When road tripping in America, there’s just one rule to live by: get off the interstate. The only exception might be if you’re in a hurry, but then, when you’re road tripping you should never be in a hurry.
To see the iconic bridge on Highway 1 near Big Sur, the Mars-like buttes of Highway 163 through Monument Valley or the engineering marvel of the Overseas Highway through the Florida Keys, you have to get off the interstate — often onto Scenic Byways. There are 184 of these photo-worthy roads across the USA, and seeking them out is a surefire way to have an epic road trip.
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Washington state’s first byway was Chuckanut Drive, a gorgeous stretch of winding road snaking precariously between the Cascade Mountains and Bellingham Bay. Nearly 130 years after it was completed, this narrow highway still inspires drivers today – and still carries hints of history.
Aside from the driving, which is endlessly engaging thanks to narrow lanes, cliffside views, lush forests and racetrack turns, the Chuckanut Byway offers pitstops galore, so you should schedule two days to really soak in this 24-mile drive.
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The bays and tidal activity of Western Washington are ideal for oysters, and for centuries tenacious cultivators have turned the tidal flats into productive oyster farms. It started with the Olympia oyster, before the more prolific Pacific oyster was introduced from Japan. Time your drive for low tide for a chance to see the rows and rows of oyster beds glinting in the sunshine, and snag a bite to eat no matter when you visit.
The turn-off for Taylor Shellfish Farms’ Samish Oyster Bar and Shellfish Market is at one of the most picturesque spots on the scenic byway, a bridge on a hairpin turn over a waterfall in a lush green rainforest. Just as tempting, The Oyster Bar on Chuckanut Drive is a gabled wooden lodge perched on a cliff on a rare straightaway, offering views of Samish Bay and an award-winning wine list.
2. Trails for all
The trail network in the mountains above the Chuckanut Byway is remarkable not just for its coverage and viewpoints, but also for the range of users it serves. E-bikes, strollers and wheelchairs can roll on the 6.5-mile Interurban Trail, which follows the route of an early 1900s electric trolley. Mountain bikers enjoy flowy singletrack on Chuckanut Mountain and hikers have their own set of bike-free trails at Larrabee State Park and Oyster Dome. Look for signs about leash-on, leash-off and dog-free areas, horse trails and special permits for registered users of metal detectors, or keep it simple with beachcombing along the shore.
Then of course there’s the Chuckanut Byway itself, a narrow winding “trail” so thrilling it’s often been used in car commercials, and a great route for motorcycles, drivers and fearless cyclists who don’t mind rubbing elbows with passing cars.
3. Window shopping
The big city may have everything, but what the small towns along the Chuckanut Byway lack in quantity they more than make up for with charm, craft and character to spare. The federally designated historic district of Fairhaven inspires even the most reluctant shopper with its Victorian-era red brick, artsy boutiques, bookstores, plant shops, bakeries and delicious restaurants.
Just a few miles south everything changes: the Cascade Mountains drop down into wide open fields and brick makes way for wooden buildings reminiscent of the wild west. Follow the Bow-Edison Food Trail to fill up on cheese, bread, fruit, whiskey and more, and poke your head into the many art galleries and studios. In April, local fields turn rainbow bright with the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival.
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