AAA Travel Tips / Best Southwest Road Trips

Best Southwest Road Trips

Peeter Viisimaa/iStockphoto.com
By AAA Travel Editors
June 05, 2020
Sunbaked deserts, parched mountain ranges, dry plateaus and wild-looking rock formations carved into abstract sculptures by wind and rain—these are the landscapes of the American Southwest that lure visitors from across the globe. It’s a region that includes such amazing destinations as Bryce Canyon, Petrified Forest, Zion and Grand Canyon national parks and Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park—places that entered the popular imagination in old cowboy Westerns and the captivating paintings of Albert Bierstadt, Georgia O'Keeffe and Frederic Remington.
The beauty of the Southwest is waiting for you to discover, and the place to begin is AAA’s collection of Southwest road trips—routes carefully chosen by AAA’s travel editors for their exceptional scenery and variety of terrain. From high desert to low, deep canyons to mountain peaks, to sleek modern cities like Las Vegas and Phoenix, to old-fashioned truck stops and vintage motels along Route 66, these Southwest road trips offer something to suit just about every interest.
Sonoran Desert
iStockphoto.com/tonda

Road Trips Through Arizona and New Mexico

When we talk about Southwest road trips, what do we mean by the Southwest? Although there’s some disagreement since the region doesn’t divide neatly along state borders, two states show up on everyone’s list—Arizona and New Mexico. Nevada and Utah frequently are included, and California, Colorado and Texas less often.
Deserts are obviously an iconic feature of the Southwest, and there are a few. The Sonoran Desert covers parts of Arizona and California and includes the cities of Phoenix and Tucson. The Mojave overlaps into California, Nevada and a small part of Arizona, with the biggest city being Las Vegas. The Chihuahuan Desert occupies parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.
But it isn’t all about deserts. AAA’s Southwest road trips travel through forested areas and lush river valleys as well as along high plateaus.
Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, coyote buttes south, arizona, rock formations
Wikimedia Commons/John Fowler

Las Vegas to Grand Canyon National Park Road Trip

A vacation destination like Las Vegas may be the perfect starting point for a Southwest road trip. Once you’ve experienced the excitement of casino games, the spectacle of over-the-top stage shows and the thrill of theme park-style rides along the Strip, you can leave the bright, flashing lights of the city behind to explore the region’s natural splendor.
Vegas to National Parks to Vegas Road Trip - This grand circle through three states is effectively a sampler for some of the Southwest’s best scenery including the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon and Zion Canyon not to mention colorful Vermilion Cliffs National Monument and a man-made wonder near Vegas: Hoover Dam.
During the third leg of the trip, set aside time for a 20-mile (one-way) detour to the Grand Canyon’s North Rim via the Cape Royal Scenic Road Trip. The road is open only mid-May to mid-October due to snow, but if you’re driving in summer, you’ll be rewarded with some incredible views.
Virgin River Gorge Scenic Highway Road Trip - A segment of I-15 in Arizona’s northwest corner that’s also part of the preceding Vegas to National Parks to Vegas Road Trip, this byway is more than just a means of getting back to where you started. It’s a winding road that follows the Virgin River between dramatic, steep-sided cliffs that’ll make passengers sit up and reach for their cameras.
Hopi Point, sunrise, cliff
ventdusud/iStockphoto.com

Southwest National Parks Road Trip

Northern Arizona Canyons Road Trip – Flagstaff is your starting point for this journey to one of the legit wonders of the world: the Grand Canyon. South Rim Village is the national park’s main tourist area, and this is where you’ll find parking lots, overlooks, visitor centers, restaurants, lodges and campgrounds. Beyond the canyon, the road trip continues to Wupatki National Monument, site of pueblo ruins; Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, known for its lava fields and soaring cinder cone; and then on to the gorgeous red rock country surrounding Sedona.
Red Rock Scenic Byway Road Trip – South of Sedona by way of SR 179, this 8-mile drive treats drivers to multicolored sandstone mountains that might just be the highlight of your vacation photo posts on Instagram.
Seligman, arizona, route 66
studioraffi/iStockphoto.com

