Five Unforgettable Small Town Road Trips
Experience Tucson's Sonoran desert, Gulf Coast bird-watching, Texas Hill Country, the Badlads, and the undiscovered wine region of Anderson Valley.
1. Arizona's Sky Island Parkway
A 27-mile trek not far from Tucson, the Mount Lemmon Parkway leads you through a dramatically changing landscape as you climb more than 9,000 feet. You'll see such a wide variety of ecosystems-from desert lowlands to a mixed-conifer forest-that locals liken the journey to the geographical differences you'd see if you were to travel from Mexico to Canada. From stately saguaro cacti to Douglas fir trees, the diverse palette of green, present in nearly every shade, is breathtaking.
A June 2003 wildfire exposed geological formations formerly hidden by overgrowth. The regeneration process is well under way. Even more lush vegetation is springing up in the now rich soil, providing a rare educational opportunity for plant lovers.
For a trip based in Tucson, star gazers will find that it's worth an extra day's stay to visit the Kitt Peak National Observatory, located southwest of the city in the mountains above the Sonoran Desert. Here you'll find the world's largest collection of optical telescopes and clear nighttime viewing conditions that draw professional astronomers from around the globe. (Although three guided tours are available each day, groups of more than 20 require reservations, so call ahead at 520-318-8726. There are also nightly observing programs; call ahead for these as well.)
Local eats: For such Sonoran-style Mexican specialties as flour tacos folded around spiced shredded beef, head to such local favorites as Mi Nidito or Guillermo's Double L in South Tucson.
For more information: visit www.arizonaguide.com.
2. Florida's Birding Trail
Although it's only a fraction of the Great Florida Birding Trail's 2,000-mile total, the 200 miles from Tallahassee, Florida, to the Alabama border take you through nearly 80 bird-watching sites. (You'll follow secondary roads that run parallel to I-10; download a complete guide from www.floridabirdingtrail.com). The panhandle is home to species such as seaside sparrows, nuthatches, broad-winged hawks, and the country's largest population of red-cockaded woodpeckers. In winter and spring, visitors might find any one of 370 species of migrating birds-along with moderate temperatures and smaller crowds.
Local eats: Sample fresh Gulf of Mexico seafood-snapper, wahoo, amberjack, Apalachicola oysters, and Royal Red shrimp are common catches-at one of the trail's many roadside diners and cafes; such as the FloraBama, a raucous roadhouse located in Perdido Key.
For more information: visit www.visitflorida.com.
3. Texas Hill Country
This easily navigable stretch carves a path between San Antonio and Austin, via I-10 North, then detours onto secondary roads. Wine lovers, history buffs, and adventure seekers are equally satisfied tasting the fruits of the area's 20-plus vineyards, exploring the Alamo, or enjoying water sports on the Guadalupe River.
Stop in Bandera to tour an authentic Old West town and home to working ranches. Outside of Llano, climb Enchanted Rock, a 500-foot-tall bubble of solid granite. As you pass through Medina, pick up the city's namesake apple, a local favorite.
Plan your visit for the last weekend in March, and you'll be treated to the Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Festival. You'll also be just in time for peak bluebonnet season, Texas's state flower, which grows wild throughout the hill country.
Local eats: Nowhere does slow-smoked barbecued brisket come to life like the Salt Lick Barbecue Restaurant, just south and west of Austin in tiny Driftwood. Dry-rubbed with salt, black pepper, and cayenne, it's smoked over oak instead of the usual mesquite or hickory.
For more information: visit www.hill-country-visitor.com.
4. Anderson Valley, California
This less-crowded alternate to Napa Valley is located two-and-a-half hours north of San Francisco in Northern California's Mendocino County. The countryside maintains the same charming, rustic feel that drew settlers and farmers after the Gold Rush-gorgeous green mountains and rolling hills hung with gauzy coastal fog. Slowly drive the 25-mile path along Highway 128 from Yorkville to Navarro, stopping to sample wares from the area's many award-winning wineries. Anderson Valley is known for pinot noir and gewürztraminer varietals, and methode-champenoise sparkling wines.
The region even has its own unique dialect, Boontling, which emerged in the isolated community in the early 1900s. One phrase that may prove handy: bahl gorms, which means "good food."
Local eats: Pack a picnic from the Boonville Farmers' Market, where one stop will guarantee local offerings of honey, produce, organic cheese, and fresh-baked breads. If you opt to visit Mendocino County in early November, you'll be just in time for the annual Wine and Mushroom Festival, which celebrates the more than 20 varieties of edible mushrooms that grow in the area.
For more information: visit www.andersonvalleymuseum.org.
5. South Dakota's Badlands
Mount Rushmore may be the ultimate reward of a 150-mile scenic drive through stunning Badlands National Park, but nature is truly the greatest attraction. You can trip through cowboy country in the largest mixed-grass prairie in the United States and contemplate the Badlands' fascinating geological formations-all beneath skies that seem to stretch beyond imagination. The Badlands' waves and twisting spires of eroded sandstone lie among fossil beds that date to 35 million years old. (Thus the giant dinosaurs you'll see looming over many tourist stops in and around the Badlands.) Be on the lookout for black-footed ferrets, the country's most endangered land mammal, which conservationists are reintroducing to the area.
Local eats: Hearty buffalo takes beef's place in the road food spotlight. Sample the stew at Mount Rushmore's visitors' center restaurant or a burger at Wall Drug in nearby Wall, a fun, quirky stop featuring an old-fashioned soda fountain, Western wear, and kitschy Americana. When you see the 80-foot-long brontosaurus that marks the exit off I-90, you'll know you're almost there.
For more information: visit www.travelsd.com.