Backseat Bliss

Outside magazine, Family Vacation Guide

Backseat Bliss
If you wanna keep the pint-sized critics happy and the moveable food fights to a minimum, there'd better be something pretty awedome in store when the seat belts come off


Road trips

Home, Home on the Road

Way to Go
Kids v. Dogs

California's Central Coast
A drive up the hardly secret central coast of California is an obligatory pilgrimage, but it can be over all too soon. Do it in one day and you'll be mesmerized by vista after vista of foam-battered headlands, but your kids will be frustrated car-seat sightseers. They'll want to roll in sand dunes, gawk at elephant seals, and play tag with the cold surf. A lazy five-day ramble will please all parties involved.

Day One: Oceano to Montaña de Oro State Park. Mileage: 32. Drive time: About 2 hours. Stopovers and side trips: The Nipomo Dunes Complex, beginning just west of the town of Guadalupe (15 miles south of the town of Pismo Beach) and spreading over 18 square miles, is a quiet world of wind-whipped sandy mountains. Walk and roll and plunge-step at will, and take the quarter-mile boardwalk at Oso Flaco Lake, a willow-shrouded bird haven. Between Oceano and Grover Beach, you can drive right on the beach, tide permitting, and stab a fork in the sand for giant Pismo clams. In Pismo Beach, guess what you should eat at Pismo Fish & Chips?

Four miles north is well-protected Avila Beach, with summer-swimmable water (kids, anyway, can tolerate the low-60s brine), but there's also Avila Hot Springs, a naturally heated, sulfury plunge. But save the bulk of the day for exploring Montaña de Oro State Park — 8,400 acres of rolling hills and 3.5 miles of California's most pristine accessible coastline. Scope the tide pools of Spooner's Cove (near park headquarters) for anemones, sea stars, mussels, and limpets, or if the tide's in, walk the flat, 2.2-mile (one-way) Bluffs Trail along the park's cliffs. Bedtime: If you're not camping at one of the 50 primitive sites in Montaña de Oro ($10 per night; reservations recommended; 805-528-0513), get a jump on tomorrow and proceed five miles north to the Inn at Morro Bay ($189-$249 per night for a room with two double beds; 805-772-5651), which overlooks Morro Bay State Park's estuary and bird sanctuary, and provides complimentary mountain bikes.

Day Two: Montaña de Oro State Park to Cambria. Mileage: 32. Drive time: About 2 hours. Stopovers and side trips: The natural-history museum in Morro Bay State Park will psych everyone for spotting great blue herons, ospreys, egrets, and other showy avians during a sea-kayak paddle through the estuary. (Rentals are available from Kayak Horizons, 805-772-1119.) Afterward, pick up some smoked fish or crab claws at Giovanni's Fish Market in Morro Bay and chow down in the shadow of 576-foot landmark Morro Rock, where you'll have a view of frolicking otters and harbor seals. Bedtime: In town, The Bluebird Motel (doubles, $48-$60; 805-927-4634), with its French-country decor, is about half the price of the B&Bs.

Day Three: Cambria to Big Sur. Mileage: 73. Drive time: 3 hours. Stopovers and side trips: It's hard to resist the tour of garishly lovely Hearst Castle. Kids will dig seeing zebras grazing in the meadows en route, as well as Hearst's spectacular tile swimming pool. Back down in San Simeon, the 1852 Sebastian General Store has gourmet provisions. Picnic on the pier, then proceed several miles north to the beginning of the Big Sur Coast. For the next nearly 100 miles, every twist of the road reveals (fog permitting) foamy surf bashing sea stacks and headlands. Just below Piedras Blancas Lighthouse, pull over to witness hundreds of blubbery elephant seals lollygagging on the beach and rocks. A bit farther north, hike the easy .8-mile (one-way) trail to Limekiln Canyon in Limekiln State Park, where the kilns are spookily alien presences in the redwood forest. Bedtime: Book a room at Big Sur Lodge (lodge rooms big enough for four, $139-$169; 800-424-4787) within Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, or camp at one of the park's 218 sites ($20-$23 per night; 408-667-2315).

