The American Southwest is one of the most beautiful yet unexplored regions of the U.S. Part of the beauty of the Southwest however is it’s unwavering continuation of vast land and rock formations as well as inhuman terrain that births a sense of adventure. With a culture enriched in ancient civilizations, western European expansion and roaming cowboys, the Southwest is truly one of the most historically marvelous regions in the United State that produces some of the best road trip possibilities for adventurous travelers.
Before breaking down the pieces that make up the ultimate road trip of the American Southwest however, it’s important to first identify the parameters of the Southwest. While the states that are included in the definition of the Southwest can be argued, I’m of the belief that the Southwest doesn’t actually have a set boarder by state lines. Instead, the Southwest region of the US encompasses parts of 7 different states as well as the entirety of only two.
- New Mexico
Although Texas is a wildly diverse state with everything from mountains to bayous, West Texas is a vast desert filled with interesting sights and beautiful landscape. Starting your trip along the Mexican border, you will get to visit one of the most beautiful national parks in America, Big Bend. Just outside the park you will have the pleasure of enjoying the funky cowboy town of Terlingua before stopping at Marfa to visit the famous Prada art installation.
After a trip up to Balmorhea for the world’s largest spring-fed pool, you will have the pleasure of standing next to live herds of buffalo at the Caprock Canyons State Park. Just before leaving Texas, you’ll make a pit stop in Amarillo to see the art installation of graffiti filled Cadillac’s stuck straight-up in the ground at the Cadillac Ranch and try to eat a free 72 oz. steak in less than an hour at the Big Texan Steak Ranch.
- Big Bend National Park, 33 miles to
- Terlingua, 110 miles to
- Marfa, 57. 9 miles to
- Balmorhea, 346 miles to
- Caprock Canyons State Park, 201 miles to
- Cadillac Ranch, 14.8 miles to
- The Big Texan Steak Ranch, 175 miles to
New Mexico may not be known for much but it is one of the ultimate representations of the American Southwest with marvelous rock formations and historically rich architecture. After a long drive from Texas into New Mexico, you will find yourself in Santa Rosa where you will get to explore one of the most popular scuba diving destinations in the US, Blue Hole. Just north of Blue Hole sits the historic town of Las Vegas where you will be enriched with Southwest history of railroads and cowboys. After heading up into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of the Rockies, you will get to explore pueblo houses that have been continuously inhabited for over 1000 years in the beautiful town of Taos.
A stunning drive through the mountains of Northerner New Mexico will bring you to the state’s capital city. Not only the oldest capital city in the US but also the highest elevated; Santa Fe is filled with great culture as well as one of the largest art communities in the country. A quick drive outside Santa Fe will lead you to the Bandelier National Monument where you can witness Puebloans cave dwellings in one of the oldest civilizations in the US. Just outside Bandelier sits the Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument where the spectacular rock formations literally resemble tents. Across the state, the Bisti Badlands in the De-Na-Zin Wilderness perfectly represents the landscape of the American Southwest with it’s peculiar rock formations.
A reasonable drive outside the Bisti Badlands lies Shiprock; yet another interesting rock formation that resembles a massive ship rising nearly 1,600 feet above the desert plains. On your way south through New Mexico, you will have the pleasure of witnessing the spectacular La Ventana Natural Arch at the El Malpais National Monument. If you happen to be driving through the state in early October, make sure to stop in Magdalena for the Enchanted Skies Star Party which offers some of the best stargazing in the nation. Just before leaving New Mexico, you will get to experience the astounding Gila Cliff Dwellings of the historic Mogollon people to perfectly cap-off an ultimate American Southwest experience.
