Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

An Insider’s Guide to America’s Best National Parks

June 24, 2018

From Parade Magazine June 24, 2018


If you want to feel really good about America, pack your bags and take a trip to one of its parks. “The National Park System is one of the first great American inventions,” says QT Luong, who has spent 25 years photographing all 60 parks. “We had a unique opportunity to preserve pristine land before it saw any development.” Luong and others who know the parks well—writers, rangers, photographers, scientists and conservationists—gave us the inside info on what author Wallace Stegnercalled “the best idea we ever had.” They helped us pick the park that delivers what you’re looking for, whether it’s wildflowers, wildlife, waterfalls or a big dose of peace and quiet.



Washington state’s Olympic National Park is home to the Hoh Rain Forest. “If you hike up the Hoh River trail, you come to one of the quietest places in America,” says Rob Smith, regional director with the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA). “The vegetation, the moss covering everything—there’s a stillness that’s really profound that you can’t find anywhere else.”


QT Luong/Terra Galleria

On the opposite end of the dampness spectrum, many desert parks offer a different kind of intense quiet. QT Luong cites Utah’s Canyonlands and Capitol Reef national parks as some of the quietest he’s visited. “I find the silence in the desert striking. There are fewer animals and birds, and the silence can be really eerie.”



Texas’ Big Bend National Park is home to more than 360 different bird species, the most of any national park. Its mountains, deserts and rivers—and its location next to a protected natural area in Mexico—provide a range of ecosystems for birds like the Colima warbler that aren’t found anywhere else in the U.S. “And you can see elf owls there,” says biologist David Lamfrom, who directs wildlife programs for the NPCA (and photographs birds, animals and reptiles). The owls, the smallest in the world, are the size of sparrows. “They’re so cute it’s almost painful.”


Elf owl in Big Bend National Park.  (Art Wolfe Stock/Image Source/MediaBakery)

Best Stargazing

Manish Mamtani

Acadia National Park (Manish Mamtani)

Manish Mamtani grew up in central India, where in summer he and his family often slept under the stars. When he moved to the U.S., he was astonished to learn that 80 percent of Americans can’t see the Milky Way. Now he photographs the national parks at night and posts photos for his 1 million–plus followers on Facebook, such as his pic of the Milky Way rising over Boulder Beach in Acadia National Park (Maine), one of his favorite parks for nighttime viewing. “It’s so beautiful and peaceful if you go to a national park at night,” Mamtani says. “It gives me an idea of how our ancestors saw the night sky. It feels untouched.”


Great Basin in Nevada.

Desert parks offer the best stargazing, says Lamfrom, because the dry air and altitude provide a unique clarity. He loves Great Basin (Nevada), where the brilliance and intensity of the stars and Milky Way make for a night-sky experience unlike any other, he says. Great Basin is one of eight U.S. national parks certified as International Dark Sky Parks by the International Dark-Sky Association. The others are Big Bend (Texas), Black Canyon of the Gunnison (Colorado), Canyonlands (Utah), Capitol Reef (Utah), Death Valley (California and Nevada), Grand Canyon (Arizona) and Joshua Tree (California).

Best For Wildlife


Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone (Wyoming, Idaho and Montana) is most definitely where the bison roam and the deer and the antelope play. With the largest concentration of mammals in the lower 48 states, Yellowstone’s 67 species include mountain lions, wolverines, wolves, grizzly bears, mule deer, elk, moose, badgers, river otters, snowshoe hares and pika.
Florida’s Everglades National Park includes such a wide range of ecosystems (freshwater, saltwater, barrier island, pine forest, cypress domes) that it’s “truly remarkable in terms of profound diversity of wildlife,” says the NPCA’s Lamfrom. You can see barred owls, alligators, crocodiles, manatees, dolphins, whales, six species of sea turtles, wood storks, egrets and a host of migratory birds. “Speaking as a wildlife photographer, it’s an outstanding park.”For fewer crowds, bring your binoculars to North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park. “I knew it had badlands, I knew it had wildlife, but it has lots of wildlife,” says Becky Lomax, author of Moon USA National Parks (coming October 2018). “I saw wild horses, coyote and prairie dog towns everywhere, and bison, hawks, golden eagles and even longhorn steers,” a reminder of 1880s cattle drives from Texas to the green pastures of Dakota Territory.


