Colorado Scenic & Historic Byways mark 25 years
Day to day, point A to point B, with varying levels of willingness and let’s-just-get-there-ness, driving can be an homage to Euclid: striving for the straightest of lines between work and home, say, or the grocery store and the soccer field.
It’s not that this kind of driving can’t be fun — this is America, after all, an unabashed car nation — but it’s more often a means to an end. The world outside the windows may or may not get noticed, the passing scene may blur into indistinct smears of whatever when the destination and not the journey becomes the point.
These are not the times for photos, even at stoplights.
But then there are the other times, driving away from the green-yellow-red, away from the big boxes and indifferent buzzing of streetlights, away from house after house with a convenience store on the corner, away from piles of scrap metal, garbage cans at the curb, flowers contained in small spaces, roads that seem to go somewhere rather than anywhere.
These are the drives when rounding a corner can be an act of discovery, when heads swivel like sprinklers and eyes can’t open wide enough to take it all in, when 20 mph seems like a reasonable speed, when just pulling over and getting out of the car and looking around is to feel immortal.
So, here’s to the Colorado Scenic and Historic Byways program, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Established by executive order in 1989, then-governor Roy Romer charged the Colorado Scenic and Historic Byways Commission with seeking out and guiding the development of roadways that have “exceptional scenic, ecological, cultural, and historic attributes.”
(Presumably, charging the commission with seeking out roadways that “reduce visitors to nonsensical gibbering and stunned gasps, maybe move them to tears, cause them to jerk to the side of the road in an inadvisable but understandable traffic maneuver so they can take 9,273 pictures, that are so incredibly gorgeous holy cow can you even believe it,” wouldn’t have read as well in a government document.)
Now, there are 25 designated scenic or historic byways throughout the state, spread through 47 counties and encompassing 2,492 miles of roads. Eleven have been designated by the U.S. Secretary of Transportation as America’s Byways, giving Colorado the greatest number of such byways among all the states.
“The accumulation of all these sites really paints a picture of the state,” said Roger Wilson, a member of the Colorado Scenic and Historic Byways Commission.
The process of a roadway being designated a scenic or historic byway begins at a local level, he said. A collaboration among local government, businesses, nonprofits and other organizations, sometimes partnering with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management or the U.S. Forest Service, if the road winds through public lands, presents a proposal to the commission, which operates under the umbrella of the Colorado Department of Transportation.
Commission members then tour the proposed byway with experts who can address the history, geology and biology of the area, Wilson said. If no additional information is needed, the commission votes on whether to designate the area a scenic or historic byway.
Beverly Rich, chairwoman of the San Juan County Historical Society, helped craft the proposal to designate the Alpine Loop — from Ouray to Silverton to Lake City — a scenic byway, the first backcountry byway in the state. On BLM land, it is open only in summer and about one-third of it is accessible only by a four-wheel-drive vehicle.
“We toured it and came up with a list of what we would like to see on the Alpine Loop, interpretation, toilets, safety messages, leave no trace messages, keeping people off the tundra, historic preservation,” Rich explained, adding that environmental and historic protection were two of the greatest concerns for the area, which encompasses seven ghost towns.
Rich said that since the Alpine Loop was designated a scenic byway, use has appreciably increased. That may be because of overall increased tourism to Colorado, she said, or the fact that state tourism officials vigorously advertise scenic and historic byways.
“I don’t think there’s any way to get a count on how many people have used (Flat Tops Trail) since it became a scenic byway, but it seems like it’s definitely gone up,” said Scott Meszaros, Meeker town manager. “Traditionally, we get a lot of hunters and fishers up in that area, but I think we’ve gotten more visitors just sightseeing, even though parts of it can be a little rough.”
Funding and support for scenic and historic byways often falls to state and local entities, Wilson said. The Colorado Department of Transportation, counties and cities maintain roads as usual, but paying for interpretation, signage and other services can be a matter of grant-writing and fundraising.
In the early days of Colorado Scenic and Historic Byways’ existence, a major source of funding was the National Scenic Byways Program: $17,945,194 between 1992 and 2012. Under that funding plan, states were responsible for a minimum of 20 percent in matching funds for program costs.
However, the 2012 Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century bill eliminated direct funding for the National Scenic Byways Program.
At a state level, this means fewer dollars and greater competition for them.
And that highlights the need for unity and cooperation among all the groups tasked with supporting and maintaining the state’s historic and scenic byways, said Chris Miller of the Western Colorado Interpretive Association. The association helped administer the 2013 management plan for the Unaweep Tabeguache Scenic Byway.
“I think the scenic byways being designated help promote the areas they go through,” Miller said. “They are the backbone of those rural communities where scenic byways tend to go through, that are out of the way and wouldn’t see a lot of visitors otherwise. And they provide appropriate access to your public lands.”
Though it is difficult to quantify in dollar amounts the economic benefits of scenic or historic byway designation, according to the Colorado Department of Transportation’s October 2013 report, “The Benefits of Colorado’s Scenic & Historic Byways,” “they are a visible and important part of the state’s offerings to driving visitors, yet they are difficult to separate from other elements that draw visitors to a byway region, like beautiful scenery and historic towns.”
“They highlight the best of what Colorado has to offer,” Miller said. “This is an incredible state and our scenic and historic byways make it accessible.”
They make it a place to slow down, to maybe stop at a pull-in and read what’s written at the kiosk, to look around. And then look some more. To turn a slow, full circle encompassing sky and earth, mountain and plains and red rock, history and horizon, with nowhere to be and nothing to do but breathe it in.