- Blue Hole, 66.7 miles to
- Las Vegas, 80.3 miles to
- Taos Pueblo, 73 miles to
- Santa Fe, 44 miles to
- Bandelier, 38.5 miles to
- Tent Rocks, 111 miles to
- Bisti Badlands/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, 66.8 miles to
- Shiprock, 161 miles to
- El Malpais National Monument, 185 miles to
- Enchanted Skies Star Party – Magdalena, 209 miles to
- Gila Cliff Dwellings, 213 miles to
Arizona is a quintessential part of the American Southwest. If you didn’t have 8 other states to visit, Arizona would warrant its own ultimate road trip with all its natural beauty and environmental diversity. As you drive into the Southeast corner or Arizona, you’ll have the pleasure of experiencing the old mining mountain town on the Mexican border. Today, Brisbee is a hippy little art town with beautiful scenery. Just up the road you can visit Tombstone and relive the famous O.K. Corral shootout.
Just outside Tucson, you’ll get to truly experience the natural beauty of the quintessential American Southwest landscape at Saguaro National Park. After passing through Phoenix, the largest city in the Southwest, you will have the pleasure of witnessing truly spectacular American Southwest history. Montezuma Castle is a five-story dwelling cut into the side of a cliff 100 feet above the ground and built thousands of years ago. Be sure to take a jeep tour of the amazing natural beauty in Sedona before making the trek to the most visited attraction in all of North America, the Grand Canyon National Park.
Between the natural beauty overload you are probably experiencing at this point, stop off at Delgadillos Snow Cap Drive-In for the ultimate Route 66 experience. Just off the beaten path sits spectacular beauty of the Havasu Falls. Named after the Havasupai Indians or “people of the blue-green water”, these stunning set of waterfalls are rightfully titled. On your way out of the state, enjoy one of the world’s great engineering marvels, the Hoover Dam, holding back the largest artificial lake in the US.
- Bisbee, 23 miles to
- Tombstone, 83.8 miles to
- Saguaro National Park, 206 miles to
- Montezuma Castle, 26.4 miles to
- Sedona, 103 miles to
- Grand Canyon National Park, 105 miles to
- Delgadillos Snow Cap Drive-In, 90.6 miles to
- Havasu Falls, 193 miles to
- Hoover Dam, 204 miles to
Although California is one of the most beautiful and exciting places to visit in America, it’s only partially considered to be part of the Southwest region. From the boarder of Arizona, south of Las Vegas and just east of Los Angeles, California holds a nice little chunk of the Southwest. Although you’ll have to drive through Nevada for just a little bit after the Hoover Dam, you will go straight south to the world famous Joshua Tree National Forest.
Just outside Joshua Tree sits the mid-century movie star desert getaway, Palm Springs. Just outside the luxuries of the boutique city lies the stunningly gorgeous natural beauty of the San Bernardino National Forest. On your way back out of California you will experience a drastic environmental change as you enter the dry desert of Death Valley.
- Joshua Tree National Park, 37.5 miles to
- Palm Springs, 31.5 miles to
- San Bernardino National Forest, 261 miles to
- Death Valley, 101 miles to
Even if you don’t spend much time in Nevada, the sights to be seen and things to do aren’t something you would want to miss. Just on the other side of the California state line sits the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. This very red and very popular tourist destination offers spectacular natural beauty and showcases the truly red environment of the American Southwest.
If you’ve had enough desert hiking for a while then you will love the next destination. No American Southwest ultimate road trip would be complete with a pit stop in Sin City, Las Vegas. After hopefully a night or two that you will never forget, or possibly talk about again, you get to enjoy one last stop in Nevada at the Valley of Fire State Park. The park gets its name from the red sandstone, so you can leave the fire extinguisher in the car.
- Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, 16.4 miles to
- Las Vegas, 49.1 miles to
- Valley of Fire State Park, 103 miles to
Utah is arguably one of the most beautiful states in not only the Southwest but America as a whole. It is the ideal imagery of the stereotypical American Southwest from desert canyons to naturally formed rocky arches. After the deserts of Nevada, you will immediately get to witness the high beautiful mountains of Utah at the Zion National Park. Just outside Zion sites Bryce Canyon National Park where your understanding of natural rock formations will be questioned.
