The southwestern United States is filled with rich history, breathtaking scenery, long roads, amazing locations, and fun adventures. For those that love road trips, the southwestern U.S. is perfect. When the journey is just as important as the destination, it’s important to find a location that offers an exciting drive as well as exciting locations. The southwest offers just that as you wind through dramatic scenery, meet amazing people, and look up at a sky peppered with stars. The desert offers a landscape that is reminiscent of the old west, or ancient man. The cities are filled with unique establishments, and the forests are plush green with blankets of flora. If you’re looking for a road trip that is sure to leave an impression, the southwest is the right place to start.
California National Park Trek
California is full of amazing national parks that would take a lifetime to really dive into. This national park trek hits a few of them: Yosemite, Sequoia, and Joshua Tree — with a few fun stops in between. It’s a long trip with about 11 hours driving time, but it’s a trip unlike any other you’ll see in any other part of the world. This part of the country is absolutely beautiful and you’ll see an array of different settings on your way through southern California.
Number of Stops: 5
Pro Tips: If you’re taking an RV on this road trip during the warmer months, be sure to de-winterize your RV so it’s safe to take through this long trek. Luckily, many of these destinations are RV friendly so you won’t have trouble finding a place to park overnight.
Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park starts this trek because of its amazing geological formations that cover 1169 square miles. Yosemite is home to 3 of the 10 largest waterfalls in the world and will have you glued to your camera at all times. Some of the most popular activities include hiking, backpacking, rock climbing, rafting, and biking. You don’t have to be an outdoor adventure expert to fall in love with this park, though, as you can find hikes and trails of many levels. Yosemite will be an adventure you never forget.
This is a long trip that will probably span a couple of days in order to really experience many of the great national parks in this area. On your way, take a stop in Bakersfield. Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace is one place to stop and eat. It was created by country music singer/songwriter Buck Owens and has a display of guitars, suits, and memorabilia. You can also go to the California Area Living Museum (CALM) to see some animals that the national park’s house. CALM has a variety of animals that cannot be released or rehabilitated due to injury or an inability to survive in the wild. You’ll see bears, birds of prey, and bobcats, among others.
Every small town is charming and has something that makes it special. For Victorville, it’s the California Route 66 Museum. For the road tripper making this trek across miles and miles to see some of California’s most amazing parks, a museum featuring Route 66 is perfect. Stop in and see historic photographs, artifacts, and grab a souvenir for someone back home. Also, it’s free!
Joshua Tree National Park
Those that think the desert is desolate, brown, barren, and ugly have not had the privilege of seeing the beauty of Joshua Tree National Park. You haven’t seen a sunrise until you’ve seen it in this beautiful park. Joshua Tree has rich history providing proof of life millions of years ago. This Mojave landscape once held mastodons, tectonic activity, and ancient man that you can see at the Oasis Visitor Center. You can camp, hike, horseback ride, walk, stargaze, or photograph your way through this landscape, providing an activity for virtually anyone. This national park trek ends here, but the wait is well worth it.
Anti-Vegas Nevada Trip
Anyone can go to Nevada and have a crazy trip in Las Vegas – the city of lights and over-the-top fun and entertainment. However, Nevada has a lot more to offer than just the strip. For those looking for an anti-Vegas scenic trip through the Silver State, this excursion will provide just that. This short 5-hour trip starts in a ghost town and ends at the engineering masterpiece known as the Hoover Dam.
Number of Stops: 5
Pro Tips: This shorter trip with unique stops is one that many kids may enjoy. Be sure to follow all car seat safety tips, bring them plenty of snacks, and have a few games to keep them occupied if they become restless. However, the stops may be so exciting that they fall asleep the second they get back into the car.
Rhyolite didn’t start as a ghost town, of course. It started as a mining town that met its demise after the financial panic of 1907. Its remains have been used in a slew of movies and is a popularly photographed ghost town. It’s not a large town and it won’t take a lot of time to see, but it’s full of interesting history. However, its location is in Death Valley, so be aware of the extreme heat. And be mindful that 100 years ago people settled here without air conditioners.
Whether or not you believe in UFO’s, there’s no denying the infamy of Area 51. Travel along the Extraterrestrial highway and find your way to Area 51 and comb the night skies for a UFO sighting. This destination definitely isn’t a place that caters to a ton of tourists, so don’t expect a lot of UFO and alien-themed shops or attractions. You’ll see a lot of signs, military personnel, and reminders not to cross into Area 51, and you’ll start to think again about the validity of the UFO rumors in these parts.
Mount Charleston Peak
Mount Charleston Peak is about as anti-Vegas as you can get. It’s the highest peak in the Spring Mountains and is a popular getaway for Las Vegas residents as it’s only 35 miles northwest. It’s got amazing hiking trails, a modest ski area, campsites, RV sites, and over 150 picnic areas.
Valley of Fire State Park
This state park sure looks like a valley of fire as its landscape boasts 40,000 acres of bright red Aztec sandstone among gray and tan limestone. The mornings and nights in this park are breathtaking among the sandstone. It’s home to a lot of ancient Pueblo petroglyphs and history unlike anywhere else in the world. Some amazing rock formations include Elephant Rock, Windstone Arch, and Fire Wave which will have you glued to your camera.
