Deserts rivaled in size only by the endless blue sky above, remnants of the Old West’s shoot-em-up towns, jagged mountain ranges in the distance: this is the Southwest. Best explored on a meandering road trip, we’ve rounded up a few of our favorite routes to take in the best of the region.
The phrase “everything is bigger in Texas” didn’t come from nowhere, and on this drive, it seems to apply first and foremost to the sky. Explore the Big Bend area of Texas under a sky so wide it seems to never end — and prepare to be equally swept away by the humble earth below: grasslands, wide expanses of deserts, jagged mountain ranges. Travel through the ghost town of Shafter, scenic Paisano Pass, and along River Road to reach Big Bend National Park, the crowning jewel of the ride. Here, options abound for the nature-lover: paddle along the Rio Grande, cycle or hike through the desert and mountain regions, or simply soak in views of the blooming cacti on the over 100 miles of paved and dirt roads in the park.
Ghost towns, CO
The gold rush hit Colorado hard in the late 19th century, and the vestiges of this mad dash for riches make up the shadows of towns still remaining. From Colorado Springs to Aiken Canyon, this 300 mile loop — depending on the turnouts you pick — will lead you through history that feels close enough to touch. Summit Pikes Peak with an eye out for bighorn sheep, then drop into the still-inhabited town of Victor, rich with gold-mining-era period buildings. Pull off in St. Elmo to stroll the abandoned Main Street, detour to once-rowdy Tin Cup, then take a cable car across Royal Gorge to get a new perspective. Finish by exploring the wildflowers with an eye out for the diverse wildlife of Aiken Canyon.
Route 66, NM & AZ
The mother of all road trips, Route 66 carves a charming path through New Mexico and Arizona. Start in Santa Fe and check out repurposed gas stations, peruse local contemporary art at Joe Wade Fine Art, then fuel yourself with some huevos at Cafe Pasqual’s. Continue to Albuquerque, taking time to enjoy historic Central Avenue, then cross the border to Arizona. Explore the Petrified Forest, the only national park that contains a part of Route 66, and catch a sunset at Little Painted Desert overlook, where the sinking sun paints a technicolor display of orange, scarlet, and deep turquoise. Stargaze at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, and conclude your trip at the hidden gem of Sycamore Canyon, a less crowded alternative to the omnipresent Grand Canyon.
Four Corners, CO, NM, AZ, & UT
There’s only one place in the U.S. where you can be in four states at once — and those four states offer plenty of fodder for a full-fledged road trip in the surrounding areas. Start in Flagstaff, AZ, and make your way towards Canyon de Chelly, where the Navajo people have lived for almost 5,000 years. Cruise by the iconic mesas and buttes of John Wayne film fame to make it to the exact intersection of the four states. Though this is the heart of the drive, there’s still plenty more to see once you’ve had a limb in each state, so carry on to see the Puebloan cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde National Park. The San Juan Skyway caps off the trip, where you’ll leave the high desert and be greeted by the southernmost range of the Rockies and the Dolores River.
Geronimo Trail, NM
Named for the Apache Warrior, Geronimo Trail traces majestic mountain ranges and rushing rivers, with pull-offs to sparkling blue lakes. Journey from San Lorenzo into the Black Range Mountains as the route twists and turns so spectacularly that it’s often used by automakers to test new models’ handling. Once the road joins the Rio Grande, stop off at Caballo Lake State Park for a picnic among the cactus gardens, then enjoy a soak in the hot springs district of the eccentric town Truth or Consequences. As the route concludes, you’ll enter Gila National Forest, where you can stretch your legs among pine forests and more rugged mountains.