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What is it exactly about Southwest road trips in the U.S. that evoke such wonder? Why is this part of the country ground zero in our imaginations for the classic road trip? We sought answers to these questions ourselves and as a result drove around for a few weeks looking for them. What did we find? We found that some of the most pointless wanderings are often the most memorable.

We’ve compiled off the beaten path Southwest road trips to inspire you. We’ll reveal plenty of rather unique things and iconic attractions to keep you interested. From a secret location on the Extraterrestrial Highway in Nevada, a singing road in New Mexico and an odd convenience store located inside a mountain, our following itineraries are perfect for those ready for quirky attractions and stunning scenery.

Choose Which Southwest Road Trip Suits You Best

Simply deeming any long drive a road trip makes the experience something to revel in rather than just muddle through. Keep that in mind on your next drive, no matter where you are. Use our ideas and take these routes individually or combine some into a 5 or even 10 day Southwest road trip. Our suggestions below feature the distance of each route and approximately how much time to devote to them during your trip.

Of course, enjoy our suggested road trips in any direction as this depends on where you’re coming from. You don’t really need much to claim your piece of the following road trips in the U.S. Southwest – simply grab a map and go. Our suggested routes are presented in no particular order.


1. An Iconic Southwest Road Trip on the Extraterrestrial Highway

Description: Just 80 miles north of Las Vegas, yet a world away, begins the fabled Extraterrestrial (E.T.) Highway, known for its proximity to Area 51 and claims of UFO sightings in this area. This is your chance to finally spot strange things in the while being followed by a mysterious white truck from the gates of Area 51. This is likely one of the strangest road trips in the Southwest you’ll take…

Distance: 150 Miles

Start: Las Vegas, Nevada. Finish: Rachel, Nevada.

Time: Expect at least 1.5 days for the E.T. Highway road trip from Las Vegas

Road Trip Itinerary: Start this Southwest drive with some grub before spotting your first alien. Don Tortaco is a Las Vegas chain with about a dozen locations and their bean burritos are pure perfection! Don Tortaco is open 24-hours, perfect for noshing and starting your road trip at any hour. Fuel yourself for this epic journey – you’ll thank us later!

This makes a great road trip to escape the hustle of Las Vegas. If that sounds good then head to Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge on U.S. Highway 93 just north of Las Vegas for some free camping – this is what we did after spending several days in Las Vegas. This little-used campground features 15 sites scattered around peaceful Pahranagat Lake.

You may hear sonic booms at night while camping from mysterious aircraft flying overhead. These are no doubt Air Force planes on training maneuvers, or are they something more? We heard several unidentified flying objects (UFOs!!) break the sound barrier while standing at our campfire that night. Of course, these were only unidentifiable because it was dark…

Break camp early and head 15 miles north on U.S. 93 to the junction of Nevada Route 318, where the folks at E.T. Fresh Jerky  offer choice, alien-abducted beef expertly dried and seasoned. This locally sourced, desiccated delicacy is always in season so try some today!

An official green Extraterrestrial Highway sign in Nevada full of many colorful bumper stickers.
The Official Start of a Great Southwest Road Trip

The official start of the E.T Highway begins where Nevada Routes 375 and 318 fork at the locale of Crystal Springs, just opposite E.T Fresh Jerky. Grab all the photos you need in front of the official E.T. Highway sign and look for our bumper stickers. Just beyond this sign is the world-famous Alien Research Center, which is really just a gift shop.

Don’t overlook the infamous Black Mailbox on the E.T. Highway. The location of this mailbox is a landmark, not least because it’s the only thing around for miles! UFO enthusiasts have gathered at this mailbox for years to watch the skies at night. Because of its popularity and alleged importance the mailbox is frequently stolen from its lonely roadside perch. A shrine of sorts to the mailbox was on offer during our visit.

Directions to The Black Mailbox: From the Alien Research Center drive about 19 miles to the location of the black mailbox, located on the left side of the highway. You won’t have any problem spotting this curious attraction while heading to the town of Rachel.

No Southwest road trip on the E.T. Highway is complete without stopping at the Alien Research Center. The lovely woman working there gave us tips on how to get to the back gate of Area 51. The dirt road to the gate is quite evident as you descend a mountain pass heading west on Nevada 375. In fact, you’ll see this road off to your left for miles before you actually reach it.

