Driving Mendocino County
What you'll find in this story: California travel, Mendocino culture, Mendocino County attractions, Mendocino County lodging, Boonville San Francisco travel
As most people who live in San Francisco will tell you, there are an infinite number of things to love about the city. What they might not say is that one of the reasons they love it so has nothing to do with the city proper. It's the easy proximity to the stunning terrain to the north. Not Marin County--which is nice but no surprise--but Mendocino County, where in a matter of hours you can be zooming back and forth between the dramatic coastline and rolling inland hills.
Day one: San Francisco to Boonville
The first tunnel I come to after crossing over the Golden Gate Bridge, five minutes into Marin, is framed with a rainbow painting, nicely reflecting the region's laid-back, eco-friendly leanings. I breathe a little deeper, relaxing to the scent of wildflowers and sage that seeps in through the car windows. In Calistoga, famous for its mineral water and mud-bath spas, I pick up a friend, and we head west on Highway 128. In true Sunday fashion, the drive is glorious. It's sunny, the hills are deep green, and the curves in the road are just sharp enough to keep me engaged but still allow for satisfying speed.
Our first stop is blink-and-you've-missed-it Jimtown. The Jimtown Store, with its vintage Ford ornamentally parked out front, is an endearing pit stop both for road-trippers like us and spandex-clad bicyclists hydrating with fresh lemonade on the benches out front. A tiny counter doubles as a gourmet deli and wine bar, and a tastefully eclectic array of objets de kitsch, craft, and nostalgia are scattered around for sale. Healdsburg, not far west, is far more developed--wineries with boutique-like storefronts, upscale clothing stores, and a tree-shaded town square that's often the site of alfresco art fairs. We have a lunch of fancy sandwiches and strawberry aguas frescas at the Oakville Grocery.
Once home to apple orchards, the area is equally suited to grape growing, and the linear rows of vines appear with greater frequency the deeper we venture into Anderson Valley. It doesn't take long to reach Boonville, our first overnight stop. In fact, we arrive so soon that we haven't quite gotten our fill yet, so we forge ahead a few miles to Philo (population 400) for a bit of wine tasting. In contrast to the larger, corporate-owned Napa vint-ners, the wine business here is in the hands of families and individual owners, and we're pleasantly surprised when the proprietors don't charge us. We begin with reds at Brutocao Cellars, and then at Navarro Vineyards--highly recommended by a sommelier-wannabe friend--we expand to include whites. The pourer is approachable and knowledgeable, and the patio has a fantastic view of the flourishing vines. I'm so impressed that I buy three bottles.
Outside the entrance to Hendy Woods State Park, we encounter a cluster of buildings called the Apple Farm. There's a stand selling ice-cold organic apple juice, three rustically chic cottages (they rent for a little more than we want to spend), and a cooking school headed by Don and Sally Schmitt, the former owners of the famous French Laundry restaurant in Yountville (which they sold to Thomas Keller in 1994).
The Boonville Hotel, run by the Schmitts' son Johnny, is a tasteful update of an old roadhouse. The fresh touches in the room include geometric-print bedspreads, designer mint-green walls, and aromatic lavender in a vase on the side table. After a few glasses of wine in the flower garden, we're happy to discover that the hotel has a well-regarded restaurant on the ground floor. We're less happy that the three-course prix fixe and a glass of wine cost almost as much as the weekday rate for one of the rooms. But we enjoy our dinner just the same, and the quiet of the evening allows for a night of uninterrupted sleep.
- Boonville Hotel14050 Hwy. 128, Boonville, 707/895-2210, boonvillehotel.com, from $100
- Jimtown Store6706 Hwy. 128, Healdsburg, 707/433-1212, lunch $10
- Oakville Grocery124 Matheson St., Healdsburg, 707/433-3200, lunch $15
- Brutocao Cellars & Vineyards7000 Hwy. 128, Philo, 707/895-2152
- Navarro Vineyards5601 Hwy. 128, Philo, 800/537-9463
- The Apple Farm18501 Philo-Greenwood Rd., Philo, 707/895-2333, cottages from $200
Day two: Boonville to Mendocino
The road toward the Mendocino coast winds through the lush forest of Navarro River Redwoods State Park, where the air develops a chill. As in San Francisco, the climate is generally cool but punctuated with rare crystal-clear days that are close to perfection. (I'd find it significantly more refreshing if I weren't wearing flip-flops.) Our first sight of the Pacific Coast is when it's blanketed in atmospheric fog. What we can see: steep, craggy cliffs, crashing waves, and Victorian buildings with shingles hung out offering respite from the bracing outdoors. Here, B&Bs have their own official highway markers--with a little icon of a house--to help travelers find their way.
We drive past entrances to numerous state parks and beaches, misty views lending a bit of drama. Twenty minutes past the turnoff to Mendocino--we'll come back to that later--is Fort Bragg, a working-class coastal town with a remarkable array of musty shops selling 20th-century bric-a-brac. This is also the place to board the Skunk Train, a logging railroad turned into a tourist attraction. On the main drag, we stop at a hole-in-the-wall called Eggheads. Omelets, appropriately, are the highlight of the menu; less appropriately, the room is done in an elaborate Wizard of Oz theme. Still, I can't resist ordering the Wicked Witch Burger, which lives up to its name in spiciness.
Having been sequestered in the car long enough, we switch to exploring on foot. Our first stop is Glass Beach, a former city dump, where broken bottles have been worn down by the sea into glistening, colorful, translucent pebbles. We hike a few short trails at MacKerricher State Park, three miles north of town, then return to Mendocino.
Mendocino is a quaint mass of old Victorian-style buildings perched on a cliff. We arrive just as the sun is setting, and the early evening streets bustle with visitors of all ages and styles. At MacCallum House, a stately hotel, it's possible to people-watch in the bar/café while having a dinner of tasty appetizers. We're staying at the Sweetwater Inn & Spa. Rooms at the inn and the spa include use of a communal hot tub, which we learn is clothing optional. After spending an hour or two in this New Agey town, frankly, I'm not surprised. We upgrade to a private tub. By 10 p.m., the streets are deserted. I sleep like a baby--that is, until I'm awakened in the middle of the night by the exotic beat of bongo drums thumping in the distance.
- Sweetwater Inn & Spa 44860 Main St., Mendocino, 800/882-7029, mendocinoinn.com, from $85, private tubs at the spa, $15.50 per hour per person
- Eggheads Restaurant326 N. Main St., Fort Bragg, 707/964-5005, lunch $10
- MacCallum House Inn & Restaurant45020 Albion St., Mendocino, 800/609-0492, maccallumhouse.com, dinner $20
- Navarro River Redwoods State ParkHwy. 128, two miles east of Hwy. 1, 707/937-5804
- Skunk TrainFoot of Laurel St., Fort Bragg, 800/866-1690, skunktrain.com, tickets from $35, kids $20
- Glass BeachElm St. at Old Haul Rd., Fort Bragg
- MacKerricher State ParkHwy. 1, north of Fort Bragg in Cleone, 707/964-9112
We grab sandwiches at the Little River Market (which, for some reason, is attached to the post office) and take them to one of the tables in the back, where there is a splendid ocean view. A couple of minutes south is Van Damme State Park's Pygmy Forest, a romantic name for a natural aberration. Here, cypress, pine, and other trees only grow to a stunted height, due to the mineral-challenged soil. It's a bizarre, understated spectacle. Trees that look like they should be towering above us are just my height.
