by Julianne Lowell, SmarterTravel.com
Top down, wind in your hair, sun on your face: Summer road-trip season has finally arrived. It's time to take your curiosity and sense of adventure on the road and let unexpected diversions and detours (and maybe even a dirt path) add drama to your journey. It's all part of the fun.
Across the United States and Canada, little-known byways and scenic roads snake beside rivers and rocky mountainsides. From the Great Plains of North and South Dakota to Nova Scotia's miles of lighthouses, take a long, leisurely drive along one of these gorgeous North American routes.
Bourbon Trail, Kentucky
Distance: 152-mile loop from Louisville to Bardstown to Frankfort and back
If the amber spirit beckons, head straight to Kentucky's Bourbon Trail. In the Bluegrass State, bourbon is both a heritage and a way of life, and the route is marked by small-batch and big-brand distilleries alike.
Have your first taste in Bardstown, the self-proclaimed Bourbon Capital of the World. But first, stop for lunch at the historic Talbott Tavern to fill up on Southern specialties like "Old Kentucky Hot Brown" or country-fried steak. Then spend some time at Heaven Hill Distillery's Bourbon Heritage Center before tasting the family-owned distillery's whiskies. Just outside of Bardstown, make your way to the Maker's Mark Distillery, where you can smell the yellow mash of corn, wheat, and malted barley bubbling away before it is transferred to vats and barrels to ferment and mature.
After a good night's sleep, meander along green meadows and rivers to the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort to indulge in its award-winning bourbons. End your bender at Jim Beam with big-brand spirits as well as small-batch favorites like Knob Creek and Basil Hayden's, both under the Jim Beam umbrella.
Amish Country Byway, Ohio
Distance: 76 miles from Dover to Loudonville with various detours
Holmes County, Ohio, encompasses the largest concentration of Amish communities in the world, and driving through it is like stepping back in time. Horses clip-clop alongside the scenic byway, drawing buggies that still serve as the devout community's primary form of transportation. This isn't a road trip for speed demons; to truly experience the Amish pace of life, slow down and let your appetite guide your way.
Just north of Berlin, plan a stop at Heini's Cheese Chalet, a family-owned and -operated factory that provides tours and plenty of free samples of their natural Amish Country cheeses. The Holmes County Flea Market is just down the road and offers a large variety of drool-worthy eats, including fresh doughnuts and handmade fudge, alongside artisan furniture and crafts.
Yoder's Amish Home in Millersburg is a good midpoint for your drive. The fascinating tour through the homes and barn on the 116-acre property sheds light on Amish history and customs-and just might make you see this pastoral county in a brand-new way.
Santa Fe Trail, New Mexico and Colorado
Distance: 326 miles from Lamar, Colorado, to Santa Fe, New Mexico
Home to a number of national historical sites, this trail once served as a vital commercial trade route before the introduction of Santa Fe's railroad in 1880. Along its Colorado and New Mexico highways, mile after mile of rugged mountains and plains give way to recreated settlements and Old West sites.
Begin your journey through American history at the Colorado Welcome Center in Lamar, where the Madonna of the Trail statue honors the lives of pioneer women. Then drive an hour to Bent's Old Fort National Historic Site, a reconstructed adobe fort where you can learn what life was like for the fur trappers and Native Americans who traded here in the 19th century.
After crossing the border from Colorado into New Mexico, you'll want to stretch your legs and enjoy the stunning views at Cimarron Canyon State Park, part of New Mexico's Colin Neblett State Wildlife Area. The park's palisades, rushing rivers and creeks, and thick forests teem with wildlife, including black bears, elk, and turkeys.
Shipwreck Coast, Michigan
Distance: 153 miles from Marquette to Whitefish Point
Prepare to be blown away by the awesome southern shores of Lake Superior as you learn about the 300-plus shipwrecks on this beautiful drive. Start your trip by exploring the Marquette Harbor Lighthouse on a guided tour. Continue along the coast and you can't miss Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, a 40-mile stretch of sand dunes, pristine beaches, and rocky cliffs. Walk to the top of the enormous Grand Sable Dunes, which rise to 300 feet, for the ultimate vista of the banks below.
In aptly named Paradise, the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum remembers the many lives lost on the lake and offers rotating exhibits that explore maritime history. Nearby, red-and-white Whitefish Point Light Station, the oldest operating lighthouse on Lake Superior, provides a beacon of hope and windblown beauty on the tip of the point.
Native American Scenic Byway, North and South Dakota
Distance: 254 miles from Crow Creek Reservation, South Dakota, to Standing Rock Reservation, North Dakota
Grassy plains stretch out for miles on either side of this byway that crosses through the reservations of four Native American tribes-the Crow Creek, Lower Brule, Cheyenne River, and Standing Rock tribes of Lakota Sioux-and covers countless sacred sites, museums, and memorials. Driving through these lands is a window into life on the Great Plains.
The grand Missouri River is your constant companion along this national scenic byway. Follow it from the Crow Creek Reservation to the Lower Brule Reservation, stopping in at the Lower Brule tribe's Golden Buffalo Casino if you're in the mood to gamble. Both reservations are host to museums and interpretive centers that provide in-depth histories of the tribes and their connections to the land. In Pierre, South Dakota's capital city, stop to rest for the night-but not before taking in an evening cruise on the wide Missouri.
Search for buffalo, antelope, and elk from your car's windows as you drive on through the rolling tall-grass plains of the Cheyenne River Reservation. Further south along the Missouri, pay respects at the Sitting Bull and Sacagawea monuments on the Standing Rock Reservation.
Cheese Trail, Vermont
Distance: 169 miles from Shelburne to Townshend
More than 40 makers offer 150 varieties of cheese on this farmstead route. With more artisanal cheese makers per capita than any other state, Vermont is the place to get your fix.
