The federal government, many states, road-map publishers such as Rand McNally and the American Automobile Association have designated scenic byways and historical routes.
Using these and other sources, I've compiled a list of Great Vacation Drives. To qualify, a drive has to be especially scenic, historic, culturally interesting or a combination of all three. Each of the drives requires at least one overnight stay along the way.
A theme in mind helps you decide where to stop and what to skip. Advance planning can be a big help: When you book lodgings ahead, you can pick places that reflect the theme of your trip _ a small creekside guest ranch, say, instead of a highway motel. You also can set aside time for recreational activities.
The corollary, however, is that you shouldn't over-plan or over-drive. Leave plenty of time in the schedule for the unexpected. A good rule of thumb is to limit the time behind the wheel to no more than half the day. Schedule an occasional two-night stopover rather than drive to a new destination each day.
Some of the following Great Vacation Drives are seasonal _ mountain roads may close in the winter _ but many can be traveled at any time.
West Coast Highway: Spectacularly scenic, the route (U.S. 101 and California 1) romps between seashore and cliff-side, as if undecided whether it is a mountain road or a beach drive. For most of its 1,200-mile length from Astoria, Ore. to Los Angeles, you are seldom more than a few minutes away from the sea and often right beside it.
Great River Road: Another major north-to-south route, this ambitious drive follows the course of the Mississippi River from its headwaters in Minnesota to its mouth at the Gulf of Mexico. Along the way it passes through 10 states. Tour Mark Twain Country around Hannibal, Mo.; walk the Civil War battlefield at Vicksburg, Miss., one of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's big victories.
Blue Ridge Parkway: America's first national parkway, it traces the crest of the Blue Ridge mountains and other ranges for 470 miles from Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina. Grand panoramas are the park's finest feature.
Mother Lode Highway: Officially, it is California 49, commemorating the great California Gold Rush of 1849. It originates in the dusty Sierra foothills just south of Yosemite National Park and winds northward to Vinton, north of Lake Tahoe, for 307 miles past legendary boom towns. Some are no more than ghost towns now but one, Columbia, has become a state historical park re-creating the '49er era.
Lake Michigan Circle Tour: Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois and Indiana have joined to promote this varied loop drive that links Chicago, Gary and Milwaukee at the southern end of Lake Michigan with country villages and ports at the northern end. Among the attractions: Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore at Porter and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore at Empire, Mich., both regions of massive sand dunes, beaches and forests, and Hiawatha National Forest at Escanaba, Mich..
Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail: History and scenery abound on this 4,500-mile route that traces the 1804-06 Lewis and Clark expedition. The explorers and their party took two years by horse and boat; give yourself at least two weeks to enjoy the sights. The trail begins in Illinois, just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis's magnificent Gateway Arch, proceeds through Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas, Montana, Idaho, Washington and concludes in Astoria, Ore.
Natchez Trace Parkway: A 400-mile scenic and historic parkway, the route follows what was once the Indian "trace" or trail between Natchez on the Mississippi River and Nashville, to the north. It cuts across the heart of Mississippi, touches briefly on the northwestern corner of Alabama and bisects western Tennessee. It begins amid splendid plantation homes from the Old South, sweeps by numerous Indian sites and concludes in the country music capital.
Vermont's 100: A lovely old road, it rambles lazily for 183 miles along the eastern foothills of the Green Mountains from Wilmington, at the southern end of Vermont, north to Troy, near the Canadian border. Make your way slowly _ a week is barely enough _ visiting the villages, shopping for crafts and sampling the country inns and mountain resorts.
Nebraska's Sandhills: Nebraska Route 2, northwest from Grand Island to Alliance, is a 268-mile highway traversing high ridges and rolling grasslands, cut by flowing rivers and pine-studded canyons. An uncluttered expanse, rough and wild, the region is sometimes compared to the pampas of Argentina and the steppes of Russia. Fish, swim and canoe the rivers and lakes.