Road Trip Nation: Five Summer Drives to Savor Really Cheap Gasoline

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — You can afford a summer vacation that takes you to new, unexpected places. Say it again, say it louder - and know we are talking road trips. The reason: gasoline is cheap.

Sure, the pessimists in our midst will point out that gasoline has been ticking up lately, a penny here and there, but nationally it averages $2.66 per gallon. As recently as 2010, gas was edging up near $4 per gallon, and in 2008 it hit $4.10 per gallon.

Cheap prices won't be around forever.

When fuel is a bargain, the road calls. Add in cheap, occasionally free parks and similar roadside attractions, well-priced local food and highway motels (never over $100/night, often around $50, and breakfast and free WiFi are often included), and the allure of a good road trip is plain.

But don’t just hit the road. Choose right. You will go nuts driving the sterile I-5 from Los Angeles to San Francisco. There is nothing to see, nothing to do, but drive. Ditto for driving the I-10 from Phoenix to San Antonio. Miles and miles of miles and miles.

Where to drive? Here are five road trips that will awaken your senses and make you glad to be on the road again.

America’s Loneliest Highway - The name given Nevada’s U.S. Route 50 by LIFE Magazine in 1986 - runs from Lake Tahoe in the west to Great Basin National Park and the Utah state line on the west and is the pick of Jeff Wilson of public television’s “Real Rail Adventures.” He said he often drives the Loneliest Highway and calls it “one of the best trips.”

Look at it on a map. You may recognize Carson City - the state capital - but you have not heard of any of the (few) other towns like Fallon and Ely and Eureka (the self-described “friendliest town on the loneliest highway”). This is 408 miles of delicious emptiness. Drive it. You’ll understand why.

Highway 6, Cape Cod - From Bourne to Provincetown, Mass. is maybe 70 miles, and you will be told it takes a little over an hour. That is a lie. It will take you at least a half day and if you are bold enough to drive it from Friday afternoon to Sunday evening in summer it may take a full day, possibly longer, because the road is snarled with like-minded tourists. Word of advice: stick with weekdays.

But be prepared to spend a lot of time on stops in quaint Cape Cod towns like Hyannis, Easton, Wellfleet, Truro. You will have good chowder. See sand dunes. Drink some craft beer. Hear the slapping Atlantic Ocean. Maybe buy some antiques. This is Americana.

One-percenters have headed to the Cape in summer for generations, and this year, with a tank full of gas, you can too. It’s an ideal day trip out of Boston, also an easy four hour drive from New York.

Highway 101 in San Diego County. Robert Arends of the San Diego Tourism Authority tells why this 50 mile stretch of road needs mentioning - and, yes, it’s only 50 miles, but it will take a day. That’s because there is so much to see and do. Arends ticked off the highlights:

-“La Jolla, the ‘Jewel of San Diego’ with its turquoise waters and protected coves where seals, sea lions and other marine life flourish; 

-”Del Mar, Where the surf meets the turf,’ is famous for its Del Mar Racetrack and quaint seaside village.

-“Encinitas, home of Swami's Beach, San Diego's prime surfing spot made famous by the Beach Boys' hit song ‘Surfin' USA.’

-"Carlsbad, famous for LEGOLAND, the first LEGO theme park in North America.

-“Oceanside, home of the longest wooden pier on the West Coast and the California Surf Museum.”

And for much of this drive, the Pacific Ocean is just outside the car windows. California gorgeous.

Four Corners. Sam Highley of All Roads North - which custom designs road trips for clients - points to Navajo Nation in northern Arizona and northwestern New Mexico as a quintessential American road trip. Start in Phoenix, end in Las Vegas, said Highly; do a detour into nearby Utah and along the way you will have traveled “through six national parks and countless state parks and national monuments.”

Show stoppers are on the list including the Grand Canyon, Bryce, Moab national parks, and of course the Four Corners Navajo Nation settlement.

Sounds good but you don’t fancy Las Vegas? It’s easy enough to do a loop that starts in Phoenix, zigs through Navajo Nation, zags through Utah and ends up back in Phoenix. Highly recommends two weeks to drive it but, he said, “it would be easy to shorten it.”

The Crooked Road aka Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail. Pointing to this is Shellie Leete, owner/innkeeper at The Claiborne House B&B, who gives guests an itinerary detailing highlights of this 250 mile drive from Rocky Mount in the east into Virginia’s southwestern coal country, a route proclaimed by Lonely Planet to have “eye stretching mountain scenery.” The real plus is that this is where bluegrass - old timey high energy fiddle music - was born. Plan to catch music every night you are on the road. Sip moonshine. Eat BBQ. And snap your fingers and tap your feet. You’ll forget those troubles you left at home.

You have a route you prefer, maybe nearer home? Hit that road instead. But make this a summer to drive, and it will be one you long remember. That and really cheap gasoline.

—Written by Robert McGarvey for MainStreet

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held TK positions in the stocks mentioned.

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