First established in 1991 by Congress in the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA), the National Scenic Byways Program was strengthened by the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) in 1998 and the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, and Efficient Transportation Equity Act – A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) in 2005.
The first designations were announced in September of 1996. These included:
- the Selma to Montgomery March Byway in Alabama
- the Big Sur Coast Highway in California
- the Grand Mesa Scenic and Historic Byway and the San Juan Skyway in Colorado
- the Connecticut State Route 169 and the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut
- the Creole Nature Trail in Louisiana
- the Edge of the Wilderness Byway in Minnesota
- the Lake Tahoe – Eastshore Drive and the Pyramid Lake Scenic Byway in Nevada
- the Kancamagus Scenic Byway in New Hampshire
- the Great Lakes Seaway Trail in New York
- the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina
- the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway in South Dakota
- the Cherohala Skyway in Tennessee
- the Highland Scenic Highway in West Virginia
- the Natchez Trace Parkway in Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee
Designations continued for the next 13 years until the last designations were made in October of 2009.
Funding was cut for the program in 2012.
In 2019, Scenic America led an advocacy effort to revitalize the program, which culminated in the passage of the Reviving America’s Scenic Byways Act of 2019. In December 2020, the President signed a stimulus bill authorizing $16 million in funding for the program, its first dedicated funding since 2012. The program’s future funding will be addressed by the 117th Congress, and new byways designations were announced on February 16, 2021. Now, there are 184 National Scenic Byways in 48 states.