Pack up the car and let's hit the road. In the pages ahead, I'll clue you in on 10 of America's best and most affordable drives. Choose your favorite place: the mountains, the beach, big-sky prairie country, the luxurious gardens of the South. Road trips surely rank as one of the most convenient, rewarding, and least expensive ways to vacation. Great for families, they don't take much planning, and you can go anytime. And you get to see the country's most spectacular scenery, while learning about its history first hand.
I like to break up the time behind the wheel with a hike, a swim, or another outdoor activity. Read on, and I'll tell you where to soak in a giant hot-springs pool, slide down a steep sand dune on an improvised sled, or simply sip (for free) the latest vintages at a quality vineyard.
These 10 drives represent the amazing variety of America's road trips. For breathtaking views, head for Colorado's sky-high San Juan Mountains. For pioneer history, it's Nebraska's Pony Express country. Explore Native American life on Arizona's Navajo and Hopi reservations.
All but one of these drives can be covered in three days. At each overnight stop, I've recommended good, inexpensive places to stay and eat. Or camp out to really save vacation bucks.
More than any other prairie state, Nebraska epitomizes the pioneer spirit; America's westward expansion marched wholly across its wide river valleys and rolling hills. This 425-mile drive also introduces you to Nebraska's wide-open spaces and its beautiful green landscape. Countless streams wander the countryside, which is splashed liberally with lakes and ponds. Their cool water and shady banks are a respite from the summer sun.
Getting There: Fly into Omaha, which is served by several low-cost airlines: America West, Frontier, and Southwest.
Day One: Take I-80 west to Lincoln, connecting to U.S. 77 south to the Homestead National Monument of America in Beatrice. The park marks one of the first 160-acre plots granted free to settlers under the Homestead Act of 1862. Settlers fought drought, grass fires, locusts, harsh winters, and loneliness to survive. The museum tells their story. Stroll a replica of the tall-grass prairie the newcomers found.
Stay/dine: Beatrice at the 64-room Beatrice Inn (800/232-8742), $47. Also, the 44-room Victorian Inn (402/228-5955), $47.
Day Two: Just west on U.S. 136, join up briefly with the Oregon Trail at Rock Creek Station State Historical Park. Once the site of a Pony Express station, the park preserves the deep ruts of wagon trains. Hurry on to Red Cloud, a sleepy farm town renowned as the childhood home of Willa Cather. Tour the tiny gabled house where she enjoyed the privacy of an attic room. West of Red Cloud, turn north on Nebraska Route 10. Learn how to build a sod house at Fort Kearny State Historical Park, which preserves a replica of the 1848 fort built to protect the Oregon Trail. (Yes, Fort Kearny-without an e-is located in Kearney, with the e.) Stay: Kearney at the 59-room Motel 6 (308/338-0705), $36. Also, the 34-room Midtown Western Inn (800/333-1401), $44-$54. Dine: USA Steak Buffet.
Day Three: Follow U.S. 30/U.S. 26 past Ogallala. Swim at 35,700-acre Lake C.W. McConaughy, a state recreation area. See more wagon ruts at Ash Hollow State Historical Park. At Scotts Bluff, an Oregon Trail National Monument, climb to the top. Visit the Oregon Trail Museum. Stay: Scottsbluff at the 55-room Super 8 (308/635-1600), $52. Also, the 49-room Comfort Inn (308/632-7510), $65. Dine: Shari's Restaurant. Info: 800/228-4307, www.visitnebraska.org.
In its northern half, this 400-mile drive north from San Francisco to Crescent City tunnels through mist-shrouded groves of coastal redwoods. Towering 300 feet, these ancient giants are earth's tallest living things. In the south, California Route 1 snakes high alongside sheer ocean cliffs, then plunges back down in tight curves to rock-filled coves that invite exploring.
Getting There: Fly into Oakland or San Jose; both are served by America West, Southwest, and Jet Blue among others.
