What is it exactly about a road trip through the American Southwest that evokes such wonder? What is it about this part of the country that, in our imaginations, still remains ground zero for the classic road trip? We sought answers to these questions ourselves and as a result drove around the southwest for 3 months. We found simply deeming any long drive a “road trip” can turn the experience into something to revel in rather than muddle through. Keep that in mind on your next drive, no matter where you are.
We have compiled some epic southwest road trips of our own to whet your appetite. You do not need much to claim your piece of the classic southwest road trip, simply grab a map (or app) and go!
Of course, the suggested routes herein can be enjoyed in either direction from what is suggested in this post.
In no particular order…
1.) Las Vegas, Nevada to The Extraterrestrial Highway
Just 80 miles North of Las Vegas, yet a world away, begins the fabled Extraterrestrial Highway, known for its proximity to Area 51 and claims of UFO sightings along this highway from travelers. This is your chance to finally spot strange things in the sky and be followed by a mysterious white truck from Area 51, just like we were! Perhaps you may want to leave the kids at home for this one. Indeed, this is one strange road trip.
Distance: 150 Miles
Allow: At Least 1.5 Days
How about trying the best bean burrito you will ever taste before you even spot your first alien? Don Tortaco is a local chain in Las Vegas with about a dozen locations and their bean burritos are pure perfection! You will probably dream about these for some time to come! They are open 24 hours should those dreams awake you. Just go. You will thank me.
Enjoy a night in Las Vegas – full of enough spectacle to make you forget about your upcoming epic road trip – or camp overnight for FREE at Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge on US 93, north of Sin City. Each of the 15 campsites here are situated on Upper Pahranagat Lake; at night you will likely hear sonic booms from mysterious aircraft flying overhead. These are no doubt Air Force planes on training maneuvers, or are they something more? We heard several unidentified objects (making them, in effect, UFOs!!) break the sound barrier as we stood at our campfire.
Break camp early and head 15 miles north on US 93 to the junction of Nevada State Route 318, where you will find the folks at E.T.Fresh Jerky offering choice, abducted beef. This locally sourced, desiccated delicacy is always in season! The official start of the E.T. Highway at Nevada 375 begins about a half-mile off Nevada 318, opposite the jerky shop. Grab all the photos you think you may need in front of the Extraterrestrial Highway road sign and look for our bumper stickers along with all the others.
No trip up the E.T. Highway would be complete without a stop at the The Alien Research Center, which in reality is just a gift shop. The lovely woman working there gave us tips on how to get to the gates of Area 51. The name of the game here, aside from knowing exactly which road leads you to the gate, is not getting arrested or possibly shot. DO TAKE THE SIGNS AROUND THE GATE VERY SERIOUSLY – YOU ARE BEING WATCHED AND THIS IS NO JOKE!
Following her advice we found the 15-mile dirt road off Nevada 375 that leads to the gate of Area 51. This dirt road is quite evident as you descend a mountain pass heading west on Nevada 375. 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.
It is not unknown to be followed back to Nevada 375 by government vehicles – more an annoyance than a danger. It annoyed us to no end. Your next stop on the Extraterrestrial Highway is “The Black Mailbox” which has enjoyed cult-like fame for being the official mailbox of Area 51. Due to its popularity and alleged importance The Black Mailbox is frequently stolen from its road-side perch. How do they get their mail? As a result it will likely be gone if you visit, but a shrine lives on.
The tiny town of Rachel is the next stop along Nevada 375, noteworthy as the unofficial 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 the alien burgers are meant to be, seriously, out of this world. Finally, enjoy another photo-op in the parking lot, knowing you have probably escaped those goons in the mysterious white truck.
2.) Beaver, Utah to Farmington, New Mexico
Due to the jaw-dropping beauty of Southern Utah and the geographic significance of Four Corners, this road trip is certain to be memorable. It starts and ends with some tasty southwest food should the thoughts of travel make you hungry. Along the way you will see some of the greatest earth on show and will have the chance to physically be in 4 states at once. Grab your camera!
Begin in Beaver, Utah, taking State Route 153 east. Along the way connect to 4 consecutive scenic routes, (US 89 and Utah Routes 12, 24 & 95) which wind through some stunning southern Utah countryside. Finally, the scenic part of this road trip ends in the aptly named town of Blanding, Utah. New Mexico and the roadside attraction known as Four Corners are next, along with a great meal in Farmington.
Distance: 480 Miles
Allow: At Least 4 Days
Start this epic road trip with a bean burrito from Valerie’s Taco Shop at the Flying J Truck Stop in Beaver, Utah. In addition to offering a restaurant with an assortment of tasty grub to take on the road, this truck stop also serves as a great place to spend the night. We slept in our VW van and enjoyed the Free Wi-Fi.
