri is the proper city, with the classic American downtown, while the KC in Kansas is rather just a suburb. KC was traditionally seen as the gateway to the west. Cattle driven from Texas and other places by cowboys were slaughtered here or loaded into trains heading east, and migrants going west changed from trains to horse wagons.

Two main attractions of Kansas City are located next to each other, just south of downtown. The Union Station, a classic American train station representing the golden age of railways was one of the most important and busiest stations in the USA, and the Beaux-Arts building was the second-largest station in the nation when it opened in 1914. Nowadays it is nicely renovated and home to a family-friendly science museum (including 3D cinema and planetarium), Irish Museum, shops, restaurants and café. What is the most impressive is the size and architecture of the building itself. It indicates how busy a station had to be during its heyday. Ironically, it is now serving only four trains and around 400 passengers a day. Right next to the station is the Liberty Memorial. Opened in 1926, it is a monument commemorating soldiers fallen during World War I. Built in Egyptian Revival style, it is an impressive structure indeed, topped by tall tower. Surrounded by a nice park and located on a hill overlooking downtown KC, the monument grounds are a great place for a stroll or a picnic.

From KC I drove west, entering the real Kansas. First stop, Lawrence, which is a small town, home of University of Kansas, and located about 60km from KC. It offers a relaxed atmosphere, some good food, coffee and shopping. Among the shops is Kansas Sampler, offering all things Kansas, like clothing (especially connected to various Kansas sport teams), magnets, cards, food etc; a great place to fill your suitcase with gifts. Another shop, which seriously puzzled me, was called “Brits”. Selling all sorts of British goods, it wouldn’t be out of place in touristy part of London. But in the middle of Kansas? Weird.

Next stop Topeka, capital of Kansas. Apart from the state capitol, it is not a particularly interesting place. Of course I did visit the Kansas State Capitol, but unfortunately it was undergoing reconstruction work, so tours were severely limited. It is a classic capitol building, two wings dominated by a massive dome, and it’s one of the tallest among all the capitols.

West of Topeka, settlements become smaller and distances between them get longer. This is Kansas how I have always imagined it. And I was absolutely loving it. After leaving the major freeway (I-70 to be precise) at Manhattan (yes there is a Manhattan in Kansas), I took Kansas Hwy 177 south. Called Flint Hills Scenic Byway, it is a really great drive. The road is winding between and on top of the gently rolling hills covered with natural pastures. Due to cherty soil, the land is better suited to ranching than farming. Because of this, the Flint Hills is still largely native prairie grassland, one of the last great preserves of tall-grass prairie in the country. Lack of trees allows for some amazing uninterrupted vistas which for me are an important part of the American experience. Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve near the Strong City shouldn’t be missed. Offering self-guided walking trails, which let you get close to this amazing environment, as well as historic 1881 ranch, it is run by the National park Service and a charity called Nature Conservancy. From there, a scenic stretch of Hwy 177 continues to the outskirts of Wichita, which being the largest city in Kansas was convenient place for an overnight stop.

Old Cowtown Museum in Wichita was probably the best unexpected attraction during my trip. I would have missed it if I didn’t stop overnight in Wichita as I found a leaflet about it in the motel I was staying in. Initially I thought it was simply a collection of old buildings but it is actually much more than that. It is a living history museum with actors in period clothes creating an authentic Old West atmosphere. It is absolutely brilliant. There is a saloon where you can buy the old-taste lemonade, blacksmith shop where you can watch a blacksmith at work, newspaper office with presentations of old printing methods, plus many other buildings like the sheriff’s office, dry goods store, train station, hotel, drugstore or bank, which you can enter and explore yourself. You can also join the horse wagon rides and watch occasional shoot-out on the main street. Most of the buildings are authentic and brought to the museum to save them from destruction at their original locations. I was there for a few hours, which passed surprisingly fast while I had a lot of fun. After few minutes in the museum it is really possible to forget we have 21st century already. For anyone anywhere close to Wichita this place is a must-see destination.

Leaving Wichita I turned west again. Density of population went down quite dramatically and I could feel I was entering what was once called the Wild West. I chose US Hwy 160 which in this part of Kansas is called Gypsum Hills Scenic Byway. It was another great drive but landscape was quite different from that of the Flint Hills. Hills here were less round but rather more dramatic buttes with steep colourful slopes and flat tops. Ranching dominates here as well but vegetation was drier than that in the Flint Hills. The road was straight but going up and down, without end.

Moving further west and north, going towards the famous Dodge City, I entered the classic wheat-growing regions of Kansas. With roads stretching indefinitely towards the distant horizon and endless fields on the both sides of the highway you could feel like crossing some sort of wheat ocean. Only the telegraph poles and some distant wind farms provided vertical attractions in this mostly horizontal landscape. With the sun setting and country music playing, there is no better way of travelling. Forget luxury cruises or flying first class, forget nice restaurants or posh hotels. Cheap motels full of truck drivers and fast food joints, where a small size drink comes in a one gallon cup, is the way to go in these parts of the country.

Dodge City, with a population of 27,000 souls, feels like a real metropolis in this empty bit of the great plains. It was once the wildest of the frontier towns with characters like Wyatt Earp, James Earp, Ed Masterson and Doc Holliday serving as law enforcement. Nowadays Dodge is a sleepy western town where pick-up trucks dominate streetscape in the same way as yellow cabs do in the Manhattan. You can explore its colourful past in the Boot Hill Museum, whose name comes from Boot Hill Cemetery where cowboys were once buried with their boots on. It is another living history museum but much smaller than the one in Wichita. The big difference is also the fact that buildings here are reconstructions rather than original ones.

