- Fewer crowds mean the autumn months are an ideal time to hit the road
- California's Pacific Coast Highway offers stunning views and laid-back beach towns
- Caverns, wineries and great barbecue lure visitors to Texas' Hill Country
- Make a loop around Lake Superior for views of waterfalls, wildlife and historic ports
(CNN)Great fall road trips aren't just about colored leaves.
In many parts of the United States, the autumn months are an ideal time to hit the road. Temperatures are mild, kids are back in school and the highways -- except for fall-foliage hotspots such as the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia and North Carolina -- are less crowded.
Here are five American journeys that combine gorgeous scenery with cultural attractions, great restaurants and happening cities and towns. Most of them can be driven in a day or two, but to truly unwind and appreciate their gifts you'll want at least four or five days.
Gas up the tank, pack some sweaters, brush up on your photography skills and enjoy.
1. Pacific Coast Highway
For crowd-pleasing vistas it's hard to top Route 1, also known as the Pacific Coast Highway, which runs the length of California's coastline. All of it is worth driving, but to make your trip manageable you'll want to tackle a shorter stretch -- say, between San Francisco and Santa Barbara.
From San Francisco, head south through the seaside towns of Pacifica and Half Moon Bay (both worth a lunch stop) to Santa Cruz, a college burg with a counterculture vibe and a colorful beachside amusement park. Wander the boardwalk, nibble some garlic fries, try your hand at an arcade game or ride a classic wooden roller coaster.
An hour's drive south is Monterey and its excellent aquarium (try to go during the week to avoid the crowds). Cannery Row, the once-gritty waterfront strip made famous by John Steinbeck, is now overrun with T-shirt shops. Rent a bike instead and pedal along the shoreline path, which offers views of harbor seals sunning themselves on rocks.
Neighboring Monterey is Carmel, a quaint seaside village filled with art galleries and the 17-Mile Drive, a picturesque loop that winds past cypress trees, rocky coves and the famous Pebble Beach golf course. The drive costs $10 per vehicle, but it's worth it.
Farther south, the towns get more remote and the scenery more rugged. The dramatic Big Sur coast is home to artists' retreats, rustic lodges, funky restaurants (don't miss Nepenthe) and old-growth forests that flank the road. Here, Highway 1 snakes along cliffs high above the ocean and offers countless photo ops, including at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, where a slender, 80-foot waterfall drops into the sea.
Below Big Sur the forests thin out, surfers populate laid-back beach towns and wineries dot the valleys. The sightseeing jewel here is Hearst Castle, the opulent former home of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, set on a hillside overlooking landscaped gardens. Guided tours, which take several hours, are offered daily.
But human-made attractions along the PCH are no match for the natural beauty. When you stand on a Big Sur cliff, with a misty forest behind you and the sea crashing on rocks hundreds of feet below, it's hard not to be awed.
2. Utah's red-rock country
From Arches to Zion, southern Utah has no shortage of stunning drives. But for sheer scenery-per-mile ratio, Highway 12 may beat them all.
The crescent-shaped road is only 124 miles long, but it's packed with treasures. Start on the west end at its intersection with U.S. 89 and head east through Red Canyon, which offers day hikes through a maze of red, yellow and orange rock formations.
From there, you'll hit Bryce Canyon National Park, which lies on a forested plateau almost 9,000 feet above sea level. The canyon is really a series of amphitheaters marked by thousands of pastel-colored hoodoos, or limestone pillars created by erosion. You can stroll along the lip of the canyon, hike down amid the strangely shaped rocks or just sit on the porch of the park's lodge and admire the view.
Just east of Bryce, the highway plunges a thousand feet and the climate shifts from alpine to desert. Here the road edges the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, a vast wilderness of red-rock cliffs, plateaus, arches and serpentine canyons. A popular hike just off the road leads to Lower Calf Creek Falls, which tumble 126 feet into an inviting green pool.
After this the road winds through treeless, moon-like landscapes and heads north over the Hogback, a narrow, natural ridge with steep dropoffs on either side and no guard rails (don't try this if you're afraid of heights). It then winds over Boulder Mountain, an 11,300-foot peak marked by high-altitude meadows and shimmering aspens.
Highway 12 ends in Torrey, a tree-lined town with several fine restaurants (try Cafe Diablo) that serves as the gateway to nearby Capitol Reef National Park. The unspoiled park, named for its unique mix of domed rock formations and an enormous, reef-like wrinkle in the earth, offers towering cliffs, natural bridges and spectacular hiking without the crowds.
3. Maine's craggy coast
It's been said that if you stretched out the jagged shoreline of Maine -- all the coves, points and inlets -- you'd get some 4,500 miles of coastline, or more than the entire East Coast of the United States. That's a lot of scenery, although you sometimes have to board a boat to see it properly.
For motorists, the thread connecting all this is Route 1 (the other Route 1?), which parallels the coast from New Hampshire to Canada. The highway itself is touristy and not all that interesting, but it leads to a string of charming fishing villages, lighthouses, islands and waterfront eateries where you can dine on lobster that was just pulled from the water.