Day One: Take California Route 1 across the Golden Gate Bridge, a worthy gateway. Up the road, stroll three-mile-long Stinson Beach, a local favorite. Save half the day for Point Reyes National Seashore, a sprawling park encompassing forests of wind-sculpted pines and miles of empty beach. Hike easy Bear Valley Trail, an eight-mile path (round trip) meandering through eucalyptus woods to an arched rock by the sea. Stay: In the park at the 44-bed Point Reyes Hostel (415/663-8811), $16 per bed, or nearby in Inverness at the 26-room Golden Hinde Inn (415/669-1389), $90. Dine: Station House Cafe in Point Reyes Station.
Day Two: Beyond Bodega Bay, California Route 1 edges Sonoma Coast State Beach for 16 miles, offering plenty of beach play. Stop next at Fort Ross State Historic Park, a rebuilt fort on the site of an 1812 Russian outpost. The art colony of Mendocino is a picture-book Victorian village with the prettiest front yard in America. A grass-covered bluff, it's laced with Pacific-view paths. Stay: Nearby in Fort Bragg at the 50-room Fort Bragg Motel (707/964-4787), $49 weekdays/$69 weekends. Also, the 48-room Chelsea Inn & Suites (707/964-4787), $59 except Saturday, when rates can be much higher. Dine: Mendo Bistro.
Day Three: Pick up U.S. 101 and enter Redwood Country. At Humboldt Redwoods State Park, detour onto the Avenue of the Giants, a majestic stand. At Redwood National Park, hike the mile-long loop in Lady Bird Johnson Grove—more stately redwoods. Stay: Crescent City at the 65-room BayView Inn (800/446-0583), $64. Also, the 48-room Gardenia Motel (707/464-2181), $50. Dine: Harbor View Grotto. Info: 800/462-2543, www.gocalif.ca.gov.
White-tipped waves, heavy with muscle, crash ashore in antic frenzy on Oregon's rugged coast. With a clap of thunder, they splash high against rocky cliffs like geysers and then, a moment later, slip away, spent, to gather strength again. A grand spectacle of nature, it's endlessly repeated along the state's 360-mile shoreline. Countless public beaches dot the way. Go beachcombing, crabbing, agate hunting. Explore tidal pools.
Getting There: Fly into Portland, which is served by a quartet of discount airlines-Southwest, America West, Frontier, and Sun Country.
Day One: From Portland, take U.S. 30 northwest along the Columbia River to Astoria. Visit the Columbia River Maritime Museum, an introduction to coastal seafaring life. On U.S. 101 south, stop at Fort Clatsop National Memorial, a re-creation of the hewn-log outpost where the Lewis and Clark Expedition wintered in 1805-06. Stay: In the funky beach resort of Seaside at the 53-room Motel 6 (503/738-6269), $53. Also, the 56-bed Hostelling International Seaside (503/738-7911), $22 per bunk for nonmembers, $19 for members. Dine: Rob's Family Restaurant.
Day Two: Continue south on U.S. 101. At Ecola State Park, check out the "sea stacks," giant offshore rocks scattered down the coast. In Tillamook, stop at the Tillamook Cheese plant for free samples. Detour west onto Three Capes Scenic Drive to keep the sea in view. Catch some rays on the beach. Heading on south, learn about (and perhaps see) gray whales at the Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area. Stay: Beachfront in Newport at the 62-room Waves Motel (541/265-4661), $63 weekdays/$73 weekends. Also, the 43-room Econo Lodge (541/265-7723), $58 with ocean view. Dine: clam fritters with fries, Chowder Bowl at Nye Beach.
Day Three: Ahead on U.S. 101 are the best behind-the-wheel sea views yet. Pause at Cape Perpetua to watch crashing waves up close in the Devil's Churn. The massive sand dunes at Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area are a beach gone wild. Sled the dunes (on a cardboard box) at Jessie M. Honeyman Memorial State Park; swim in the park's Cleawox Lake, which is ringed by evergreens. More seascapes dazzle the eye en route to your last night's stay in Brookings at the 37-room Bonn Motel (541/469-2161), $52 weekdays/$56 weekends. Also, the 35-room Spindrift Motor Inn (800/292-1171), $69 weekdays/$72 weekends. Dine: Fish-and-chips at the Flying Gull Restaurant & Lounge.
Info: 888/628-2101, www.visittheoregoncoast.com
Sprawling across 10,000 square miles, more than a dozen peaks in Colorado's San Juan Mountains tower above 14,000 feet. Grasp the steering wheel, because you're headed into this sky-high land on a 233-mile loop called the San Juan Skyway. Mile after mile, it soars, plunges, and twists in tight, cliff-hanging curves.
