RoadTripFilter: In search of wide open spaces
August 19, 2009 7:50 AM   Subscribe

Another "where to go in America" question (who needs a travel agent when you've got Mefi?). This time, it's a road trip - I want to get away from the cramped little island I'm living on, and the Southwest seems like the place to go. Where should I go and what should I see?

The general plan is for a 10-day drive across the Southwest and west into California, avoiding the interstates for the smaller roads, staying in quiet little towns with quiet little BnBs, and stopping every five minutes to gape at the scenery and get my Ansel Adams on - and then finish up with the drive up CA-1 to San Francisco.

My original plan was to start in Dallas and head west toward El Paso - but apparently that's six hundred miles of not very much? Would it be better to start in Phoenix or Vegas or somewhere similar?

After that, the plan was to head north through New Mexico, make a left toin at Albuquoique, head through Flagstaff (and see Meteor Crater), through the Grand Canyon and Vegas and Mojave, then hit the coast somewhere around Santa Barbara (carefully avoiding LA traffic) and take the coast road north to San Francisco.

So, the questions:
1) Is the drive west from Dallas worth it, or should I start from Phoenix and head east then north? It adds up to about 2,000 miles either way, which sounds do-able in 10 days.
2) What's on the NM-AZ-NV-CA section of the route that I absolutely shouldn't miss? Mind-meltingly expansive scenery is the main thing I'm after - wide open spaces and big blue sky and long open roads, all that sort of thing.
3) I'm thinking of early-mid October for this little escapade - what's the driving like around that time of year? Is there any danger of snow and ice and such?

Thanks in advance,
posted by The Shiny Thing to Travel & Transportation (20 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: "Is the drive west from Dallas worth it"?

Oh god no. No no no no no. I am a Texan, I love my state, there are some interesting things to see in west Texas, but noooooooooooooooooooo. Unless you want to stop at Big Bend (which might be a worthy stop, but would probably take too much time out of your ten days) you can give Texas a miss on this trip. Or you could consider flying into Dallas and immediately getting a SWA flight to El Paso, which would allow you to drive up through Las Cruces to ABQ/Santa Fe. That would cost about $100 if you booked now, and would require you to get from DFW airport to Love Field (not a difficult transfer, but something to remember when booking).
posted by katemonster at 8:09 AM on August 19, 2009

Best answer: I've poked hither and yon in the Southwest; there are a couple of must-sees in different places.

* I actually was kind of let down by the Grand Canyon. However, that's possibly because I was in my teens, which lead me to blow up an (admittedly bad) case of cramps into epic drama proportions. So I didn't see much of the Grand Canyon other than the inside of my hotel room.

On the other hand, we had just come from Zion Canyon, which is laid out so that you are in the bottom of the canyon looking up, whereas in the Grand Canyon you are at the top looking in. The scale of Zion Canyon thus overwhelmed me more anyway.

* Speaking of which, I can definitely recommend Zion Canyon, which straddles the Utah/Arizona border a bit. The Arizona end isn't far off from the Grand Canyon.

* About 45 minutes to an hour north of Vegas there is a state park called The Valley Of Fire, which is the most positively alien landscape I have ever seen. The exit off the highway takes you another 20 miles over barren blah scrub, you go up a hill, down that hill, up another hill -- and when you crest that second hill, suddenly before you is the surface of Freakin' Mars. The Valley of Fire is a patch of brilliantred sandstone, and lies in a spot that gets some unusual wind currents, so all this brilliant red sandstone has been carved into these weird freakish shapes. And on top of that, the place is loaded with petroglyph activity, so not only is this weird red sandstone all weird shapes, it's covered with weird symbols and writing and holy GOD was it cool.

* You're close enough to a lot of the state parks in Utah that you may also want to consider going there -- Arches National Park is so worth it.

