August 3, 1997

Before You Drive, Do Your Homework

James T. Yenckel Washington Post
 

“Do your homework” is advice that I often give fellow travelers.

But last spring, on a drive through southern Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, I didn’t follow my own advice.

As a result, I sped right past the turnoff to Clear Creek Falls, later learning that they are among Colorado’s most spectacular.

Such missed opportunities are bound to happen if you don’t put thoughtful planning into a summer drive of America’s byways.

Yes, planning can be tedious. And you would rather opt for spontaneity, just hopping into the car and heading out to see what there is to see.

But spontaneity these days means a big “no vacancy” sign outside the national park lodge where you longed to spend the night, or missing the pretty lake or offbeat historical museum you didn’t realize was anywhere nearby.

By most informed accounts, driving trips are one of America’s favorite vacation choices. I count my sightseeing vacations behind the wheel as among my most memorable, and often the least expensive. The Oregon and California coasts, southern and northern New Mexico, and Wyoming’s Wind River Range are among my favorite itineraries.

If I’m renting a car, I generally plot a loop route, because the cost usually is less when you return the car to the site where you picked it up. And I like to explore regions of the country I’ve not seen before.

I’ve put together a list of guidelines for driving vacations - commonsensical suggestions that just might turn a routine vacation into one you remember as the best.

Build the trip around your interests and those of your family or other traveling companions. Is it hiking, golf, wine-tasting, crafts shopping, the Civil War, bird-watching - or all of the above? If so, find out before you leave home where you can enjoy these things, and plan your itinerary accordingly.

I favor scenic views, an opportunity to hike and historical sites. Depending on where I’m headed, I try to work all of them into a trip. My wife looks forward to fine dining, and I’m happy to share this interest with her.

Buy or borrow a guidebook. Or at the very least, send off for free material from the tourist information office at your destination. Time and again I’ve talked to people investing big money in a trip who have never bothered to consult a guidebook. “Do I need one?” they ask in all innocence.

A good guide costs $15 or $20; look on the money as insurance that your investment won’t be wasted. A guide can point you to offbeat attractions you might never discover on your own.

Shun the interstates. Your pace slows, but sticking to back roads can make driving a pleasant experience. Traffic is thinner, and there are fewer big trucks.

Who wants to repeat the daily commuter experience on vacation? Meanwhile, you are getting a close-up view of the towns and farms of rural America.

My suggestion is to detour onto a lightly traveled country road, where you are apt to find lovely pastoral views. Driving guides I’ve made good use of are “National Forest Scenic Byways” and “Scenic Byways II” by Beverly Magley and “Bureau of Land Management Back Country Byways” by Stewart M. Green, all published by Falcon. They highlight America’s most scenic drives through federal lands.

Choose interesting lodgings, and make reservations in advance. Instead of motels, I seek out national and state park lodges, bed-and-breakfast inns, guest ranches, historic properties and other offbeat accommodations. What do I have against motels? Typically, they are located in the center of a paved parking lot with a dreary highway view - not my idea of a vacation setting.

As my resource, I use the “Best Places to Stay” series of guidebooks published by Houghton Mifflin. Separate editions are available for California, Florida, the mid-Atlantic states, New England, the Pacific Northwest, the Rocky Mountains, the South and the Southwest.

Limit the number of miles you cover daily, and plan a number of nondriving days. On my driving vacations, 200 miles in a day is the maximum, because I want time to hike, explore a park or tour a museum. And driving every day can be numbing. At a particularly interesting destination, I’ll schedule a two- or three-day stop so I can see it more fully.

Pack a picnic. On a sightseeing drive, you can almost always find a scenic spot to enjoy a picnic lunch. Typically, I fill a cooler with cheese, crackers, fruit and juices on ice. And then I’m ready for a roadside snack whenever a view tempts me to stop.


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