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Ultimate U.S. Road Trips Part Three: The Southwest

Image courtesy of Bre LaRow on Flickr, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

For many of the most passionate drivers, the journey is more important than the destination. In the third installment of our guide to the ultimate road trips, we highlight some of the best and most iconic routes in the American Southwest. These routes offer something for everyone, from the driver who loves beautiful scenery to the traveler who’s looking for adventure. If you have a few days to spare, why not enjoy some of these iconic routes through the Southwest?

1. Get Your Kicks on Route 66

Photo by Maksim on Wikimedia Commons / CC0 1.0.
Photo by Maksim on Wikimedia Commons / CC0 1.0.

No list of road trips would be complete without the granddaddy of all great American roadways, Historic Route 66. Route 66 was a major piece of American history and culture for decades and was a major pathway for America’s westward migration, especially during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Over the years, Route 66 experienced many improvements and realignments before finally being decommissioned and replaced by the Interstate Highway system in 1985. Today, you can experience a piece of Historic Route 66 on Arizona State Route 66, a scenic byway that runs between Flagstaff and Lupton.

The original Route 66 ran for more than 2,400 miles between Chicago and Los Angeles.

If you want to experience the road that inspired rock legends and television shows, set aside at least eight hours to experience what this stretch of pavement has to offer. Although the route is only 162 miles long, frequent roadside attractions make it worth your while to take your time along the way.

Vintage motels, oversized sculptures and Indian trading posts dot your path. You’ll find a number of natural wonders tucked into the high desert landscape, including Meteor Crater and the Petrified Forest. Historic Route 66 makes for a fascinating journey for anyone with a taste for history, roadside kitsch and desert vistas.

2. The Outlaw Route: Billy the Kid Scenic Byway

Photo by mr_t_77 on Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0
Photo by mr_t_77 on Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

New Mexico’s Billy the Kid Scenic Trail, which received an official designation as a National Scenic Byway in 1998, pays tribute to the history of the famous outlaw. This drive, which connects the towns of Ruidoso and White Oaks in New Mexico, covers two of the three legs of the byway and includes many of the best sights along the way. Completing the 102-mile drive should take you 2-3 hours as you wind through the beautiful New Mexico countryside; the drive cuts through gently sloping, forested hills and high desert scrub.

Start your journey in Ruidoso, a town with diverse amenities including shopping, ski resorts, casinos and art galleries. If you’re starting around lunch or dinner hours, enjoy some of Ruidoso’s fine restaurants, which include a rich assortment of authentic Mexican restaurants, steakhouses and Southwestern fare. Just a few miles away, in Ruidoso Downs, you can stop in at the Scenic Byway Visitor Center for more in-depth information about the route and its history.

At the Lincoln State Monument, you can learn more about the bloody Lincoln County War that catapulted Billy the Kid to infamy.

Spend some time exploring the on-site museum, the courthouse and many of the other historic buildings that featured prominently in the Lincoln County War. Midway through your drive, stop for a visit at the Smokey Bear Historical Park, which celebrates the real-life bear cub who gave life to Smokey the Bear. The route ends at White Oaks, a ghost town that was once New Mexico’s second largest city. This route is perfect for anyone with a fondness for winding roads and the historic Wild West.

3. General Hitchcock Highway and Catalina Highway

The General Hitchcock Highway, also known as the Catalina Highway, began construction in 1933. The roadway was the vision of Postmaster General Frank Harris Hitchcock, who imagined a paved link between the city of Tucson, Arizona, and the natural wonderland of Mt. Lemmon, a sky island that features striking natural beauty and great biodiversity. Construction on the 27-mile highway took nearly 17 years and attracted controversy thanks to its use of Japanese-Americans interned during World War II.

Image courtesy of Raquel Baranow on Flickr, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Starting from Tucson, you can visit the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum before heading out on your journey. The saguaro deserts at the start of your journey give way to highlands and alpine forests as you traverse the steep switchbacks of the highway, which provides the only paved access to the picnics, trailheads and other attractions of Mt. Lemmon. In its earlier years, the lack of shoulders and close proximity to steep vertical drop-offs made this road trip the sole province of the fearless.

Recent improvements have made the drive bearable for most drivers.

If you make the trip at night, you can book reservations at the University of Arizona’s Mt. Lemmon Sky Center for spectacular stargazing. Stopping at the resort town of Summerhaven, near Mt. Lemmon, will give you a chance to rest and get a bite to eat, but amenities are somewhat limited; a recent fire devastated most of the city, which is still in the process of rebuilding. This route is perfect for those who enjoy stunning vistas, challenging roadways and hiking through natural beauty.

