Roadtrip must-sees in Western US?
January 6, 2020 2:32 PM   Subscribe

What are the most fun things to do in the western/southwestern US for a dad and his teenage daughter?

My 14-year old daughter and I will be making a years-in-the-making road trip this summer, taking 3-4 weeks sometime between late June and mid-August to do it. We'll begin and end in our hometown of Austin, Texas, and the other terminus of our trip is San Francisco. What stops should we make along the way for maximum wow factor and funtimes? Our only absolute must so far is Meow Wolf in Santa Fe, if that gives you an idea of the type of thing we'd be into. Where else should we stop off along the way?
posted by slappy_pinchbottom to Travel & Transportation (15 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
I've been to most of the National Parks. I went to Carlsbad Caverns as an extremely sullen 17 year old and it blew me away. It's way out in the middle of nowhere and not near anything else cool but in my teenage opinion it is absolutely worth seeing if you can swing it.
posted by phunniemee at 2:38 PM on January 6, 2020 [1 favorite]

Nthing Carlsbad Caverns. Request a tour of one of the primitive caverns. Also: Grand Canyon north rim; Arches; Island in the Sky.
posted by charris5005 at 2:45 PM on January 6, 2020 [1 favorite]

I did a big Western/Southwestern roadtrip a decade ago and aside from Grand Canyon the spot I have the most vivid memories of is Antelope Canyon in Arizona. Remote and incredible and worth the hassle. Canyon de chelly, also in Arizona was a close third. Both completely unique and unforgettable. Have a great time!
posted by citygirl at 3:16 PM on January 6, 2020 [2 favorites]

Monument Valley is truly something special. You can kind of drive around and see some of it by yourself, but I highly recommend going on one of the Navajo tours. White Sands New Mexico is amazing. Los Alamos has a super-interesting museum - lots of Manhattan Project info, but plenty of general science stuff too! Roswell is kitchy, but fun, and I loved Santa Fe and Albuquerque. Drive Route-66!
posted by ssmith at 3:20 PM on January 6, 2020 [2 favorites]

I second or third the Grand Canyon. You've seen the pictures and they're beautiful. The pictures don't prepare you for the scale, the grandeur of the real space. One of a kind; nothing like it in the world.
posted by tmdonahue at 3:25 PM on January 6, 2020 [1 favorite]

Organ Stop Pizza in Mesa, Arizona is terrifying and you must take your teenager there. Be like me and don't warn them: just pull the car in and tell them it's where you're eating dinner.
posted by The corpse in the library at 3:28 PM on January 6, 2020 [2 favorites]

Second Monument Valley. Also, Mesa Verde for amazing ruins and, not far from Santa Fe, the ruins in Frijoles Canyon at Bandelier National Monument which were build after a drought led to migrations from Mesa Verde about 800 to 900 years ago.
posted by Botanizer at 3:29 PM on January 6, 2020 [3 favorites]

Whatever route you end up taking, I highly recommend getting the Roadside America app: it'll point you towards weird, kitschy, fun road trip stops.
posted by yasaman at 4:12 PM on January 6, 2020 [1 favorite]

MEOW W... oh okay phew

My other answer is that you should angle through Phoenix and go to Mystery Castle, my other favorite spot in the Southwest. Also, on our way back from Meow Wolf we stopped at an alpaca farm (Que Sera, which was perfect, but there are others) and it was an unexpectedly great diversion. You can pet them!
posted by babelfish at 5:26 PM on January 6, 2020 [2 favorites]

Oh! And I totally forgot Tinkertown! One of the best/craziest roadside attractions I've ever personally been to. Pictures don't really do it justice. Oh, and the Petrified Forest National Park is also pretty great. I really enjoyed our trip to the Southwest.
posted by ssmith at 6:36 PM on January 6, 2020 [3 favorites]

Seconding, for very different reasons, Antelope Canyon and the Mystery Castle.
The former is awe-inspiringly stunning, the kind of place you’ll never forget. Truly wondrous.

I always try to take visitors to the latter. It’s insane and has a fascinating story, and seems right in your and your daughter’s wheelhouse.
posted by Superplin at 3:28 AM on January 7, 2020

The Petrified Forest is right off I-40 in Arizona and is fantastic. It includes some very picturesque parts of the Painted Desert, too.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 9:25 AM on January 7, 2020

I was going to say Meow Wolf, but you're already there. :)

The VLA (Very Large Array) in Socorro has visiting hours on the 1st and 3rd Saturdays of the month. Also, the Trinity test site can be visited on the first Saturdays of April and October - which you'll miss with your time frame, but maybe on another trip.

