20 Great American Drives

20 Great American Drives

David Nicolas
David Nicolas
Now that winter's finally over, it's time to put the top down and hit the open road. We've got the car keys to terrific trips all across the country and our quick itineraries make it easy to find a drive and destination that's right for you.

1 Virginia: Land That I Love

by Shane Mitchell

My husband, Bronson, thinks I swear too much. That's why he presents me with a shellacked-cedar cuss bank at Luray Caverns in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. We can't resist the vivid green billboards announcing nature's hidden treasure at exit 264 off Interstate 81, which cuts through the fertile region that historians call the Breadbasket of the Confederacy. Discovered in 1878, Luray is the largest cavern in the East. Hearing a spooky "stalacpipe" organ there wheeze the notes to "O Shenandoah" in a subterranean chamber is alone worth the price of admission. Aboveground, Bronson spots my keepsake in a gift shop selling pewter spoons and stenciled porcelain bells; it reads "Swearing is bad and just ain't funny, so if you cuss it will cost you money." Frankly, I don't know what the hell he's talking about. (Clink. In goes a quarter.)

Once a year, we load up the Honda, bribe our black Lab, Diva, into the rear, and drive 500 miles south from New York to Charlottesville, Virginia, for an agrarian refresher. It's an exhausting slog, dodging semis until we hit the Old Dominion state line. On rural Route 11, we wind down the valley where, almost 150 years ago, General Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson opened up a big can of whup-ass on the Grand Army of the Republic. (Clink.) Sandwiched between the Allegheny and Blue Ridge ranges, this shunpike began as the Great Warrior Path through Cherokee territory. When colonial settlers left for the frontier, it became the Great Wagon Road. By the time Jackson's brigade fought the Valley Campaign of 1861-62, Route 11 had been paved with gravel-and-tar macadam.

We break up our journey at the 103-acre Inn at Vaucluse Spring, outside Stephens City. The stone-and-brick Federal-era manor was originally built by the son of Gabriel Jones, the commonwealth's first regional attorney. According to the family history Defend the Valley, Jones's only fault was "an extremely irritable temper, which when aroused expressed itself in the strongest terms he could command, mingled with very pronounced profanity." (Bet he didn't have a cuss bank.)

In the nearby village of Edinburg, we're browsing through Shenandoah Valley guidebooks in People's Drugs when someone pounds me on the back. "Help you with anything?" It's pharmacist Harry Murray, who also dispenses advice about his true vocation—fishing (the drugstore is stocked with fly-fishing tackle and videos). Recently, a friend said that if I were deathly ill in Murray's store and someone ahead of me in line needed a new rod, I just might have to wait.

Crossing Massanutten Mountain on shady switchbacks through Edinburg Gap, we parallel the broad south fork of the Shenandoah River, which flows north into the Potomac. Diva finally gets her reward for sitting patiently in the back seat. An outfitter rents us a canoe and we glide over gentle ripples shaped by submerged limestone ridges as our pooch scans the shoreline for snapping turtles. At the pullout, Diva splashes in the muddy shallows and for the rest of the day our car smells of wet, happy dog.

Farther south, the breadbasket is being gobbled up by industrial parks and sprawling housing developments. It's heartbreaking to witness centuries-old farmland sprouting prefab McMansions, so we turn east toward 105-mile Skyline Drive. In the 1930's the Civilian Conservation Corps built this twisting road along the crest of Virginia's Blue Ridge. It runs the full length of Shenandoah National Park and has scenic overlooks every few miles. But its speed limit is a poky 35 mph, so we detour to the Thorofare Mountain Overlook, a knockout vantage point above the hickory forest toward the Piedmont (rolling countryside directly beneath the eastern ridge).

Hungry for pulled pork, we head to Cooter's Place in Sperryville. Ben "Cooter" Jones played a mechanic on The Dukes of Hazzard, served two terms in Congress, and currently performs as genial host at his fan museum/barbecue joint. On summer weekends live bluegrass concerts pull in the crowds, and every August the converted garage sponsors its annual DukeFest reunion celebration. Actress Catherine Bach, Daisy Duke herself, once stopped traffic for hours; Bronson wants his picture taken with the road cone-orange General Lee, a 1969 Dodge Charger that jumped a creek or hill almost every episode.(Sadly, Jones closed his place in Sperryville at the end of last year, but he's since set up shop in Gaitlinburg, Tennessee.)

Once Diva finishes her barbecue tidbit, we continue up the road to visit some live porkers. David Cole's pigs dine on vegetable scraps from the Inn at Little Washington (black-truffle pizza, wild mushroom napoleon). Cole, a former America Online exec, is plowing a fortune into an organic agri-venture at Sunnyside Farms, 15 miles north of Sperryville. In exchange for kitchen waste, Cole's farm supplies the nearby inn with free-range eggs, heirloom apples, and the plumpest blackberries I've ever seen.

