There is always something evocative about driving down a country road, whether it conjures a memory of a simpler time, echoes of encompassing quiet or is a vision of beauty. Others seek out such roads to fish, camp, hunt, search for history in abandoned towns or prehistoric Indian ruins, or just to be alone.
Whatever the lure, the federal government may have the road for you. The U.S. Forest Service has operated the National Scenic Byways Program, offering more than 100 designated roads, since 1988. And the next year the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) selected 38 country roads in 11 Western states, covering 1,900 scenic miles, to demonstrate the beauty and diversity of our public lands.
The BLM's Back Country Byways program has grown to 48 roads, extending through coastal Oregon, California's Mojave Desert and the route through Idaho and Montana followed by Lewis and Clark. Other Back Country Byways cross the Continental Divide in Colorado, pass through Anasazi Indian ruins in Utah, New Mexico's Rio Grande Gorge and historic forts and ghost towns in Nevada.
The bureau administers 272-million acres _ about one-eighth of all federal real estate. Holdings in the West are vast, while eastern holdings are mainly in mineral rights below the ground. That is why the Back Country Byways are all west of the Mississippi River.
"We drove Colorado's Alpine Loop last fall, when the leaves were changing," said Del Price, formerly head of the byways program and now a BLM spokesman based in Denver, "and it is one of the most spectacular drives I've ever been on in my life."
"What we're finding on the Gold Belt Tour," said Bob Wick, a recreation specialist with the BLM's Canon City, Colo., office, "is that people are . . . impressed with the primitive setting of the area."
The area he was referring to is a 122-mile byway linking Canon City with Cripple Creek and Victor, in central Colorado, south of Pikes Peak. Along the way are steep canyons and the remains of an early stagecoach station. One-third of the byway follows the route of a railroad that hauled gold out of the richest mining district in the
United States. Another area is known for famous dinosaur fossil digs. There also is casino gambling in the Victorian mining town of Cripple Creek and a nifty territorial prison museum in Canon City.
Other byways are equally diverse and impressive.
The Fort Churchill to Wellington Byway, near Carson City and Reno, Nev., follows a Pony Express route 67 miles, through the silver boom town of Dayton, now another state park, climbs a mountain pass through a pine and juniper forest, and descends into a steep canyon inhabited by mule deer, mountain lions, bobcats and wild horses, traversing high desert and irrigated agricultural lands.
Montana's Garnet Range Byway offers a completely different type of experience: It is a 12-mile trail that climbs 2,000 feet and is accessible only by snowmobile or skis in winter. The trail ends at the ghost town of Garnet, high in the Garnet Range, 30 miles east of Missoula.
Accessible year-round, despite frequent heavy rains, is western Oregon's South Fork Alsea River Byway, following the south fork of the river through the Coast Range, 35 miles west of Eugene. The fishing for steelhead trout, chinook and coho salmon is said to be excellent below Alsea Falls, a state park filled with spruce, Douglas fir and western red cedar.
The BLM manages these public lands for multiple use and travelers are equally likely to see working oil wells, farm lands or grazing cattle, as they are to see petroglyphs (Indian rock carvings), ghost towns, hikers, hunters, bike riders or camp sites.
Unlike the National Scenic Byways, which are all paved and frequently follow main roads in rural areas, the BLM grades its western byways on a 1-to-4 scale. Type 1 byways are paved roads accessible to passenger cars. Type 2 are mostly unpaved, with a high-ground-clearance vehicle needed. Type 3 are steep or rough roads, some requiring water crossings for which a four-wheel-drive vehicle is required. Type 4 are seasonal trails suitable for specialized vehicles, such as a mountain bike or snowmobile, but not for passenger vehicles or even four-wheel drive vehicles.
The best way to sample the Back Country Byways is to travel on them. Here are some of the things you might find.
ARIZONA: Hualapai Mountain, type 1-3, 47 miles. Hiking, camping, birdwatching, abandoned mines, Hualapai Mountain Park. Close to Lake Havasu, Lake Mead. For information, contact BLM, 2475 Beverly Ave., Kingman, AZ 86401, (602) 757-3161.
CALIFORNIA: East Mojave Scenic Area, type 1 and 2, 229 miles. Eight byways, ranging from 12 to 60 miles. Typical of the region are expansive desert views, extinct volcanoes, wildlife, hiking, camping. Near Death Valley, Lake Mead, Las Vegas, Joshua Tree. BLM, 6221 Box Springs Blvd., Riverside, CA 92507, (909) 697-5200.
COLORADO: Alpine Loop, type 1-3, 63 miles. Mountain passes over 14,000-foot peaks, ghost towns, bighorn sheep, elk herds, hunting, trout fishing, hot springs. Near historic Victorian mining towns of Silverton and Ouray. Closed in winter. BLM, 2465 S Townsend, Montrose, CO 81401, (303) 249-7791.
IDAHO: Lewis and Clark, type 1, 39 miles. Crosses Lembi Pass, where Lewis and Clark traversed the Continental Divide in 1805. Mountainous, closed in winter. BLM, PO Box 430, Salmon, ID 83467, (208) 756-2201.
NEW MEXICO: Wild Rivers, type 1, 13 miles. Follows the Rio Grande and Red River, camping, fishing, wildlife, biking. Near Taos. BLM, Monte Vista Plaza, Taos, NM 87571, (505) 758-8851.
OREGON: The state has 14 Byways, ranging from coastal rain forests to mountains, wetlands, volcanic lava flows and sand dunes. Activities range from hiking and to river rafting, fishing and hunting. Contact BLM, 185 E Fourth St., Prineville, OR 97754, (503) 447-4115.
SOUTH DAKOTA: Fort Meade, type 1, 5 miles. To the cavalry post that guarded the Black Hills, with access to camping, hiking, fishing, hunting. Near Mount Rushmore. BLM, 310 Roundup St., Belle Fourche, SD 57717, (605) 892-2526.
Freelance writer Steve Cohen lives in Durango, Colo.
IF YOU GO
The source recommended by the BLM for the most complete information about the Back Country Byways Program and the original 38 roads, is Back Country Byways, by Stewart M. Green. It is available at bookstores or from Falcon Press, PO Box 1718, Helena, MT 59624. Additional information is available from state tourism offices or from BLM district offices.
A list of officially designated Back Country Byways is available from the Bureau of Land Management, 18th and C streets NW, Washington, DC 20240, (202) 208-5717. For information on the National Scenic Byways, contact the USDA Forest Service, PO Box 96090, Washington, DC 20090-6090, (202) 205-1760.