Route 66 Road Trips

The following four road trips span Arizona and New Mexico from west to east by way of historic Route 66. Properly called U.S. Highway 66, it was famously nicknamed the “Mother Road” by John Steinbeck in his classic novel, “The Grapes of Wrath,” a reference to its role in carrying hundreds of thousands of people who fled the Dust Bowl in the 1930s for opportunities farther west.
By any name, Route 66 was a major innovation in 1926 when it was developed as a way of linking major cities with smaller communities at a time when trucks and automobiles were just beginning to replace trains as America’s main way of getting around. Eventually the route would stretch more than 2,400 miles between Chicago and Los Angeles and become a symbol of freedom and optimism, particularly during the post-World War II economic boom.
By the mid-1980s the legendary road had been replaced by the interstate highway system, and what remained of Route 66 began to crumble as the once-bustling motels, filling stations and diners along the highway closed. Thanks to the efforts of historic preservationists, many sites along the “Main Street of America” have been restored for new generations of travelers to enjoy.
Check out these road trips for a taste of classic 20th-century Americana.
Route 66 – Western Arizona Road Trip – Starting in California, Route 66 rolls into the Black Mountains and the kitschy Old West town of Oatman. Then it’s on to Kingman, Seligman and Williams, which all revel in the remnants of their Route 66 glory days. The road trip ends among the ponderosa pines surrounding Flagstaff and its historic downtown.
Route 66 – Eastern Arizona Road Trip – Fun places to go along this section of Route 66, which transitions into desert as you go east, include massive Meteor Crater near Winslow and Petrified Forest National Park. The retro Route 66 vibe continues in Winslow and Holbrook—including one of the last remaining Wigwam Motels—before entering New Mexico.
Route 66 – Western New Mexico Road Trip – Between Gallup and this road trip’s end in Albuquerque, there are plenty of roadside landmarks from Route 66’s heyday, but you’ll also find shops, galleries and museums filled with Native American art and artifacts.
Route 66 – Eastern New Mexico Road Trip – Beyond Albuquerque, Route 66 enters the rolling foothills of the Sandia Mountains before flattening out as it approaches west Texas. The towns of Santa Rosa and Tucumcari celebrate their Route 66 heritage with vintage signs and gift shops packed with memorabilia. The road trip ends in Adrian, Texas, which announces its place at the exact midpoint of Route 66 between Chicago and Los Angeles.
Scenic Byway 565167
flickr/Fred Moore

Road Trips in Scenic Monument Valley and the Navajo Nation

Arizona’s northeastern corner consists almost entirely of the vast Navajo Nation, which is larger than several states. It also happens to be home to some of the Southwest’s most spectacular and familiar desert scenery.
Kayenta–Monument Valley Scenic Byway Road Trip – You’ve probably seen many of the beautiful sandstone arches, buttes and mesas along this road trip into Monument Valley in countless movies and TV shows.
Canyon de Chelly Scenic Rim Drive Road Trip – This road trip follows the edge of a plateau. From overlooks along the way, you’ll enjoy amazing panoramas taking in towering rock formations as well as ancient dwellings tucked into the cliffs.
Tse′nikani Flat Mesa Rock Scenic Byway Road Trip – Another great Navajo Nation road trip, Tse'nikani Flat Mesa Rock Scenic Byway is a journey through a colorful desert landscape dotted with rich greens along the area’s washes and creeks.
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona
iStockphoto.com/Ron and Patty Thomas

A Southwest Road Trip Through Arizona’s Sonoran Desert

By desert standards, the Sonoran Desert is considered lush. Thousands of plant and animal species that adapted to the hot, dry climate call this area home, as do millions of people, especially in the metropolitan areas of Phoenix and Tucson. The distinctive shape of the saguaro cactus, a native plant found nowhere else, has come to symbolize this region.
Southern Arizona Road Trip – Highlights along this loop route through the Sonoran Desert, which could easily be stretched into a 4- or 5-day Southwest Road Trip, include Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. (See Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument Scenic Drive Road Trip for details about the monument’s scenic road.)
Other highlights along the way: the observatory at Kitt Peak, Saguaro National Park, the Wild West time warp that is Tombstone, and the cities of Phoenix (this road trip’s starting point), Scottsdale and Tucson.
Spring Brittle bush blossoms carpet the desert near The Superstition Mountains at Canyon Lake in the Tonto National Forest near Phoenix Arizona
iStockphoto.com/Ron and Patty Thomas

Day Trips from Phoenix, Arizona

This sprawling, fast-growing city benefits from a lot of sunshine and pleasant winter temperatures. Along with retirees and others tired of shoveling snow, the Valley of the Sun has also attracted several Major League Baseball teams that come here each year for spring training. In addition to the following fun day trips in the area, AAA also has mapped out the Cactus League Road Trip, which zigzags around the metro area to each of 10 Cactus League ballparks.
State Route 74 Scenic Corridor Road Trip – This 30-mile-long road trip at the northwestern fringes of the Phoenix metro area is big on desert scenery but also passes Lake Pleasant, a huge reservoir that’s the place to go for recreation on the water in the otherwise parched Valley of the Sun.
Beeline Scenic Highway Road Trip – Beginning north of Mesa, this road trip follows SR 87 into the Tonto National Forest and the Mazatzal Mountains, which are characterized by brush-covered foothills and pine forests, and up to the town of Payson.
Apache Trail Historic Scenic Byway Road Trip – At the eastern edge of the Phoenix metropolitan area, Apache Junction is the starting point of this narrow scenic byway that leads through the desert up into the jagged Superstition Mountains and ending at Tortilla Flats.
Domestic Travel Boiler Plate Graphic
AAA

Start Your Next Vacation with AAA

AAA Travel provides peace of mind for travelers—from the first mile of the journey to the last. Get inspiration for your next road trip with AAA’s TripTik Travel Planner, or browse pre-planned itineraries on AAA.com/RoadTrips. Estimating fuel costs for your trip is easy with the AAA Gas Cost Calculator, and if your car needs a quick tune-up before the trip, find a AAA Approved auto repair facility near you at AAA.com/AutoRepair. For printed maps, AAA TourBook guides and trip planning advice, visit your local AAA office.
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