Surreal, Spacy, and Full of Stars - the Last Leg of This Cross Country Road Trip is Out of This World!
What makes this southern cross country road trip truly great is that you get such a variety of environments – from lush southern plantations to exciting "party" cities like New Orleans to spooky swamps to dusty cowboy country. On your last leg of this itinerary, you’ll be truly entering the desert and seeing some spectacular sights before culminating your trip in one of California’s most beloved cities. Ready?
The west just keeps getting wilder as you head into New Mexico on your cross country road trip. This state is filled with dusty old mining, ranching, and railroading towns, ghosts of infamous people (like Billy the Kid) and many jaw-dropping natural wonders including brilliant white sands stretching for miles and dazzling formations underground in deep caves that spew forth masses of bats every day after the sun sets. Head west on I-10 from Texas (or take back roads if you wish), then US-285 and Black River Village Road to reach our first stop (and it’s a doozy!) on this cross country road trip.
- Carlsbad Caverns, Whites City – Located just outside of Carlsbad, these caverns are surreal with their extremely unique formations caused by sulfuric acid (rather than the usual water). There are over 100 caves in this massive system, but only some are accessible to the general public. Top reasons to see it? The massive "Big Room" is one of the largest underground chambers in the world, the formations are like nothing you’ve seen before, if you’re truly adventurous, you can get a ranger-led tour into some of the less-traveled caves (plan on crawling at times), and the nightly bat-flight is fantastic. Top tips: walk in through the natural entrance rather than taking the elevator (unless you have trouble walking) to get a scope of the place, don’t plan on bringing a stroller for your children (strollers are not allowed), and bring layers for everyone – it’s not only cool in the cave, the desert itself gets cold quickly after the sun sets while you’re waiting to see the bat flight. You’ll want to spend an entire afternoon and evening of your cross country road trip here, so plan your trip from Bandera, Texas accordingly. Stay overnight after the caverns in nearby Carlsbad – there are plenty of lodging and dining options available.
- Roswell – An hour and a half away from Carlsbad is the town famous for an alleged alien spaceship crash. Never mind that the actual incident took place in Corona, NM, not Roswell, it’s still a fun alien-themed town to visit with lots of businesses focused on all-things-alien, many of them decorated with aliens and "crashed" UFOs. The top attraction in town is the Area 51 Museum with its many fun dioramas and dummy aliens (no, there are no "artifacts").
- White Sands National Monument – Continue this cross country road trip by heading south briefly, and then hooking up with westbound Highway 82 via Sagebrush Valley Road to get to Alamogordo (passing through some great scenic mountain areas in Lincoln National Forest) to see the otherworldly white dunes here. The miles of rippling white sands punctuated occasionally by cacti and grasses are breathtaking. Between Roswell for the morning and White Sands for the evening and sunset (spectacular!), today’s cross country road trip activities will have you watching the skies for unfamiliar flying objects!
- Silver City, NM – This lesser-known gem of a town is coming into its own as not only a charming old silver mining town, but also as a growing arts center with many galleries and studios. Combine that with its proximity to the wonderful historic Gila Cliff Dwellings and the fact that it was the home of the infamous Billy the Kid and you’ve got a winner for your cross country road trip. Located three hours from Alamogordo on Highways 70 and 180 respectively, your best bet is to head here, enjoy the town for the afternoon and evening (especially Bullard Street) and then spend the next morning at the Gila Cliff Dwellings that are 44 miles away up NM Highway 15. These 13th and 14th century cave dwellings are remarkable and there are many great hiking trails and nearby natural hot springs (Alert: the hot springs are often enjoyed "a la naturale", so consider yourself warned if that bothers you).
Arizona has some of the most remarkable canyons and beautiful deserts in the country as well as some of the best old Route 66 towns preserved lovingly by fans of the Mother Road. We’ll be heading north on this cross country road trip from Silver City in order to hit one of the best destinations in the U.S.: the Grand Canyon. What would your trip through the southern portion of the U.S. be without it? Prepare to be amazed – no picture does it justice…
- Petrified Forest National Park – No, this is not a deep dark forest filled with mysterious creatures – it’s an amazing park just outside of Holbrook, AZ that features large sections of flattened petrified logs. These logs don’t look like any kind of wood you’ve ever seen – instead the colors in the stone-like petrified wood are jewel-like and include every shade of the rainbow, from deep ruby red to bright sea blue to sunny yellow. This park also features the fabled painted desert (make it a priority to see it at sunset and be dazzled) and hundreds of archeological sites including the must-see Newspaper Rock, which is covered in petroglyphs dating from around 1000-1300 AD. To get here on your cross country road trip, just jump on US-180 and ride up and into Arizona. The entrance to the road that runs through the park (Petrified Forest Highway) will be on your right after the small town of Hunt. The park headquarters are at the northern end of the park near I-40, so you can either just drive around the park and get out as you please, or drive up to the headquarters first to get maps and details about the park’s offerings. The drive from New Mexico should take about 4 hours, allowing you to spend an afternoon and early evening here before heading over to Holbrook (your best lodging option for the night). Camping is not allowed at the park, so plan accordingly if you’re on a camping cross country road trip.