Take Utah 153 east from Beaver to US 89 South. Follow Utah 12 east which will bring you to Bryce Canyon National Park. Continue on Utah 12 east to the town of Esacalante, which is the best base for exploring Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. This National Monument is over 1 million acres and is quite fragmented in area. As a result, hiking and camping here require some serious planning.
Check the road conditions on the previous link well before your visit – things change frequently. Most noteworthy to serious adventurers, Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument requires you devote plenty of time and even more forethought to fully appreciate it. This is not much of a drive-through-and-hop-out-to-take-a-photo kind of place.
For the only true lazy way of taking in the scenery of Grand Staircase and a chance to slip into Capitol Reef National Park for FREE, take the Burr Trail Road from the tiny town of Boulder along Utah 12 east. Marvel at natures handiwork all around, at it’s best in the early morning light. Gather yourself and move on, for the paved road soon turns to gravel and you are granted FREE ADMISSION to Capitol Reef National Park! Take it easy as you descend the Burr Trail Switchbacks, which is not suitable for large RV’s or any vehicle towing a trailer – you will not be able to negotiate these insane hair-pin bends.
The back road of Capitol Reef National Park, which is mostly dirt, will bring you to Utah 24 – head east. In Hanksville, where you connect to Utah 95, check out Hollow Mountain Store, unique because it is likely the only gas station shop located inside a mountain you will ever find. Turn south on Utah 95; this stretch of road is full of hiking and camping options. I suggest using the Alltrails app for information and maps on local hiking trails and Allstays for an overview of campgrounds.
Pull into the scenic Hite Overlook, which offers a commanding view over the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Break your trip for the night in Blanding, where you will find plenty of services and not much else.
In the morning head south on US 191 to Utah 162 east. This brings you into Colorado for several miles on Colorado 41, then onto US 160 west into New Mexico at Four Corners. This is the only place in the country where 4 states join and as a result you can, for once in your life, be in 4 places at one time! THIS is multi-tasking!
Having finally exhausted your camera at Four Corners, head west on US.160 into Arizona. At the town of Teec Nos Pos turn east on US 64 into New Mexico. If you follow my suggested route for this particular road trip from the town of Blanding, Utah you will indeed find yourself driving through all four of the states represented at Four Corners as well, albeit one at a time for safety reasons.
Snap a photo of iconic Shiprock, which punches through the earth dramatically in an otherwise flat part of the state. Continue east to Farmington, where Chef Bernie’s Diner has a place set for you along with your very own table-side jukebox waiting to serenade you. Order anything from the chef with green chile – this is New Mexico! Chef Bernie’s is closed on Sunday.
3.) Albuquerque to Tucumcari, New Mexico
Surviving segments of old Route 66 run through Albuquerque and Tucumcari, New Mexico. Here, you will find establishments that have survived as well, proudly embracing tourists in search of the classic southwest road trip. If you find yourself burnt out from all those Route 66 neon lights, head south of Tucumcari to see the grave of Billy the Kid. Visit the town of Santa Rosa and marvel at its natural blue water swimming hole, which can be a welcome respite in the heat. Would you like to drive down a highway that plays “America The Beautiful” on your next road trip? Of course you would! Follow our guide and be amazed!
Distance: 300 Miles
Allow: 2 Days
Albuquerque is full of atmospheric restaurants that still fit in along what is left of old Route 66. These restaurants are cooking up good food like they have for decades and serving up a bit of vintage charm to go with it. Try the Frontier Restaurant on Route 66 for economical New Mexican food (anything with green or red chile) and make sure you grab a cinnamon bun for the drive. You will thank me later. Also on Route 66, visit Kap’s Coffee Shop and Diner for the heaping plates of breakfast they have been serving since 1968.
Begin your drive along Central Avenue (Route 66 east) out of Albuquerque. This will officially become New Mexico 333 just outside Albuquerque, which is the location of a curious section of black top which 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: www.acoupleofdrifters.com
As you drive, line your passenger-side tires up with the specially designed grooves in the road and you’ll hear one chorus of “America The Beautiful” as you trundle along! For best results, roll up the windows and maintain 45 m.p.h. – your speed will determine the tempo of the chorus. You may need to attempt this several times before you get it right, promptly followed by several more times when you get it right. I dare you to find this unimpressive!
The drive along Interstate 40 east is rather uneventful except for a few kitsch gift shops still managing to pull in road trippers. Somehow, the almost-legendary Clines Corners has been getting people to stop since 1934. The selection of junk food and cheap souvenirs on hand here are enough to make it either worth the stop or not – pop in and decide for yourself. Tucumcari awaits.
The pleasant town of Tucumcari remains relevant for seeing the worth in its present because of its past. Hotels and a few restaurants here still stand testament to the fascination known the world-over as Route 66. These establishments are pulling in business and still looking sharp while doing it. All this is made even more noteworthy due to the small size of the town and the number of establishments still proud to be original. You begin to wonder why more towns do not share the confidence Tucumcari has about its past – and present.