Getting There: Fly into Montrose, Colorado. Or look for cheaper fares into Denver, some 260 miles distant.
Day One: Explore sun-splashed Montrose. Nearby Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is named for the deep, narrow gorge cut by the Gunnison River. Peer into its depths on the rim's edge road. Take a riverboat tour at Curecanti National Recreation Area. At the Ute Indian Museum, intricate beadwork and other artifacts illustrate tribal history and culture. Stay: Montrose at the 51-room San Juan Inn (888/681-4159), $41-$75. Also, the 42-room Super 8 (970/249-9294), $52. Dine: Feast on steak at Starvin' Arvin's.
Day Two: The San Juans rise like an impenetrable wall as you approach Ridgway on U.S. 550 south. Head for the ski resort of Telluride via Colorado Route 62 west/145 south. Board Telluride's free gondola, which hoists you up the mountain for a glorious view. Hike to Bridal Veil Falls. From Telluride, Colorado Route 145 climbs 10,222-foot Lizard Head Pass before dropping into Dolores, where you can view ancient Pueblo culture at the Anasazi Heritage Center. At Mesa Verde National Park (east of Cortez off U.S. 160) join a tour of Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling in America. Stay: Mesa Verde at the 115-room Far View Lodge (970/564-4300), $110 to $127. Or stay nearby in Cortez at the 85-room Days Inn (970/565-8577), $41. Dine: Far View Terrace Food Court.
Day Three: East on U.S. 160, you can watch Durango's historic narrow-gauge train puff out of town. Trace its route north on U.S. 550 to Silverton, a former boomtown that still retains a rough frontier look. On north, zigzag up 11,008-foot Red Mountain Pass. Soak in Ouray's hot-springs pool before returning to Montrose. Stay: Montrose, again (see Day One).
Info: 800/265-6723, www.colorado.com.
Massive Lake Superior is the largest body of clean, fresh water in the world. Circle it counterclockwise on this winding, 1,400-mile loop and the water on your left seems as wide and forbidding as the ocean. Look to your right, and the thick, evergreen forests, both awesome and intimidating, march in unbroken ranks to the distant horizon.
Getting There: Although it's about 150 miles from the lake, fly into Minneapolis, which is served by low-costs American Trans Air, America West, AirTran, and Frontier.
Day One: Take I-35 north from Minneapolis to Duluth, the leading Great Lakes port. Study up on shipping lore at the Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center, a free U.S. Army Corps of Engineers facility, and then trek over to the Great Lakes Aquarium & Freshwater Discovery Center. Here you'll learn that Superior is about 350 miles long, 160 miles wide, and holds three quadrillion gallons of water. Stay: Duluth at the 99-room Motel 6 (218/723-1123), $35. Also, the 59-room Super 8 (218/628-2241), $57. Dine: Snag a lake-view table and a roasted-chicken enchilada plate at Little Angie's Cantina & Grill.
Day Two: In Wisconsin, edge Superior to Apostle Islands National Lakeshore-21 islands off Bayfield. Catch the ferry to Madeline Island. Move on to Michigan on U.S. 2/Michigan Route 28 and Marquette's Maritime Museum to learn about legendary shipwrecks. Stay: Marquette at the 80-room Super 8 (906/228-8100), $67. Also, the 52-room Value Host Motor Inn (800/929-5996), $55. Dine: Portside Inn.
Day Three: Stop in Sault Ste. Marie to watch freighters ease through the Soo Locks. In Canada, take Ontario Highway 17 west. At Lake Superior Provincial Park, hike to Agawa Rock-an ancient Ojibwa canvas of rock paintings. Stay: Wawa at the 14-room Mystic Isle Motel (800/667-5895), CAD$50-$68. Also, the 32-room Big Bird Inn (705/856-2342), CAD$54/US$37. Dine: Cedar Hof Dining Lounge.