Next stop, Gualala--pronounced "wah-la-la," FYI--and the St. Orres hotel, where we're staying. It's difficult to miss, as the building looks like some kind of Russian Orthodox fantasy, all cedar and stained glass. Deer and wild turkeys peacefully graze on the hillside nearby. The main structure has eight rooms and a restaurant, but we're issued a spacious and secluded cabin a few hundred feet up the road.
Tuckered out from canoeing, we stick close to home for dinner. The restaurant's menu, which we thumbed through in the cottage, suggests you can order hearty pastas and appetizers, but the actual experience is more formal--and pricey-- than we were bargaining for. So we make do by ordering an assortment of light appetizers--tiny morsels of baby abalone with seared scallops, a savory wild mushroom tart, garlic flan, and a salad. It's delicious and just about enough to tide us over for the night.
- St. Orres36601 South Hwy. 1, Gualala, 707/884-3303, saintorres.com, rooms from $90, dinner $40
- Little River Market7746 North Hwy. 1, Little River, 707/937-5133, lunch $6
- Catch a Canoe & Bicycles, Too44850 Comptche-Ukiah Rd., Mendocino, 707/937-0273, canoe rental $20 per hour, two-hour minimum
- Van Damme State ParkPygmy Forest, three miles south of Mendocino, Hy. 1, 707/937-5804
Which is not to say we don't make a few more stops. The upscale Sea Ranch resort community has award-winning '60s modernist architecture by William Turnbull and others. The houses are clustered in private enclaves with no-trespassing signs, but there are public walks along the beach at the Sea Ranch Lodge. In Bodega Bay we veer inland, passing the locations for Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds and then the Christo and Jeanne-Claude Running Fence Historic Park, a tiny spot of green that commemorates the artists' 1976 art installation. (The 24.5-mile-long curtain of fabric wound its way from Cotati down to the sea.) As parks go, it's not much. But it drives home the point that this area is full of lovely surprises.
- Sea Ranch Lodge60 Sea Walk Dr., 800/732-7262, searanchlodge.com
- Christo and Jeanne-Claude Running Fence Historic Park15000 Bodega Hwy., Bodega, 707/565-2041
- Day oneSan Francisco to Boonville, 136 Miles Follow Hwy. 101 north across the Golden Gate Bridge. At Santa Rosa , take the Guerneville/River Rd. exit. Turn right on Mark West Springs Rd., left on Petrified Forest Rd., and left on Hwy. 128. Jimtown is 18 miles up. Just past Geyserville, 128 meets back up with Hwy. 101. They separate again just before Cloverdale; stick with 128 north. Boonville is 26 miles past that break.Day twoBoonville to Mendocino, 39 Miles Continue north on 128. Navarro River Redwoods State Park is two miles before the point where 128 meets Hwy. 1, at the coast. If you reach the water, you've gone too far. The town of Mendocino is 10 miles past the junction of Hwys. 128 and 1. To get to Fort Bragg, pass through Mendocino and keep driving north on Hwy. 1 for 10 miles. Backtrack on 1 to return to Mendocino for the night.Day threeMendocino to Gualala, 49 MilesVan Damme State Park is in the town of Little River, three miles south of Mendocino on Hwy. 1. Gualala is 46 miles farther south.Day fourGualala to San Francisco, 115 Miles Jump back on Hwy. 1 to leave Gualala. At Bodega Bay, Hwy. 1 leads past Hitchcock's The Birds site. Continuing south 68 miles past Bodega Bay, the road drops you right back onto the Golden Gate Bridge and into San Francisco.
Road Trip: Northern California
The one-lane state-park road I was driving in northern California threads cautiously for a half-dozen miles through a towering forest of coast redwoods, the tallest trees - the tallest living things-on earth. Here and there, it edges so closely between the ancient giants, some of them more than 1,000 years old, that I feared scraping both sides of the car. These stately redwoods surely qualify as a natural wonder; they certainly awed me thoroughly. But would I and my car make it unscathed to the end of the road, nosing erratically as it does through the shadowy canyon formed by their massive trunks? I had my doubts. By any measure, this short woodland path through the redwoods is extraordinary. And yet it was only one of many bedazzling sights and experiences I enjoyed on an economical, 1,200-mile drive recently that took me north from San Francisco along California's rocky coastline to the Oregon border and back south again by way of winding roads through the soaring Cascade Range and Sierra Nevada. My surf-to-summit route, one of America's most spectacular drives, is a scenic treat from beginning to end. But don't figure a great trip like this is going to bust your budget. You can see it all for yourself for much less than you might expect. For example As a onetime Californian, I plotted the drive to show my wife Sandy five of my favorite places. For me, "favorite" usually means somewhere in the remote countryside. So we headed for a sprawling, semi-wilderness region of state-and-federal park and forest lands, where lodging and dining prices tend to be very affordable. Along the way, I found many low-priced rooms that boast lovely water or mountain views. Indeed, a couple can stay in a historic, pine-shaded lodge at Lake Tahoe, one of California's most popular High Sierra retreats, for as little as $44 a night midweek during peak summer season. You might catch a glimpse of the sparkling blue lake from your balcony. Just down the road a few minutes on the Nevada side of the lake, a gambling casino advertises nightly "All-U-Can-Eat" buffets for $6.99, featuring ribs on Monday and steak on Tuesday. We're both hikers, so we broke up the drive by taking exciting day hikes. At Point Reyes National Seashore, we walked through groves of fragrant eucalyptus to a wave-splashed cove where portly sea lions frolicked among the rocks. At Mount Shasta, a 14,162-foot-high, Fuji-like volcanic cone tipped with snow, we wandered through fields of multicolored wildflowers. A maze of cliff-side paths tempted us in the coastal village of Mendocino, a logging town turned artists' colony. None of these hikes added a penny to our budget. Several times, we stopped at roadside beaches to wade in the chilly Pacific surf or investigate the squirmy marine life of tidal pools; no charge for this either. Once we watched a small whale swim past just offshore, its blowhole spouting as it glided slowly north. A terrific show, and all for free. Often we picnicked beside a tumbling stream - lunch al fresco with a million-dollar view for the price of a hunk of cheese and crackers from a local market. Now and again, a no-fee swimming hole beckoned. Getting started The San Francisco Bay Area's three major airports - San Francisco International, Oakland, and San Jose - are all convenient to this drive and are all serviced by low-cost airlines; Oakland and San Jose offer both Southwest Airlines and America West flights, while San Francisco is serviced by Southwest as well as ATA, National Airlines, and Sun Country. An Internet check indicates that auto rentals in August, peak vacation time, are least costly at San Francisco. Dollar (800/800-4000) quoted a weekly rate of $116 in mid-August for an economy car with unlimited mileage. At San Jose, the airport's lowest rate was from Payless (800/729-5377), at $116 a week. At Oakland, the best I could find was $150, quoted by Dollar. Balancing airfares against car rental rates, San Jose may be the airport for budget travelers in summer. On the road, I suggest budget-priced lodgings at each of