The end of this trip will take you to a small corner of Nevada that houses an architectural masterpiece. The Hoover Dam is an extremely popular tourist attraction with about 7 million visitors annually. The history behind it’s creation is dense and amazing, and seeing it is just as mesmerizing. You can take the tour, see memorabilia, and look at photos from its creation. Along with the Hoover Dam comes Lake Mead and all of the outdoor activities it supplies including a beautiful drive, boating, fishing, and canoeing.
The Denver loop is really more of a Denver pinwheel as many of the amazing destinations around Denver stretch out, and then back in before heading to the next destination. However, this trip starts and stops in a fun location in Denver, Colorado. From history and scenery to pastries, this trip has it all. Though taking a trip through all that Colorado has to offer would take a lifetime, this loop covers a few of the highlights of this amazingly beautiful state. Though the drive time is almost 11 hours, the stops will require even more of your time, so it’s definitely a trip that will require some vacation days.
Number of Stops: 6
Pro Tips: Though some of these destinations that stretch out from Denver go through a few cities, some stretches are desolate. Make sure to prepare thoroughly for this long road trip by knowing your route, planning where to stay, bringing nourishment, and staying safe. Depending on the time of year, Colorado can experience inclement weather.
Denver Museum of Nature and Science
This museum has a variety of exhibitions and activities to help visitors learn about the natural history of Colorado and the history of many other broad subjects. It has a planetarium, IMAX theater, and even hidden scavenger hunts. This will start off the trip in a way that will interest anyone of any age and keep you wanting to learn more about Colorado and beyond.
Rocky Mountain National Park
The Rocky Mountain National Park is an amazing way to experience the Rocky Mountains. Whether you’re an adventurer, or someone looking for a more relaxed experience, you can find what you’re looking for in this lovely park. Rivers, waterfalls, lakes, meadows, and wildlife all reside in this location and offer a variety of activities. Whether you want to stay in a hotel, cabin, camp, stay in your RV, or drive through, this park offers it all. No matter what time of year, this park offers beautiful scenery and an array of activities.
Vail is known as one of the biggest and most popular ski resorts in the country, covering 5,500 acres of terrain. The skiing is obviously amazing, but it’s not a location that is reserved for winter months. Vail also offers many warm weather activities including hiking, biking, fishing, horseback riding, and whitewater rafting. There’s also a ton of great food and nightlife, though it’s not the cheapest location. However, Vail is as beautiful as it is fun and you’ll love spending time in such a gorgeous location.
Garden of the Gods
Garden of the Gods is in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and showcases some amazing red rock formations fit for Gods. This area is a popular spot for hiking, rock climbing, biking, and attracts more than two million visitors a year. There’s also a visitor and Nature Center offers exhibits about the area and its unique rock formations. The views are dynamic and the activities are amazing in this one-of-a-kind location in Colorado.
Jackson Lake State Park
Jackson Lake State Park has within it Jackson Lake – a fun lake that offers both tent and RV camp spots around it. The activities available are great for adults and children and include boating, off-roading, jetskiing, birding, and hiking, among others. It’s a popular location for tourists as well as locals and is a nice reprieve from the heat in the summer and is a quiet destination in the winters.
To finish the loop back into Denver, the final stop is at Sweet Cooie’s. This lovely little dessert location offers a variety of sweet treats in front of a baby blue backdrop that makes you feel like you’re eating inside a Pinterest board. Ice cream, sorbet, vegan options, truffles, handmade waffle cones, shakes, shortbread, and more are all sold in this darling establishment. It’ll be the cherry on top of your trip around Colorado, and truly a one of a kind eatery.
This expedition covers a bit of Utah, and a bit of Arizona, but isn’t nearly enough for what each state has to offer. However, the trip is already nearly 9 hours long as is, so seeing the rest of both states would take significantly longer. Instead, this trip is designed to see a few amazing wonders of the desert. From Cedar City, Utah, to Flagstaff, Arizona, you’ll experience a few amazing outdoor wonders and adventures you won’t get anywhere else in the country. Not to mention one of the most popular tourist destinations: the Grand Canyon.
Number of Stops: 6
Pro Tips: When you’re driving this long, you’re bound to run into no-service spots. Check to see if your network offers wifi calling and look into a hotspot if you’re concerned about being in an area long-term without service in case of an emergency.
Cedar City, UT
Start off your desert expedition in Cedar City, Utah, before wandering too far into the Mojave Desert. Stop in at the Southern Utah Museum of Art, see the Utah Shakespeare Festival, or the Neil Simon Festival and experience the things this town is known for.
Red Cliffs Desert Reserve
Your next stop into the desert is at the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve where you can stop in at their visitor center and learn about the area wildlife, ecosystems, and history. You can grab a map and find trails to hike that will take you through the beauty in this reserve that really showcases how gorgeous the desert really is despite the heat. Camp, take photos, and enjoy an area that isn’t packed full of other tourists.