Make your way past dairy farms and rolling green hills to Shelburne Farms on the shores of Lake Champlain. A National Historic Landmark, Shelburne offers programs on sustainability alongside award-winning farmhouse cheddar. Explore the 1,400-acre property's 10 miles of woodland walking trails, then visit the farm store and inn. Continue south through endless farmland where Nubian goats and Holstein and Ayrshire cows graze.
When hunger strikes again, stop at Fat Toad Farm in Brookfield for goat's milk chevre-and to-die-for goat's milk caramel sauce. Watch bucolic meadows give way to the Green Mountains en route to Crowley Cheese, the oldest continually operating cheese factory in the country. Crowley's prized cheese defies definition and has been dubbed "an American original." End your tour at Peaked Mountain Farm, home to almost 100 sheep whose milk is used to make feta, camembert, and natural-rind hard cheeses.
Big Bend Scenic Byway, Florida
Distance: 121 miles from St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge to Apalachicola
Weaving through national forestland and then along the Gulf Coast, this Florida byway is packed with photo ops and all sorts of wildlife. Comprised of a Forest Trail and a Coastal Trail, it is a unique journey that will take you through two very different ecosystems and plenty of classic Florida sights.
Drive slowly and watch out for wild hogs, bobcats, and snakes along these rural roads. Your first stop in St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge might even yield a spotting of the endangered West Indian manatee or leatherback turtle. Continue along the Forest Trail to Lake Talquin State Forest, where bald eagles and gopher tortoises live in the rolling uplands and swamps. As you head back south to the Apalachicola River Wildlife and Environmental Area, the most thriving longleaf-pine and wire-grass ecosystem in the United States, take a moment to look out your window as the Forest Trail cuts a stunning swath through Florida's woodland riches.
The drive along Apalachicola Bay's Coastal Trail begins a change in scenery from forests to salt marshes, beaches, and dunes. Before ending your journey in Apalachicola, cross the Bryant Patton Bridge for a day trip on St. George Island, a 28-mile barrier island that rewards with uncrowded white-sand beaches, pristine marshes, and some of the freshest oysters you'll ever eat.
Big Bend National Park, Texas
Distance: 108 miles through Big Bend National Park
Dramatic, desolate, and expansive, the borderlands of Texas are something straight out of a John Wayne movie. This untouched desert and mountain wilderness-the filming location for recent masterpieces There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men-is home to the splendor of Big Bend National Park.
Enter the park via the Chisos Basin Visitor Center and drive along Chisos Basin Road, which affords clear views of Big Bend Country's high mountaintops and rocky cliffs. Along Panther Junction, roadside displays describing wildlife beg drivers to pull over and explore. Connect to the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive that, for 30 miles, highlights cliffs and canyons and provides access to the park's Castolon Historic Compound. Here, visitors can explore the human history of the park, including the best-preserved mercury mining site in Texas, and enjoy a panoramic view that stretches from northern Mexico just across the Rio Grande to the basin of Terlingua Creek to the volcanic rocks of Cerro Castellan. Don't miss Santa Elena Canyon's limestone cliffs that rise high above the Rio Grande.
At night, Big Bend's remote location and lack of cloud cover and humidity make perfect conditions for summertime stargazing. Bring a blanket, binoculars, and a camera and don't be intimidated by 2,000+ visible stars and meteorites in a pitch-black sky.
Lighthouse Route, Nova Scotia
Distance: 189 miles from Halifax to Yarmouth
More than 20 beacons of light dot this winding road that hugs Nova Scotia's windswept South Shore. Begin your trip in Halifax and make your first stop at Peggy's Cove, a breathtaking fishing village that feels lost in another time. Explore the picturesque inlet's working fishing boats and quaint shops, then walk to the lighthouse, one of the most photographed in Canada. The giant rocks that surround it are perfect for hearty climbers who want to capture the cove's natural beauty from above.
Continue on the Lighthouse Route to Mahone Bay, a charming seaside town complete with art galleries, museums, and romantic restaurants. Book a tour at Amos Pewter to learn how its award-winning artisan pewter pieces are crafted, then stop at Jo-Ann's for an assortment of delicious Canadian cheeses and specialties like local salt-cod fishcakes.
Reenergize with a walking tour of Lunenburg, a UNESCO World Heritage site, led by a seventh-generation Lunenburger. Back on the road, enjoy the scenery en route to Yarmouth, a fishing port on the southwest tip of Nova Scotia. Don't hesitate to pull over for the countless antique shops, art galleries, and smoked-fish markets that are advertised, often on hand-drawn roadside signs, along the way.
Fundy Coastal Drive, New Brunswick
Distance: 220 miles from St. Andrews to Moncton
New Brunswick's Bay of Fundy is home to the world's most extreme tides, and there's no better way to see them than on a scenic drive along the province's coastline. Begin in St. Andrews, a lovely seaside resort town where art galleries, shops, and a luxuriant public garden make up the downtown area and kayak and whale-watching tours line the cove. Continue along the coast to Saint John, stopping at the Saint John City Market for local crafts and regional specialties like dulse, edible seaweed that is dried, flaked, and used as seasoning.
About an hour outside of Saint John, the Fundy Trail Parkway opens up to panoramic views of the bay. Take on any of the parkway's 16 lookouts by foot and you'll be rewarded with wilderness vistas in every direction. Build in enough time to fully explore Fundy National Park. From the park's headlands, watch fishing boats depart and return with fresh hauls, then venture into its deep woods on miles of hiking trails. To witness firsthand the power of the tides, visit the Hopewell Rocks-at low tide, you can walk right out onto the ocean floor and stand dwarfed by the reddish sandstone formations that, at high tide, are surrounded by water.
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