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.
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!
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).