12 Best Fall Foliage Trips
It's the most colorful time of the year! Here in the northeast, we're surrounded by beautiful shades of orange, red, and yellow as leaf-peeping season kicks into full swing—but you don't have to be in just one region to appreciate all the fall foliage. We've got 11 great seasonal spots around the country—and one in eastern Canada—where you can see the leaves in all their colorful splendor, whether by car, train, boat, or by going for a nice, long walk in the crisp fall air. If all else fails, you can always choose to live vicariously through our Fall Into Foliage board on Pinterest.
It goes without saying that Vermont is one of the most well-known places in the U.S. when it comes to fall foliage—especially in the central and southern parts of the state, the Lake Champlain Islands, areas near Burlington, and in the beautiful Green Mountains. As of right now, most of the state is already seeing the first hint of fall colors, with late, more subtle changes in color still slated to happen over the weekends of October. Up for a scenic fall foliage drive? Vermont's Tourism website offers a printable list of more than 20 drives around the state ranging anywhere from 30 to 210 miles long, as well as regional and historical points of interest, apple orchards, and popular local attractions you shouldn't miss along the way.
WHERE TO STAY Eddington House Inn, an adorable B&B located in Bennington, Vermont. Rates from $159 per night thru Oct. (from $139 per night Nov. thru June), include complimentary WiFi, breakfast, parking, and sweet treats like locally made chocolate truffles.
2. NEW YORK
Whether you're planning to venture upstate in search of fall fun or opt to stay in the big city, New York gives you plenty of options—visit this website for a detailed list of all the great spots within the state to view fall foliage as peak levels tend to change depending on where you are. Baseball fans will want to visit Cooperstown, home to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, while other outdoorsy leaf-peeping activities include renting kayaks on Lake Otsego or hiking among the gorgeous fall colors at Glimmerglass State Park. For an exciting day trip, bring the family to Barton Orchards now through Nov. 2nd, located about a 90-minute drive north of the City in Poughquag, New York, and home to hayrides, train rides, a corn maze, haunted house, and the chance to pick perfect farm-fresh apples, pumpkins, corn and other seasonal vegetables to take home as delicious fall souvenirs. Don't miss the Farm Bakery & Market where you can pick up maple syrup, seasonal mixes and spices, baked pies and desserts, fudge, and best of all, cider donuts. (Activity wristbands are available for $12.50 and include a $3 general admission fee. Prices for fresh-picked apples, pumpkins, and veggies vary by quantity. Please note that no outside food or beverages are allowed on the farm, but feel free to bring your own wagon). Or if you'd rather stay in the heart of the Big Apple, go for a stroll around Central Park, Prospect Park in Brooklyn, or Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx in the fall for vibrant color changes during the last few weeks of October into November—pick any spot in the park for a fall picnic, just don't forget to bring your camera!
WHERE TO STAY The Wyndham New Yorker Hotel has a great vacation package now thru Dec. 29, 2015, that includes overnight accommodations from $169 per night, continental breakfast, and free tickets to the Empire State Building.
While there are definitely enough places in Canada to warrant its own fall foliage report, we'd like to point out one of our favorite spots in Québec for the purposes of this story: Mont Tremblant, an exquisite ski town roughly two hours outside of Montréal that always has something fun going on no matter what season we're in, and fall is no exception. Hop a quick flight on Porter Airlines from Newark, Washington D.C., Burlington, Chicago, Myrtle Beach, or from any of 12 connecting Canadian cities to reach this beautiful ski town nestled in the heart of Canada's Laurentians (they even serve wine onboard—for free!). In Tremblant, there are plenty of outdoor activities to keep you busy while you're admiring the fall colors showcased on the mountains around you: play a round of golf on one of the area's two championship golf courses, treat youself to a 60-minute cruise on the 7.5-mile long Lake Tremblant ($24 for adults; $19 for seniors ages 60 and up; $8 for children ages 2-12, free for children two and under), rent a bike for the afternoon (prices vary), explore the mountain on one of 12 hiking trails, or take a ride to the summit on the panoramic gondola (Adults pay $19.99 per ride; children ages 6-12 pay $15.99; children ages 3-5 pay $4.19, and those under age 2 ride for free; Gondola tickets must be purchased online at least two days in advance). After a long day outside, try your luck at the Casino de Mont-Tremblant (a free shuttle is available every 30 minutes between the casino and the pedestrian village), relax your tired muscles at the nearby Scandinave Spa Mont-Tremblant (access to the Scandinavian Baths for $48 per person; 60-minute Swedish Massages from $130 per person including access to the baths. Take advantage of their fall special—$35 Scandinavian Bath access or $95 for a 60-minute massage with baths), or check out one of the special fall sales happening at Tremblant's many boutique shops.
WHERE TO STAY The Residence Inn Mont Tremblant Manoir Labelle offers rooms from $157 per night and is within walking distance of most area attractions.