Day Four: On to Thunder Bay for one of the world's finest water-view drives. Stretch your legs at Aguasabon Falls, Rainbow Falls Provincial Park, and Ouimet Canyon Provincial Park. Stay: Thunder Bay at the 50-room Super 8 (807/344-2612), CAD$75/US$51. Also, the 60-room Best Western Crossroads Motor Inn (807/577-4241), CAD$116. Dine: Timbers Restaurant at Valhalla Inn.
Day Five: More waterfalls and Great Lakes lore en route back to Minneapolis via Minnesota Route 61/I-35. Grand Portage National Monument recalls eighteenth-century fur-trading voyageurs. At Judge C.R. Magney State Park, a mighty waterfall disappears into the mouth of Devil's Kettle, a pot-like rock formation. At Split Rock Lighthouse State Park, climb the stairs of a restored lighthouse. Scramble on the rocks at Gooseberry Falls State Park for a final Superior view.
Etched by deep, sinuous slick-rock canyons, southern Utah is as awesomely beautiful as it is geologically chaotic. For 400 miles, you'll wind past lofty cliffs, graceful arches, and soaring spires. Take a break to hike, raft, climb, bicycle, fish, and swim.
Getting There: Fly into Las Vegas, served by low-costs AirTran, America West, American Trans Air, Frontier, JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit, and Sun Country.
Day One: First stop is Zion National Park, reached via I-15 north and Utah Route 9 east. Carved by the rippling Virgin River, Zion Canyon is a deep, narrow gorge of vividly colored sandstone walls rising 3,000 feet. A shuttle takes you into its heart, but explore on foot to see it best. Recommended: the short climb to Emerald Pools. Stay/dine: Springdale at the 41-room Pioneer Lodge and Restaurant (888/772-3233), $52 and up. Prime rib is a specialty. Or stay/dine in nearby Kanab at the 89-room Parry Lodge (888/289-1722), $56, which the Hollywood crowd used when filming Westerns nearby.
Day Two: Utah Route 9 makes a heart-stopping climb out of Zion Canyon en route, via U.S. 89 north and Utah Route 12 east, to Bryce Canyon National Park. Formed by erosion, pink-stone pillars in bizarre shapes called hoodoos soar like castle towers. Peer from the canyon rim into a red-rock fantasyland; better yet, descend into its maze of hidden passageways. Stay/dine: 52-room Bryce Canyon Pines (800/892-7923), $50. Or stay nearby in Panguitch at the 55-room Best Western New Western (435/676-8876), $80.
Day Three: Perhaps America's most scenic highway, Utah Route 12 traces the northern edge of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Slender canyons slice an immense ocean of shiny, sun-glazed rock. Hike in aptly named Kodachrome Basin State Park; admire petrified logs at Escalante State Park; trek (six miles round trip) alongside Calf Creek for a swim beneath its splashing waterfall. At Capitol Reef National Park, Grand Wash Canyon's polished walls narrow perceptibly every step you take. Stay: Torrey at the 34-room Super 8 (435/425-3688), $47 weekdays/$49 weekends. Also, the 39-room Days Inn (435/425-3111), $55 weekdays/$65 weekends. Dine: Rib-eye steak at the Capitol Reef Cafe.
Info: 800/200-1160, www.utah.com.
The Navajo and Hopi reservations are like two different foreign countries. This 450-mile loop out of Holbrook rewards with an up-close look at the cultures and lives of these intriguing peoples, struggling to retain their historic identity in a beautiful but harsh land. Catch a ceremonial dance. Examine exquisite handmade rugs, pottery, and kachina dolls.
Getting There: Fly into Phoenix, which is served by American Trans Air, America West, Frontier, Southwest, and Sun Country. Holbrook is 230 miles northeast of Phoenix via the scenic route, Arizona Routes 87, 260, and 377.
Day One: Take U.S. 180 south from Holbrook to Petrified Forest National Park, an arid badlands scattered with fallen forests turned to colorful rock. Paved pathways lead to fascinating specimens. Exit onto I-40 east, connecting to U.S. 191 north onto the Navajo Reservation (or Navajo Nation). Look for hogans, ancient-style dwellings still used by traditionalists. Outside Ganado you'll find Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site. Opened in 1878, it is the oldest continually operated trading post on the reservation. Browse its stack of rugs, noting the variety of traditional styles. Canyon de Chelly, a maze of red rock passageways, once was a Navajo stronghold. Peer into its depth on a rim drive. Stay: Chinle at the 99-room Best Western Canyon de Chelly Inn (928/674-5874), $99. Also, the 73-room Thunderbird Lodge (928/674-5841), $120. Dine: Thunderbird Cafeteria.
