Driving Home for the Holidays? Here’s How to Turn the Trip Into an Adventure
BY HARRY GORDON
Are you facing a journey over the holidays and dreading the prospect of holiday traffic and long stretches on the road? Here’s the thing, though: Maybe it’s the perfect opportunity to make your obligatory travel into a road trip adventure (albeit with many more fellow travelers).
To make the holiday drive more appealing, all you need to do is add a few fun pit stops along the way. Luckily, quick diversions appear everywhere on common routes. From quirky local eateries to outstanding natural hikes, we’ve got a bunch of spots along North America’s most popular travel routes that will give you that road trip adventure feel, without disrupting your holiday plans.
East by Northeast
Old institutions, and unusual finds, lie just off the highway for quick adventure like Connecticut’s Cowtown Farmer’s Market and Cowtown Cowboy Outfitters. Image courtesy of Cowtown Farmers Market.
East Coasters have the advantage of finding major cities pretty close to each other, compared to other parts of North America. (Then again, the disadvantage is that the corridor between Boston and Washington, DC can get pretty tied up over the holidays.) Here are some handy spots worth the stop.
On the East Coast run, a common midpoint stop finds a lot of travelers in New Jersey. Not so common is the feeling of the Old West in the Garden State. When it’s time to gas up, why not also saddle up in Pilesgrove, New Jersey at Cowtown Cowboy Outfitters. Billed as “a full-line western wear store,” it just might be the best place to peruse what honest-to-goodness rodeo stars wear this side of I-295 and Wilmington, Delaware. Heck, you might even jangle into town during one of the twice-weekly Cowtown Farmers Markets, found just down the road.
If your travels take you into New England, then you can go almost into the future—but just minutes off the highway—with a visit to Middlefield, Connecticut’s Powder Ridge Park. A unique ski resort, it offers “Synthetic Snow Dryland Training,” also known as dry skiing. Tubing, mountain biking, regular downhill skiing, and gear and apparel retail all await the snow sport lover, just a few weeks before the real white stuff comes tumbling down.
The Loop and Points East
Refresh your road weary soul (and seat) with side excursions to cultural institutions like Ohio’s Butler Institute of American Arts.
The flurry of activity between Midwestern cities like Chicago, Minneapolis, and Detroit is enough to call a blizzard of its own. Whether you’re headed east or west, there’s something about crossing the border between Ohio and Pennsylvania that makes you feel you’ve gotten a lot closer to your destination.
Some good places to pause, either before or after said border, lie right by that crossing. On the western end of William Penn’s former territory lie a couple of great must-visit spots. Sitting in Dubois, Pennsylvania is singular local spot Dr. Doolittle’s Roadside Cafe & Creamery. Owned by a local oral surgeon, this café has outrageously low prices, claims to be “the true home of the $0.49 hot dog,” and unique foods like a “Roast Beef Sundae.” Family-friendly games like laser tag and “Mini Glow Golf” make this a must-stop for the road weary. Since you’re in the neighborhood, go ahead and find refuge from the road in Hermitage, Pennsylvania with a visit to Kraynak’s Santa’s Christmasland and Easter Bunny Lane. Your choices of holiday gifts, decorations, and even flowers will ensure you’ll arrive home prepped for the holidays.
A more sedate, and perhaps more refined, escape lies on the Ohio side in Youngstown, where the renowned Butler Institute of American Art places American artists at the center of its exhibitions and galleries. Plus, the Butler charges no admission fee, although a donation is always welcome. Stretch your legs, fill up the tank, and get your fill of fine arts…American style!
Surprising and unique finds that offer great leg (and mind) stretches, like this park dedicated to the Lincoln-Douglas debates, lie just past the gas stations. Image courtesy of Southernmost Illinois Tourism Bureau.
Your back is your friend, so on long journeys, be nice to it with frequent stops to stretch it out. North America has a spine to it, too, and lots of people travel along it in a north-south direction between cities like Toronto, Ontario and Austin, Texas, with big spots in between.
Smack dab in the middle of many people’s journeys lies Jonesboro, Illinois. Just twenty minutes off the highway is Lincoln Memorial Park. It’s the site of one of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, with statues of both noted orators. It’s a great spot for a brisk walk around the pond, and if the weather’s right, a picnic area.
Taking your eyes off the road can turn holiday travel from frustration into inspiration. Image courtesy of Justin Meissen.