Estes Park is the perfect place to view not only fall foliage, but also elk and other area wildlife this time of year. Nature lovers can go fishing, hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding in nearby Estes Valley, or even participate in flood recovery efforts. For a spookier fall experience, try one of the Ghost & History Tours at the Historic Stanley Hotel, also known for having paranormal investigators and psychics onsite. Autumn is also the best time of year to take a drive on the Peak to Peak Scenic Byway, one of the prettiest drives in Colorado, if not the whole U.S. Other scenic leaf-peaping hot spots in Colorado include Kebler Pass near Gunnison-Crested Butte, the 236-mile loop of San Juan Skyway, The Grand Mesa Scenic and Historic Byway, Trail Ridge Road, and Rocky Mountain National Park, among 25 scenic and historic byways that typically showcase the state's world-famous golden Aspens. A ride on the Georgetown Loop Railroad is also a memorable way to see the fall colors and learn a little about the area's mining history. (Tickets are from $25.95 for adults; from $18.95 for children ages 3-15).
WHERE TO STAY The Rocky Mountain Park Inn offers rooms from $129 per night—their Dine & Dash package includes overnight accommodations with dinner and drinks for two at their restaurant, Longz Bar & Grill, from $110 per night.
5. WEST VIRGINIA
Grant County is home to some of the most beautiful fall foliage in the country, and the best way to see it is by train. For one night only, Oct. 16th, the Autumn Splendor Dinner Train will travel through Petersburg, West Virginia, just in time for the red and gold leaves to make their debut. You'll start by sampling local delicacies during a food and wine tasting at the South Side Depot in Petersburg while you wait for your train, and enjoy a West Virginia-made dinner of beef brisket, shrimp, potatoes, green beans, and your choice of homemade chocolate fudge turtle cake or pumpin cheesecake for dessert, all while admiring the view. (Tickets are $60 per person for adults only; reservations required).
WHERE TO STAY For a fun vacation option, stay at the Smoke Hole Caverns & Log Cabin Resort located in Spruce Knob Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area near Seneca Rocks, WV. Rates at the Log Motel range from $69-$119 depending on which day you go, while cottages are available from $129 per night.
In Tennessee's southeastern corner about two hours from Nashville lies Chattanooga, the state's fourth-largest city nestled alongside the Tennessee River, and a prime spot for viewing fall foliage. The best part: not only is Chattanooga known for having a teriffic network of hiking, biking, and nature trails, but you also have the unique opportunity to view fall foliage by boat. Enter the Southern Belle Riverboat, sailing several times a day from Pier 2, with dinner cruises, lunch cruises, sunset cruises or 90-minute sightseeing cruises up and down the gorgeous Tennessee River. Prices for their three-hour Fall Leaf Cruise—available daily from Oct. 1st thru Nov. 15th—start at $35.95 for adults and $17.95 for children ages 3-12.
WHERE TO STAY Several hotels in Chattanooga are offering fun specials including two-night/three-day packages with tickets to area attractions like Ruby Falls and Rock City Gardens.
If you're looking for the ultimate scenic fall drive, Branson and the Ozarks are home to three of the area's best fall foliage driving tours (and one walking/jogging tour) aimed to please any leaf-peeping enthusiast. Stop by the Welcome Center located at Highway 65 and State Highway 248 for free maps and tips about local attractions, then set off on your fall road trip adventure. The first driving tour takes you on a 90-minute loop around Table Rock Lake and Kimberling City, while the second takes you on a 70-minute loop from Downtown Branson around Forsyth and Rockaway Beach. The third, more in-depth fall foliage drive is a four-hour long journey through Bull Shoals, Peel Ferry, and Mark Twain National Forest, while the walking/jogging tour just takes you on a 1.5-mile tour of Branson Landing and Downtown Branson along Lake Taneycomo, home to Main Street Lake Cruises, another fun way to get a unique look at the region's fall colors. (Tickets are from $26.50 per person. Check the website for more details on pricing and scheduling. Must reserve at least 72 hours ahead).
WHERE TO STAY Hilton Promenade at Branson Landing offers rates from $129 per night to stay in the heart of town.
One of our favorite places to write about is Door County, a bucolic peninsula between Lake Michigan and Green Bay not only known for its lakes, art, and cherries, but also as a fall foliage viewing destination. Be sure to check the Fall Color Report for the latest leaf-peeping updates. Embrace changing seasons with any number of available outdoor activities ranging from cruises on the lake, horse-drawn wagon rides around town, to even a scenic airplane ride over the area, or stick to golfing, sailing, fishing, horseback riding, sightseeing, and hunting for that perfect antique souvenir to bring back home. The best part about visiting Door County this time of year: all the roadside stands and farmers' markets selling fresh, hot apple cider among other farm fresh produce and wines from local vineyards.
WHERE TO STAY The Lodgings at Pioneer Lane in Ephraim, Wisconsin, offers a small suite from $90 per night year-round and your choice of six larger suites from $109-$139 Nov. thru mid-June and from $169-$199 from mid-June thru Oct 31st.