Over sweet iced tea at Little Washington, chef Patrick O'Connell and I discuss local politics. He tells me about a town hall meeting where a resident, distraught over the transformation of this pastoral corner, asked: "Don't you think we could just postpone the future?" With his partner, Reinhardt Lynch, O'Connell has been a primary source of change in the county, seeding cottage industries, attracting a roster of world-class culinary talent, and, most recently, restoring a manor house to create the Presidential Retreat, a B&B set snug against Old Rag Mountain, just 20 minutes away.

At sundown, a quick dogleg off Route 231 takes us from precious perfection to something a little closer to home—truffle pizza is mighty nice, but country ham suits my Southern upbringing. The Graves' Mountain Lodge in Syria has been serving family-style dinners since 1965. Its pine-paneled dining hall is lined with trencher tables and every few feet, baskets of warm rolls are paired with slabs of margarine and bowls of the lodge's own apple butter. (Apple butter is to Virginia's Piedmont what olive oil is to Tuscany.) As we sit down, huge platters of fried chicken are placed in front of us.

Next morning, we head an hour south on busy Route 29 to Charlottesville. When I was 12, my mother shipped me to Virginia to visit her spinster aunt, who drilled me on etiquette (swearing isn't ladylike) and dragged me to historic landmarks. Thomas Jefferson's Monticello in Charlottesville was my favorite. Never one to postpone the future, Jefferson could gaze down from his Palladian house at his equally elegant university, now a World Heritage Site. Despite his fascination with inventions, our third president's vision of his newborn nation was understandably agrarian. In 1785 he wrote to John Jay: "Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens...they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bands." Jefferson's own garden was a laboratory with more than 400 species of fruits and vegetables. Of course, he didn't envision genetic crop engineering or farm subsidies. Know why so many Virginia fields are now grazed by burly Black Angus?Big hint: tax break.


But for some wealthy Piedmont landowners, grapes are sexier than cows. In 1979 the state had 29 wineries; now there are almost 85, including those in development. Across Carter's Mountain, where Jefferson planted his own vines, is Kluge Estate Winery, Vineyard & Farm Shop, a flamboyant new enterprise. And when Patricia Kluge, a British bombshell formerly married to media billionaire John Kluge, opens a farm shop, don't expect John Deere gimme caps. The shop, designed by California architect David Easton, showcases her méthode champenoise sparkling wine and a Bordeaux-style red. In her black Range Rover, Kluge drives me around rows of neatly tied vines; on the back seat rides Basil, her mellow yellow Lab. Basil has a doggie biscuit dedicated to him in the estate's patisserie—a perfect souvenir for Diva.

Backtracking north on Route 15, we head toward James Madison's Montpelier estate and the Orange County Fair, held every summer on the estate grounds. Kids pedal miniature Kubota tractors, heritage Nankin Bantam chickens occupy musky 4-H paddocks, and blue ribbons are awarded for prize tomatoes. To big applause, a teenager leads her Jersey around the Cow Obstacle Course in record time. Slurping lemonade, Bronson and I watch two farmers in dirt-encrusted jeans walk past. One is hugging a sleeping puppy to his chest and I overhear him say, "He's the last dad-gum one they had. Only had 'im two days and I'm already 'tached to 'im."

Our final destination—a hot-weather tubing expedition on the James River—takes us along the James River Road, a scenic hilly byway once favored by colonial-era drovers herding cattle to market. Turns out I'm not the only one stirred by this rural beauty. Novelists John Grisham and Jan Karon are recent transplants. Dave Matthews just purchased a gorgeous tract in the Charlottesville area. En route to the river, I admire the musician's open fields and hope to holy hell they stay that way.

Oops. Clink.

2 Kansas MILES 100. DRIVING TIME Half a day. A virgin patch of wildflower-dotted prairie survives in a part of Kansas where rocky outcrops made plowing difficult. From I-70 in Manhattan, in the northeastern part of the state, head south on 177. At first, the road swerves around and over limestone bluffs, but when you reach El Dorado and I-35, you'll be on the plains. Fans of wide-open spaces shouldn't miss the more than 10,000 acres of undisturbed land at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve (620/273-8494; www.nps.gov/tapr), two miles north of Strong City.

3 Iowa MILES 120. DRIVING TIME With twisting roads and lots of stops, give it a day. Rugged, hilly, and forested—that's why the northeastern edge of Iowa is nicknamed Little Switzerland. Start in Dubuque, where the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium (800/226-3369; www.mississippirivermuseum.com) has the world's largest steam towboat as well as five huge tanks that offer close encounters with denizens of the deep . Then head north, keeping the river on your right. Small roads take you past locks and dams, ferry landings, backwoods communities, and Pikes Peak State Park (563/873-2341; www.exploreiowaparks.com), at 500 feet one of the highest points along the entire Mississippi River.

