VACATION IDEAS

5 Awesome & Affordable American Drives

Every corner of the U.S.—including yours!—offers a bold, beautiful road trip that rolls out an unforgettable vacation at a reasonable price. Here, five that we bet you haven’t taken yet.

By The Editors of Budget Travel, Thursday, Nov 7, 2013, 12:00 PM

Canyonlands National Park, with its beautiful Mesa Arch, is just one of the stops along our five amazing American drives.

(Dinhhang/Dreamstime)

We sometimes make the mistake of thinking that a vacation has to involve flying, or covering great distances via some other elaborate, pricey conveyance, such as a cruise ship. But here at Budget Travel we've always liked to mix our globe-spanning coverage with ultra-local finds, too. And our Road Trip department is the heart and soul of that commitment. In fact, we've even launched the Ultimate Road Trips App to put more than 70 American road trips at your fingertips. Here, we share five of our favorite American drives, which combine accessibility and affordability with awesome scenery, great food, history, and the nicest folks to meet along the way. We invite you to fire up your GPS, fill up your tank, and get up and go!

SEE THE AWESOME DRIVES!

BLUE RIDGE PARKWAY

From Washington, D.C., to the Great Smoky Mountains

Some of the Southeast's most beautiful mountains and charming communities can be yours with a drive that starts in Washington, D.C. and actually connects two stunning national parks.

A 90-minute drive from D.C. on Interstate 66 through Virginia horse country, the 105-mile-long Skyline Drive meanders along the spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains, with the broad Shenandoah Valley unfolding to the west. Paralleling the road for much of the way—and crossing it many times—is the Appalachian Trail; from the side of the road, utterly fearless Virginia white-tailed deer sniff at passing cars. Near Waynesboro, Skyline Drive turns into the Blue Ridge Parkway, where it stretches for hours and passes overlooks with memorable names (Raven's Roost, Peaks of Otter), before reaching a turnoff for surprisingly cosmopolitan Roanoke. The recently renovated 1882 Hotel Roanoke (hotelroanoke.com) has history behind it: The hotel's bar was once a World War II officers' club, and the ballroom hosted a cattle auction in the sixties. Today, in-room spa services are more typical.

One of the New Deal's most ambitious endeavors, the curvaceous "park to park highway" links Virginia's Shenandoah National Park with North Carolina's Great Smoky Mountains National Park via dozens of hairpin turns and 26 tunnels cut through Appalachian granite. Spot a 19th-century farm or postage-stamp-size town at the bottom of a verdant mountainside and you'll realize how seemingly unchanged the road remains since its inception way back in 1935.

As you drive farther into the heart of Appalachia, the traffic thins and the valleys plunge deeper. The Blue Ridge Music Center (blueridgemusiccenter.org), located in Galax, Va., with its outdoor concerts and weekday-afternoon traditional banjo-picking and fiddle sessions, is a welcome sign of civilization near the North Carolina line. (Banjo music is the ideal soundtrack for this drive. Grab yourself a CD compilation of Appalachian music with songs by Aaron Copland and John Williams.) From here, a curving 100-mile drive leads to 87-acre Chetola Resort (chetola.com), North Carolina's only Orvis-endorsed fly-fishing lodge. Yoga, horseshoes, and canoes await those with little interest in hooking a trout.

It's easy to see how the Blue Ridge earned its name—layers of peaks really do tint blue in the distance. In downtown Asheville, N.C., 87 miles west of the resort, Southern classics (cornmeal-crusted catfish) are made with ingredients from local farms at the Early Girl Eatery (earlygirleatery.com) After lunch, it's on to Gatlinburg, Tenn., where the Bearskin Lodge's lazy river mimics the nearby Little Pigeon River (thebearskinlodge.com). To experience the full sweep of the Great Smoky Mountains, take Newfound Gap Road up 6,643-foot Clingmans Dome, the park's tallest peak, where you can see more than 100 miles out on clear days.