Directions to the Back Gate of Area 51: The access road to the gate, conveniently called Back Gate Road, is 37 miles from the Alien Research Center, or about 18 miles beyond the black mailbox (see above). As mentioned, this road is strikingly visible as you approach the town of Rachel from the east and you certainly won’t miss its location. Back Gate Road is just several miles from the town of Rachel.

A man and woman on a Southwest road trip holding a bumper sticker in front of the Area 51 gate near Rachel, Nevada.
The Entrance to Area 51…..Or is It??

Note: The road to the back gate of Area 51 is gravel, however this should be suitable for any vehicle. The road to the back gate of Area 51 is about 15 miles long from the turnoff at the E.T. Highway. Also, many people report being followed back to the E.T. Highway by government vehicles, especially white pickup trucks – more an annoyance than a danger.

Step up to the gate of Area 51 for your obligatory selfie as a mysterious white truck stands sentry on a nearby hilltop. DO NOT ENTER THROUGH THE GATE. Attempts were made in 2019 to storm Area 51 to uncover the truth; just take a photo like we did and leave! TAKE THE SIGNS AROUND THE AREA 51 GATE SERIOUSLY – YOU’RE BEING WATCHED AND THIS IS NO JOKE!

A tow truck in Rachel, Nevada towing a UFO.
This is the End of a Strange Road Trip in the Southwest

The tiny town of Rachel is the next stop along Nevada 375, noteworthy as the end of the E.T. Highway. In Rachel you can stay the night at the Little Aleinn or just pop into their restaurant for a bite –  the roast beef sandwiches and alien burgers are out of this world. Finally, enjoy another photo op in the parking lot of the Little Aleinn and tick this famous road trip in the Southwest off your to-do list.


2. An Overlooked Southwest Road Trip From Utah to New Mexico

Description: The jaw-dropping beauty of southern Utah and the geographic significance of Four Corners makes this one of our favorite road trips in the Southwest. It starts and ends with some tasty food, should the thoughts of travel make you hungry. Along the way is some of the greatest earth on show and you’ll get the chance to physically be in four states at once. Grab your camera!

Begin in Beaver, Utah, taking state route 153 east. Along the way connect to four consecutive scenic routes (U.S. Highway 89 and Utah Routes 12, 24 & 95), each passing through stunning southwest countryside. Finally, the scenic part of this road trip ends in the aptly named town of Blanding, Utah. New Mexico and the roadside attraction of Four Corners is next, along with a great meal in the town of Farmington.

Distance: 480 Miles

Start: Beaver, Utah. Finish: Farmington, New Mexico.

Time: Allow at least four days to complete this epic journey through four states (read on…).

Itinerary: Start this scenic Southwest road trip with a bean burrito from Valerie’s Taco Shop (7 am – 12 am daily) at the Flying J Truck Stop in Beaver, Utah. In addition to offering a restaurant with an assortment of tasty grub, this truck stop is also a great place to spend the night. We slept in our VW van and enjoyed the free wi-fi all night long!

Take Utah Route 153 east from Beaver to U.S. Highway 89 south. Follow Utah 12 east to Bryce Canyon National Park. Continue on Utah 12 east to the town of Esacalante (break your journey here), which is the best base for exploring Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. This national monument boasts over one million acres and is quite fragmented. As a result, hiking and camping here require some serious planning.

Check the road conditions for Grand Staircase Escalante (GSE) before your visit as these things change frequently. Most noteworthy to serious adventurers, this national monument is best suited for those devoting plenty of time and even more forethought to visiting. Simply put, Grand Staircase Escalante isn’t full of paved roads leading to scenic overlooks and picnic grounds.

Sheer cliffs of red rock with partial sun and a clear blue sky in Utah, located in the Southwest of the United States.
Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, Utah

For an easy way of seeing GSE and a chance to slip into Capitol Reef National Park for FREE simply take the Burr Trail Road from the locale of Boulder on Utah Route 12. Marvel at natures handiwork all around, best enjoyed in the early morning light.

