Summer is upon us, the time when millions pack up the car, strap in the whole family, and excitedly hit the road. Although some make a National Lampoon vacation of the process, it certainly doesn’t have to be that way. With a small bit of planning and, most importantly, the right route, a summer drive with the family, a loved one, or even just by yourself, can be a very pleasant experience. You might not have an epiphany, but then again you might. Who knows?
Because the direction is so all-important, we’ve taken it upon ourselves to choose some of the best panoramic routes in the USA. In our combined decades of pleasure driving for some of the country’s most popular automotive magazines, we’ve seen a gaggle of pretty roads. But we’re here to tell you that the four we feature are surely among America’s best. And, so that it doesn’t seem that we’re playing favorites with localities, we have chosen roads in the Southeast, the Midwest, the Northeast, and the Pacific Coast. Given the limited space we have, that’s about as ecumenical as we can get. And so, without further ado, here are 4 Hot Summer Drives.
In Maine–Baxter State Park Drive
If you’re all set to go slowly and stop and smell the wild flowers along the way, the Baxter State Park Scenic Drive will offer rich rewards. The narrow road sinews 94 miles through the northern and western edge of the park, leading to quiet campsites, waterfalls, tumbling brooks, ponds, and spectacular scenic views. A fairly short jog off busy Interstate 95, the picturesque road is about as far from an Interstate in spirit as you can get. The path is narrow, sometimes traffic-clogged and, if the rains have stayed away, it can be dusty as well. But for the crisp smell of real outdoor air and breathtaking views, the route is right up there with the best of them.
Baxter State Park is a result of the vision and efforts of one man–Percival Baxter. As governor of the state of Maine, Baxter was a solid proponent of preserving the Katahdin area from being overrun by the logging industry. As a politician, his struggles were only partially successful, persuading the legislature to initiate a game preserve on 90,000 acres of the mountain.
Many might have congratulated themselves for a dignified effort and let things go at that, but not Baxter. Instead, as a private citizen, he began buying up the land from the lumber companies. In this way, he accumulated more than 200,000 acres, which he then deeded to the state of Maine with stringent restrictions on how it could be used. Today, his legacy is Baxter State Park, which is a strictly controlled nature preserve maintained in its “natural wild state.” To assure its sanctity, the park is operated by the Baxter Park Authority, a state entity separate from the state’s parks department.
Travelers need to remember that the park wasn’t intended for driving. This route encourages you to stop by and take in the scenery from outside your vehicle. But as long as you’re ready for a slow, bumpy ride, the endeavor is more than worth your time.
Leelanau Peninsula, Michigan
This drive starts in Traverse City, a famous resort town on the aptly called Traverse Bay in western lower Michigan. Taking perhaps the better part of a day, the route flows leisurely past bucolic Midwest farm scenes, quaint little villages, colorful cherry orchards, and the scenic wonder of Sleeping Bear Dunes. The area is also filled with tremendous history. To evade persecution, a branch of the Mormon sect took refuge on nearby Beaver Island, and the legend of their relationship with the mainlanders could be the subject of a historical novel.
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The Leelanau peninsula expands out into Lake Michigan with Traverse Bay on its eastern reaches. A cruise up the western shore of the bay will take you through the attractively un-touristy towns of Northport and Sutton’s Bay. After a stop in the historic state park beyond Northport, whose panoramic offerings include a vintage lighthouse, you drive back south on Route 22 toward the quaint and now attractively touristy town of Leland. Previously a workingman’s fishing village, the town now fishes for tourist dollars much more so than brown trout, but the smoked trout and whitefish to be had there are still delicacies to be savored. Continuing south from Leland will immediately take you to Sleeping Bear Dune State Park. Called Sleeping Bear by the Native American population because of the huge, tree-covered dune’s similarity to the forest creature, it is accessible both by car and on foot. However, before venturing out of your car for a hike to gaze at Lake Michigan, be advised that some of the hikes take hours, so it is not for the frivolous. Still, those wishing to get a glimpse of the grand scale of the sand dunes can drive to one of several panoramic lookouts within the confines of the park.
From Sleeping Bear Dune, you can make a short southward trip to the town of Empire and then head almost due east back to Traverse City or you can proceed south a few more miles to Frankfort, a Lake Michigan port that long served as home to the Ann Arbor railroad car ferries that have been traversing the lake for more than 100 years.