4 Washington MILES 85. DRIVING TIME One day. Island hopping makes this short trip deliciously slow. Take the ferry (888/808-7977; www.wsdot.wa.gov/ferries) from Edmonds, north of Seattle, to Kingston; then follow 104 and U.S.101 to Sequim, a lavender-growing center that's the sunniest spot in western Washington. Along the way, browse roadside farm stands for lavender products. Continue to Port Angeles, then hop the ferry to English-accented Victoria, British Columbia, for afternoon tea—or an overnight stay—at the Fairmont Empress (866/540-4429; www.fairmont.com/empress; tea from $18, doubles from $120).

5 Utah MILES 310. DRIVING TIME Two days. Allow yourself plenty of time for this ramble amid the russet gorges and spires of southern Utah. After leaving I-70 near Green River, drive southwest on 24 through Capitol Reef National Park, then south on 12. The road climbs 9,200 feet up Boulder Mountain en route to the multicolored badlands of Bryce Canyon National Park (435/834-5322; www.nps.gov/brca). Spend the night at rustic Bryce Canyon Lodge (888/297-2757; www.brycecanyonlodge.com; doubles from $115), built in the 1920's of sandstone and ponderosa pine. The next day, continue south and west on U.S. 89 to 9, through Zion National Park, to I-15.

6 Mississippi MILES 210. DRIVING TIME One day. It's less than 250 miles from Memphis to Jackson, Mississippi, via U.S. 61 and U.S. 49, but plan for plenty of stops to savor the down-home cuisine of the Mississippi Delta. Unassuming eateries all along the route serve up barbecue, catfish, and the classic Southern meat-and-three supper; stop for lunch at the Blue & White Restaurant (1355 Hwy. 61 N., Tunica; 662/363-1371; lunch buffet for two $13). Stay at the sumptuous Alluvian Hotel (866/600-5201; www.thealluvian.com; doubles from $175).

7 Florida MILES 200. DRIVING TIME Two days. U.S. 98, from south of Tallahassee, west to Pensacola, is the last long stretch of Florida coast where sea views are virtually uninterrupted by high-rises. Loop onto 30A to explore the New Urbanist prototype town of Seaside—an outdoor museum of great architecture and planning. Spend the night at the WaterColor Inn (866/426-2656; www.watercolorinn.com; doubles from $265) and finish the drive in the morning.

8 North Carolina MILES 110. DRIVING TIME One day. Discover backwoods and sand hills on this trip through the North Carolina heartland. Head south from Greensboro on U.S. 220 until you reach the town of Ashgrove and scenic byway 705. It's 40 miles to Seagrove, a historic pottery-making community; there are still 80 working potteries to shop in. From there, take tiny 705, then go on 24 east to Fayetteville, past dreamy-sounding towns like Whispering Pines and Whynot.

9 Michigan MILES 125. DRIVING TIME One day. The western shore of Michigan has lighthouses and old beach towns, orchards and vineyards, dramatic bluffs with lake vistas. From Ludington (the terminus of a ferry from Wisconsin), go north on U.S. 31 to Manistee, where a logging boom left an exuberant Victorian architectural legacy. From there, follow 22 north along the shore. At Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (231/326-5134; www.nps.gov/slbe) one of the sand hills rises 460 feet above the lake; few can resist climbing the dunes for the views—and sliding down afterward.


10 New York MILES 45. DRIVING TIME One day. Luminous vistas of New York's Hudson River inspired a 19th-century school of painting and drew the era's gilderati to build palatial estates. How long you spend on the 45-mile drive north from Beacon to Hudson, via U.S. 9 and local 9G, depends on how many sites you tour. Highlights include the 54-room Neoclassical Vanderbilt mansion, FDR's Georgian-style Springwood, and painter Frederic Edwin Church's Persian fantasy Olana. Treat yourself to lunch at American Bounty Restaurant in Hyde Park (845/471-6608; www.ciachef.edu; lunch for two from $50). Operated by the Culinary Institute of America, it specializes in local ingredients.

11 Maine: All by Myself

by David Handelman

After flying five hours and driving another five to get to Saco, Maine, I was more than ready for bed. But since that bed was in a B&B, I was obliged to take a chatty tour of the 1828 Greek Revival house with its gray-haired owner-host. I wanted to be polite, of course, since he had patiently guided me there, via my cell phone, through dark unmarked streets and had waited up for me till 11 with a now tepid glass of Chardonnay. And I'm sure he, too, was just trying to be polite, seeing in me a rumpled fortysomething solo traveler who had barely spoken to anyone all day. But being newly single, I kept wincing at his innocent spiel.