Moving on, the paved road soon turns to gravel as you gain free access to Capitol Reef National Park! Take it easy descending the infamous Burr Trail Switchbacks which aren’t suitable for large RVs or vehicles towing long trailers.

A view looking down into a valley at Capitol Reef National Park in the Southwest of the United States with snowy mountains beyond.
The Southwest Road Trip Destination of Capitol Reef National Park in Utah

The mostly dirt back road to Capitol Reef National Park brings you to Utah Route 24; head east (right) on this. In Hanksville check out Hollow Mountain (7 am – 10 pm daily), unique because it’s likely the only convenience store you’ll find anywhere located inside a mountain!

Hollow Mountain in Hanksville, Utah, a shop built into a hollowed-out red rock, popular with people on road trips through the Southwest.
Probably The Coolest Gas Station Above Sea Level – Hanksville, Utah

Utah 95 begins in Hanksville; take this south. About 30 miles beyond Hanksville this highway passes through a dramatic and lengthy stretch of scenery between Canyonlands National Park and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. This section of Utah 95 is full of picnic spots, great hiking trails and campgrounds. We suggest Alltrails app for hiking information and Allstays for an overview of campgrounds along this route.

Pull into scenic Hite Overlook, offering a commanding views over Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Break your trip for the night in the town of Blanding, where you’ll find plenty of services, so-so restaurants and not much else.

A man and a woman holding a bumper sticker at Four Corners, a popular site on many Southwest road trips.
This Unique Southwest Road Trip Covers Four States!

In the morning head south on U.S. Highway 191 to Utah Route 162 east. This brings you into Colorado for several miles on state route 41, then onto U.S. 160 westbound into New Mexico at Four Corners. This is the only place in the country where four states join, allowing you the chance to physically be in each state at the same time! This is certainly multi-tasking at its very finest!

A yellow "Welcome to New Mexico" road sign with stickers on it.
A Very Welcome Sign on Your Road Trip Through the Southwest!

From Four Corners head west on U.S. Highway 160 into Arizona. At the town of Teec Nos Pos turn east on U.S. 64 into New Mexico. If you follow our suggested route for this Southwest road trip from Blanding, Utah you’ll indeed find yourself driving through each of the states represented at Four Corners. Please note that you must drive through each state one at a time…for safety reasons, of course!

A Googie-style sign for a cafeteria in Farmington, New Mexico.
Get Fuel For Your Road Trips in the Southwest at Chef Bernie’s in Farmington!

Continue on U.S. 64 east and snap a photo of iconic Shiprock which dramatically punches through the earth in an otherwise flat part of New Mexico. Continue east to Farmington where Chef Bernie’s Diner (6:30 am – 9:00 pm Monday through Saturday, closed Sunday) has a place set for you along with your very own table-side jukebox! Order any dish with green chile – this is New Mexico, after all!


3. Legendary Road Trips in the Southwest on Route 66 in New Mexico

Description: Surviving segments of Route 66 run through Albuquerque and Tucumcari, New Mexico. Here you’ll find surviving  establishments from the heyday of The Mother Road as well. These places proudly embrace tourists in search of a classic Route 66 road trip. When the glow of neon lights fades simply switch gears and head south of Tucumcari to see Billy the Kid’s grave.

Visit the town of Santa Rosa and marvel at its natural blue water swimming hole which is a welcome respite from the heat. Would you like to drive down a highway which plays America The Beautiful on your next road trip? Of course you would, so follow our guide and be amazed! A bit of Route 66, the grave of an American legend and a quirky attraction make this one of the best Southwest road trips anywhere.

Distance: 300 Miles

Start: Albuquerque, New Mexico. Finish: Tucumcari, New Mexico. This also makes a great loop route, perfect for starting in either location.

Time: Allow yourself two full days on this road trip to take in these classic and quirky Southwest sights.

Itinerary: Albuquerque is full of atmospheric restaurants on old Route 66. These places are cooking up good food like they have for decades and serving up plenty of vintage charm to go with it.

Try the Frontier Restaurant on Central Avenue (Route 66) for economical New Mexican food and make sure you order a cinnamon bun to-go for the drive – you’ll thank us for this later! Also on Route 66 is Kap’s Coffee Shop and Diner, famous in Albuquerque for the heaping plates of breakfast they’ve been proudly serving serving to folks since 1968.