Day Two: Follow U.S. 191 north/U.S. 160 west to Kayenta. Nearby Monument Valley, a landscape of massive wind-sculpted rocks, provided dramatic settings for John Ford/John Wayne Westerns. Stay/dine: Tuba City at the 80-room Quality Inn (928/283-4545), $95-$140. Or stay/dine 10 miles west in Tsegi at the 57-room Anasazi Inn (928/697-3793), $60.
Day Three: Cross the Hopi Indian Reservation-which is surrounded by the Navajo Nation-on Arizona Route 264. Most Hopis live on or near First, Second, or Third Mesas, huge rocks shooting from the desert valley. Atop Second Mesa, the Hopi Cultural Center details tribal history. Atop First Mesa, explore the seventeenth-century adobe village of Walpi. Kachina artisans populate both. Return to Holbrook on Arizona Route 77. Stay: 70-room Best Western Arizonian Inn (928/524-2611), $77. Also, the 63-room Econo Lodge (928/524-1448), $40. Dine: Jerry's Restaurant.
An unusual road that offers nonstop panoramas, the Blue Ridge Parkway winds for 469 miles through the mountains of Virginia and North Carolina without a stop sign or stoplight. Most of the way, you weave among the forested peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains-some climb over 4,000 feet. They tower above quilted farmland spread out in valleys below.
Getting There: Fly into Washington Dulles, served by AirTran, America West, and JetBlue. Waynesboro, Virginia, gateway to the drive, is about 100 miles southwest.
Day One: The parkway quickly lifts you from a lowland gap in the Blue Ridge Mountains to a lofty slope. The first of countless overlooks yields a view of rumpled hills dotted with lakes and ponds. At Milepost 5, tour the Mountain Farm, an outdoor museum of historic Appalachian farm buildings. At Milepost 34, a waterfall splashes beneath the remnants of a logging railroad. Stay/dine: Milepost 86 at the lakeside, 63-room Peaks of Otter Lodge (800/542-5927), $66-$72. Or stay off the parkway in Bedford at the 75-room Days Inn (540/586-8286), $45.
Day Two: Mosey on down the parkway. At Milepost 115, tour Virginia's Explore Park, a more comprehensive outdoor museum of early settler life. On summer Sundays catch local musicians in a bluegrass jam session at Mabry Mill, Milepost 176. Browse the shops in Blowing Rock, North Carolina, but stay 10 minutes away in Boone at the 100-room Fairfield Inn & Suites (828/268-0677), $59. In Blowing Rock, try the 24-room Blowing Rock Inn (828/295-7921), $55-$104. Dine: Knights on Main in Blowing Rock.
Day Three: Leave the parkway briefly in Asheville to tour Biltmore Estate; Biltmore House is a 250-room castle patterned after the ch%teaux of France. Beyond Asheville, the parkway climbs to 6,047 feet, its highest point. At road's end in Cherokee, the Museum of the Cherokee Indian tells the tragic Trail of Tears story of 1838, when 15,000 tribal members were forced to leave their homes and march more than a thousand miles to Indian Territory (Oklahoma). At least 4,000 Cherokees died on the journey. Stay: Cherokee at the 72-room Newfound Lodge (828/497-2746), $78/$88. For cheaper rates, stay 16 miles east in Maggie Valley at the 57-room Microtel Inn & Suites (800/752-6230), $50.
Fresh, southern-fried catfish and hush puppies are menu staples on this 250-mile drive up the Mississippi River from Louisiana's Cajun-spiced capital of Baton Rouge, to the old river ports of Natchez and Vicksburg, Mississippi. Along the way, you will visit many of the South's finest pre-Civil War plantation homes and their beautiful formal gardens.
Getting There: Fly into New Orleans, served by AirTran, America West, Frontier, JetBlue, and Southwest.