Lowest, Driest, Hottest


Death Valley (California and Nevada) is the park where the mercury once registered the hottest temp (134 degrees F) ever recorded on Earth. It’s also the lowest (282 feet below sea level) and driest (an average 1.9 inches of rain per year) park. Yet Death Valley encompasses an incredible diversity of flora, fauna and geology, from arid salt flats, sand dunes and 11,000-foot mountains to more than 1,000 plant species (including a “superbloom” of wildflowers every 10 to 15 years) to 400-plus wildlife species, including mountain lions and bighorn sheep. “I feel incredibly light-hearted and free when I’m in Death Valley,” says Abby Wines, park management assistant, who has lived and worked there for 13 years.

Most Scenic Drives


Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park (Colorado) climbs 4,000 feet, from mountain meadows through forests of aspen and ponderosa pine and then fir and spruce and up into tundra, where 200 species of tiny alpine plants cover the ground. “It’s one of the most spectacular drives in the country,” says Luong.


Glacier National Park 

Some 900 miles north in Montana, Glacier National Park’s Going-to-the-Sun Road offers one of the most iconic views in any park, says Lomax. On Logan Pass, the road’s highest point (6,646 feet), you find yourself  “in gorgeous wildflower meadows surrounded by jagged peaks right on top of the Continental Divide.”


Back east in Virginia, the 105 miles of Shenandoah National Park’s Skyline Drive offer nearly 70 scenic overlooks. The drive runs along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains, part of the 480-million-year-old Appalachian chain. It’s a great destination for roadside photographers, says Luong. (You can see his photos in his book Treasured Lands: A Photographic Odyssey Through America’s National Parks, Cameron Books, 2016.)

Best Fossils



Death Valley (California and Nevada) offers ranger-led tours out to see footprints from the Pliocene epoch of 5 million years ago. “You can take a hike and see this assemblage of footprints made by ice age creatures” including mastodons, camels, horses and cats the size of leopards, says Lamfrom.


South Dakota’s Badlands National Park houses mammalian fossils from the Eocene (56 million years ago) and Oligocene (34 million years ago) epochs, as well as fossils of large extinct marine lizards found in the Pierre Shale.


Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park has one of the world’s largest collections of petrified wood, as well as plant and animal fossils that date back over 200 million years (and a few dinosaur fossils too).

Best for Big Adventure


Gates of the Arctic is so incredibly remote you have to fly in and get dropped off,” she says, “and a week later you’re picked up by your pilot.” Hiking, river rafting, backpacking, wildlife viewing—you can do it all, including watch glaciers calve [when large pieces of ice fall off] from a boat in Glacier Bay or climb the highest peak in North America (20,310-foot Denali) in Denali National Park (for experts only).

Best Swimming Holes


Great Sand Dunes National Park

Home to the tallest dunes in North American, Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park also has one of the USA’s best swimming holes. Snow from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains melts and pours down into the dunes, creating Medano Creek, with underwater sand ridges that produce actual waves. Because it’s shallow it’s best for wading or gentle tubing. “It’s what I’d imagine it feels like to stumble upon an oasis,” says author Michael Joseph Oswald (Your Guide to the National Parks, Stone Road Press, 2017), who traveled more than 55,000 miles while visiting 51 national parks. (Get info on current creek conditions here)

For a more traditional “swimming hole” feel, try the south fork of the Merced River in Yosemite National Park, which offers sandy beaches, shallow waters and views of El Capitan.

Back east, the forests of Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks hide some A+ swimming holes, such as Virginia’s Whiteoak Canyon (which includes six waterfalls ranging from 35 to 86 feet) and North Carolina’s Midnight Hole.