The exterior of Kap's Coffee Shop on Route 66 in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Kap’s on Route 66 in Albuquerque

Head east along Central Avenue in Albuquerque; this quickly becomes NM Route 333 just outside of town. It’s here where a curious section of black top plays a tune as your vehicle cruises along. Find the exact spot of the Singing Highway between mile markers 4 and 5 eastbound on NM 333.

Turn Up The Volume And Check Out Our Video Of The Singing Highway!

Video by: acoupleofdrifters.com

As you drive, line up your passenger-side tires with the specially designed grooves in the road to hear one chorus of America The Beautiful as you trundle along! For best results, roll up the windows and maintain 45 mph as your speed determines the tempo of the chorus.

You may need to attempt this several times before getting it right, followed by several more times when you get it right. I dare you to find this attraction unimpressive! Unusual Southwest road trip attractions like this simply should not be missed!

Continue east on Interstate 40, dull except for a few kitsch gift shops still managing to pull in road trippers. The almost-legendary Clines Corners has been getting people to stop since 1934. The selection of junk food and cheap souvenirs here are enough to make it either worth the stop or not – pull over and decide for yourself.

The pleasant town of Tucumcari is relevant for seeing the worth in its present because of its past. Hotels and restaurants here still stand testament to the fascination known the world-over as Route 66. These businesses pull in the customers and still look sharp while doing it. We wonder why more towns in the United States don’t share the same confidence Tucumcari has about its past, present and its future.

A vintage Mexican restaurant with a sombrero on the roof on Route 66 in Tucumcari, New Mexico, a classic road trip in the Southwest of the United States.
Route 66. La Cita Mexican Foods – Tucumcari, New Mexico

Next is a drive down NM 209 on your way to visit one of America’s biggest legends! From 209 connect to NM 252 south which becomes NM 268 south, then onto US 60/84 west toward the town of Fort Sumner; this is the final resting place of Billy the Kid. Follow signs to his grave site from US 60/84 before entering the town of Fort Sumner, See our detailed directions to Billy the Kid’s grave listed below.

The cage which protects the grave of Billy the Kid, located in the Southwestern state of New Mexico.
Visit a Legend on Your Next Road Trip

Pay your respects graveside and then learn a bit more about the rapscallion himself. Head directly from the cemetery to the worthwhile Billy the Kid Museum located in the center of Fort Sumner on US 60/84. The Museum has a great documentary on the namesake hero along with his gun and other personal items. While away an hour with displays and information on the life of Billy. Admission to the museum is just $5.

Directions to Billy the Kid’s Grave: Take US Route 60/84 east from Fort Sumner to Billy the Kid Road and turn right. Continue straight to Old Fort Sumner Cemetery. Alternatively, head east from Fort Sumner on US 60/84 to NM Route 272 and turn right; follow this to the cemetery.

Finally, who expects to discover a big blue pool filled with clear water in the middle of the desert? The next town on U.S. 84 west, which breaks from U.S. 60 in Fort Sumner, is Santa Rosa. This is home to a delicious-looking naturally formed swimming hole in a park just outside town.

This park is free to everyone, making for a sweet spot indeed to visit on a hot day. We tip our hats to the town of Santa Rosa for maintaining this special place and  for letting everyone in to enjoy it for free.

A sinkhole filled with clear blue water in the Southwest town of Santa Rosa, New Mexico.
Blue Hole in Santa Rosa, New Mexico

You’re just minutes from Interstate 40, signifying the end of this road trip. We have plenty of suggestions for more things to see in New Mexico to keep that Southwest road trip going! This is one of our favorite states and we encourage you to see even more of it!

Visit Our Favorite New Mexico Attractions and Discover Even More Road Trips Through the Southwest!


4. Can You Afford the Million Dollar Road Trip Through the Southwest?

Description: Not too many Southwest road trips are officially considered scenic, but the Million Dollar Highway is! As a result, this drive is all about the viewing rather than the doing. U.S. Highway 50 & its spur, U.S. 550, slink through the Rocky Mountains in dramatic fashion, passing through a handful of charming towns worth a stop. Break your journey in the quaint spa town of Ouray during your drive.