five overnight stops. In summer, advance reservations are advised, but if you go without, you will spot inexpensive motels and lodges dotting most of this route. Somewhat isolated, they should be open to price-dickering. Room rates below are for two people per night (except where noted) during the summer high season. I chose this route for its magnificent scenery. Few drives anywhere treat you to so much for so little. Point Reyes National Seashore You may want to keep a swimsuit handy as you drive up the coast, although Northern California's beaches invite exploring rather than swimming because of frigid water and treacherous currents. (Summertime can also be foggy; September and October tend to be the sunniest months.) A case in point is Point Reyes National Seashore at Olema, a sprawling, semi-wilderness park that encompasses forests of wind-sculpted pines, lofty precipices, hidden valleys of ferns and huckleberries, rolling grasslands, and yes, miles of empty, wave-swept beaches. I've sunned myself on these sands, only braving the surf up to my knees. There's no charge to enter the park. On my latest visit, we opted to hike the mostly easy Bear Valley Trail, an eight-mile (round-trip) path that meanders through eucalyptus woods and broad meadows to an arched rock beside the sea. Sea lions played, and cormorants dove for dinner. As a short alternative, the ominously named half-mile Earthquake Trail leads to where the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906 began. Markers show where the land suddenly shifted 16 feet. The Point Reyes Lighthouse, clinging to a rocky cliff, is reputedly one of the windiest and foggiest places on the West Coast. Find out for yourself by descending the 300 steps to its exposed perch. On the left is Drakes Bay, named for Sir Francis Drake, the English adventurer who sailed into the bay aboard the Golden Hind in the summer of 1579. Presumably he carried a heavy jacket, which you should also keep handy on this drive. Details: From San Francisco, take State Route 1 across Golden Gate Bridge to Point Reyes, about 50 miles. En route, take in the giant redwoods at Muir Woods National Monument, made famous in a scene in Hitchcock's Vertigo. A few miles later, go for a dip at three-mile-long Stinson Beach, a local favorite. For bare-bones lodging, stay in the park at the 44-bed Point Reyes Hostel, overlooking a secluded valley (415/663-8811), for $16 per bed. Just outside the park in Inverness, the 35-room Golden Hinde Inn and Marina sits waterside on Tomales Bay (415/669-1389), running $90 per room weekdays/$139 weekends with breakfast. Just up the highway, the eight-room U.S. Hotel in Tomales (707/878-2742) lists a weekday rate of $99 per room but invites on-site bargaining. Better yet, try the 16-room Bodega Harbor Inn (707/875-3594) for $60 per room. It's 20 miles north in Bodega Bay, made famous in another Hitchcock flick, The Birds. Dine just outside the park in Point Reyes Station at the Station House Café (415/663-1515); a large lunch bowl of black-bean-and-turkey chili with grilled corn bread is $6.50. Information: Point Reyes (415/464-5100, nps.gov/pore). Mendocino Bound for Mendocino, Route 1 snakes alongside sheer cliffs, plunging back down to a series of public beaches - among them 16-mile-long Sonoma Coast State Beach. Twisting in tight curves that drop the speed limit to 15 mph in places, the two-lane road passes countless small, rock-filled coves, hurdles deep gulches, and tunnels through thick woodlands. Waves fling themselves in fury against the rocks, shooting geysers of spray into the air. It's a nonstop spectacular the entire 135 miles from Point Reyes. The reward at Mendocino is a picture book New England-looking village with the prettiest front yard in America. Seafarers from the East Coast settled here in the nineteenth century, building solid Cape Cod and gabled Victorian homes, now beautifully preserved. The "front yard" is Mendocino Headlands State Park, a grass-covered bluff wrapped around three sides of the town as a protective greenbelt. From Main Street, the park stretches across open meadows to rocky bluffs where we stood high above the crashing surf. Afterwards, we browsed the art galleries, where coastal-themed paintings were reasonably priced. Three out of four residents (pop. 1,000) are said to be working artists, drawn by the gorgeous setting and radiant light. Details: On the way to Mendocino, stop at Fort Ross State Historic Park, a rebuilt fort that is the site of a Russian hunting and trading outpost in 1812. Though Mendocino is far from ritzy, in-town lodgings are expensive. For budget prices, stay ten miles north in the logging and commercial fishing port of Fort Bragg, which delights with a rugged appeal of its own. Good choices are the 50-room Fort Bragg Motel (707/964-4787), $49 per room weekdays/$59 weekends; the 57-room Driftwood Motel (707/964-4061), $54 weekdays/$64 weekends; and the 28-room, pet-friendly Coast Motel (707/964-2852), $48 weekdays/$58 weekends/$10 for pets. Have breakfast or lunch in Fort Bragg at popular Egghead's (707/964-5005), decorated with Wizard of Oz memorabilia with huge omlettes with potatoes and toast starting at only $5.75. From Fort Bragg, take a ride on the vintage Skunk Train (800/777-5865, skunktrain.com), with a scenic half-day trip to the inland mountain redwoods costing $29. Information: Fort Bragg (800/726-2780, mendocinocoast.com). Redwood National Park Height, whether possessed by humans or trees, is imposing. Driving (and strolling) among the giant coast redwoods of Redwood National Park and three adjacent state parks, I was thoroughly awed. Many visitors liken a redwood grove-mighty trunks and overhanging branches forming a forest room-to the interior of a cathedral with its lofty arches and similarly muted light. Albeit a cathedral with a very leaky roof. In summer, morning fog often wraps a protective cloak around these giants, which thrive on the moisture. Trees can grow to 300 feet, as tall as a football field is long. The 215-mile drive from Mendocino to the park tunnels inland for awhile through several redwood groves before returning to the coast. Be sure to take the "Avenue of the Giants," a 30-mile alternate route north through Humboldt Redwoods State Park that is just a taste of the majestic redwoods ahead. At the park, headquartered at Orick, hike the easy milelong loop trail through the Lady Bird Johnson Grove, dedicated to the former first lady. The needle-strewn, spongy-soft path winds through a garden of mosses and ferns flourishing under the redwoods. Afterwards, test your driving skills, as I did, among the redwoods on narrow Howland Hill Road in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. Happily, I made it with no damage to me, the car, or the trees. Swimmers love the warm water of the Smith River flowing through the park. Details: From Mendocino or Fort Bragg, continue north on State Route 1 and U.S. 101. Outside Orick, Rolf's Park Café & Motel (707/ 488-3841) offers six rooms in a peaceful woodland setting at $47 each. In Crescent City, at the park's northern tip, the Gardenia Motel (707/464-2181) has 48 rooms for $45 each; or try the 65-room Bayview Inn (800/446-0583) for $59. For good eats, order the seafood platter ($8.95) for lunch at the Harbor View Grotto (707/464-3815). Information: Crescent City (707/464-3174, northerncalifornia.net). Mount Shasta Just shy of the Oregon border, our drive leaves the surf behind and heads for the summits, at the same time nosing south back toward San