The old roads are the best.

They slow you down, so you can see the countryside clearly -- not a blur as you whip by on the Interstate. They wind and dip and climb in concert with the shape of the land, following the trails of America's earliest inhabitants -- the paths trod by Indians, the exploratory routes of the early settlers.

With every curve, the scenery changes; and not far ahead, almost anywhere, is a glimpse into the nation's past. California Rte. 1 winds giddily along the Pacific Coast as if bedazzled by the splendid views. The Lewis and Clark Trail, linking some of America's oldest roads, traces the explorers' path west across the prairie and over the Rocky Mountains to the continent's edge.

*Probably no vacation is more popular with Americans than climbing into the family car and driving off for a week or two to see something new: to the mountains for the cool, pine-sweet air and views that won't be forgotten; to the coast and communion with the sea; to an intriguing historical site, to see for yourself the places you have read about.

Where should you go this summer?

These six vacation drives will take you through some of the country's most scenic and historic landscapes. With gas prices down and terrorism a worrying threat abroad, this seems to be the year to see America by car. Some travelers plan their route months ahead, each day's mileage carefully plotted and each night's lodging booked in advance -- which is practical if you want to stay in a special inn or do something that requires a reservation, such as taking one of the famous mule rides into the Grand Canyon.

*Others just go, taking their chances on where they will stay the night. They enjoy the freedom to linger at a place they like, moving on when they are ready rather than when a schedule tells them to. That's fine if you stick to back roads, but at popular tourist destinations this summer it is probably wise to phone ahead.

It never hurts to read up on your route -- so that when a turnoff beckons, you won't pass it by if you know it leads to something you would hate to miss.

As spectacular as these special drives are, don't spend all your time in the car. Each of the itineraries takes you past parklands, where the youngsters can get out and romp -- and so can the oldsters.

You can hike in the Rockies, take a dip in a Vermont river, go seashell hunting on the Oregon coast, stay at historic inns in Maryland and Virginia, or enjoy the resort life at a Spanish hacienda in Arizona.

Among the nation's great vacation drives:

A grand Colorado mountain loop: Just northwest of Denver, the route into the Rocky Mountains quickly begins climbing, and climbs some more, and then -- you can feel the reduced oxygen in your lungs -- you are driving on one of the highest roadways in the country. For a few miles, you edge above 12,000 feet, above the treeline in a rocky, tundralike landscape where, many summers, there's enough snow left for a snowball fight in July.

This is Trail Ridge Road, the two-lane highway that crosses Rocky Mountain National Park -- a spectacularly scenic, and thrilling, introduction to a Colorado mountain drive. If you are nervous about heights, well, you probably will grip the steering wheel and look straight ahead when the road sweeps by ledges that seem to drop into nowhere.

Almost any itinerary west of Denver promises a roller-coaster ride, but this two- to three-week, 1,500-mile loop drive takes you over some of the state's highest passes and -- to the other extreme -- alongside one of the deepest canyons anywhere, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison River, a national monument.

Along the way, you can stay in the sophisticated ski resort town of Aspen; tour the remarkable Indian cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park; and explore the restored mining town of Cripple Creek.

The first leg of the trip is a short one, about a two-hour drive from the Denver airport northwest via Boulder to Estes Park, a summer resort community on the eastern edge of Rocky Mountain National Park. It is a good place to accustom yourself to the altitude before you begin the climb up Trail Ridge Road.

On a hill above Estes Park, a bit removed from the crowds, is the Stanley Hotel, built in 1909 by the inventor of the "Stanley Steamer." Recently renovated, it is one of the Historic Hotelscq of the Rocky Mountain West (800-626-4886).

Give yourself a full morning or afternoon to drive the 50-mile Trail Ridge Road, since there are lots of view stops and several opportunities for short hikes. Waiting at the end of the road is the town and lake of Grand Lake. It retains the rustic look of the frontier. A number of hiking trails into the park start nearby.