Day Four: Big Sur. Mileage: 54. Drive time: 2 hours. Stopovers and side trips: Backtrack ten miles down the Highway to Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park for two of the best short walks in Big Sur. The 1.64-mile (round-trip) Waterfall Overlook Trail leads to a view of McWay Falls, an arcing, 50-foot direct plunge into the Pacific. The .88-mile (round-trip) Partington Cove Trail tunnels through rock to plop you onto a remote cove populated by sea otters. On your return north, stop at the Coast Gallery, where kids can watch rainbow-hued candles being made, and scarf down sandwiches and pastries upstairs in the café. Just south of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, Sycamore Canyon Road leads to beautiful Pfeiffer Beach, where waves blast onto sea stacks, caves, and blowholes. A few miles north in Garrapata State Park, trails lead a couple miles west to Soberanes Point, or three miles east up Soberanes Creek through a spectacular hidden redwood canyon. Bedtime: Back to Big Sur Lodge/Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park.

Day Five: Big Sur to Monterey. Mileage: 33. Drive time: 1.5 hours. Stopovers and side trips: About 12 miles north of the park, Bixby Creek Bridge, arching over the creek's deep canyon, is the day's first photo op. Point Lobos State Reserve is dense with wind-sculpted Monterey cypress trees; short trails lead to wave-bashed headlands. Monterey has all sorts of tourist trappings, but the Monterey Bay Aquarium is supreme. It's like stepping right into the aquatic world you've been observing from the outside for the past four days. Bedtime: Rooms at the Monterey Bay Inn (doubles, $199-$339; 831-373-6242) overlook Cannery Row or the harbor, and a coastal bike path is just a half block away. Rent bikes ($6 per hour) for the seven-mile ride, or rent single and double sea kayaks for paddling the harbor from Adventures by the Sea ($25 per person per day; 831-372-1807).
— Robert Earle Howells

South Carolina Coast
It's only about 200 miles from one end of South Carolina's coastline to the other, but it may as well be 2,000. Up north, Myrtle Beach is all neon and newness, goofy roadside golf and fast food, whereas down south, the Lowcountry is watery and secretive, with blackwater swamps, cypress jungles, and twisted live oaks masked in moss. Anchoring the middle is sweet old Charleston. U.S. 17 is your ticket to all these places plus islands for shelling and swimming, secluded coves for kayaking and birdwatching, sandy trails for beach biking, and warm-water flats where your family can hunt for blue crabs at low tide. North, south, or in between, this is a coast for kids.

Days One and Two: Myrtle Beach to Pawleys Island. Mileage: 28. Drive time: 45 minutes. Stopovers and side trips: Spend as little time as possible in Myrtle Beach — the town is pure tourist terror. Instead, head for Huntington Beach State Park (843-237-4440), about 17 miles south. Within this 2,500-acre wilderness are dense woods, freshwater lagoons, saltwater marshes, and wide beaches with blue-green surf, perfect for swimming. The kids can try for blue crabs off the salt-marsh boardwalk; all they they need is a dip net, a lead weight and string, and chicken necks (the park store sells everything but the necks, which you can pick up at any grocery store in the nearby towns). But what they'll like most is prowling around Atalaya, a massive Moorish stone and brick mansion built in the 1930s, with randomly spaced windows and a strange watchtower. Bedtime: The Sea View Inn (doubles, $190-$250, including all meals; two-night minimum stay; 843-237-4253) is a weathered house with cypress decks on the beach.

Day Three: Pawleys Island to the McClellanville area. Mileage: 33. Drive time: 50 minutes. Stopovers and side trips: Spend another morning on Pawleys. The Sea View Inn can deliver rental bikes so your family can explore the island that locals call "four miles long and one house wide." If the waves are up, the kids can bodysurf while you sunbathe on soft, sink-to-your-ankles sand. Later, head to Georgetown and join one of Captain Rod's Lowcountry Plantation Tours (843-477-0287), a riverboat ride among rice mansions and a good chance to spot 'gators. Keep heading south to the Sewee Visitor & Environmental Education Center (843-928-3368) for a two-hour, naturalist-led swamp stroll and a peek at endangered red wolves. Sign up for the 30-minute ferry over to Bull Island, ground zero for the coast's best beaches (swimming sometimes isn't advisable due to currents; call 843-881-4582 for ferry schedules and current information). Bedtime: Down a winding dirt road, the Laurel Hill Plantation Bed and Breakfast (doubles, $95-$115 per night; $15 each additional person; 843-887-3708), just south of the town of McClellanville, is a four-guest-room farmhouse with porch rockers, rope swings, views of ocean and marsh, and good crabbing from the long dock. If you want to splurge on your own three-bedroom house, The Lodge at Lofton's Landing ($475-$600 per night for up to eight people; no kids under four; call 843-720-7332), four miles south of McClellanville, is a big, beautiful Japanese-style pole home buried in woods at the edge of marsh.