Francisco. In seemingly nonstop curves, the road - good, but lightly traveled - traces the path of the Trinity River, crossing the remote and rugged Klamath Mountains to Mount Shasta. Cool off in the river along the way as you anticipate your first view of one of the world's most majestic peaks. Only a few other mountains - Japan's Mount Fuji, Africa's Kilimanjaro - dominate their setting as mystical Mount Shasta does. A dormant volcano in the southern Cascade Range, it stands alone, unchallenged by any neighboring peak. Many locals swear the legendary mountain is regularly visited by UFOs. Park your car high on its shoulder at the tree line and hike the rocky path toward the summit a mile or two for a grand panorama. Drop back down to the base for a swim in little Lake Siskiyou ($1 per person). For $10 each, we savored a wood-burning sauna and a cold plunge into a mountain stream at nearby Stewart Mineral Springs (530/938-2222), a rustic, clothing-optional spa. In California, I do as the locals do. There are two-person tepees for $24 or campsites for $15 a day. Details: From Redwood, retrace your way south on U.S. 101 to Arcata. Take State Route 299 east to Weaverville, picking up Route 3 north. Approaching Callahan, turn east to Gazelle and take I-5 south to the cozy, New Age town of Mount Shasta. The distance is 255 miles. Stay at the 21-room Swiss Holiday Lodge (530/926-3446), $50 per room with continental breakfast, hot tub, and views; the 31-room A-1 Choice Inn (530/926-4811), $49 per room weekdays/$69 weekends; or the 20-room Shasta Lodge Motel (530/ 926-2815), $42. The Black Bear Diner (530/926-4669) boasts comfort foods of pot roast, meat loaf, and fried chicken all for $9.99 a plate. Information: Mount Shasta (800/397-1519, mtshastachamber.com). Lake Tahoe On this drive, every day brings stunning new sights to refresh the spirit, an incalculable benefit shared by budget and luxury travelers alike. I doubt anyone can gaze on Lake Tahoe - one of the largest, highest, deepest, loveliest (and coldest) mountain lakes in the country - without beaming in pure pleasure. The lake provides very diverse ways to spend your time here - as a 72-mile drive around it proves. No wonder it's remained popular with Californians for skiing on adjoining mountains in winter, and waterskiing and fishing in the summer. On Tahoe's more rustic North Shore, the road edges the lake beneath dense groves of massive Douglas fir trees. Public beaches tempt swimming (brrrrr!), or you can tube on the warmer Truckee River flowing out of the lake. Sandy and I stopped for an easy five-mile lakeside hike around Emerald Bay. On the South Shore, thick woods give way to glittery gambling palaces at Stateline in Nevada. Of my five favorites, which is best? I can't decide. But if you take this drive, you surely will agree with me that Lake Tahoe does just fine as the grand finale. Details: From Mount Shasta, follow State Route 89 to Lake Tahoe, about 275 miles. The road bisects Lassen Volcanic National Park ($10 per car); plan to take the gentle three-mile (round-trip) hike to Bumpass Hell to see bubbling mud spots and steaming fumaroles. From Tahoe, return to San Francisco via U.S. 50 and I-80, about 205 miles. Stay and dine on Tahoe's more scenic North Shore. First choice is historic 21-room Tamarack Lodge Motel (888/824-6323), where Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, and other movie stars came to hunt, fish, and play cards; $44 per room weekdays, $54 weekends/multiday discounts. Other choices: 26-room Gold Crest Resort Motel (530/546-3301), $52 per room weekdays/$75 weekends; and 26-room Firelight Lodge (800/934-7222), $58 weekdays/$84 weekends. Dine on the buffet at nearby Crystal Bay Casino ($6.99) in Nevada or on huge Mexican platters ($8.95) at Blue Agave (530/583-8113), an 1868 log-cabin lodge reflecting Tahoe's past. Information: North Lake Tahoe (888/358-7461, tahoefun.org).
Into the Outer Banks
Living not far from the Outer Banks, my wife, Sandy, and I have visited there often--and each time, as we glided farther and farther into the Atlantic Ocean, I was stirred by the strange sensation that I was navigating a boat rather than a car. Maybe not so strange, actually, when windswept waves stretch for miles on either side. July and August are peak season for surf and sun. A family playground, the islands hawk all the expected beach amusements: parasailing, waterskiing, Jet Skiing, canoeing, kayaking, sailboarding, deep-sea fishing, and horseback riding. But any time of year is fulfilling. I've gone in midwinter to hike miles of empty beaches, watching the spindle-legged shorebirds probing the sand for lunch. Day one: Norfolk to Kill Devil Hills The drive from Norfolk, Va., passes through mostly flat coastal farm country, and in mid-summer roadside stands sell fresh corn and other produce. After the flatlands, the lofty sand dunes of the Outer Banks seem almost like mountains. At their widest, between Kitty Hawk and Nags Head, the Outer Banks expand to about a mile. This is where you find the most popular beaches--the ones that draw the summer throngs. In the heart of the bustle, little Kill Devil Hills, a family resort town, provides the beach time you crave plus a look at one of America's most historical spots. Check into the tidy 54-room Cavalier Motel, which nudges right up to the beach dunes. Soak up some sunshine at the pool or the beach, but save time for a visit to the Wright Brothers National Memorial, just a few minutes away. On a sand-covered site at Kill Devil Hills a century ago, Orville and Wilbur Wright launched the first manned heavier-than-air craft to leave the ground by its own power. The flight lasted all of 12 seconds, and the plane, with Orville at the helm, covered less distance than the length of a modern airliner. But air travel was born. Markers indicate the takeoff and landing spots--so close together that it seems the brothers might more easily have jumped. The visitors center displays a replica of their aircraft; atop Big Kill Devil Hill, an impressive granite monument pays tribute to their achievement. Rising to 90 feet, the hill is one of the highest spots in the Outer Banks--make the climb for a 360-degree view. Afterward, join the crowds at Pigman's Bar-B-Que, a no-frills joint. You can't go wrong with the messy pork ribs, which are served with coleslaw, baked beans, and plump hush puppies. Day two: Kill Devil Hills to Manteo Today's drive temporarily leaves the Atlantic shore for 13-mile-long Roanoke Island, behind the Outer Banks in Roanoke Sound. Start the morning by testing your courage. See that line of folks on the high dune in the distance? They're waiting for their Wright moment. Hang-gliding lessons are a major activity at Jockey's Ridge State Park. The fragile aircraft are launched from 80-foot-high sand dunes. Kitty Hawk Kites, the world's largest hang-gliding school, has a three-hour introductory course (including five solo flights). You can expect to cover up to 75 yards. Some gliders, maneuvered by confident, well-coordinated students, float gracefully back to earth. Others plummet with a seemingly painful thud into the not-so-yielding sand. Too scared? Stop by anyway to watch the often comical antics of the first-timers. You'll want to hike the dunes to the launch area for a close-up look. An exhibit in the park visitors center notes that the surface of the sand here can exceed the air temperature by 30 degrees. Take heed: Wear shoes. On to the waterside village of Manteo, where Sandy and I check into the Dare Haven