Gaming in Nevada: Time to Think Reno

By Anthony Curtis
January 12, 2022

What comes to mind when you think about a casino vacation? If it's 3,000-room megaresorts, celebrity chefs, and pirate battles, then you may have been among the almost 34 million people who visited Las Vegas last year. Thirty-four million! Now for some, that's just dandy - the bigger the party, the better. But lately, even dyed-in-the-felt Vegasphiles have been grousing that their beloved casino haunt is being overrun now that the last of the several new 4,000-room hotels has opened. Time to think about an alternative? Time to think Reno. Think Reno and you won't conjure images of fire spewing and waters spouting from man-made volcanoes and lakes. You'll first entertain more modest associations, such as three-digit room counts, employees who smile, and a great oyster bar at John Ascuaga's Nugget in the neighboring city of Sparks. But these are just warm-ups to the Reno area's main event, which is anything but man-made: an outdoor wonderland of golf, skiing, and sightseeing, compliments of two dozen links, a score of downhill resorts, snow-capped mountains, and an alpine lake without peer.

Dubbed the "Biggest Little City in the World" in 1927, Reno is no Las Vegas, but it doesn't try to be. The city has developed its own style based on its most marketable attributes: outdoor beauty, recreational opportunities, a come-as-you-are casualness, and affordability. And is it ever affordable! The area's large number of casinos ensures a high level of competition, which sets Reno's bargain quotient at a level second only to its big-sister city to the south.

Two ways to win

The key to enjoying Reno is knowing what to expect. If you're used to Las Vegas, you have to be prepared for the differences. For example, Las Vegas boasts 18 of the world's largest hotels. Reno has none; its largest hotel is the 2,000-room Hilton (not even in the Las Vegas top 20). Remember that lofty 34-million visitor count? Reno turnstiles admitted a mere 5.1 million last year. In almost every manner, the pace is slower and the glitz factor is lower. As one wise soul put it: If Las Vegas is a sparkling diamond, then Reno is a partially polished peridot.

Still reading? Then you're a candidate to honestly love Reno. There are two ways.

The first and most reliable is to use the city as a home base for day trips. Reno is the perfect gateway, not only to the Sierra Nevadas, Lake Tahoe, and the ski areas, but for a sightseeing excursion to Virginia City, or even an extended trip to San Francisco or Northern California's wine country, both about 200 miles away.

The second way is to simply go to Reno for Reno, taking advantage of the best that the 30 or so casinos in the area have to offer, perhaps coordinating a visit with one of the city's nonstop summer events.

Whatever your base strategy, planning in advance will pay big dividends. The first move is to obtain the "Reno, Sparks, Lake Tahoe Visitor Planner." No casino locale has an informational guide in the same league as this one.

And it's free. A toll-free call to 800/FOR-RENO will secure it in quick order. The planner provides extensive hotel descriptions and vitals, RV parks, special-events listings, suggested sightseeing itineraries, maps (both city and area), a list of travel wholesalers you can query for package-rate savings, and some stunning photos that will fire you up about your trip. You can also log on to the tourism authority's very good Web site at

High-end rooms at bargain rates

Upscale or downtown-and-dirty? Unless you want to go the ultra-bargain route, the best combo of price and quality is captured by going for the gusto. The good news is that upscale prices in Reno still qualify as bargain-rate lodging. In a random (mid-summer) check of hotel rates for this article, the most expensive we could come up with for standard rooms was $119 on the weekend and $65 on a weekday, both at Harrah's (800/ HARRAHS).

Those were the highest! Weekday/weekend rates of $49/$79 at John Ascuaga's Nugget (800/648-1177), $49/$89 at the Reno Hilton (800/648-5080), $49/$99 at the Atlantis (800/723-6500), and $59/$109 at the Peppermill (800/648-6992) qualify as downright steals.

Now is as good a time as any to mention that these latter four hotel-casinos are the cream of the Reno crop. All are perimeter joints, two situated to the east (Nugget and Hilton) and two to the south (Atlantis and Peppermill) of downtown, which contains the primary casino concentration. Downtown Reno has had a tough go of it in the recent past, during which many of the older Reno casinos have closed for good. Gone are the Mapes, Nevada Club, Riverside, Virginian, Riverboat, Holiday, even the famous Harolds Club.

Using its huge Bowling Stadium as an anchor, downtown hopes to mount a comeback with the dozen casinos that remain, but for now, there's not much to recommend it.

Of course, the financial inducement to take the downtown-and-dirty route can be mighty. Our survey found weekday rates of $49 at the Eldorado (800/648-5966), $32 at both the Sundowner (800/648-5490) and Pioneer (800/879-8879), and $24 at Fitzgeralds (800/535-LUCK). If you're using Reno as a home base, there's a great case to be made for spending $24 a night simply to store your gear and crash at the end of the day.

Truth is, Reno is an easy town to rate-shop, so all you really need is a general idea of what's where to evaluate the prices you encounter. The core of downtown contains Harrah's, the Flamingo Hilton (800/648-4882), Cal-Neva Virginian (877/777-7303), Fitzgeralds, Circus Circus (800/648-5010), Eldorado, and the relatively new Silver Legacy (800/687-7733). The latter three are linked via elaborate skywalks housing restaurants, bars, nightclubs, and shops; together they constitute the focal point of downtown. Located away from the core, on the downtown's outskirts are the Comstock (800/266-7862), Pioneer, Ramada (888/RENO-777), Sands Regency (800/648-3553), and Sundowner. You'll find lower prices here because the locations are less convenient. To the east and south perimeter casinos already mentioned, add the Silver Club (800/905-7774) and Western Village (800/648-1170) in Sparks, and way out some ten miles west of town, the burgeoning Boomtown (800/648-3790), and you've got the whole roster of Reno-Sparks hotels.

Upscale meals, moderately priced

Filling up a dining card in Reno isn't difficult. Excluding the rock-bottom plays detailed later (see our section called "Bargains on Parade," further along in the article), there are two must-dos.

The first is John's Oyster Bar at John Ascuaga's Nugget. Open since 1959 and operating out of the same location since 1979, John's recipe for awesome seafood soups hasn't changed in four decades. The restaurant's inspiration was New York City's Oyster Bar at Grand Central, but try getting an oyster pan roast, overflowing with the little critters, at Grand Central for $9.95! Chowders, cocktails, Louies, and oysters on the half-shell are served with half-loaves of fresh bread and an update of the day's events compliments of the in-house-produced Today's Noon News.

Dine early and there's a good chance you'll see John himself sampling the wares; on rare occasions, you might even spot him doing a bit of cooking.

Must-do number two is a trip to Louis' Basque Corner. Northern Nevada has a rich Basque heritage, and the area is peppered with restaurants serving the region's unique cuisine-lamb, tongue, oxtails, rabbit, paella - at long tables in the traditional all-you-can-eat family style. But Louis' is the top choice: It has the formula down, the price is right (about $16 for dinner), and it's only a two-block stroll from the center of town.

Reno's buffet scene has taken a little longer than Las Vegas's to catch fire, but the creativity gap is beginning to close. The best spreads in town, ordered by price (from $10 to $15 for dinner), are at the Peppermill, Ascuaga's Nugget, Atlantis, and Eldorado. Also recommended is the incredible Baldini's (800/845-7911) value buffet discussed below, and the famous steak buffet at the Silver Club. Though pedestrian in general, the Silver Club's $6.99-er comes with all the sirloin steak you can stomach. And these aren't skinny shoe-leather jobs, mind you, but slabs thick enough to get them cooked, according to the grill chef, "exactly the way you want, if you're lucky."

Moving up to the low high-end, there are the good value-priced steak houses, such as those at the Sundowner, Cal-Neva Virginian, and Western Village. Many of these offer neat little early-bird menus that chop an already puny tab in half. Recommended mid-rangers include La Strada (Italian) at the Eldorado, Art Gecko (Southwestern) at Circus Circus, Orozko (Mediterranean) at Ascuaga's Nugget, and the venerable Steakhouse Grill, also at the Nugget, where a toteboard tells you that 3,186,576 steaks (whoops, make that 3,186,577..., 578..., 579) have been served since 1956. Two gorgeous Italian restaurants, MonteVigna at Atlantis and Romanza at the Peppermill, take it to the next level. And for the biggest dent Reno can levy on your wallet, head to the Peppermill's highly rated White Orchid.