Located about an hour and 45 minutes outside of San Antonio near the town of Vanderpool is Lost Maples State Natural Area, one of best spots for fall foliage in all of the Lone Star State. Spend some time admiring the colors of nature during a fall hike, camping trip, bird watching adventure or treat yourself to a fall picnic in the park. In this part of the country, the leaves tend to change color closer to early-to-mid-November, so there's still plenty of time to get in on the action—check the Fall Foliage Report, updated weekly from October thru November, just in case. Keep an eye out for vibrant red, orange, and golden colored leaves near Daingerfield, Martin Creek, Lake Bob Sandlin, and Martin Dies Jr. State Park in East Texas, known for its oaks, elms, and sweetgums. You'll also find golden and bright yellow cottonwoods throughout Palo Duro Canyon and Caprock Canyon State Park, as well as rusty-colored leaves that contrast with a swampy, Spanish moss-covered Caddo Lake State Park.
WHERE TO STAY Foxfire Cabins in the Vanderpool area offers cozy two-bedroom log cabins from $90 per night.
In the greater Portland and Columbia River area, fall foliage is served up with a side of waterfalls, majestic gardens, dramatic river gorges, and no shortage of local wineries. Take a drive down the scenic Columbia River Highway for views of 900-foot tall cliffs and steep flowing waterfalls overlooking the vast valley. Fall colors can be seen throughout the vineyards of Willamette Valley, where grape vines light up in a variety of reds and yellows. Hiking enthusiasts should make the scenic 1.2-mile, 600-foot ascent to Multnomah Falls for stunning views of the valley below.
WHERE TO STAY Comfort Inn Columbia Gorge Gateway offers rates from $85 per night and puts you right in the heart of the action just a 20-minute drive from Multnomah Falls along the scenic Columbia River.
Yosemite is a wonderful place to celebrate fall and an ideal time of year to visit without having to worry too much about crowds and high hotel prices. Mono County, in California's Eastern Sierra region, is also known for its colorful mix of evergreens, big-leaf maples, Pacific dogwoods, black oaks, and other trees that usually reach their peak colors in mid-to-late October.
WHERE TO STAY We love the Yosemite Naitonal Park hotel package from the Holiday Inn Express & Suites Chowchilla—Yosemite Park Area. You'll get overnight accommodations, a park entrance pass valid for seven days for one vehicle full of people, two tickets for the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad steam train, and other perks, from $158 per night.
12. SOUTH DAKOTA
Each year the area is draped in color, from the yellow Aspens, elm, ash, and oak trees, to the bright reds of the sumac and maple trees. It's easy to work these scenic drives in as a way of traveling between sites and cities—one of the most scenic, Iron Mountain Road, is a 17-mile road that winds its way through the Black Hills between Mount Rushmore and Custer State Park, both of which are definitely worth visiting in their own rite. Drive the Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway, another twisting mountain road that features six rock tunnels and views of the area's mighty Aspens. Hiking and biking enthusiasts can enjoy the 109-mile long Mickelson Trail that runs through the Black Hills with 15 trailheads to choose from. The Spearfish Canyon State & National Forest Service Scenic Byway is also worth a look, as it offers beautiful forest views and all the colors of its spruce, aspen, pine, oak, and birch trees as it winds its way along the Canyon's limestone cliffs.
WHERE TO STAY Any of the great hotels mentioned in this story about the perfect South Dakota road trip, including Frontier Cabins in Wall (near Badlands National Park, from $74 per night), Springhill Suites by Marriott in Deadwood (from $79 per night), State Game Lodge in Custer State Park (from $115 per night), or the Adoba EcoHotel Rapid City (from $101 per night).
Budget Travel has been celebrating the Great American Road Trip for more than two decades, and while some of our favorite drives (think Utah’s National Parks, New England’s autumn leaves, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula...) remain the same, the vehicles in which Americans hit the road have evolved exponentially. For Budget Travelers like me, who came of age when a car was, well, just a convenient means to get from Point A to Point B, the latest crop of high-tech rides c3an seem a little sci-fi - you’re basically driving a hybrid smartphone/entertainment center that talks. For that reason, we sometimes assume all that technology is out of reach for thrifty shoppers. Nope. A new generation of reasonably priced cars, such as the latest models of the Chevrolet Cruze Diesel, Toyota Yaris, Ford Focus, and Subaru Impreza, offers an array of tech-driven benefits that will transform your next road trip. Some of the features that are standard or reasonably available in cars under $20,000 include: Wi-Fi. You can enliven your next family road trip by Skyping with family and friends (or co-workers, if you’re into that kind of thing), or downloading music, books, TV, and movies to your devices while on the move. Interactivity. For those of you who can’t bear to be separated from your phone, texting, and music apps, features such as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto put those apps right on your car’s display screen, allowing you to talk to Siri, Google Maps, and other programs. Mobile App. Some manufacturers offer an app that transforms your phone or tablet into Mission Control for your car. Send driving directions to your vehicle before you get behind the wheel, start or stop your engine, lock or unlock the doors, or check on Wi-Fi settings and diagnostic information ahead of your trip. On top of the interactive features, we’re seeing great fuel efficiency (especially from the Chevy Cruze Diesel), safety features like a rear-view camera for help with parking and rear traffic, and unexpected roominess in smaller cars that allows for all the packing space you need and some elbow room for passengers.
