500 Places to Take Your Kids Before They Grow Up highlights some of the world's best destinations and trips to take with your children. Below you'll find five North American roadtrips, from Cape Breton Island in the east to California's Pacific Coast Highway in the west.
What: The Lighthouse Tour of Maine
Who: All ages
Where: Kittery to Castine, Maine,
It's one of those classic images of New England: the stalwart lighthouse, perched above crashing waves, sending out its beam to welcome home the fishermen. And nowhere is the concentration greater than in Maine. It's only natural -- Maine's jagged coastline is so fringed with inlets and islands and carved-out bays, if a giant came along and pulled it straight it would be 5,500 miles long. You need a lot of lighthouses to navigate a shore that crazy, and driving from one to the next is a great connect-the-dots way to enjoy the state.
Start out north of Kittery, turning off Route 1 to York Beach. At the northern end of Long Sands Beach, postcard- perfect Nubble Light sits high on a peninsula, with its white Victorian keeper's house alongside. On a clear day, if you've got binoculars, you may also be able to see slim granite-gray Boon Island Light 10 miles out to sea -- New England's tallest lighthouse, at 13 stories high. Just north of Kennebunkport, off Route 1 on Maine 208, the hamlet of Cape Porpoise has a lighthouse offshore on Goat Island, which has been used by the Secret Service detail to protect the senior President Bush when he's at his Kennebunkport home.
There are no fewer than five lighthouses in greater Portland -- from south to north: the gracefully proportioned Cape Elizabeth Light at Two Lights State Park, featured in the paintings of Edward Hopper; the tapering white Portland Head Light, Fort Williams Park, 1000 Shore Rd., an active lighthouse since 1794 with a small museum in its former keeper's house; the granite-block Ram Island Ledge Light offshore from Portland Head; the fire-hydrant-shaped Spring Point Light on a breakwater at the end of South Portland's Broadway; and around the same point, the Portland Breakwater Light, nicknamed Bug Light for reasons the kids should be able to figure out.
Go north on I-95 to Brunswick, where Route 1 branches off east, running like a spine along the heavily indented coast. In Boothbay Harbor, ferries from the pier visit the stout white Burnt Island Light, which you can tour. In Bristol, there's the whitewashed stone Pemaquid Point Light, which now contains a fishing museum. In Port Clyde, the peaceful Marshall Point Light, which also contains a small museum, played a bit part in the movie Forrest Gump. Northeast of here, the Penobscot Bay area has a host of lighthouses, including a pair on either side of Rockland harbor, the quirky Rockland Harbor Southwest Light, North Shore Rd., growing out of a wood-shingle house, and the red-brick Rockland Breakwater Light on the north side of the harbor. Another 50 miles or so on Route 1 will take you around the top of the bay to Castine, where the privately owned rough, conical Dice Head Light sits at the end of Route 166.
Location & information: Maine Office of Tourism (tel. 888/624-6345; www.visitmaine.com).
What: The Skyline Drive & Blue Ridge Parkway
Who: All ages
Where: Virginia, North Carolina & Tennessee
Anchored at either end by national parks -- Shenandoah National Park at one end, Great Smoky Mountains National Park at the other -- this 574-mile stretch of Appalachian mountain-crest highway is stunning any time of year. In May, wildflowers bloom along with dogwood and mountain laurel, and in summer these mountain reaches stay refreshingly cool and green. We drove it in early fall, missing the vivid foliage of mid- to late October but experiencing an amazing sight: a blizzard of monarch butterflies stubbornly plowing into oncoming traffic, refusing to veer off of their hard-wired migration route. In the winter, whenever snow and ice close some parts of the parkway, you can even cross-country ski here.
Tell the kids that all those trees releasing hydrocarbons into the atmosphere creates the mountains' distinctive haze -- blue along the Blue Ridge, slightly grayer (and therefore "smoky") in the Smoky Mountains. Both parkways are mileposted, which makes counting down the distances fun for kids, and there are walking trails marked continually (look for signs bearing a rifle-and-powderhorn symbol). We also played Spot the Scenic Overlook, keeping watch for the next pull-off area where we could jump out and really drink in those hill-and-valley vistas. Another thing to do is to count the tunnels -- there's only one in Virginia but 26 in North Carolina, most of them in the hilly section below Asheville.
The 105-mile Skyline Drive, which has an entry fee, begins at Front Royal, Virginia, and slices southwest through long, skinny Shenandoah National Park. Around Waynesboro, the road's name changes to the Blue Ridge Parkway (469 miles in total), and the surrounding greenery becomes the Jefferson National Forest. You'll cross the border into North Carolina and roll through the Pisgah National Forest (my kids love that name), reaching higher elevations as you angle west past Asheville to the Great Smoky Mountains park, which spills west into Tennessee.
