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 Parkwayleads you through a dramatically changing landscape as you climbmore than 9,000 feet. You'll see such a wide variety ofecosystems-from desert lowlands to a mixed-conifer forest-thatlocals liken the journey to the geographical differences you'd seeif you were to travel from Mexico to Canada. From stately saguarocacti to Douglas fir trees, the diverse palette of green, presentin nearly every shade, is breathtaking.
A June 2003 wildfire exposed geological formations formerlyhidden 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'sworth an extra day's stay to visit the Kitt Peak NationalObservatory, located southwest of the city in the mountains abovethe Sonoran Desert. Here you'll find the world's largest collectionof optical telescopes and clear nighttime viewing conditions thatdraw professional astronomers from around the globe. (Althoughthree guided tours are available each day, groups of more than 20require reservations, so call ahead at 520-318-8726. There are alsonightly observing programs; call ahead for these as well.)
Local eats: For such Sonoran-style Mexican specialties asflour tacos folded around spiced shredded beef, head to such localfavorites 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 BirdingTrail's 2,000-mile total, the 200 miles from Tallahassee, Florida,to the Alabama border take you through nearly 80 bird-watchingsites. (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 largestpopulation of red-cockaded woodpeckers. In winter and spring,visitors might find any one of 370 species of migrating birds-alongwith moderate temperatures and smaller crowds.
Local eats: Sample fresh Gulf of Mexico seafood-snapper,wahoo, amberjack, Apalachicola oysters, and Royal Red shrimp arecommon catches-at one of the trail's many roadside diners andcafes; such as the FloraBama, a raucous roadhouse located inPerdido Key.
For more information: visit www.visitflorida.com.
3. Texas Hill Country
This easily navigable stretch carves a path between San Antonioand Austin, via I-10 North, then detours onto secondary roads. Winelovers, history buffs, and adventure seekers are equally satisfiedtasting the fruits of the area's 20-plus vineyards, exploring theAlamo, or enjoying water sports on the Guadalupe River.
Stop in Bandera to tour an authentic Old West town and home toworking ranches. Outside of Llano, climb Enchanted Rock, a500-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 betreated to the Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Festival. You'llalso be just in time for peak bluebonnet season, Texas's stateflower, which grows wild throughout the hill country.
Local eats: Nowhere does slow-smoked barbecued brisket cometo life like the Salt Lick Barbecue Restaurant, just south and westof Austin in tiny Driftwood. Dry-rubbed with salt, black pepper,and cayenne, it's smoked over oak instead of the usual mesquite orhickory.
For more information: visit www.hill-country-visitor.com.
4. Anderson Valley, California
This less-crowded alternate to Napa Valley is locatedtwo-and-a-half hours north of San Francisco in NorthernCalifornia's Mendocino County. The countryside maintains the samecharming, rustic feel that drew settlers and farmers after the GoldRush-gorgeous green mountains and rolling hills hung with gauzycoastal fog. Slowly drive the 25-mile path along Highway 128 fromYorkville to Navarro, stopping to sample wares from the area's manyaward-winning wineries. Anderson Valley is known for pinot noir andgewürztraminer varietals, and methode-champenoise sparklingwines.
The region even has its own unique dialect, Boontling, whichemerged in the isolated community in the early 1900s. One phrasethat 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 tovisit Mendocino County in early November, you'll be just in timefor the annual Wine and Mushroom Festival, which celebrates themore than 20 varieties of edible mushrooms that grow in thearea.
For more information: visit www.andersonvalleymuseum.org.
5. South Dakota's Badlands
Mount Rushmore may be the ultimate reward of a 150-mile scenicdrive through stunning Badlands National Park, but nature is trulythe greatest attraction. You can trip through cowboy country in thelargest mixed-grass prairie in the United States and contemplatethe Badlands' fascinating geological formations-all beneath skiesthat seem to stretch beyond imagination. The Badlands' waves andtwisting spires of eroded sandstone lie among fossil beds that dateto 35 million years old. (Thus the giant dinosaurs you'll seelooming over many tourist stops in and around the Badlands.) Be onthe lookout for black-footed ferrets, the country's most endangeredland mammal, which conservationists are reintroducing to thearea.
Local eats: Hearty buffalo takes beef's place in the roadfood 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 brontosaurusthat marks the exit off I-90, you'll know you're almost there.
For more information: visit www.travelsd.com.