But a scanty club scene

Whereas Reno holds its own in the food department, its entertainment situation is significantly less developed. This is not a place to find the latest in touring musicals, high-tech production shows, top-flight impressionists, or cutting-edge magic. In fact, there's barely even a star presence. Only the Celebrity Showroom at Ascuaga's Nugget maintains a regular schedule of headliners, even if the likes of Robert Goulet, David Brenner, and Tony Orlando seem about ten years removed from their showroom heydays. Reno showrooms are "intimate," and tend to house small-scale production shows that seem to mark time between the appearances of the occasional second-tier headliner. In a pinch, you can always count on the tried-and-true comedy clubs, of which there's usually more than one to choose from on any given night. Taking up some of the slack is a vigorous nightclub and bar scene.

Finally, if you really want the Vegas-style show up north, you can take the ride to Lake Tahoe, where the stars still come out.

Bargains on parade

One universal trait of bona fide casino destinations is the availability of the super bargain. Since the goal is to hook you on the fishline of one of the negative-expectation casino games, it's necessary to throw out some bait. Reno's got the tactic down cold. With only about a third of the Las Vegas casino count, Reno deals aren't as numerous, but in a head-to-head comparison of each city's best, David may actually beat Goliath.

The first place that comes to mind when discussing Reno food specials is the Cal-Neva Virginian, where the granddad of local breakfasts, the 99[cent] bacon-and-eggs special, is still available daily from 10 p.m. till 8 a.m. in the Top Deck restaurant. This breakfast is such a standard in Reno that it constituted legitimate big news when 24-hour availability was rescinded earlier this year, replaced during prime time with a $1.74 version ("with more bacon"). You can also treat yourself to a big hot dog and bottle of Heineken at the Gridiron Grill for $1.50; Cal-Neva claims to be the largest seller of one-bottle-at-a-time Heineken in the entire country. The Cal-Neva's trump card, though, is another Top Deck special that even Las Vegas couldn't sustain: A complete steak dinner for $1.99, available from 10 p.m. till 6 a.m. It's an eight-ounce sirloin steak, rolls, vegetable, choice of potato (including baked), and one trip to the salad bar. You'll want to save the check, displaying a tab of $2.13 after tax, as a souvenir.

Stiff competition comes from Baldini's, a quirky locals' casino located halfway between downtown and Sparks, where Pepsi is so prevalent (a la Cal-Neva's Heineken) that it all but doubles as currency. Baldini's has 49[cents] hot dogs, 89[cent] burgers, a dozen chicken wings for $2, and a whole rotisserie chicken for $4.99. But its claim to fame is a buffet with a taco bar, a baked potato bar, and a working Mongolian grill, where cooks stir-fry beef, chicken, and pork with a vegetable mix of your choosing. A few other casino buffets have Mongolian grills, but not with prices like $3.99 for breakfast, $5.99 for lunch, and $6.99 for dinner. It gets better. Kids are half-price, you get a card good for a 25 percent discount on unlimited visits just for signing up for the slot club, and you can get half off the price of your first buffet with a coupon from Baldini's "Super Bonus" funbook (you'll need out-of-state ID and a voucher available at the tourist center in the Bowling Stadium).

The diner at the back of the little Nugget slot joint in downtown Reno hasn't changed in nearly 45 years. Eighteen red stools face the counter and another eighteen face the back wall. Try the "Awful Awful" burger for $3.50, or the chef's special dinner, which changes daily, for $3.95.

The Sundowner's $1.99 plate of spaghetti with garlic toast, available 24 hours a day, is another that's been around forever.

Back to Plan A

It would take another article of this size to thoroughly explore all the possibilities in the Reno-as-gateway scenario. The key trip you should take, if only to look around, is the 40-mile jaunt (plus another 20 to the casinos on the south shore) to Lake Tahoe. The payoff for the steep climb up and over majestic Mt. Rose is a view of the lake suitable for memory framing. This sight is surpassed only by the breathtaking visage of Tahoe's Emerald Bay.

To call the Lake Tahoe recreational area an outdoorsman's paradise doesn't begin to do it justice. Golf in summer and skiing in winter? Duh! Try 10 golf courses and 13 alpine ski resorts, a number of them world-class. Now add bicycling, hiking, swimming, speedboating, sailing, rafting, waterskiing, windsurfing, jet skiing, scuba diving, sport fishing, bungee jumping, skydiving, horseback-riding, tennis, bowling, ballooning, paragliding, rock-climbing, cross-country skiing, sleigh riding, snowboarding, ice skating, and snowmobiling. Do one, do all - possibly in overlapping seasons.

If you expend a little effort, you can find all sorts of ways to package these activities for big cost savings. Last May, for example, Fitzgeralds advertised $49 and $59 ski packages to Mt. Rose, Alpine Meadows, or Squaw Valley that included a room at the casino, all-day lift ticket, and transportation. The tourism authority produces several planning guides to specific activities. You can track them down via the main planner and Web site referenced earlier.

Advantage play

"Advantage play" is a gambling term that describes any method for getting an edge at a casino game. The concept can also be applied to a trip to a casino destination. Advantage play for Reno begins the moment you book your flight.

Try to get a seat on the left side of the airplane. Depending on your approach path, you'll be rewarded with a great aerial view of either Lake Tahoe or the city. And don't run straight for a cab at the airport. Unlike Las Vegas, almost all the Reno casinos provide airport shuttles (plus, Tahoe Express shuttles travelers from the airport to Lake Tahoe's south shore about a dozen times a day).

Right off the bat, pick up one of the freebie magazines (e.g. Best Bets or Fun & Gaming) and page through it immediately. They're great sources for entertainment leads and discount coupons for shows and meals. Also, visit the tourist center at the Bowling Stadium for more of the same.

If you come with kids, the best arcades are at Atlantis, Reno Hilton, and Boomtown.

The best book to read before you come is the Nevada Handbook by Deke Castleman. The best place to get a book once you get there is Ron Teston's Gambler's Book Store at First and Virginia.

The biggest special events are the Reno Rodeo in June, Hot August Nights in August, and the Best-in-the-West Rib Cook-off, Great Reno Balloon Race, and the National Championship Air Races in September.

For a cool diversion, have lunch, dinner, or a drink at the Liberty Belle Saloon and Restaurant, which is named after the first slot machine, developed in 1898 by Charles Fey. The bar's owned by two of Fey's grandsons, and on display are some of the inventor's machines, including his Liberty Belle.

And finally, whatever you do, check out the great bathrooms next to the Romanza restaurant at the Peppermill. Trust us.

