Has the down economy crushed your summer vacation plans? Are dreams of eating conch fritters on a palm-laden island or, say, motoring through woods that hide a hamlet full of bratwurst and Oettinger all but gone?
You won't be alone. Last month, more than 32 million Americans drove 50 miles or more over Memorial Day weekend, up 1.5 percent from 2008. AAA spokesman Robert Sinclair says he expects much the same for the duration of the summer, especially since analysts at the Energy Information Administration expect gas prices to average around $2.23 per gallon. That's down $1.60 from last summer.
"This summer is the summer of great expectations," Sinclair says. "There are bargains to be had because so many things are cheaper than last year: two- and three-star hotels are cheaper, and rental car rates."
To find the best towns in America to visit on a road trip, we convened a panel of experts to provide their top picks. Weighing in were Jamie Jensen, author of "Road Trip USA"; Cindi Ptak, a program manager for the National Scenic Byways Program (she suggested byways near towns we ultimately selected); and AAA's Sinclair. We took their suggestions and then chose towns based on their proximity to nearby attractions, their accessibility to beautiful drives, their amount of parking facilities and potential to experience traffic congestion.
Aside from Portland, Ore., the list contains little-known gems that promise quirky but memorable experiences. Dying to attend an international accordion celebration and competition? Leavenworth has hosted one each June for the past 16 years. And the vibrant bicycle culture in Athens, Ga., has created the annual the Twilight Series and Critical Mass bike events each year, which attract thousands of competitors.
Jensen highly recommends visiting the Museum of the Fur Trade in Chadron, Neb., for its collection of artifacts from British, French, and Spanish trappers who traded in the area during the 50 years before Lewis and Clark explored the nation's interior. "They've got all the real stuff, all the trade goods from these wacky aficionados who collect it," says Jensen. "It's really fascinating."
If oddities are more up your alley, visit nearby Carhenge, an exact replica of Wiltshire's Stonehenge built with 38 automobiles. (You're just in time too: The summer solstice is June 21.) Also, Mount Rushmore is just one hour away from Chadron, and the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre is just over two hours away.
Rocky mountain highs
Mountain-top towns like Leavenworth, Red Lodge, Mont., and Vail, Colo., also made our list — they're beautiful in the summer months and a lot less muggy than their southern counterparts.
Vail has the largest single-mountain ski resort in the country (Vail Ski Resort on Vail Mountain) which, during the summer, offers thrilling, picturesque rides up the lift. Vail's wood-beam and flower-box-laden village square speaks to the town's low-key attitude. The only road there is Interstate 70, a scenic route that runs through the White River National Forest to Denver; daytime temperatures during the summer stay in the 70s.
Like Vail, Red Lodge is perfect for road travelers who welcome uncomplicated comforts away from crowds. Travelers should plan to visit Yellowstone National Park, about 35 miles from town, and camp in the woods nearby — an unusual amount of rain this spring has primed the region's outer limits for backpackers and campers.
"It's incredibly green," says Gwen Williams, president of the Red Lodge Chamber of Commerce. "In previous years, we've had real extreme fire danger, but this year the fire danger is very low, so that's really good for people going into the backcountry."
But check your calendar before heading off for what you think will be a vacation of near solitude — almost 40,000 people descend each year on Red Lodge for the Fourth of July weekend and for an annual motorcycle rally July 17-19. Hotel rooms are booked a full year in advance, Williams says.
It'll be worth it, though, when you do go. Even the locals say the views are spectacular.