January 29, 2010 9:51 PM   Subscribe

I'll be driving from coast to coast soon. The only place I know for sure I want to see is the Grand Canyon. Help me get the most of this trip.

I wouldn't mind taking a detour in each state to eat at someplace special. Real special. Fancy, local, absurd--whatever. As long as it isn't more than 30 minutes or so out of the way.

I'll almost for sure be passing through West Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, down to Arizona for the Grand Canyon, and then over to California. But I could swing an extra state in north or south of any of those in order to see something special.

I assume I'll mostly be on Interstates, but are there any stretches where a different route would pay dividends? Which major cities should get a major helping of my time? Etc.

I'll have about a week, give or take, one way.
posted by Number Used Once to Travel & Transportation (25 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
The only thing about the Grand Canyon (the part of it you probably want to see) is that it is out in the middle of nowhere. If you go to that, you have to drive a long ways through utter wasteland before and after.

You can get the same experience somewhere like Black Canyon of the Gunnison without before forced to route through godforsaken desert for a thousand miles.

In any case, sounds like Mesa Verde National Park is near the route you'll be following, and it's definitely worth a visit. The cliff dwellings are truly amazing.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:59 PM on January 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

You gotta try to see the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Its much more beautiful (its at a higher elevation so there's more trees and scenic country) and more secluded since most tourists go to the south rim. The north rim is also only a few hours from Zion National Park which is awesome.

I would strongly suggest trying a southern Utah-northern Arizona thing. You can hit Zion, Bryce canyon, the canyonlands and the North Rim on your way but you wont be on Interstates.
posted by freshundz at 10:01 PM on January 29, 2010

if you go through the south, you should see White Sands National Monument for sure. If you go through the north, Badlands National Park. I'd skip Mt. Rushmore; I found it overly touristy and underwhelming.
posted by malhouse at 10:19 PM on January 29, 2010

I think Chocolate Pickle is talking about the North Rim, which is far more out-of-the-way than the (more popular) South Rim. The South Rim is very easy to get to--it's only about 45-50 minutes north of I-40 at Williams. It's not as nice, but still pretty spectacular, so if you end up taking I-40, don't miss it.

But, yeah, western Colorado and southern Utah are prettier. That's definitely the way to go if you have a little more time, and if there's not too much snow.

In Kentucky, Mammoth Cave is amazing; if you go through St. Louis, check out the Arch; if you're in NM, check out Carlsbad Caverns.
posted by equalpants at 10:26 PM on January 29, 2010

Mesa Verde is fantastic. My sister lives very close, so I've been several times, and it doesn't get old. One trip won't be enough to see it, and it's easily among the most fascinating national parks.

Going from Colorado to the Grand Canyon, you have a few options. The most obvious is to hit Four Corners. Yeah, it's cheesy, and there's nothing out there, but you're only out $3 a person and you can have fun taking photos. From there you can continue west on US160 towards the Grand Canyon, north rim if you have the time, or Flagstaff and/or the south rim. Or you can go south through the Navajo Nation and catch I-40 to Flagstaff. Or you can take 64 back to Shiprock, go south on 491 until you get to Sheep Springs, and turn off to go over Washington Pass. From there you go through Ft Defiance and Window Rock, and then south to I-40. (This route, BTW, is gorgeous, which is why I include it.) The thing about I-40 in Arizona is that it's basically Route 66, and you can do some of the route there especially in the small towns. Heading west on 40, you'll come to the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest. You can do those (it's one park) in a couple of hours. Then you head back to Holbrook and catch 40 again. I Holbrook you can eat at Joe & Aggie's Cafe, a Route 66 legend. They've got some really good food there. I always hit them up when I'm out that way.

If you do the south rim, you'll go through the town of Williams on the way out. This was the last Route 66 town to be bypassed by the interstate.

Continuing west on 40, you get to Seligman. This is for all intents and purposes Radiator Springs from the movie Cars. This is where the Route 66 preservation really got going in Arizona, and Pixar did some research for the movie. You'll want to grab a bite at the Snow Cap Drive In. You want absurd... well, you'd have a hard time topping this place. It's all in good fun. You head out of town west on Route 66. This is where the longest intact stretch of Route 66 starts. You get away for the interstate for a while. If they're open, stop and take the tour at Grand Canyon Caverns. It's a dry cave and things preserve well there. It's a really neat tour. You can continue west on 66 to Kingman from there. If you have the time, you can head north on 93 and check out the Hoover Dam, and time permitting even Las Vegas.

Hope you have a great time. I'm jonesin' for a road trip myself.
posted by azpenguin at 10:35 PM on January 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm a Utah girl, and I'm pretty much always cheer leading for my state. I have to wholeheartedly agree with freshhundz and say that you should definitely see Southern Utah. I really love Zion National Park, but Arches is pretty amazing too. Although if you are going in the near future it won't be good weather for it, I'm not even sure what roads will be open. If we're talking Spring it's a different story. It might be helpful for us if you give a time frame. A lot of places are seasonal.