Motel, about 10 minutes from the beach. We head first for the harbor on Shallowbag Bay. Sailboats drift over the sound, and just across an inlet rests the 69-foot Elizabeth II. The featured attraction at Roanoke Island Festival Park, this replica of a 16th-century sailboat represents the type of ship that carried English colonists to the New World during the reign of Elizabeth I. Onboard, costumed interpreters answer our questions, speaking with Old English accents. Questions, naturally, tend to be about the Roanoke mystery. In May 1587, three British ships carried 117 settlers to Roanoke. A week later, the colony's governor sailed back to England for supplies. The threat of the Spanish Armada delayed his return for three years. When the governor finally made it back in 1590, the colony had vanished. Historians can only speculate on what happened. There are re-creations of the first settlement site (talk to the "colonists") and an Algonquin village, and at the Roanoke Adventure Museum youngsters can don Elizabethan garb or learn about Blackbeard's visits to the Outer Banks. Nearby, Fort Raleigh National Historic Site marks the location of the ill-fated colony. The formal Elizabethan Gardens memorialize the colonists. Adjacent to the fort, the mystery is dramatized in an outdoor theatrical spectacle, The Lost Colony, with clashing swords and fireworks; it's presented nightly (except Sunday) in the summer (May 31-August 20). Kids might find it tedious, but I, a history major, was interested. Grab some dinner at Big Al's Soda Fountain and Grill, a '50s-era café with an all-American menu; fresh seafood dinners with fries and slaw cost about $14. Or ditch The Lost Colony and go howling with the wolves. It's one of the offbeat nature programs sponsored by the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, west of Manteo. Until the 18th century, red wolves roamed the area, but then they disappeared. Eight wolves were reintroduced onto the 152,000-acre refuge in the late 1980s; the population has since grown to more than 95 and has spread throughout the refuge and beyond. Children love to howl, and parents aren't shy about joining in. If everybody gets the sounds right, the wolves usually howl in reply. Two-hour "safaris" begin at 8 p.m. on summer Wednesdays. Day three: Manteo to Buxton This is the Outer Banks I like best, the quiet southern end. The islands narrow considerably here; at their skinniest, only a few hundred yards separate the rough Atlantic from calm Pamlico Sound. Much of the seashore is protected, either as Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge or Cape Hatteras National Seashore. You'll find miles of nearly desolate beaches, their wild beauty mostly untouched except by wind and sea. Towering dunes topped by wind-stunted trees frequently block sight of the ocean. But there are stairways at the many pullouts along the way. Keep your swim trunks handy. The 156-foot-high Bodie Island Lighthouse serves as a visitors center for the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Exhibits illustrate the early seafaring dangers in the area. As many as 600 ships have wrecked on the shifting coastline since 1526, earning it the unhappy nickname Graveyard of the Atlantic. South of the lighthouse, the road hops from Bodie Island to Hatteras Island over an arched bridge and long causeway. At the end, stop at Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. Nearly 400 species of birds have been identified here, including odd migrants blown off course by fierce Atlantic storms. Learn also about the Oriental, a Civil War steamer that struck a sandbar and sunk. The ship's boiler is visible in the surf. At either visitors center, be sure to check out the ranger-led activities, which are free or minimally priced. Canoe on the sound, take a bird-watching walk, learn how to catch crabs, build a kite, or go snorkeling or fishing. South of Avon, a small day-use park called Canadian Hole draws windsurfing throngs, who flit like butterflies across the flat waters of Pamlico Sound. The steady winds and shallow water are said to be ideal for novices. At Cape Hatteras, test your leg muscles by climbing the 268 steps to the top of the still-operating Cape Hatteras Lighthouse--at 210 feet, it's the tallest brick lighthouse in the U.S. Built in 1870, it was threatened by erosion for many years--until 1999, when it was moved a half mile inland. Spend the night in the sound-side village of Buxton, a mile from the lighthouse, Dine across the highway at the Diamond Shoals Restaurant, named for a bank of shifting sand ridges hidden in the treacherous waters off Cape Hatteras. On the family-friendly menu, try the catch of the day, usually sea trout ($13.95). And then return next morning for one of the famous hearty breakfasts. Day four: Ocracoke and Back to Norfolk In the morning, we catch the free car ferry to Ocracoke Island. The road to the landing passes through one of the areas hit hardest by the hurricane, and you're still likely to see some damage. Waves briefly washed out the road between Frisco and Hatteras, creating a temporary inlet between the Atlantic and the sound. But the road has since been reopened. The ferry takes 40 minutes. On Ocracoke, Highway 12 continues for another 13 miles through the mostly untouched seascapes of Cape Hatteras National Seashore to the village of Ocracoke and the Ocracoke Lighthouse. (The highway is sometimes closed during bad weather, so check with the highway department.) En route, stop at the Pony Pasture, a 100-acre field nurturing a small herd of the island's unique ponies, possibly descendants of Spanish ponies that survived a shipwreck. Unlike other horses, Ocracoke ponies have one fewer rib--17 instead of 18. Then ferry back to Hatteras, Buxton, and the beach. After the history lessons, you've earned more playtime. Finding your way The closest major airport to the Outer Banks is in Norfolk, Va., about 70 miles to the north. Southwest Airlines provides service from most of the country. A car is essential; at summer's peak, expect to pay $130 to $140 for a week's rental of a compact with unlimited mileage. The Outer Banks Visitors Bureau (877/629-4386, outerbanks.org) distributes a 112-page travel guide. Call for a copy, or pick one up at the visitors bureau. It's a mile past the Currituck Sound Bridge (U.S. 158), in Kitty Hawk. 1. Norfolk to Kill Devil Hills From the Norfolk airport, take I-64 south to Virginia State Route 168 south. In Barco, N.C., pick up U.S. 158 south via Kitty Hawk to Kill Devil Hills. U.S. 158 is the speedier bypass to Kill Devil Hills, ending a few miles beyond the town. Along here you'll find many restaurants, service stations, and other tourist facilities. Paralleling it is Highway 12, the old beach road, which runs the length of the Outer Banks from Corolla in the north to the southern tip (via ferry) of Ocracoke Island. On Highway 12, the slow road, you're finally at the beach. 2. Kill Devil Hills to Manteo Continue south on U.S. 158 to U.S. 64/264 west across Roanoke Sound to Roanoke Island and Manteo. 3. Manteo to Buxton Double back to U.S. 158/Highway 12, continuing south on Highway 12 to Buxton. 4. Ocracoke and back to Norfolk From Buxton, follow Highway 12 to the end of the pavement and the dock for the Ocracoke ferry. The 30-car ferries operate year-round; in summer, they depart to and from Ocracoke every 30 to 60 minutes. On Ocracoke, pick up Highway 12 and follow it to its end in the village of Ocracoke. Then retrace your route back to the mainland and Norfolk.
