Dramatic scenery meets ancient history in the Southwestern desert—but there is also plenty of quirky fun. Take this road trip to California that begins in New Mexico, tracing the remnants of the historic Route 66 and stopping for great food and colorful attractions along the way.
Start in Albuquerque, where chiles are a hot topic. You and your travel buddies can debate the merits of mild versus spicy—or Hatch versus Chimayo—as you eat chile peppers smothered on Cocina Azul's cheeseburgers, baked into Mary and Tito's red-chile carne adovada, and even folded into Range Cafe's green-chile apple pie.
Cast your vote for red or green, then walk the winding brick paths of Old Town's Plaza, stopping at art galleries and shops tucked into 18th-century adobes. Buy a red-chile ristra to hang in your kitchen, then go see some of the 25,000 rock carvings at Petroglyph National Monument, just north of town.
It’s time to get a move on, so jump on Interstate 40, which traces the path of historic Route 66 westward across the Continental Divide. The highway where you can "get your kicks" leads through the high desert to Gallup, a city teeming with Native American art galleries and trading posts. Fill your trunk with Navajo rugs, Hopi or Acoma pottery, and turquoise jewelry. Stop in at the Southwestern-chic El Rancho Hotel, where John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, and Katharine Hepburn slept.
Crossing into Arizona, I-40 skirts past Petrified Forest National Park’s collection of petrified tree trunks and fossils. Walk the Giant Logs Trail to examine the crystallized wood up close, or hike the Blue Mesa Trail among colorful sedimentary badlands. Make a brief detour past Winslow to gape at Meteor Crater, a mile-wide hole in the ground where a meteor slammed into the earth 50,000 years ago.
Pushing west to Flagstaff, arrive in time for evening telescope viewing at Lowell Observatory, where Pluto was first discovered. Gaze at the moon and stars, then settle in to the pine-forested Little America Hotel and set your alarm for pre-dawn. An early wake-up and 90-minute drive will get you to the Grand Canyon's South Rim at sunrise. The payoff? An awesome break-of-day light show above the Grand Canyon's technicolor-red cliffs and emerald-green Colorado River. After the sun clears the rim, cruise along Desert View Drive and climb 85 steps to The Watchtower for 100-mile views across the canyon.
The Golden State is calling, so backtrack south to I-40 at Williams and cruise west across the Arizona desert. In about three hours, you'll cross the California border at Needles. Grab a burger or a roast-beef-and-serrano-fueled Cowboy Skillet at the Wagon Wheel Restaurant, pick a motel, and rest up for another big day.
The next morning, you're off to the beautifully desolate Mojave National Preserve. Leave I-40 in your rear-view and steer north on Kelbaker Road. Stop at the visitor center housed in the Kelso Depot, a Spanish-style railroad stop built in 1923. A few miles away, climb the silky-smooth Kelso Dunes—America's third highest dune system, soaring to 650 feet. Listen carefully for the sound of singing sand, a resonant vibration caused by the wind that occurs at only a few of the world’s dunes.
Drive through washes lined with bountiful gardens of Mojave yuccas, barrel cactus, buckhorn cholla, and prickly pear to Hole-in-the-Wall. Hike 1.5 miles through Banshee Canyon's narrow rock walls, aided by metal rings hammered into the cliffs. Or follow the trail to Teutonia Peak, passing through one of the densest Joshua tree forests in the world.
Exit the preserve's north side and head for Baker, where the World's Tallest Thermometer towers 134 feet, illuminating the desert night. Hit up Los Dos Toritos for tacos or burritos—perfect for eating in the car—and make your way north to Tecopa. Soak in artesian mineral waters at Tecopa Hot Springs and spend the night among the date groves at China Ranch.
As dawn breaks, drive north on Highways 127 and 190 into Death Valley National Park, the hottest and driest place in America, and also one of the most photogenic. You'll want at least two days for touring this 3.4-million-acre park, so arrive armed with reservations for the lavish Inn at Death Valley with its inviting 87-degree swimming pool.
Maximize your time by getting up early to capture snapshots of Mesquite sand dunes in dawn's pink light. Wander through Golden Canyon, its sandstone walls bathed in a warm spectrum of yellow and orange. Walk across the salt flats at Badwater, the lowest point in the western hemisphere at 282 feet below sea level. Touch the polished marble walls of Mosaic Canyon and walk the boardwalk at Salt Creek. On your final day, schedule yourself for sunset at Zabriskie Point. Surveying the eroded badlands glowing in the golden-hour light is the perfect way to cap off your amazing road trip.
For more than 50 detailed road trip itineraries across the Golden State, please visit the California Road Trip Republic hub.