His property, the Crown 'n' Anchor Inn, was "quite popular for weddings," he told me. Then he asked me my seating preference for breakfast, adding that all the other guests were couples. Up in my room, he cheerfully demonstrated that the sconce above the private Jacuzzi was on a dimmer. "You're alone, so you don't need a romance light," he said, "but we've got one!" Then he shut the door, thus officially beginning my first solitary vacation in 20 years.

Solitude was in fact the point of my drive, more than the locale itself (mid-coast Maine and Penobscot Bay). Recently divorced, with two children, I hadn't been on a pleasure trip without offspring or a significant other since postcollege backpacking by Eurail. The idea was appealing. Anything I wanted to do. Nothing I didn't want to do. But suddenly left to my own devices, where would I go?What would I do?Who was I?

I wanted to treat myself to some real relaxation—not easy when the first question from every maître d' was "Will someone be joining you?" I chose Maine because it was familiar—I'd gone to camp and summered there for 15 years, but I intended to avoid certain old haunts and their ghosts.

My initial act of liberation was at the car-rental counter. After years of schlepping from New York in a toy-strewn station wagon, I indulged in a sleek Mitsubishi Spyder convertible. I asserted my new devil-may-care independence after breakfast by intentionally heading in the "wrong" direction for my itinerary—I backtracked to Wells to explore Wells Reserve at Laudholm Farm, a hidden wildlife estuary preserve that leads to a secluded beach, where I waded meditatively among snails and terns. Back in the Spyder, I hit Route 1 and found myself at the Maine Diner. I had eaten here before, but I was hankering for their "lobster pie"—fresh lobster meat baked in a dish with Ritz cracker crumbs and butter—which I devoured at the counter (one advantage to solo travel: not having to wait 20 minutes for a table).

I-95 is beautiful, in Maine, anyway: river crossings, forest, no fast food. By the time I reached the Bangor exit, dinner hour had arrived; I backtracked again, for lobster in the rough at Young's, a big, red no-frills barn in Belfast. It was already dark when I drove down Routes 175 and 166 to the peninsula that's home to the out-of-the-way Shangri-la of Castine. The town, which dates from 1604, was settled by the French and then held by the British, who reclaimed it from the United States briefly, in 1814, a testament to what a prime spot it is.

My lodging was at the sweet Castine Inn, which has been open since 1898 and has a reputation for serving the best food in town (though old-timey locals spurn the restaurant as too fancy-pants). The man behind the desk, Ray, informed me there was no space left the next night in the main dining room; I'd have to eat in the pub. Ray empathized about traveling solo. "The hardest time is dinner," he said, "when you want to tell someone about your day." And restaurants were always seating him at the worst table, he added. ("You mean, like the pub?" I remarked. He laughed.) My room was charming, but I hadn't anticipated the humblingly monastic impact of twin beds. At breakfast, I looked around the dining room—families, older couples, romantic pairs—and felt like a swimmer in a desert. People don't ordinarily allow themselves this kind of trip alone unless they're on business or recovering from something.

I found Castine to be the perfect walking-tour town, with well-maintained 18th- and 19th-century houses (and trees), dozens of quirky historical markers, and water everywhere—the Bagaduce and Penobscot rivers collide into the bay. (Castine's only flaw: the hulking Maine Maritime Academy training ship is sometimes docked downtown.) I got an ice cream from the Breeze, a shack on the downtown pier, then wandered the quaint, gently sloping Main Street to the McGrath-Dunham gallery, where a painting by Joshua Adam, depicting an empty boat cradle in a sun-dappled boathouse, spurred me to take a kayak expedition in the calm, nearly boat-free bay. Kayaking proved a satisfying mix of group and solitary venture. On our way back in, the sunset, at first muffled by clouds, exploded into a pink masterpiece, and the mosquitoes descended in celebration.

I returned to the Castine Inn too late for my pub reservation, which allowed me to get into the now emptying main dining room after all. As the waitress paraded out the chef’s delicious extravagances (spicy duck on anise zabaglione), with no one to share them with and nothing to do between courses but read or eavesdrop, I couldn't help feeling self-consciously indulgent. As a solo traveler, I ended up preferring my my less self-conscious lunch experience the next day: a lobster roll at the dingy, rental-video-cluttered Castine Variety shop—the best I'd ever eaten. (Prix fixe $9.50.)

