Friday, February 17, 2012

Behind North Carolina's Scenic Byways

People may be surprised to learn that Durham County where I live, is the only one of North Carolina’s urban counties that is home to one of the state’s Scenic Byways.

This is because Durham is not only home to the state’s fifth largest city, which is also the core anchor for a four-county metropolitan area, but it is the 17th smallest land area of the state's 100 counties. Durham even rivals the county where the town of Asheville is located in North Carolina’s mountain region for scenic byways.

Little did I know when I was first recruited to Durham in 1989 to jumpstart the community’s official marketing agency that within days I would be sitting next to then-Governor Jim Martin behind plate at a Durham Bulls baseball game in the Historic Durham Athletic Park.

Nor did I realize at the time that this Republican governor, only the second since Reconstruction, had just set in motion the development of what would become the state’s award-winning Scenic Byways program.  

People such as Martin with a PhD in Chemistry have become increasingly rare in the Republican Party, an affiliation claimed by only 6% of today's scientists, 12% counting the portion of political Independents who lean that way.  Blinded by the lack of empirical voice and research-based decision-making, members of that party are now trying to eliminate the National Scenic Byways program as well as grants to enhance roadsides.

It was a few years after that evening with Governor Martin that I first  became acquainted with the name Bill Johnson, who was the State Roadside Environmental Engineer and one of the driving forces in developing and evolving the byways program.  As the head of the Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau I had been asked by the then-chair and vice-chair of the Durham County Board of Commissioners  to identify and help qualify potential byway routes here.

The state accepted two of several potential routes we identified including a spectacular 27 mile loop through the northern part of  Durham County including rural parts of the City.  We identified another through Duke Forest which was accepted as the terminal segment for the 92-mile Colonial Heritage Byway that begins near the border between Guilford and Rockingham counties, cutting across and up through Caswell County to within view of Hyco Lake along the Person County line before dropping down through Orange County and then over into Durham and through Duke Forest before terminating very near where I live.

During his tenure as the state’s roadside executive Bill also had a hand in implementing the beautification of North Carolina's roadways with spectacular beds of wildflowers, an idea spurred by Governor Martin’s wife Dottie.

Bill understood research showing that when it comes to maintaining roadsides, removing litter is a short-term inhibitor to littering behavior but coupling it with beautification creates a shared sense of responsibility and a longer term and more sustainable fix.

A good friend now, Bill’s retired and lives “down east”, as we call it, where he has a business and does some farming but his passion remains the overall scenic beauty of North Carolina, especially as viewed from the state’s roadways, that is, except where easements to block that scenery as well as clear-cut football-field sized swaths of trees and vegetation on each side have been gratuitously granted to more than 8,000 huge, stationary outdoor billboards.

Now also in retirement, it is my honor and privilege to continue to work with Bill in a renewed statewide grassroots effort to preserve, protect and restore the state’s scenic character including what is evident along its roads and highways.

Bill and his wife have driven every one of North Carolina's Scenic Byways and on my Harley Crossbones I'm trying to do the same.  Anyone wishing to join us can:


  • Using the interactive map shown, select one of the three regions of the state to view the Byways then click on the icon next to a Byway of interest for a pop-up with a brief description and a link for more information.


  • Download a PDF of all of the Byways by clicking this link or use the information on the website to request the booklet.

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