Sand Hollow State Park
Hurricane, Utah, is home to Sand Hollow State Park, an area that has a little something for everyone. RV camps, sand dunes, boating, off-roading, amazing water contrasted by the red rock formations, and more. This area allows you to experience this gorgeous desert landscape in any way you please. Keep your camera out, because you’ll want to capture this amazing location in any way you can.
Out of Utah and into Arizona, this stop is undoubtedly one you’ve heard of before. The Grand Canyon is carved by the Colorado River and is a natural wonder that will leave you feeling shrunken and pensive about the world around you. There are a ton of hiking trails, tours, camping, and dining that can occupy a lot of your time. The Grand Canyon is amazing so, as a result, it’s extremely popular. If you’re planning to stay here, you’ll need to book way ahead of time. However, the planning is all worth it to experience this unique and grand sight.
Wupatki National Monument
The Wupatki National Monument offers an insight into ruins created by the Ancient Pueblo People and was first inhabited in 500 AD. Learn about the culture, hike around these amazing structures, and get lost in the history of the desert. Look at a community room, a ball court, and a multi-story dwelling with over 100 rooms all created from red sandstone. Be aware of extreme heat in this area and be prepared — it might be a location best visited in the morning.
Arrive back into the city in Flagstaff, Arizona, for the end of this desert trek. Flagstaff is a city full of options for the end of your trip. Stop in at the Lowell Observatory and observe the night sky with the same telescope that discovered Pluto. Have a beer at Mother Road Brewing Company, try out the Flagstaff Extreme adventure course, check out the Lava River Cave, or have an amazing meal at Mama Burger.
Historical New Mexico Drive
New Mexico is a state full of rich history. This drive will highlight some of the past that this part of the country has seen. From Aztec ruins to the geographical history highlighted in the Carlsbad Caverns, this part of the southwest has a little bit of everything. At a little over 9 hours of driving, this route will take you in an almost perfect diagonal stretch across the entire state.
Number of Stops: 5
Pro Tips: On your trip, check out what others have to say about each destination by looking on review sites like Tripadvisor or Yelp to learn insider knowledge. Also, don’t be afraid to leave your own reviews. This process is making a huge impact on the hospitality industry and will help future travelers learn about the area as well.
Aztec Ruins National Monument
These Aztec ruins have been restored to the extent that you can really get a feel for what life was like in the 11th century. Inside a reconstructed kiva, you’ll go inside and experience ruins like you’ve never experienced them. Tour the ruins, watch a short film about the history of the area and explore the museum. The park rangers are helpful and knowledgeable about the area, and it’s clear they take pride in this amazing monument.
Petroglyph National Monument
Albuquerque, New Mexico, has a ton to offer, but for this trip, it’s a designated spot for more history. The Petroglyph National Monument offers volcanic cones, archaeological sites, and an estimated 24,000 images carved by Ancestral Pueblo Peoples and early Spanish settlers. Some carvings have been dated as far back as 3000 years ago. The petroglyphs were created during a period between 1300 AD and the 1600s. Seeing them is a direct look back in time and a way to be close to the amazing history preserved in this area.
Pecos National Historical Park
This trip has no shortage of tangible evidence of ancient people, and the Pecos National Historical Park offers a bit more. See Pueblo ruins, a battlefield of the American Civil War, and 19th-century ranches. Walk around sacred sites, tour the museum in the visitor center, and read about the history of each area. Bring some water and good shoes, but the trail isn’t difficult and the history is worth walking through the heat for a bit.
Roswell is most popularly known for the Roswell UFO incident in 1947, and the town is now built around this infamous incident. Whether you’re a believer or not, Roswell offers a ton of fun touristy activities. There are a ton of UFO-themed restaurants, museums, and shops. Alien Zone is a must-see where you can take fun photos with alien setups, get one of a kind souvenirs, and get immersed into the alien culture in Roswell.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park
The end of this historic trip stops at Carlsbad Caverns National Park in the Guadalupe Mountains. The primary attraction is Carlsbad Cavern, where you can hike down to the cave chambers to see beautiful calcite formations. This unique stop is otherworldly and spectacular. Do a self-guided tour or a tour with a guide. There are elevators to help get to the caverns, and the temperature is much cooler in the caves compared to usual New Mexico temperatures. The geographical history of this cave is breathtaking and you’ll see a gorgeous side of it inside the Carlsbad Caverns.
Road Tripping is about the drive as much as it’s about the destination. It’s about camping if you are too far off the beaten path to find a hotel. It’s about stopping to see the world’s largest bottle of ketchup. It’s about finding the charm in each small city. It’s about the stops along the way, the scenery beyond the road, and seeing parts of the world you can’t see if you’re flying somewhere. Our country is full of rich history, amazing geography, and friendly people. The southwest is full of amazing destinations and fun stops along the way. No matter what kind of trip you’re into, the southwest United States has something for everyone.
About the Author
Chelsy is a writer from Montana who is now living in Boise, Idaho. She graduated with her journalism degree from the University of Montana in Missoula in 2012. She enjoys road-tripping with good friends, exploring the outdoors, traveling, drinking good beer, and drinking not-so-good beer. Follow her on Twitter!