A Winter's Trail RELUCTANT TO GET ON A PLANE? HERE ARE FOUR GREAT WARM-WEATHER PLACES TO VACATION BY CAR.
(MONEY Magazine) – Winter always poses a travel conundrum for me--I don't like to ski, and I go quietly out of my mind if I'm stuck on a tropical beach with nothing to do. Basically, what I want to do in winter is the same thing I want to do the rest of the year: hit the road and explore America's endlessly varied landscape. Here are four southerly places to do just that, each in a different region of the country, all of them warm enough to check out even in the cold-weather months.
WEST COAST Route 1 from San Francisco to L.A.
Virtually any part of the California coast makes for a great drive, but the 380-mile stretch between San Francisco and L.A. has particularly good scenery and attractions. One fun stop along the way is the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum (West Cliff Dr., Santa Cruz, Calif. 95062; 831-420-6289; www.cruzio.com/arts /scva/surf.html), which is housed in an old lighthouse and documents the rise of the California surfing scene. A different sort of aquatic culture is featured at the Monterey Bay Aquarium (886 Cannery Row, Monterey, Calif. 93940; 831-648-4800; www.mbayaq.org), perennially ranked among America's finest aquariums. It features more than 300,000 creatures drawn from more than 570 species, all of them native to central California. Farther south, check out Hearst Castle (750 Hearst Castle Rd., San Simeon, Calif. 93452; 800-444-4445; www.hearstcastle.org), the palatial 127-acre estate that publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst built for himself in the 1920s--a fascinatingly excessive monument to one man's megalomania. Finally, if you like eccentric folk art, don't miss Grandma Prisbey's Bottle Village (4595 Cochrane St., Simi Valley, Calif. 93062; 805-583-1627; www.bottlevillage.com), a ragtag assortment of buildings and sculptures made primarily of bottles, hubcaps, old TV sets and other cleverly recycled materials. The project was begun in 1956 by one Tressa Prisbey, who was then 60 years old. She ended up working on Bottle Village for the next 25 years. She died in 1988, but her playful spirit of creativity lives on at this whimsical site. Bottle Village is literally crumbling, so hurry and see it while you can!
SOUTHWEST White Sands National Monument
Situated in south-central New Mexico, not far from El Paso, White Sands National Monument (19955 U.S. 70, Alamogordo, N.M. 88310; 505-679-2599; www.nps.gov/whsa) features 275 square miles of gypsum desert that has been sculpted by the wind into spectacular white dunes. The wind continues to be the dominant force here--the dunes can shift by as much as 30 feet a year--and the surreal landscape has given rise to a highly specialized ecosystem. Pale animals like the Apache pocket mouse and the bleached earless lizard have evolved to blend in with their surroundings, and plants like the soaptree yucca grow up to 30 feet tall to stay above the shifting sands. The park's scenic auto loop is nice, but get out of the car and hike some of the nature trails--in its beautifully spooky way, White Sands is like nothing you've ever seen and offers convincing evidence that a desert can be as gorgeous as a forest.
DEEP SOUTH Natchez Trace Parkway
Much like the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Natchez Trace Parkway (800-305-7417; www.nps.gov/natr) is an extremely scenic two-lane byway administered by the National Park Service. The 423-mile road, which stretches from Natchez, Miss. to Nashville, parallels the route of the old Natchez Trace, an Indian footpath that predates Columbus' arrival. It's an extremely beautiful drive--many stretches are nicely canopied by trees dripping with Spanish moss or blanketed with kudzu--plus there are numerous turn-offs along the way that feature sites of historical interest. The most evocative of these is the Sunken Trace, located at mile marker 41.5, where a 200-yard stretch of the original footpath itself has been preserved for visitors to explore. Although it's just a short walk from the roadway, the deeply eroded Sunken Trace feels like another world, and it's not hard to imagine what it must have been like for Indians traversing the route hundreds of years ago. Other parkway stops include Indian burial mounds, the remains of a ghost town (including a spectacularly picturesque cemetery) and old plantation sites. The 45-mph speed limit makes the drive that much more leisurely and relaxed.
EAST COAST Everglades National Park
Located just outside Miami, Everglades National Park (40001 State Rd. 9336, Homestead, Fla. 33034; 305-242-7700; www.nps.gov/ever) is America's largest subtropical wilderness area, and winter is a particularly good time to visit--it's the only time of year when you won't be eaten alive by mosquitoes. Pesky insects notwithstanding, the 1.5 million-acre park is also home to more than 900 species of birds, fish and animals--watch out for those gators! Much of the Everglades is underwater (it's essentially a massive, slow-moving river, 50 miles wide but only a few inches deep) and is accessible via boat tours. Plus there are two primary driving options: The park's northern edge is bordered by U.S. 41, which leads to the Shark Valley Information Center, where you can rent bikes or take a tram ride through the park's northern sector. To see the park's southern region, take Rte. 9336, a beautiful drive through some of the Everglades' most breathtaking areas. Nature trails, ranger-led walks and camping are also available.