If you can drive through the Painted Desert it's some pretty amazing landscape. It is really in the middle of nowhere, so be prepared gas wise not to stop. I've been all over Northern Arizona, and I also have to recommend the North Rim vs. the South. The South is more touristy, and I think that's where the sky walk thing is (never been) but the land around the North Rim is so much prettier.

I also agree with azpenguin. Since you're in the area you should really hit as much of Route 66 as you can. It's really fun. Chock full of Kitsch and Nostalgia. And really, would a cross-country trip be complete without a ride on 'The Mother Road'?
posted by TooFewShoes at 10:55 PM on January 29, 2010

I'll be doing this in mid- to late-February.
posted by jsturgill at 11:13 PM on January 29, 2010

Nthing the vote for Zion. And seconding Arches. I'll never forgive the mormons for settling on some of the most beautiful parts of America.
posted by Hactar at 11:31 PM on January 29, 2010

Mesa Verde is quite beautiful! I live about a mile from Route 66 and, at least in my town (Albuquerque, NM), it's a pretty fascinating road.

Message me if you end up going through Albuquerque with how much time you have here and I'll give you the stuff you need to see. We've got some pretty good food-- almost all ethnicities-- which is what I always end up craving when I'm eating diner meal after diner meal on the road.
posted by NoraReed at 11:36 PM on January 29, 2010

Re: roads/highways

If you're trying to cut across Colorado from NE to SW and you're okay with mountain driving in the winter, I would recommend taking 285-S from Denver, and then connecting to 160-W. (In terms of Google map directions, this means you tell Google you're starting in Denver, going to Fairplay first, and then going on to Durango. Sorry I can't make the link work).

There are no tourist attractions, etc, on that route, but the scenery is absolutely gorgeous. The stretch where you come down into the San Luis Valley from the pass is probably my favorite section of road ever. But it's worth repeating that if you're uncomfortable driving in the mountains on a two-lane highway, you should probably skip it and stay on I-70, or I-25, whichever way you're going.

Also, if you have any interest in ancient ruins like those in Mesa Verde, I would highly recommend Chaco Canyon. It's in New Mexico and it's completely in the middle of nowhere, but the scale of the ruins is really astonishing--they're HUGE--and because visitor traffic is so low, you're allowed to wander around in ruins that would be roped-off at Mesa Verde.
posted by colfax at 12:22 AM on January 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

I drove across the country and back last summer. I have one advice: avoid the major interstates, and take smaller US or state highways. If you take the interstates, you'll see nothing but billboards and the same gas stations and fast food chains all the way across the country, and pay tolls to boot in many states. Take the smaller two-lane highways and you'll hardly ever see that crap, you'll pass through dozens of tiny towns (towns so small that they won't even have a McDonalds) with real people living real lives, and you'll hardly see any traffic. In some states, you might have the road to yourself for as far as the eye can see (e.g. US-50 in Nevada, a.k.a "Loneliest Highway"). You'll also see historical markers and various points of (genuine) interest, rather than silly tourist traps. The trip will take longer, but you'll see more, and get a better appreciation for the sheer enormity and diversity of this beautiful country. As for states to see, my personal favorite was Nebraska, though I think you'll want to go further south to avoid snow and ice this time of year...
posted by ryochiji at 12:36 AM on January 30, 2010 [3 favorites]

When we drove to the Grand Canyon, we briefly stopped off I-40 in Flagstaff and really liked the Flagstaff Brewing Company.

Agree with ryochiji that non-interstates are nice, but if you want to make time (a week) and also see things, the Interstates are a must. I really like US 61 in Iowa and Missouri, though I doubt that's really practical given your intended route.

Good luck!
posted by j1950 at 12:44 AM on January 30, 2010

SEDONA. SEDONA. SEDONA. Prettier than the Grand Canyon, less of a tourist trap, utterly beautiful. If you're in Arizona, you should visit, you won't be sorry.
posted by chlorus at 1:48 AM on January 30, 2010

There are five national parks in southern Utah, each with their own unique awesomeness and charm. I love the desert and canyons so much, I have created a feature of the five parks on my website. Hopefully the information there will be of use to you. Have a wonderful time wherever you go. Road trips are great!
posted by netbros at 2:39 AM on January 30, 2010

I asked for suggestions for a Southwestern road trip for me and my friend last year; sounds like you'll be taking pretty much the same route as the Arizona/Colorado/Kansas leg at the end of our trip (just the other way), so you'll probably want to read that whole thread.