It's almost a sin not to spend a couple of extra days in Gatlinburg, on the edge of the national park, and explore the Great Smoky Mountains. The options are limitless, from hiking and biking to rock climbing—but the white-water rafting trumps them all, with no fewer than five world-class rivers in the area. Get a taste through a half-day trip on the 24 Class III and IV rapids of the Big Pigeon River (wildwaterrafting.com).

En route back to D.C., take in the crystalline formations of Skyline Caverns in Front Royal, Va. And, if you're up for a totally worth-it splurge, get yourself a sweeping final view of the Shenandoah Valley on a Blue Ridge Hot Air Balloons tour (rideair.com).

JOSHUA TREE

Palm Springs to Joshua Tree National Park

The Joshua tree, made famous by the national park and the 1987 U2 album of the same name, is actually a yucca. Legend has it that the yucca was renamed by Mormon settlers who thought its upraised limbs and scruffy-bearded appearance resembled the prophet Joshua leading them to the promised land. Joshua Tree National Park is at its most crowded from March through May, when the wildflowers are in bloom and the temperatures are still mild; if you're hoping to avoid the crowds, such as they are, consider visiting in the fall. Most major airlines serve Palm Springs International Airport.

Heading northwest from Palm Springs on Indian Canyon Drive, you'll be greeted by the wind farms of San Gorgonio Pass. The 60-foot-tall gray metal poles are intrusive, but striking, and in any event harnessing the wind is better than burning oil. With more than 4,000 turbines, the farm is one of world's largest, and if you're in a convertible, you'll hear the propellers whirring every time you stop at a red light. They sound like gentle waves breaking in the clouds.

Desert Hot Springs, 50 miles south, is built over a natural mineral-water aquifer, and the town claims to have some of the world's best water. The Emerald Springs Resort and Spa (760/288-0071) offers rooms with turquoise walls, black furniture, and white duvets, giving it a fifties vibe. Go swimming in all three of the hotel's heated mineral-water pools, in the shadow of the San Jacinto Mountains, surrounded by cacti and bougainvillea. Then get a good night's sleep, in anticipation of your first day exploring Joshua Tree National Park.

Head east on Highway 62, toward the West Entrance of Joshua Tree National Park. At nearly 800,000 acres, the park straddles two distinct deserts: the Mojave in the north, marked by craggy Joshua trees and moon-like rock formations, and the Colorado in the south, with wide-open vistas and jagged mountain peaks. Between the two lies the transition zone, with features from both plus cholla cactus gardens and patches of spidery ocotillo. The Joshua Tree Visitor Center is the place to buy lots of water—one gallon per person per day, two in the summer.

You may feel as if you've been transported to prehistoric times. Boulders the size of dump trucks sit near spiky trees, and the air is fragrant with lavender and chia. Keys View, by far one of the park's best panoramas, is about five miles south. At nearly 5,200 feet above sea level, you can see the entire Coachella Valley, including the Salton Sea, the town of Indio, and the San Jacinto Mountains. Get another good night's sleep at the Harmony Motel (harmonymotel.com), in nearby Twentynine Palms.

Reenter the park near the Oasis of Mara, then make your way through the transition zone to the southern end. Joshua trees become sparser, the air gets hotter and drier, and chest-high cholla cacti, with fine, light-green needles, begin to appear. Look, but don't touch! And while you're looking, check out the vistas of the Colorado Desert off in the distance.

UTAH'S CANYON COUNTRY

Grand Junction, Colo., to Zion National Park, Utah

Cramming five national parks into four days isn't for everyone. But if you are going to attempt such a quest, Southern Utah is the place to do it. Five of the nation's most gorgeous parks are packed into 650 miles of high desert. Bryce Canyon and Zion are both justly famous; so are the sandstone bridges in Arches National Park. Less well known are Canyonlands, every inch as impressive as the Grand Canyon, and Capitol Reef.