Hudson Valley Revisited
The Hudson River, once America's central transportation artery, tends to be overlooked nowadays. Weekenders from New York City and upstate residents choose the efficiency of the New York State Thruway and the Taconic Parkway over the Nines (as I like to call the various branches of Route 9 that ramble along both sides of the Hudson River Valley). This just means less traffic for the rest of us. Day one: New York to Fishkill Trying a new route out of New York City, I actually get lost in Yonkers. The mini-detour allows me to enjoy the back roads that hug the Hudson, which I can see through the trees, flowing on my left. Back on Route 9 proper, I decide to stop at Sunnyside, the home of writer Washington Irving. (The town of Sleepy Hollow is up the road.) Guides in period costume offer tours of the house, a quaint cottage on the riverbank; it's where the well-traveled author spent his final days. A quarter mile north I also pop in to see Lyndhurst, the grand Gothic Revival mansion of Wall Street tycoon Jay Gould, who traveled by yacht from his waterfront property to New York City. The railroad would have been quicker, but it was owned by his archenemy, Cornelius Vanderbilt. Highlights of the daily tour are Gould's Renaissance-art collection and the fine stained-glass windows. I stop in Tarrytown for lunch: a Portuguese feast at Caravela. Grilled octopus melts in the mouth, just as it should, and the codfish croquettes are rich yet fluffy. Heading north up 9, I decide to keep Kykuit, John D. Rockefeller's expansive family home, for another trip and move on to Croton Gorge Park, a favorite local picnic spot. The park sits at the base of the Croton Dam, which holds most of New York City's drinking water. It was built in 1842; until 1955, the water was transported to the city via the Croton Aqueduct. Just past Peekskill, Route 9 splits into two parts. I take 9D, which runs along the river, rather than 9 proper, which takes a faster inland path north. Where's that Beatles CD when I need it? I'm on a long and winding road, beside granite cliffs. With a bit of imagination, this could be the Italian Alps. The tricky part ends at Bear Mountain Bridge, which crosses the Hudson at the place where American Revolutionary forces blocked the path of the British fleet with a giant iron chain. From here it's only a half-hour drive to Cold Spring. I putter in and out of the knickknack shops of a Main Street that runs steeply toward the river - it really should be turned into a giant skateboarding park--and I take stock of the Lower Hudson's east side over farfalle al limone and a glass of Cabernet at Cathryn's Tuscan Grill. Cold Spring has a number of B&Bs, but the Courtyard by Marriott, a few miles north in Fishkill, puts me closer to Beacon, the next day's first destination. Day two: Fishkill to Rhinebeck "This place is changing overnight," says the teenager in the Chthonic Clash Coffeehouse as he fixes me a latte. "Some locals don't like it, but I say the quicker the better." Named after Mount Beacon, where colonists lit fires to warn of British troops during the Revolutionary War, the town of Beacon has been reborn thanks to the opening last year of Dia:Beacon, one of the most impressive art galleries in the country. Inhabiting a sprawling 1929 Nabisco factory, the airy 240,000-square-foot space (much of it lit by skylights) is perfect for viewing large art installations. The museum is home to pieces by 22 artists, including Andy Warhol, whose 1978 Shadows is a single work on 72 canvases, and Richard Serra, represented by seven gorgeous sculptures. You do a lot of walking at Dia, and by the end I'm hungry. I head into town for a taste of the old Beacon--bacon and eggs at the wonderfully gaudy Yankee Clipper Diner, a recently renovated downtown institution. Browsing the galleries and antiques shops that are contributing to the town's renaissance, I have no luck in my perpetual search for vintage gas station signs. But there's consolation in the excellent apple pie at the Upper Crust Café and Bakery. Up next is Hyde Park. The town is dominated by the 290-acre National Historic Site built around Franklin Delano Roosevelt's family house and the separate house built for Eleanor Roosevelt a few miles east of Route 9. FDR's father bought the family home, Springwood, in 1867. Visitors can view the house, FDR's grave site, and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum, which includes some 44,000 books along with his White House desk and chair. The late-afternoon light is fading slightly as I drive out of the Roosevelt site, so I put my foot to the floor. There's a piece of Hudson Valley history that I really want to catch - the ostentatious estate of Frederick William Vanderbilt, also in Hyde Park. Built in 1899, the 54-room Vanderbilt Mansion was meant to evoke European nobility, and the approach certainly feels like you've entered a royal estate. I'm too late for the house tour, but the grounds are lovely. As the sun begins to set over the western banks of the Hudson, the light casts an orange glow all around. After so much local history, a motel really won't cut it. Nearby Rhinebeck, a sophisticated town in its own right, is home to the Beekman Arms, a favorite resting place and watering hole for the weary traveler since 1766. The smell of cooking food and a roaring open fire greet you on arrival. Day three: Rhinebeck to New Paltz It's time to cross the river. The Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge offers clear views both north and south-this far upstream, the river is still over half a mile wide. Saugerties is another of those cute antiquing towns that seem to pop up every 30 miles along this part of the valley. It also has an excellent little café and deli called Ann Marie's. But Saugerties' most extraordinary attraction, Opus 40, is a few miles outside the town limits, in the foothills of the Catskills. Harvey Fite, a devotee of Mayan architecture, spent 37 years working with hand-powered tools to create a six-and-a-half-acre composition of bluestone ramps, terraces, pools, and fountains, with a nine-ton monolith as its centerpiece. He died in 1976, but the sculpture and a museum dedicated to his work are open from Memorial Day to Columbus Day. The road down from Opus 40 is narrow and winding, so it comes as some relief to get back on 9W, on the western side of the Hudson. At Kingston, I cut inland on Route 32. I'm headed to New Paltz and one of the region's most impressive landmarks. A 251-room Victorian castle on Lake Mohonk in the Shawangunk Mountains, the Mohonk Mountain House was a getaway destination for Teddy Roosevelt and Andrew Carnegie, among others. Today it's an exclusive retreat far beyond my budget. But you can buy a day pass to the grounds for $15 ($11 for kids) and spend the afternoon wandering. Day four: New Paltz to New York It takes about 25 minutes to get back to 9W from New Paltz, but from that point on, the road is right by the river. This part of the valley is wine country - at least six vineyards lie between New Paltz and Newburgh, and most offer tours and tastings. I turn right off Route 9 just south of Marlboro and head up a steep hill to Benmarl Winery, site of America's oldest vineyard. A rugged driveway leads to the main house, also the home of owner Mark Miller, who in the '50s and '60s was an illustrator for romance magazines and novels. Miller offers a lively narrative as he guides you through the cellars and a gallery devoted to his former profession. He might even join in a tasting of his trademark Chardonnay and Zinfandel. Leaving Benmarl, I drive into Newburgh, toward the newly renovated waterfront. Newburgh Landing is part of a $1.8 million state-funded scheme to tidy up the Hudson River. It's home to a number of cool cafés and restaurants. I choose Café Pitti, a brick-oven pizza joint with outdoor seating and a fine view of Dia:Beacon across the river. An espresso and some raspberry gelato make the afternoon even more enjoyable and prepare me nicely for the final drive back into New York City. I make quick time through West Point, hop on to the Palisades Parkway, and zip back down to the George Washington Bridge and New York City, stopping just once more to marvel at the tall, sheer vertical drop of the ancient Palisades cliffs that tower over the Hudson below. Finding your way From JFK airport, head north on the Van Wyck Expressway to the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge. After crossing, take 678 north to the Cross Bronx Expressway west; exit at Route 9 north. From LaGuardia, take the Grand Central Parkway to the Triborough Bridge. Go north on the Major Deegan (I-87), then west on the Cross Bronx Expressway to Route 9 north. From Newark, drive north on the New Jersey Turnpike (I-95). Cross the George Washington Bridge and exit at Route 9 north. 1. New York to Fishkill, 64 miles If you're driving from Manhattan, take the Henry Hudson Parkway to Route 9 north. Continue through Yonkers, Tarrytown, and Sleepy Hollow. At Peekskill, switch to 9D north, which leads to Cold Spring. Continue north on 9D. At Beacon get on 82 north to Fishkill. 2. Fishkill to Rhinebeck, 28 miles From Fishkill, get on I-84 north and take it to Beacon. After Dia:Beacon, continue north on 9D, which rejoins 9 just north of Wappingers Falls, then skirts Poughkeepsie, before winding up at Hyde Park and Rhinebeck. 3. Rhinebeck to New Paltz, 50 miles In Rhinebeck, take 9 north to 9G north. Go west on Route 199 over the Kingston-Rhinecliff bridge; 9W north leads to Saugerties. For Opus 40, from the New York State Thruway at Saugerties, get on Route 212 west toward Woodstock. From the light at the Hess gas station, go 1.6 miles to a fork; turn left onto Fishcreek Road. After 2.4 miles, turn right at the stop sign onto Highwoods Road. After a half mile, turn right onto Fite Road; it ends at Opus 40's entrance. Leaving, take Glasco Turnpike east to 9W south. At Kingston, go south on Route 32 to New Paltz. Stay at the Econo Lodge. 4. New Paltz to New York, 95 miles From New Paltz, take 299 east to 9W south. It goes through Marlboro to Newburgh, and eventually to the Palisades Parkway south to the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan.