You can take a break at several sites en route: At the Blue Ridge Parkway milepost 5.8, Humpback Rocks, the Mountain Farm trail meanders through a cluster of 19th-century farm buildings; at milepost 85.9, the Peaks of Otter, a loop trail leads to the rural Johnson Farm; milepost 176.2 accesses picturesque Mabry Mill, along with a blacksmith shop, wheelwright's shop, and whiskey still; Puckett Cabin (milepost 189.9) was the home of a busy 19th-century mountain midwife; the Jesse Brown Farmstead (milepost 272.5) consists of a cabin, spring house, and a Baptist church. At milepost 292, Moses H. Cone Memorial Park offers a turn-of-the-century manor house. Since your drive should take at least 2 days, overnight in Boone, North Carolina, where the Hickory Ridge Homestead Museum (tel. 828/264-6390) is a re-created log cabin furnished in 1780-era style.
What: The Cabot Trail
Who: All ages
Where: Nova Scotia, Canada
Nova Scotia is Latin for "New Scotland," and the name really fits blustery, craggy Cape Breton Island. The Scots who settled this part of Canada were generally Highlanders who'd rebelled against the English Crown, and I like to think that they immediately felt at home on these isolated uplands. Cape Breton Island National Park is a starkly beautiful wilderness with a split personality: in the interior rises a melancholy plateau of wind-stunted evergreens, bogs, and barrens, a fitting home for druids or trolls; around the edges, the mountains tumble suddenly to the sea in a dramatic coastscape of ravines and ragged, rust-colored cliffs. The Scottish Highlands don't have a scenic coastal highway, but the North American version does: the Cabot Trail, a 300km (185-mile) loop built in 1939 to take advantage of those astounding sea views.
You'll get onto the roadway at Baddeck, a New England-y town where Alexander Graham Bell spent his summers (there's a good exhibit on his life and work on Chebucto St.), but things get more rugged as you swing north toward the park. The gateway to the park is the Acadian town of Chéticamp, the most French-speaking part of the island -- notice the French names on local shops and restaurants -- where the visitor center has some good natural history displays and a large-scale relief map to give the kids a geographic idea of where they're going.
The Cabot Trail circuit should take 6 to 8 hours to drive. Don't expect to make good time; the road has lots of brake-testing steep climbs and whooshing descents, and you'll also want to stop at many pullouts. The most gorgeous stretch is the 44km (27 miles) from Chéticamp to Pleasant Bay along the western coast. You'll lose the water views for a time after Pleasant Bay, as you cut across the headlands to Cape North, where English explorer John Cabot first set foot on the North American continent (although some Newfoundlanders claim he first landed in Newfoundland). Going down the eastern coast, you'll pass through a series of towns with Scottish names -- Ingonish Centre, Ingonish Ferry, South Ingonish Harbour -- and then make a precipitous climb to the promontory of Cape Smokey, where panoramic views explode on every side.
Stop and stretch your legs on some of the hiking trails that head inland from the road. The best ones for kids are the half-mile-long Bog Trail, which follows a boardwalk into the gnarled bogs of the tableland, and the half-mile Lone Shieling loop, which enters a verdant hardwood forest that includes 350-year-old sugar maples; a re-creation of a Scottish crofter's hut is a highlight of the trail. An 11km (6.8-mile) trail leads along the bluffs of Cape Smokey; even if you don't go all the way to the tip, it's worth walking partway just to feel the headland winds and taste the salt air.
Location & information: Cape Breton Highlands National Park (tel. 888/773-8888; www.pc.gc.ca).
What: San Juan Skyway
Who: All ages
Where: Begins & ends in Durango, Colorado
Close to the Four Corners, where Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico meet at right angles, this 256-mile loop of highway is one of the country's most spectacular drives, taking in the whole panorama of the Southwest -- from ancient Native American cliff dwellings to Wild West towns to smart ski resorts, all against an incredible backdrop of 10,000-foot-high Rocky Mountain passes, canyons, waterfalls, and alpine meadows.