Moab, Utah, is less than a 90-minute drive from Grand Junction, Colo. Moab is conveniently located between Arches and Canyonlands. You can have panoramic views of the desert at the northern end of Arches whether you stay in your car or book a mountain-bike ride. But don't just look up and around but also down: The area is dotted with three-toed dinosaur footprints every 50 yards or so. At Arches' southern end, families explore trails along rock formations such as Balanced Rock and Double Arch. Bed down at Moab's Red Cliffs Lodge (redcliffslodge.com) and grab a pint at the city's oldest microbrew, Eddie McStiff's (eddiemcstiffs.com).

The largest of the five national parks at 527 square miles, Canyonlands includes the northern Island in the Sky section (all grand, wide canyons), and the more intimate Needles, where pygmy juniper trees decorate the ground, and hundreds of layers of sandstone fan out in phyllo-like sheets. The black stone of Newspaper Rock is covered in petroglyphs that were scratched over a 2,000-year period by native tribes (Anasazi, Fremont, Paiute, and Navajo). It's an impressive collage of images: men on horseback hunting antelope, oversize gods sprouting horns and antlers. Get a good head start on tomorrow by staying in Torrey, where the Cowboy Homestead Cabins will welcome you (cowboyhomesteadcabins.com).

Torrey is the gateway to Capitol Reef, the least well known of Utah's five national parks. Route 24 cuts through it, threading a high valley carved by the little Fremont River. The 10-mile Scenic Drive leads to a long wash (a dry canyon that becomes a river after heavy rain). The walls rise hundreds of feet on both sides as the dirt road twists its way through the increasingly narrow canyon.

Splurge on Bryce Canyon Lodge (brycecanyonlodge.com) for a night—ask for a lovely balcony with rough-hewn logs for a railing. At Bryce, the altitude ranges from about 7,900 feet to more than 9,100 feet. Two of its best overlooks are at Agua Canyon and the rock window called Natural Bridge.

When you get to Zion, you may want to opt for the park's most rewarding short hike, the half-mile-long Canyon Overlook Trail. Private cars are no longer allowed on the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive north of the visitors center, so catch the free shuttle to the Riverside Walk trail, which leads to the Narrows, a 16-mile trail that doubles as the bed of the Virgin River. After hitting five national parks along this great drive, collapse into a comfy bed at the Canyon Ranch Motel (canyonranchmotel.com) after soaking in its outdoor hot tub!

FLORIDA KEYS

Key West to Key Largo

Lined with Victorian mansions and late-19th-century commercial buildings, Key West's main road, Duval Street, is a picturesque thoroughfare pocked with rocking-loud bars. A quieter side of Key West is immediately apparent when you turn onto Petronia Street, heading into the Bahama Village neighborhood.

At Blue Heaven restaurant (305/296-8666), in a courtyard that was the scene of boxing matches during the Depression, tables sit under a canopy of trees, a balmy breeze stirring their leaves, and at least a half dozen of Key West's free-roaming chickens scratch around for crumbs. The special is a lobster melt—like a fancy tuna melt—and it's as good as it sounds.

Catch the tour at the Little White House (305/294-9911), an 1890 house on Key West's former naval base. Harry Truman vacationed there 11 times during his presidency.

Don't miss Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square, a daily event since the sixties. Grab a margarita from a stand and wander among the crowds and street performers before turning in at the Chelsea House (chelseahousekw.com), in a converted Victorian house surrounded by a garden that makes it feel private and tranquil, though it's just a stone's throw from Duval Street.

Before hitting the road the next day, stop by the Hemingway Home and Museum (hemingwayhome.com), where Ernest Hemingway lived with his second wife, Pauline, and their two sons from 1931 to 1940. It's said that Hemingway was given a six-toed cat—often called "mitten cats"—by a friend who was a ship captain; many cats, most of which are its descendants, live on the grounds today. As the writer quipped, "One cat just leads to another." And speaking of animals, don't miss the Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory (keywestbutterfly.com), where you'll be amazed at the sight of so many elusive, fluttering beauties.