Whidbey Island Area, Washington
The lovely little town of La Conner, Washington, which lies about a hour-and-a-half north of Sea-Tac airport, is a good jumping off point for this road trip. Part port city, part farming town, La Conner has become a weekend destination for many Seattle residents, but has somehow maintained much of its small town authenticity despite the presence of some trendy gift stores and coffee bars. An artist’s community that revels in its sense of humor and funkiness, it is also the home of the popular Rainbow Bridge that has graced many a car commercial.
Leaving La Conner, you head north a few short miles to link with route 20 which will take you off the Washington mainland onto Fidalgo Island. With attractive Padilla Bay to the east, the road makes a quick entrance into Anacortes, a port and fishing village that has now found itself a tourist destination. Here, writers and artists mix in the restaurants, bars, and taverns with real working men and women in a Steinbeckian tableau.
After a meal of Northwest fish and chips, backtracking south out of Anacortes, will bring you to Desolation Pass State Park. As its name might suggest, the Pass has held catastrophe for many vessels trying to negotiate its narrow strait against what at times is a dauntingly fast current. Safe on the wooded cliffs above, you can view the action and soak in the Washington sunshine, which is often disguised as clouds.
Once across the Pass, you arrive on Whidbey Island, one of the most beautiful islands in the United States. Though tourists have found the place, it isn’t overrun with tourist traffic, at least during the week, and it offers picture-postcard farming scenes, isolated seashores, and some colorful, well-worn villages.
Honestly, Oak Harbor isn’t one of them. It’s a bit of 1990’s suburbia in the center of a 19th century place. But Coupeville, a small burg a bay or so away, is much more “of the place,” and a good place to stop. If you’re into fine dining, the Captain Whidbey Inn, located just outside Coupeville, is definitely worth a visit, both for its architecture and its cuisine.
From Coupeville south, the remainder of the island is worth a dozen side trips. By all means, stop in Langley, yet another artists’ community that is chock full of quaint stores and provides an interesting repertory theater during the summer months. In Columbia Beach, hop on one of the state-run car ferries that will offer an interesting hour-hour cruise to Mukilteo on the mainland. Then you can relaxingly meander back to La Conner or head south toward the delights of Seattle.
Florida — The Florida Keys
Okay, so it may be super hot. And it may simply be humid. Quit complaining again and again. You’re surrounded by gorgeous aquamarine sea water, and the beaches and parks along the way make it easy to take a cooling dip. And even though it looks like the Caribbean, the Keys are portion of the good old USA, which means, among other things, the air conditioning really works. So avoid the winter crowds that block the Keys and make this spectacular cruise in the summer, when the place is, almost literally, your oyster.
An easy if somewhat tiresome drive from Miami on US One will bring you to Key Largo, the title of a vintage Humphrey Bogart movie and a keystone island in the archipelago. In fact, many visitors never leave Largo because it suggests so much, but they’re missing a great deal of what the Keys have to offer.
Driving southeast on Route One, the Main Street of all the Keys, will take you on the direction of Henry Flagler’s trans-ocean railroad, an incredible feat of vision and engineering that was finished early in this century. Without Flagler, the Keys might still be a motley collection of small sand islands totally inaccessible from the mainland except by shallow-draft boat.
Each of the islands in the chain provides its own personality. Some are sleepy areas to while away time in a rope hammock. Others offer terrific nightlife, snorkeling and diving experiences, eclectic dining opportunities and boating, fishing, par excellence. On Islamorada, the Cheeca Lodge is known for its popular guests and fishing tournaments. Departing Long Key, the route brings you across the magnificent Seven-Mile Bridge, a structure that was memorialized in the movie “True Lies.”
The ultimate destination is Key West, the southernmost point in the continental United States, and a place that offers something for every appetite, with the exclusion, perhaps, of snow skiers. Key West is a town famous for its party atmosphere. In fact, even sunset is a cause to raise a cheer and down a cold one. Duval Street, once the haunt of Truman Capote and Papa Hemingway, among other literary lights, is as close as you can get to a miniature Bourbon Street.
And when you’ve ultimately had enough of the never-ending toga party, just point you car back east and in 90 miles, you’re back on the mainland. Drive safe!
What are YOUR favorite Summer Drives?
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