The American Great Southwest is often known for its amazing natural beauty, its friendly, laid back personality, and of course, its food. After all, they don’t say “Get your kicks on Route 66” for nothing. Maybe they’re referring to the kick in the Southwest’s flavorful cuisine. Or maybe it’s the kick you get from summiting that gigantic peak, or skydiving over the desert, or water-rafting some grade 4 swells.
Regardless, the Southwest is a diverse place that is not only beautiful, but also perfectly suited for indie-travel. Not only are there tons of opportunities to be your own expeditioner (think going for a hike and not seeing another person), but the picturesque vistas and amazing colors and landscapes that are unique to this region make it a great place to take a road trip.
There’s no lack of amazing things to see and do in the Southwest United States, so much so that you could spend months trying to see them all.
We’ve put together a list of 8 great things to see/do (in no particular order) to help you get you started.
1. City: Austin Texas
Austin is one of the most culturally diverse cities in the USA. With its great mix of culture, music, art, food, and architecture, Austin is a place where everyone can find something that interests them. Like music? You’re in luck. Festivals like Austin City Limits and SXSW are some of the top annual musical events in the country.
Music fan traveling with a technology buff? Good thing SXSW has an entire technology arm that is known for pioneering some of the most progressive technological advancements out there. Outdoor enthusiasts will also feel right at home. Austin is full of greenbelts – beautiful patches of greenery sprinkled throughout the city, such as Lady Bird Lake Hike and Bike Trail, where you can jog, bike, or hike without even leaving the city! And after you’ve had your fill of the tech talks, raves, and have worked up an appetite, Austin is considered, even by fellow Texans, to be home of some of the best BBQ in the southwest.
Read Rock and Roll Road Trip to see another reason to add Austin to that trip itinerary
2. Festival: Albuquerque International Balloon Festival
It is the largest hot air balloon festival in the world and entices both visitors and pilots alike from all over the world. Taking place for 2 weeks every October, there are many different activities that you can choose from. From intense hot air balloon races, to mass ascensions that litter the sky with thousands of balloons, to the night glow, which show these impressive creations in all their glory, you’ll be hard pressed to find something else like this.
If you have an extra few days, Albuquerque also has the longest tram in the world. Pack a lunch, put on your hiking shoes, and take a trip to the top of the Sandia Mountains. At the peak you will have the choice of a variety of hiking and biking trails, as well as stunning views of the valley. Last, regardless of your budget, you will be able to find somewhere to stay that it suitable. There are different levels of accommodation options from camping, to RVs, to cheap motels, to expensive hotels and resorts.
3. National Parks: Utah
The entire American southwest is chock full of amazing national parks, but Utah may top the list for number and variety. Utah is home to five national parks alone- not to mention Monument Valley and the various National Monuments, all of which you could spend weeks exploring.
Zion and Bryce Canyon are great to visit as a pair, as their proximity to each other makes it easy to explore both on one trip. The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is also nearby and worth a visit (though not technically a national “park”).
Head northeast towards Moab and make that your home base for exploring both Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. Though only a 15-minute drive from each other, they couldn’t be more different. Moab is also one of the top mountain biking destinations in the world, with the unique slickrock trails the biggest draw.
Check out 10 of the Best Places to Hike in the US
4. Adventure Activities
While there are no lack of adventures to be had in the Southwest USA, here are a few that are bound to get your adrenaline pumping.
- Sky-dive in Moab, Utah: If jumping out of an airplane over 10,000 feet above ground level doesn’t sound exciting, then nothing will! This is a particularly picturesque jump, as you will soar above two of the Southwest’s most beautiful natural creations, the Moab Arches and Canyonlands.
- Whitewater rafting on the mighty Colorado River: This enormous river spans several states in the southwest, and its waters are some of the most famous in the USA. While there are several different entrance locations, the main jumping-off point is in the Grand Canyon. Winding its way through the canyon’s steep walls, (created by this very river over millions of years), the Colorado’s white waters provide once-in-a-lifetime thrills that make it a must-raft destination that should be on everyone’s bucket list.
- Sand dune surfing in White Sands, New Mexico: The brilliant white sand of this park, 15 miles outside of Alamogordo, New Mexico, boasts the perfect opportunity for surfing of a different kind – sand surfing. Using boards that are similar in shape to snowboards, you can try your luck at sliding down the dunes.
5. Historical Site: Mesa Verde
The Southwest is known for its rich cultural heritage, and nothing is a better representation of this than Mesa Verde. Best known for its impressive cliff dwellings, which are structures built within caves and under outcropping in cliffs, visiting Mesa Verde is like stepping back into another era. Structures like Cliff Palace, (which is thought to be the largest cliff dwelling in North America) are carved into the mountainside, and tourists are able to actually enter the dwellings by climbing a series of wooden ladders.