Day Four: Explore Bulls Bay and the Bull Island area. The Lodge at Lofton's Landing runs guided sea-kayaking and canoeing tours, including a half-day paddle around the salt marshes of Bulls Bay (adults, $55; children 12 and under, $50). Or sign up for the four-hour Lower Santee River/Wambaw Creek tour (adults, $65; children 12 and under, $50; lunch included) through Francis Marion National Forest. On both trips you're likely to see osprey, swallow-tailed kites, eagles, and alligators. The ultimate creek cruise is the 2.5-hour Black Mingo Creek paddle (adults, $120; children 12 and under, $100) through a blackwater swamp and around giant cypress trees where pileated woodpeckers and wild turkeys roost.

Day Five: McClellanville area to Edisto Island. Mileage: 75. Drive time: 2.5 hours. Stopovers and side trips: Charleston is the obvious detour, if only for a horse-drawn carriage tour and a quick lunch at Your Place, a blue-painted shack that serves up mountain-size burgers. Then drive south to the Edisto Island area and catch Cap'n Richard's ACE Basin Nature Tour (tours leave from the Old Post Office; $65 for ages eight and older; $55 for five- to seven-year-olds; no children under five; 843-766-9664). It's an intimate, five-hour cruise in a 19-foot Carolina skiff that wends through the 350,000-acre ACE Basin National Wildlife Refuge, just inland from Edisto Island. You'll see lots of wildlife on this one: eagles, alligators, wood storks, and herons. Back on Edisto Island, hike the 4.5-mile (one-way) Indian Mound Trail in 1,255-acre Edisto Beach State Park (easy for most kids over age seven; bring lots of bug repellent). Bedtime: Stay in one of five two-bedroom cabins with kitchens, bed linens, and air-conditioning at Edisto Beach State Park ($356 per week for up to six people; book at least a year ahead), or pitch a tent at one of the park's 102 campsites, 69 of which are adjacent to the beach, with water, picnic tables, showers, and restrooms ($10-$21 per night; 843-869-2156 or 869-2756).

Day Six: Edisto Island to Hunting Island. Mileage: 88. Drive time: 2 hours. Stopovers and side trips: Stop in Beaufort (BEW-fort) to poke around the antebellum mansions and waterfront park with swings along the seawall. Cross over to St. Helena Island and have lunch at The Shrimp Shack; the shrimp burgers are legendary, and you can watch the shrimp boats pull in their nets. Across the causeway at Hunting Island State Park, take a swim in the ocean, then join the angling carnival on 1,120-foot Paradise Pier for trout, drum, and flounder. Bedtime: Pitch a tent at 200-site Hunting Island State Park ($10-$21 per night; 843-838-2011); the campground has water, hookups, hot showers, and rest-rooms, as well as 13 one- to three-bedroom cabins with cable TV and air-conditioning. Or rent one of 300 condos, cottages, and houses next door at Fripp Island Resort, a private golf and tennis resort community with its own 3.5-mile beach, hiking trails, restaurants, swimming pool, marina, and kids' program (one-bedroom condos that sleep up to four, $85-$120 per night; 800-845-4100).
— Stacy Ritz

Washington and Oregon, Route 97
Think Land of the Lost. Think eons ago. Think exploding landscapes. Then sprinkle all those themes liberally across the backseat during your car trek down U.S. 97, a lonesome, north-south highway that traces the eastern spine of the Cascade Mountains in Washington and Oregon. After snaking through mountains past the clear rivers in Central Washington, the highway slithers through the Columbia River Gorge before emerging in an Oregon netherland bursting with views of volcanoes — old, new, and in between — and the awesome geology they've left in their wake. Call it a hands-on lesson in vulcanology, geology, and just plain fun.

