Three Road Trips to Take in the Southwest

If you’re going on a road trip, there’s no better place to do it than the American Southwest. Once known as the wild west, it is no surprise that this region’s desert vistas inspired the Western movies and music. It may not be as wild as in the old days, but the Southwest is still one of the best places for an iconic road trip, or three.

This region is home to some of the biggest cities in America, but the view from the highway is seemingly endless deserts filled with some of the most stunning valleys and mountains in the nation. If you think endless deserts might be bland, think again. This region includes the Mojave and Sonoran deserts which contain multitudes. Red rocks, green chiles, and national parks galore, there’s something for everyone on a road trip through the Southwestern USA.

When you’re planning on driving through the Southwest USA, there’s no problem finding places to go. The hard part is deciding which of the places you will go. Luckily there are some fantastic routes, highways, and byways that can take you from one sight to the next so you can get the most out of your time on the road.

Sunset in Grand Canyon National Park from Pima Point view point. Arizona. USA

1. Go on the Grand Canyon Loop

The Grand Canyon makes quite an impression and a ride around the Grand Canyon Loop is a surefire road to lifelong memories. You can make this 201 mile journey in about 5 hours, but it is worth taking your time to check out all the sites that this route can offer.

It starts in Flagstaff Arizona, where you can check out the Museum of Northern Arizona or the Pioneer Museum before leaving Flagstaff. You’ll head north on the US-180 leaving Flagstaff. You can take Snow Bowl Road for a better view of the San Francisco Peaks or stop at Kendrick Park to spot coyotes, elk, red-tailed hawks, and more on the Watchable Wildlife Trail.

Further north you’ll find Slate mountain, where a hike to the top will give you a spectacular view of the Grand Canyon and surrounding mountains. The last spot to check out on the US-180 is Red Mountain, a volcanic cinder cone with a massive amphitheater-like opening at the center.

After Red Mountain, the climate gets drier and starts looking more like the iconic Southwest desert as you near the hiking trails at Kaibab National Forest and Red Butte, a 956 foot tall butte that is sacred to the Havasupai people. The forest has trails for hikers with any level of experience, but the trail to the top of Red Butte is difficult. Your efforts on the Red Butte Look Out Trail will be rewarded with an incredible view of the San Francisco peaks and a sneak peek in the form of the top of the Grand Canyon’s north rim.

You can stop at Tusayan Ranger District to learn about nearby hikes and wildlife before getting to the Canyon from Kaibab and Red Butte. Just a few miles later you’ll find yourself at the Grand Canyon’s south rim.

Mather Point is a great spot to get a good view. The multicolored cliffs and the mix of buttes and valleys make it clear why this is one of the world’s Seven Natural Wonders, and the beauty only increases as you get closer to the Colorado River and the depths of the Canyon.

If you’re looking for restaurants, lodging, or places to shop, it’s time to stop by the Grand Canyon Village. It is a great place to find information on anything you want to know about the Canyon.

The Village is also the place to start many of the most memorable hikes in the area. Bright Angel Trail is a popular overnight hike to the river. The trail is about 9 miles long and you will not make it from the rim to the river in one day, so make sure to bring camping gear if you choose to go this route. You will also need a permit to camp. If the full trail seems a little too long, there are many stops along the way that justify hiking a few miles even if you don’t go the full distance.

The Village is also near Yavapai Point, a place with incredible views and the Yavapai Geology Museum where you can learn about the 2 billion year process that created the Grand Canyon. If you still want to drive around the Canyon a bit before leaving the village, check out West Rim Drive, which has many stopping points where you can admire the scenery.

Once you leave Grand Canyon Village go east on AZ-64. The road will lead you to Grandview Point and Moran Point, two of the most famous places to look at the Canyon. You can also go on a hike at the Tusayan Museum, a self-guided trail through a restored Tusayan Pueblo, where the Hopi Tribe’s ancestors once lived.

You’ll take AZ-64 till you can turn south on US-89 to reach Loop Road. Loop Road will take you past the Sunset Crater Volcano and Wupatki National Monuments. Both of these National Monuments are around 1,000 years old. Sunset Crater Volcano is crater that is over 1,000 feet tall with a Lava Flow Trail for hiking and cinder cones for climbing. Wupatki is an enormous Pueblo ruin with over 100 rooms and a tower.

Loop Road continues through Painted Desert Vista, a popular picnic spot located in the most recently active part of the San Francisco volcano field. You can continue following Loop Road as it eventually rejoins US-89, which you can take south the whole way back to Flagstaff.

US road 66 street sign in Williams, Arizona.

2. Route 66: Santa Fe to Santa Monica

There really is no road as iconic as Route 66. There are enough songs about Route 66 to make a road trip playlist. The Mother Road was built to connect Chicago and Los Angeles. The signing of the Interstate Highway Act led to this road being decommissioned with I-55, I-44, and I-40 replacing most stretches of the road. Many have held on to this beloved road, with many Southwestern states maintaining iconic stretches of Route 66.