A couple of roads heading southwest pass near several major ski mountains: Winter Park, Keystone, Vail, Breckenridge and Copper Mountain. They all double as summer resorts, excellent places to spend a layover day to hike, bicycle or go on a trail ride. On the other hand, you may want to press on, via Leadville and 12,000-foot Independence Pass (closed in winter), for a day or two (or maybe more) at Aspen, a one-time mining town that has become the nation's ski capital.

Summers in Aspen are much quieter, but only by comparison. It is a center of mountain recreation: great hiking, white-water rafting, ballooning. Nearby, you can visit the ghost towns of Independence and Ashcroft. Or just relax with a beer at a sidewalk cafe'.

*The route from Aspen detours north to Carbondale, and then turns south via Redstone and 8,700-foot McGuire Pass to the Black Canyon just east of Montrose. From a ledge, you peer almost half a mile down into the narrow chasm, carved by the Gunnison River -- a white-water froth barely visible below.

From Montrose, head due south to Durango. Ouray, on the way, is a mountain resort town with accommodations. You may need the rest. Just outside town the road begins its zig-zag climb to the crest of 11,000-foot Red Mountain Pass, probably the wickedest cliffhanger on the entire loop.

At Durango, turn west a short distance to Mesa Verde National Park and its superb Indian cliff dwellings, where -- if you planned ahead -- you made a reservation to stay for at least two nights at the Far View Motel (303-529-4421). No place was more aptly named.

*Now there is distance to cover. Head east again, back through Durango to Pagosa Springs and north via lovely Lake City (the long, mountainous, very scenic way) or Del Norte (quicker, less interesting) to Canon City and its nearby canyon, Royal Gorge. Just outside Canon City, a narrow, sometimes one-lane dirt road (Colorado Rte. 67) winds north through Phantom Canyon to the town of Cripple Creek.

The road is slow going, but worth it. The canyon looks like the stage set for the cowboy movies of your youth, and you expect a stagecoach to come round the bend any moment.

From Cripple Creek, a good place for lunch and boutique browsing, descend from the mountains to Colorado Springs and the Broadmoor (303-634-7711), at the foot of the Rampart Range. It is a famous old luxury-class hotel with swimming pools, golf courses, restaurants, stables and an indoor ice-skating rink.

Here, still with a fine view of the mountains, you can shed the wear of many miles and many days behind the wheel. When you are ready, Denver and the flight home are only 90 minutes north.

Hugging the Pacific Coast: Misty cliffs, wind-whipped waves, rocky coves, sandy beaches collecting a beachcomber's treasure of driftwood: Nowhere else is there a coastline drive that can compare -- for beauty, for variety of scenery, for access to the sea or for continuity -- than the roughly 800-mile Pacific route from San Francisco to Seattle, first via California Rte. 1 and then U.S. Rte. 101.

Only rarely do these two slow, winding roadways Cripple Creek.

The first leg of the trip is a short one, about a two-hour drive from the Denver airport northwest via Boulder to Estes Park, a summer resort community on the eastern edge of Rocky Mountain National Park. It is a good place to accustom yourself to the altitude before you begin the climb up Trail Ridge Road.

On a hill above Estes Park, a bit removed from the crowds, is the Stanley Hotel, built in 1909 by the inventor of the "Stanley Steamer." Recently renovated, it is one of the Historic Hotelscq of the Rocky Mountain West (800-626-4886).

Give yourself a full morning or afternoon to drive the 50-mile Trail Ridge Road, since there are lots of view stops and several opportunities for short hikes. Waiting at the end of the road is the town and lake of Grand Lake. It retains the rustic look of the frontier. A number of hiking trails into the park start nearby.

A couple of roads heading southwest pass near several major ski mountains: Winter Park, Keystone, Vail, Breckenridge and Copper Mountain. They all double as summer resorts, excellent places to spend a layover day to hike, bicycle or go on a trail ride. On the other hand, you may want to press on, via Leadville and 12,000-foot Independence Pass (closed in winter), for a day or two (or maybe more) at Aspen, a one-time mining town that has become the nation's ski capital.