Crossing from Kansas to Colorado is surprisingly anti-climatic. Most people thinking of Colorado think of spectacular mountains. In reality the eastern third of the state is effectively an extension of Kansas with a flat landscape dominated by farming and ranching. But there are interesting things to see, too. One of them is Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site near La Junta. It features a reconstructed 1840’s adobe fur trading post on the mountain branch of the Santa Fe Trail where traders, trappers, travellers, and Plains Indian tribes came together for trade. Kit Carson was employed there as a hunter, and the explorer John C Frémont used it as a staging area. Today, living historians recreate the sights, sounds, and smells of the past with guided tours and demonstrations. It is all really well done and the fort is nicely located on the banks of the Arkansas River.

Moving further south, there is the Texas panhandle, one vast expanse of bleak, flat land. Driving the Interstate 40, one can think there is nothing really to see but there are some hidden gems. And I don’t mean the largest cross in the western hemisphere (located in Groom and not really hidden, as you can see it for miles from the freeway), or the Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo. Cadillac Ranch is a quirky and interesting public art installation, and a great photo stop, but the real treasure of the panhandle is the Palo Duro State Park, sometimes called the Great Canyon of Texas. Well, it’s not really the Grand Canyon, but with depths of up to 300m, an average width of 10km and a length of almost 200km, it is an impressive geological feature. The park offers walking, biking and horse-riding trails among colourful rocky outcrops in the form of hoodoos, buttes, steep-walled mesas and other crazy shapes. As Georgia O’Keeffe once wrote, “It is a burning, seething cauldron, filled with dramatic light and colour.” The best time to visit is late afternoon when the temperature is lower and the light is good for photography. If you have only a bit of time, it is still worth stopping by and admiring this amazing landscape from the few viewpoints along the access road. If time allows, it is a great place for camping too.

For those interested in route 66 experiences, I recommend a stop in Shamrock, where a renovated art deco gas station, the “U-Drop-Inn Cafe”, serves as tourist information.

The next state on my journey was Oklahoma, which is also the 40th state I have visited (yeah, just 10 more to go). I crossed from Texas to Oklahoma in the town of Texola. It is located only 28 seconds from the 100th meridian which forms a border between the Texas panhandle and Oklahoma. During the early times its inhabitants lived in both of the states without ever moving, as the town was surveyed eight times. It was also aptly named Texokla and Texoma. To be honest I would never have stopped there if I wasn’t in search of historic Route 66. It is possible to drive some surviving bits of it, just west of town, but it was actually just a disappointing stretch of old two-lane concrete highway. Nothing special. I have to admit I never understood all the fuss about Route 66 but had to check if I was right in my scepticism. I was. There are more scenic roads in America, there are longer roads, and there are more impressive roads. Roads which actually still exist as opposed to Route 66. I blame clever marketing for all this madness.

Texola itself was surprisingly interesting. With only 36 inhabitants (according to 2010 census) it is practically a ghost town. Many buildings (including gas station which was once serving Route 66 – for those into these things) are falling apart or are completely overgrown; usually both. A great photo opportunity, but I seriously wonder where these 36 people live.

Oklahoma is greener than Texas and less flat. I recommend going off the main freeway and enjoy driving its peaceful state highways. For example Oklahoma Hwy 152 is a great alternative to busy interstate 40. Probably the most unexpected attraction in the state is Wichita Mountains. With a maximum of 750m elevation, they are not true mountains but the granite peaks are still rather unexpected and dominant in the gently rolling state. A big part of the region is protected by the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge which, covered by the remnants of mixed grass prairie, is host to herds of bison and longhorn cattle as well as a colony of super-cute prairie dogs. Kids will love them. One place not to miss is definitely Mount Scott. From its rocky 751m peak you will get probably one of the best views in the Great Plains. Absolutely spectacular, especially just before the sunset. You can drive all the way to the top and the mountain road drive is fun in itself.

Bordering the wildlife refuge is Fort Sill. An active military installation, it is also a National Historic Landmark. You can visit it, but you will be asked for ID at the checkpoint. Fort Sill was built by General Sheridan in 1860s during the, so called, Indian Wars and it is one of the best preserved military outposts from that period. Many of the original stone buildings (most of which are still standing) were constructed by the famous 10th Cavalry, a group of black “buffalo soldiers”. Among the scouts stationed in the fort were Buffalo Bill Cody and Wild Bill Hickok. Geronimo was prisoner here and is buried at the fort; his grave is accessible to visitors. In short, Fort Sill has a fascinating history which is impossible to condense here.

I finished my Wild West experience in Oklahoma City where, as per tradition, I couldn’t skip the state capitol. It was a strange experience as it was Sunday, and apart from the guard at the gate, I was probably the only person in this vast building. It is actually the last capitol finished in the United States as its dome was only added in 2002. It is also the only capitol with its own active oil well.

Oklahoma City become unfortunately well known in 1995 when its federal building was bombed. Today, the well-designed Oklahoma City National Memorial commemorates 168 victims of that event. Located in the downtown, right in the place where the building was standing, it is a nice place to stroll or for a moment of reflection. On the neighbouring building, now hosting a museum, you can still see a damaged fire-escape staircase. To cheer things up during my visit, the whole city was in the heat of NBA playoffs because its team, Oklahoma City Thunder, was doing very well.

The Wild West is difficult to really define. Is it a place? Is it period of time? All I can say is that my trip across Kansas, Oklahoma and parts of Texas and Colorado had something which made me feel I’m a bit closer to understanding what the Wild West really is.

And I want to go back!