Across the state, on the east side, Canyonlands National Park rightfully earns its name with spectacular canyons that are a delight to witness. Along the southern border, where Utah meets Arizona, Monument Valley offers the picture-perfect American Southwest with giant buttes jolting up from the desert. Before you time is up in Utah though, you get one more stop of natural marvel, the Arches National Park. World-renowned for the spectacular naturally formed arch ways, the entire state of Utah is truly a sight to behold.
- Zion National Park, 72.4 miles to
- Bryce Canyon National Park, 256 miles to
- Canyonlands National Park, 138 miles to
- Monument Valley, 151 miles to
- Arches National Park, 129 miles to
Similar to Arizona, Colorado is filled with spectacular places to visit. Selecting the most beautiful places to visit was a very difficult task. If you have extra time, consider taking a specific road trip for just Colorado. That being said, immediately after entering the state from Utah you get to experience one of the most impressive stops on the entire road trip. Similar to Montezuma Castle in Arizona, the Mesa Verde National Park offers you the chance to experience the ruins of an adobe civilization carved right into the side of a mountain that was mysteriously abandoned over 1,000 years ago.
After witnessing some history of the ancient civilizations in the American Southwest, enjoy some of the region’s modern history with the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. Originally used in 1882 to transport silver and gold from the mines of the San Juan Mountains, it is now opened to the public to experience the natural beauty the way it used to be witnessed, by train. If you’re tired of all the history lessons you will be pleased to visit the breathtaking views of Blue Lakes of San Juan Mountains as well as the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. You will also get to witness first-hand one of the most photoesque views of natural beauty at the Maroon Lake.
If you enjoy wildlife, you will love the drive to Pikes Peak with the possibility of passing by anything from bear, cougar to even bighorn sheep. Garden of the Gods, which got its name from two surveyors in 1859 comparing it to a perfect place for a beer garden for Gods, is also a truly beautiful sight. In one of the most interesting road-side attractions along this ultimate road trip however, the man-made Bishop Castle is something you have to see to believe. Just before leaving Colorado, no Southwest road trip would be complete with a visit to the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.
- Mesa Verde National Park, 35.3 miles to
- Durango, 80 miles to
- Blue Lakes of San Juan Mountains. 58.8 miles to
- Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, 118 miles to
- Maroon Lake, 175 miles to
- Pikes Peak, 27.5 miles to
- Garden of the Gods, 77.9 miles to
- Bishop Castle, 122 miles to
- Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
Although Kansas may be traditionally overshadowed as a Midwestern state rather than Southwest, the Southwestern corner of the state is absolutely part of the American Southwest cowboy culture. Once you leave Colorado, you will have a long-desolate drive until you hit Garden City. Here, you will have the pleasure of witnessing the great roaming American Bison at the Sandsage Bison Range. A short drive outside Garden City is the notorious old western town of Dodge City. The Boot Hill Museum will depict the life of the west with simulated gunfights and saloon shows. Before leaving Kansas, you will have the pleasure of staying at the Boot Hill Casino and Resort where you can try to win more gas money before your ultimate road trip of the American Southwest comes to an end.
- Sandsage Bison Range, 53.8 miles to
- Boot Hill Museum, 3.8 miles to
- Boot Hill Casino and Resort, 203 miles to
Although the Sooner State has plenty of places for sightseeing, the Southwest portion of Oklahoma is perfectly Southwestern in attractions; vast and fairly bleak. Near the New Mexico boarder, you will be able to follow in the footsteps of prehistoric dinosaurs at Dinosaur Tracks. Just across the street sits the Black Mesa Preserve. The spectacular mesa views of this Oklahoma park will be the perfect conclusion to your ultimate road trip of the American Southwest.
- Dinosaur Tracks, .8 miles to
- Black Mesa Preserve