Explore the magic of the Southwest US by car.
I’ve always loved the Southwest USA. It’s so diverse and drastically different from where I grew up in the Midwest. The oak trees I’m accustomed to are swapped for cacti and joshua trees. And the amber waves of grain are replaced with mountains for days. This is why the Southwest US is a perfect place to take a road trip.
When I unexpectedly found myself in LA, I decided to take five days to drive from Los Angeles to Denver with my cousin. Here’s all you need to know about our route, stops and what I’d do differently.
There are a million routes you could take from LA to Denver. We opted for a route through Arizona and New Mexico instead of the more popular ones through Utah. The reason was that my cousin had never been to New Mexico and I want to have more time to explore Utah. Also, we planned our overnight stays with friends and family wherever possible to save money. I am glad we chose this route because it allowed us to go off the beaten path to some lesser known places!
This route wound through 1400 miles ranging from beach, desert, forest and mountain.
Only interested in certain stops? Jump to your area of interest:
- Newport Beach, California
- Joshua Tree National Park, South Entrance
- Quartzsite, Arizona
- Scottsdale, Arizona
- Jerome, Arizona
- Sedona, Arizona
- Santa Fe, New Mexico
- Great Sand Dunes National Park
- What I’d Do Differently
Newport Beach, California
After spending two days in Los Angeles, we headed south to Newport Beach in Orange County. This quick stop allowed us to catch up with friends and enjoy a bit of the beach life.
Be sure to wander the beach and catch a sunset at Newport Beach Pier. Enjoy chatting with some of the fisherman and watching the seals play in the water.
For brunch, check out Eat Chow in Newport Beach or nearby Costa Mesa. I devoured the braised short rib breakfast tostada while my cousin enjoyed the mimosa sampler. Expect a short wait, but it’s well worth it. For a lower cost option that is quintessentially SoCal, grab an In-N-Out burger and fries!
Joshua Tree National Park, South Entrance
Because we chose a southern route, we opted for the lesser used south entrance to Joshua Tree National Park. This takes you to the Cottonwood Visitor Center via the I-10 Freeway and the town of Indio.
It’s important to know that most of the joshua trees that you see in photos are accessed from the north and west park entrances. If you want to see them, plan to take the northern route or plan enough time to drive through the entire park, which takes approximately one and a half hours, each way.
The south entrance still offers beautiful views of the unique landscape plus four wheel drive roads. We took our SUV down one of them, Old Dale Road, and got out to explore a bit on foot. Watch for drivers careening down these sandy roads! They’re having fun and don’t expect to see people walking about. Whenever possible, stay in your vehicle or pull over on to the sandy embankment.
If you wanna stay on the paved roads, enjoy the ride through the park. I recommend a stop a Cholla Cactus Garden to explore and stretch your legs.
Entrance fee: $25 per vehicle, good for 7-days. For more, visit this website.
Other activities: Rock climbing, camping, hiking.
As someone who eats a mostly paleo diet, I get excited anytime I can try new jerky flavors. So, the main reason we stopped in Quartzsite was to visit Daniel’s Really Good Fresh Jerky. It’s touristy but they let you taste several jerky’s and have a ton of food snacks to buy. This became a meal on the go on some of the long stretches of the highway so it ended up being well worth it.
Millions of visitors each year flock to Quartzsite for its sale of rocks, gems, minerals and fossils! If you find yourself here in January or February for their annual swap meet, be prepared for crowds.
We cruised in here for our first overnight stop.The drive from Newport Beach took about 8 hours in total. It was a long day of driving, but exploring Joshua Tree was the perfect way to break it up.
My good friend gave us a bed and a home-cooked meal so we did not experience the nightlife. However, Scottsdale is known to have a party and foodie scene so the options are endless!
Located just outside of Phoenix, Scottsdale is nestled in the Sonoran Desert with its iconic cacti. If you have time, enjoy some hiking in the nearby mountains. Be sure to go early in the morning because the temperatures year round are hot!
This old copper mining town was added to our route last minute at the recommendation of a friend. You can get there by taking a minor detour through the back roads on your way from Scottsdale to Sedona.
Jerome seems to be frozen in time after it was rebuilt over a hundred years ago following devastating fires. It embodies the “Old West” and is rumored to be haunted by ghosts.
We drove to the Audrey Headframe Park to stand over the glass-covered old mining shaft. This shaft is deeper than the Empire State Building is tall! It is mind-blowing to imagine being hoisted down that far into the Earth.