* Even though it's October, make sure that you bring a lot of water in your car. The desert can be deceptive in terms of what it's doing to you. At the Arches National Park, I thought I could get away with my little 20-oz bottle of water because "oh, I'm driving in my air conditioned car from one spot to another, and the most I'll be walking is a quarter mile at a time" -- but after a day of skipping blithely from spot to spot in my car and taking sips at my water bottle, I got dehydrated enough that when I started driving back out towards the park exit I actually had a brief hallucination. (There were some cliffs in the distance that had a sheer face, and I was glancing at them now and then -- and for a split second, I saw writing etched into them in huge flaming letters.) I immediately pulled into the ranger station and got a liter of water and made myself drink the entire thing before I tried driving any more.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:11 AM on August 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh, for the record: Vegas is actually kind of fun for a day or two if you have a "let's just see how wacky everything is" perspective. The first time I went was that same teenage trip with my family, where my parents actually wanted to gamble and I was just sort of wandering around our hotel asking myself, "....seriously? People think this is fun?" But the second time I went I went because it was the culmination of a Great Road Trip In Search Of Kitsch, and I was peoplewatching with a friend and we spent a fascinated ten minutes giggling over the animatronic gladiator display made of Steiff teddy bears they had in the Caesar's Palace mall. That was a blast.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:14 AM on August 19, 2009

Best answer: Sorry, I keep coming up with more and more stuff. For Route 1 up the coast:

* In Big Sur there is a place called Deetjen's Big Sur Inn. You want to stay there. Trust me. It is right on the water and it looks for all the world like a cluster of little camping cottages all huddled onto a hill. One of the absolute best photos I have ever taken in my life was taken in the Deetjen's parking lot (I took about five steps into the woods and turned a corner and it looked like Rivendell, I swear to God).

* Hearst Castle was interesting, but I was a little disappointed that you have to take a guided tour, and the tours only take you to a few points in the house. Still it was worth it to see that they sold Marian Davies' autobiography in the gift shop -- complete with a foreword written by Orson Welles.

* Route 1 is an amazing drive, and driving from south to north is unbelieveably smart -- it is literally RIGHT along the shoreline, and has a lot of sharp hairpin turns and there's practically no fence and so you end up paranoid that if you make a wrong turn you could go tumbling down the cliff into the ocean and...however, if you're driving south-to-north, you at least have the smidgen of security afforded by the fact that there's one lane of traffic between you and death, which does help.

* Carmel was....puzzling. Pretty, but it struck me as being a little too....conscious of itself in some way. I don't know how else to describe it.

* If you can at all hit Yosemite on your way back from San Francisco to Texas, that too is worth it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:23 AM on August 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I lived in west Texas for 3 years. As katemonster says, there is NOTHING to see here, with the possible exception of Big Bend, and that's just not really near anything else. I have driven from Dallas to El Paso and it will make you want to poke your eyes out from boredom, seriously.

I would even skip driving from El Paso to ABQ, because a lot of eastern New Mexico is just as ugly as west Texas. I would suggest flying directly into ABQ (which is also one of the prettiest airports I've ever been to) and start your trip from there.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 8:28 AM on August 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If you haven't settled on a starting point and route, here are a few things worth seeing in the eastern NM area:

If you have the time, and if the weather is favorable, Walter De Maria's Lightning Field has always sounded like it would be worth a stop. It's close (ish) to Albuquerque.

The Marfa Lights might be worth a slight detour if you're heading north from the El Paso/Big Bend area. Marfa in general has been on the verge of becoming an art-geek pit stop for some time now.

Also, there's nothing like Carlsbad Caverns if you'll be down in that part of New Mexico. If you go this route, it might also be worth the short trip to White Sands and perhaps on to Roswell if you're into UFO kitsch.

Amarillo TX is off the beaten path from any of these, but it has the Cadillac Ranch the Big Texan steakhouse and Route 66 (as does Albuquerque for that matter). It's likely that none of the Amarillo things will be worth a long detour, but Palo Duro Canyon is nearby, and (for my money) rivals anything you'll see at the Grand Canyon.