Colorado's San Juan Skyway
Fasten your seat belts, folks. We're headed into southwestern Colorado's "skyway" country. If you like roller coasters, this is the drive for you. Edging potentially perilous drop-offs, the roads we'll navigate soar, plunge, and twist in tight curves mile after mile. Many of you are apt to get a bit rattled (I always do). But the reward is some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in America. Fortunately, you don't have to pay theme park prices for the scenic thrills. This roller-coaster adventure-a four-day, 1,000-mile excursion into the massive San Juan Mountains-definitely rates as budget travel. Expect to pay from $50 to $80 a night in a good chain motel. And dine cheaply on the local ranch-house staples: juicy prime rib and sizzling grilled steaks. A range of the Rocky Mountains, the San Juans boast more than a dozen peaks that rise to above 14,000 feet. Sprawling across 10,000 square miles, they make a majestic but sometimes intimidating realm best seen on a 233-mile loop called the San Juan Skyway. An officially designated U.S.D.A. Forest Service Scenic Byway, it climbs in dizzying switchbacks over 11,008-foot Red Mountain Pass-the high point on the loop. In late spring when I last tackled the ascent, the summits around me were still cloaked with snow. Break up the drive with plenty of outdoor action. Hike, bicycle, go white-water rafting or kayaking, fish, ride a horse, try rock climbing. This is the place for it. Getting started Denver's low airfares are not surprising. It is served by several discount airlines: America West, ATA (American Trans Air), Frontier, JetBlue, and Spirit Airlines. Another incentive to book into Denver is that car-rental rates there tend to be cheaper. Using the Internet, the least expensive rental I could find in Montrose cost about $40 more a week than a similar rental in the Colorado capital. Many of the rental agencies in Montrose impose a mileage limit, which also might have added to my cost. For a one-week, midsummer rental of an economy-class car out of Denver, the various national car-rental brands quoted between $150 and $200 (with unlimited mileage). (Lodging rates below are for two people for one night during the peak summer season.) Day oneOn the road Denver via Glenwood Springs to Grand Junction, 265 miles. As your plane descends into Denver, take a look at the peaks rising west of the city-in about an hour, that's where you'll be! Usually I try to avoid interstates, but I-70 treats you to a dazzling introduction to the Rockies. About 60 miles west of Denver, the highway climbs to above 11,000 feet as it passes through the Eisenhower Memorial Tunnel, reputedly the highest auto tunnel in the world. Beyond is the famous ski resort of Vail; stretch your legs as you stroll along its ersatz alpine streets. I-70 snakes alongside a number of tumbling streams, but it's the Colorado River that puts on the best show as it races for a dozen miles through the steep rock walls of Glenwood Canyon. A thrilling drive; you can almost imagine you're bouncing down the river on a white-water raft. Take another break at the giant hot-spring pool (adults, $13) in the center of Glenwood Springs, a bustling resort town. Flat-topped mesas line I-70 as it follows the Colorado River down the western slope of the Rockies to Grand Junction. Details From the Denver airport, take I-70 west to Grand Junction. Stay in Grand Junction at the 100-room Motel 6 (970/243-2628), $50 weekdays/$60 weekends; 132-room Super 8 (970/248-8080), $69; or the 107-room Days Inn (970/245-7200), $71 weekdays/$77 weekends. Dine at W.W. Peppers, offering an upscale look and budget prices. Information: 800/962-2547, www.visitgrandjunction.com. Day twoAncient paths Grand Junction via Montrose, Telluride, and Cortez to Mesa Verde National Park, 270 miles. A 2,000-foot-high mesa, cut by deep canyons, towers above Grand Junction. This is Colorado National Monument ($5 per car), a landscape of sculpted red rock. Rim Rock Drive edges the mesa, yielding panoramic views. Cold Shivers Point is aptly named, you will agree, when you peer into the canyon depths below. Give yourself an hour at the park before heading south to the San Juans. On the southern outskirts of Montrose, stop briefly at the excellent Ute Indian Museum (adults, $3). Much of Colorado was once the homeland of the Ute tribe, many of whose members now reside on a pair of reservations near Mesa Verde. You will cross Ute paths often on this drive. The early life of these deer and buffalo hunters is illustrated with a first-class display of artifacts, including an eagle-feather headdress, a buckskin dress, and beautiful beadwork. The museum is located on what was the farm of Chief Ouray, who headed the Ute Nation from 1868 until his death in 1880. To the Utes, the San Juans were "the Shining Mountains." You can see them directly ahead as you leave the museum, an intimidating wall of jagged peaks that seem impenetrable. The San Juan Skyway officially begins in Ridgway. You can make the loop in either direction; I prefer counterclockwise because this way you ease more gently into the sky-high country. Counterclockwise, then, the approach to Telluride, a popular winter ski resort, traces the San Miguel River through the deep red walls of a winding canyon. The town itself is tucked near the end of the canyon. Actually, there are two towns here: Telluride, the attractively preserved historic mining town in the valley, and Mountain Village, a cluster of luxury hotels and homes high above town on the resort's ski slopes. They are linked by a free gondola that makes the climb from old to new in 13 minutes. Board one of the eight-passenger cars for a terrific view from the top. The gondola operates daily from 7 a.m. to midnight. In Telluride browse the offbeat shops housed in ornate Victorian-era brick and wood structures. Hike the easy River Corridor Trail, which meanders through town to a beaver preserve. And then continue for a mile or so to the canyon's end, where Bridal Veil Falls cascades down the cliff into town. Afterward, enjoy a reasonably priced sandwich at funky Baked in Telluride. Out of Telluride, Colorado Route 145 climbs through a chilly, tundra-like landscape over 10,222-foot Lizard Head Pass, named for an odd-shaped pinnacle. And then it drops slowly from the summit, following the splashing Dolores River through rolling green meadows to the desert-like country of Dolores and Cortez. Stop just south of Dolores at the Anasazi Heritage Center ($3), a museum operated by the Bureau of Land Management. It preserves hundreds of clay pots, yucca-fiber sandals, and other artifacts collected from Anasazi villages. Now on to Mesa Verde National Park ($10 per car). Steep switchbacks climb from the Montezuma Valley to the top of the green mesa at about 8,500 feet. This was