You’ll be taking I-40 for most of this road trip. There’s not much of The Mother Road left in New Mexico, but it runs through Santa Fe and many stretches of I-40 run parallel to maintained stretches of Route 66. New Mexico’s capital is famous for its Pueblo architecture and creative art scene.

Stick around a bit before you hit the road and see the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum or any of the state’s other museums and galleries. The Railyard Arts District is home to iconic galleries and a film festival every September. There’s good eating too with plenty of restaurants serving green chile and other Southwest favorites.

Go south on I-25 and switch to the I-40 in Albuquerque. An hour on the I-40 will get you to El Malpais, the Rivers of Ancient Fires, a national monument that features hiking trails near lava flows and cinder cones from the Zuni-Bandera volcanic field. You can even get a free caving permit from the National Park Service (NPS) and explore lava tubes, the surreally smooth-walled caves left from volcanic eruptions thousands of years ago.

Grant is a city very near to the park with a lot of Route 66 memorabilia that exists on one of the maintained sections of the road. You can take an exit from I-40 to stop at Grant or just to cruise Route 66.

Route 66 merges with I-40 a while before you cross into Arizona. Once your there, it won’t be long before you reach the Petrified Forest, a national park with trails through fields of trees that have turned to stone through the process of permineralization, which you can learn more about at the NPS-run museum. You can hike to the ruins of Puerto Pueblo, a pueblo built by the Anasazi people that is known for its hundreds of pictographs. To the North is the Painted Desert Inn, a Route 66 staple featuring murals by Hopi painter Fred Kabotie and a breathtaking view of the Painted Desert.

To the west there’s Holbrook, a city with giant statues of dinosaurs lining the street, the Wigwam hotel that inspired the teepee-themed garages in Cars, and Meteor Crater, the aptly named location of the world’s best preserved meteor impact site. It is enormous, beautiful, and well worth visiting.

On the other side of Flagstaff is Bill Williams Mountain, where you can drive a highway around the 9,259 foot mountain or, if you have a off-road capable 4X4, up the mountain on the gravel road. It might be best to skip this drive if you are not an experienced off-roader. The mountain is just outside of Kingman, a city right on Route 66 with a museum with a collection of off-kilter classic cars.

At the border of Arizona and California you can stop by Havasu National Wildlife Refuge and Lake Havasu City, where you will find the lake of its namesake, countless hiking trails, and… oddly enough, London Bridge, which was purchased and imported by Robert P. McCulloch, one of the city’s co-founders.

You can actually drive on Route 66 through most of California on your through Barstow and San Bernardino to Los Angeles and Santa Monica, where Route 66 ends. You can make detours to Palm Springs or Joshua Tree. The First Original McDonalds Museum is in San Bernardino. When you get to Los Angeles you can take Route 66 through Hollywood to Santa Monica and head to the beach. If you really can’t get enough of California, go ahead and drive on SR-1, a highway that runs right along the ocean.

Highway road leading towards mountains outside of Moab.

3. Take your time going from Denver to Moab

Denver and Moab are less than 6 hours apart if you drive straight there. You should not drive straight from Denver to Moab, because there are so many sights to see between. Many of the places on this trip are best visited in an off-road capable 4X4.

Leave Denver on I-70 and pass through the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests. There are plenty of camping sites, and you can also hike or climb at Grays Peak, the highest point on the continental divide, a 14,278 foot mountain with a trail that’s relatively easy for a mountain of this size, but still best for experienced hikers. Even to get to the trailhead you will need a 4X4.

Continuing west on the interstate you will get to Colorado National Monument an area high on the Colorado Plateau with a natural history museum and scenic roads like Rim Rock Drive. This 23 mile road is worth the detour as it runs along the upper rim of a series of canyons. Grand Mesa, the largest flat-topped mountain, is nearby.

Moab is the destination, but it’s also the first step to many destinations. It has become a hit tourist destination because of how close it is to many national parks and trails. If you’re a hard core off-road driver, you will probably make the most of the off-road trails that have names like Steel Bender and Hell’s Revenge.

There are many local motels in the town and even more camping sites nearby. You can get a hearty meal at great local restaurants after a hard day of hiking. Moab makes a great center for your excursions into other parks in the area like Arches National Park where enormous, other-worldly rock formations jut out of the earth or form arches.

Canyonlands is the place to go for a scenic drive. The easiest way to see Canyonlands is from a paved scenic drive called the Island in the Sky. This road is 20 miles long atop a 1,500 foot mesa, giving road trippers a view of the canyons for over 100 miles in any direction. There are also pullouts near scenic overviews and off-road and hiking trails.

On the way to or from Moab, be sure to take Highway 128, a detour between Moab and I-70. This highway winds along the Colorado River where there are miles of swimming, camping, and kayaking spots.

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