Explore March 28, 2019

Taking the Scenic Route

Idaho’s scenic byways reveal the Gem State in all its glory

It’s part of the American dream: taking a leisurely Sunday drive—preferably in a convertible—watching beautiful scenery pass by.

Idaho is blessed with more spectacular scenery than most other states. That’s why more than half of its state highways are considered Scenic Byways, a state and federal program designating roads as particularly breathtaking. But if you want to traverse Idaho’s scenic roads, it’s better to do it sooner rather than later. On both the state and federal level, funding has stopped. And while the roads themselves will still be there, interpretive signs and other wayfaring guides explaining what makes them so remarkable may not be.

“Scenic byways help link communities in a corridor,” explained Delta James, a volunteer for the Payette River Scenic Byway and an economic development planner for the city of McCall. “To be recognized, it has to have unusual and special scenic and historic qualities that recognize the uniqueness and beauty of where we are.”

The Scenic Byways Program was established and funded in 1991, which created a voluntary, community-based program administered through the Federal Highways Administration to recognize, protect, and promote America’s most outstanding roads, said Sonna Lynn Fernandez, transportation planning project manager for Idaho Transportation Department Planning Services. Unfortunately, in 2012, Congress eliminated the program. 

“During the 21 years that the program operated, Idaho was able to establish 2,523 miles in 31 Scenic, Historic and Back Country Byways,” Hernandez said, noting that out of Idaho’s 4,992 miles of state highway, nearly 51 percent are designated a byway. While the state tried to keep the program going, it was placed on hold late in 2018 until federal funding is restored. “Road maintenance is of course completed by ITD as needed, but without program funds, no new signs can be authorized unless the byway committee pays for them,” she noted.

Aside from being beautiful places to drive, Idaho’s scenic byways drive economic activity as well, said Aldis Garsvo, a consultant with Mountain Post in Kuna, who worked on a number of byways, including the Western Heritage Historic Byway through Kuna and Melba. “Fundamentally, the reason that scenic byways even got started in Idaho was a lot of small towns relied on logging or mining,” he explained. “When that ends, what is the town going to do? They realize there’s a tourism value.”

Meanwhile, ITD has partnered with the Idaho Department of Commerce to promote the byways, and maintain their tourism value, creating a website and a travel guide. In some regions, local nonprofits—encouraged by the byways’ appeal to tourists—have taken on their management. For example, the West Central Mountains Economic Development Council has taken the Payette River Scenic Byway under its fiscal umbrella, James explained.

“We don’t get regular funding, just on a project by project basis,” James said. “It adds to the promotional aspects of our region and encourages people to recognize that when they come to McCall and the surrounding areas that they are driving up a nationally recognized scenic byway.” Fortunately, most of it runs along State Highway 55, meaning that though the byway itself no longer gets regular funding, the organization can partner with ITD to repair signs, she said.

For now, Idaho’s scenic roads are still there, so check them out before they’ve gone the byway.   


Idaho Scenic, Historic and Back Country Byways

Idaho boasts 31 Scenic, Historic, and Back Country Byways
that traverse 2,523 miles of Idaho terrain, more than
half of all of Idaho’s state highway miles.

Notable scenic byways near the Treasure Valley include:

• Main Oregon Trail Back Country Byway, which takes you from southeast Boise to Three Island Crossing and Glenn’s Ferry

• Owyhee Uplands Back Country Byway, which reaches from Grandview to Jordan Valley, Ore.

• Ponderosa Pine Scenic Byway, which goes from
Boise to Stanley and offers a gateway to the Boise, Salmon-Challis, and Sawtooth National Forests

• Snake River Canyon Scenic Byway, which travels from Melba to Nyssa, Ore.

This article appears in the Spring 2019 Issue of Territory Magazine.