Despite rising gas prices, 80 percent of U.S. families are planning a road trip this summer, up 10 percent from last year, a recent AAA survey found. But for many people, taking that dream road trip requires renting a car, which can be a stressful, confusing, and expensive process. The rental car industry is notorious for its array of sometimes confusing options for customers. Last year one in five car renters reported problems with their service, according to J.D. Power’s annual North America Rental Car Satisfaction Study. For consumers, the rental car counter can be treacherous. “Rental car agents are paid on commission, so they’re incentivized to try to upsell you for everything,” says Jonathan Weinberg, creator of AutoSlash.com, a service that tracks rental price changes to help get consumers the best deals. “If you ask whether you need something, they’re going to say yes.” Also, since many rental car companies are good at burying fees and surcharges in long rental agreements—you know, the paperwork you barely glance at before signing—the onus is on you to thoroughly research your options. Indeed, “when renting a car, it’s a ‘buyer beware’ transaction,” says Neil Abrams, president of the Abrams Consulting Group, which tracks the rental car industry. Follow these steps to drive down the costs on your next rental car and enjoy a cheaper, happier road trip. Bring your own transponder Going through a toll can bring unexpected fees when you use the rental car company’s transponder (e.g., E-ZPass, SunPass). “It varies by company, but usually you’re going to get charged a convenience fee of $5 a day starting on the first day that you use it,” says Weinberg. In other words, if you’re traveling for a week and go through a toll on the first day, you’ll get charged a $35 fee for the whole week regardless of whether you go through more tolls. READ: "15 Last Minute Weekend Escapes" Thus, you’ll want to use your own transponder on the trip. If you need to buy one, you can do so online or at some convenience stores like Publix, CVS or Walgreens. Don’t prepay for the car Many rental car companies give you the option to prepay for the rental in exchange for a reduced price, but there are some major caveats. For starters, you’re locking yourself into that price point, but rates often drop as the pickup date approaches—potentially below the prepay rate that you accepted earlier. If that happens and you try to re-book for the lower rate, you’ll get slapped with a cancellation fee of about $50, which could effectively negate the amount of money you’d save by rebooking. The good news is you can still reserve a vehicle without paying for it upfront; then, if the rate drops, you simply cancel and rebook. “Renting a car is not like booking a seat on a flight, where you’re stuck with the reservation,” says Mark Mannell, chief executive of CarRentalSavers.com. “There’s no penalty for cancelling and rebooking.” Don’t prepay for gas When you pick up the car, you’re given the option to pay ahead of time for the car company to refill the gas tank when you return the vehicle. However, you’ll save money by refilling the tank yourself for a couple reasons. First, “anything that’s left in the fuel tank that you bought is non-refundable if you opted to prepay for gas,” says Abrams. Also, when you prepay for gas, the rental company charges you the “local market rate” for the fuel but it’s often more expensive than gas stations that are just a few miles away. “Rental car companies aren’t gas stations,” says Abrams. “They provide fuel as an accommodation, and they charge a premium for it.” READ: "25 Most Beautiful Cities in America" To maximize your savings, use the free GasBuddy app (available on iPhone and Android) to find the cheapest station near the airport. When you return the car, take a photo of the fuel gauge in case the rental car company tries to charge you refueling fee later, advises Abrams. Take photos of pre-existing damage Many companies will provide an inspection report when you pick up the car, but you should still take photos of any pre-existing damage. (Many camera phones also let you time stamp pictures.) If there is pre-existing damage, make sure the rental agent records it in the agreement. Also, don’t forget to take photos when you return the car, says Mannell. Don’t automatically buy rental car insurance Insurance through the rental car company can cost up to $50 a day, depending on the plan you select, but you may already be covered through your existing car insurance, homeowner’s insurance, or credit card. Weinberg says most auto insurance policies include coverage for rental cars. Still, it’s good to check with your insurance company or credit card issuer ahead of time to make sure you’re covered. (NerdWallet.com, a credit card comparison website, has compiled a list of which cards include rental car insurance.) Look into renting from an off-airport location Airports often charge rental car companies airport concession fees, which the rental companies then pass on to customers. As a result, daily rates at off-airport stations can be up to $20 or $30 cheaper per day, so it’s wise to survey your options. Just make sure you factor in the cost of a taxi or Uber ride to the off-site location when comparing prices. After all, “if you’ll wind up paying $50 for a taxi, it may not be worth it,” says Abrams. Compare rates at independent agencies Avis, Hertz, and Enterprise are the three largest rental car companies, but there are a number of smaller agencies that offer competitive rates, such as Fox Rent a Car and Advantage. But you may have to make some concessions if you rent from one of these companies. “You’re not usually going to get newer car models at discount agencies,” says Weinberg. Also, a lot of independent agencies don’t have airport locations. One car rental agency you may want to research carefully is Payless. The Better Business Bureau recently issued a nationwide warning to consumers after having received more than 800 complaints about Payless in the past three years. (The BBB has given the company an F rating.) READ: Read This Before You Book a Vacation Rental Redeem discounts for premium memberships Rental car companies offer discounts to members of frequent flier programs and credit card holders; AAA, Costco, and BJ’s also offer members deals on rental cars. These discounts can often be combined with discount codes from the rental car company. For example, a full-size car rental from Hertz at Ronald Reagan National Airport was $281.85 in a recent search, but plugging in a AAA member discount code and a Hertz discount code dropped the rate to $201.90.