Summers in Aspen are much quieter, but only by comparison. It is a center of mountain recreation: great hiking, white-water rafting, ballooning. Nearby, you can visit the ghost towns of Independence and Ashcroft. Or just relax with a beer at a sidewalk cafe'.

*The route from Aspen detours north to Carbondale, and then turns south via Redstone and 8,700-foot McGuire Pass to the Black Canyon just east of Montrose. From a ledge, you peer almost half a mile down into the narrow chasm, carved by the Gunnison River -- a white-water froth barely visible below.

From Montrose, head due south to Durango. Ouray, on the way, is a mountain resort town with accommodations. You may need the rest. Just outside town the road begins its zig-zag climb to the crest of 11,000-foot Red Mountain Pass, probably the wickedest cliffhanger on the entire loop.

At Durango, turn west a short distance to Mesa Verde National Park and its superb Indian cliff dwellings, where -- if you planned ahead -- you made a reservation to stay for at least two nights at the Far View Motel (303-529-4421). No place was more aptly named.

*Now there is distance to cover. Head east again, back through Durango to Pagosa Springs and north via lovely Lake City (the long, mountainous, very scenic way) or Del Norte (quicker, less interesting) to Canon City and its nearby canyon, Royal Gorge. Just outside Canon City, a narrow, sometimes one-lane dirt road (Colorado Rte. 67) winds north through Phantom Canyon to the town of Cripple Creek.

The road is slow going, but worth it. The canyon looks like the stage set for the cowboy movies of your youth, and you expect a stagecoach to come round the bend any moment.

From Cripple Creek, a good place for lunch and boutique browsing, descend from the mountains to Colorado Springs and the Broadmoor (303-634-7711), at the foot of the Rampart Range. It is a famous old luxury-class hotel with swimming pools, golf courses, restaurants, stables and an indoor ice-skating rink.

Here, still with a fine view of the mountains, you can shed the wear of many miles and many days behind the wheel. When you are ready, Denver and the flight home are only 90 minutes north.

Hugging the Pacific Coast: Misty cliffs, wind-whipped waves, rocky coves, sandy beaches collecting a beachcomber's treasure of driftwood: Nowhere else is there a coastline drive that can compare -- for beauty, for variety of scenery, for access to the sea or for continuity -- than the roughly 800-mile Pacific route from San Francisco to Seattle, first via California Rte. 1 and then U.S. Rte. 101.

Only rarely do these two slow, winding roadways turn inland, and when they do it is briefly -- at one point to pass through groves of giant coastal redwood trees in California's Redwood National Park. At its outset, the route touches another national parkland, Point Reyes National Seashore, just north of San Francisco, and it terminates near a third, Olympic National Park in Washington.

Between the national parks are numerous state parks and beaches, many with campgrounds. Oregon has so many, the state map is cluttered with their names.

The temptation is to stop at every beach, since each seems to have its own beauty, even on a foggy morning. Certainly you should spend an hour or two each day at one of them, relaxing on the sand, exploring tidal pools or going for a swim -- if you can stand the always chilly water.

Fine inns dot the entire route, but there's a cluster of them in Mendocino, an artists' colony on the sea that with its steepled church and white-frame houses looks much like a New England village. About 125 miles north of San Francisco, it is an excellent first night's stop.

Two historical sites on the drive, both reconstructed forts, are particularly interesting. The first, Fort Ross State Park, is only about 60 miles north of San Francisco. It was founded by the Russians in the early 1800s as an outpost for fur traders. Its Russian Orthodox Chapel is an architectural gem.

To the north at Astoria, Ore. is Fort Clatsop, where the Lewis and Clark expedition spent the winter of 1805-06, the end of their long journey across the territory the United States acquired from France in the Louisiana Purchase. Summer motorists are apt to enjoy their visit more than the explorers, who complained of endless winter rains.