Keep reading

A Presidential Tour of Virginia

At George Washington's Ferry Farm, the Virginia plantation where the nation's first president lived as a boy, you learn some of his youthful secrets. Like the time he took a dip in the Rappahannock River, which flows past the farm, and two women from a neighboring town pilfered his britches. "It's in the court records," I was told as I toured there recently. Did the Father of Our Country scamper home unclothed? I wondered. On that we can only speculate. Part of the fun of traveling to historical places is coming across odd, sometimes gossipy—but always fascinating—stories like this one, which add flesh and blood to notables like Washington who figure so prominently in school texts. In Virginia, four of America's first five presidents almost seem to step from the pages of history at the plantation homes where they once lived. You can meet them on a seven-day, budget-priced driving tour, in the footsteps of the Founding Fathers. The 500-mile loop itinerary out of Washington, D.C., takes you to Mount Vernon and two other plantations on which Washington lived; and on to Monticello, the gadget-filled home of Thomas Jefferson, America's third president. Settling nearby as neighbors—and good friends—were James Madison, the fourth chief executive, who called his mansion Montpelier, and James Monroe (the fifth) who retired to Ash Lawn-Highland. At these sites (and more), you learn about the everyday world of the men chosen to shepherd the new United States. The tour skips John Adams, the second president, who hailed from Massachusetts. To see Virginia's presidential quartet, plan on staying two nights each in three small colonial-era cities—Fredericksburg, Williamsburg, and Charlottesville. I've scouted out economy lodgings and good family-priced restaurants in each. Entrance fees at the presidential homes are modest. For recess from the history lessons, I've also pointed out inexpensive recreation. Outside Fredericksburg, take a cooling dip in lovely Lake Anna, a state park with an inviting sandy beach. Sample Virginia's fine vintages on a winery tour. Hike a shady segment of the famed Appalachian Trail not far from Monticello. Go tubing on the gentle James River. You'll mostly travel country roads past woodlands, fields, and pastures. But the focus of this drive is on the men—and their wives—who helped create the nation. They have the continuing power to inspire. We see them both as the pedestaled icons they have become and as the real-life men and women they actually were. What struck me most as I recently revisited their homes is that they achieved so much while facing daunting personal problems: the early death of loved ones, troublesome debts, family squabbles. Poor Madison, I learned at Montpelier, had to put up with an alcoholic stepson addicted to gambling. A disillusioning note is that all four-champions of freedom-kept slaves. This, too, is a story told at their plantations. Fredericksburg We know George Washington as a victorious general and astute president. But he was also a pioneering farmer, experimenting on new crops and methods of growing them. This is one of the stories told at Mount Vernon, the estate where he lived for 45 years. Little has changed, including the handsome furnishings in his white-pillared mansion (which you can tour) and its grand view across the Potomac River. Adult tickets from $17, kids ages 6-11 pay $8, $16 for seniors. As a farmer, Washington was especially proud of the massive 16-sided treading barn he designed to keep his wheat crop safe from the weather. Destroyed in the nineteenth century, it was rebuilt recently—and visitors can now watch his innovative structure at work. As my wife and I stood in the center, piles of newly cut wheat stalks were spread on the nearly circular plank floor. Then a trio of large horses, treading in a circle around us, separated the grain. Kernels fell though gaps in the floorboards to collecting bins below. Mount Vernon is 30 minutes south of Reagan National. You can stop for a half-day at the estate before continuing on for the evening to Fredericksburg, Washington's hometown. Devote the next day to visiting his boyhood homes: Popes Creek Plantation, where he was born, and Ferry Farm, where the family moved when he was six. Entrance to Popes Creek Plantation is free; admission to Ferry Farm is $8 for adults, $4 for students, and free for children under age 6. Officially designated the George Washington Birthplace National Monument, Popes Creek celebrates Washington's ancestors. His great-grandfather John, an English merchant seaman, was the first of the family to land in America in 1657, and he is buried here. The 550-acre park, about 38 miles east of Fredericksburg via Route 3, is maintained as a colonial-era farm with costumed interpreters. Devon oxen keep the grass mowed and a trio of turkeys struts. The river views are as lovely as Mount Vernon's. Pack a lunch and savor them at the picnic area. From Popes Creek, return to 115-acre Ferry Farm, just outside Fredericksburg. As a youth, Washington learned to hunt, ride, and farm—the skills of Virginia gentry. Here, too, is where he may have chopped down a cherry tree-wild cherries still abound—and perhaps tossed a stone across the Rappahannock. The river is not wide, and his arm was strong. Time your visit so you can watch archaeologists dig for colonial artifacts. In Fredericksburg's Historic District, you can also pick up the early footsteps of James Monroe. As a young man, he practiced law in the city. The James Monroe Museum, located at the site of his office, displays rich furniture pieces he took with him to the White House. As a history buff, I've known him as a statesman. But here I learned he was a Revolutionary War hero, wounded as a lieutenant the night Washington crossed the Delaware. His wife Elizabeth, so a guide told me, introduced place cards to society dining in America—etiquette she picked up when Monroe was minister to France. Admission is $5 for adults, $1 per child (ages 5 and under get in free). Getting thereFrom Reagan National, take the George Washington Parkway/Mount Vernon Memorial Highway south through Alexandria to Mount Vernon. After touring, continue west on Route 235 to Route 1 south and follow signs to I-95 south. The beach at Lake Anna State Park is about 25 miles southwest of the city. Where to Stay & EatExcept in summer, try for one of the 26 fully equipped cabins at Westmoreland State Park near Popes Creek. Contact them for current rates. Eat at Yesterdays in nearby Montross. In Fredericksburg, well-priced motels are clustered at the intersection of U.S. 17 and I-95. Try the 59-room Travelodge (800/578-7878), the 77-room Super 8 Motel (540/371-8900), or the 119-room Motel 6 (540/371-5443).  Near the motels, the Johnny Appleseed Restaurant features southern cooking with full dinners under $9. In the Historic District, Sammy T's is a local favorite with a nineteenth-century look. Go for the quesadilla plate, $5.50. Williamsburg As the capital of England's richest American colony, Williamsburg drew important visitors. The footprints of Washington, Jefferson, and Monroe crisscross often here. Many lodgings, taverns, and government offices they frequented have been rebuilt or restored to create Colonial Williamsburg, a 173-acre eighteenth-century town. Washington served for 16 years in the House of Burgesses. Topped with a soaring cupola, Colonial Williamsburg's impressive brick capitol duplicates the one in which the burgesses met as revolutionary fervor grew in the 1770s. Jefferson and Monroe attended the College of William and Mary, adjacent to the Historic District. The school's beautiful eighteenth-century Wren Building, where they studied, is the oldest academic building in use in America. A lifelong scholar, Jefferson is credited with broadening the school's curriculum to include chemistry, medicine, and modern languages. As Virginia's second state governor, Jefferson occupied the Governor's Palace that earlier had housed England's colonial governors. A beautifully symmetrical structure, which had to be rebuilt, it was one of America's most ornate residences. As you exit, take a stroll—as Jefferson may have—through the garden's holly bush maze. Washington and Jefferson were often guests at Raleigh Tavern, a popular gathering spot also authentically reconstructed. Step inside for a tour. As a student of 20, Jefferson is known to have spent at least one especially gala evening here dancing and drinking - to excess, it seems. After the night's revelry, he complained in a letter to a friend, "I could never have thought the succeeding sun would have seen me so wretched." To meet Washington as a military commander, take the Colonial Parkway about 12 miles east to the Yorktown National Battlefield, where his troops won the war for independence in 1781. Stretch your legs as you walk among the still-evident trenches and earthworks he ordered dug beside the York River. Getting thereWilliamsburg and Yorktown are about 105 miles south of Fredericksburg via U.S. 17. Where to Stay & EatArea motels are plentiful and inexpensive. Summer-season rates begin at about $30; at the 22-room Rochambeau (800/368-1055), $32; the 75-room Econo Lodge Pottery (757/564-3341), $60; the 39-room White Lion (800/368-1055), $44; and the 108-room King William Inn (800/446-1041), $65 weekdays/$79 weekends. Dine one night at a colonial tavern. At Chowning's, full dinners begin at $14. A less expensive alternative, the Old Chickahominy House serves up a bountiful colonial lunch-fruit, Virginia ham, Brunswick stew, biscuits, homemade pie, and coffee—for $7.75. In Yorktown, meals at Nick's Seafood Pavilion, beginning at $7, come with a water view; a heaping seafood platter is $16. Charlottesville The homes of Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe all perch atop green hills with grand Blue Ridge views. Acres of fields and gardens surround them. So untouched is the setting, I find it easy to imagine each Founding Father is at home when I come calling. Jefferson designed Monticello himself, adding to it for 40 years. More than any museum house anywhere, it reflects its master's inquisitive and industrious nature. He filled it with gadgets he designed, such as the giant clock over the front door that faces both inside and out. Indoors, the clock sports two hands; outside, he placed only an hour hand—since, to quote my guide Charlie Gay, "You only have to know the approximate time when you're working outdoors." A man with expensive tastes, Jefferson furnished his beloved retreat lavishly—and died deeply in debt. Admission from $25 for adults, $16 for children ages 12-18, $8 for children ages 5-11, children under five are free. Two miles up the road, Monroe's Ash Lawn-Highland is humbler, seated at the end of a long entrance drive lined with ash trees. Monroe, instrumental in negotiating the Louisiana Purchase, held more major offices than any other president: senator, ambassador, governor, secretary of state, and secretary of war. His home displays many of the rich objects he and his wife acquired in their travels. In the drawing room stands a bust of Napoleon that the emperor himself gave to Monroe. Admission is $14 for adults, $8 for children ages 6-11, $12 for seniors over 60. Madison's Montpelier is located 30 miles north near Orange. Take Route 20, a scenic byway. Its entrance marked with four soaring pillars, Montpelier is a stately structure with a dual personality. Madison's lifelong home, it was acquired subsequently by a horse-loving Delaware du Pont, who greatly enlarged it. Scholarly and introverted, Madison was complemented by his vivacious wife Dolley, a born hostess, according to my guide Bob Carr. Admission is from $18 for adults, $7 for children 6-14, and free for children under age 6. Elsewhere in Charlottesville, the "academical village" Jefferson designed for the University of Virginia was cited in 1976 by the American Institute of Architects as "the proudest architectural achievement of the nation's first 200 years." His magnificent Rotunda is patterned after Rome's Pantheon. Jefferson so loved the university that he ordered "Founder of the University of Virginia" carved onto his Monticello tomb, ignoring his presidency. Two miles from Monticello, the city-run Monticello Visitor Center displays 400 original Jefferson objects. As a study break, stop for a complimentary tasting at Jefferson Vineyards, a 50-acre vineyard near Monticello. After all, Jefferson is considered America's first wine connoisseur. Or drive south 18 miles on Route 20 to Scottsville, where James River Runners will put you in a rubber tube on the James River. The fee is from $24 per tube. Just 18 miles west, hike along the Appalachian Trail through Shenandoah National Park. Getting thereCharlottesville is 120 miles west of Williamsburg. The fastest way is via I-64; the most scenic, Route 6 west from Richmond. En route, stop in Richmond to see the neoclassical State Capitol Building Jefferson helped design when Richmond succeeded Williamsburg as the capital city. A famed full-size statue of Washington stands in the Rotunda. Where to Stay & EatThe 37-room Budget Inn (800/293-5144) is an easy walk from the college campus; $46 weekdays/$55 weekends. Other choices: On the northern outskirts, the 115-room Knights Inn (804/973-8133), $54 weekdays/$65 weekends, or the 65-room Super 8 (800/800-8000), $49 weekdays/$59 weekends. In Orange, the new 65-room Holiday Inn Express (540/672-6691) occupies a Monticello-like hill with a view, $85. Just outside Monticello, eighteenth-century Michie Tavern serves the same hearty buffet lunch daily. For $10.95 (adults), the bill of fare lists fried chicken, black-eyed peas, cole slaw, mashed potatoes, corn bread, stewed tomatoes, green beans, "tavern beets," and biscuits. Across the street from the UVA campus, join students for budget meals at the College Inn, a pub where the eight-ounce steak platter (fries, salad) comes to $9.50. Up the street, the Virginia offers a baby back rib plate for $8.95. An easy walk from the Knights Inn and Super 8, the Chiang House Restaurant features lemon chicken at $7.45. Next door, heap your plate high at the Wood Grill Buffet; a choice of salads, entrees, and desserts runs $7.99.