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If your idea of “swimming hole” includes the cry of seagulls, salty air, sun, sand and waves, head to Sand Beach, nestled onto a curve of Mount Desert Island in Maine’s Acadia National Park. Its pink-white sand (made up of millions of finely crushed shells) and turquoise waters look like the Caribbean; but the chilly (55 degree) water temps will remind you you’re in Maine.

Virgin Islands National Park

Trunk Bay Beach in Virgin Islands National Park is “one of the most beautiful beaches in the world,” according to the National Park Service, with white sands, aqua blue waters and an underwater snorkeling trail.

With any swimming hole or beach, don’t overlook safety, says Oswald. Never swim alone, watch kids closely and check with park rangers about water conditions. Even calms waters can hide swift currents.

The Most Surprising Parks


“I’ve had a lot of surprises in the parks but nothing like Congaree,” says Lamfrom. Twenty-five champion trees (the largest of their species in the country) live in the South Carolina park, part of a deep, old-growth bottomland forest that vividly conveys how “beautiful and haunting” the American South was 500 years ago. “The rich smell of soil and all these flowers blooming, those dark water rivers running through the swamps and forests—I wasn’t prepared for what a visceral experience it was going to be.”


QT Luong, who has visited all 60 parks more than once, says Texas’ Guadalupe Mountains National Park astonished him. “It’s located in the desert and I didn’t expect to find that much vegetation and fall foliage color—it’s as colorful as in the East.” The steep walls of Guadalupe’s McKittrick Canyon protect an oasis filled with chinkapin oak, velvet ash and bigtooth maple trees.

Parks Every American Should See


There’s nothing like seeing the biggest trees in the world in Sequoia National Park, Lamfrom says. “It’s humbling and profound.”

Yosemite and Glacier are kind of on a level of their own,” says Oswa. “In terms of pure beauty, those stand out.” NPCA’s Mark Wenzler agrees: “Yosemite is stunning. You almost want to cry, it’s so beautiful.”

Great Smoky Mountains National Park runs a close second, Wenzler says: “The biodiversity there exceeds that found almost anywhere else in the world. There are more species of trees than in all of Europe. And you get important cultural stories about the people who lived there before the park was established and the Native Americans who lived there before that. It’s an amazing experience.”

Download a full-size version of our National Parks map here.

US Map Parks 2018 AR_letter

Garvan Woodland Gardens

August 3, 2017

We need to plan and make the trip over to Hot Springs to see this beautiful place! This article appeared in the magazine “Local” July/August 2017 issue.

Garvan Woodland Gardens

Buffalo River Trip

August 1, 2017

Visitor center holds history of Buffalo River

A photograph at Buffalo National River’s Tyler Bend Visitor Center shows an extended family who lived near the waterway a century or so ago.

TYLER BEND — The vast majority of the 800,000 or more visitors expected this year along the Buffalo National River are here for the pleasures of the present — swimming, canoeing, kayaking, hiking, fishing, camping and other fun in the sun.

But the human past is also a visible and fascinating presence in one of Arkansas’ most treasured natural resources. Nearly all people living within the preserve’s boundaries were required to move elsewhere when the 94,293-acre federal enclave was established by Congress in 1972.

Some of those rural residents deeply resented having to give up their long-held family land for a greater cause. They were losers in the worthy effort to preserve one of the few remaining rivers that still flows freely in the lower 48 states after a century of damming by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

To get a quick sense of life along the Buffalo in former times, the place to begin is the National Park Service’s Tyler Bend Visitor Center, near the river’s south bank in Searcy County. That can be followed by stops near opposite ends of the park at Rush Historical District and Big Buffalo Valley (aka Boxley Valley) Historic District.

Vintage black-and-white photographs at the visitor center show the rough-hewn circumstances in which pioneering residents lived. National Park Service information notes that from 1880 to 1915, “the remaining public land was entered both by prospective homesteaders and timber companies.

“At times the two came into conflict, as ‘squatter land’ was legally entered by outside interests. The homesteaders of this period in many cases were trying on a wilderness lifestyle for the first time and needed help in even constructing a simple one-room log shelter.

