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A Great Vacation

Road trip planning, like many things in life, is harder than it looks. The fantasy is the idea of just jumping in your car and heading off to experience wonderful adventures. Any problems? They'll just turn into hilarious stories you'll be able to tell everyone. Taking the time to plan your road trip can make the difference between a great vacation full of fun and adventure, and a disastrous detour down the wrong road, one you wouldn't wish on an enemy.

If you hear "family road trip" and think "summer national park tour, circa 1965," then there's nothing more spectacular than a loop through Yosemite. A national park in the heart of the Sierra Nevada, it has steep mountains and plunging valleys, alpine meadows, waterfalls . . . and epic crowds: close to 4 million people make the pilgrimage each year. Best strategies for seeing more park, fewer people? Plan your drive for spring or fall; or drive in the morning and hike in the afternoon. Take Route 41 from Oakhurst toward Yosemite's south entrance. Passing through the Sierra National Forest, you'll be dwarfed by the quiet grandeur of ponderosa pine, California black oak, and incense cedar. Watch for the Yosemite Mountain Sugar Pine Railroad depot, seven miles before you reach the park. Open-air cars that once hauled timber now transport train buffs on an hour-long ride through the woods. Just inside the park's entrance, catch the spur road to Mariposa Grove, where a trail winds through a thicket of giant sequoias with trunks as wide as 30 feet. Drive on to Glacier Point Road and see who's the first to spot Yosemite's main attractions-Half Dome, Vernal Fall, and Yosemite Falls-from the overlook. In the valley below, take Northside Drive to El Capitan and brake just long enough to look up and squint. You'll eventually spot tiny insect-like dots hanging from the cliffs-some of the world's top climbers testing their limits. From Yosemite Valley, head northeast on Tioga Road toward Tuolumne Meadows and Tioga Pass. Outside the park, follow Route 120 east to the million-year-old Mono Lake.

In school, your kids have read about the Native American struggle to hold on to their land and their heritage. On a drive through northeastern Arizona, they will come face to face with that history. The Hopi and Navajo reservations cover 30,000 square miles of the Colorado plateau-the most extensive Indian territory left in America. From Tuba City, named for Hopi chief Tuba, head southeast on Route 264 , passing the outer edges of the Painted Desert, a wide-open realm of sagebrush and juniper. You are traveling toward the lofty cliff tops of the still-inhabited First, Second, and Third mesas. The Hopi Cultural Center (on Second Mesa) is your chance to see tribal artifacts and try blue pancakes, nöqkwivi (traditional Hopi lamb stew), or baduf-su-ki (pinto bean and hominy soup). Continue east on Route 264, reentering Navajo reservation lands. The first stop here is the creaky, dimly lit Hubbell Trading Post, which looks much as it must have in 1878, when it opened, despite the fact that it's now a souvenir shop. Next, follow Route 191 north to Canyon de Chelly National Monument, where sheer sandstone walls give the canyon a fortress-like appearance. The Navajo came to this area in 1700 and still live here in hogans (log huts held together with dried mud), farming and grazing sheep. Adventurous tourist tribes can spend the night in a dirt-floored hogan (bring sleeping bags). Check in at the visitors' center in Canyon de Chelly, where Navajo guides can lead you on tours of the canyon by four-wheel drive, on horseback, or on foot. Except along the popular White House trail, all visitors are accompanied by guides, whose stories your kids will never forget.

