Power down the car windows and power up the music . . . don’t always let your GPS be your boss . . . summer road trips are all about resting your mind and restoring your spirit. They are about driving down a narrow country lane just because it looks interesting, or pulling into a local flea market to discover a must-have treasure, or sampling some great regional cuisine in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant. This is your chance to do things you don’t have time to do in your real life. Follow the yellow line to summer fun.
Florida: The Overseas Highway
Speed above the glistening blue waters that surround the Florida Keys, the chain of varied islands connected by U.S. Highway 1, on The Overseas Highway, which starts just beyond chic Miami and winds up in funky Key West. You could do the whole 113 miles in 3 1/2 hours, but why would you? Stop in Key Largo to snorkel in the John Pennekkamp Coral Reef State Park. Roll across the iconic Seven-Mile Bridge at Marathon. Catch tarpon in pretty Bahia Honda State Park. Wind up in party-hearty Key West to toast the sunset at Mallory Square Dock and catch some culture at Ernest Hemingway’s home.
Virginia and North Carolina: The Blue Ridge Parkway
Driving the Blue Ridge Parkway, an official “All-American Byway,” will take you from the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina. It is like meandering along a 469-mile-long panorama of calendar scenery shots, each bend in the road leading to another babbling brook or interesting rock formation, through a deep mountain gap or to spectacular spots to gaze down at the world below. The Peaks of Otter is one such place, and offers good lodging and good fishing. Catch the fiddling and banjo-picking at the Blue Ridge Music Center.
Maine: The Maine Coast
Believe it or not, Maine’s coastline is far longer than California’s—3,478 miles versus a mere 840 miles. That means some twisty, two-lane roads “Down East.” Visit the oldest jail in America (kids love it) in York, then drive out to Cape Neddick to snap photos of what many say is the most beautiful lighthouse in America. Walk the three-mile beach in Ogunquit before indulging in just-caught Maine lobster. In tony Kennebunkport, in summer, you may well see George H.W. Bush out and about. Go on to Acadia National Park if time permits. Visit the good museums and restaurants in Portland before driving home.
Tennessee and Mississippi: The Blues Highway
Think Bessie Smith. Think Muddy Waters. Think about some of America’s best indigenous music, and then drive Route 61, the old Blues Highway from Memphis to the Mississippi Delta, and see that the blues scene is still very much alive there. Start with a tour of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, where Isaac Hayes and Otis Redding recorded mega-hits. Check out Beale Street. Visit the Delta Blues Museum (Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero Blues Club is next door). In September, catch the Mississippi Delta Blues & Heritage Festival in Greenville. Highway markers honor Best of the Blues musicians.
Texas: The Hill Country
Drive north from San Antonio to travel back in time in the Texas Hill Country, rich in wildflowers, crystal clear rivers, and an unchanged rural lifestyle. Kids will love to explore a cave or two, and older folks will enjoy the old-fashioned farm and ranching lifestyle (and the local wineries). Visit the funky Frontier Times Museum in Bandera, and the superb National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, followed by German food at Der Lindenbaum. Go tubing down crystal clear rivers. Visit tiny Johnson City, where Lyndon Johnson spent his boyhood, and tour the LBJ Ranch, with his amazing car collection.
New Mexico: Santa Fe to Taos
Start in lovely Santa Fe with a visit to the small-but-good Georgia O’Keeffe Museum and the Palace of the Governors, circa 1610. Take a walking tour of downtown (the guides are good). Drive just out of town for a bevy of fine museums, ranging from Indian Arts and Culture to Toys. Another day, head out to Abiqui (having reserved well in advance) to tour O’Keeffe’s home, where the windows frame scenes she painted. Drive north to Taos, through the scenic Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Visit the Taos Pueblo, inhabited for more than 1,000 years, and catch the views from the Rio Grande Gorge just north of town.
Montana: Going-To-the-Sun Road
Glacier National Park is arguably the loveliest of all the parks in the system, and its classic, sometimes cliff-hugging Going-To-the-Sun-Road is one of those you-have-to-have-driven it experiences. Yes, the glacier that dominates the scenery is shrinking, but it is still spectacular, and the dramatic vistas, wilderness lakes (St. Mary’s Lake is one of the loveliest), and the opportunity to drive across the Continental Divide reward visitors. Parts of the road are undergoing repair, but delays are brief and the scenery while you wait is lovely. Book rooms at Many Glacier Hotel to extend your stay.
California: Highway One
The prettiest part of Highway 1, The Pacific Coast Highway, is arguably the stretch south from San Francisco to Big Sur. The road hugs steep mountainsides and, in some places, overlooks sheer drops to the sea. It is not for the faint of heart, but it is truly spectacular. Stop in Monterey to visit its world-class aquarium, and perhaps detour to the good John Steinbeck Museum in nearby Salinas. Explore the chic shops in Carmel, and hit the beach there. End your journey at Big Sur, with its spectacular sunset views from the cliff tops, or perhaps continue on to Hearst Castle (book well in advance) and Los Angeles.
Alaska: The Seward Highway
This 125-mile-long road, which connects Anchorage to the coastal town of Seward, makes for a glorious summer drive. Dramatic cliffs drop straight to the sea (stop and spot beluga whales if you’re lucky). Check out the rapidly receding Portage Glacier. Park and hike into the Chugach Mountains for dramatic vistas. Spend some time in the arty town of Homer, the setting for Sue Henry’s popular murder mysteries. Stay at the posh Alyeska Resort in Girdwood, or at least take the tram to the top of Mount Alyeska for big views. Explore Seward’s historic downtown.
Hawaii: The Hana Highway
Maui’s ultra-green, cliff-hugging road to the off-the-beaten-path village of Hana is only 52 miles long, but don’t even entertain the possibility that it will be a quick drive. Ribbon-thin waterfalls, a vast carpet of deep green vegetation, brilliant tropical flowers, and glorious ocean views demand many photo stops. You can’t speed if you want to, as you have to navigate 620 curves, many of them hairpins, on a narrow two-lane road. Break the drive with a less-than-a-mile hike along the Waikamoi Ridge Trail. Save time to explore slow-and-easy Hana and visit Charles Lindbergh’s grave at the Palapala Ho’omau Church.