Northwest Nirvana in Oregon
DAY 1: Portland to Mt. Hood Maple-bacon-wrapped dates, a fried-egg sandwich, a side of biscuits with huckleberry jam—from the spread in front of us, you’d think my family and I are fueling up for a triathlon. In truth, the only physical activity we have planned between now and lunch is a quick waterfall hike, but we’re at Tasty n Sons, a Portland brunch institution, and when you’re here, you eat (tastynsons.com). Tasty n Sons is our launch point for our road trip from Portland to central Oregon. Our mission: to convince our almost-5-year-old son, Theo, that road trips are the best trips so that he and his younger brother, Baxter—who, for now, follows Theo’s lead in every way—will happily pile into the car anytime we want to explore our country. If we fail? We set ourselves up for years of are we there yet?” pleas from the backseat. As we head east on Highway 84, Darrell talks up our first stop, telling the kids all about Multnomah Falls, a 611-foot-tall waterfall a quick 40 minutes outside of Portland. A secret spot this is not—2.5 million people visit the falls each year—but that doesn’t make it any less spectacular. Theo is appropriately awed when we step out of the car and get our first glimpse. His only disappointment is that we can’t get right up next to the actual water—a sentiment I anticipated, which is why I choose Horsetail Falls as our next stop. There’s not an official count of waterfalls in Oregon, but there are at least 238, and likely more. Horsetail Falls is one of my favorites for a few reasons. For starters, getting there requires a drive along Historic Columbia River Highway, a narrow two-laner covered by a canopy of evergreens. And then there’s the hike in—an easy 15-minute climb of switchbacks that stops you in your tracks with surprise views of the Columbia River Gorge. But the waterfall itself is the real draw. The falls shoot out in the shape of a horsetail, and hikers can walk not just right up to the water but also behind it, thanks to a cave-like overhang in the rocky bluff. On warm summer days, the pool formed by the falls is a playground for swimmers and their dogs, but temps today are in the mid-60s, so we settle for dipping our toes in the chilly waters. By the time we get to Hood River, a small town whose placement on a bend in the Columbia River draws windsurfers from around the world, we’re ready for lunch. Pfriem Family Brewers feels tailor-made for us, with seasonally inspired pub fare—including a children’s menu with more than just mac and cheese—and a corner toy area where kids can play while their parents finish their IPAs and fresh-hop brews (pfriembeer.com). The brewpub is also in the ideal location: right across the street from Hood River Waterfront Park, where the kids’ climbing wall, seesaws, and swimming beach make for the perfect place to work off road-trip energy (hoodriverwaterfront.org). Fed and happy, we wind up Highway 35, a quiet road that leads away from the river to The Gorge White House (thegorgewhitehouse.com). The historic house and farm is on the Fruit Loop, a 35-mile drive in the Hood River Valley dotted with U-pick farms, wineries, and farm stands with views of Mt. Hood in all its glory, all 11,250 feet of it (hoodriverfruitloop.com). Again we’ve anticipated Theo’s reaction: “But can’t we play in the snow?” And so we’re off to Timberline Lodge, the only ski area in North America with year-round skiing (from $260 per night, timberlinelodge.com). As we check in, Theo and Bax are out the back door and falling backward blissfully into the powder. We’ve barely traveled more than 100 miles, but we’re more than happy to have Timberline as our home for the night. It feels exactly how a mountain lodge should: rustic, sturdy, and with three gargantuan fireplaces at the base of the 90-foot stone chimney, cozy. DAY 2: Mt. Hood to Bend We let ourselves linger at Timberline for the morning. The lodge’s Cascade Dining Room can feel a little formal during dinner if you have young kids in tow, but the breakfast buffet is easy and casual. We pile our plates with farm eggs and freshly baked muffins, and then head outside to the Pacific Crest Trail. Depending on which direction you go, the path will take you as far north as Canada or as far south as Mexico, stopping at each border. Today we settle for an easy walk, pausing every two minutes for the kids to “discover” another rock or hunk of moss. The transition from the west side of the Cascades to the east side is always a surprise, even for those of us who’ve made the trip before. In a matter of just a few miles, the