When it's time to head north, Route 1, the Overseas Highway, is a sight in itself. In the 1880s, Henry Flagler, an original partner in Standard Oil, began developing resorts along Florida's east coast. He also started buying up and connecting the state's railroad lines. St. Augustine, Palm Beach, and Miami all owe their development to Flagler's efforts. Between 1905 and 1912, Flagler constructed the Over-Sea Railroad, 156 miles of track—much of it on trestles over open water—that linked Miami and Key West. When the first train rolled into town in 1912, it was greeted by 15,000 townspeople. Unfortunately, a fierce hurricane ripped through the Keys in 1935; an 18-foot tidal wave and 200-mile-per-hour winds washed out the embankment and mangled tracks, but the bridges and trestles stood. In 1938, the federal government took over the route and built the Overseas Highway. Route 1 is the main (and often only) road on the narrow strips of land that are the various keys. Mile-marker signs, which start from zero in Key West, are used as locators for addresses along the highway.

The marvelous Seven Mile Bridge runs between mile markers 40 and 47. Until 1982, the bridge ran on the piers originally built for Flagler; those remains stand alongside the new bridge. In Marathon, the White Sands Inn (whitesandsinn.com) has rooms decorated with sunny primary colors and Caribbean-inspired fabrics.

An hour's drive north brings you to Key Largo, where a bungalow at the Coconut Bay Resort (coconutbaykeylargo.com) and a slice of, yes, key lime pie, more than live up to the hype.

GREAT LAKES SEAWAY TRAIL

Massena, N.Y., to West Springfield, Penn.

Consider the Great Lakes Seaway Trail the inland version of California's Pacific Coast Highway. This scenic waterfront byway—a 500+-mile drive if you want to go all the way—includes the St. Lawrence Seaway with its imposing Eisenhower Lock, 40 state parks along the way, and 28 historic lighthouses on the shores of two rivers (the Niagara and the St. Lawrence) and two of the Great Lakes (Ontario and Erie).

One of the don't-miss sights along the way is Presque Isle State Park, Pa. (presqueisle.org). This sandy, 3,200-acre peninsula near Erie has miles of untouched beaches to explore. And while the park is immensely popular in summer, it's also a draw in deep winter, when it becomes home to cross country skiers, snow shoers, and ice fishers. The "ice dunes" formed by freezing waves are something you don't see on your average winter jaunt.

Sodus Bay Lighthouse Museum (soduspointlighthouse.org), overlooking the southern shore of Lake Ontario in New York State, is a first-rate maritime museum operated by the Sodus Bay Historical Society in the building that once housed the lighthouse keepers, beside the tower and Fresnel lens.

The Great Lakes Seaway Trail's greatest claim to fame, however, is iconic Niagara Falls. There are two towns named Niagara Falls, one in New York and one in Canada. The New York side boasts a state park designed by Frederick Law Olmstead (of Central Park fame). The Maid of the Mist (maidofthemist.com) boat will take you right to Horseshoe Falls, where the falls crash at their mightiest. If the word "horsehoe" inspires you to test your luck, head over the the Seneca Niagara Casino (senecaniagaracasino.com), a recent addition to the scene that includes gaming, food, and lodging.

But we suggest that you spend the night on the Canadian side. The Chalet Inn & Suites (chalet-inn.com) is a good choice—and it even includes heart-shaped bathtubs, inspired by Niagara's popularity as a honeymoon destination. The Canadian side is something of a mecca for wax museum aficionados, too. Louis Tussaud's (ripleysniagara.com) may be the best known. But, more importantly, the Canadian side also has the better view of the falls. During the day, you'll see rainbows in the mist, and in the evening, colorful floodlights transform the cascading water.

SEE THE ROAD TRIPS!

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