New York's Hudson Valley

Ever since the Dutch patroons settled the green hills that flank the Hudson River in the seventeenth century, aristocrats have been building their dream homes along its scenic banks; today many are open to the public, offering a glimpse into the rarified world of America's early movers and shakers. Built mostly on the eastern bank, they cover every style in the book, from Gothic to Beaux-Arts to Federal; this concentrated wealth of historic architecture, unique in the United States, can easily fill a week's drive or more (especially during its gorgeous fall foliage season), but you can take in the approximately 130-mile stretch from New York City to the town of Hudson in as little as three or four packed days. In New York City, car rental outfits are plentiful; cut rates in half by renting at Newark Airport. Invest in a good regional map and head north on the Henry Hudson Parkway, which leads into the Saw Mill River Parkway and to Tarrytown, the first stop. From there, scenic Route 9 links the rest of the towns, though the Taconic State Parkway may be used when time is short. And you can save bucks as well as time by following a classic itinerary focusing on the historic highlights and patronizing the clusters of economical motels and dining spots where you can eat well for less than $15 a person. Note that most attractions close from approximately November through April, with some opening again briefly in December with romantic holiday candlelight tours; always check when planning your trip. New York City to Tarrytown (25 Miles) Head north out of Manhattan on the Henry Hudson Parkway, past white birch trees and the occasional creek tumbling over mossy boulders, the boxy tenements of the Bronx melting into inviting forests freckled with red-brick and white-clapboard towns. In well under an hour - but light-years away from Manhattan - you make your first stop, the pretty village of Tarrytown. This is Sleepy Hollow country, so don't miss Sunnyside (W. Sunnyside Lane, 914/591-8763), the riverfront homestead of that tale's writer, Washington Irving. This Dutch stone cottage "all made up of gable ends, angles and corners," in Irving's words, makes an excellent spot for a picnic. Adjacent is Lyndhurst (635 S. Broadway, 914/631-4481), a sprawling jumble of towers, rose windows, and steep roofs that's America's finest example of Gothic revival. This 1838 cross between an Arthurian fantasy castle and a setting for a romance novel is dressed in "Sing Sing marble" quarried by inmates from the notorious Ossining prison nearby. The elaborate interior fools our eyes with trompe l'oeil plaster passing for marble, mahogany, and flocking, a technique then much in vogue (and ironically more expensive than the real thing). It's pricey, but you do get a lot of sightseeing bang for those bucks at Kykuit ("KIKE-it," Dutch for "lookout"; 914/631-8200), a wisteria-clad stone mansion built in 1913 for John D. Rockefeller and which housed four generations of his clan before joining the National Trust as a historic site. Approaching on the shuttle from the Kykuit Visitor Center at Philipsburg Manor in Sleepy Hollow, the scale of the grounds is impressive, stretching down to the river and dotted with Governor Nelson Rockefeller's modern sculptures. The gardens, fountains, and vistas are worth the trip in and of themselves, but the house also offers great artworks, furniture, and Oriental porcelain, and there's even a fascinating collection of classic cars in the coach barn.  SleepsSaw Mill River Motel (25 Valley Ave., Elmsford, 914/592-7500, Just outside Tarrytown, a pleasant, two-story red-brick affair with 127 rooms. Elmsford Motel (19 Tarrytown Rd., 914/592-5300) A more basic but clean and quite presentable 48-roomer. Eats In the small but lively Tarrytown downtown, inexpensive restaurants abound despite the upscale look. Top picks: Bella's Restaurant (5 South Broadway, 914/332-0444) Plain, honest diner-style food in a plain, honest setting; entrées $6.25 to $11.25 with bread, salad, and two sides. Main Street Pizza (47 Main St., 914/631-3300, The pizza's great, but the dinners ($5.75 to $12, including bread and either pasta or salad) are even better in this sparkling tiled eatery. Tarrytown to Hyde Park (55 Miles) The next morning, pick up Route 9 for the idyllic 25-mile drive to the town of Garrison, where Boscobel (1601 Rte. 9D, 845/265-3638;, a 12-room mustard-and-cream Federal-style frame house, was built in 1808 for a certain States Morris Dyckman upon his return from England (where, like many staunch loyalists, he'd fled after the British defeat in the revolution - not unlike King Charles II, who hid from the anti-Royalist troops of Oliver Cromwell in the English forest for which the house is named). Simple and practical, the period furnishings are a far cry from the overwrought Victoriana of some of the area's other manses. Don't miss the floor in the entry hall; a cloth painted to look like marble. From here, time permitting, two great side trips across the Tappan Zee Bridge are the military academy at West Point (845/938-2638; general admission free, guided bus tour $6 adults, under 12 $3) and the Storm King modern art center (Old Pleasant Hill Road, Mountainville, 845/534-3115; adults $7, seniors $5, students $3, under 5 free). Continue north into nearby Cold Spring, one of the Valley's more charming - though admittedly expensivish - towns (though with several decently priced dining spots). Stroll along Main Street, admire the neat Victorian homes and poke around the many shops and antiques dealers that have sprung up to serve the weekend hordes from New York. Another 27 miles on Route 9 will take you to Hyde Park (zooming through the sprawl of Poughkeepsie), in terms of mansions perhaps the Valley's mother lode. Its pi`ce de résistance is the Franklin Delano Roosevelt National Historic Site (Rte. 9, 845/229-9115;, the birthplace, home, and gravesite of our 32nd president. Dating from the early nineteenth century, the Georgian colonial revival edifice (known as Springwood) offers a fascinating look into his life with furnishings, busts, and memorabilia. The first-ever Presidential Library and Museum is here, too, born of FDR's desire to provide future generations with easy access to the documents of his presidency. The museum offers thought-provoking exhibits ranging from his role in World War II to his White House desk to Eleanor Roosevelt (whose Dutch-style hideaway, Val-Kill, is also on the estate and visitable). De rigueur for students of excess, on the other hand, is the nearby Vanderbilt Mansion (Rte. 9, 845/229-9115; The most opulent - some might say tacky - of the houses, the 55-room Italian Renaissance extravaganza was built by Frederick Vanderbilt (grandson of Cornelius, the original robber baron) at the height of the Gilded Age of the 1890s, a time when famous (and infamous) financiers and magnates rode roughshod over the American landscape. A highlight is the boudoir of Louise Vanderbilt, done up in a style I call "Liberace gone loco"-an orgy of curlicues, tapestries, and gilding. Use Hyde Park as a base for checking out lots of other attractions within striking distance: apart from the Samuel Morse home and museum in Poughkeepsie (2683 South Rd., 845/454-4500;, nearby are several pick-your-own apple and berry farms (I especially like Greig Farm on Pitcher Lane in Red Hook, 845/758-1234); the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome in Rhinebeck (44 Stone Church Rd., Rhinebeck, 845/758-8610; museum $6 adults, $2 ages 6-10, weekdays; museum/air show $12 adults, $5 ages 6-10, weekends), a museum and summertime air show featuring World War I aircraft; and the Omega Institute (150 Lake Dr., Rhinebeck, 800/944-1001), a moderately priced New Age resort east of Rhinebeck that from May to October offers summer-camp-style pleasures mixed with classes and talks on topics both familiar and far-out. Sleeps  The Inn at Hyde Park (537 Rte. 9; 845/229-9161) Twenty-two smallish, plainish units in a beige woodframe motel across from Rollermagic. Doubles $55-$65. The Roosevelt Inn (4360 Rte. 9, 845/229-2443, fax 845/229-0026) Twenty-five clean-cut, basic rooms in a brown-shuttered building; doubles from $45-$55. Vanderbilt Motel (Rte. 9 at Linden La., 845/229-7100, fax 845/229-5312) A tad dated and no pool, but still a good value at $49-$64; 18 rooms. Golden Manor (522 Rte. 9, 845/229-2157) A charming Greek Revival-style motel with 38 impeccable rooms and a large outdoor swimming pool, run by a welcoming Korean-American family; doubles $45-$65. Super 8 Motel (4142 Rte. 9, 845/229-0088, fax 845/229-8088) Cute faux-Tudor two-story property with 61 comfortable rooms, $69-$100. Eats Cold Spring: Cold Spring Depot (1 Depot Sq., 845/265-2305) Possibly the most happening spot in town, with indoor/outdoor seating and a menu whose best bets are daily specials and pub food, served with sides or salad, $8 to $15. Cold Spring Pizza (120 Main St., 845/265-9512) A full Italian menu (ranging from $5.50 to $12) and quality pizzas in a simple setting. Hyde Park: Pete's Famous Diner/Restaurant (546 Rte. 9, 845/229-1475) Better-than-diner fare in a cute setting. Best deal: $7-to-$10 combo platters including sides, soup, and salad. Eveready Diner (540 Rte. 9; 845/229-8100) Cheerful Art Deco-style chrome diner offering home-style dinners for $7-12, including fresh veggies, salad, and bread. Best Wok (Hyde Park Plaza, Rte. 9, 845/229-0319) Simple but tasty Chinese take-out joint with a handful of tables; entrées around $7 and combination platters (with fried rice and egg roll) around $6. Hyde Park to Hudson (35 Miles) The northernmost stretch of our Route 9 itinerary includes some jewels of its own, including Clermont, a white-frame colonial-era landmark tucked away in northern Dutchess County, so we cruise north, sometimes on Route 9, sometimes along hilly country lanes bordered by low stone walls and fruit orchards, with quick stops along the way at the grand Mills Mansion (Old Post Rd., Staatsburg, 845/889-8851; adults $3, ages 5-12 $1), another Gilded Age robber baron's playground between Hyde Park and Rhinebeck, and at Montgomery Place (845/758-5461; adults $6, seniors $5, ages 5-17 $3), a lovely nineteenth-century jewel on Annandale-on-Hudson's picturesque River Road. North of Red Hook and west of Route 9 (518/537-4240; adults $3, seniors $2, kids 5-12 $1) is the oldest (1730s) and charmingly simplest of the riverfront estates - Clermont, the ancestral homestead of the Livingston clan. George Washington and other founding fathers really did sleep here; it was, in fact, Robert Livingston who administered the oath of office to our first president and served as minister to France. As if that weren't enough, he also bankrolled Robert Fulton's history-making steamboat - which took its name from the house and stopped by in 1807 on its maiden voyage down the Hudson. From Clermont, the last half-hour stretch of Route 9 takes you past more orchards and on to the once-roughneckish town of Hudson, a former whaling center that fell on hard times when that industry went belly up, and more recently has reinvented itself as the Valley's antiques capital, with pricey consignment shops everywhere you look and even the occasional celebrity driving up from New York to refurbish the penthouse (fortunately, most lodging and restaurant prices haven't yet gone similarly upscale). Take a leisurely stroll through the restored red-brick downtown, which mostly means Warren Street and antiquing. Not all of it's priced out of reach; some surprising, smaller values can still be snagged here. Two more local manses merit stops. In the town of Kinderhook about a half hour north on Route 9H is Lindenwald (518/758-9689; adults $2, under 16 free), the eclectic Victorian home and farm of Martin van Buren. Our eighth president may not be our best known, but he did help lay the foundations for the partisan politics we all know and love. The second house is one of the Hudson Valley's funkiest sights, perched high on a hill four miles south of Hudson and right across from the Rip Van Winkle Bridge leading across the Hudson to the Catskills. Commanding a view of the mighty Hudson slicing through wooded hills, Olana (Rte. 9G, 518/828-0135; adults $3, seniors $2, kids 5-12 $1) is the the quirky Persian-style home of nineteenth-century landscape painter Frederick Church that has caused many a jaw (my own included) to literally drop. Inside, the decor is eclectic but heavy on Islamic art. In a way, it's more about the setting than the house-which, while interesting enough with its fancy brickwork and Victorianoid turrets, is clunky in its attempt to re-create the subtleties of Middle Eastern architecture in a New World setting. From Hudson, drive directly back to New York City in two hours on the Taconic Parkway or the New York State Thruway, cut eastward to the Berkshires of Massachusetts on Route 23, or continue north toward Albany and western New York. The Hudson Valley may be a shiny touristic jewel in New York State's crown, but this is a region that just keeps on giving. Sleeps Warren Inn (731 Warren St., 518/828-9477, fax 518/828-3575) The Valley's best value, a former movie theater with 14 lovely, recently renovated rooms for $45 double year-round right in the historic district. Joslen Motor Lodge (320 Joslen Blvd., off Rte. 9, 518/828-7046) Sixteen fresh and impeccable units five minutes north of downtown; doubles $60-$70 ($100 with a kitchenette). St. Charles Hotel (16-18 Park Place, 518/822-9900, fax 518/822-0835) For a touch of class, this elegant, 34-room property, recently renovated, rents out doubles from $79-$119 year-round. EatsColumbia Diner & Restaurant (717 Warren St., 518/828-9083) Simple, honest food and value in an authentic chrome diner; seven or so daily specials (with sides) $4 to $6. Earth Foods Cafe Deli (523 Warren St., 518/822-1396) Freshly prepared, wholesome fare from $6 to $12 in a rustic cafe in the thick of downtown.