Day One: Seattle to Brooks Memorial State Park. Mileage: 230. Drive time: 4 to 5 hours. Stopovers and side trips: After a quick blast through the heart of Washington's Central Cascades, the scenic Yakima River Canyon along Washington 821 offers a couple of pull-outs that make beautiful lunch spots. Bedtime: Brooks Memorial State Park ($5-$15 per night; first-come, first-served; 509-773-4611), 13 miles north of Goldendale along U.S. 97, has 45 flat campsites. Spend the late afternoon on hiking trails that skirt beaver dams on the Little Klickitat River.

Day Two: Brooks Memorial State Park to Maryhill State Park. Mileage: 31. Drive time: 45 minutes. Stopovers and side trips: After setting up camp at Maryhill State Park (see below), backtrack a short distance up U.S. 97 to explore the odd remnants of a mini-empire left behind by Sam Hill; in the 1920s, this eccentric local legend built a huge mansion above the Columbia River Gorge (now the Maryhill Museum of Art), plus an almost-to-scale model of England's Stonehenge, which he dedicated to the dead of World War I.

Cap off the day by driving the short distance into Goldendale to the Goldendale Observatory State Park (509-773-3141), where you'll find a 24.5-inch reflecting telescope that is one of the largest of its kind in the United States available for public use. At twilight, the observatory's domed roof swings open, allowing kids to glimpse the rim of the sun through a Celestron telescope. Bedtime: Maryhill State Park (campsites, $5-$16 per night; call 800-452-5687 for reservations), on a broad lawn along the Columbia River, has 73 sites and a swimming area.

Day Three: Maryhill State Park to Bend, Oregon. Mileage: 212. Drive time: 2 to 3 hours. Stopovers and side trips: This fascinating stretch lies along a high plateau separating Cascade volcanoes such as Mount Hood, Mount Jefferson, and Mount Washington (all visible to the west) from the sprawling Eastern Oregon desert. Watch for wild antelope. Don't miss the turn at the tiny town of Terrebonne for Smith Rock State Park (day-use fee, $3), perhaps the Northwest's most impressive rock-climbing area. Hike for about a mile down to the Crooked River, where you'll find a lunch spot with a view of swinging climbers facing routes rated as tough as 5.14c. Bedtime: If camping still seems palatable, Tumalo State Park, situated among pine trees along the Deschutes River northwest of Bend, has 82 campsites ($17-$20 per night), plus four yurts and two teepees (each $30 per night; call 800-452-5687 for reservations). The local roadways are great for cycling. Or consider a night in one of the suites or one- to three-bedroom condos at the Inn of the Seventh Mountain in Bend ($69-$302 per night; 800-452-6810), where outdoor swimming pools and hot tubs await.

Day Four: Century Drive to the Three Sisters Wilderness Area. Mileage: 99. Drive time: 2 to 3 hours. Stopovers and side trips: This beautiful loop drive, open only in summer, takes you between 9,065-foot Mount Bachelor, a volcanic cinder cone, and its stunning neighbor, the snowcapped 10,358-foot South Sister. Stop at the Green Lakes Trailhead, where there are gorgeous lunch spots at Devils Lake and Lava Lake and a nifty Osprey Observation Point along Crane Prairie Reservoir. On the way home, stop by the High Desert Museum (541-382-4754), along U.S. 97 just south of Bend, to see its collection of Western Americana, natural and not so. Bedtime: Return to the tent or condo from whence you came.