Start your journey in Portland, a handsome small city with a thriving food scene (Fore Street is one of its best), and head northeast. After a brief stretch along the interstate -- and the obligatory stop in Freeport at L.L. Bean, the reknowned Maine outfitter -- follow Route 1 east towards Bath, a harbor town with an active shipyard and many restored 19th-century buildings.
From there you'll continue east through the pretty waterfront hamlets of Wiscasset (grab a lobster roll at Red's Eats) and Damariscotta. Or detour south to Boothbay Harbor, whose knick-knack shops can't ruin its lovely setting, for a seafood dinner or a whale-watching tour.
Farther east, you'll hit the landmark Moody's Diner (make room for pie) in Waldoboro and then Rockland, a bustling harbor town with an award-winning restaurant (Primo) and ferries to Vinalhaven and other coastal islands. A bit farther up the coast is Camden, a quaint village whose Main Street and graceful harbor look right out of a postcard.
If you have time, head all the way up to Bar Harbor, a cultured coastal town on Mount Desert Island, accessible by bridge. With plenty of places to stay and eat, Bar Harbor makes a great base from which to explore nearby Acadia National Park, bike old carriage roads or climb Cadillac Mountain, the highest point on the Atlantic seaboard.
4. Texas Hill Country
People think of Texas as being pretty flat. And it is, mostly. But the state's midsection, north of San Antonio and west of Austin, is a rumpled plateau of rolling granite hills, oak-dotted valleys and meandering rivers called the Texas Hill Country.
Lance Armstrong used to train here, but travelers today visit for different reasons: A handful of natural caverns, a growing number of wineries and an emerging tourism industry that blends barbecue joints and honkytonks with fine restaurants and artisanal farms.
Start out in Austin, the booming capital city that's teeming with live music and great food (line up for Franklin Barbecue). If it's warm, head west some 20 miles to Hamilton Pool, a historic swimming hole in a canyon created thousands of years ago when erosion exposed an underground river. (There's an entrance fee; Be advised the pool fills up quickly on warm weekends, and you may have to wait.)
Continue on to the bustling town of Fredericksburg, known for its peaches, wineries and German culture -- it was settled by German immigrants -- including restaurants serving bratwurst and strudel. Its biggest attractions are a museum dedicated to the naval history of World War II (Chester Nimitz, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, grew up in Fredericksburg) and Enchanted Rock, a pink granite dome that rises 425 feet above the ground north of town.
Now head south to Comfort, whose historic downtown and 130-year-old Hotel Faust make a good base camp for exploring the area. And don't miss Bandera, a little farther to the southwest, which bills itself as the state's "Cowboy Capital." The town's saloons, Western-wear shops, frontier museum and dude ranches give it a kitschy Old West feel.
You can't leave the Hill Country without visiting some caves. Among the best, an hour's drive to the east, are Natural Bridge Caverns, an underground network of limestone chambers packed with stalagmites, stalactites and other eerie columns of rock. Tours are offered daily.
From here it's a short hop to San Antonio, home of the River Walk, the Spurs and yes, the Alamo. But it'll likely be the Hill Country you remember.
5. Lake Superior Loop
The granddaddy of the Great Lakes, Lake Superior is the largest freshwater lake by surface area in the world. It's so vast that from many places on the shore you can't see across to the other side -- which is why navigating its 1,200-mile shoreline feels sort of like driving alongside the ocean.
Luckily for road-trippers, there's a series of highways that form a big loop around this inland sea. They'll take you through three states and Canada (bring your passport!), past cliffs and waterfalls and wildlife, and ensure you're never far from a water view.
Start in Duluth, Minnesota, a hilly port city that hosts visiting freighters all the way from the Atlantic. A former industrial town, Duluth has seen a modest rebirth as a tourist center with lavish architecture, harbor cruises, a freshwater aquarium and a unique bridge that raises and lowers like an elevator to let ships pass underneath.
Then take Highway 61 northeast along the lake past Two Harbors, home to the historic Split Rock Lighthouse at the edge of a high cliff, and across the border into Ontario, Canada. Outside of Thunder Bay, a former trading outpost, you'll find Kakabeka Falls, one of many dramatic waterfalls that tumble into Superior's pristine depths.
As you continue clockwise around the lake on the Trans-Canada Highway you'll encounter scenic coastal towns, nature reserves, more wilderness than people, and excellent hiking, fishing and canoeing.
You'll return to civilization at the twin cities of Sault Ste. Marie -- one's in Canada, one's in Michigan -- which occupy opposite shores of the St. Mary's River at the lake's southeastern corner. The cities are best known for their canal locks, which allow massive ships to pass upstream on their way to Lake Superior.
From here it's pretty much a straight shot west on Highway 28, through Michigan and Wisconsin, along the lake's southern shore. Worth a detour here is the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point. It honors doomed ships like the legendary Edmund Fitzgerald, which sank in a storm on Lake Superior in 1975.
And don't miss the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, a 40-mile stretch of sand dunes, beaches and sandstone cliffs rising as many as 200 feet above the water. Take a guided kayak tour for the best views.