4. Experience the Historic Apache Trail

The Historic Apache Trail is a 115-mile stretch of road that goes from Mesa to Globe, Arizona. The road was constructed between 1903 and 1905 to bring supplies to the construction site of the Theodore Roosevelt Dam. Experiencing everything that this route has to offer should take between six and seven hours.

Thanks to a 22-mile unpaved section, this is not a route for the faint of heart.

The route begins in Mesa, a suburb of Phoenix, where you can see some of the original motels that lined the roadway. Heading out along the road, you’ll see spectacular desert vistas and castle rocks, giving your desert journey a dramatic flair. Once you arrive at Apache Junction, you can enjoy the dining experience at the Café at Tortilla Flats. Make sure that you’ve filled up your gas tank before leaving Apache Junction; there are few services available along the route.

Photo by Bernard Gagnon on Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0 /CC BY-SA 2.5 / CC BY-SA 2.0 / CC BY-SA 1.0
Photo by Bernard Gagnon on Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0 /CC BY-SA 2.5 / CC BY-SA 2.0 / CC BY-SA 1.0

Shortly after leaving Apache Junction, the road will turn to dirt and grade steeply downward as you head to Fish Creek. Tonto National Monument showcases ancient cliff dwellings. The Besh-ba-Gowah Archeological Park in Globe, at the end of the route, offers a chance to see another set of cliff dwellings in person. This is an excellent road trip for those who aren’t afraid to brave a little danger in search of dramatic views.

5. Trail of the Ancients National Scenic Byway

The Trail of the Ancients National Scenic Byway covers nearly 480 miles in the Four Corners region of Colorado and Utah. The two states began working together to upgrade their respective portions of the roadway in the 1990s with an eye towards qualifying for national recognition; after more than a decade of improvements, the roadway was granted National Scenic Byway status in 2005. The Trail of the Ancients was the first scenic byway to be granted its status thanks to its archaeological sites. This route, which cuts through harsh desert terrain and can be narrow in places, is not suitable for RVs or vehicles towing trailers. Traversing the route in its entirety can take several days, depending on how often you stop to explore each destination.

There are several areas of note along the trail, especially for those interested in anthropology and archaeology.

Starting at the Four Corners National Monument and heading north into Colorado, drivers can enjoy the Ute Mountain Tribal Park, where guided tours from Ute guides can teach visitors about indigenous culture. Further along the route, the spectacular Mesa Verde National Park preserves the cliffside dwellings of the Ancestral Pueblo people.

Photo by Jsweida on Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0
The Hovenweep National Monument Pueblo site. Photo by Jsweida on Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Turning back towards Utah, the Hovenweep National Monument features several more Ancestral Pueblo sites; some sites are easily accessible via road, but others will require substantial hiking. Further along the route, drivers can enjoy the massive rock spires of Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. The occasional gravel roads and steep switchbacks along this route make this trip suitable for brave souls with an intense interest in the history of the indigenous peoples of the area.

6. The Devil’s Backbone

Located in the heart of Texas’ Hill Country, the Devil’s Backbone is a charming 51-mile loop with a reputation for hauntings. This curvy road winds through gently rolling hills along an exposed limestone fault between the cities of Wimberley and Blanco. Although there aren’t any particularly spectacular individual views, the overall experience is calm and pleasant, with many opportunities to pull off and drink in the vistas of the Hill Country.

The Devil’s Backbone Overlook is an ideal place to stop for a picnic or to take a few pictures.

Starting from Blanco, one of the first attractions you’ll come across is Canyon Lake State Park. The park is home to one of the deepest lakes in Texas and offers recreational opportunities of all types, including hiking, boating, parasailing and more. While at Canyon Lake, you can spend a few minutes at the Heritage Museum of the Texas Hill Country, which offers dinosaur tracks, fossils and slices of early pioneer life. Further along the road, Devil’s Backbone Overlook offers sweeping vistas of the rolling hills and wooded valleys that dot this part of Texas.

Once you arrive in Wimberley, you can enjoy wine tasting at some of the town’s wineries. After you complete the loop and end up back in Blanco, spend some time at the Old Blanco Courthouse, an architectural treasure that briefly served as the courthouse for the county. While driving along the Devil’s Backbone, keep your eyes peeled for old Confederate soldiers and native spirits; the road has a reputation for ghost sightings. With its gentle curves and rolling hills, the Devil’s Backbone makes for a relaxing drive for anyone trying to escape the stress of the city.

There are many stunning roads peppered throughout the Southwest, and these are just a few of the great road trips available.

Which of these sounds best to you?

Do you have any favorite drives to add?

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