“Most of these homestead entries were located on less desirable land, away from the river valley and main tributaries. However, new road systems and travel made the ridge-top dweller more accessible to the rest of the world than the earlier settlers would have been. In addition, the increase in schools, churches and community centers aided in decreasing the isolation of these later settlers.”

Near the national river’s east end in Marion County, Rush Historic District is said to be the only visible ghost town west of the Mississippi River and east of the Rocky Mountains.

Rather than gold, zinc was the ore that brought transient prosperity to Rush, which was founded in the 1880s and saw its population peak at 5,000 during World War I. That’s when armament needs for the 1914-1918 conflict drove the price of zinc to record highs.

After that, Rush slowly faded away, with the last residents moving away after the post office closed in the 1950s. What makes a visit evocative today is sight of ramshackle structures built in the town’s heyday. Efforts by the National Park Service have countered the decay by time, weather and vandalism.

More idyllic is Big Buffalo Valley Historic District in Newton County, near the national river’s western boundary. Also called Boxley Valley Historic District, it is a likely place to spot elk in roadside meadows soon after sunrise or before sunset. It is also the setting for scattered family farms that were allowed to continue operation under some restrictions after 1972.

When the district was established, a principal reason was that many of the original structures remained untouched by modern development. These include log cabins, barns and spring houses. By squinting just slightly while driving along Arkansas 43, it is possible to imagine that the calendar has been turned back any number of decades. There’s one definite difference: The road is paved.

Buffalo National River’s Tyler Bend Visitor Center, 11 miles northwest of Marshall off U.S. 65, is open 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. daily. Admission is free. Go to or call

(870) 439-2502.

States I’ve visited

October 21, 2016

Just for grins, I thought I’d post this map:


It comes from Visited States Map



October 4, 2016


Fall foliage colors blaze along picturesque Blue Ridge Parkway

Here’s how not to start a road trip.

First, at the Alamo rental car counter at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport just over the line from Washington, discover that your driver’s license is missing. Search and swear for two hours. Then find it in your left shoe.

Second, when the Holiday Inn clerk asks what brings you to town, tell him you’re kicking off a big fall foliage road trip: all 105 miles of Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, then all 469 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia and North Carolina.

“You and 70,000 other cars,” the clerk will say. “It’s bad.”

Third, get lost in Dismal Hollow.

That’s how my Blue Ridge adventure began in October last year. Without giving away too much, I can tell you I did escape Dismal Hollow (outside Front Royal, Va.), and I didn’t have traffic troubles.

For five days I zoomed under leafy canopies of red, orange and gold; hiked along creeks, lakes and ridge lines; listened to plenty of bluegrass and blues; and gave thanks to the National Park Service for bringing together so much beauty and so much blacktop.

We don’t consider road building a prime task of the park service these days. But the Park Service, born just eight years after the Model T, spent its first decades building some of the most gorgeous drives in North America.

Other Park Service parkways that carry the “national” designation: George Washington Memorial Parkway (District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia); Natchez Trace (Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee); and John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway (Wyoming).

The Blue Ridge Parkway, authorized in 1936, has been all about the automobile from Day One.

The parkway and Shenandoah National Park were Depression projects intended to create jobs in a desperately poor region. For the parkway, the idea was to sculpt an epic country road, a black ribbon that would unfurl seamlessly amid the knobs, hollows, notches and gaps of Virginia and North Carolina.

The work took decades, but now the road’s shoulders are graced with overlooks, its straightaways unsullied by billboards, commercial trucks or service stations. (There are also plenty of hiking trails along the route, including the 2,180-mile Appalachian Trail.)

To get gas or find most hotels, you exit the parkway and re-enter the real world. The parkway speed limit is 45 mph, which means when red leaves drift in the breeze or a deer pauses in a meadow, you’re moving slowly enough to notice.

For most of the last 50 years, including 2015, the parkway has been the most-visited unit in the park system. Last year its rangers counted 15 million visitors, who spent an estimated $950 million.

The tourist tides seem to include more bicyclists every year, which is tricky on its narrow roads. October is as busy as the summer months, in some places busier.