We took a few of the suggestions, and all were good. The Moab Brewery was delicious, as was Cozy Inn in Salina. Moab in general was an oasis of yuppieish coastal-style life; unimaginably, there's even decent pizza. There's also a huge, beautiful wind farm somewhere out on Route 70 in eastern or central KS; the turbines are absolutely massive and it's fun to take pictures with them.
posted by abcde at 4:04 AM on January 30, 2010

Oh, and speaking of Salina, KS—I and my friend were shocked by that town. The entire place is amazingly retro, mostly to the 1950's (when most of it was built, I later found out). Perfectly restored red Chevy convertibles parked in front of Truman-era ranch houses with well-dressed children playing in the front yard; downtown, the businesses are named things like "Doc's Barber Shop‎," and all the signage is Raygun Gothic. Eating our 99¢ burgers at a place called "Bogey's," we watched a couple openly spank their kid. We joked at the time that it was a wrinkle in time and that when we later looked it up online—there seemed to be no working WiFi there—we would find no mention of any of this; the funny part is, it's true. I still haven't.

So yeah, if it's on your route, try to make a pit stop and check it out. If you dare.
posted by abcde at 4:22 AM on January 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Like ryochiji, I'm a fan of off-the-beaten-path roadripping. About 12 years ago I rode a motorcycle from Ohio to California via Missouri, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada. I took hardly any freeways, and had neither planned route nor sightseeing itinerary; I simply spread out my map once in a while to choose whichever state route seemed to be heading in roughly the right direction. I did not set myself up for a touristy experience, so I didn't have one. Instead, I constantly found myself in unexpected circumstances, seeing unexpected things, solving unexpected problems.

Traveling this way is slow. On the bike, which is much more physically taxing than riding in a car, I was only going ~300-350 miles a day. I was on the road for 11 days, at the end of which I was both physically and emotionally exhausted.
posted by jon1270 at 4:22 AM on January 30, 2010

Nthing Zion and/or Bryce. Here are some pictures of mine from this past summer (also includes a few North Rim photos),
posted by aheckler at 5:18 AM on January 30, 2010

Following up on ryochiji's advice...

I've mentioned this in other threads before but I highly recommend the book Road Trip USA. The entire book discusses driving on specific two lane highways all across the country and you could probably map out a good portion of your trip from it. Funky hotels, roadside stops, interesting art... it's got a bit of everything. It's great to have a copy with you of course, but the entire text is available for free at the website linked above, and you can just click on the specific route for more information. I found it an invaluable resource on a drive I made from Boston to Los Angeles (my Pops and I traveled as much of the old Route 66 as we could.)

Have fun!
posted by Rewind at 7:54 AM on January 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

You cannot go to the North Rim in February. I did the South Rim in February; be careful driving.

Take a look at this blog for ideas and great photos.
posted by jgirl at 9:00 AM on January 30, 2010

Truth be told, I found the canyon to be a waste of time and the money they gouge for an entrance fee. There are far better sights to be seen as suggested at Mesa Verde, Monument Valley (a bit further north) and Bryce. Sure, you can say you've been to the Canyon but that's pretty much all you'll take away from it unless you're doing a trip down into it.
posted by wkearney99 at 10:30 AM on January 30, 2010

Response by poster: I'd love to get some more insight on regional food highlights and Americana kitsch. I'll be giving Road Trip USA a lot of attention before I leave, I think. More like that?
posted by Number Used Once at 10:53 AM on January 30, 2010

If you like pie, Cooky's Cafe in Golden City, MO is a fun place. They have A LOT of fresh made, delicious pie.
posted by backwords at 1:28 PM on January 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Since you're going in February I have to withdraw my recommendation of the North Rim. I don't think the road will be open, and if it is you will freeze. The South Rim is usually a little warmer. Really though, the Grand Canyon can be a pretty big let down. Unless you are going down and hiking it. You get out of the car..."Wow this is really big."..."Wow, it's really pretty."..."Is this it?"...then you get back in the car and drive hours to get back to civilization. I do recommend Sedona, even under snow it is still a beautiful town. Really though, just travelling the old Route 66 will give you plenty of little places that look interesting where you will want to stop and get out for awhile.

I checked and Zion National Park is open year round, but I don't know if that means that you need 4WD or snow chains. Before you decide you might want to look that up.

While in Arizona if you see a roadside stand that says Navajo Fry Bread, you must stop. Seriously. Even if it looks like it the worst roadside hotdog cart, stop. That stuff is soooo good. Just get the bread with honey on it. Don't get beans or meat because then you will be stopping for a bathroom every 15 miles. But just with honey Fry Bread is the food of the Gods.
posted by TooFewShoes at 2:32 PM on January 30, 2010

if you're in NM, check out Carlsbad Caverns.

Seconded, in a heartbeat would I go again. I was also fascinated by the Painted Desert, the Petrified Forest (both in Arizona) and Mesa Verde (Colorado). And Four Corners was just neat.
posted by Witty at 8:09 PM on January 30, 2010

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