lush vegetation and skyscraping evergreens are replaced with a high-desert landscape of sagebrush, juniper, and crackled dry dirt. Tumbleweed bounces across the road as we make our way east on Highway 26. This is the longest stretch of our trip—90 miles from Timberline to Smith Rock State Park—and the kids are itching to run by the time we pull into the park entrance. We’re immediately endeared by the welcome center, an unassuming hunter-green yurt, and we duck in for advice on kid-friendly hikes. The ranger suggests walking along an easy trail that will give us up-close views of Smith Rock, a towering monolith formed from a volcano’s ash explosions a half million years ago. Sure, Smith Rock is especially popular among rock climbers, but this place is for everyone—photographers mesmerized by the golden light on the rock face, families hoping to spot a river otter or golden eagle, mountain bikers looking for an adrenaline rush. We’ve brought a picnic to maximize our outdoor time and avoid wrangling the kids in yet another restaurant. We coax the boys back in the car with the promise of huckleberry ice cream from Juniper Junction, which Darrell and I spotted just outside the park’s entrance on our way in. Ice cream in hand, we set off for Bend, just 25 miles south on Highway 97. I’m not usually one to waste valuable vacation time inside a hotel, but I make an exception at McMenamins Old St. Francis School (from $170 per night, mcmenamins.com/oldstfrancis). The McMenamin brothers are famous in Oregon for two things: being instrumental in pushing through a 1980s Oregon law that allowed breweries to sell their beer on the premises (hence kicking off the region’s craft-brewery craze), and restoring abandoned buildings like schools and churches and turning them into hotels and brewpubs. Old St. Francis School was, just as its name implies, a Catholic school. The McMenamin brothers bought the building in 2000 and turned it into a hotel, keeping so much of the original character you’d swear you need a hall pass when you walk down the long corridor. The big draw, for me at least, is the mosaic-tiled soaking pool. My family and I suit up and climb in. The warm saltwater recharges us, and by the time we get dressed, we’re ready to hit the town. With Mt. Bachelor in the distance and the Deschutes River running through it, Bend feels like the quintessential outdoorsy town. Polar fleece is acceptable attire anywhere you go, gear shops abound, and the town boasts tons of breweries. We’ve heard rave reviews of the beer at Crux Fermentation Project, and when we learn it has an outdoor area with a fire pit and cornhole setup, we’re sold. The kids improvise their own cornhole rules, and Darrell and I actually get a (very) rare20 minutes to talk only to each other. Small victories, but we’ve learned to take them whenever we can. DAY 3: Bend to the Lodge at Suttle Lake The next morning I practically bound out of bed in anticipation of breakfast. We’re going to the original Sparrow Bakery, a tiny spot in the Old Ironworks District that churns out the most incredible pastries (thesparrowbakery.net). The morning is sunny and almost warm, giving us the perfect excuse to sit in the outdoor courtyard and enjoy the bakery’s famous Ocean Rolls, croissant dough rolled in cardamom, vanilla, and sugar and baked to flaky perfection. We’re eager to get to The Lodge at Suttle Lake, almost an hour northwest of Bend along Highway 20. I’ve saved it as our last stop for a couple of reasons. The first is to soak up the property as it is now, a lakefront lodge and series of cabins that feel sweetly unsophisticated. The second is what the place is about to become. The team behind the Ace Hotel Portland recently bought it and are about to relaunch the property as The Suttle Lodge & Boathouse (thesuttlelodge.com). The character I love will remain, but the team will put their fun, design-savvy stamp on it, making it, as they put it, “a relaxed Cascadian forest lodge as imagined by a gently debauched scout.” There will be a beer garden with lawn games, a huge roaring fireplace to gather around for card games and spirit sipping, arts and crafts workshops, and canoe, kayak, and SUP rentals. In other words, summer camp for the whole family. We’ve rented one of the stand-alone cabins for the night, and as we sit on the porch soaking up the fresh air and bright sun, I tell Theo about how we’ll be able to rent boats here on our next trip and ask if he’d want to come back. “Can we make it a road trip?” he asks, and Darrell and I actually high five each other. Mission accomplished.