Skyline Drive was my prelude. Light traffic. A bounding stag at Hog Wallow Flats. A treed bear at Bootens Gap. At Lewis Mountain, I checked out cabins that until about 1950 were set aside for “colored” visitors.

By 5 p.m., I reached Rockfish Gap, Va., where Skyline Drive ends and the Blue Ridge Parkway begins.


The parkway rises, falls, bends and straightens, following the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains with no commercial buildings or truck traffic, cushioned by a buffer zone of landscaping that alternates between narrow and wide, semi-wild and manicured.

Stanley W. Abbott, the Blue Ridge Parkway’s first landscape architect and first superintendent, was in his 20s when he laid down the route details and guiding principles. He was looking for variety, he said, and “evidences of a simple homestead culture and a people whose way of life grew out of the land around them.”

The scenes I glided through were not quite natural; they were more orderly than that. But they were unfailingly pretty. And the weekday traffic was light. (The Virginia part of the parkway has about half the traffic of the North Carolina part.)

At Milepost 86, I pulled off the parkway and checked in at the Peaks of Otter Lodge, at the edge of Abbott Lake.

This 1964 hotel, full of modernist touches, is where you might film the very special Waltons episode in which the Mad Men guys show up. (It’s also the only lodging on the parkway that’s owned by the Park Service and managed by concessionaire Delaware North.)

Instead of Don Draper and company, I encountered guitarist David “Alabama” Frank and fiddler Nancy Reid, who filled the Lake View Dining Room with ballads and blues.

The next morning was even better. In the chilly early hours, I prowled the edge of Abbott Lake with my camera, hunting vivid leaves and reflections in the still water.

There are more than 100 species of trees along the parkway. Beech, birch, chestnut, dogwood, elm, fir, hickory, maple, oak, sassafras, walnut, and on and on.


At Tuggle Gap, about Milepost 165, I made a little detour — six miles west — because I had a hunch about the town of Floyd, Va. (population 425). Or, as one local sign would have it, the Republic of Floyd.

This was a good move.

Floyd is tiny but artsy and lively, with coffeehouses, art galleries, a farmers market and especially the Floyd Country Store (wood floor, tin ceiling), which offers home goods, sandwiches, books, music lessons, a pulse-quickening inventory of Appalachian CDs ( Flatt & Scruggs at Carnegie Hall) and live acts on weekends. The store’s Friday Night Jamboree, a fourhour acoustic music session, costs just $5.

Traditional music “is probably what saved the town and kept it alive through the hard times,” Avis McCutchan, owner of Notebooks, just downstairs from the Black Water Loft coffeehouse, told me.

And that’s just one measure of the music’s power. After a stop at Mabry Mill, whose working waterwheel at Milepost 176 might be the most photographed spot on the parkway, I reached the Blue Ridge Music Center in Galax, Va. There, at Milepost 213, I was in time to catch Bill and Maggie Anderson singing and picking “Wildwood Flower” on Dobro and guitar.

In the building next door, a Park Service interpretive team had laid out a series of exhibits to tell the story of Appalachia’s musical heritage, including the long-ago arrival of English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh and African influences (the banjo, for example, was an African contribution) and Bill Monroe’s creation of the bluegrass genre in the 1940s.

Ranger Janet Bachmann told me how a music lover named Joe Wilson (who died in 2015) crusaded for creation of the Music Center and promoted the Crooked Road, a trail of traditional music venues in Virginia that includes Floyd and Galax.

You can find a jam session “every night of the week” within 20 miles, Bachmann told me.

From Galax it’s about two hours to Blowing Rock, N.C., a sophisticated tourist town at Milepost 292 that’s built around a jutting rock atop a cliff where the wind blows hard and often. Just so you know, people who live in Blowing Rock are known as Blowing Rockers.


At Milepost 294, I browsed the Moses Cone Manor House, aka Parkway Craft Center, a 1901 textile baron’s 13,000-square-foot mansion now run as a regional art and craft gallery. It’s surrounded by 3,600 acres of parkland, but the parking lot is gridlocked on some October days.