Camping is available along this route; you’ll drive through plenty of towns offering services should you require creature comforts. We apologize for not offering any recommendations for bean burritos on this road trip (see above). Should you know of any worthy contenders along this route please don’t hesitate to share these with us!

Distance: 235 Miles

Start: Salida, Colorado. Finish: Durango, Colorado.

Time: Allow two full days to explore the scenic Million Dollar Highway road trip.

Itinerary: Salida, Colorado is a town full of charm and you may find yourself lingering here for a bit. Plenty of services make this a great place to base yourself while planning your road trip further. From Salida head west on U.S. Highway 50 and as ascend lofty Monarch pass, topping out at 11,312 feet. This soon descends into a narrow valley skirting Tomichi Creek on the way to the town of Gunnison.

The Gorge at Black Canyon on the Gunnison River in Colorado, a famous stop on road trips in the Southwest U.S.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

From Gunnison the road edges Blue Mesa Reservoir and climbs slightly on the way to the town of Montrose – the gateway to Black Canyon Of The Gunnison National Park. Come here just to peer into the river 2,000 feet below.

The pleasant town of Montrose is a mere 15 miles from the south rim of this national park and is full of services. This is also the junction to US 550 where the road trip then continues south.

This part of Colorado offers amazing opportunities for hiking and camping. You’ll also find plenty of scenic viewing areas on the Million Dollar Highway to stop and admire the grandeur around as you consider your hiking, camping or lodging choices.

If a hot spring soak following a day of driving becomes too much to ignore, the town of Ouray certainly has you covered. This is home to a rather wonderful public hot spring complex worth checking out.

This town is also a great base for four-season activities – they call this the Switzerland of America for a reason! Ouray makes a likely spot to break your journey because of its charm and for providing other services during your road trip.

A view of of Ouray, Colorado in Autumn from the Million Dollar Highway, one of the many popular road trips through the U.S. Southwest.
Above Ouray, Colorado on Our Autumn Road Trip Through the Southwest

Between Ouray and the next town of Silverton, U.S. 550 is called The Million Dollar Highway. The name is due to the quality of scenery and how you feel (like a million bucks) upon seeing it! The views out the passenger-side window (south) along this 25-mile stretch of highway is considered one of the most scenic drives in all of North America.

That scenery, along with the curious lack of guard rails and the volatile weather, work in concert to make this one of North America’s most dangerous roads as well. Therefore, keep your eyes on the road and your hands upon the wheel!

Your cautious driving means you made it to the lovely town of Silverton in one piece. Downtown is full of colorful old wooden buildings that certainly must have been general stores, hotels, hard-drinking saloons and perhaps even a haberdashery or two back in the day. Silverton is a very small town and a great place to get out and walk around for bit.

Several colorful old purple and orange shops in Silverton, Colorado, a popular Southwest road trip destination.
Colorful Downtown Silverton.

U.S. Highway 550 slowly descends to the great town of Durango, where boisterous mountain scenery gives way to muted high grassland. Durango does a good job serving as the last hurrah along this epic southwest road trip. You may find yourself pondering the last 235 miles over dinner and a drink, perhaps anticipating your next journey. You’re now situated to enter New Mexico just south of Durango.


In Conclusion…

This area of the U.S. is certainly full of more famous Southwest road trips however ours are worth consideration, too. We simply happened upon these routes and were surprised by how significant they were. So, your perfect road trip experience is even closer than than you think!

Get inspired like we did and make sure to see our other suggestions for exploring more of the Southwest; the box above is full of links to our other articles. No matter what you do or where you go, take your time and appreciate each moment of it during your road trip.


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rusted out restaurant sign on route 66

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16 Comments

  1. Kerry Abbott

    Fiona and Jerry,
    It was great meeting you on the Million Dollar Highway. When we kept stopping at the same pull overs, I knew we had to chat. So many connections. We are from Pennsylvania, I still have relatives in Ireland, and you came from Maine, not far from where my brother lives. I have a picture of your van, but didn’t get one of you.

    We loved New Mexico also. The Aztec Ruins, in Aztec, NM were great.

