It's a simple idea, really: String together a selection of worthy courses in a given state or region, package it with lodging entities, brand it as a golf trail and offer complete vacations at incredible prices. The idea was legitimized by Alabama's Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, which was established in 1994 and has inspired dozens of others, from St. George, Utah, to Ontario, Canada. The sine qua non for legitimacy?Enough good golf courses to support a weeklong getaway; a central headquarters (with a toll-free number and web site) that provides the ability to design and book a custom golf package; and a smattering of fun off-course attractions. Herewith, a roundup of the top five trails in North America.
Bear Trace TENNESSEE
THE COURSES The trail's name combines Jack Nicklaus's nickname with Natchez Trace, a historic thoroughfare blazed by early settlers. Five housing-free Nicklaus-designed courses, each tucked away in a lovely state park, opened between 1998 and 2001. Walker-friendly layouts are playable from forward tees but have plenty of muscle from the tips. A rustic log clubhouse with a green tin roof anchors each facility. Must-plays: Harrison Bay, Chickasaw and Ross Creek Landing, hands-down the best public course in the state.
LODGING At Ross Creek Landing, the Bear Inn B&B has spacious rooms. At other locations, national hotel chains are the best option.
SAMPLE TRIP Four weeknights (Bear Inn, LaQuinta, Jameson Inn) and five rounds (one at each course), including daily continental breakfast: $439 total*
BOTTOM LINE Solid courses, superb bass fishing at Harrison Bay and Tims Ford, great barbecue and plenty of C&W music on the car radio.
Brainerd Golf Trail MINNESOTA
800-450-2838 x426; brainerdgolftrail.com
THE COURSES More than 300 holes at 18 sites in the lake-dotted woods two hours north of the Twin Cities—and all within 45 minutes of each other. An eclectic collection ranging from championship caliber tracks to novice-friendly nine-holers. Must-plays: The Classic at Madden's, a shades-of-Augusta parkland spread; Deacon's Lodge, a rolling Arnold Palmer design; the well-groomed Pines and Preserve courses at Grand View Lodge; and RTJ Jr.'s Dutch Legacy course at Cragun's, recently rated best in Minnesota.
LODGING The cabins at Deacon's Lodge are top-end on-course living. Also available are family-friendly lakeside resorts and modern hotels.
SAMPLE TRIP Four nights (at the Deacon's Lodge cabins) and four rounds (The Classic, Deacon's, The Pines or The Preserve and the Dutch Legacy), breakfast included: $859 total
BOTTOM LINE Amount of courses makes it ideal for an extended trip. Bring bug spray in summer or go when it's less crowded in spring or fall.
Muskoka Golf Trail ONTARIO, CANADA
THE COURSES Five top-notch, under-the-radar layouts in rugged, peaceful "cottage country," two hours north of Toronto. Birch and pine abound, as do lakes, wetlands and massive outcrops of the Canadian Shield, central Ontario's granite spine. Must-plays: The Rock, a challenging 2004 Nick Faldo design; the Mark O'Meara course at Grandview; and Rocky Crest, a rockbound tour de force by Canadian designer Tom McBroom and one of North America's very best resort courses.
LODGING With the exception of The Rock, all courses are attached to upscale resorts: Deerhurst, Delta Rocky Crest, Delta Lake Joseph and Delta Grandview.
SAMPLE TRIP Four nights (two at the Delta Grandview, two at the Delta Rocky Crest) and four rounds (Grandview, Deerhurst Highlands, Rocky Crest and The Rock): $963 total
BOTTOM LINE These courses compete with the best in the Midwest. After playing, enjoy a Sleeman's Cream Ale, a superior local microbrew.
Red Rock Golf Trail UTAH
THE COURSES Eight courses all within a 15-minute radius of St. George, 90 minutes from Las Vegas in the southwest corner of Utah. Must-plays: Coral Canyon, a Keith Foster design with views of Bryce Canyon's pink spires; Entrada, a Johnny Miller layout that skirts dunes, black lava beds and winding arroyos; 27-hole Sunbrook, its Pointe/Woodbridge combo ranked among the state's best; Sky Mountain, with views of Zion National Park; and the equally scenic Dixie Red Hills, a nine-holer built around its eponymous sandstone cliffs.
LODGING Lodging partners are basic chain hotels (Hilton, Holiday Inn, Ramada, et cetera) located in and around St. George.
SAMPLE TRIP Five nights (at the brand new Hilton Garden Inn) and five rounds (Coral Canyon, Entrada, Sunbrook, Sky Mountain and Dixie Red Hills): $414 total
BOTTOM LINE Best Value The perfect low-cost buddy trip: great golf, cheap hotels and Vegas! Also, fishing and backcountry exploring.
Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail ALABAMA
THE COURSES The mother of all golf trails, now in its twelfth year, offers more than 20 courses at nine Alabama sites stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to the Appalachian foothills. The original courses were among the final designs of Robert Trent Jones; newer ones were laid out by Roger Rulewich, a longtime Jones protégé. Must-plays: all three courses at Capitol Hill; the Lake and the Links courses at Grand National; the Canyon/Sherling combo at Cambrian Ridge; and Fighting Joe at The Shoals.
LODGING Newer facilities, notably Capitol Hill, feature on-site resort accommodations. Other venues rely on area hotels, motels and B&Bs.
SAMPLE TRIP Five nights (Legends at Capitol Hill, Lodge at Grand National, Marriott Shoals) and five rounds (two at Capitol Hill; Grand National, The Shoals, Cambrian Ridge): $512 total
BOTTOM LINE Best Overall For quality and quantity, nothing can top the RTJ. Great golf in gorgeous and surprisingly hilly settings.
*All Prices are per person based on double occupancy except Brainerd, where a foursome is required for the cabins.