Day One: Plunge into Plantation Country at Houmas House, just north of the airport via I-10 and Louisiana Route 44. An elegant 1840 Greek Revival mansion, it overlooks the Mississippi. (Though the building is under renovation until November, it is still open to the public for touring.) See a different aspect of plantation life at Baton Rouge's LSU Rural Life Museum. Neck irons, shackles, and branding irons recall the slave trade. Stay: Baton Rouge at the 110-room Corporate Inn (225/925-2451), $45. Also, the 79-room Fairfield Inn Baton Rouge South (225/766-9493), $84-$89. Dine: any of six Piccadilly Cafeterias in the area.
Day Two: From Baton Rouge, U.S. 61 climbs from lowland bayous through a lush countryside of mixed fields and forests. Stroll nineteenth-century Royal Street in St. Francisville, a river port, and then visit two important plantations and gardens nearby. Oakley is Caribbean in style, more suitable for the local heat and humidity. Furnishings are lavish, yet the story is grim. Fever and dysentery struck frequently. More upbeat, Rosedown delights with its grand avenue of oaks and formal gardens. Stay: Natchez at the 160-room Ramada Inn Hilltop (601/446-6311), $86. Also, the 121-room Days Inn (601/445-8291), $54. Dine: the grilled catfish plate at Biscuits & Blues.
Day Three: Begin the day exploring Natchez's public homes. Melrose, the most intriguing, stands at the end of a long, oak-lined drive. From Natchez, follow the Natchez Trace Parkway, a historic route. At Milepost 10, climb Emerald Mound, a Native American ceremonial platform dating from a.d. 1250. At Milepost 66, take Mississippi Route 27 into Vicksburg, where more mansions await. Vicksburg National Military Park commemorates a major Union victory. Stay: Vicksburg at the 63-room Best Western (601/636-5800), $69. Also, the 49-room Econo Lodge (601/634-8766), $49. Dine: Rowdy's Family Restaurant.
Washington, D.C., and Richmond are separated by a scant 100 miles. Their proximity as enemy capitals turned the landscape blood red in a series of horrendous battles marked by courageous charges and catastrophic blunders. This 350-mile itinerary provides an intimate glimpse of the four-year conflict.
Getting There: Fly into one of three area airports: Baltimore, served by America West, AirTran, Frontier, and Southwest; Reagan National (Washington), served by America West, American Trans Air, and Frontier; or Washington Dulles, served by AirTran, America West, and JetBlue. Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the start of the drive, is less than two hours away from each.
Day One: The Battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863, marked the Civil War's turning point. The Union victory put the South on the defensive until the fighting's end two years later. Relive the battle on the 18-mile auto tour at Gettysburg National Military Park. To see it as the soldiers did, walk at least partway. Stay: Gettysburg at the 30-room Three Crowns Motor Lodge (717/334-3168), $62. Also, the 25-room Red Carpet Inn/Perfect Rest Motel (717/334-1345), $59 weekdays/$69 to $89 weekends. Dine: Gingerbread Man, a Victorian-style charmer.
Day Two: Antietam National Battlefield in Sharpsburg, Maryland, was the scene of the war's bloodiest day. To reach Antietam, take U.S. 15 south to Frederick, U.S. 40 north to Maryland Route 34 south. Study the battle on the nine-mile drive, and then follow signs to nearby Harpers Ferry National Historical Park in West Virginia. The mountain village was the target of abolitionist John Brown's raid. Stop and sip along the way to wine country and Fredericksburg, Virginia (U.S. 340/U.S. 17 south), site of four battles-described at Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park. Stay: Fredericksburg at the 59-room Travelodge (540/371-6300), $62. Also, the 119-room Motel 6 (540/371-5443), $42. Dine: Ponderosa Steakhouse.
Day Three: In June 1864, Union forces trapped Confederates in Petersburg, Virginia (I-95 south). At Petersburg National Battlefield, walk the earthworks built during the long siege. Then trace Confederate flight to Appomattox Court House National Historical Park (U.S. 460), where Lee surrendered to Grant on April 9, 1865. The hilltop village looks much as it did that day. Stay: Appomattox at the 45-room Super 8 (434/352-2339), $60, or in nearby Lynchburg at the 59-room Super 8 (434/846-1668), $56. Dine: Granny Bee's.