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Autumn Journeys: United States

Seasonal Drama, in Six Scenes

From golden aspens, to romantic coastline, here are some of the loveliest playgrounds to frolic in after the crowds have gone


The summer crowds are home, but to my mind fall is the best time for a getaway, when the heat and humidity are gone, highways and airports are emptier and the youngsters are back in school. Best of all, many prices have dropped post-Labor Day.

Here are a half-dozen U.S. destinations that are scenic, relatively quiet (compared with summer's hubbub) and readily accessible, offering plenty of interesting sightseeing, a variety of outdoor activities--especially great hiking--and a relaxed, off-season pace.

And all for a moderate price. They are:

* Northern California's Point Reyes National Seashore, where I have returned twice in recent months. The parkland is a wild but inviting seascape of rocky cliffs, long golden beaches and groves of aromatic eucalyptus.

* Two very popular tourist sites--the ski resort of Aspen, Colo., and Arizona's Grand Canyon National Park--that are beautiful any season of the year but more so in the fall.

* Three scenic fall drives--each an offbeat, circle route--that will take you into the piney woods of southwestern Georgia, where Franklin D. Roosevelt once sought relaxation; to the mountainous far western corner of North Carolina, dubbed "The Land in the Sky"; and to the rolling green hills of central Kentucky, famed for its deep caves and fine bourbon.

These trips are all do-it-yourself vacations, the kind where you plot your own itinerary, pursue activities that interest you and stay in lodgings that match your style and budget. Where possible, I regularly chose bed-and-breakfast inns. Give yourself two or three days, at least, to properly enjoy these destinations.

Coastal Bliss

The water all along the Northern California coast is unpleasantly cold, and the surf can be rough and the rip tides treacherous. So Point Reyes National Seashore is a parkland not for swimming but for viewing--either by car or afoot. Either way, the scenery is gorgeous.

A sprawling semi-wilderness just north of San Francisco, the seashore encompasses forests of wind-sculpted pines and soaring eucalyptus, lofty precipices, hidden valleys of ferns and huckleberries, rolling grasslands, high ridges and miles of empty, wave-pounded beaches. It also has made its mark in seafaring history.

A 20-mile drive from the park entrance at Olema leads to Point Reyes Lighthouse, located at the tip of the park as it pushes farthest into the Pacific. On the right is 10-mile-long Point Reyes Beach, where the waves roll against the shore in almost military precision. To the left is calmer Drakes Bay, named for Sir Francis Drake, the English adventurer who sailed into the bay aboard the Golden Hind in the summer of 1579. The lighthouse, clinging to a high, rocky cliff, occupies one of the windiest and foggiest places on the West Coast.

Just a bit inland though, the fall weather can be absolutely perfect--mild, sunny and dry. On each of the last two visits, we've taken advantage of a beautiful day to hike Bear Valley Trail, a mostly easy, nine-mile (round-trip) path that leads from the visitor's center through woods and meadows to an arched rock beside the sea. For a while the trail follows the murmuring path of Bear Valley Creek through a tunnel of pines and then at the crest of a modest ridge it suddenly emerges into Divide Meadow, a lovely clearing that slopes gently into the distance. It's an ideal place to spread a picnic beneath a shade tree and idle the afternoon away.

Lodging is mostly in small inns near the park, and good restaurants featuring locally farmed oysters are close by in Olema, Inverness and Point Reyes Station.

We stayed three nights at Dancing Coyote Beach ([415] 669-7200; weekends are booked well in advance), a cluster of four tiny B&B cottages overlooking Tomales Bay just outside tiny Inverness. A romantic cottage for two begins at $95 a night. Or consult West Marin Network, ([415] 663-9543), a lodging service. For Point Reyes National Seashore information, call the visitor's center at (415) 663-1092, or visit the park's World Wide Web site,

Aspen Glow

For several years, my wife, Sandy, and I made annual skiing trips to the former mining town of Aspen. Then then we discovered that Aspen in the off season could be just as much fun--and not nearly so frosty or expensive. Most of the classy lodgings, restaurants and shops that cater to skiers remain open.

Take a drive up the winding road to Ashcroft, a ghost town with one of the loveliest views in the Rocky Mountains, or go for a soak in the giant outdoor hot springs pool in Glenwood Springs. The Maroon Bells, a pair of 14,000-foot-high peaks, are the scenic backdrop to moderate or strenuous day hikes in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area. (Check on the weather; snow is possible after Labor Day.) Mountain biking, lake and stream fishing, horseback riding and golfing are all popular fall pursuits.

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