On the ride out, on 175, 15, and 172, I sampled fried clams at the Bagaduce Lunch in Brooksville, a trailer-sized shack with picnic tables overlooking reversing falls; hiked up a mountain in Blue Hill for a stunning view of the bay; then picked up a few gifts for my daughters at a toy store in Ellsworth. But Acadia National Park, on Mount Desert Island, beckoned: 55 percent of all tourists who visit Maine go there, yet I'd never made it in two decades' worth of visits. I drove up Cadillac Mountain and took in the 360-degree view, then proceeded to the Jordan Pond House, with its great vista of the pond and the hills beyond (known as the Bubbles). For lunch, friends had recommended Thurston's Lobster Pound, in the tiny fishing hamlet of Bernard, but all the tables were inside, behind screens, because it's such a mosquitoey cove. It was dusk by the time I reached Bar Harbor, the commercial hub of the island, and checked into the Bar Harbor Inn. In summer, the town is almost like Disneyland's Main Street, U.S.A.—just as picture-perfect, just as thronged. I ran into acquaintances from New York, a couple and their 10-year-old, who'd been hiking all day, and felt sheepish explaining that I was alone. The next morning at breakfast, I spotted the sister of a friend. "I'm on my honeymoon!" she beamed.

I had some kind of breakthrough that day, finding my niche among the pairs and families. On my way to Southwest Harbor, one of the smaller, more charming towns on the island, I pulled away when I saw cars parked at the foot of the Acadia Mountain trail on Route 102. I was in a chattier mood than I had been, which was lucky; at the summit I was asked to snap a family picture, and the father told me that instead of swimming at the public area, south on Echo Lake, I could walk down a path to a much less crowded point of entry. I did and it was wonderful: a rock slab abutting the water, only about a dozen bathers. I dove in. This, at last, was my Maine—the leisurely, solitary lake swim.


A friend had suggested Red Sky, in Southwest Harbor, for dinner. I phoned. There was a single seat left—at the bar. (Triumph of the solo traveler!) I found everything endearing: the local artists' paintings on the faux-finish walls, and the owners, a husband maître d' and wife bartender, who chatted with me as I sat at the bar with my Philip Roth and house Pinot Grigio. After shrimp dumplings, lobster risotto, and Belgian bitter chocolate pudding, it didn't matter that I was alone—I was in heaven.

I'd discovered a pleasant comfort in traveling by myself. I'd gone at my own pace, hiked, swum, eaten when it suited me, pampered myself without guilt, interacted with only a little awkwardness. The next morning I drove south to pick up my girls, taking Routes 202 and 9, beautiful back roads through farmland and small towns. Outside Unity, a rock kicked up into my front right tire with a deafening noise, and a few yards later I had a flat and a cracked wheel. Driving carefully on the doughnut spare, I reached a fork in the road: a right turn would lead me to my daughters; to the left, a sign pointed to a town called Freedom. I didn't mind saving that particular byway for another trip.

12 Montana MILES 315. DRIVING TIME Two days. Even the interstate makes for a magnificent ride on this passage into Montana along the jagged Bitterroot Mountains. Take I-15 north from Idaho Falls, Idaho, go 145 miles to Dillon, Montana; then veer northwest on 278. After 48 miles, soak road-weary bones in the outdoor pool at Jackson Hot Springs Lodge (888/438-6938; $5). Continue to Wisdom, then take Montana 43 over Chief Joseph Pass to U.S. 93 and head north. At Darby, spend the night at the ultra-luxe Triple Creek Ranch (800/654-2943; www.triplecreekranch.com; cabins from $510, all-inclusive). From there, it's 65 miles to Missoula and I-90.

13 Massachusetts MILES 75. DRIVING TIME Half a day. An afternoon's drive from Boston encircles salty Cape Ann and recalls the state's seafaring history. Take U.S. 1A north from Boston, driving 22 miles to Beverly. From there, follow Massachusetts 127 east to the old port city of Gloucester. Stop here to browse the storefronts of the Rocky Neck Art Colony (www.cape-ann.com/rocky-neck), a neighborhood of winding streets lined with galleries and restaurants overlooking the inner harbor. Continue east on 127 and 127A, roads that hug the cape coast and offer miles of beaches, islands, and coves to explore.

14 Pennsylvania MILES 90. DRIVING TIME Half a day. Generations of Amish and Mennonite families have made Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, one of the country's richest—and most charming—agricultural areas. An hour west of Philadelphia via U.S. 30 are historic market towns such as Willow Street, Strasburg, and Bird-in-Hand. The back road to each typically measures less than 10 miles, but the drive will take a good part of your day, allowing for stops at antiques shops and historic sites—and horse-drawn-buggy traffic. Finish in Lancaster city's bustling Central Market (717/291-4739) for tasty baked goods and equally delicious people-watching.