The park is also a playground for the outdoor enthusiasts – with hundreds of hiking and biking trails ranging in length from 1 to 10 miles – you could spend days taking in the rich landscape. The visitors center and museum is well organized and provides tons of interesting and useful information about the history of the area and its inhabitants. Mesa Verde is considered to contain some of the most notable and best preserved archaeological sites in the world, and its unique landscape and interesting history makes it a must-see.
6. Scenic Drive: Hwy 12 – Utah
The 107 miles from Bryce Canyon National Park to Torrey is a spectacular palate of natural colors found only in the southwest. Scenic Byway 12 runs for a stunning 124 miles and passes through some of the most remotely diverse and ruggedly beautiful landscapes in the country. This park is home to two national parks, three state parks, a national recreation area, a national monument, and a national forest. Some highlights include Red Canyon, the Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument, and the Capitol Reef National Park. Take some time to do this drive. You’ll notice that the rocks are a brilliant color of red; a combination of iron and oxygen is the culprit, and the different shades of red result from the other elements present in the rock, as well as their exposure over time to water and sun. With hundreds of hiking and biking trails, multiple visitor centers, lakes and streams, and an abundance of wildlife you could spend days venturing through this beautiful desert highway.
7. Restaurant: El Bruno in Cuba, New Mexico
Perhaps the most underrepresented cuisine in the USA is New Mexican cuisine. No, it’s not Tex-Mex. No, it’s not traditional Mexican either. New Mexican food has a distinctly unique flavor that is influenced by both Mexican and Native American cultures. El Bruno’s Cuba Restaurante y Cantina has been in business since 1975 and is considered one of the best and most authentic places to eat in NM. From handmade tamales, stuffed sopapillas, enchiladas, and of course an over abundance of hatch red and green chile, you should probably eat here at the end of your trip, because nothing else will live up to these intense and delicious flavor combinations.
Read about Regional Foods Around America
8. View: Desert View at the Grand Canyon
While there are many different views in the southwest that are impressive, it is hard to beat the mind-blowing panorama of the Desert View lookout on the east side of the Grand Canyon National Park. Four miles from the national park boundary, this viewpoint presents a view unique to many of the other overlooks; one third of the panorama is of the flat plains of the Painted Desert, on the east side of the Colorado River as it bends round to the north. Try to pass by at sunset and you will be rewarded with some of the most beautiful colors Mother Nature has to offer.
Costs of an American Southwest road trip
With so much to do, a road trip can quickly become a costly endeavor. However, there are a few easy ways to cut back on your budget without sacrificing the experiences that make this trip so memorable. Below is a breakdown of approximate costs per day, as well as a few tips on how to save some dough.
- Gas: You can budget approximately $30-50 for gas per day depending on gas prices, how far you drive, the gas mileage your car gets, and whether you are running the air conditioner the entire time.
- Cost-saving tip: Make the trip in a car that gets good gas mileage. Open your window and drive with the air conditioner off – you’ll use less gas this way.
- Lodging: There is a huge fluctuation in lodging costs. You’re going to be hard-pressed to find a motel for less than $40 per night, and depending on your tastes, the sky is the limit in terms of more expensive lodging. Larger cities usually have hostels, however they are generally around $25 per person per night, so if you are traveling in a group it might be more economical to just split a cheap hotel room.
- Cost-saving tip: Camping is available in many locations, and many sites have showers, electrical hook-ups, and picnic areas. If you don’t mind sleeping in a tent, this is a great way to save on accommodation costs because you can usually find a camp site for around $15 per night.
- Food: Again, this is an area where you can live cheaply, (think like $25 a day if you are eating at fast food places), but half of the fun is exploring the local cuisine. A budget of $40-$60 dollars a day will give you the flexibility to have some good meals at nice places, as well as some alcohol spending, too if that’s your thing.
- Cost-saving tip: Buy food at local grocery stores and bring a cooler. This is actually a great idea as along the way there are often beautiful rest stops that have picnic areas. Not only will you save on the cost of eating at a restaurant, but you can experience the local flora and fauna, see great views, and stretch your legs!
- Another thing to keep in mind when budgeting your road trip is the cost of admission into the various parks along the way. These fees can range anywhere from $20-$100 per person or vehicle, so research before you leave to have an idea what these costs could potentially be based on you’re itinerary.
- Cost-saving tip: Some places offer student discounts, so make sure to bring that college ID and you could save a few bucks.
Adding an American Southwest road trip to your RTW trip
If you plan on visiting the US during your longer, round the world trip, consider adding an American Southwest road trip to the itinerary. It can be a short, one or two week jaunt through the region or a longer, couple month exploration – it’s up to you! Here’s an example of a trip we built on Indie, BootsnAll’s multi-stop flight booking engine. To customize this trip and make it your own, register for a free Indie account and start building!
Whether you are most interested in outdoor activities, festivals, historical site or national parks, the Southwest has something for everyone. And the best part? There is still frontier left to be discovered, so grab a map, your sunglasses, put that top down and start driving.