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Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Favorite American Drives, Las Vegas to Zion and Bryce National Parks, Utah

A mere ninety minute drive from the neon lights of the Las Vegas strip and you’re in the arid desert of southwestern Utah. It’s a geologist’s dream of twisting red rock walls, craggy peaks, monoliths, buttes, and further east, when you reach Bryce National Park, the colorful standing pinnacles they call hoodoos.

First stop across the state line is Snow Canyon State Park, just outside the growing spa and retirement hub of St. George. Canyon walls looked like they’re clumped together from a playdough kit, curving like a snake around each bend. It’s a perfect place for a hideout. At least, that’s what the producers of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid thought when they filmed part of the movie here. Take a nature walk, a worthy introduction to such desert flora as the white cliff rose flower, the ancient creosote bush, juniper trees, prickly pear cacti, and the silvery leaves of old-man sagebrush. 

Less than an hour away is the towering cliff walls of Zion and the canyon walls that slice through the jagged rock. Another ninety minute drive and you reach the spires of Bryce. While you spend most of your time in Zion looking up in awe at the canyon walls, at Bryce, you peer down at the hundreds of hoodoos that line the amphitheater. Inspiration Point is an apt name for the peach, apricot, tan, white, red, and orange rocks that stand at attention like congregants at church. On the Queen’s Garden Trail, stroll down a dusty stone path for a closer look. Behind every hoodoo is another fantastic wall, arch, grotto or cliff to gape at. “It would be a helluva place to lose a cow,” Ebenezer Bryce supposedly said on first sight. 

Pack plenty of sunscreen, hats, and water. While Bryce is at an elevation of 8,000 to 9,000 feet, Zion is half that elevation and thus significantly warmer. Try to do most of your walks before or after the hot part of the day, noon to 3 pm. We found the shuttle service in Zion to be excellent, but we opted for our car in Bryce because the bus followed a more circuitous route. Best Western is truly the best out west. The pool at the Best Western Zion Park Inn overlooked the majesty of Zion. Best Western Ruby’s Inn was the first hotel built in Bryce and sits right outside the park boundary.

From Bryce, you can continue on to rarely visited Capitol Reef National Park or head south to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon (about a 4-hour drive). Or rent a Cadillac like we did and cruise on dirt roads through the Bureau of Land Management to the canyon walls of Lake Powell. That was one wild off-road ride through desolate country.

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 10/05/11 at 01:00 PM
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Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Favorite American Drives, Cruising Around Mississippi

One of the best road trips I’ve ever taken in North America was with my brother Jim in Mississippi. Starting in Jackson, we headed to Tupelo to visit the small birthplace shack of Elvis Presley. Follow Route 278 west and an hour later, you arrive at the home of writer William Faulkner and the attractive University of Mississippi campus in Oxford.

Continue to follow Route 278 west for a little more than an hour to reach the birthplace of the Blues, Clarksdale. The amount of musical talent that began their careers in this small town of 21,000 is remarkable. Muddy Waters was raised on the Stovall Plantation outside of town. Soul man Sam Cooke was born here, along with electric blues master John Lee Hooker, W.C. Handy, and Ike Turner, whose green house still stands on Washington Street. At the crossroads of Highway 61 and 49, early 20th-centruy bluesman Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil in exchange for a guitar. Muddy Water’s cabin is one of the highlights of the Delta Blues Museum, housed in a renovated freight depot.

Jim and I spent two nights at one of the most unique accommodations in the country, the Shack Up Inn. Set on the Hopson Plantation, where the mechanical cotton picker made its debut in 1941, owner Bill Talbot has converted six former sharecropper shacks into his own version of a B&B (bed and beer). Each rambling shack pays tribute to a blues legend, like the one we stayed in dedicated to boogie-woogie pianist Pinetop Perkins, who once worked at this same plantation.

Head south on Highway 61 through the heart of the Delta and you’ll find the zig-zag shaped trenches Union and Confederate troops dug during the Civil War’s bloody Siege of Vicksburg, now a National Military Park. Another hour of driving and you’ll reach that gem on the Mississippi River, Natchez. During its heyday prior to the Civil War, when cotton was king, Natchez had more millionaires per capita than any other city in the country. They built palatial estates that were largely spared during the Civil War due to its proximity to Vicksburg. The Union soldiers that survived that battle and made it to Natchez burned the cotton fields but left the homes intact. More than 150 of these structures still stand, including many that are still in private hands.

That includes the Monmouth Plantation, where mint juleps are served in a frosty silver cup promptly at 6:30 in the Quitman Study. Then everyone retires to the dining room, an ornate parlor adorned with long chandeliers and portraits of General John Quitman, who called Monmouth home in the 1820s. The highlight of this comfortable retreat, however, is the meticulously landscaped grounds, shaded by centuries-old oaks and their thick dress of Spanish moss.

