Road trips are turning out to be the hot ticket for 2020 as people opt for driving over flying when they plan a vacation. Even so, some folks prefer to select a destination that minimizes time spent on the road.
If you’d like to curtail time in the car, consider a trip to one of these five destinations.
From the quiet of a wilderness escape to the bustle of exploring a city, all fall within a 350-mile radius of Columbus, and most clock in at drive times of around six hours.
Shenandoah National Park – Virginia
If remote scenic beauty appeals to you, look no further than Shenandoah National Park in western Virginia. It is just 6 hours or roughly 350 miles from Columbus along I-70.
A hiker’s paradise, the park boasts over 500 miles of trails, from easy to difficult, including 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail.
The 105-mile, two-lane Skyline Drive runs the entire length of the park, and features more than 70 overlooks offering spectacular views of the Shenandoah Valley and the Piedmont Mountains. Serving as the main road through the park, Skyline Drive also provides access to many trails, campgrounds, visitor centers and lodging. The drive starts near Front Royal, VA and ends near I-64 in Rockfish Gap, VA before continuing on as the Blue Ridge Parkway to Cherokee, North Carolina.
At the southern end of the drive, a short distance from Rockfish Gap, the small town of Staunton is an interesting place to spend a night or two. The American Shakespeare Theater performs year-round in Blackfriars Playhouse, an authentic reproduction of Shakespeare’s Blackfriars Theatre. Enjoy winery and craft beer tours in the surrounding area or visit the studios of local artisans.
Gatlinburg & the Great Smokey Mountains, Tennessee
If you are looking to combine scenic sightseeing with a multitude of options for dining, shopping and activities, Gatlinburg, Tennessee might be just the ticket. It is just a little over 6 hours from Columbus if you travel along I-71 and I-75.
A satisfying destination even if you don’t have kids, Gatlinburg is a great choice for a family with diverse interests. From hiking in the national park, to playing mini-golf and riding an aerial tramway, to shopping at outlet malls and artsy boutiques, there’s something to please everyone in Gatlinburg.
Nearby Pigeon Forge is the home of the popular Dollywood amusement park, and the Titanic Museum Attraction immerses visitors in the experience of being aboard the fated ship. Country music reviews, a dinner theater, and splash park add to the area’s variety of entertainment options.
The Great Smokey Mountains National Park is the most visited park in the national park system and offers visitors beautiful vistas and hiking trails that range from easy to difficult. One popular park feature, Cades Cove Loop Road, is an 11-mile loop circling a picturesque valley that was home to settlers in the early 1800s. Restored structures from that time period are scattered along the road, and wildlife is frequently spotted in the valley.
Take the scenic 32-mile Newfound Gap Road through the Smokey Mountains National Park to Cherokee, North Carolina. Try your luck at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, or make an hour-long trek to explore the charming city of Asheville and tour the opulent Biltmore Estate.
Niagara Falls – NY and Canada
Located on the border between the U.S. and Canada, near Buffalo, New York, Niagara Falls has been called the eighth natural wonder of the world. This breathtaking trip is just 5.5 hours, or 350 miles, on I-90 and I-71.
Niagara Falls consists of three waterfalls, including the massive horseshoe-shaped falls on the Canadian side, the smaller, but still impressive, American Falls, as well as the much smaller Bridal Veil Falls. Together, these falls produce the largest flow rate of any falls in North America, and the power of the water that flows over them is harnessed to produce electricity for much of that area of the Northeast.
One of the best ways to see the falls is with a trip to Niagara Falls State Park on the American side. The park allows access to Goat Island, which is the land mass in the middle of the Niagara River that separates the two main falls. A viewing area provides the opportunity to brave the perpetual mist for an up-close look at the point where the river plunges over the falls. There is also a short, scenic hike and other activities on Goat Island.
If the border between the U.S. and Canada re-opens as planned in mid-July, the Canadian side of the river offers additional activities and opportunities for viewing the falls. If you are crossing the border, consider spending a night – or a few – in the nearby and charming little town of Niagara-on-the-Lake. With its plethora of wineries, sophisticated eateries and theater venues, it’s a nice ultimate destination or a fun side trip if you’re traveling on to Toronto.
Bourbon Trail – Kentucky
Just as California’s Napa Valley has become an iconic destination for wine lovers, Kentucky is quickly becoming a favored trip for the growing number of people who appreciate good bourbon. The state’s Bourbon Trail is a roughly circular route through the heart of central Kentucky that touches names both big and small in the world of bourbon distillers.
While you can start your Bourbon Trail experience at any distillery you prefer, the city of Louisville is considered the official starting point for visitors. And if you start in Louisville, it is just 3 hours, or 200 miles, from Columbus along I-71.
The Kentucky Bourbon Trail Welcome Center can provide some history and background information on the bourbon industry and help you plan your stops along the trail. Keep in mind that many guided transportation options are available, freeing everyone in your party to enjoy the distillery experience without having to designate a driver.
While in Louisville, baseball fans can tour the Louisville Slugger baseball bat factory, or take in the exhibits at the Muhammad Ali Center. Visit Churchill Downs Racetrack and the Kentucky Derby Museum, or enjoy a ride on the Belle of Louisville, the oldest operating Mississippi-River-style steamboat still in operation.
In between distillery tours, there are plenty of other ways to enjoy your visit to this beautiful state. Visit the Kentucky Horse Park near Lexington. Tour the replica of the first permanent colonial settlement in the state, Fort Harrod, in Harrodsburg. Mammoth Cave National Park, the longest cave system in the world, is about an hour’s drive from some of the more popular areas of the Bourbon Trail.
Indianapolis – Indiana
The Midwestern city of Indianapolis has a lot to offer as a destination, particularly for families and racing fans. And it’s nearby, at just 170 miles, or 2 hours and 45 minutes away from Columbus.
Those who choose to stay in the city can easily walk to a multitude of attractions accessible through the unique White River State Park. This 250-acre park in the middle of downtown features walkways along the river’s edge that provide access to a variety of attractions and entertainment venues. Visitors can also enjoy the park’s greenspaces, trees and trails.
The world-class Indianapolis Zoo, located within the park, is home to more than 3,000 animals. The Indiana State Museum – one of three museums accessible through the park – offers exhibits and programs to interest both kids and adults. The museum is also home to an IMAX theater. Baseball fans can catch an Indians game at Victory Field.
NASCAR fans can visit the legendary Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Over a century old, the speedway is notable for several reasons – it is the oldest continually operating racetrack in the U.S.; it is the world’s largest sports seating facility; and it hosts the largest single-day sporting event in the world – the Indianapolis 500. The facility is also home to a museum that offers tours of the track and chronicles the history of the speedway and the sport.
Don’t Overlook Ohio!
While the five destinations highlighted here are all out of state, don’t forget that Ohio has a rich variety of interesting attractions within a relatively short drive. Hike in Hocking Hills or one of Ohio’s lovely state parks. Visit museums such as the National Museum of the United States Air Force near Dayton or the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. Put-In-Bay and other lake-related destinations are always popular.
Wherever you decide to go, don’t forget to visit your AAA store or AAA.com for TripTik® routings, TourBook® guides, and other trip planning resources.
If you are considering a road trip to any of the destinations mentioned, be aware that certain services, facilities, tours and activities at some locations were still closed due to the COVID crisis at the time of this writing. Avoid disappointment by researching the status of the activities of most interest to you as you plan your trip.