10 Great American Drives: The Heartland, Yosemite, The Elvis Trail and More
Published: January 2011
By Kimberly Seely
We map out ten all-American road trips in Minnesota, California, Arizona, Tennessee, Florida, Vermont, Oregon's Coast, North Dakota, Texas Hill Country and West Virginia. Now step on it
AMERICA'S HEARTLAND: MINNESOTA
I am the product of a Minnesota-style mixed marriage: my mother's from St. Paul, while my father hails from Minneapolis. Como Park versus Minnehaha Falls, the State Fairgrounds versus the Mall of America. My parents did agree that every summer we'd vacation at our lakeside cabin in the North Woods. There I would fish, poorly yet enthusiastically, for the northern pike that lurked beneath the sky-blue surface of Thunder Lake, and then drift off to cedar-scented sleep as the grown-ups played cribbage. Now, decades later, I'm back, with my wife and three-year-old son, driving toward "the Arrowhead," the rugged corner of the state wedged between Canada and Lake Superior. Over the next four days we will make a long, ambitious loop through the immutable landscape of my childhood: glacial lakes and a wilderness of pine and birch; smoked-fish stands and homespun museums; grand lodges and a stunning shoreline.
Duluth, a pocket-sized San Francisco, is the gateway to the region, a working port tucked between wooded hills and a dark inland sea. Its broad-shouldered history is palpable and kid-friendly: the Depot, a châteauesque train station erected in 1892, has a children's museum and an all-climb-aboard collection of retired steam engines. Nearby, kids can "pilot" the 610-foot William A. Irvin, a former flagship of U.S. Steel's ore-carrier fleet.
Beyond the humpbacked Aerial Lift Bridge, Highway 61 hugs a coastline punctuated by tumultuous rivers and abrupt headlands. The mercurial Lake Superior has a passive-aggressive personality, capable of dead-calm beauty or raging nor'easters. So many ships foundered in a 1905 storm that Split Rock Lighthouse was built upon a sheer 130-foot cliff. Now decommissioned, the solitary beacon 46 miles north of Duluth is the highlight of an excellent state park with bird watching—peregrine falcons and bald eagles—and guided tours of the lighthouse, museum, and 1920's keeper's house.
Along the craggy 150-mile north shore, we find the best (read warmest) swimming is at Temperance River State Park's deep swimming hole; Lake Superior, meanwhile, is 40 degrees even on a hot July day. The largest town in the tip of the Arrowhead Country is Grand Marais, founded in 1823 as a fur-company trading post. Those hardy trappers wouldn't recognize the lively harbor village 110 miles northeast of Duluth, which houses a renowned arts colony, several charter-fishing services, and that totem of any happening place, a bar serving microbrews. (Check out the Gun Flint Tavern's walk-in cooler, once a bank vault.)
A 15-mile drive northeast leads us to a Jazz Age relic, the Naniboujou Lodge. Now listed in the National Register of Historic Places, Naniboujou was conceived as a private club and counted Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey as charter members. It remains frozen in time: its gymnasium-sized Great Hall is anchored by a fireplace fashioned from 200 tons of native rock and topped by a 25-foot-high ceiling painted with stylized Cree designs. The pleasures here are simple; skipping stones along the shingle beach tops our list.
After tackling the lodge's epic Sunday brunch—turkey sausage, omelettes stuffed with mushrooms and wild rice—we head for Grand Portage National Monument, an easy 20-mile cruise up Highway 61. In 1784, the North West Co. established its inland headquarters here and traded woolen blankets, dye, and glass beads to native trappers for fox, beaver, and bear pelts. The National Park Service's re-creation of the depot is complete with Ojibwa village and voyageur encampment. We get a taste of frontier life as re-enactors build canoes, press furs, and cook period meals. Good planked fish.
Twenty miles west of here, the lake-pocked Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness preserves a million acres of the old hunting grounds. After loading up a take-out picnic from time-warped Leng's Soda Fountain & Grill in Grand Marais, we roll along the Gunflint Trail through nearly 60 miles of primeval forest. At trail's end, hard by the Canadian border, we rent a canoe for a once-around of Seagull Lake and are rewarded with sightings of loons, a beaver dam, and even a bald eagle before a long drive back to Naniboujou.
The next day, we're back in the deep woods, rambling along unpaved roads inside sprawling Superior National Forest, a stronghold of the gray wolf. We're bound for Ely, a three-hour drive west of the lake and the easiest place to see Canis lupus. The International Wolf Center has a resident pack, hands-on exhibits, and field trips to see an abandoned wolf den and to do some howling.