Native American Country in Arizona

The drive up to the mesa-top village of Walpi, on the Hopi Indian Reservation in northern Arizona, takes only a few minutes. But you will remember it for a lifetime. From high-desert flatlands, the rough, narrow road suddenly leaps up the side of a sheer cliff in a couple of twisting jumps, barely clinging to a precipitous drop-off. In centuries past, the Hopis climbed to Walpi's lofty perch on perilous trails to escape their enemies. Today's road, open to visitors, seems only slightly less daunting. A visit to ancient Walpi, which hugs the mesa's rocky tip an awesome 600 feet above the countryside, is just one of many adventures awaiting you on a five-day, 800-mile drive-budget-priced, of course-into Arizona's scenic Indian Country, touring both the Hopi and surrounding Navajo reservations. If you've got another day or two, the nearby Apache tribes also invite visitors. A most affordable adventure Look forward to enjoying plenty of exciting Old West-style fun. But perhaps more important, the trip rewards with an up-close look at the culture and lives of these intriguing peoples, struggling to retain their historic identities in a beautiful but harsh land. If you're lucky, you might catch a ceremonial dance, fair, or rodeo. This educational aspect-a look at Indian culture beyond the cliches fostered by all those Westerns-adds considerable value to the modest prices you'll find in these areas for food and lodging. In a way, entering Navajo and Hopi territories is like visiting a foreign country-make that two foreign countries. They do things differently, and they speak unique languages among themselves. But these are less-distant lands, easily reached by car or a cheap flight to Phoenix. Unlike Europe, they are inexpensive. In summer high season, a room for two people in a quality motel-either on or off the reservations-costs only $60 to $100 a night, often with breakfast included. The price drops to as low as $30 a night if you'll accept a shared bathroom. Everywhere I went, good family restaurants featured full dinners that began at less than $10 per person. I got hooked on Navajo tacos-a huge, plate-size hunk of Indian fry bread liberally topped with ground beef, chopped tomatoes, lettuce, onions, melted cheese, and an optional hot pepper sauce. For about $7, a single serving set in front of me looked like a mini-mountain. Delicious as it was, the hearty dish proved more than I could eat. Just as I would abroad, I sampled all the local foods, which usually proved the cheapest. What I liked best was the chance to meet Navajos and Hopis in their villages. Many are rather shy about talking to tourists. It's just not their way. But you can usually engage in conversation with a potter, wood-carver, or basket-maker, many of whom market their art from their doorsteps. Even if you don't buy-although you will find some terrific bargains-it's interesting to watch them at work. My wife, who collects the colorful, hand-carved kachina (or katsina) dolls of the Hopis, especially enjoys hearing the carvers explain why they chose a particular design. Along the way, you will visit (as we recently did) massive Canyon de Chelly (pronounced "shay"), once a secret labyrinthine refuge for the Navajos, and the equally spectacular Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, the red-rock realm where Hollywood director John Ford filmed such Western classics as 1938's Stagecoach, starring John Wayne. The cliff-hanging stone pueblos of the Hopis, such as Walpi, are among the oldest continually inhabited residences in North America. But don't be tempted to snap a photo; the Hopis ban the use of cameras. As you drive, keep an eye out also for Navajo hogans, the traditional six- or eight-sided shelters that many still use. Some are built in the old style with log walls and earthen roofs; others make use of plywood and other modern materials. And stay alert as well for livestock on the road-the Navajos maintain an open range. Cattle, ponies, sheep, and goats roam free without fences. I had to brake quickly one day for a large flock of sheep meandering down an otherwise empty road. They were only shepherded-as far as we could tell-by a small dog. Totaling more than 18 million acres (larger than many states), the Navajo and Hopi reservations occupy an often stark, desertlike landscape, yet one that is surprisingly beautiful in its wide-open emptiness. Almost anywhere you look, odd rock formations thrust skyward, teasing the eye. Lofty mesas give way to deep gorges painted in hues of red and yellow. Pygmy forests of juniper and pi-on, a source of edible nuts for the region's early inhabitants, add splashes of green. I reveled, too, in summer's mild, dry climate. At elevations ranging from 4,000 to 7,500 feet, the area turns chilly enough at night for a sweater. Getting started The logical starting point is Phoenix, served by such discount airlines as Southwest (800/435-9792, and ATA (800/435-9282, Although summer is the high season for lodging in northeast Arizona, it's low season in Phoenix because of frequent 100-plus-degree days. You can find a good motel room for no more than $50 near the airport, if needed before or after the drive. Better yet, car rental rates in the desert tend to be a bargain. For a one-week rental in mid-August, Alamo (800/462-5266, quoted the lowest price, $141 for a compact car with unlimited mileage. Next lowest was Enterprise (800/736-8222, at $144. The lodging rates listed below represent the total cost per night for two people traveling during the peak summer period. Day one Plan to land in Phoenix by early afternoon. This gives you plenty of time to complete the pleasant 190-mile drive northeast via State Routes 87, 260, and 377 to Holbrook, a modest but interesting former frontier town on the southern edge of the Navajo Reservation. Less than an hour from the airport, you climb through a forest of stately saguaro cactus into high, cool mountains, fragrant with the scent of pine. Located just off I-40 along Historic U.S. 66, Holbrook and neighboring Winslow offer the cheapest lodging prices on this drive. I scouted out several motels I could recommend, charging about $50 to $60 a night. But another half dozen or more, in desperate need of refurbishing, advertised single rates as low as $20 a night. It's up to you. In midsummer, they all had vacancy signs lit. To really save, consider making either town your headquarters, visiting the sites on this itinerary as a series of day trips. The two towns are just north of the Fort Apache Indian Reservation and west of Petrified Forest National Park. In Holbrook, the livelier of the pair, stay comfortably at the 63-room Econo Lodge (928/524-1448), $49; 61-room Comfort Inn (928/524-6131), $64; or 70-room Best Western Arizonian Inn (928/524-2611), $70. Nearby is Jerry's Restaurant, which features a ham-steak dinner, $7.29. In Winslow, make it the 55-room Motel 6 (928/289-9581), $60; or the 46-room Super 8 (928/289-4606), $53. Falcon, the Family Restaurant, a longtime local favorite, is the place to eat. Try "Steak a la Mexicana," $7.99. Info: Holbrook (928/524-6558), Winslow (928/289-2434). Navajo nation Day two Just 15 miles north of Holbrook, State Route 77 enters into the sprawling Navajo Reservation (or Navajo Nation, as it is also called), the border crossing noted by the rumble of the cattle guard beneath your tires. As if to emphasize the tribe's open-range policy, cattle graze beside the highway, their swishing tails in danger of being whacked by the fender of your Ford. Today's drive covers just 125 miles via State Routes 77 and 15 and U.S. 191 en route to the town of Chinle and the nearby Canyon de Chelly National Monument. Give yourself plenty of time at the canyon. Almost