From Natchez, it’s a two-hour drive back to Jackson, where we checked out the relatively new Mississippi Museum of Art in the emerging cultural district. Then we dropped off our convertible PT Cruiser and flew home. For the perfect 4-5 night drive through the Deep South, this can’t be beat.

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 10/04/11 at 01:00 PM
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Monday, October 03, 2011

Favorite Drives in America, Fall Foliage Road Trip Through New England

October, when the summer crowds are gone and the snow has yet to drop, is my favorite time of year to cruise around the country. This week, I’m going to delve into some of those blessed routes. First up, a fall foliage drive around New England.

Start on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean in historic Portland, Maine. Grab an order of crispy French fries doused in truffle ketchup at Duckfat and then spend the night at Portland’s West End, a quiet residential neighborhood with many grand Victorian houses, including the Pomegranate Inn. The next morning, start your drive on Route 302 North through a web of waterways like large Sebago Lake. Soon you enter New Hampshire and pass the outlet stores in North Conway. In Glen, turn north on Route 16 and a mile later, you’ll go through a covered bridge into another era. The circular green of Jackson, ringed by inns, antique stores, and requisite white steeple, has been thriving as a resort town since the mid-nineteenth century. The allure is its proximity to Mt. Washington, the highest peak in New England. Just six miles up Route 16 is Pinkham Notch, home of the Appalachian Mountain Club and base of Mt. Washington. If you want your fall foliage drive to continue, take the Auto Road all the way to the summit. Or get out of the car and climb to Lowe’s Bald Spot, a 3,000-foot opening on Mt. Washington’s eastern slopes that rewards you with views of Mount Adams, Mount Madison and other presidential peaks. 

A right turn in Glen, New Hampshire, on Route 302 and a left turn in Bartlett onto Bear Notch Road begins your ascent the next day into the White Mountain National Forest. Eventually, you’ll reach the 34-mile Kancamagus Highway (Route 112), or “Kanc” as the locals call it, the state’s centerpiece for leaf peeping. Rising 3,000 feet, the Kanc snakes through the thick forest of the Whites. You’ll have plenty of places to stop and picnic, even take a hike as you travel west. 

Continue on Route 112 past I-93 and head south on a little known gem of a road, Route 10. The rising and falling route hugs the Connecticut River, hemmed in by farmland on either side. Patches of pumpkins, zucchini, and butternut squash line the route prior to entering the handsome village of Haverhill and its double Commons. Next up is Orford, New Hampshire, listed in the National Register of Historic Places for its seven Federal-style buildings, known as the Orford Ridge houses, constructed between 1773 and 1840.  Finally, you reach Hanover and its ivy-covered Georgian-style buildings, otherwise known as Dartmouth University.

Head west on Route 4 to reach Woodstock, Vermont. Home to one of the oldest operating country stores, a premier resort aptly named the Woodstock Inn, and the Marsh-Billings National Historic Park, Woodstock has long been a popular fall foliage destination. South of Woodstock on Route 106 is serious horse farm country where you can saddle up for a ride at places like Kedron Valley Stables. Veer right on Routes 131and 103 to reach Route 100 south. This is one of the finest stretches of country road in America—a bucolic mix of rolling farmland, covered bridges, and freshly painted churches—all in the shadows of the Green Mountains. Unfortunately, it was hammered by Hurricane Irene, so make sure to check with the state of Vermont to ensure there are no delays. You’ll pass some of the better known Vermont ski resorts like Okemo and Mt. Snow before reaching the Massachusetts border. Stretch your legs at Jamaica State Park, where a stroll along the West River leads to a waterfall. 

In Massachusetts, take Route 8 south into the industrial town of North Adams, home to Mass MoCA, the largest contemporary art museum in the country. If you can’t get enough color from the foliage, enter these converted warehouses for a splash of Sol Lewitt. For your final day’s drive, skip the Mass Pike and, instead opt for the smaller Route 2 east. This is the start of the scenic Mohawk Trail. Bordering an old Native American hiking trail through the mountains, the Mohawk Trail is a serpentine road that offers stunning lookouts onto the countryside. In Charlemont, the rapids of the Deerfield River come into view. As you get close to Boston, you’ll pass Concord, site of the first battle of the Revolutionary War, now the Minute Man National Historical Park. To return to Portland, simply take I-95 north for two hours to complete the route. This five to six-day drive is the ultimate fall foliage route!

Posted by Steve Jermanok on 10/03/11 at 01:00 PM
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photo of Steve Jermanok
Longtime Boston Globe travel writer, Steve Jermanok, dishes out his favorite travel locales and provides topical travel information that comes across his desk. is an Austin-Lehman Adventure's Top 125 Best Travel Blog Semi-Finalist

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