One-Tank Escapes for 7 Cities
This summer, the key words are "quick" and "easy." But you still want a trip that delivers. So, hit the road! These seven drives are real getaways—even if they take you only a few hours from home.
Lake Rabun, Ga.
104 miles from Atlanta
Circled by blooming dogwoods, Lake Rabun sits on the southern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where Georgia and the Carolinas meet. HIGHLIGHTS Rent a canoe from Rabun BoatWorks (706/982-0402, rabunboatworks.net, half day $40) or raft the Chattooga River with Nantahala Outdoor Center (888/905-7238, noc.com, from $90). At Tallulah Gorge State Park, sign up for a night trek across the wooden suspension bridge (706/754-7981, gastateparks.org, $5). OVERNIGHT OPTION A 1922 cedar lodge, the spruced-up Lake Rabun Hotel has a restaurant that serves mountain trout (800/398-5134, lakerabunhotel.com, from $119). DRIVING TIP Beyond the suburbs, as the mountains come into view, look for white-tailed deer off the road. EN ROUTE For a hearty fried-chicken lunch, head to Shirley's Solé Food Café in Toccoa, 25 miles to the south (706/297-7739). —Marcia Langhenry
Joshua Tree, Calif.
140 miles from Los Angeles
Beyond the eastern edge of the Los Angeles metro area's seemingly endless sprawl is Joshua Tree National Park, where the Mojave, Sonoran, and Colorado deserts merge into a terra-cotta landscape studded by the area's spindly namesake trees (nps.gov/jotr, seven-day pass $15 per car). HIGHLIGHTS Of the three gates that lead into the vast 800,000-acre national park, the one in the town of Joshua Tree, about 25 miles south of Route 62, gives you the most convenient access to the best sights. Here, the road winds through a rugged terrain composed of Joshua trees and granite towers. The park has more than 800 species of plants—including fan palms, mesquites, and creosotes—but one of the most remarkable is the teddy-bear cholla, so called for its coat of thin white needles that resemble fur. Walk the sandy quarter-mile trail through the Cholla Cactus Garden, just off the main road, and you'll see hundreds of these glistening plants stretching to the horizon. About 30 miles to the west is Keys View, a 5,100-foot bluff where you can take in the Santa Rosa Mountains and, on a very clear day, see all the way to Mexico. To go off-road, sign up with Desert Adventures for a three-hour Jeep trip into the backcountry during sunset, with stops for stargazing, medicinal plant hunting, and coyote tracking (888/440-5337, red-jeep.com, from $125). OVERNIGHT OPTION Sagewater Spa in Desert Hot Springs, about 30 minutes from Joshua Tree, has the cure for an aching tailbone: clear mineral pools heated to 90 degrees. The simple modernist inn also has seven boxy, whitewashed rooms equipped with kitchenettes. Rhoni Epstein and Cristina Pestana, from Boston and Brazil, respectively, run the spa and often welcome guests with caipirinhas, a light Brazilian cheese bread called pão de queijo, and fresh-baked coffee cake from a recipe that Epstein inherited from her grandmother (760/220-1554, sagewaterspa.com, two-night minimum, rooms from $175). DRIVING TIPS Much of the ride from L.A. consists of suburbs and traffic and various combinations thereof. Get out of town by noon for maximum rush-hour avoidance. EN ROUTE Grab a classic date shake at Hadley Fruit Orchards, a shop in Cabazon that's run by the Morongo Indians 951/849-5255, hadleyfruitorchards.com, from $3.50). —Adam Graham
Plum Island, Mass.
42 miles from Boston
Wooden walkways wind through protected dunes, tidal flats, and marshlands on Plum Island, an 11-mile-long barrier island off the northern coast of Massachusetts that sits at the mouth of the Merrimack River. HIGHLIGHTS A variety of shorebirds make their summer homes at the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge (978/465-5733, parkerriver.fws.gov). Drive or bike the six-and-a-half-mile road through the park, or walk the wooden, one-and-a-half-mile Hellcat Interpretive Trail. Signs identify some of the more than 350 species of birds that inhabit the area, such as yellow-capped bobolinks and the bufflehead duck, in addition to plants like the beach plum, from which the island gets its name. Local lobsterman Bob Hartigan is the man behind Bob Lobster (978/465-7100, boblobster.com). Pick up one of his signature lobster rolls and then take a seat at a table overlooking the river to scan the sky for birds. It's BYOB—beer and binoculars. OVERNIGHT OPTION A number of historic clapboard B&Bs, some dating back to the colonial era, line Newburyport's redbrick lanes; one of the best is the 19th-century Essex Street Inn, which has 37 rooms, many with cherry four-poster beds (7 Essex St., 978/465-3148, essexstreetinn.com, from $135). DRIVING TIPS Avoid Interstate 95 in favor of Route 1A, which takes on a vintage New England vibe after making its way through the busy seacoast cities of Revere and Salem. EN ROUTE Make a seafood stop in Ipswich, 30 miles south of the island, at the Clam Box, known for its building, which resembles a takeout container (ipswichma.com/clambox, 978/356-9707). —Meg Lukens Noonan