National Parks (Minus the Crowds)
Our most protected lands—and the dramatic drives that give access to them—are all too often conga lines of taillights and tourists. These four itineraries revive the majesty.
The usual rafting trip on the Green and Colorado rivers from Moab to Lake Powell takes five days, but you can get the same thrills in just two days on a motorized-raft trip with Western River Expeditions (westernriver.com, from $645).
SHENANDOAH AND GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS
Winding between these two parks in Virginia and Tennessee is the Blue Ridge Parkway, a bucolic 496-mile route with over 200 misty, megapixel-worthy overlooks—forcing some difficult decisions.
DAY 1A 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 Roanokehas history behind it: The hotel's bar was once a World War II officers' club, and the ballroom hosted a cattle auction in the '60s. Today, in-room spa services are more typical (hotelroanoke.com, from $119).
DAY 2As you drive farther into the heart of Appalachia, the traffic thins and the valleys plunge deeper. The Blue Ridge Music Center, with its Saturday evening outdoor concerts and weekday-afternoon banjo-picking sessions, is a welcome sign of civilization near the North Carolina line. From here, a curving 100-mile drive leads to 87-acre Chetola Resort, North Carolina's only Orvis-endorsed fly-fishing lodge. Yoga, horseshoes, and canoes await those with little interest in hooking a trout (chetola.com, from $145).
DAY 3It'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, lunch from $6.50). After lunch, it's on to Gatlinburg, Tenn., where the Bearskin Lodge's lazy river mimics the nearby Little Pigeon River (thebearskinlodge.com, from $80). 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.
DAY 4En route back to D.C., take in the crystalline formations of Skyline Caverns in Front Royal, Va. And get a sweeping final view of the Shenandoah Valley on a Blue Ridge Hot Air Balloonstour (rideair.com, $200).
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, from $39).
COASTAL MAINE AND ACADIA
A drive from Boston up to New England's only national park takes you through lost-in-time fishing villages and cinematic coastal tableaux.
DAY 1About 20 miles north of Boston, U.S. 1 curves to meet the Atlantic Ocean, teasing you with glimpses of saltwater marshes and pristine beaches as you make your way to Kennebunkport, Maine, a place so tidy it feels like a movie set. Settle in among the grand mansions on Ocean Avenue at the 10-room waterfront Green Heron Inn. It's worth the stay just for the grilled banana bread with lemon curd and fresh berries for breakfast (greenheroninn.com, from $140).
DAY 2It's 200 miles to Bar Harbor on Mount Desert Island, and Acadia's northeastern entrance. Make an afternoon tour around the park's 27-mile loop road, which ricochets between lakes, forests, pint-size mountains, and the jagged shoreline. At the century-old Balance Rock Inn, a converted summer home on the water, the innkeeper, Michael, will point you toward a local lobster pound, where fresh lobsters are steamed and served, picnic-style, on the spot (balancerockinn.com, from $125).