There are a couple of ways to amp up your travels between these two areas of the Golden State. One is more scenic and closer to the coast, in the form of the 1 and the 101 (aka the Pacific Coast Highway). The other gets you where you need to go faster, and that’s the 5.
Salinas, California give you the chance to do a road trip stop, no matter which route you take. It’s closest to route 1—in fact it’s right on it. But it’s not too bad for a drive to divert off the 101 or even the 5. And it’s worth it for those who believe in sustainable agriculture practices, want to support truly local businesses, and love absolutely fresh food. If that describes you, then mosey on over to The Farm. More than just a retail outlet for fresh produce, The Farm considers itself “an agricultural education center.” Check their website for farm tour information and family events and activities. But for those who love the smell of pie (basically, everyone), then Fridays are definitely your day to visit, because that’s when the fresh fruit pies come out of the oven.
If you’ve chosen to take the 5, then you may already know about the common midpoint stop between LA and SF: Kettleman City, California. While it’s a geographic draw, it’s not much of a difference if you veer off the path instead a little south in Wasco, California to visit the Kern National Wildlife Refuge. It’s about a 20-minute drive, but you can still find essentials right off the highway. And just a couple of turns on some pretty straight roads will land you in an ecological nexus for migratory birds, dedicated to attracting and preserving waterfowl and water birds. (Just don’t tell them what’s gonna happen to your Thanksgiving bird.)
Sure, the trip between LA and San Diego isn’t that long, but that might be all the more reason to add a decent amount of time to round out a road trip. A stop in Valley Center, California will give you chance—about 20 minutes off the highway—to land in Hellhole Canyon Preserve.
Yes, that’s right. Hellhole. Why is it called Hellhole? Well, it’s closed for all of August because it’s so hot. Regardless, it’s a 1,900-acre preserve, with more than 13 miles of hiking trails described as “moderate-to-advanced.” A creek bed is also a popular hiking route, and offers grand sycamores to take shade under for relief from the sun. During the holidays, the temperatures are much more tolerable, but before you go on a hike, be sure to check out their guidebook for safe travel.
Since you’re in the area, you may want to visit the Valley Center History Museum, where you can see, among other things, a stuffed California Grizzly bear, the world’s smallest post office building, and the desk of first Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. And now you’ve got some great family-dinner conversation-starters, to boot.
Minutes from the freeway, you can travel back in time on Yreka, California’s Miner Street where the Franco American Hotel remains largely unchanged from when it served gold rush pioneers. Image courtesy of Franco American Hotel.
If your holiday travels have you much farther north, then you’ll find yourself on a trajectory that lies between the San Francisco Bay Area and Vancouver, British Columbia, with big dollops of city life in between, like Portland and Seattle.
Popping by Northern California means a lot of things today, but back in 1849, it most likely meant you were a miner. And so a jaunt off the 5 (yes, we’re still on the 5) can land you in Yreka, California. (I’ll give you a minute to pronounce that out loud and see why a miner might say it.) Anyway, Eur…I mean, Yreka holds onto a semblance of its former mining glory in an authentic way. After turning off the freeway and refueling, take an extra couple of minutes to drive over to Miner Street and walk through a city that looks—and in some ways feels—just like it did over 125 years ago. This historic street stays in business today with an eclectic mix of the historic and the modern, with the renovated Franco American Hotel, modern fine arts gallery Liberty Arts, and trendy custom butcher and deli Miner Street Meat Market.
Oregon is abundant with natural wonders, but there is one spot that is easy to get to and you won’t want to miss. Nary a 20-minute hop from the highway sits the city of Glide, and it is here where two rivers collide. Which works out great because you can also visit the Colliding Rivers Viewpoint, where “a unique geologic phenomenon…causes the North Umpqua River and Little River to collide,” which is truly a wonderful sight to behold.
And sitting on the U.S. side of the Canadian border lies Everson, Washington, home to a planet- and human-focused compound called Spring Frog Organic Farm at The Holistic Homestead. A deep commitment to organic farming keeps the produce fresh and the experience invigorating. In addition to their farm stand, seasonal “you pick” crops appear, and you can find sustainably grown strawberries, raspberries, and pumpkins. The best part? You know the person who harvested it (and can brag about it when you share it at your holiday destination—assuming you don’t eat it all before you get there).
What spots have you encountered in your holiday travels that have made the journey more refreshing? What do you do to make holiday travel more like a road trip or adventure? Tell us in the comments below!