15 Puerto Rico MILES 100. DRIVING TIME One day. The Panoramic Route network over Puerto Rico's mountain spine leads past waterfalls, forests of mahogany and bamboo, coffee plantations, and communities of houses set on stilts. At Cayey, 25 miles south of San Juan on Highway 52, head west, and up, on Highway 14. At Barranquitas, pick up Highway 143 to Adjuntas. From there, Highway 10 takes you south and down, to Ponce, on the coast. Give yourself the whole day for climbs, switchbacks, and snack breaks at roadside empanada stands.

16 Vermont MILES 125. DRIVING TIME One day. Take a lazy tour of several New England islands on a loop of Lake Champlain, starting in Burlington, Vermont. Follow I-89 north to U.S. 2 west, which crosses the lake via a chain of islands dotted with dairy farms and bucolic villages. On the western shore, head south on New York 9B and then U.S. 9, in the shadow of the Adirondack Mountains. Stop to walk or raft at breathtaking Ausable Chasm (518/834-7454; www.ausablechasm.com), a deep gorge known as the Grand Canyon of the East. From Port Kent, return to Burlington by Lake Champlain Ferries (802/864-9804; www.ferries.com).

17 Texas MILES 275. DRIVING TIME Two days. This route reveals the parched, mountainous terrain of the state's Big Bend region. From I-10, take 17 south to Fort Davis, then drive four miles on 118 to the Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute (432/364-2499; www.cdri.org), for trails surrounded by native flora. Continue south on 170 west, a route with spectacular views along the Rio Grande. At U.S. 67, drive north for32 miles, and overnight in a historic fort on the highly civilized Cibolo Creek Ranch (866/496-9460; www.cibolocreekranch.com; doubles from $450, all-inclusive). The next day, return to I-10 at your leisure.

18 California: Green Acres

by Mary Tonetti Dorra

Visiting California gardens in the spring is like visiting Paradise. At least that's what financiers, industrialists, and railroad tycoons believed in the early 1900's. The Huntingtons, Blisses, Armours, and other wealthy families were totally sold on the Golden State once they'd viewed the Pacific Ocean below San Francisco, the rolling hills of San Luis Obispo County, the towering redwoods in Monterey County, the jagged mountain ranges along the outskirts of Santa Barbara and Los Angeles.

I, too, have always been impressed by the state's natural beauty. But in the 25 years I have been writing and lecturing about America's horticultural heritage—its diverse climates and topography, its love of planted areas embraced by the land's majesty—I have never spent much time in my own backyard. I recently decided to explore the gardens of California, from Los Angeles to San Francisco, to find out what made each one unique, yet all of them distinctly American.

My tour began just 20 minutes from downtown Los Angeles, and my travel companion was John Irving—or rather, the characters in the Books on Tape versions of his 158-Pound Marriage, The Water-Method Man, and, most appropriately, A Widow for One Year (that was my state at the time). My first stop was the 160-acre Descanso Gardens in the suburb of La Cañada Flintridge, where I found thousands of camellias growing in such healthy abundance it almost took my breath away. In 1948 E. Manchester Boddy, a newspaper publisher and camellia enthusiast, helped bring Camellia reticulata—enormous six-inch ruffled blooms from China's Yunnan province—to the West. In addition to the reticulata camellias, the sasanqua and japonica varieties complete Descanso's collection of more than 40,000 tree-sized specimens, which produce blooms from December to April. Unlike many walled European public gardens, fencing at Descanso is cleverly hidden by grass and plantings. This creates the illusion of an unplanned unlimited space, in keeping with the open-garden tradition exemplified by Jens Jensen and the Prairie School Movement.


I returned to my car and enjoyed another 15 minutes of Irving while heading toward Pasadena, where I'd be spending the night. Then I remembered how close I was to the town of Altadena and Nuccio's Nursery, one of my favorite haunts. The Nuccio family has been growing camellias since 1935 and produced many of the first camellia hybrids developed in the United States. As I wandered through the nursery, I recognized Queen Bee, which resembles an old-fashioned powder puff, the type 1940's movie stars used in their dressing rooms.

The next morning, I drove a few miles south to San Marino and the Huntington Library, Art Collections & Botanical Gardens. Henry Huntington, a New Yorker transplanted to California—and heir to his uncle's Southern Pacific Railroad Co.—purchased the San Marino Ranch in 1903, realizing that the nearby San Gabriel Mountains would add immeasurably to his property's allure. Together with his first overseer, a young German landscaper named William Hertrich, he began to transform the ranch into a grand garden.

Huntington and Hertrich wanted to showcase the desert's diverse botanical specimens, and I soon realized why. When the Puya bromeliad begins to unfurl its petals, birds are drawn irresistibly to its teal blue, chartreuse, and purple blossoms. I marveled at the gentle berms studded with various sizes of golden barrel cacti and interspersed with natural fountains of aloes, pincushion cacti, and succulents.

