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.
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).
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).