Gas is no bargain, nobody can deny that. At a nationwide average of $3.64 a gallon, that’s nearly a dollar more than we were paying a year ago. However, in our vast and varied land, driving is often the best way to explore a destination, even on a budget. Here are five trips where the driving is not just part of the fun -it’s the main attraction – and the dollars you spend at the pump can be considered the price of admission to some stunning natural scenery.
Highway 12 between Bryce Canyon National Park and Torrey, Utah
With gas as low as $3.45 a gallon (hey, I am from California. Anything under $4 is a deal), driving southern Utah is definitely the best way to see all those National and State Parks and monuments. In particular, the area around Bryce Canyon National Park, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and the state parks of Kodachrome Basin, Petrified Forest and Anasazi Indian Village, is one of the most picturesque drives in the state. The stretch between Escalante and Boulder is known as the Million-Dollar Road, completed in 1935 at a cost of $1 million dollars, quite a fortune in that time. Nowadays, you can fill up your tank before leaving Bryce and make it all the way to Torrey, enjoying scenic slickrock, fins and canyon views.
Natchez Trace Parkway, Mississippi
444 miles of lush, green scenery and history, most of which cut through the heart of Mississippi, where gas is hovering around $3.43 a gallon. Unaffected by the recent flooding, the entire stretch of The Parkway is free is to drive and camping along the way is also free, making this a great, low-cost vacation. Nearby communities offer additional services (including gas stations) and travelers have the opportunity to enjoy one of the most historically significant drives in the U.S.
Skyline in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Celebrating the 75th anniversary of the park, 2011 is a good time to visit. The Skyline Drive posts a speed limit of 35 mph (great way to save money on gas, average $3.39/gallon in the region) and runs 105 miles along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Stop and take a look anytime you like; convenient mileposts help determine areas of interest. Be prepared for wildlife and wild flowers throughout the year. Give yourself about three hours to make the trip, and look to the Lewis Mountain tent cabins for inexpensive in-park lodging (starting at $65/night).
Highway 1 from Monterey to Morro Bay, California
Ok, gas prices in California are among the highest in the country at around $3.76/gallon, and the 120 miles of the curvy, steep road will guzzle up fuel, but this drive along the central coast of California is one that is well worth the expense. From the beautiful redwoods of Big Sur, down along the coast with magnificent views of the Pacific Ocean, driving this stretch of Highway 1 is a dream, even if you don’t own a convertible or motorcycle. Stop at Hearst Castle and exclaim over the opulence, then retire to Atascadero or San Luis Obispo for reasonably priced lodging.
Alaska Marine Highway
Ok, this one is almost a gimee, since it is a ferry service that carries cars and passengers (among other things) along the south-central coast, the Inside Passage of Alaska. In addition to being a convenient way to travel from Washington to Skagaway, Alaska, the Alaska Marine Highway is also a great way to save on gas this summer. To do the same trip by car would entail about 400 miles way off the coast, with gas averaging about $3.97/gallon. Enjoy stops along the marine highway in Ketchikan, Sitka and Juneau. And if you bring your sleeping bag and a tent, inexpensive lodging is just a campground away.
DIY route planning
If you have your own driving trip in mind, check out the GasBuddy.com Trip Cost Calculator, which offers route planning and factors in the make, model and gas mileage of your vehicle to offer you a total fuel cost for your trip. The application also offers suggestions about where to find cheap gas along the way, a handy tool to have. A recent itinerary traveling from the San Francisco Bay Area to Zion National Park in Utah shows that it would actually be cheaper to drive than to fly, and the entire trip of about 1,400 miles would only take three-and-a-half fill-ups! I think they might be a little optimistic about my gas mileage; although they do allow you to fill in details about your vehicle’s true gas mileage.
Gudrun Enger is a travel, food and lifestyle blogger based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Find her @kitchengirl on Twitter.