What to bring: Historically accurate snacks ’n’ drinks: jerky, corn whiskey.
On the reading list: Francis Parkman’s The Oregon Trail.
• Pony Express Trail. In 2011, this 1,800-mile trail from St. Joseph, Missouri, to San Francisco may look like a failed start-up: The Pony Express lasted only 18 months. But that was enough to enshrine its riders as the epitome of American cool. The trail parallels U.S. Highway 50 through the Sierra Nevada, and a great place to hunker down while you explore it is Fallen Leaf Campground (pictured; from $28; 1.usa.gov/ft7fT3), just below Lake Tahoe in California. nps.gov/poex/index.htm
• Juan Bautista de Anza Trail. No dummy, Juan. His 1776 trek through what was then called Alta California took him along the most beautiful coastline in the world. Santa Barbara County holds the prettiest portion of his route: Experience it at its best at Gaviota State Park (from $35; 1.usa.gov/feAA3a). And while Anza didn’t bring a bodyboard, you should. nps.gov/juba/index.htm
• Oregon Trail. Two thousand miles of legends and lies: This is the trail that half of the West says their ancestors took. Its most beautifully evocative miles can be found, appropriately, in Eastern Oregon, specifically the Blue Mountains near Pendleton. Here, Emigrant Springs State Heritage Area (from $17; bit.ly/g5LHxz) is a fine place to pitch a tent and spin tales about your great-great-great grandmother in 1854. nps.gov/oreg/index.htm
• Nez Perce Trail. The story is heroic and tragic. In 1877, five tribal chiefs led the Nez Perce from Oregon across the Rockies to the Montana plains, fleeing the U.S. Army, hoping to find refuge in Canada. Today the aura of heroism is matched by the trail’s beauty: Our favorite stretch runs along Idaho’s Lochsa River, where you can set up camp at Wilderness Gateway Campground ($5; 1.usa.gov/hyM8e2). fs.usda.gov/npnht