Day Five: Bend to Newberry National Volcanic Monument. Mileage: 55. Drive time: 1 to 2 hours. Stopovers and side trips: Lava Butte (for a small fee, take a shuttle to the top of the volcanic cinder cone) and the Lava Lands Visitor Center, both just south of Bend, are an excellent introduction to the volcano-filled adventure ahead. Same goes for the Lava River Cave, just off U.S. 97. It's a mile-long lava tube you can walk into — and get creeped out by as it gets smaller and smaller, darker and darker. Bring good lanterns (the park rents them for a small fee) and sweaters. At Newberry National Volcanic Monument (541-593-2421), don't miss Paulina Falls and the one-mile Big Obsidian Flow interpretive loop trail, a walk along the top of a massive river of glassy black volcanic rock that erupted here 1,300 years ago. Bedtime: Take your pick of four nice campgrounds along Paulina or East lakes, both of which were formed in remnant craters of the giant Newberry Volcano — the collapsed monstrosity of which (look around) you're currently inside.

Day Six: Newberry National Volcanic Monument to Crater Lake National Park. Mileage: 112. Drive time: 2 to 3 hours. Stopovers and side trips: You'll end this trip with the big bang. Plan to spend the better part of the day exploring the rim of 1,932-foot-deep Crater Lake (541-594-2211), the remnants of ancient Mount Mazama, a peak believed to be as high as 12,000 feet before it blew itself to bits and collapsed into its own caldera about 7,200 years ago. Bedtime: Crater Lake Lodge (doubles, $111-$200 per night, plus $18 each additional person; 541-830-8700), recently restored to its original 1920s luster, has 71 quaint (if cramped) rooms with lake views. Reservations are taken up to two years in advance. A couple of alternatives: Mazama Campground (198 sites, no reservations) near the Annie Springs (south) Entrance Station, or Lost Creek Campground (16 tent sites, no reservations), on Pinnacles Road.

Day Seven: Crater Lake to Portland, Seattle, or wherever you're preparing to return to reality. Mileage: 250 (Portland), 424 (Seattle). Drive time: 4 to 5 hours (Portland), 6 to 8 hours (Seattle). Stopovers and side trips: Every rest area for enough coffee to keep you buzzing on this return route, which will make you wish you had enough time to return the way you came.
— Ron C. Judd

Michigan's Upper Peninsula
Raise your left hand. You're looking at a near-flawless map of the Lower Peninsula of Michigan. Starting at the lower knuckle of your thumb (Detroit), wander up the edge of your pointer finger (the Lake Huron shore), hop off the tip of your middle finger (across the Mackinac Bridge and into the wilds of the Upper Peninsula), then back down across the nail of your ring finger (through a patchwork of lakes and rivers) to the lower left corner of your pinkie nail (Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore). If you draw a line diagonally across the back of your hand (through rolling orchards and thick north woods), you'll end up back at that lower knob on your thumb. That's your itinerary.

Day one: Detroit to Cheboygan State Park. Mileage: 318. Drive time: 6 hours. Stopovers and side trips: This is the longest drive of the trip, so leave early and stop often. Once on U.S. 23, head to Presque Isle Harbor, about 240 miles into the route. Here the kids can climb the Old Presque Isle Lighthouse tower (517-595-2787), built in 1840 and said to be haunted by a former lighthouse keeper. A mile down the road, at the tip of North Point, is an even taller lighthouse — a beautiful spot to spread a picnic blanket among the blue pitcher plants and watch freighters go by. During the last part of the drive you'll pass several parks with trails looping through dunes and marshes, useful in case restless passengers need extra breaks. In Cheboygan, stop for a dinner of planked whitefish at the Hack-Ma-Tack Inn (616-625-2919), a rustic lodge built in 1894 overlooking the Cheboygan River. Bedtime: Double back on U.S. 23, two miles south of town, to Cheboygan State Park, and set up camp at one of the 78 sites ($11 a night; 800-543-2937); there are hot showers and flush toilets.

Day Two: Cheboygan to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Mileage: 171. Drive time: 3 hours. Stopovers and side trips: Before leaving Cheboygan State Park, break out the binos and look for egrets, loons, and herons in the wetlands. Cheboygan is home port to the Coast Guard icebreaker Mackinaw, docked at the end of Coast Guard Drive, which allows tours of the captain's bridge (call 616-627-3181). Continue north across the "Mighty Mac" bridge and drive just over an hour into the Upper Peninsula (the U.P.), to Tahquamenon Falls State Park (906-492-3415). At the Lower Falls, rent a rowboat from the park concessionaire and head out to the island just below the falls, watching for river otter. Then, following the river, hike four miles along the North Country Scenic Trail to the towering Upper Falls.