There's nothing like rolling down those car windows and letting the wind blow through your hair as you travel from island to island in the Florida Keys. The Overseas Highway (Route 1) takes you across 42 bridges as it arcs its way from Florida City to Key West. Markers log your progress every inch of the way, so the back-seat contingent can count each mile. For a snapshot of what these islands looked like when Bogart and Bacall put them on the map 53 years ago, take Card Sound Road from Florida City to the northern tip of Key Largo. Pick up herb-crusted chicken sandwiches on fresh-baked bread (so gigantic even Dad won't be able to put away a whole one) at Chad's Deli & Bakery (mile 92.3), then push on to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. This is the place to rent snorkels, canoes, and kayaks for exploring waters teeming with crabs and sponges, as well as pelican-filled swamps. Hungry again?Head for Manny & Isa's Kitchen in Islamorada, where the Cuban food and Key lime pie have been drawing devotees for decades. (Rumor has it that Manny still picks Key limes from his back-yard trees to make his tangy pie filling, topped by an ocean of meringue.) Stretch your legs along the self-guided nature trails in Long Key State Recreation Area (also an excellent swimming spot), or move on to the famous Seven-Mile Bridge-as you drive across, you'll feel as if you're flying over the sea. You'll know you've reached the end of the line (and the 126-mile string of islands) when you pull into candy-colored Key West-time for frozen margaritas or more Key lime pie in the southernmost city in the continental United States.

You know what you're after: the quintessential town green, a covered bridge, the ultimate foliage-oh, and a history lesson or two. Do not stop till you get to Vermont. Begin in Bennington with a trek to the 306-foot-tall stone obelisk commemorating the Battle of Bennington in 1776. Drop by Sunny's Blue Benn Diner for terrific homey fare, including about 20 kinds of pancakes (blueberry, crunchberry, pumpkin-pecan . . . ) served all day. Before leaving town, check out the Grandma Moses paintings at the Bennington Museum. From there, wind north along the Green Mountains on rural Route 7A. The rivers around Manchester are trout-fishing central, so stock up on wooly buggers (or rent gear) at Orvis and try your luck on the Battenkill River. When the trout stop biting, check into the Aspen Motel-a family-friendly, Colonial-style place on Route 7A. Next morning, take a jog to the nearby marble quarry (the folks at the Aspen can direct you), the best local spot for a swim. Ever wonder where marble and slate come from?The Slate Valley Museum, just over the border in Granville, New York, has red, green, and black specimens, and surprisingly fun exhibits showing how slate veins are quarried. Continue to the southern tip of Lake Champlain, cross the bridge back into Vermont, and push on into the North Country. In Burlington, stop at the Shelburne Museum to see the circus building, steam locomotive, 1840's general store, and blacksmithing demonstrations. Then head straight to Waterbury for a tour and tasting at the Ben & Jerry's factory.

Everyone's poked along California's Pacific Coast-but what about that other coast-the Oregon Coast? It's got deserted stretches of sand, all-the-way-to-Asia ocean views, plus hikes and headlands to stretch those back-seat legs. Start on the Oregon Coast Highway (Route 101) just below the Columbia River, in Astoria, and point your wheels south. Even if you're tempted to zip by the nearby turnoff to Fort Clatsop National Memorial, don't. Clatsop marks the spot where Lewis and Clark reached the Pacific (a staggering 19 months and 4,000 miles after beginning their epic journey), and it's thrilling to see what they saw. Twenty five miles south comes Oswald West State Park, where you can roam a surfside rain forest of massive spruce and cedar. For the next 30 miles, the route passes five parks, crosses four rivers, and meanders through seven beachfront towns. A bit of cheese, Gromit?Stop at the Tillamook County Creamery (just off Hwy. 101 in Tillamook) for some cheddar and ice cream in summer. After passing through Newport, a scenic port city with some of the finest fish markets in the country, you'll soon come across one of the world's largest sea caves (12 stories high and as long as a football field-verified by the Guinness folks) and the hundreds of Stellar and California sea lions who call it home. Leaving the land of pine and fir, Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area's massive sand dunes begin their 40-mile march south. These moonlike mounds of cream-colored sand, some 500 feet tall, are mecca for hide-and-seek, kite-flying, and dune-buggy-driving (rentals available nearby). And when you've all got enough sand in your sneakers? Speed over Coos Bay via the 5,305-foot-long McCullough Memorial Bridge, which seems to go on forever.