The Ultimate (Affordable!) Iceland Road Trip
"Do you want to keep going?” I asked, looking from the map on my phone to Richard, my fiancé. We were at least 20 minutes from Háifoss, one of Iceland’s highest waterfalls, and had just turned off a smooth, beautifully paved route onto one covered in baseball-size gravel. Without a word, we both knew that meant a 40-minute round trip spent dodging rocks to avoid getting a flat, listening to our 2003 Rav4 whine with the strain of the climb, and bracing ourselves during violent jostling that would leave our bodies vibrating long after we returned to the tranquil asphalt. Perched in the driver’s seat, Richard pressed down on the gas pedal in response. A smile crept across my lips as I trained my eyes on the road ahead. It was never really a question: Of course we’d keep going. I’d been dreaming of Iceland’s otherworldly landscape for years, and Háifoss promised the kind of off-the-beaten-path beauty that makes you stop in your tracks and forget everything on your to-do list back home. We arrived as the sun was edging down toward the horizon. There wasn’t another soul around—or anything to prevent us from falling 400 feet to the valley below, where a river snaked through green slopes. From where I stood across the canyon, Háifoss and its neighbor waterfall, Granni, appeared as thin streams pouring downward for an eternity. The sound of gushing water filled my ears and my soul. After an hour of staring, awestruck, neither of us wanted to leave. But the light was fading, and we still had 50 miles till our hotel. To make the most of our trip, we took as many vacation days as our bosses would approve (a week and a half) with the goal of seeing as much as we possibly could. We followed fares and opted for a Wednesday departure, which saved us some cash. And we used Instagram as a guidebook, scrolling through photos tagged #Iceland and #MyStopover and following natives like @ozzophotography, then marking places on a shared Google Map. Looking at our scatter-plot of sites, it was clear we’d have to circle the entire country to get to everything, staying at eight different hotels along our route, which started and ended in Reykjavík. Crazy? Maybe. However, when you’re crossing a destination off your bucket list, you go big. And we did. FIRST…REYKJAVÍK Before setting out to circle the country via Route 1, known as the Ring Road, we spent a day exploring downtown Reykjavík. We rode a snug elevator to the top of Hallgrímskirkja church for a sweeping 360-degree view of the colorful capital city (about $7, hallgrimskirkja.is), browsed hip clothing and home decor boutiques on Laugavegur street, then warmed up inside Harpa concert hall (free, harpa.is) while wind and rain pounded boats in the harbor outside, nature whipping them into a roiling stew as they held tight to the docks. I’ll freely admit it: I’m the world’s pickiest vegetarian, so I’d wondered about my mealtime options in a seafood-and lamb-loving country. I even packed a box of granola bars just in case. Gló, a casual, chic restaurant—decorated Nordic-style, all pale neutrals with wooden accents— with four locations and deliciously healthy vegan and vegetarian food, like pesto-topped vegetable lasagna, proved I had no reason to worry (from about $15, glo.is). After the day’s biting rain, we savored each steaming forkful and gleefully plotted our journey. READY TO RIDE When we picked up our rental car from SADcars, the man behind the counter hurried through a list of crucial precautions: • Don’t drive faster than 90 kilometers per hour (about 56 mph) on asphalt or 80 kph (about 50 mph) on gravel. • Be careful when the road’s surface changes from rocks to pavement (“that’s where the accidents happen”). • Open your door against the wind and hold on so it doesn’t rip off the hinges. To be frank, the poor Rav4’s beat-up body showed signs of disregard for his last warning. Still, it had four-wheel drive and came cheap from a company that promised “older but good, solid cars.” Sounded legit. The electronic parking meters took a few tries to figure out since we don’t know Icelandic (thanks, Google Translate!). Eager to untether ourselves, we struck out the next morning. ON THE ROAD Reykjavík’s wide, multi-lane highway quickly shrank to a “bi”-way. Not two lanes per side; two lanes total. The buildings began to thin out, too, with horses and sheep as our faithful roadside companions. Whizzing by resplendent green mountains, we gazed toward the peaks, making a game of spotting woolly white specks and marveling at how they’d climbed so high. On gusty days, horses huddled together, still as statues except for the wind in their manes. As we drove, my eyes flicked between our car’s front and side windows, trying to piece together the panorama. You can only see so much out of a windshield. Luckily, there are plenty of spots to pause and quite literally spin around in wonder. About 45 minutes from Reykjavík, the Golden Circle holds a cluster of attractions, including Thingvellir National Park, Strokkur geyser, Gullfoss waterfall, and Kerid crater lake (admission to Kerid about $3, kerid.is). Farther out, the Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss waterfalls as well as Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon all sit right along Route 1, making my job of navigator a breeze. Shoulders aren’t ubiquitous, yet whenever we had the urge to pull over and get a better look at moss-covered mounds of lava or a mountain disappearing into clouds, a patch of gravel conveniently appeared. On our third day, we met a trio of Germans at the U.S. Navy plane that crashed onto Sólheimasandur’s black sand beach in 1973, the wreckage now a hidden—and, as of press time, now prohibited—attraction. Comparing notes, we learned we were traveling the same distance, yet we had a week less to accomplish the feat. “You must drive fast!” one of them laughed. It was true: On paper, each leg of our trip didn’t look that far—the longest