The drive from Santa Barbara to San Francisco is beautiful if you take US 101, but don't expect to go quickly - most of the coastal sections are twisty two-lane with decently busy traffic.

I probably wouldn't anticipate any trouble with the weather in October, except perhaps in the Rockies if you cross further north. You should have no trouble finding the big sky scenery on the drive if that's your aim. Sounds like a good road trip. Have fun.
posted by owls at 8:39 AM on August 19, 2009

Before making that big left turn in Albuquerque, I'd recommend heading a couple of hours north to Santa Fe and, my town, Taos. There's nothing like these towns anywhere, and if you like them at all, you'll probably adore them. Many residents of Santa Fe and Taos are here because they couldn't bring themselves to leave. Why not see what all the fuss is about?
posted by markcmyers at 8:52 AM on August 19, 2009

Best answer: Southern Utah is where you want to go. Any given canyon or park can be awesome, but when you start at Arches, near the colorado border, and move west, gradually descending from the colorado plateau through all of the layers of gold/orange/red/yellow sandstone through Canyonlands, then Capitol Reef, over the San Rafael Swell, Cedar Breaks and Bryce Canyon and then into Zion, you will get sense of timeless grandeur that is unmatched anywhere in the world. The roads are ribbons of sweeping blacktop that stretch to the horizons and there is a new, stunning vista around every bend.
posted by OHenryPacey at 8:55 AM on August 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: If you want to really get your Ansel Adams on, make a route that starts in Tucson instead of Phoenix, and spend a day at the U of A's Center for Creative Photography, which houses all of Adams' archives - and at which, by appointment, you can browse through all of Adams' work. It's got a gallery, too, so you can just walk in and check it out, but most of Adams' photos are not displayed so you'd have to make an appointment. But it's well worth it.

And while you're in the Tucson area, check out Kitt Peak Observatory - it's an amazing place.
posted by pdb at 9:01 AM on August 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Another vote for Southern Utah here. It is fantastic in even sense of the word.
posted by mmascolino at 10:50 AM on August 19, 2009

The four corners area is really interesting. Chaco Canyon, Canyon de Chelly, Mesa Verde are life list places. I strongly second the Utah recommendations. Frankly, you could spend 10 days in southern Utah not get bored. The coast of California along highway 1 is 4 to 5 days if you give any of the likely stops their due.
Our family spent a week in Durango and then did day trips from there. You might consider a similar strategy. Pick a hub, like St. George, and then do excursions from there. It's a great way to see a region. It's much less of a grind.
posted by Carmody'sPrize at 11:04 AM on August 19, 2009

Nthing Southern Utah. It's awesome.

I'll also second being kind of underwhelmed by the Grand Canyon. The South Rim at least is super touristy and built up. I hear the North Rim is a little cooler and wilder, but it's farther out of the way.

Go to Point Lobos State Park on your way up and watch epically huge waves crash into awesome, craggy rocks.
posted by Aizkolari at 11:19 AM on August 19, 2009

You haven't really seen what the Sonoran desert looks like if you don't travel near Tucson. Those shots of towering cacti and mountains and scrub, those are really in southern Arizona in Saguaro National Park. October is the perfect time of year to go through that area.
Also, seconding everything pdb suggests.
posted by Brody's chum at 11:41 AM on August 19, 2009

I was also going to recommend southern Utah, particularly Arches (I just got back from a road trip through there myself, it's unbelievably awesome). I don't want to set you too far off your route, but Black Canyon of the Gunnison in southwestern Colorado is also a stunner. It's about 3 hours from Arches.