As you leave the park, drive around the corner towards the museum to see a beautiful viewpoint, perfect for photos.
Entrance fee: Free.
Other activities: Ghost tours, Mining Museum.
Sedona is, in one word, breathtaking. There’s just nothing quite like being surrounded by panoramic views of red rocks.
As you drive into Sedona from Jerome, stop at the South Gateway Visitor Center that is immediately along the highway. Enjoy the views from the parking lot, use the restroom and grab a trail map for the area.
From there, we drove to the Bell Rock Trailhead south parking lot, also immediately along the highway. Be sure to pay for your parking at the kiosk before exploring the trails. This is the most accessible and well-marked trail to explore if you are short on time. If you’ve got more time, there are countless options. Unfortunately, we needed to get to Santa Fe by bedtime, so were limited on time.
After hiking for a little over an hour, we decided to grab food, book lodging for the night and keep driving towards Santa Fe. with the hope of stopping at Petrified Forest National Park on the way. Paleo Brio Healthy Kitchen Restaurant was a wonderful find for a late lunch! It does not offer the views that you’ll find in the central, more touristy, area of Sedona but the food is delicious and the atmosphere is unique.
Parking: $5 for a day use parking permit, available at a kiosk in the trailhead parking lot.
Other Activities: Mountain biking, rock climbing, wine tasting, jeep tours, Native American arts and crafts.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
To be fully transparent, we screwed up. We thought that it was a 6 hour drive from Sedona to Santa Fe. We were wrong. It was more like 8 hours, which meant we arrived at the Luxx Hotel in Santa Fe much later than expected at around 9:30pm. This hotel has a quirky zen inspired design, but great location near the Plaza and a last minute deal.
We also didn’t know that the city of Santa Fe virtually shuts down after 9pm during the week. With hungry bellies, we desperately asked the man at the check-in desk for recommendations. He sent us to the *only* restaurant open late, Del Charro.
This cozy bar and restaurant has a Western feel along with a full bar. Despite not seeing a single person walking the streets, the place was full of people and energy. The menu is limited, but the food was good. I enjoyed a burger topped with the popular New Mexican green chile sauce.
Downtown Santa Fe is very walkable and lined with artists galleries. If you are there during the day, be sure to visit the Santa Fe Plaza and peruse the Native American handmade jewelry sold under the awning of the Palace of the Governors.
Before hitting the road, grab breakfast with all the flavors of New Mexico at Cafe Pasqual’s.
Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado
On a whim, we added this stop at the last minute and it was the best decision ever. This off the beaten path National Park offers North America’s tallest dunes nestled up against a backdrop of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. You can see elk, bobcats, Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep and even black bears. The snow melting from the mountains creates two creeks, one of which (Medano Creek) you walk across to get to the dunes.
Most of the sand is carried from the San Juan mountains to the west. Wind comes over the top of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, to the east, and pushes the sand back down causing the dunes to form. It’s one of the most unique landscapes I’ve ever seen.
You could easily spend several days here. If we had more time, I wanted to try out sand sledding. Sleds are not available to rent through the park, but you can rent from Oasis Store or Kristi Mountain Sports outside of the park boundaries.
Just eight miles south of the park, you’ll find a sign for Zapata Falls. Follow this gravel road for about three miles to the trailhead. From there, it’s about a 1/2 mile hike to a creek. Hike through the water and into the cave to get a fabulous view of this 20 foot high waterfall. From this trail you can also get views of the entire dunefield!
Entrance fee: $20 per vehicle, good for 7-days. For more, visit this website.
Other activities: Swimming/ tubing (summer), hiking, mountain biking and camping.
What I’d Do Differently
Five days simply wasn’t enough to really explore all of the places on our itinerary. However, it’s what we had available and I enjoyed every moment of it. My advice is to give yourself at least a week and up to 10 days, if possible. I also recommend doing a bit more research on driving distances than we did so you don’t have a surprise late arrival at any of your destinations!
Due to the compressed timetable, there were four stops that we wanted to visit but ran out of time (in green on the map).
Slab City, California – Visit Salvation Mountain and East Jesus in this artsy snowbird community in the Sonoran Desert.
Page, Arizona – This town is a great base while you explore iconic Horseshoe Bend and Antelope Canyon.
Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona – Steeped in Native American history and offering stunning landscapes of colorful petrified wood, this lesser known national park should be on your list.
Garden of the Gods National Natural Landmark, Colorado – These beautiful sandstone rock formations are right outside of Colorado Springs, an easy one and half hour drive from Denver.