Next up is a drive down New Mexico 209 south, which misses the mark on pulling in road trippers. Blow through this bland bit of countryside knowing you are on your way to visit one of America’s biggest legends! From NM 209 connect to NM 252 south which becomes NM 268 south, then onto US 60/84 west toward Fort Sumner, known as the final resting place of Billy the Kid. Follow the signs to the grave site from US 60/84, which you will find before coming into town proper.
Paying your respects graveside may compel you to learn a bit more about the rapscallion himself. Therefore, head directly to the worthwhile Billy the Kid Museum located in the center of Fort Sumner along US 60/84. The Museum has a great documentary on the namesake hero along with his gun and other personal items. You could easily while away a few hours here, for there are dozens of regional history displays in addition to information on the life of Billy. Admission to the museum is $5.
Finally, who would expect to come across a big blue hole filled with clear water in the middle of this parched bit of country? The next town along US Route 84 west, which breaks from US 60 is Santa Rosa, home to a delicious-looking naturally formed swimming hole in a park just outside town. This park is free for all who enter and therefore must be a sweet spot indeed to visit on a hot day. Our hats go off to the town of Santa Rosa for maintaining this special place and letting everyone in to enjoy it for free.
You are now a few minutes from Interstate 40 – the end of this road trip. If you can, keep the good times rolling and head back to Albuquerque and stop again at Clines Corners or any of the other gift shops along Interstate 40. In keeping with our theme of great bean burritos and road trips, and since Albuquerque is full of good food, stop in to Filiberto’s for your next frijole fix – the bean burrito here almost beat out Don Tortaco in Las Vegas, Nevada. Visit Filiberto’s on Wednesday and enjoy your bean burrito for the Wednesday special price of $1.39 compared to its regular price of $3.86! In conclusion, this road trip is well-balanced and full of silly fun along the way.
4.) Salida to Durango, Colorado.
This particular Colorado road trip is designated a scenic route from beginning to end. As a result, this road trip is all about the viewing rather than the doing. US 50 & it’s spur, US 550 slink through the Rocky Mountains in a dramatic fashion, passing through a handful of thriving towns that deserve a look also. You may even break your journey in a quaint spa town along the way, should you desire.
Camping is available along this route; you’ll drive through plenty of towns offering services should you require some creature-comforts. We apologize for not offering any recommendations for bean burritos on this road trip. Should you know of any worthy contenders along this route please do not hesitate to share them with us!
Distance: 235 Miles
Allow: At Least 2 Days
Salida is a town full of charm, thus you may find yourself lingering for a bit. All services can be found here making this a great place to base yourself and plan your road trip further, should you want to camp or hike in the mountains. From Salida head West along US 50 and chug up lofty Monarch pass, topping out at 11,312 feet. The road descends into a narrow valley where it skirts Tomichi Creek on the way to the town of Gunnison.
From Gunnison, the road edges the Blue Mesa Reservoir and climbs slightly on its way to Montrose. Before entering the town of Montrose visit Black Canyon Of The Gunnison National Park and peer down sheer 2,000 ft. cliffs to the mad river below. Montrose is a mere 15 miles from the south rim of the National Park and is full of services. This is also the junction to US 550 – our road trip continues south along this highway.
This part of Colorado offers amazing opportunities for hiking and camping. Use Alltrails and Allstays to find your perfect adventure because there are simply too many to list here. Fortunately, there are also plenty of scenic viewing areas as well; stop and admire the grandeur all around as you consider your hiking and camping (or lodging) choices.
If your sudden hunger for a hot spring soak becomes too much to ignore, Ouray will almost certainly have you covered. The town is home to a rather wonderful public hot spring complex worth checking out. Ouray is also a great base for 4-season activity – they call this the Switzerland of America for a reason! Ouray makes a likely spot along this road trip to break your journey because of its natural charm and for providing any services you may need.
Between Ouray and the next town of Silverton, US 550 is known as The Million Dollar Highway. The name, some say, is due to the quality of scenery and how you feel (like a million bucks) upon witnessing 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!
Because of your cautious driving you are now ready to enjoy the lovely town of Silverton in one piece. The 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 of your vehicle and walk around.
US 550 slowly descends to Durango, where the boisterous mountain scenery gives way to rather muted high grassland. The town of 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 epic journey. You are now situated to enter New Mexico just south of Durango, should you wish.
If you’re not ready for the road trip to end we urge you to drift south to New Mexico. Visit 9 New Mexico hot springs. Keep the road trip going even further with 20 things to do in New Mexico and treat yourself to a truly refreshing stay in the curiously named spa town of Truth or Consequences. Finally, check out the drive to Chaco Canyon if getting off-road is your idea of a road trip!