Only a scattering of fire roads penetrates this boreal forest; the best trails are dedicated to subzero fun: cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, and dog-sledding. The pro-Arctic attitude seems contagious—Buzz and Elaine Braginton gave up an Arizona beauty-supply business to run the Finnish Heritage Homestead, a four-room B&B in tiny Embarrass, about 30 miles southwest of Ely. As I admire his weathered, hand-hewn Finnish-style outbuildings and my son picks fistfuls of blood-red raspberries from his garden, Buzz informs me—with more than a touch of perverse pride—that in 1997 the town had frost every month.
With weather like this, people learn to relish Minnesota's brief summers. The taste of a pan-fried walleye. The incandescence of a hummingbird's throat. And everywhere, the presence of water: a rushing stream, a boiling cascade, a lake holding the sky's reflection.
On the 300-mile drive back to the Twin Cities, we wander through a steady succession of heartland towns: Hibbing and Grand Rapids, Hill City and Remer. The two-lane blacktop finally skirts a familiar shore, and I impulsively swing the Chevy Blazer onto a dirt track and rattle a mile through woods to a fork in the road. And there it is, nailed to a tree trunk: the old hand-lettered sign with my family's name, still pointing the way toward the Thunder Lake cabin my grandfather sold nearly 20 years ago.
I don't go down the road, but say a silent prayer instead. I have already touched the Minnesota I knew. The pike, as always, are off the hook.
DAY 1 From Minneapolis, take Interstate 35 north to Duluth, then Highway 61 north for 46 miles to Split Rock Lighthouse State Park; Grand Marais is 63 miles farther. Naniboujou Lodge (milepost 124) is 15 miles past Grand Marais.
DAY 2 Continue on 61 north for 20 miles to Grand Portage National Monument. Retrace the road to Grand Marais, then go west on Cook County Road 12, also known as the Gunflint Trail. Return to Naniboujou Lodge.
DAY 3 Head south along Highway 61 for 43 miles to Temperance River State Park, then west on county roads through Superior National Forest to Isabella. Follow Highway 1 north for 34 miles to Ely and the International Wolf Center. To reach Embarrass, take St. Louis County Road 21 south for 30 miles.
DAY 4 From Embarrass, take St. Louis County Road 21 west for 12 miles to U.S. Highway 169 south. Continue for 88 miles, then take Highway 200 west for 16 miles. In Remer, follow Highway 6 south for 59 miles to Highway 18 east. At Lake Mille Lacs, turn onto Highway 169 south and drive 75 miles to state Highway 101, then seven miles south to Interstate 94 east. After nine miles, take I-494 south for 28 miles to Minneapolis—St. Paul International Airport.
WHERE TO STAY
NANIBOUJOU LODGE 20 Naniboujou Trail, Grand Marais; 218/387-2688; www.naniboujou.com; family of four $120.
GUNFLINT LODGE 143 S. Gunflint Lake Rd., Grand Marais; 800/328-3325 or 218/388-2294, fax 218/388-9429; www.gunflint.com; cabins from $339; entrées from $16.95. Lakeside cabins in the north woods owned by the same family since 1927.
FINNISH HERITAGE HOMESTEAD 4776 Waisanen Rd., Embarrass; 800/863-6545 or 218/984-3318; family of four from $160.
WHERE TO EAT
GUN FLINT TAVERN 111 W. Wisconsin St., Grand Marais; 218/387-1563; lunch for four $25.
Alice's Restaurant 5 W. Wisconsin St., Grand Marais; 218/387-2648; lunch entrées from $6.
CHOCOLATE MOOSE 101 N. Central Ave., Ely; 218/365-6343; dinner entrées from $12, soup and salad included. After a day of canoeing, dinner at this local favorite is a must: pike and wild rice for sure.
YOSEMITE AND BEYOND
Route: Oakhurst to Mono Lake
Length: 180 miles
Stay at: The Ahwahnee (Yosemite Village, Yosemite National Park; 559/252-4848, fax 559/456-0542; family of four from $253)
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.
Route: Tuba City to Canyon de Chelly
Length: 215 miles
Stay at: Thunderbird Lodge (Canyon de Chelly, Chinle; 800/679-2473 or 520/674-5841, fax 520/674-5844; family of four from $114)
In school, your kids have read about the Native American struggle to hold on to their land and their heritage. On this 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.
FLORIDA'S OVERSEAS HIGHWAY
Route: Florida City to Key West
Length: 127 miles
Stay at: Cheeca Lodge (Mile Marker 82, U.S. Hwy. 1, Islamorada; 800/327-2888 or 305/664-4651, fax 305/664-2893; family of four from $275)
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.