    We wish you well, and will continue to follow your travels. Maybe someday we will meet up again.
    All the best, and travel safely.
    Kerry and Sean

    • Hello Kerry and Sean,
      Yes, there were a few coincidences that day. We continue to run into people from Maine, In fact, one guy we met who lives in New Mexico lived in Maine and had family about 10 miles from my hometown…and he once crossed the country in a VW van! Travelers cross paths, on the road and in the most random places. It is a very small world we live in. We thank you again for your interest in our travels, and we do hope to cross paths again in the future!
      Your Drifters,
      Jerry and Fiona

  2. Route 550 from Ou. To Du. is among National Geos. List of the 10 most dangerous roads in the world. On our family trip in 1991 we drove that stretch at night thereby missing the scenery but not missing the crummy weather rain,sleet,wind. Spent most of the drive following a tanker truck going safely buy very slowly. We were committed to a motel reservation in Du. Otherwise we would have tried to find a room in Ou.DAD

    • Well, we certainly did not know that about Route 550! Guard rails were non-existent in most places for some reason. The views keep you rubber-necking as well, so add that to the lack of guard rails and you have a dangerous road indeed.
      I remember that first trip along Route 550. I was impressed with Durango and Ouray then, and Fiona was certainly charmed by those towns on this drive. We hope to stay between the ditches as we drive into Mexico, which looms about 10 miles south of us in El Centro, California, which is where we are. We will cross into Mexicali, Mexico later this morning.
      Your Drifters,
      Jerry and Fiona

  3. You guys are awesome

    • Hey Bob!

      Thanks so much for the support! Fiona and I hope you continue to read our posts.

      We know you are on the road quite a bit yourself, so maybe we will see you out there!

      Your Drifters,
      Jerry and Fiona

  4. If you end up in Arizona again make sure that you go to Oatman, Arizona. The back way is on route 66 and this town is amazing with the wild buros taking charge

    • Connie,
      It is so good to hear from you! You and Frank certainly know Arizona! We did visit Seligman and Kingman way back in the day, but we have never heard of Oatman. All the more reason to check it out next time! Thanks so much for your suggestion; all roads lead to ROAM! Tell Frank we send our best wishes to him from across the miles.
      Your Drifters,
      Jerry and Fiona

  5. Made a visit in 1991 to a few of these places on a whirlwind driving tour. Brought back memories

    • My Hero,
      I seem to recall a similar trip way back quite fondly as well. Even being in Albuquerque again after all these years brought back nothing but good memories of how I got there and who helped me along the way. Certain people in my life saw I had a great wonder for this world and encouraged me to go out and see it. Where would Fiona and I be without those people who shone such a bright light on our paths?
      Your Drifters,
      Jerry and Fiona

  6. Love this! Really makes me want to take a road trip! Thanks for sharing your adventures!

  7. Boogers travels

    Electrical gremlins. Good job on the repair. I’ve often gone by the triple t and always referred to it as trailer trash truckers. All out of humour, I’ve never stopped there.

    • Andy, Cheryl and Rufus,
      You see, even though you have never been there you still know all you need to about it! Seriously, the TTT is a great place to grab some down-home cooking. The rooms are only $39.16 AND they come with a whirl-pool tub; just sayin’. Get there soon, for the place has faded over the past few years.
      It is so good knowing you guys are in Mexico as well, and Rufus seems to be happy tagging along for the ride. Fiona and I look forward to your posts.
      Your Drifters,
      Jerry and Fiona

  8. Donna J Scott

    Jerry and Fiona, I really enjoyed your latest post and look forward to hearing from you. I look at the photos of Elvis II and think of all the adventures that amazing van has been on with you. I have a lot of affection for the van, for it has been very reliable through your drifts.
    Love hearing from you and please remain safe in your drifts.
    Sending all my love to you and Fiona , love Mom

    • Mom,
      You are right about the van, it has been solid for us on this trip and it has served me well in the 15 years since I bought it. Fiona and I are so lucky to be doing this and we are even more lucky to have encouragement from you. No matter how many miles we put on the van, it will never take us as far as you have taken us. Thank you so much.
      Your Drifters,
      Jerry and Fiona

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