5 Themed Road Trips You Can Take This Summer

iStock via Getty Images Plus
iStock via Getty Images Plus / iStock via Getty Images Plus

Summer is here, and you know what that means: Hitting the road with a cooler full of sandwiches, the windows rolled down, and a curated playlist turned up to 11. Instead of sticking to the well-traveled tourist routes, venture off the beaten path for a road trip centered on a topic. These five themed road trips, compiled by Mental Floss and Discover, will take you to regions of the U.S. stuffed with natural wonders, glitzy real estate, and weird history.

1. Dark Skies

States: Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona

In our age of LED screens and 24-hour commerce, truly dark skies are an endangered natural resource. Escape the glare of city lights on this road trip, where you’ll be able to gaze up at the heavens through the desert Southwest’s wondrously clear atmosphere. Each stop is a Dark Sky Place, an official designation for areas with minimal or no light pollution.

The trip begins at Antelope Island, a Utah state park outside Salt Lake City, and then winds southeast to Canyonlands National Park. Crossing the Colorado border, the next two stops are the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. The route then swings southwest to Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico, where stargazing events take place on the grounds of a thousand-year-old pueblo. Finally, the road trip ends at Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona.

2. Caves and Caverns

States: Virginia, Kentucky, Alabama

The foothills of the Appalachian Mountains are riddled with cave systems formed millions of years ago by the constant flow of water. Some of the most spectacular underground mazes have been transformed into family-friendly attractions complete with guided tours and paved walkways, while others retain their geologic mystique.

Begin the road trip by gazing in awe at the stalactites, stalagmites, and other mineral formations in Gap Cave at Cumberland Gap Historical Park in Virginia, then head west to Carter Caves State Park in Kentucky. In parts of this rugged system, guests can spelunk with a guide (warning: you will get muddy). The route continues west to the world’s longest known cave system: Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave National Park (more than 400 miles of tunnels and chambers have been explored so far). The final stop brings road trippers to Alabama’s Cathedral Caverns State Park, originally called the Bat Cave and home to an enormous stalagmite that’s 45 feet tall with a 243-foot circumference.

3. Lewis and Clark’s Route West

States: North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon

William Clark and Meriwether Lewis’s expedition from just outside St. Louis, Missouri, to the Pacific Ocean, beginning in 1804, is one of the founding stories of our nation. Trace the western portion of their route on this epic road trip, starting at Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site in North Dakota. Here, Lewis and Clark hired Toussaint Charbonneau as an interpreter and his pregnant wife, Sacagawea, as an interpreter and guide. When their son was born, Clark nicknamed him Pompey—and your next stop is Pompeys Pillar National Monument, a natural landmark along the Yellowstone River in Montana that bears the only existing written inscription of the expedition. Further west is Three Forks, Montana, the place where the Missouri River branches into three rivers that Lewis and Clark named after Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin (the treasury secretary). Again, traveling west, you’ll come to the Nez Perce National Historical Park in Idaho, where Lewis and Clark found allies among the Nez Perce people.

The last leg of the road trip visits Beacon Rock along the Columbia River in Washington, another landmark for the expedition, and ends at Lewis and Clark National Historical Park in Oregon. Here, the explorers built Fort Clatsop and saw the Pacific Ocean for the first time—and today’s visitors can see a replica of the camp.

4. Old Cemeteries

States: Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana

Mossy headstones, graceful oaks dripping with Spanish moss, the sultry purr of distant rain—there’s something about cemeteries in the South that grips the imagination. This road trip begins in one of the most famous of them all: Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah, Georgia. After touring the plots there, head south to St. Augustine, Florida’s Tolomato Cemetery, a small but significant Catholic graveyard established in the early 18th century, when Florida was a colony of Spain. Next, drive west for a long stretch to the Old French Cemetery in Biloxi, Mississippi, where local celebrities such as the ceramics artist George Ohr are buried. End your road trip in New Orleans at St. Louis Cemetery #1, an above-ground necropolis opened in 1789.

5. Civil War Battlefields

States: Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia

If you have limited time for a summer road trip, this mini tour of important Civil War sites in the mid-Atlantic region can be accomplished in a three-day weekend. Start at the iconic Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania, where 51,000 Union and Confederate soldiers died over three days in July 1863. The Soldiers National Cemetery marks the spot where President Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address. Just one hour southwest lies Antietam National Battlefield in Maryland, the site of the single bloodiest day in U.S. history—September 17, 1862, when there were 23,000 casualties. You can take a short detour to Harper’s Ferry National Historical Park across the Potomac River in West Virginia, where abolitionist John Brown attempted to seize the U.S. arsenal in 1859. Next, at Manassas National Battlefield Park in Virginia, Confederate forces scored significant victories in July 1861 and August 1862. Two hours south, Richmond National Battlefield Park reveals scars from its role as the Confederate capital. The South finally surrendered in 1865 at Appomattox Court House National Historical Park, two hours west of Richmond.

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