- Sedona – Everyone, and I mean everyone, that’s been to Sedona raves about it. Just getting there on your cross country road trip (west on I-40, a short buzz on I-17 to connect with Highway 89A) on Highway 89A is a spellbinding experience as you ride through the dramatic Oak Creek Canyon. Sedona is famous for a lot: its gorgeous red rock towers that you’ll recognize from practically every western you’ve seen, it’s many outdoor offerings including hiking, mountain biking, fishing, and sliding down a natural water slide into sparkling clear water, and it’s new-age hippy-dippy freaky-fun vibe that’s based not only in the people who live there today, but goes back to the Yavapai Apaches declaring the area sacred long ago. There are tons of places to stay in Sedona – from top of the line luxury at the Enchantment Resort to the super-cheap high-value motels in town. This is an ideal place to make into a multiple-night stay on your cross country road trip as there’s so much to see and do, you’d miss out on all the fun if you just spend one day. Top things to do? Go on a hike, take a jeep tour (there are many great ones), take a hot balloon ride to see the beauty of this area from above, play a round of golf, treat yourself to a little spa pampering, and spend an afternoon or evening wandering Tlaquepaue, a perfectly recreated Mexican village boasting plenty of great restaurants and shops.
- Grand Canyon – This amazing natural wonder is so famous - what can I write here that you haven’t already heard? Your best bet to truly enjoy the park before it becomes too crowded is to drive from Sedona to Williams and spend a day (and night) of your cross country road trip there enjoying this great old Route 66 town. Williams was on the very last section remaining of Route 66 before I-40 was completed and the route was decommissioned in 1984. That last gasp and the continued heavy traffic from the Grand Canyon has kept this town fully alive and made it one of the most authentic Route 66 towns that you can visit today with many of the original road-side businesses and old signs still remaining. Get up before dawn and head up Route 64 to the South Rim to beat the crowds and you’ll get the treat of watching the sun rise over the canyon, exposing it in all its glory! Whether you choose to simply get out of your car at every overlook, hike the canyon, or go on a float tour down the river, be prepared using the following tips. The elevations are very high here and there are multiple dangers including sunburn, heat stroke, heart and respiratory failure, and dehydration. If you have any heart or respiratory issues, avoid any exertion – it will be too much for you. Your best bet is to drive and get out at the scenic overlooks (don’t bother with the shuttle buses there, the waits are long and you can see the same thing driving your own car). Everyone should make sure to load up on sunscreen, wear a hat, and drink a lot more water than you think you need – the dry desert air will suck it right out of you. Be sure to fill your tank the day before you visit the canyon in Williams as there are no gas stations in the park. That said, the Grand Canyon is so wondrous and awe-inspiring, you’ll never forget it. It’s a lifetime must-do!
- Seligman and Kingman – Get back on I-40 and visit these other two great Route 66 towns to spice up your cross country road trip with all things Mother Road including old signs and billboards, cafés and drive-ins from the "day", and a Route 66 museum. Seeing these towns is one of the best ways to "get your kicks" these days!
California is a state of dreamers and dreams. People are constantly drawn here by all that glitters – whether it’s gold sparkling invitingly from a stream bed or the glamorous lure of Hollywood, so what could be a more fitting end to this cross country road trip than to hang out where the stars used to chill in the Rat Pack days and then head into the City of Angels? And then, once you’ve got your fill of Hollywood, we’ll ride down the Southern California coast, hit a gorgeous beach for a little fun-in-the-California-sun before culminating this trip in one of California’s most beloved cities: San Diego. Let’s kick it!
- Palm Springs – Head down I-40, Hwy 95, and I-10 to get to this town famed as the "playground of the stars". Although it’s no longer likely you’ll rub elbows with a star here, many players in Hollywood still vacation here and the retro architecture and slinky feel of the place is still as alluring as ever. There are plenty of activities to keep you busy for a day here including hiking at some of the local parks, playing a round of golf, taking a jeep tour of nearby Joshua Tree National Park, going for a ride on the Aerial Tram and enjoying the spectacular views, or visiting the many fine museums located here. A day or two should be sufficient before heading on to LA on I-10.
- Los Angeles – Although many come here hoping to see the stars, it’s actually a fairly rare experience. To get your fill of celebrities on your cross country road trip, your best bet is to go and see the Walk of Fame, the Kodak Theater and Grauman’s Chinese Theater. Check out the many hand and foot prints of the stars – a mix of old and new, get your photo taken with one of the actors dressed up as a famous star (a small tip is appreciated), and take a tour of one or both of the theaters. Other than that, the top things to do in Los Angeles are: visit the J. Paul Getty Center for the impressive art collection and spectacular views of LA and spend an afternoon at the Venice Beach Boardwalk for plenty of street performers, people in all kinds of dress/undress roller-skating, hippies left over from the 60’s, psychics and palm readers, and every other kind of zaniness along the boardwalk. If you want to tack on other sights, you could spend several days here, but if you limit it to the recommended choices above, you’ll only need a day or two here.
- Laguna Beach – This gorgeous community featured in the MTV reality series is a beautiful and restful break after the energy and grittiness of LA. This is a great place to spend a day at the beach soaking in the sun, watch the surfers, and just enjoy the ocean. One day in the sun and a night, and you’ll probably be ready to head on (unless you’re a major beach-lover).
- San Diego – Drive an hour and 20 minutes riding along the coast on I-5, and you’ll arrive out our last hit on this southern cross country road trip. This city is a hugely popular destination for a reason: there is SO much to do here and, to top it off, the weather is almost always perfect! Park your car and spend several days here seeing all the many excellent attractions. My top recommended sights are Sea World, Torrey Pines State Reserve, and Balboa Park. Make a point of dining one evening in the Gaslamp Quarter – this historic area has tons of wonderful eateries to choose from and it’s a lot of fun to walk around after dinner and take in the nightlife and street performers.
From the sultry Deep South to rough-and-ready cowboy country to spectacular canyons to some time on the California coast – this cross country road trip has it all and is one you’ll never forget! If your trip is round trip, be sure to return via another route and take in a whole new set of great sights and cities: there’s so much to see out there and there’s no point in missing out on a second great adventure on your return trip home!
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