Few drives anywhere could have quite as dramatic a gateway as San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. If you want to conclude just as spendidly, catch one of the auto ferries across Puget Sound to Seattle. At day's end, the city sparkles in the sunset.

In the path of Lewis and Clark: The Lewis and Clark journey to the West was of enormous importance to the young nation -- opening up the new and little-known land. Now, 182 years later, it is still possible to follow in the explorers' footsteps, a trip that is as much fun as it is educational.

The 2,750-mile route, following mostly back roads -- including Boonslick Road in Missouri, believed to be the oldest road west of the Mississippi -- touches 11 states: Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon. And three national parks: Theodore Roosevelt, Yellowstone and Glacier.

The final destination for the explorers was Fort Clatsop on the Pacific Coast. To get there, Lewis and Clark traveled through Indian country along such important rivers as the Missouri, Salmon, Bitterroot, Clearwater, Snake and Columbia. The beginning of their route was in southern Illinois, just north of St. Louis, where the Missouri joins the Mississippi at what is now called Lewis and Clark State Park.

All of this is detailed in an excellent new guide, "Fieldings Lewis & Clark Trail," by Gerald Olmsted. It describes important sites along the way today while quoting observations from the Lewis and Clark journals. Vacationers contemplating a drive to Vancouver's Expo 86 should find the book rewarding.

It took Lewis and Clark from May of 1804 to December of 1805 to reach Fort Clatsop. Author Olmsted suggests a minimum of 10 days by car, but two months really would be best if you have the time. You can stay in small-town motels, bed-and-breakfast inns or in campgrounds in the many parks on the trail.

Much of the route is marked by signs with silhouettes of the two explorers and the words "Lewis and Clark Trail." Olmsted writes: "You'll see a thousand of these signs on your westward trek, some of which are in the most isolated spots imaginable." He has included a series of good maps to keep you from going astray.

Not all of the drive is history. At Greycliff Prairie Dog turn inland, and when they do it is briefly -- at one point to pass through groves of giant coastal redwood trees in California's Redwood National Park. At its outset, the route touches another national parkland, Point Reyes National Seashore, just north of San Francisco, and it terminates near a third, Olympic National Park in Washington.

Between the national parks are numerous state parks and beaches, many with campgrounds. Oregon has so many, the state map is cluttered with their names.

The temptation is to stop at every beach, since each seems to have its own beauty, even on a foggy morning. Certainly you should spend an hour or two each day at one of them, relaxing on the sand, exploring tidal pools or going for a swim -- if you can stand the always chilly water.

Fine inns dot the entire route, but there's a cluster of them in Mendocino, an artists' colony on the sea that with its steepled church and white-frame houses looks much like a New England village. About 125 miles north of San Francisco, it is an excellent first night's stop.

Two historical sites on the drive, both reconstructed forts, are particularly interesting. The first, Fort Ross State Park, is only about 60 miles north of San Francisco. It was founded by the Russians in the early 1800s as an outpost for fur traders. Its Russian Orthodox Chapel is an architectural gem.

To the north at Astoria, Ore. is Fort Clatsop, where the Lewis and Clark expedition spent the winter of 1805-06, the end of their long journey across the territory the United States acquired from France in the Louisiana Purchase. Summer motorists are apt to enjoy their visit more than the explorers, who complained of endless winter rains.

Few drives anywhere could have quite as dramatic a gateway as San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. If you want to conclude just as spendidly, catch one of the auto ferries across Puget Sound to Seattle. At day's end, the city sparkles in the sunset.

In the path of Lewis and Clark: The Lewis and Clark journey to the West was of enormous importance to the young nation -- opening up the new and little-known land. Now, 182 years later, it is still possible to follow in the explorers' footsteps, a trip that is as much fun as it is educational.