I prefer to follow the circuit clockwise from Durango, saving the most breathtaking scenery for the end. You can drive it in 1 day, but there are enough intriguing stops en route to make it worth 2 or 3 days. For example, the first (and, frankly, least scenic) 45 miles, along U.S. 160 west from Durango, takes you past Mesa Verde National Park, an awe-inspiring archaeological site with thousands of Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings that deserves a full day on its own. Ten miles past the park, just before the town of Cortez, turn north on CO 145 up the Dolores River Valley, slicing into mountains thickly forested with green. Sixty miles past Dolores, the kids should be able to spot the startling rock spire that earned Lizard Head Pass its name. A few miles past here, you can detour 4 miles east to historic Telluride. This is where Butch Cassidy robbed his first bank, in 1889. The museum at 201 W. Gregory Ave. (tel. 970/728-3344) displays loads of artifacts from the town's Wild West Days, and you get a distinct late 1800s vibe just from walking around the landmarked downtown streets.
Colorado 145 goes west, following the San Miguel River Valley to Placerville, where you pick up CO 62 to head north over the Dallas Divide. You'll come next to Ridgway, a tiny old railroad town; go south on U.S. 550 to Ouray, another quaint Old West town to explore (a soak in the hot springs here makes a great break from driving). Past Ouray, you'll be driving the Million Dollar Highway, so named because millions of dollars passed over it in the great days of Colorado gold and silver mining. It's still worth a million dollars just for the views; the next 23 miles, over Red Mountain Pass to Silverton, are breathtaking, as the road shimmies up the sheer sides of a gorge, dives through tunnels, and passes cascading waterfalls. On the Red Mountain slopes around you, look for relics of mining equipment and log cabins. From Silverton, U.S. 550 climbs over two last passes, the Molas Divide and the Coalbank Pass; south of Purgatory, you join the gorgeous route of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad as you head back to Durango.
Location & information: Durango Area tourist office (tel. 800/463-8726; www.durango.org).
What: The Pacific Coast Highway
Who: All ages
Where: Los Angeles to San Francisco, California
Beginning near the old mission town of San Juan Capistrano, state highway 1 hugs the California coast all the way up to Leggett, in northern California -- and I mean it hugs the coast, darting around coves and clinging to steeply shelving cliffs, with the Pacific Ocean almost always out your side window. It's not the most efficient route to take from southern to northern California (or vice versa). Travelers intent on getting there fast opt for inland I-5, or at least U.S. 101. No, if you're driving the Pacific Coast Highway, you're looking for scenery -- and some of the most spectacular coastal scenery in the world it is.
While some consider the PCH the whole series of connected highways from the Mexican border to Canada, I define it as California Highway 1 (which sometimes overlaps with U.S. 101). At various points, this winding two-lane road may be called the Cabrillo Highway, after the Spanish explorer, or El Camino Real, the old Spanish road linking a chain of early settlements. What really matters is its proximity to the Pacific.
We tend to skip the southern section, avoiding L.A.'s congestion, and start alongside the bleached sands of Santa Monica Beach . We usually break up the drive into 3 days so we can stop en route to walk on beaches, explore small towns, and so on. Along the way -- say, around Cambria, near Hearst Castle -- suddenly we're no longer in Southern California, and things get more rugged. Up near Half Moon Bay there's a steep downward plunge of the road called Devil's Slide that the kids love. Past San Francisco, we cruise a lonelier stretch of Northern California coast, where we make a pilgrimage to the giant redwoods -- depending on time, we may make it as far as Muir Woods or Redwood National Park.
The most dramatic stretches of the drive occur where the mountains crowd close to the ocean's edge -- for instance, just north of Santa Barbara, where the Santa Inez peaks tumble precipitously to the beach, or the entire section from Morro Bay north to Carmel, where the sea nips at the toes of the Santa Lucia mountains. Each curve you whip around reveals another jaw-dropping vista, narrow strips of white foam-edged sand purling below you on one side, furrowed brown mountainsides beetling over you on the other. Surfers bob on their boards offshore -- or are those seals? -- and hawks coast dreamily overhead. It's beautiful at noon, with blue skies and bright sun; it's beautiful in a haunting fog; it's beautiful glowing at sunset; it's even beautiful in a wistful gray rain. It's just plain beautiful.
I've driven the Pacific Coast Highway twice with my kids, both times going south to north. Next time I plan to drive it north to south, which I suspect is even more thrilling. Maybe in a red convertible, with the Beach Boys' "Wouldn't It Be Nice" blasting from the car radio... ah, California.
This article is an excerpt from 500 Places to Take Your Kids Before They Grow Up, available in our Online Bookstore now. Author Holly Hughes has traveled the globe as an editor and writer -- she's the former executive editor of Fodor's Travel Publications, the series editor of Frommer's Irreverent Guides, and author of Frommer's New York City with Kids. She's also written fiction for middle graders and edits the annual Best Food Writing anthology. New York City makes a convenient jumping-off place for her travels with her three children and husband.
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