Now I was heading into the busiest stretch of the parkway, the area around Asheville, N.C., where rangers counted 42,520 vehicles passing through in October, the month of my visit — almost three times the traffic tallied at the Peaks of Otter.

It was easy to see why. I happened to hit this stretch within a few days of peak color. In the hour before sunset, about Milepost 360, the scene turned surreal as the road carried me through tree tunnels of flowing orange and flaming red, then luminous yellow-green.

At Milepost 382 (about five miles outside Asheville) is the Southern Highland Folk Art Center, with more quality and less quantity than the craft center at Milepost 294, I thought.

In Asheville itself, you may be overwhelmed with urban options, beginning with its prosperous downtown and burgeoning restaurant scene.

The city’s biggest tourist ticket is the Biltmore Estate, which you can tour for $55-$75 per adult, depending on how far ahead you book and the day of the week.

I spent the night at the Asheville Holiday Inn and was at the Biltmore Estate when it opened at 8:30 the next morning. (It was 43 degrees, but who’s counting?) Even before you get to the chateau-style mansion’s 250 rooms, the 8,000 acres of grounds may amaze you.


Once you’re done with the Biltmore Estate, you’re just 87 miles from the end of the road.

Now, here’s how not to end a road trip: On the last day, after covering 87 miles of parkway, push yourself to cover 170 more miles to the Atlanta airport. With a final sprint into the teeth of that city’s rush hour, you might make your 6:35 p.m. flight. Or not. For hours, the resolution was in doubt.

I made the airport with 15 minutes to spare.

During that white-knuckle day I realized several things: If you want time to relax and improvise, a Blue Ridge drive needs at least seven days, not the four I gave it.

The greatest roadside peril may be in the parkway’s overlooks and turnouts, where drivers do a lot of improvising in close quarters. Navigate those ins and outs with great care.

I’d have had fewer headaches if I had reversed my itinerary and done most of the driving in the morning. Driving from northeast to southwest in late afternoon, I found myself squinting through over-matched sunglasses into the low, bright sun.

Mid- to late October is prime time for Appalachian foliage. But there’s no point obsessing over when leaf-peeping will peak. The weather will vary. Different species of trees will turn at different times. And trees will turn first at highest elevation (such as Mount Pisgah, N.C., 6,047 feet above sea level).

After a few billion leaves, they do begin to look alike. But don’t worry. Other things will stay with you. My stop at Milepost 323, for instance.

That’s Bear Den Overlook, where I ran into Dan Vance, 83, wearing a white hat and a big grin. He stood by a low wall, looking out over the valley. He lived a few miles away, he said, and was on the way home with a tub of Kentucky Fried Chicken in the car.

“Don’t get no prettier than this,” he said. “See the white building right-cheer. They dance on weekends. And clog.”

I told him I liked the sound of that, but it was time for me to go.

“Take your time,” he told me. “Don’t be in no hurry.”

If you go

How to get there: Airports in Richmond, Charlottesville and Roanoke, all in Virginia, are within 100 miles of the parkway’s northeastern part. If you’d rather aim for the southwestern portion of the parkway, North Carolina’s Greensboro, Charlotte and Asheville airports are similarly close. To make your road trip longer and more scenic, fly into Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Va., 70 miles east of Front Royal, Va. Once at Front Royal, drive the 105-mile Skyline Drive through Shenandoah National Park, then drive the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway. Driving the parkway is free no matter where you start.

Sleep: Peaks of Otter Lodge, 85554 Blue Ridge Parkway, Bedford, Va.; (866) 387-9905, Rooms for two as low as $119 a night in summer, $159 in October. Weekends book quickly.

Eat: Smoky Park Supper Club, 350 Riverside Drive, Asheville, N.C.; (828) 350-0315, A hip restaurant made out of shipping containers. Main dishes $15-$28.

Tour: Biltmore Estate, Asheville, N.C.; (800) 411-3812, Adult admission $55-$75, depending on day and season, advance purchase.

More info: Blue Ridge Parkway,

Seasonal Blue Ridge Parkway foliage and flower report: (828) 298-0398, option 3.