The 2,750-mile route, following mostly back roads -- including Boonslick Road in Missouri, believed to be the oldest road west of the Mississippi -- touches 11 states: Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon. And three national parks: Theodore Roosevelt, Yellowstone and Glacier.

The final destination for the explorers was Fort Clatsop on the Pacific Coast. To get there, Lewis and Clark traveled through Indian country along such important rivers as the Missouri, Salmon, Bitterroot, Clearwater, Snake and Columbia. The beginning of their route was in southern Illinois, just north of St. Louis, where the Missouri joins the Mississippi at what is now called Lewis and Clark State Park.

All of this is detailed in an excellent new guide, "Fieldings Lewis & Clark Trail," by Gerald Olmsted. It describes important sites along the way today while quoting observations from the Lewis and Clark journals. Vacationers contemplating a drive to Vancouver's Expo 86 should find the book rewarding.

It took Lewis and Clark from May of 1804 to December of 1805 to reach Fort Clatsop. Author Olmsted suggests a minimum of 10 days by car, but two months really would be best if you have the time. You can stay in small-town motels, bed-and-breakfast inns or in campgrounds in the many parks on the trail.

Much of the route is marked by signs with silhouettes of the two explorers and the words "Lewis and Clark Trail." Olmsted writes: "You'll see a thousand of these signs on your westward trek, some of which are in the most isolated spots imaginable." He has included a series of good maps to keep you from going astray.

Not all of the drive is history. At Greycliff Prairie Dog Town State Monument in South Dakota, Olmsted points out, you can observe a prairie dog colony and read the interpretive signs that explain their community life. In Oregon, he directs you to Eagle Creek in the Cascade Mountains near Bonneville, where a woodlands trail leads past seven waterfalls on a 13-mile hike to Wahtum Lake.

Of course, the trip can be made from west to east, but that is not, even now, the route of discovery. Either way, however, as Olmsted writes, "the reader who follows the trek from one end to the other will discover a different, nontouristy world; one which played a large role in America's Manifest Destiny, and the winning of the West."

On the road to the Grand Canyon: The obvious place for many travelers to begin a Grand Canyon trip is the car-rental desk at the Phoenix airport. And if you check an Arizona map, the quickest way to get to the canyon is north on I-17 to Flagstaff.

Forget the quick way. Take the scenic way, the historic way, the old way -- first U.S. Rte. 89 and then Alternate U.S. 89 to Flagstaff, and then U.S. Rte. 180 onward to the canyon. The distance is not great, only about 250 miles, but you should consider making it a two-day drive.

The route gives you a taste of the Arizona desert, attractive in its own sun-broiled way -- plus awesome mountain climbs; the gorgeous Oak Creek Canyon, a red rock garden where you can splash in cooling river pools; Jerome, a one-time rowdy copper-mining town clutching the steep sides of Cleopatra Mountain; and the town of Sedona, an attractive resort community that is a good place to spend the night.

Give yourself time to walk Jerome's narrow streets stair-stepping 1,500 feet down the steep slopes. One look at Jerome's precarious layout and you will gladly park the car and proceed on foot. In this community, everybody had a view of the Verde Valley below. Now mostly a ghost town, it is becoming a center for southwestern arts and crafts, along with cafe's and other tourist amenities.

Sedona, at the mouth of Oak Creek Canyon, has two major attractions: the giant red rocks that surround it -- Jeep tours available -- and Tlaquepaque ("T-lockey-pockey"), a charmingly re-created Old Mexico village of cobblestone courtyards, graceful tiled fountains, excellent boutiques and very good restaurants. Sip a drink in one of the garden cafe's before dinner.

Next door to Tlaquepaque is a new resort, Los Abrigados (800-521-3131), an all-suite hotel with swimming pool and tennis courts that maintains the Mexican flavor. Sedona's dry climate is perfect for outdoor exercise. Elsewhere in town are inns and motels.

Don't hurry through 12-mile-long Oak Creek Canyon, because the views are worth savoring. You will find pleasant spots to picnic; the trout fishing reportedly is good; and you can dip your feet (or all of you) into the creek.