immediately, you'll be captivated by the views, which in this open country seem to stretch forever. Far to the west, a thunderstorm flashes across a flat-topped mesa. Just ahead, strange black cones thrust from a field of sagebrush, geological formations like incipient volcanoes that fizzled centuries ago. My wife and I pointed out the hogans we saw along the road. Often, younger Navajos live nearby in modern houses equipped with electricity and plumbing; their parents or grandparents favor the old ways. About 30 miles from Chinle, take the five-mile detour to Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site. Opened in 1878, it's the oldest continually operating trading post in the Navajo Nation. The main trading area, selling groceries, looks as if it has changed little in 124 years. In the adjacent rug room, browse through stacks of handwoven rugs, noting the variety of traditional designs. The little ones begin at about $95; many larger rugs are priced at $4,500 or more. (Don't worry; down the road, I'll show you cheaper crafts that make fine souvenirs or gifts.) In the visitors center, Mary H. Begay, adorned in tribal jewelry of silver and turquoise, demonstrates the weaver's art, fashioning a rug in the style of the Teec Nos Pos community in New Mexico. In the 1840s, Canyon de Chelly, stretching 26 miles in a maze of passageways, served the Navajo as a stronghold, and the tribe remains protective of it. To enter, you must go with a paid Navajo guide or on an escorted tour-although there is one exception. Most visitors hop aboard one of the tourist trucks outfitted with open-air seats. The truck plows along the sandy road winding beneath the canyon's narrow, 1,000-foot-high red stone walls. A half-day excursion costs about $50 per person. To avoid paying, take the north- or south-rim drives and peer into the canyon from above. You'll be quite satisfied, I promise. The best overlook is at Tsegi on the south rim, which offers an extended view up and down the canyon. Far below, a farmer tends his vegetable garden, and here and there a cow wades in shallow Chinle Wash. I spotted one of those tourist trucks bouncing past in a cloud of dust. To get into the canyon, head for nearby White House Overlook. A 2.5-mile (round-trip) trail descends to the canyon floor, where you can see the White House cliff dwellings built by the Anasazi, who preceded the Navajo here. It's the one descent into the canyon for which you don't need a guide. Chinle's three motels, all inviting, happen to be some of the most expensive on this trip: the 102-room Best Western Canyon de Chelly Inn (800/327-0354), $89; 108-room Holiday Inn (928/674-5000), $99 to $109; and 73-room Thunderbird Lodge (928/674-5841), $101. The Thunderbird cafeteria, a favorite of Navajo families, serves a terrific sirloin-steak plate for under $10. Or stay about 20 minutes north at the 15-room Many Farms Inn (928/781-6362), a school training Navajo youth for hotel careers. A twin-bed room with shared bath costs $30 a night. Contact Navajo information (928/871-6436, Day three Next stop is Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, another red-rock wonder, about 100 miles northwest of Chinle. If you caught John Wayne in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon on the late-night movie, you'll recognize giant Elephant Butte, John Ford Point, and other odd rock formations rising from the valley floor like modernistic sculptures. To get there, take U.S. 191 to Many Farms, State Route 59 and U.S. 160 to Kayenta, and U.S. 163 to Monument Valley. Admission is $5 per person. For another $25 each, join a Navajo-led van tour, which makes a 17-mile, 90-minute loop through the valley (tours leave from the visitors center). But at no extra cost, tackle the rough, rutted road in your own car-always keeping an eye alert to wandering sheep. On the van tour, which I recommend, the guide provides insights into Navajo life, noting that the valley is sacred to the tribe. He even introduced us to a Navajo woman who invited us into her hogan, furnished in lovely rugs. The closest affordable lodging is in Kayenta, about 25 miles south. Choices are the 54-room Best Western Wetherill Inn (928/697-3231), $108; and the 73-room Hampton Inn (928/697-3170), $89 to $109. At the Wagon Wheel Restaurant, I couldn't resist the "Navajo Burger," two patties on fry bread with beans, cheese, lettuce, tomato, and french fries-a full dinner at $8.95. Drive seven miles south to Tsegi and stay more cheaply at the 58-room Anasazi Inn (928/697-3793), $69. Perched on the edge of a gorge, it boasts great views. In Tuba City, 70 miles south, you'll find three more options: 15-room Dine Inn Motel (928/283-6107), $70; 80-room Quality Inn (928/283-4545), $88; and 32-room Grey Hills Inn (928/283-4450), another hotel training school; with shared bath, $52. Day four Surrounded by the Navajo Nation, the little Hopi Reservation preserves a culture that in many ways is different from the Navajos. For one thing, the Hopis shun irrigation for dry farming, instead nurturing crops that can survive on rainfall. Unfortunately, as is the nature of peoples everywhere, the two neighbors have squabbled for generations over land and other issues. You will get hints of the dispute in tribal newspapers found in shops, gas stations, and cafes. Most Hopis live in 12 villages on or near First, Second, and Third Mesas, three huge rocks shooting up from the valley. From Tuba City, eastbound State Route 264 crosses (in succession) Third and Second Mesas and nudges up against First Mesa. Today's drive, about 130 miles, cuts through Hopi lands on routes 264, 77, and 87, returning you for the night to Holbrook or Winslow. Atop Second Mesa, stop at the Hopi Cultural Center, where a small museum details the tribe's history. Check here about ceremonial dances open to the public. Next door is the reservation's only tourist lodging, the 33-room Hopi Cultural Center Motel (928/734-2401), $90 weekdays, $95 weekends. At the restaurant, I bought a $1.95 package of "piki bread," a flaky, Hopi-style tortilla made of blue corn and baked on a hot stone. Save plenty of time to explore the village of Walpi, high atop First Mesa. Daily 45-minute walking tours ($5) depart frequently from the Ponsi Hall Cultural Center (928/737-2262). Loretta, our guide, explained that the steep road we had just negotiated was built only a few years ago, easing life for the mesa's 200 residents. Most live in two adjoining villages; only five families remain in Walpi, which dates back to 1690. Unlike its neighbors, Walpi lacks running water and electricity. Former residents, living on the valley floor, return on ceremonial occasions. A number of artisans, young and old, sell kachinas and pottery from their homes, usually for considerably less than you would pay off-reservation. We noted their old negotiating tactic of offering one price only to immediately lower it if we didn't seem interested. In this way, my wife paid $50 for a brightly painted Crow Mother kachina, which featured a small image of Walpi. "You can't take photos of the village," said artist Jolie Silas, "so I carve it into my dolls." The best buy, though, is a "cradle" doll, a small kachina traditionally given to newborn girls. At $10 (you may have to bargain), they make a memorable souvenir. Hopi information: 928/734-2401, Day FIVe: Return to Phoenix, perhaps through Petrified Forest National Park or the Fort Apache Indian Reservation. From Holbrook, take State Routes 77 and 73 south through Fort Apache, connecting to U.S. 60 into Phoenix, about 200 miles. Keep in mind as you drive that Arizona is home to 21 Indian reservations or communities. They might tempt you back on another journey into Native American cultures. Arizona information: 888/520-3434,