Blue Ridge Parkway Association,

10 Scenic Road Trips

July 23, 2015


10 Best Secret U.S. Road Trips

Sophie ForbesJuly 20, 2015

The U.S. has many iconic road trips. You could even say that the U.S. invented the road trip as a form of vacation.

Which makes sense, considering the country is known to have some of the best scenic driving routes anywhere on Earth. From the Pacific Coast Highway through California to Route 66 running from Chicago to Santa Monica, these drives have become part of many a bucket list.

This year, AAA revealed that one in four Americans embarks on a road trip each year. But rather than follow the crowd, there are plenty of incredible routes, both short and long, that are farther off the beaten path.

Yahoo Travel investigated some spectacular road trip routes that you may not have known existed:

1. Big Bend Scenic Loop, Texas 

10 Best Secret U.S. Road Trips

Scenic road FM 170 along the Rio Grande River in Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas. (Photo: Blaine Harrington III / Alamy)

This spectacular 250-mile route through western Texas skims the Mexico border and the path of the Rio Grande. The route, from Presidio to the Rio Grande Village, carves its way through the Big Bend Ranch State Park — a rugged desert wilderness area bigger than Rhode Island. With over 300 different bird species living in the park, it is a haven for birdwatchers. Or for those seeking a more exhilarating experience, the park is packed with outdoor activities, from rafting, horse riding, and 4×4 tours to canoeing, mountain biking, and fishing.

Related: The Best Playlist For Every #SummerTravel Road Trip

2. Colorado Scenic Byway


This Colorado route is full of great scenery and plenty of hiking and fishing along the way. (Photo: Dave and Les Jacobs/Blend Images/Corbis)

For wildlife lovers, there is no better road trip destination than through Colorado, where you are likely to catch a glimpse of bears, wolves, birds of prey, and many other forest-dwelling animals. The Colorado River Headwaters Scenic Byway runs 80 miles from State Bridge to Grand Lake, cutting directly through Rocky Mountain National Park. With several high-altitude lakes along the route, trippers can stop for a spot of boating or fishing, not to mention the multitude of excellent hiking trails that crisscross the region. Don’t miss the town of Hot Sulphur Springs, where you can take a healing dip in the natural spas.

3. Hana Coastline, Maui, Hawaii


The twisty, turny, tropical Hana Highway. (Photo: National Geographic Image Collection / Alamy)

Starting in Kahului, the 52-mile road to Hana winds its way, sometimes precariously, around the breathtaking Maui coastline. On one side is the ocean, sometimes crashing onto black-sand beaches; on the other, the dense jungle with soaring waterfalls, rock pools, and dramatic cliff faces. You can stop on the way to grab some fresh tropical fruit from a roadside stand or park and challenge yourself to a hike through the Pua’a Ka’a State Park. Try to time your drive to Hana to make it for sunset and watch the giant orange ball slip slowly below the ocean horizon.

4. Montana to Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming


See geysers, waterfalls, and plenty of wildlife as you tour Yellowstone. (Photo: iStock)

Begin your journey in Bozeman, Montana, by taking a dip in the geothermal hot springs before starting the 135-mile trip through Yellowstone National Park, across the state border into Wyoming, and down to the historic Old Faithful geyser. Breathtaking panoramic views and incredible wildlife spotting will keep you entertained the entire ride. Stop along the way for a hike to a waterfall, rafting, birdwatching, or just to take in the scenery.  At your destination, check out one of Old Faithful’s impressive, almost hourly eruptions, where up to 8,500 gallons of water is projected 145 feet into the air.

5. Bourbon Trail, Kentucky


Visit distilleries and learn all about what goes into making expertly crafted bourbon. (Photo: Bob Krist/Corbis)

A great option for those wanting to make overnight stops along a route is the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, connecting Louisville, Bardstown, and Frankfort in a large triangle. Trippers can enjoy tastings along the way at the distilleries of eight famous bourbons, including Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Knob Creek, and Buffalo Trace, where you can learn about the history of bourbon and its manufacturing process. For those interested in more than just the liquor, there are tons of other activities to take part in, from ATV rides, horse trekking, and riverboat cruises to hiking, ziplining, and caving.