Back on Michigan 123, drive one hour to Seney National Wildlife Refuge. First, drive the self-guided seven-mile tour to view bald eagles, trumpeter swans, minks, beavers, muskrats, and bears. Closer to dusk (the best time to spot wildlife), hike the 1.5-mile self-guided walking trail. Bedtime: Choose from three rustic campgrounds or several backcountry sites at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Hurricane River Campground (ten miles from Grand Marais on County Road H58) is the nicest, with great swimming and picnicking sites ($10 per night; 906-387-3700).

Day Three: Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore to Petoskey. Mileage: 159. Drive time: 3 hours. Stopovers and side trips: Spend the day at Pictured Rocks, exploring the multicolored cliffs and huge dunes that once served as skids for sending logs down to Lake Superior. There are more than 50 miles of hiking trails along the cliffs, but boat cruises offer the best views of the wavelike murals in blue-green and red bands (formed by compressed layers of copper, iron, and sandstone) and rock formations resembling battleship prows and castles (Pictured Rocks Cruises runs two-hour-and-40-minute trips from the Munising Municipal Pier; $22 for adults, $7 kids 5-12; 906-387-2379). Or step aboard a glass-bottomed boat for a view of three shipwrecks — including an intact 1860s-era schooner — in the shallow waters just offshore (Shipwreck Tours offers two-hour narrated tours; $20 for adults, $8.50 for kids 12 and under; 906-387-4477). Bedtime: Try the Apple Tree Inn, just south of Petoskey (doubles, $99-$109 for a room with two queen beds, plus $5 each additional person; 616-348-2900).

Day Four: Petoskey to the Sugar Loaf Resort, near Cedar. Mileage: 83. Drive time: 2 hours. Stopovers and side trips: Swim and skip rocks, or cast a line (with a permit) at Petoskey State Park, just off U.S. 31. Then head south toward Traverse City. If you aren't yet tired of cherries (you'll find them served in every restaurant in every dish imaginable), detour up into the Old Mission Peninsula that bisects Grand Traverse Bay. Midsummer is the cherry harvest, so stop at any orchard and pick a sackful. (Most orchards also have U-pick apricots, peaches, and nectarines.) Bedtime: Head west into Leelanau County to Sugar Loaf, where the resort has everything from hotel rooms to four-bedroom condos (one-bedroom condos, $120-$200 per night; 800-952-6390 or 616-228-5461). Get there in the early afternoon and ride horses or hike along the dunes that double as ski runs in winter.

Days Five-Seven: Drive the 12 miles to Glen Arbor to join up with the two-day Sleeping Bear Bike & Kayak trip (adults, $349, including two nights' lodging and all breakfasts and dinners; discounted rates for kids under 18; rental bikes available; call Michigan Bicycle Touring at 616-263-5885). You'll overnight in Glen Arbor at the White Gull Inn B&B or the Glen Arbor B&B. The trip begins the following morning with a bike trip to Pyramid Point, a set of pyramid-shaped dunes overlooking Lake Michigan, and on to Good Harbor Bay for swimming. In the afternoon you'll go kayaking in the kid-safe waters of the Crystal River. You'll head back to your B&B that evening; the next day you'll bike over to the mammoth sand "bears" at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, then hike to the 400-foot crest overlooking lakes Michigan and Glen. Bedtime: Drive about one hour south on Michigan 22 to Michigan 115 south and stay at Crystal Mountain Resort (one-bedroom condos, $130-$185 per night; 800-968-7686) — a year-round golf and ski resort in Thompsonville.

Day Eight: Crystal Mountain Resort to Detroit. Mileage: 234. Drive time: 4 hours. Stopovers and side trips: Half an hour before reaching Detroit, get off I-75 at exit 74 and ask directions to the Cranbrook Institute of Science (you'll know you're there when you see the stegosaurus; 248-645-3200). Go directly downstairs to check out the new interactive exhibit, "Scream Machines: The Physiology of Roller Coasters." You'll have to peel your kids away when it's time to go.
— Anne Goodwin Sides

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