home to many Ancestral Puebloans from about a.d. 550 to a.d. 1300. Surely they were as awed by the distant views from this elevated perch as I always am. The two most impressive ruins are Cliff Palace and Balcony House. To see them, you have to join a ranger-led tour. Tickets for each cost $2.50 at the Far View Visitor Center. Getting in and out of both requires some agility and no fear of heights. The Ancestral Puebloans built their lodgings in nearly inaccessible cave-like ledges on the sides of high cliffs for protection from their enemies. To reach them, tourists do as the Ancestral Puebloans did. Stone steps cut into the side of a canyon wall descend through a narrow crevice to the floor of Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling in North America. Once it housed 200 people in more than 100 rooms but was vacated in the fourteenth century, perhaps because of prolonged drought. Exiting is a similar scramble. You edge up stone steps through another tight crevice, and then you climb a series of two 10-foot-tall ladders placed one atop the other up the canyon wall. Don't look down. No tickets are required for a look at Spruce Tree House, which is considered the park's best-preserved cliff dwelling. But you do have to negotiate a steep path down and up. The third largest of Mesa Verde's cliff dwellings, it contains about 100 rooms and eight ceremonial chambers called kivas-a sort of cylindrical pit. You can descend by ladder into one of the kivas. I like to stay at the park's mesa-top Far View Lodge, which is well named. From my balcony, I watch the lights pop on at scattered ranch houses in the valley far below. On one visit, deer browsed outside my balcony. This time, a pair of wild horses meandered past. Details From Grand Junction, take U.S. 50 southeast via Delta to Montrose. Continue south on U.S. 550 to Ridgway, connecting to Colorado Route 62 west to Placerville. Head southeast on Colorado 145 to Telluride. Pick up Colorado 145 again and angle southwest to Cortez. Take U.S. 160 east to Mesa Verde. For a scenic splurge, stay in Mesa Verde at the 115-room Far View Lodge (800/449-2288), $102 to $134. Dine at the Far View Terrace Food Court, a cafeteria. If Far View is out of your price range, stay in Cortez at the 85-room Days Inn (970/565-8577), $60 to $70; or the 58-room Super 8 (970/565-8888), $75. Information: 800/253-1616, www.mesaverdecountry.com. Day threeBoomtown days Mesa Verde via Durango, Silverton, and Ouray to Montrose, 160 miles. Spend the morning exploring more of Mesa Verde before heading back into the San Juans. From Durango, the road climbs quickly to Coal Bank Pass at 10,660 feet. Even in midsummer, the air can be chilly. Ahead the cliff's-edge road crests 10,899-foot Molas Pass. On the descent, you can see Silverton far below, set in a small, bowl-like valley. Once a rowdy boomtown of bars and brothels, the old silver-mining town of Silverton (elevation 9,318 feet) seems rather sedate these days, although it still retains a rough frontier look. Swirls of dust, kicked up by frosty breezes, whip across the unpaved side streets, and Victorian-era wood and brick buildings-housing shops and caf,s-possess a properly weathered look. Overhead, the treeless summits of craggy peaks snag passing clouds. Silverton is the terminus of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad (adults, $60), a tourist train that (depending on the season) makes one or more slow but spectacular ascents daily from Durango. Tooting its whistles, the steam engine pulls a string of bright-yellow coach cars. It rolls into the center of town delivering a flood of chattering families who liven things up temporarily. Steady your nerves now, because the next 23 miles over 11,008-foot Red Mountain Pass to Ouray can make your heart race. Carved out of the side of the mountain, the road carries you in more tight switchbacks from one precipice to the next. Around curves, the speed limit drops to 15 mph; believe me, I am never tempted to exceed this reasonable pace. Recover in Ouray's giant hot-spring pool ($8). Complete the San Juan Skyway loop in Ridgway and double back to Montrose. If it's still daylight, head for nearby Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park ($7 per car). The park is named for a deep, dark, and narrow gorge cut by the Gunnison River. Because it is so deep-a drop of 2,000 feet from rim to river-and so narrow, it is wrapped in heavy shadows for much of the day. From the visitor center, South Rim Road skirts the edge of the manzanita- and sagebrush-lined canyon for seven miles. Sixteen overlooks provide splendid views into the depths, where the pale-green Gunnison splashes in white-water frenzy. Details From Mesa Verde, take U.S. 160 east to Durango, connecting to U.S. 550 north to Montrose. Stay in Montrose at the 42-room Super 8 (970/249-9294), $67; the 51-room San Juan Inn (888/681-4159), $69; or the 46-room Days Inn (970/249-3411), $69 weekdays/$79 weekends. Feast on a $9 top-sirloin steak at Starvin' Arvin's. Information: 800/873-0244, www.visitmontrose.net. Day fourWinter wilderness Montrose to Denver, 315 miles. Lots of miles today, but plenty of great scenery makes them pass quickly. Outside Montrose, U.S. 50 passes through Curecanti National Recreation Area, which encompasses three sparkling blue reservoirs formed when the Gunnison River was dammed. Fishing, boating, and windsurfing are top sports here. In summer, the National Park Service offers 90-minute boat rides ($10) from Morrow Point Reservoir into the Black Canyon. For details: 970/641-2337. Ahead lies one more climb into the Rockies. In yet more cliff's-edge switchbacks, the road crests Monarch Pass at 11,312 feet. Snowy peaks march into the distance, a year-round winter-like wilderness that is as beautiful as any landscape on this drive. Back down the mountain, U.S. 50 enters Bighorn Sheep Canyon. Here the road runs for about 50 miles alongside the Arkansas River as it weaves through the narrow rock chasm. A part of the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area, this is prime white-water rafting and kayaking country. You will find picnic tables at several key spots ($2), where you can watch the watercraft splash past. Now head back to Denver, skirting the edge of the Rampart Range. In Colorado Springs, that lofty mountain over-shadowing the city to the west is Pikes Peak. If you've got time, drive to the top for a final sky-high view. Details From Montrose, take U.S. 50 east to Penrose, connecting to Colorado 115 north to Colorado Springs. On the city's outskirts, jog east on Colorado 83 to I-25 north. At exit 194 take E-470 ($5 toll) to the Denver airport. Catch a late-afternoon flight home, or spend the night at the airport's 101-room Super 8 Motel (303/371-8300, $55). Dine at the Moonlight Diner; the T-bone steak plate, $13.25.