The relaxation will prepare you for the steep, 2,000-foot climb out of the canyon, a series of hairpin turns -- the kind where you can see the road twisting for several levels above you and below. Passengers will enjoy the panorama; drivers will keep their eyes on the pavement.

At the top, stop at the lookout point for a few minutes to retrace your route visually -- and catch your breath -- and then continue north through the Kaibab National Forest to the Grand Canyon and even more spectacular viewing.

The Civil War battlefield parks: For four years, the Civil War raged on Washington's doorstep, a momentous period in the nation's history commemorated now at several nearby national battlefield parks. You walk the grounds where Union and Confederate troops clashed, awed both by the tragic slaughter detailed in park guides and by the immense courage it took by troops on either side to charge up the fortified slopes you see climbing above you.

All of the parks on this drive are within about three hours of Washington. If you have a week, consider visiting the battlefields chronologically, an itinerary that requires some backtracking because the opposing armies swept back and forth between Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Begin at Bull Run at Manassas in Virginia, the opening battle on the war front closest to Washington -- and then continue on to Richmond, where Union commanders failed in their early attempts to take the Confederate capital; to Antietam, Md., site of the single bloodiest day of the conflict, and close-by Harpers Ferry, W.Va.; to Gettysburg, Pa., a bleak turning point in the fortunes of the Confederacy; to Fredericksburg, Va., and the nearby battlesites of Chancellorsville, Wilderness and Spotsylvania, where more than 100,000 troops died; to Petersburg, Va., besieged by Union forces for 10 exhausting months; and on to Appomattox Court House to the west, and the end of the war.

The various routes take you through lovely farmlands and woods and into villages where you can stop at an inn for lunch or an overnight stay.

The battlefields themselves, once the setting for gory events, have been cleared of war's debris and now, ironically, are remarkably pleasant parklands, scenic places to hike,bicycle or relax with a Civil War novel.

The heart of Vermont: In the winter, Vermont Rte. 100, which runs the length of the state, is a skier's highway, lined with such famous resorts as Mt. Snow, Killington and Stowe. In the summer, the highway becomes a quiet country road again, rambling through exactly the quaint pastoral landscape that people take a New England vacation to see.

You probably won't stick to Rte. 100 along its entire length -- there are so many tempting side trips -- but you won't wander far away, either.

For much of its pathway, Rte. 100 skirts the base of the Green Mountains to the west, often crossing and recrossing the streams and rivers that flow down from the slopes. Across the valley to the east are distant views of New Hampshire's White Mountains.

This is Vermont's inn country. Take along a country-inn guide and plan to stay in one or more of these small places, famous for their friendly hospitality. The innkeepers can direct you to good hiking trails and hidden swimming holes; to outfitters who will take you on a canoe trip down a quiet river; or to the best antique and crafts shops or a local music festival.

Several of Rte. 100's ski resorts become summer resorts. One of the nicest is Stratton at the southern end of the state. There are golf and tennis, and the Appalachian Trail passes close by.

To the north, Stowe, looking the very model of a New England village, is as athletically lively. View-fanciers can ride a lift to the mountaintop for an eye-filling look at the lushly green mountainscapes.

Of historic note is the hilltop village of Plymouth in the center of the state. It was the birthplace of Calvin Coolidge; it was there he took the oath of office as the country's 30th president; and he is buried in the local cemetery.

Even if Coolidge is not your hero, the white clapboard village is very photogenic. Several buildings, open to visitors, reflect New England country life at the turn of the century.

The special pleasure of this route is that the distance is so short, only about 200 miles if you go the entire way from the Massachusetts line in the south to the Canadian border in the north.

But don't feel compelled to see it all, if a pleasant spot on the way convinces you to dally. This is not a drive to any place in particular; it is, rather, a path into the essence of New England. On Vermont's Rte. 100, you can begin and end anywhere and reach that destination.