6. The BBQ Trail, South Carolina


Can’t get enough brisket, ribs, and pulled pork? Eat your way through South Carolina’s BBQ Trail. (Photo: Magalie L’Abbé/Flickr)

Aside from taking road trips, there is another pastime that has become just as synonymous with American culture — the art of barbecue. So what better way to vacation than to combine the two activities. While Texas and Kansas are both big contenders on the “World’s Best BBQ” front, South Carolina is actually the birthplace of this fabulous food genre. The South Carolina Barbecue Map offers trippers the opportunity to customize their tour among more than 250 BBQ joints, so whether you want to journey to one or attempt to tick all of them off your list, the BBQ Trail might just be the greatest foodie challenge ever.

7. The Dinosaur Diamond Prehistoric Highway, Utah 


Yampa River, Dinosaur National Monument, Colorado. (Photo: Tim Fitzharris/Minden Pictures/Corbis)

This wondrous 480-mile circular route is accessible only from spring to fall, as certain parts of the trail are cut off by snow in the winter. Beginning just over the Colorado state line, in the town of Dinosaur, you can check out the Dinosaur National Monument Visitor Centre, featuring thousands of fossils from lots of different dinosaur species. This is just one of many dinosaur museums along the route. The three- to four-day journey will then take you in a loop through several national parks, including Arches National Park, the world’s greatest display of naturally formed rock arches (more than 2,000), before joining the Colorado River Scenic Byway with picturesque river and mountain views.

Related: Pacific Coast Highway: The Ultimate California Road Trip

8. Lake Michigan Gold Coast, Michigan


There are plenty of beaches and lighthouses — including the iconic Big Sable Point Lighthouse — on the coast of Lake Michigan. (Photo: iStock)

Starting the journey in Grand Rapids, the drive up the Gold Coast of Lake Michigan is one of the best secret road trips in the U.S. Seemingly endless stretches of pure white-sand beaches and soaring sand dunes and punctuated with quaint little historic towns, lakeside wineries, and lush, hilly landscape. The drive up to Glen Arbor, taking the coastal road, is around 190 miles but will take almost four hours. The perfect distance for a weekend getaway.

9. Dalton Highway, Alaska 


Enjoy some impressive Alaskan scenery — like the Brooks Range — as you cruise along the Dalton Highway. Bonus: no traffic! (Photo: Sunny Awazuhara- Reed/Design Pics/Corbis)

Alaska Highway 11, also known historically as the Dalton Highway, is a 414-mile road that cuts through Alaska’s dramatic landscape from just north of Fairbanks all the way to Deadhorse, close to the Arctic Ocean. This road trip is not for the faint of heart. Most of the route is gravel and is largely used by huge 18-wheelers, on the supply route along the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline. Stop-offs are few and far between, but warning signs cautioning of avalanches, rockfalls, and bears are frequent! Traversing the Yukon River means wildlife is plentiful along the thoroughfare, and aside from the odd grizzly, you might just encounter a herd of caribou or a wolf pack. Anyone attempting this extreme road trip is advised to be prepared, as cellphone service along the route is nonexistent.

10. Eureka, California to Coos Bay, Oregon 


Follow the famous PCH as it snakes along the California and Oregon coastline. (Photo: Dan Hershman/Flickr)

While the Pacific Coast Highway is the West Coast’s most iconic roadway, the 250-mile journey from Eureka in Northern California to Coos Bay on the central Oregon coastline is just as spectacular. Starting out in the historic Redwood Empire region of California, visitors can check out the historic old town or even venture up into the national forest to check out the towering redwoods in person. From there the journey weaves along the stunning coastline, with white-sand beaches, sand dunes, and even the dramatic forest-scapes where Jurassic Park was partly filmed. Once across the Oregon border, there are places to kayak, fish, and hike at almost every turnoff. You can even take a brief detour inland to one of Oregon’s fabulous wineries