I like to drive, and I’m not so fond of devoting days or weeks of vacation to a single destination. That gives me a quick way to say how to avoid sharing your time away with a pile of people you didn’t choose to bring along: two-lane blacktop. But along some of the best blacktop, there are great places to stop for a few hours or a couple of days. And some of these combos are so great they’re worth flying to (or better yet, taking a train) and renting a car for the heart of your trip.
The very top of any blacktop list has to be either the Blue Ridge Parkway in the East or the Pacific Coast Highway in the West. The Blue Ridge is more consistently uncrowded, but that also means you’re more likely to have to get off to find services. and in fact you may have to go some way from the Parkway to find hotels and restaurants to your taste. For environmental reasons, there is no gasoline sold on the Parkway. Interstate 81 roughly parallels most of the Parkway, and it’s reasonably easy to move back and forth between them.
– The Blue Ridge Parkway proper runs for just about 500 miles, as it says, along the Blue Ridge Mountains that form the eastern side of the Shenandoah Valley, through Virginia and North Carolina. It connects to the southern end of Skyline Drive, which runs for 105 miles in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. There’s no fee for driving the Blue Ridge, but Skyline falls under normal National Park System fees and passes.
– The Parkway was famously built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, along with local contractors and others, but not actually finished until 1987. There are so many breathtaking overlooks, you could get tired of them, but they’re handy for ditching other drivers who don’t share your philosophy of making the most of the drive. 2010 will be the Parkway’s 75th anniversary.
– Along the way, my favorite stops are mostly waterfalls, including spectacular Linville, the subtler Cascades, and some that require a mile or so of hiking to earn a secluded experience. Also, in addition to the mountain views themselves, there are such stops on the Parkway as Craggy Gardens, a sea of rhododendrons at an elevation to give it roughly the same climate as Montreal, and several historical and craft exhibits. There are four seasonal restaurants along the way, three lodges (but only one open in winter), rustic cabins, and various camping areas.
At the California Travel and Tourism Commission’s Web site, a search on Pacific Coast Highway draws 978 records, from specific facilities and features to multiday loop tours. All the way from San Diego to Eureka is almost 800 miles. Of course, not nearly all of that is two-lane solitude, but my family once made a road trip for most of two weeks out of it.
– If you aren’t perfectly comfortable driving on a swooping road that’s frequently right at the edge of dramatic landscapes, I do recommend driving south to north, so you’ll be on the inside lane. You may have to take an overlook or two to enjoy the full drama of the many coves and cliffs, but you should be able to relax enough to enjoy the drive.
– One of the best places to stop right on the PCH and feel quite uncrowded is the “central coast,” Big Sur, where interesting B&Bs, inns, and spas wait to welcome you, as well as campgrounds that invite you to turn one way to watch the sun set over the Pacific and the other to dream into a redwood forest. There’s no drive like the PCH (California Route 1) and no state like California for diversity of experiences. Here are a couple more specifics:
On beyond the end of the PCH, you might cut through the redwoods to the “Lost Coast,” where it’s said the rugged terrain stopped the road builders. The Humboldt Redwoods State Park and surrounding areas include roads where you can’t imagine what “Road Narrows” could mean until you find yourself slaloming among giant trees. Prairie Creek Redwood State Park adds to the redwoods with Roosevelt Elk, mountain lions, and the magical Fern Canyon.
In fact, state parks all over are a great source of quieter places to visit. Before we leave California, let me mention the Ripley Desert Woodland in the Antelope Valley not so very far from Los Angeles. It’s just a little park with a 12-station self-guided nature trail where you can get close up and well acquainted with the Joshua trees and junipers that once carpeted the valley, and it’s just down the road from the California Poppy Reserve.
Other great blacktop to consider:
– Travel north from Las Vegas on Interstate 15 and watch it take a sudden right turn straight for the mountains. Even if you don’t say “open sesame,” the mountains open and you’re in the Virgin River Gorge. If you have time, stop near Overton NV at Valley of Fire State Park. I-15 will also take you on to Zion National Park, which is breathtaking even when you’re only passing through.
– East-northeast of Phoenix, off State Highway 88, take the “Globe-Young Highway” (288) to cross high plains and suddenly drop into the Salt River Canyon. (“Canyon” being one of the magic words of the 2-lane lover.)
– In many places, there are wonderful original US and state highways roughly parallelling the more recent Interstates. One of the best of these is Vermont 14, which runs all the way to the top of the state, but picks up Interstate 89 near Montpelier and runs closer and closer to it all the way to the crossing into New Hampshire at White River Junction. It’s everything you could want a drive in Vermont to be except Lake Champlain.
Actual destinations to get away, some of which connect well with the blacktop, are often just on the other side of something crowded. For instance, consider
– The North Rim of the Grand Canyon; as my jaded 16-year-old said, the year after seeing the south rim with his Scout troop “Mom, this is a whole different canyon!” There may still be snow here when summer is well under way on the other side. There will certainly be trees, right down to the edge. And while there will be some people, there seems to be a more relaxed attitude on the North. There are plenty of hotels between the Canyon and Zion National Park; just search on Kanab, Utah.
– Mt. Mansfield hosts a Vermont State Forest on its western flank, as well as the ski mecca at Stowe on the east. It’s on the “Long Trail” that connects New England’s highest mountains, and has a total of four trails from the Underhill State Park (which includes rustic camping) to the summit. Though of course it’s crowded in ski season, State highway 108 from Waterbury to Stowe certainly qualifies as another wonderful stretch of two-lane blacktop, where you wouldn’t dare go too fast … or want to.