In my opinion, the Museum of Nuclear Science in Albuquerque is better than the Los Alamos Museum.
posted by antimony at 10:03 AM on January 7, 2020

This Semptember a friend and I did a big loop around Arizona and New Mexico and had an absolutely great time. There isn't one thing that I would have changed, and we really managed to hit a lot of highlights. I'm not sure how far south your route is likely to take you but I will tell you what we did. Maybe one or two of the stops will click with you. I live in Tucson so we started and ended there, hence some of the southern AZ stops.

Day one: We drove from Tucson to Sedona, arriving around noon. It was super hot so we went straight to Grasshopper Point to swim in Oak Creek. It was a really great choice and not too crowded - we only waited about ten minutes for a parking spot. There's a really good jumping-off spot from the cliffs, if you are adventurous.

Day two: We got up pretty early and headed straight to the Call of the Canyon trailhead to hike the West Fork trail. We were there before nine and got a parking spot no problem, but it filled up almost immediately afterwards. The West Fork trail was spectacular and super fun and really easy, and has a ton of creek crossings so there are plenty of chances to take off your shoes and wade around.

We wrapped up that trail around one o'clock and headed to Monument Valley. We were staying in the View hotel and made it for sunset - oh my gosh, the whole trip was worth it just for that sunset.

Day three: We took a tour with Majestic Monument Valley Touring Co. and it was incredible. Our tour guide was super knowledgeable and easy to talk to.

Day four: We drove from Monument Valley to Farmington, New Mexico. Farmington is not super special, just a nice ordinary town, but it was a great place to stay since it was close to the Bisti Badlands/De-Na-Zin Wilderness where we intended to hike. The Bisti is so weird and cool and creepy and fun to run around in, and it's so off the beaten path there aren't any trails - you just head in and scramble around. Be confident in your wayfinding skills if you go very far, but even within a half mile of the car there's a ton to see. It was a great stop to make after such a structured tour in Monument Valley the day before.

Day five: We drove from Farmington to Santa Fe via the Valles Caldera National Preserve and Bandelier National Monument. They are, like, twenty minutes from each other, so if you're doing one you might as well stop at both. Valles Caldera is this stunning golden meadow way up in the sky with beautiful trails and animal viewing, and Bandelier is a fabulous contrast. It's a lot more developed, too, so the services are nice after "roughing it" in Valles Caldera.

In Santa Fe we stayed at the Silver Saddle Motel and I cannot recommend it enough. It's super close (walking distance) to Meow Wolf and really comfortable, cute and affordable. Also, it's right next to this Chinese restaurant called Wok where I got an order of Ma Po tofu with SO MUCH szechuan peppercorn that I thought my face would numbly tingle right off my skull. A+ would eat again in a heartbeat.

Day six: Santa Fe low-key tourism ending with a visit to Meow Wolf. You already know this was incredible. We went in the afternoon and it was a good choice - we arrived during a lull and had a relatively quiet hour and a half before it started to fill up with the evening crowd.

Day seven: We headed to Truth or Consequences and checked in to the RiverBend Hot Springs. Ohhh man, this was unexpectedly wonderful. Suuuuper relaxing and beautiful, and being there late at night was a treat because the stars over the Rio Grande are clear and gorgeous. And the variety of pool options was blissful and just what we needed after all that car time.

Day eight: We traveled to Willcox AZ via Hatch, stopping for an early lunch to eat some classic green chile burgers. Willcox is nothing to write home about but it was a great spot to stay in order to get up early the next day and go to the Chiricahua National Monument, another genuine wonder of the world. It's like Bryce but green and grey instead of red. Weird and beautiful.

After that we headed home to Tucson which might be further south than you swing but if you're down here then Saguaro National Park is right here and can't missed, I love it there. The West district is more impressive for a quick stop/drive through.

Hope you have a great trip!
posted by DSime at 3:29 PM on January 7, 2020 [3 favorites]

Go sand-sledding in White Sands National Park.
posted by sickinthehead at 6:24 PM on January 7, 2020

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