The Huntington gift store is among the best, particularly for its book selection—I was delighted to see they had both volumes of my work—and I couldn't help browsing its shelves before going into Pasadena to shop. The recently opened Anthropologie sells furniture and found objects from around the world; I admired the 1930's French garden chairs and huge cast-iron birdbaths that had just arrived. I spent a good half-hour trying to figure out how I could fit one of the latter into my car.

I continued my spending spree at Botanik, just down the road in Summerland, which has one of the state's top selections of plants and garden ornaments. Cast-iron stepping stones in the shape of lily pads caught my eye, as did the large handmade pots painted with moss spores; once planted, moss grows decoratively on the pot's exterior.

After driving up 101 from Pasadena, I arrived at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. Not all botanical gardens are created equal. Many try to do too much—rose gardens on top of water gardens next to hothouses—but the one in Santa Barbara narrows its focus splendidly with a collection of more than 1,000 native species, some of which are in bloom or bear fruit much of the year, including Arctostaphylos, Ribes, and penstemon. There's a spectacular display of wildflowers—buttercups, bush sunflowers, carpets of orange and yellow California poppies—in its meadow.

Leaving Santa Barbara, I began the five-hour drive north to San Francisco with not only John Irving to keep me company but also spellbinding views of mountains, ocean whitecaps, and, finally, massive redwoods. On the way, I stopped in Woodside, 30 miles south, to see Filoli, another example of man's passion for gardens. Filoli is the former estate of William Bowers Bourn II, who owned the largest producing gold mine in California (its name comes from Bourn's personal creed: Fight for a just cause, love your fellow man, and live a good life). Spring is undoubtedly the best time to visit: The Sunken Garden bursts with 70,000 tulips, the Daffodil Field is covered with 200,000 blossoms, and the Woodland Garden is filled with pink and lavender rhododendrons and azaleas. The spot I love the most is the Chartres Garden, which has spring flowering annuals planted in patterns inspired by the stained-glass windows of Chartres Cathedral, in France.

After leaving Filoli, I returned to the road and made my way to San Francisco; I very much wanted to see the newly reopened Conservatory of Flowers. The oldest public conservatory in North America, its 12,000-square-foot Victorian greenhouse, dating to 1879, contains colorful orchid collections and a lowland tropical garden, but my favorite area is the one that houses the Nymphaeaceae, or water lilies. One of the stars here is Victoria amazonica, an enormous water lily with leaves that can grow to six feet wide. I loved the juxtaposition of natural and man-made, gigantic flowers inside a fanciful structure of glass and metal.

As I began the return drive down the coast, I thought back on each garden. I saw the vistas around Filoli and how cleverly Bourn had, in the American tradition, incorporated his surroundings into his beloved garden. I remembered how Huntington and Hertrich merged landscaping and horticulture, how they used native plants so effectively in their desert garden, how the native live oaks at Descanso complemented the camellia collection. I thought about how passionately the original California gardeners loved their plants at all seasons and in all cycles of growth, and how carefully the gardeners of today work to preserve their visions of paradise.

I also thought about that birdbath. In went another Irving tape. If I raced south, I could make it to Pasadena before the shop closed.

19 Colorado MILES 150. DRIVING TIME One day. Allow an entire day for this scenic trek through Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park (970/586-1206; www.nps.gov/romo), where you'll find flower-strewn meadows and weather-ravaged peaks. From I-25 at Loveland, Colorado, follow U.S. 34 west (it's called Trail Ridge Road in the park), passing through alpine tundra. Bring sunscreen and a jacket—some peaks along the route top 12,000 feet. Beginning at Granby, U.S. 40 east traces the back side of the mountain range, linking up with I-70 at Empire.

20 Indiana MILES 150. DRIVING TIME Two days. The architecture is what surprises amid the rural landscape of these back routes through Indiana. Take I-65 south from Indianapolis to Columbus (800/468-6564; www.columbus.in.us), a small city with a huge trove of Modernist buildings—a 1954 bank by Eero Saarinen and an I. M. Pei-designed library are among the 21 architecturally significant structures. Meander along sleepy local roads—46 west, 135 south, and 56 west—to West Baden Springs. Stay overnight at the nearby French Lick Springs Resort & Spa (800/457-4042; www.frenchlick.com; doubles from $126), built in 1902. The following day, take U.S. 150 east to Louisville, Kentucky.
—Jonathan Lerner


WHERE TO STAY
Presidential Retreat
DOUBLES FROM $800. NETHERS; 540/675-3800

Inn at Little Washington
DOUBLES FROM $370. MIDDLE AND MAIN STREETS WASHINGTON; 540/675-3800; www.theinnatlittlewashington.com

