The road trip is an enduring rite of passage, thanks largely due classic cinema’s reliance on it for a cracking good yarn – think Easy Rider, The Motorcycle Diaries and Thelma & Louise, rather than 2000’s less-than-seminal Road Trip. Fundamentally, there are few prospects in life as alluring or without limit as ‘the open road’ which is a perfect idea to kick off an ongoing series that explores the finest road trips that the US has to offer.
From the concrete grid of downtown Los Angeles to the historical Native American reserves of New Mexico, this journey is steeped in the vast beauty of the south-west. Two hours’ drive from LA and the San Gorgonio mountain peaks appear on the horizon and the scenery begins to change. A little further along and the road skirts the expansive, majestic Joshua Tree National Park. Clocking in at around 1,500 miles in length, this trip requires a good 2-3 weeks of your time to fully appreciate the distance – and states – travelled and get a real taste of the American south-west.
Beginning in Los Angeles, travel east along Interstate 10 for around 100 miles, before turning left onto State Route 62. This brings you to the north outskirts of Joshua Tree National Park, a huge desert-like park frequented by campers, hikers and nature lovers. The park’s namesake derives from the weirdly Dr. Seuss-styled Joshua trees, commonly found here and throughout the American south-west. Come nightfall, the sky – unaffected by light pollution – is crystal clear, making star-gazing easy.
Continue along State Route 62 until it joins the 95, where you can drive north to join the Interstate 40 towards Kingman, Arizona. This city is considered to be the heart of the historic ‘Route 66’, as it is situated along its longest remaining preserved stretch and draws a number of tourists yearly. Kingman is a great base from which to explore the beautiful Mojave National Preserve, characterised by its deep canyons, mountains and mesas (flat-topped hills).
From here, head along Interstate 40 towards Flagstaff, which lies at the base of the San Francisco Peaks and is surrounded by dense forest. The famous Grand Canyon is situated to the north (around 1 hour 45 minutes’ drive) as well as the Wupatki national monument and the Lowell Observatory, where Pluto was discovered in 1930.
Head north on State Route 89 to the Zion National Park, Utah for its renowned hiking trails, through tan sandstone canyons, beside fast-flowing rivers and around some unusual (or weird, if you prefer) rock formations. Keep an eye out for the Great White Throne, Grand Staircase and Checkerboard Mesa, all geological points of interest that love having their picture taken. From here, drive along State Routes 89, 98, 160 and 64 to reach Farmington, New Mexico – a good place to rest up for a night or two, and from where to visit Native American tribes such as Navajo and Apache, as well as the Aztec Ruins national monument. Here you can explore a 900-year old Ancestral Pueblo ‘great house’, with its network of over 400 rooms.
Along the Interstate 550 and 84 will lead you towards the Jemez Mountains, which are full of naturally-occurring hot springs that can be enjoyed (with bathing suits, it must be stressed). New Mexico’s capital Santa Fe is only a short drive from here, and a further hour on Interstate 25 will bring you to Albuquerque, home of the International Balloon Fiesta. In the city’s Old Town, Native American and Spanish cultures converge, and there are plenty of old churches, piazzas and pathways to wander about. During the winter months, the streets are lit by small candles and local musicians serenade the crowds. Albuquerque is a perfect place to finish up your 3-week road trip, but you could always make this journey in reverse. It’s all about where you want to end up.