Hit the trails: Four road trips for fall

Looking to add some meaning and direction to your next road trip? Then pick an interest and follow the trail.

The number of themed U.S. driving itineraries is growing, targeting everyone from bluegrass fans winding down Virginia's Crooked Road to cheese heads nibbling their way along Vermont's Cheese Trail.

North Carolina has a Barbecue Trail. Oregon touts a Fruit Loop in the fertile Hood River Valley. Connecticut promotes an Art Trail. In southeastern Arizona, the Salsa Trail is king. New Mexico will launch a Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail this fall.

These routes typically are organized by tourism bureaus hoping to drive traffic to off-the-beaten-path spots. On their own, the small towns and hidden byways might not rate as a destination, but as part of a larger journey they offer big rewards.

These road trips won't break the bank, either. Maps and other complimentary interpretive material show the way to the best a region has to offer, including free festivals and other events. Here are four geographically diverse routes ideal for fall travel.

Olympic Peninsula Waterfall Trail

What: A route that encompasses the peninsula and leads to 24 waterfalls in northwest Washington

Why go: Rain-forest valleys, wilderness coastline, alpine meadows and friendly rural towns. The waterfalls are thundering this time of year, foliage is starting to turn, and you're likely to spot elk as they saunter to the lower valleys. Many falls are short walks from roadways (though some require hikes). Madison Creek Falls is wheelchair accessible.

Don't miss: Sol Duc Falls, a signature sight in Olympic National Park. The falls are viewable from a pretty bridge, less than a mile from the road. If you're game, hike the 6 miles from Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort (open through October).

Staying over: Within the national park, historic Lake Quinault Lodge (Teddy Roosevelt slept here) has fall/winter rates starting at $110 (800-562-6672; visitlakequinault.com). Lake Quinault also has smaller independent lodgings and vacation rentals, as does Port Angeles.

Dining out: Michael's Seafood & Steakhouse in Port Angeles serves local oysters, clams and salmon, free-range beef, plus pizza and pasta.

Events: The Dungeness Crab & Seafood Festival in Port Angeles Oct. 10-11 features seafood, wine tasting, a beer garden and the popular Grab a Crab Derby.

Information: 800-942-4042; visitolympicpeninsula.org

Alabama Civil Rights Trail

What: A four-day itinerary to significant sites in Montgomery, Birmingham, Selma and Tuskegee

Why go: President Obama's election has elevated interest in the trail, which has an expanded and updated brochure and website. Among the iconic sites: the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church; the Rosa Parks Library & Museum; the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Don't miss: The Dexter Parsonage Museum in Montgomery. The city is the civil rights movement's ground zero, but while many visitors see the places related to the 1955 bus boycott and the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. served as senior pastor, they miss this gem. The home where King lived from 1954 to 1959 is furnished with period and original furniture and still bears scars of the civil rights struggle — damage to the front porch caused by a bomb thrown during the boycott.

Staying over: On a bluff overlooking downtown Montgomery, the Red Bluff Cottage B&B (888-551-2529; redbluffcottage.com) has rooms from $110-$155. In downtown Birmingham, try the boutique Redmont Hotel or the historic Tutwiler Hotel.

Dining out: In Birmingham, the Highlands Bar & Grill, a 2009 James Beard Award finalist, serves Southern fare at its best. In Montgomery, the fried chicken at Martin's Restaurant draws raves.

Events: The African Extravaganza on Oct. 23 in Selma highlights African food, music and crafts.

Information: 800-252-2262; alabama.travel

Heritage Trail

What: A 90-mile loop through northern Indiana's rural Amish Country

Why go: Quilt gardens, Amish buggies, open spaces and free pie! The popular Quilt Gardens (16 flower gardens planted in giant quilt patterns) are fading now, but there's color of another hue in acres of green-to-amber corn and soybean fields, where some of the area's 20,000 Amish residents are reaping the harvest.

Don't miss: Bonneyville Mill County Park near Bristol on 223 acres of rolling hills, with hiking trails and the state's oldest operating gristmill. This weekend is the annual Bonneyville Celebration, an old-fashioned country fair.

Staying over: Das Dutchman Essenhaus Inn & Conference Center in Middlebury (800-455-9471; essenhausinn.com) has weekend rates starting at $107, double, with continental breakfast. Moderate- to budget-priced chain lodgings are clustered around Elkhart. Middlebury and Nappanee are B&B central.

Dining out: Hearty family-style meals are a mainstay here. (Two popular spots: Amish Acres in Nappanee and Das Dutchman Essenhaus in Middlebury.) For lighter fare, try Kelly Jae's Cafe in Goshen for Spanish tapas with an Asian twist.

Events: The Nappanee Apple Festival Sept. 21 features the world's largest apple pie (600 pounds, 7 feet around), with free samples for attendees. It's created by a local bakery with an assist from the fire department in retrieving it from the oven.

Information: 800-250-4827; amishcountry.org/heritage.trail (downloadable audio tour)

Pennsylvania Civil War Trails

What: Two distinct itineraries highlighting Civil War stories circa 1863 in south-central Pennsylvania

Why go: 40 "story stops," plus 24 Civil War-related attractions viewed along scenic back roads. The trail, which made its debut in April, is informally billed as the largest Civil War theme park. The two routes spotlight different wartime strategies as they played out in the fields and towns of Pennsylvania, and tell the stories of ordinary people via explanatory signs at significant sites. Each itinerary takes about three days, at a leisurely pace.

Don't miss: Lincoln Cemetery in Gettysburg. It was founded by Basil Biggs, an African American who made enough money burying the dead at Gettysburg (1,100 bodies at $1.25 each) to establish a cemetery there for black soldiers and a benevolent society for African-American families.

Staying over: The Inn at Westwynn Farm near Hershey (877-937-8996; westwyndfarminn.com), on a 32-acre horse farm, has 10 rooms; rates $109-$179. Gettysburg, Harrisburg and York have plenty of chain lodgings.

Dining out: Prudhomme's Lost Cajun Kitchen in Columbia, run by Paul Prudhomme's nephew, serves Louisiana-spiced fare in a historic building.

Events: Remembrance Weekend in Gettysburg Nov. 21-22 commemorates the 146th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address with a parade, balls and an illumination in which candles are lit for each soldier buried in Soldiers National Cemetery.

Information: 800-847-4872; visitpa.com

Readers, tell us about your favorite road trip. Where did you go?