10 Budget Drives
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 luxuriant 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 firsthand.
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.
Nebraska's pioneer paths
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.
Fly into Omaha, which is served by several low-cost airlines: America West, Frontier, and Southwest.
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.
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), $41. Also, the 34-room Midtown Western Inn (800/333-1401), $50.
Dine USA Steak Buffet.
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), $55. Also, the 49-room Comfort Inn (308/632-7510), $62.
Dine Shari's Restaurant. Info: 800/228-4307, visitnebraska.org/.
California's redwood coast
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.
Fly into Oakland or San Jose; both are served by America West and Southwest, among others.
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.
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