THE ELVIS TRAIL
Route: Nashville to Memphis
Length: 210 miles
Stay at: Peabody Hotel (149 Union Ave., Memphis; 800/732-2639 or 901/529-4000, fax 901/529-3600; family of four from $240)
Even kids more in tune with Limp Bizkit and Britney Spears than with the King will call this drive a hit. Consider the region's awesome musical heritage (country, Mississippi Delta blues, rock and roll); cooking (sloppy barbecue); kitsch (been to Graceland?); and history (the National Civil Rights Museum is alone worth the trip). Start in Nashville at the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum, chock-full of stuff like Elvis's gold Cadillac and the original handwritten lyrics to "Mammas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys." Next, head west on I-40, allowing about 31/2 hours for the drive to Memphis. An hour outside Nashville, stop for lunch at Loretta Lynn's Kitchen (on I-40), where you'll revel in the full Southern experience: sugary iced tea served in jelly jars, and a steam table stocked with fried chicken, mashed potatoes, grits, and gravy. After lunch, turn your kids loose in the gift shop to survey 30 kinds of toothpick holders. Memphis makes the best base for the rest of the trip; check into the Peabody, and then drive over to the National Civil Rights Museum. Housed in the former Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in 1968, it offers a riveting overview of the civil rights movement, including the Montgomery bus boycott and the sixties student sit-ins. Motor down Elvis Presley Boulevard to join the line at Graceland (doors open at 9 a.m.). Your kids won't believe the 15-foot-long couch, avocado-green kitchen appliances, green-shag-carpeted ceiling, and Elvis's grave, next to the swimming pool. Wrap up the day with a stop at Sun Studio, where Howlin' Wolf, B. B. King, Roy Orbison, and, of course, the King got their big breaks. Take the half-hour tour of the tiny studio with warped ceiling tiles and listen to tapes of their original recording sessions. The gift shop sells honest-to-goodness LP's.
Route: Bennington to Burlington
Length: 125 miles
Stay at: Aspen Motel (Rte. 7A, Manchester Center; 802/362-2450; family of four from $100)
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.
Route: Astoria to Coos Bay
Length: 227 miles
Stay at: Surfsand Resort (Gower St., Cannon Beach; 800/547-6100 or 503/436-2274; family of four from $149)
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.
NORTH DAKOTA FRONTIER
Route: Bismark to Belfield (via the Missouri River loop)
Length: 400 miles
Stay at: Medora Motel (East River Road S., Medora; 800/633-6721 or 701/623-4444; family of four from $85)
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.
TEXAS HILL COUNTRY RAMBLE
Route: San Antonio to Austin
Length: 350 miles
Stay at: River Front Motel (1004 Maple St., Bandera; (800/870-5671 or 830/460-3690; cottages from $59)
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 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.
WEST VIRGINIA'S MIDLAND TRAIL
Route: Charleston to Lewisburg
Length: 120 miles
Stay at: The General Lewis Inn, Lewisburg (800/628-4454 or 304/645-2600; family of four from $140)
Begin by tuning in to the local country music station station, WQBE. 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 the 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 an1861 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.
CHARTING YOUR COURSE—NO MAP SKILLS NEEDED
The bags are packed, everyone's piled into the car. Now is that a right turn or a left out of the driveway?Sifting through the alphabet soup of PDA's, GPS's, and CD-ROM's on the market may seem like a lot more trouble than a gas station road map. But we've found three sources that speedily put you on exactly the right roads, no refolding required.
• FROM A TO B Mapquest.com is the best site on the Web for quick, step-by-step directions, with maps for the United States, Canada, and most of Europe. The free site also has live traffic updates for more than 60 U.S. cities, plus a pared-down version of its services for Internet-ready Palms.
• THE WORLD IN DETAIL Maps.com has more worldwide and local maps than any other source on the Web. Along with printable directions, travel alerts, and weather conditions, you can also order enough traditional paper maps to fill an airplane hangar—sized glove compartment.
• DISC DRIVE Of all the trip-friendly CD-ROM's out there (including Rand McNally's Tripmaker and StreetFinder programs), Microsoft's Streets & Trips 2001 ($44.95) offers the most versatility and custom features, including virtual thumbtacks marking stops, easy searches for addresses, detailed road and terrain maps, and listings of hundreds of thousands of restaurants and ATM's. It's also Palm/GPS compatible. This program is so simple, your 12-year-old can take over the planning. —Robert Maniaci