Sierra Gold Country

With a flick of the reins, the driver urged his sturdy horses into a gallop as the lumbering old stagecoach approached an incline in the dusty road ahead. Bouncing behind him, my wife, Sandy, and I grabbed the edge of our hardwood seats and held on tightly. "Keep your eyes open," the driver shouted over the rackety din. "We might run into bandits around the next bend." And, sure enough, we did. Stagecoach? Bandits? What's going on here? As excited as kids, we were reliving the romance of the 1849 California Gold Rush. Stagecoaches like the one to which we clung once linked the mining camps that sprang up in the rugged foothills of the Sierra Nevada. The rare chance to ride in an authentic coach was just one historical episode among many in our four-day, 540-mile drive into Gold Country. Though some forty-niners struck it rich, you won't need a bag of nuggets to explore the region, which has become a popular weekend retreat for folks from the nearby San Francisco Bay Area. This is good budget travel territory, where appealing lodgings and Old West-style caf,s come at affordable prices. Much of what you will want to see and do is free-or almost so. Speaking of nuggets, many visitors still pan for gold in the rushing streams that cascade out of the Sierras. And with a quick lesson in the art of handling the pan-offered throughout Gold Country-you might go home with a bit of gold dust, a nugget, or even your own bonanza. California still mines millions of dollars of gold annually. But panning is hard work; I know firsthand. For less-demanding fun: Go white-water rafting; tour a former gold mine; view one of the world's largest gold nuggets (13 pounds); hike among giant sequoia trees; quaff a beer in an authentic miner's saloon; or sip (for free) the very fine wines of Amador County, where more than 20 wineries are clustered in the sunny hills just outside the town of Plymouth. Relics of the legendary quest for gold are everywhere on this very scenic drive-in the crumbling stone walls of a former Wells Fargo office or the rusting machinery of abandoned mines. But the principal vestiges of the colorful era are the onetime camps and boomtowns scattered about the hills wherever gold was discovered, some all but hidden now down shady country roads. Many became decaying ghost towns, but others have prospered from tourism, like Angels Camp, where Mark Twain was inspired to write The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. The two once-rollicking towns of Columbia and Coloma (site of the first gold discovery) have been carefully preserved as state historic parks, where the Gold Rush story is excitingly told. The discovery had a profound impact on California and America, uniting the eastern seaboard with the vast western lands that had recently been won from Mexico. As you tour, count the easygoing history lesson as a value-added bonus of the drive. Getting started For us, Gold Country made an ideal add-on to a trip to San Francisco, getting us out of the city and into the quieter countryside. The San Francisco Bay Area's three major airports-San Francisco International, Oakland International, and San Jose International-are reasonably convenient to the drive. Airfares into Oakland and San Jose, served by Southwest Airlines, the nation's largest no-frills airline, tend to be cheaper. No discount airline currently flies into San Francisco. When we made our arrangements, the Internet showed seven car-rental agencies at Oakland's airport-including Budget (800/527-0700,, Thrifty (800/847-4389,, and Dollar (800/800-4000, offering a compact car for a week with unlimited miles for about $150. The main road threading Gold Country, California Route 49, is aptly dubbed the "Mother Lode Highway." Mostly two lanes and endlessly winding, it stretches 310 miles north from the foothill town of Oakhurst, just outside Yosemite National Park, to Vinton, north of Lake Tahoe. You may want to tackle the entire route, but I've shortened the itinerary to focus on the most historically interesting and scenic segment. (Lodging rates listed are for two people during summer high season.) Day one: On the road San Francisco to Mariposa, 215 miles One good reason to make Mariposa your first stop in Gold Country is that it still has the look of a frontier town that briefly lured fortune hunters from around the world. But the number one reason, I think, is to gaze in awe at the huge, 13-pound Fricot Nugget. One of the largest and finest specimens in the world, it was found in 1865 in the Middle Fork on the American River about 100 miles north. Value: about $1 million to $3 million-if you discount all historical worth. Imagine stumbling across it. Sort of makes you want to spend a little time panning on your own, no matter how strenuous. The crystalline nugget, bright and shiny, is displayed at the California State Mining and Mineral Museum (adults, $2), where exhibits provide a good introduction to gold-mining techniques. The first forty-niners sifted the rivers flowing down the western slopes of the Sierras for placer gold, flakes, and nuggets swept from the mountains as gravel by raging currents. By the mid-1850s, however, the easy gold was gone, and big investment money was needed to tunnel for the hard-rock gold that remained. To learn more about this aspect of the frantic gold quest, step into the museum's 175-foot-long simulated mine tunnel. It's so realistic, I sort of hurried through, fearful that the ceiling might cave in. Save time, too, for the Mariposa Museum and History Center ($3), which displays even more gold-mining artifacts, including a typical one-room miner's cabin, a giant freight wagon, and a stamp mill-a monster machine that crushed ore to particles of sand, releasing the gold from the quartz. Excerpts from miners' letters sent back home to family and friends detail the hardscrabble life in a mining camp. Details From San Francisco, take I-80 and I-580 east to I-5 south. At Gustine, head east on Route 140 via Merced to Mariposa. The stretch from Gustine to Merced cuts through the San Joaquin Valley, one of the world's most productive agricultural areas. In summer, sniff the rich scent of ripening fruit and vegetables. In Mariposa, stay at the eight-room Sierra View Motel (800/627-8439), $59; the 28-room E.C. Lodge Yosemite (209/742-6800), $69; or the 77-room Miner's Inn Motel (888/646-2244), $75. Dine at the Miner's Inn Motel; the barbecued-chicken plate is just $9.95. Information 888/554-9013, Day two: A Hollywood favorite Mariposa to Jackson, via Calaveras Big Trees State Park, 145 miles Just north of Mariposa, Route 49 plunges for about 50 miles into a mostly untouched land of deep canyons and rumpled hills blanketed by sunburned grass. Here and there cattle graze. Traffic is light, and providently so. At times, the road edges steep precipices, ultimately dropping down the side in ten-miles-per-hour hairpin turns. At Coulterville, detour briefly off the highway to stroll Main Street. The sleepy little village, where adobe structures dating back to 1851 still stand, calls itself "the most unspoiled Gold Rush town in California." Indeed. We turned into a parking space just off Main and flushed a covey of wild quail. Still a gold-mining town, Coulterville doesn't discourage the legend that "When it rains, sometimes you find gold in the streets." Jamestown, another Old West charmer, is a Hollywood star. It served as a backdrop for High Noon and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, as well as countless other movies and TV shows. Here, Railtown 1897 State Historic Park ($2 for a tour) re-creates turn-of-the-century mountain railroading. Its historic steam locomotives and cars claim title as "the movie railroad," having appeared in Little House on the Prairie and other TV shows and films. In Columbia State Historic Park catch a 12-minute ride ($5) into the piney woods on a stagecoach. But watch