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10 summer escapes off the beaten track

4:50 AM, Aug 2, 2012   |    comments
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Leave your watch at home and turn off that phone. Tear up your itinerary and forget the bucket list. Now you're ready to get lost, to surrender to the meandering spirit of exploration. Take a dozen roads less traveled in the Laurentians. Listen to the songs of sand dunes in California. Have an ancient city all to yourself in Mexico.

Northern California's Lost Coast

Call it the end of the road. Northern California's Lost Coast starts where Highway 1-the intrepid highway that fights its way over crumbling cliffs and curving shores for almost 700 miles of Pacific coast-finally gives up, defeated by mountains that rise nearly straight out of the water. In this secluded corner of the nation's most populous state, black-sand beaches greet the wild Pacific and giant redwoods wrap themselves in blankets of fog. The rugged terrain protecting this stretch from development also shields it from mass tourism: The best of the Lost Coast is tucked away on hiking and mountain biking trails. King Range National Conservation Area's website is a great place to begin planning your escape from it all.

Laurentians, Quebec

Forget the city lights-Montreal's backyard offers a thousand ways to get lost. Neighboring the metropolis, the Laurentians region, named after the mountain range guarding its northern border, offers three unique paths to leisurely exploration. The Laurentian Gateway, a short hop from Montreal, is a haven of farm trails and country roads. A bit farther north, the Heartland offers unplugged sophistication, with a contemporary art museum, golf courses, hotels, and restaurants in a natural setting. And with its mountain backdrop and thousands of lakes and rivers, the rugged Upper Laurentians delivers simple pleasures like long walks and swims in lakes where the only sounds are the birds and your splashing.

Florida's Forgotten Coast

What better place to get lost than off the beaten path? Florida's Forgotten Coast stretches languidly over 200 miles of mostly undeveloped Gulf of Mexico coastline. It's a piece of lost Florida, of white-sand beaches with nary a high rise in sight. Just about 80 miles from Tallahassee, lose yourself in quaint small towns and fishing villages, protected forests, scenic byways, and, of course, miles of pristine beaches. Start your search for the Forgotten Coast by checking for deals in the communities of Apalachicola, St. George Island, and Eastpoint.

Calakmul, Mexico

Here's a find: a lost Maya city that's still largely undiscovered. Calakmul, located in a remote part of Campeche in Mexico, once rivaled Guatemala's Tikal in size and importance, but today it is virtually unknown. Only a fraction of the ancient city has been excavated; the rest of the 39-square-mile metropolis sits undisturbed under dense rainforest. Even so, there's plenty to explore, and while visitors to better-known Maya ruins are battling crowds to climb pyramids and photograph temples, you'll have entire plazas to yourself at Calakmul. Well, mostly to yourself: Parrots, toucans, spider monkeys, and hundreds of other animals are now the only permanent residents of this once-great city.

Texas Hill Country

Get lost, y'all. That's the invitation from Texas Hill Country, a rolling landscape of rugged landscapes, thriving vineyards, and charming towns just west of Austin and north of San Antonio. Follow the arc of country roads on a bicycle, or hop in the car and lose yourself on some of the most scenic drives in Texas. Paddle down a lazy river in the shade of bald cypress trees, or spend an evening pitching washers and drinking beer under the stars in tiny Luckenbach's saloon, where a sign behind the bar reads "If you're drinking to forget, please pay in advance."

Breaux Bridge, La.

Slow to get lost, slow to get found again. That's the appeal of Cajun Country. Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, is the gateway to Cajun Country and the perfect place to give in to a slower way of life. Get lost in the sounds of zydeco, in a plate of crawfish etouffee (Breaux Bridge calls itself "The Crawfish Capital of the World"), or on the Bayou Teche or Lake Martin, where you can take a swamp tour and, if you're lucky, catch a glimpse of a Louisiana black bear, a bald eagle, or an alligator. You can even stay in cabins, cottages, or bed-and-breakfasts right on the bayou.

Georgian Bay, Ontario

It's a land of plenty, and you don't even have to share. Georgian Bay, on Lake Huron in Ontario, is the world's largest freshwater archipelago. The 30,000 islands provide endless opportunities for exploration and all but guarantee you a private island for the day. Stay onshore in one of the quaint villages or, for a bit more solitude, rent a cottage that's accessible only by water. Explore the many ways to get lost with a visit to one of the region's famous lighthouses. Or marvel at the shipwrecks visible just below the clear water's surface at the Fathom Five National Marine Park.

Eureka Dunes, Calif.

You'll need good directions to get lost at the Eureka Dunes in Death Valley National Park. Accessible only by dirt roads, the sand dunes rise precipitously out of a remote valley flanked by the towering Last Chance Mountains. Like sirens of the desert, these dunes sing. And yes, you could make like Odysseus and tie yourself down to resist their song and avoid losing yourself completely. But wouldn't it be more fun to climb to the top, take in the dramatic views, and then plunge down, listening as the movement of the sand creates an otherworldly hum beneath your feet? Explore the dunes on a hike (vehicles aren't allowed) and camp out under the stars.

Black Hills, S.D.

We strongly advise against actually getting lost underground, but there's nothing like finding yourself adrift in time and space when you're in a cave and all the lights go out just long enough to feel the thrill. And if you're going to go cave exploring, why not go big? At Wind Cave National Park, home to one of the longest cave systems in the world, guided tours allow visitors to explore the vast underground network. They may be massive, but the caves are just one of the six national parks in and around the Black Hills of South Dakota. The area is a treasure trove of natural beauty, scenic byways, and Old West history. With so much to explore and so few people to compete with for the pleasure, you're sure to get lost in the experience.

Shipshewana, Ind.

Sure, there are plenty of country roads on which to lose your way around the Amish village of Shipshewana, but why not mix it up and get lost in another time instead? Ditch the newfangled automobile and explore this Indiana community by horse-drawn buggy. Share a farm-fresh meal with an Amish family. Hop a ride on a 1906 carousel or visit the world's largest collection of old Hudson cars. Browse antiques or pick up a homemade pie at the Shipshewana Auction & Flea Market, the largest of its kind in the Midwest.

By Christine Sarkis

USA Today

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