I have also heard great things from my Dad about traveling up highway 395 in California, through the Sierras. Mono Lake is next on my list of California Road Trips I'd Like to Take.
posted by stennieville at 11:43 AM on August 19, 2009

I grew up and started my life in the southwest and spent a lot of my youth riding with my dad as he did land surveys across the backwoods of new mexico. THe best advice I have for seeing the real southwest is to travel diagonally, not north-south. My suggestion would be to fly into El Paso (skip the drive from dallas it ain't worth it). Go to silver city, see the Very Large Array and the lightning field go to springerville, then holbrook and the navajo/hopi reservation and canyon de chelly then monument valley. See the North Rim of the canyon (the south rim is infested with tourist until the middle of winter). Go to Zion and Capital Reef and then into vegas. See the worlds highest concrete arch being built above hoover dam and then decide how you want to cross the mojave into the good part of California, of which I know very little. To see everything worth seeing along the route above would take way more than 10 days-I spent 35 years in the southwest and still never managed to stop everywhere I wanted to. Any route you pick will have a lot to see and definately stay off the interstates! Of course the other diagonal would start in albuquerque and head to tucson than up to vegas but I don't think there is as much to see and you miss the navajo reservation that way.
posted by bartonlong at 1:29 PM on August 19, 2009

Nthing Southern Utah. OHenryPacey has it- I just got back from nearly the same trip. Add a stop at Dead Horse Point State Park for a sweeping vista that rivals the Grand Canyon.
Drive at least part of the way on scenic Highway 12. My favorite part is between Boulder & Escalante!
posted by Ochre,Hugh at 1:50 PM on August 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Sorry, Dead Horse Point.
posted by Ochre,Hugh at 1:55 PM on August 19, 2009

Best answer: Generally, driving from Dallas to the Grand Canyon and points beyond, you would go through Wichita Falls and Amarillo to Albuquerque. I live along that route and unless you want to see about a gazillion mesquite trees and not much else, it's horribly boring. However, I have driven it and once out of Texas, there are interesting things to see going through NM and Arizona, even on the interstate. After doing the touristy thing at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, we drove all the way around (it's a long way) to the North Rim, stopping for the night at the Cliff Dwellers Lodge in Marble Canyon. Absolutely amazing scenery here. On to LV through Zion National Park for an unforgettable trip. The meteor crater and Winslow are interesting stops too.

Don't underestimate the interstate on this trip. I-40 from Amarillo all the way to California is the same path as the old Route 66, so there are some fun and kitchy things to see and do.
posted by tamitang at 12:11 AM on August 20, 2009

Response by poster: So many awesome answers! Someone should seriously start up a Metafilter Travel Agency. Thanks to everyone, but in particular...

Thanks katemonster and DiscourseMarker for talking me out of the Texas leg - that's a couple of days I'll be able to spend exploring somewhere more interesting. And EmpressCallipygos - do you want to be the Metafilter Travel Agency's first employee?

Also, pdb: Kitt Peak sounds like a blast, I'll definitely try and get there.

I wonder if they'll give me an extra week off work to extend the trip. Or an extra month. Or maybe I should just move to the States...
posted by The Shiny Thing at 2:33 AM on August 21, 2009

:-) I'm actually trying to make a go of travel writing right now, so I may be on a roll...

I didn't mention Tucson as it looked like you weren't going to be heading near there, but I can also strongly recommend it. There's a low-key park near there, Sabino Canyon, which is wonderful for short day hikes. I also have never seen a sky as blue as the one I saw there in Sabino Canyon.

Lake Powell/Glen Canyon is also right on the Utah/Arizona border; it's been years since I was there, but I really loved it -- imagine the Grand Canyon, flooded. Essentially that's what it is -- the river cutting through Glen Canyon was dammed by a hydroelectric company years back and it created a lake that filled up the canyon behind it. It's kind of a mixed blessing -- on the one hand, it admittedly was an environmental disaster, and I think the people running it are taking steps to make up for the impact now (the lake has a main tourists' resort, and there's definite problems with pollution in the lake near that spot; plus, well, they flooded a canyon, and that's never good for the environment in the canyon proper), but on the other...being able to take a boat out to some of the sites in the canyon lets you get at some amazing views. Also, the sunset over Lake Powell -- with the light bouncing off the water and reflecting back onto the canyon walls - is supernatural.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:25 AM on August 21, 2009

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