out for Trigger Mortis, who might pop out from behind a monster boulder. He's a not-so-threatening masked bandit easily talked out of robbing passengers of wallets, watches, chewing gum, and other valuables. At ride's end, parched from the sun and dust, we slaked our thirst at the Douglass Saloon, downing a mug of homemade sarsaparilla, on tap for $1. Gold was first discovered in the area in 1850, and in one month 6,000 fortune hunters arrived. Before the placer deposits ran out, Columbia produced about $87 million in gold, most of it weighed on the set of scales displayed in the Wells Fargo office. Unlike many early settlements, the town, which grew to 15,000 in its heyday, never succumbed to fire, vandalism, or the elements, nor was it ever completely deserted. The best preserved of the boomtowns, its oak-shaded Main Street, stretching four blocks, is lined with two- and three-story wood and brick buildings housing a mixture of museums and shops. Over-hanging balconies and wood sidewalks reflect the frontier heritage. At Matelot Gulch Mine Supply Store, sign up for a gold-panning lesson ($5) and learn for yourself that panning is harder than it looks. For the price, you get a pan and a packet of sand "salted" with a fleck of gold so you recognize what you are looking for. Dip the pan in water and swirl gently again and again, trusting that the gold, which is heavier than the silt, sinks to the bottom of the pan. From Columbia, continue on to Angels Camp, and then detour east here for 23 miles on Route 4 into the lofty Sierras. The goal is Calaveras Big Trees State Park ($2 per car) and its impressive stand of giant sequoia redwoods. To see them up close, take the easy one-and-a-half-mile hike on North Grove Trail, where some sequoias-the largest living things on earth-grow nearly 30 feet in diameter at the base. In 1852, a grizzly hunter stumbled into the grove; his was the Western world's first recorded glimpse of these magnificent trees. Like gold, they astonish those who lay eyes on them as yet another remarkable feature of California. En route back to Angels Camp, take a walk through Murphys, another former mining camp turned vibrant weekender's retreat, and then end your day in Jackson. On Main Street at California Street, we recently discovered Hein & Co., a huge warehouse of bargain-priced used books. We stuffed every pocket of our suitcases with the armful we carried away. Details From Mariposa, take Route 49 north to Jackson. The detour on Route 4 from Angels Camp to Calaveras Big Trees, 23 miles (each way), adds about two hours to your day if you hike the trail. Stay in Jackson at the 36-room Jackson Gold Lodge (209/223-0486), $55 weekdays/$65 weekends; or the 119-room Best Western Amador Inn (800/543-5221), $79 weekdays/$84 weekends. Dine on Mexican dishes with the locals at Jos,'s; the chile relleno plate, $9.95. Information 209/223-0350, Day three: Where it all began Jackson to Auburn, 60 miles Don't let the short distance fool you; the day ahead is full. If you are in Jackson on a Saturday or Sunday, you can enjoy a leisurely breakfast before catching the 10 a.m. opening of the Kennedy Gold Mine ($9). It's reputed to have been the richest and deepest gold mine in California. Preserved as a museum of Gold Rush history, the above-ground structures-the mine office, the changing house, the dynamite storage shed, the stamp mill-can be seen on 90-minute escorted or self-guided tours. If the mine is closed, take Jackson Gate Road (Main Street extended) behind the mine to see the Kennedy Tailings Wheels, four massive, Ferris wheel-like structures (two standing, two collapsed) that once lifted tons of gravel over two hills. They are an especially photogenic relic. You can frame the hillside mine structures through the giant spokes of the standing wheel. In the town of Plymouth just ahead, look for Shenandoah Road, a turn to the right. It's the gateway to Amador County Wine Country, a cluster of more than 20 fine wineries with tasting rooms that don't charge a penny to sip. Their red zinfandels are said to be among the finest in the world. In summer, the rolling hills are traced by rows of vines hanging heavy with ripening grapes. We thought we were in Tuscany. And then, just ahead is Villa Toscano (209/245-3800, general information), a vineyard-encircled winery with a tasting room designed to look like an ancient Tuscan villa. Classical statues line the walkway and fountains splash in the garden. Even wine, we recently learned, has a link to forty-niner gold. Newly rich, the lucky miners spurred a new economy providing them with comfortable lodgings and fine dining. Soon enough, Gold Country boasted more wineries than the rest of the state. Justification enough, we figure, to stop at two more wineries before heading on. In a topsy-turvy way, you'll arrive at the site where the Gold Rush began-now the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park ($4 per car) in Coloma-only near the end of the drive. No matter; you will have acquired the background to fully appreciate the significance of what happened here. In the 1840s, John Sutter was assembling an empire for himself in the nearby Sacramento Valley. He needed wood, so he went into partnership with James W. Marshall to build a sawmill in the Coloma Valley along the American River. The mill was almost complete when Marshall found his gold. Hordes scurried to Coloma, creating an overnight town of thousands. From Coloma, miners spread out to other streams and canyons north and south pursuing reports of other strikes. The rush was on. By 1857, however, the placer gold had given out, and Coloma became a quiet grape-growing town. Still quiet, much of Coloma is now incorporated into the park. In mid-summer, the American River, which slices through the preserve, draws big crowds to raft, wade, or swim in its rock-strewn channel. On the far shore, an area is set aside for recreational gold panning, and a park concessionaire provides lessons. "Does anyone ever find gold?" I recently asked John Hutchinson, a senior park aide. "Some do," he said, "if they work hard enough and long enough." On occasion, he has scored a bit of gold himself. Though a swim is tempting, Sandy and I set out dutifully to walk the park's interpretive trail, which follows the shoreline. A replica of Marshall's sawmill sits back from the water next to a weathered cabin used by his workmen. Further on, the trail turns abruptly toward the river's edge. On a gravelly bank behind a sheltered backwater, we reached the discovery site. Except for a small sign, it's simply a riverbank. North of Coloma, Route 49 snakes through a rugged mountain realm, offering some of the most dramatic scenery on the drive. Initially, the road traces the American River, where white-water rafters go splashing past. Climbing high above a deep gorge, it suddenly tops a summit and then quickly descends into Auburn, one of California's prettiest little cities. Details Except for the wine-sampling detour in Plymouth, stick to Route 49. In Auburn, stay at the 52-room Super 8 (530/888-8808), $59 weekdays/$63 weekends; or the 57-room Motel 6 (530/888-7829), $62 weekdays/$68 weekends. Dine at Tio Pepe's Restaurant; the hefty taco plate includes taco, enchilada, burrito, tostadas, and rice and beans for $7.95. Information 530/887-2111, Day four: Auburn to San Francisco, 120 miles Return quickly to San Francisco on I-80 to catch your flight home. Or for more Gold Rush lore, continue north 130 miles on the Mother Lode Highway to its terminus at Vinton. Either way, you might reflect on this thought: A state-park ranger once told me that practically every inch of the streams and rivers of the Sierras has been worked for gold at one time or another. But more washes down from the mountains every spring, when melting snow turns placid streams into racing torrents. The lure of California gold may have diminished, but it is far from gone.