If you're after wild, historic country that's still gloriously unspoiled, find what Teddy Roosevelt dubbed "the vast silent spaces" of the Dakota badlands. Tracing the bends of the Missouri River (also known as Big Muddy), a Dakota drive promises dinosaur bones, pioneer spirit, and plenty of wildlife. Watch costumed "interpreters" reenact daily life on the frontier at Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park across the river from Bismark. Head north along Rte. 1804, and at Washburn, take Rte. 200A west to the Cross Ranch State Park and its adjoining nature preserve, where the bison have the right of way (they can run as fast as 35 miles per hour!). Watch out for wild turkeys. Road signs marked with binoculars tip you off to potential animal sightings along the way. There's also the Audubon National Wildlife Refuge (where you can take in a chorus of hundreds of Canada geese); Fort Stevenson State Park (home of Wally Walleye, a 26-foot-tall fish statue); and Lewis and Clark State Park (an homage to the guys who blazed this trail in 1804). Wind up your rambles at Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The big news here?The fossilized remains of a Champsosaurus, a crocodile-like creature who slinked around the ancient swamps of today's badlands some 58 million years ago.

Everything's bigger in Texas and that's part of its over-the-top appeal. Start in San Antonio with a pilgrimage to the Alamo, where you can step into the very barrack where Davy Crockett and James Bowie, along with 187 others, went down fighting. From here, push north on Route 16 (Texas hill country) to Bandera, a small town that calls itself the cowboy capital of the world. (Definitely the place to dust off everyone's pointy-toed boots and catch a rodeo or two in summer.) Later in the day, ease onto an inner tube and drift down the clear, cool Frio river beneath the cypresses of Garner State Park. Next, head north to Fredericksburg for some antiquing or keep going to Enchanted Rock, a more-than-a-billion-year-old batholith that makes a great hike (it takes about 30-45 minutes to scramble to the top). At Cooper's Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que in Llano, the plates are butcher paper, and the napkins are rolls of paper-towel. Entire loafs of white bread are set out on the picnic tables. Follow Route 71 to Austin, keeping an eye out for the turnoff to Krause Springs, near the town of Spicewood. Most Austin locals don't even know about this amazing picnicking and swimming spot; definitely worth a stop. After a lazy afternoon, it's back to Austin, where you might be in time to catch the million-plus Mexican free-tailed bats-the largest urban bat colony in North America-emerging, as they do each evening in spring and summer months, from beneath the Congress Avenue Bridge.

The historic Midland Trail (Route 60) starts in Charleston and follows the old James River and Kanawha Turnpike, once a bison path that morphed into an Indian trail, and then a route used by Civil War soldiers. From Charleston, the route passes through a 15-mile dreary industrial corridor, then ascends into the Alleghenies, skirting ridges thick with beech, oak, and hickory, till it puts you at Hawks Nest State Park, perched 585 feet above the New River. Hop aboard the gondola that ferries passengers into the depths of the river gorge (you can picnic along the riverbank), or head south to the Canyon Rim Visitor Center, just off Route 19. Back on West Virginia's midland trail, crest the summit of Big Sewell Mountain and picture this peak serving as camp for Robert E. Lee and his Confederate troops during an 1861 Civil War campaign. In Lewisburg, a fabulous preCivil War town, stay at the General Lewis Inn, run by the same family since 1928. In September and October, join a candle-lit walking tour for some history and ghost stories, including a stop at the cemetery to hear the tale of the Greenbriar Ghost.

There are so many things to consider when planning a road trip, especially if you want it to make it a great one. Think about it, with what little vacation time we have these days, don't you want your vacation to be the kind that you remember forever and talk about for years to come? Don't you want it to be jam-packed with good times? Without the right planning, that may not happen!

Kimberly Seely. 10 Great American Drives: The Heartland, Yosemite, The Elvis Trail and More. Travel + Leisure . April 2001.


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