Map: Florida Scenic Highways

View National Scenic Byways/Florida Scenic Highways in a larger map (April 11, 2013)

One of the most pleasing drives in Florida for Jim Thorsen is a nearly 60-mile stretch of State Road 40 between Ormond Beach and Silver Springs.

The mostly two-lane road winds through the heart of the Ocala National Forest and offers motorists a view of the world's most massive collection of sand pines. The thousands of unspoiled acres along the way are one of the last wild and uncrowded places still left in the Sunshine State. It's also where the largest population of Florida black bears exists.

"So you get a good feeling of old Florida and what it looked like in the days when [ Hernando] De Soto came over," said Thorsen, a retired district ranger with the Seminole Ranger District who worked in the Ocala National Forest for years. "It's something that people will not see anywhere else."

Federal transportation officials agree.

In October, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., that Central Florida's S.R. 40, dubbed the Black Bear Scenic Byway, has been designated as a National Scenic Byway, joining 150 other picturesque but less-traveled roads in 46 states.

The Black Bear Scenic Byway also includes two spurs on State Road 19 between Altoona and Palatka.

It wasn't the only Central Florida road honored. The popular Ormond Scenic Loop and Trail in Volusia County also was granted the prestigious federal designation.

The designation means the roadways now are eligible for federal grants that can go toward erecting signs, building information kiosks, establishing trailheads and publishing tourism brochures about the roadway to attract visitors.

It also means the surrounding area will be better protected from overdevelopment.

"We're really happy about it, because bears are very important," Thorsen said. "State Road 40 has one of the highest road kills for bears. But it's not just about bears. It's kind of a symbol for all wildlife."

'Amazing' number of requests

Thorsen pointed out that a variety of species besides bears cross S.R. 40 including deer, foxes, alligators and gopher tortoises. The area also is filled with scrub-jays and red-cockaded woodpeckers, both protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.

When it comes to taking a scenic drive, Central Floridians have it good. Of Florida's six designated National Scenic Byways, four of them are in this area. Besides the Black Bear and the Ormond Loop byways, the others include portions of State Road A1A between Volusia and Duval counties and the Indian River Lagoon Scenic Byway on the east coast.

The Florida Keys Scenic Highway — also known as the Overseas Highway — connecting Key Largo with Key West, was named an All-American Road in October by federal transportation officials, the highest recognition possible under the National Scenic Byways program.

Florida also has a separate scenic-highway program started in 1993 through the state Department of Transportation. Since then, 24 road corridors — including six in Central Florida — have received the state designation.

"Since we started the program, it's been amazing how many applications we keep getting," said Mariano Berrios, state scenic-highways program manager and an environmental programs administrator for the state DOT. "It's getting to the point that if we designate too many, it may get watered down and [the roadways] will lose their significance."

State roadways are designated nearly biennially and the agency receives about three applications a year, according to Berrios. National designations have been handed out six times since 1996.

Joe Jaynes, chairman of the nonprofit Ormond Scenic Loop and Trail group, said the national designation puts the Florida roadways alongside other famous U.S. corridors, including Historic Route 66 in New Mexico, Illinois and Oklahoma.

The Ormond Loop — known as "The Loop" to locals — circles about 36 miles from Ormond Beach to the Flagler County line. It's long been a popular ride for motorcyclists and bicyclists because of its massive tree canopies.