Inn at Vaucluse Spring
This 15-room inn, located in the Shenandoah Valley, has a log cabin suite facing a spring-fed pond. DOUBLES FROM $145. STEPHENS CITY; 800/869-0525

WHERE TO EAT
Graves' Mountain Lodge
DINNER FOR TWO $45. RTE. 670, SYRIA; 540/923-4231

Timberlakes Drug Store
LUNCH FOR TWO $10. Don't miss the deviled eggs and cherry limeade at this old-fashioned drugstore lunch counter. 322 E. MAIN ST., CHARLOTTESVILLE 434/295-9155

Fleurie
DINNER FOR TWO $120. Attractive, upscale French restaurant on a quiet side street. 108 THIRD ST. N.E. CHARLOTTESVILLE; 434/971-7800

Palladio
DINNER FOR TWO $108. Northern Italian menu and local estate wines. 17655 WINERY RD. BARBOURSVILLE; 540/832-7848

Mrs. Rowe's Restaurant
DINNER FOR TWO $25. Fried chicken, spoonbread, and butterscotch pie. EXIT 222 OFF I-81 AT RTE. 250 STAUNTON; 540/886-1833

SHOPS AND SITES
Luray Caverns
970 U.S. HWY. 211 W., LURAY; 540/743-6551; www.luraycaverns.com

People's Drugs (Murray's Fly Shop)
1212 MAIN ST., EDINBURG; 540/984-4212

Monticello
A yearlong exhibition commemorates the Lewis and Clark bicentennial. RTE. 53, CHARLOTTESVILLE; 434/984-9800; www.monticello.org

Kluge Estate Winery, Vineyard& Farm Shop
3550 BLENHEIM RD. CHARLOTTESVILLE; 434/984-4855


WHERE TO STAY
Bar Harbor Inn
DOUBLES FROM $79. NEWPORT DR., BAR HARBOR; 800/248-3351 OR 207/288-3351; www.barharborinn.com

Castine Inn
DOUBLES FROM $90. 33 MAIN ST., CASTINE; 207/326-4365; www.castineinn.com

Crown 'n' Anchor Inn
DOUBLES FROM $80. 121 NORTH ST., SACO; 800/561-8865 OR 207/282-3829; www.crownnanchor.com

WHERE TO EAT
Bagaduce Lunch
19 BRIDGE RD., BROOKSVILLE; 207/326-4729

Castine Variety
LUNCH FOR TWO $10. 1 MAIN ST., CASTINE; 207/326-8625

Maine Diner
LUNCH FOR TWO $20. 2265 POST RD., WELLS; 207/646-4441

Red Sky
DINNER FOR TWO FROM $70. 14 CLARK POINT RD., SOUTHWEST HARBOR; 207/244-0476

Thurston's Lobster Pound
STEAMBOAT WHARF RD., BERNARD; 207/244-7600

Young's Shellfish
3 AIRPORT RD., BELFAST; 800/464-3774 OR 207/338-5032


WHAT TO SEE
Descanso Gardens
1418 DESCANSO DR., LA CAÑADA FLINTRIDGE; 818/949-4200; www.descansogardens.org

Huntington Botanical Gardens
1151 OXFORD RD., SAN MARINO; 626/405-2100; www.huntington.org

Casa del Herrero
A 1920's Andalusian fantasy with seven acres of formal gardens. 1387 EAST VALLEY RD., MONTECITO; 805/565-5653; www.casadelherrero.com

Santa Barbara Botanic Garden
1212 MISSION CANYON RD., SANTA BARBARA; 805/682-4726; www.sbbg.org

Filoli
86 CAÑADA RD., WOODSIDE; 650/364-8300; www.filoli.org

Conservatory of Flowers
JFK DR., GOLDEN GATE PARK, SAN FRANCISCO; 415/666-7001; www.conservatoryofflowers.org

WHERE TO STAY
Westin Pasadena
DOUBLES FROM $139. 191 N. LOS ROBLES, PASADENA; 800/937-8461 OR 626/792-2727; www.westin.com

Montecito Inn
DOUBLES FROM $129. 1295 COAST VILLAGE RD., SANTA BARBARA; 800/843-2017 OR 805/969-7854; www.montecitoinn.com

Old Monterey Inn
DOUBLES FROM $240. 500 MARTIN ST., MONTEREY; 800/350-2344 OR 831/375-8284; www.oldmontereyinn.com

WHERE TO SHOP
Nuccio's Nursery
3555 CHANEY TRAIL, ALTADENA; 626/794-3383

Anthropologie
340 S. LAKE AVE., PASADENA; 626/796-5120

Botanik
2325-2329 LILLIE AVE., SUMMERLAND; 805/565-3831

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