Stunning desert panoramas. Frighteningly beautiful night skies. Canyons, cactus, Route 66. Breaking Bad! The American Southwest is one of the most visually captivating places on earth. If you’ve ever thought about solo travel and taking a road trip, this is the place to do it.
In fact, a road trip is just about the only way to do it. The Southwest is massive. Starting in East Texas, the region encompasses New Mexico, Arizona, southern Colorado and Utah, Nevada, and the deserts of Southern California. With the exception of Las Vegas, its most populous cities—Phoenix, Albuquerque, Tucson, and El Paso—aren’t generally considered destinations in themselves. To really experience the Southwest, you’ll need a car, and you’ll be traveling long distances. And if you’re willing to brave the lonely road and stay in some out-of-the-way places, you’ll be rewarded with the most awe-inspiring landscapes found anywhere—and a taste of exactly what makes the West so wild, even today.
The art of not planning
The Southwest is known for its biggest tourist attractions, like the Grand Canyon, Hoover Dam, Taos, and Santa Fe. Yet my favorite spots aren’t any of these, and you won’t be missing out if you skip them entirely.
The best way to approach a road trip—especially in the Southwest—is to plan to visit two or three places that have piqued your interest, and then let the road be your guide. I know, I know, you’re thinking, “I’m not booking a flight way the hell out there just to drive around with no plan!” But here’s the thing: if you get in the right mind frame, you can’t mess up a Southwest trip because everywhere in the Southwest is a trip.
Here’s an example. On one trip, my hands-down must-see was Monument Valley, the iconic Navajo tribal park. Even in a small rental car, you can drive down into the valley on dirt roads and truly lose yourself in the red rock monoliths. It’s pretty remote, but every time I make the trek I discover new favorite stops along the way, like the tiny village of Mexican Hat, Utah, where $50 cash can get you a roadside motel room from which to watch the stars at night (more on that later). Across the street is a guy who will cook you a steak on his swinging grill, down the road along a spectacular drive is Monument Valley, and around the corner is a maddeningly wonderful off-road loop through a scenic area called Valley of the Gods. Nearly every place you’ll choose has off-the-beaten-track gems that you might miss if you stick to a strict itinerary. The greatest joy of the road is to discover them for yourself.
On and off Route 66
The song “Route 66” was made popular by Nat King Cole and Chuck Berry, and the people who get their kicks there these days are mostly tourists. But the Southwest has a long history of being a destination for “motorists,” and even in out-of-the-way places the locals are used to receiving people from around the world. Depending on where you go, you might not even run into locals: in particular, the national parks are decidedly international, full of tourists from the four corners of the earth, not just Four Corners Monument.
Keep safe and solo
In my experience, the majority of difficulties I’ve faced were related to my being a female alone on the road. I’ve been harassed by truckers for hundreds of miles at a clip. I’ve been harassed by rural cops when trying to escape said truckers. I’ve had my underwear stolen out of the washing machine at a Motel 6. I’ve been mistaken for a sex worker when checking into motels. These things have happened to me on other road trips as well—it’s not just isolated to the Southwest. It’s enough to piss me off, but not enough to stop me from making the road my home.
Nevertheless, there are some concessions I make for my own safety. I avoid trucker-only diners and gas stations. I take extra care and maintain upkeep of my car, even a rental, to reduce the likelihood of getting stranded. Though I love riding motorcycles, they tend to solicit unwanted attention, so I’m deferring my dream of riding there until I can get a girl gang together. But the most grievous consequence of my compromise is I don’t get to watch the stars as often as I’d like. One of the best things about the desert is you can finally really see what the sky is supposed to look like, and when you’re somewhere remote, it’s mind-blowing. But being somewhere remote, at night, alone, isn’t something you want to do for long. For adventurous solo travelers, diamonds aren’t a girl’s best friend, but cheap motel rooms in the middle of nowhere are, and they’re forever.
The ultimate Southwest road trip is as much about the obscura as it is about the terra firma. It starts off as a loose constellation but is formed by the glittering points you find along the way.If you’re driving straight across, take Route 66 (Interstate 40 through New Mexico and Arizona), or Interstate 10, and spur off along the way. If you’re flying and renting a car, it’s often easiest to fly into and out of the same city. Here are some suggested itineraries:
- One day: Fly into Las Vegas; visit Hoover Dam, the bizarre waters of Lake Mead, and the petroglyphs carved into the red rocks at Valley of Fire State Park
- Three days: Add Death Valley and Joshua Tree national parks or the North Rim of the Grand Canyon
- Five days in New Mexico: Fly into Albuquerque; visit the Turquoise Trail, Taos Pueblo, Ghost Ranch, Abiquiú, Roswell, Truth or Consequences, the Very Large Array Radio Telescope facility, Las Cruces
- Eight days in Arizona: Fly into Phoenix; visit Sedona, Jerome, Flagstaff, Williams, the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Canyon de Chelly, the Painted Desert, the Petrified Forest, Tucson, Saguaro National Park
- 13 days around Four Corners: If the eight days itinerary above isn’t enough, add the Bisti Badlands (New Mexico), Durango and the Anasazi ruins (Colorado), Moab and Arches and Canyonlands national parks (Utah), and as many of the Navajo tribal parks as you can (Navajo Nation in Arizona)