drive totaled five hours—yet we couldn’t resist breaking up the drive and taking vertiginous hikes to glimpse unmissable waterfalls, like Glymur and Hengifoss. This would be a whirlwind trip. A MOST EXCELLENT ROUTINE This wasn’t a vacation we wanted to spend lolling about. Our daily routine: Get up around 7 a.m.; eat our money’s worth of skyr, toast, cured meats, cheeses, and hard-boiled eggs at each hotel’s breakfast bar (free at some hotels); hit the road before 9 a.m. Early departures guaranteed we’d beat tour buses to the first waypoint and have Iceland’s sights to ourselves for a few moments. Coming from a country where road gridlocks are a part of life, driving in Iceland is bliss. Here, three cars feels like heavy traffic, stoplights are an anomaly, and potholes don’t seem to exist. There are a few exceptions: Between Höfn and Lake Mývatn, we clung to the side of a cliff on a stretch with no guardrail. We climbed mountains so steep we barely reached the speed limit with a foot to the floor. Following the coastline where a magnificent fjord cut deep into the land added kilometers to the odometer—the definition of “scenic route.” NOURISHING MIND AND BODY As the evenings fell, we didn’t have to search far to soothe our road-weary bones: Geothermal waters are one of the country’s natural wonders, our one monetary indulgence. The famous Blue Lagoon isn’t the only option—though it’s likely the most crowded (from about $45, bluelagoon.com). Near the Golden Circle, we relaxed on foam noodles in the Secret Lagoon’s inky depths (from about $22, secretlagoon.is) and, in the north, watched the sunset from the blue raspberry–colored pools of the Mývatn Nature Baths (from about $28, myvatnnaturebaths.is). With each dip, any lingering tension floated away. Unlike on American highways, fast-food joints don’t appear at regular intervals, despite the popularity of sightseeing via car. Towns often comprise a few houses, a coffee shop, and a hotel, with the latter two doubling as restaurants. In the northwest fishing town of Hvammstangi, we warmed up with pork chops and curry soup at Hladan Kaffihús, surrounded by a collection of antique coffee grinders (from about $12, 354/451-1110). At Stracta Hótel Hella, the hip staff wears chambray button-downs and serves “the freshest from Hella’s fishmonger” (from about $13, stractahotels.is). Another favorite—and, I want to add, ingenious—combination: the restaurant/greenhouse. Cucumbers grow just across the room at Fridheimar, and I went back for seconds of serve-yourself tomato soup and freshly baked bread. Potted basil and scissors decorate each table for snipping leaves to garnish your piping-hot bowl (from about $15, fridheimar.is). HOTEL HINTS Although we booked the trip four months in advance, some cities, like Vík, didn’t have a single vacancy. So we adjusted our itinerary based on lodging availability. That’s how we found Hótel Hellnar (from about $145 per night, 354/435-6820), where the town has fewer than 10 residents. Rooms have a view of Faxaflói Bay or Snaefellsjökull glacier, and the lobby doubles as a cozy bar. Over bottles of Einstök ale, Richard and I lamented the one downside of road trips: You fall in love with a place only to pack your bags a few hours later. In Iceland, there are no shortcuts; no faster or smoother ways. Detours, on the other hand, are plentiful—and perfect for travel serendipity. Driving on gravel west of Saudárkrókur, we heard a mysterious loud thud. With no cell service and no passersby to flag down, we proceeded cautiously, inch by potentially perilous inch. At the nearest guesthouse, we phoned the rental car company, then drove up and down the streets of Búdardalur (population 266) in search of the recommended garage. “I think I can fix it,” the mechanic semi-confidently informed us, his legs peeking out from under the Rav4. Pro tip: If you’re afraid of car trouble, join a bus tour. Us? We embraced the adventure. Inside the shop, surrounded by shelves of windshield-wiper blades and WD-40, a pair of old-timers gossiped over free coffee—some experiences are universal no matter where you are in the world. The mechanic kept his word: In two hours we were on our way, with new brackets holding up the gas tank. (The old ones had rusted out, and the tank had fallen on the drive shaft.) As our 12-hour days on the road whizzed by, we realized that an ambitious road trip over alien terrain might not be the textbook definition of a romantic paradise. Yet, in its own unforgettable way, it was. If you go on a journey of this kind, let it be in Iceland, and let it be with someone you love. Because traveling this country is like a relationship worth holding onto: The rough spots only serve to bring out the surrounding beauty—and there’s an endless supply of that. We didn’t get to visit every waterfall, and we narrowly missed a mountainside swimming pool I still dream of taking a dunk in, but the memories that still burn brightly in my mind are pulling each other up a mountain steeper than we’d bargained for, watching the sunset at 10 p.m., and stealing a kiss beside a secluded waterfall. It would take a lifetime to see it all. We’ve already started a map for next time. Three Rules of the Road 1. Set Your Course: Check road conditions at Road.is before setting out. Strong weather can cause sections to be impassable. Carry a hard-copy map in case reception cuts out or a battery dies. 2. Find Your Soundtrack: Our clunker didn’t have an auxiliary input, and the radio often disappeared into static. Before setting out from Reykjavík, we stopped at 12 Tónar, a record store that specializes in Icelandic music (12tonar.is). Compilations, including This Is Icelandic Indie Music and Icelandair’s Hot Spring series, kept us more than entertained. 3. Get Recs from Residents: For food, shopping, hotel, and culture suggestions (including kid-friendly activities) from “a group of picky locals,” download the free HandPicked Iceland app or visit Handpicked.is.