Have you ever wondered what it’s like to take an epic, month-long, cross-country road trip across the USA?
It was 8:37 a.m. when my husband and I pulled onto Big Timber Road. As we drove out of the parking lot, I went through the checklist in my mind, but I knew that if we’d forgotten anything, well, we were out of luck. For the next 31 days, we would be exploring America. Or, at least, a good-sized part of it.
It was a Friday in February, and we were headed towards San Diego. We had a good idea of how we were going to get there. We had no idea how we were getting back. We just knew we had to be home again on March 19.
Why, you’re probably wondering, were we doing this?
Besides the fact that road trips are awesome, I had a deeper purpose. The reason for this journey was to discover the good in America. Three days before we left I’d written in my journal:
I want to believe there is good everywhere. This is not a scientific endeavor, and if it were, my thesis would be suspect from the start. I’m seeking the good, so I’ll find it.
Boy, did I ever.
From an exuberant Mardi Gras parade in the Ozarks to hometown passion in Kansas, from a red flag day in New Mexico to the silent sand dunes in Colorado, we found wonder. As we left our home, I knew I wanted to experience unadulterated joy and share it as publicly and loudly as possible.
What we experienced on that cross-country journey was an American stream-of-consciousness through a joy-filtered lens. There were moments of sorrow, like driving the Trail of Tears and stepping foot on a Japanese internment camp, but those experiences added depth and complexity, making the happiness more poignant and our understanding of this country more profound.
I tried to capture it, capture all of it, in “Two Lane Gems, Vol. 1.” It’s a love letter to the American road trip, meant to share that joy.
Below is a day-by-day itinerary, a map showing the places we visited, and links to the stories from this journey.
If you want to curl up with this tale of American wonder, you can also get the book in digital or print formats (or both!).
I hope you’ll love exploring this American road trip with me, and that it might inspire you to plan your own adventure.
From start to finish, here’s our day-by-day itinerary for our Southwest USA road trip:
- Day 1: Elgin to Pulaski County, Missouri, 457.3 miles*
- Day 2: Pulaski County, Missouri to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, 194.9 miles
- Day 3: Eureka Springs, Arkansas to McAlester, Oklahoma, 219.3 miles
- Day 4: McAlester, Oklahoma to Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, Oklahoma, 210.4 miles
- Day 5: Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, Oklahoma to Palo Duro Canyon, Texas, 238.4 miles
- Day 6: Palo Duro Canyon, Texas to Santa Rosa Lake, New Mexico, 217.3 miles
- Day 7: Santa Rosa Lake, New Mexico to Albuquerque, New Mexico, 133.3 miles
- Day 8: Old Town Albuquerque, New Mexico to Albuquerque, New Mexico – Red Horse B&B, 126.9 miles
- Day 9: Albuquerque, New Mexico – Red Horse B&B to Winslow, Arizona, 334 miles
- Day 10: Winslow, Arizona to Cottonwood, Arizona, 111 miles
- Day 11: Cottonwood, Arizona to Yuma, Arizona, 277.2 miles
- Day 12: Yuma, Arizona, 37.2 miles
- Day 13: Yuma, Arizona to Oceanside, California, 333 miles
- Days 14 – 19: Oceanside & San Diego, California
- Day 20: Oceanside, California to Joshua Tree National Park, California, 203 miles
- Day 21: Joshua Tree National Park, California to Bishop, California, 324.5 miles
- Day 22: Bishop, California to Tonopah, Nevada, 117 miles
- Day 23: Tonopah, Nevada to St. George, Utah, 364.3 miles
- Day 24: St. George, Utah to Deer Creek Campground, Utah, 214.2 miles
- Day 25: Deer Creek Campground, Utah to Ken’s Lake Campground, Utah, 284.9 miles
- Day 26: Ken’s Lake Campground, Utah to Alamosa, Colorado, 341.1 miles
- Day 27: Alamosa, Colorado to Las Animas, Colorado, 250.5 miles
- Day 28: Las Animas, Colorado to Wichita, Kansas, 396.5 miles
- Day 29: Wichita, Kansas, 50.6 miles
- Day 30: Wichita, Kansas to Keokuk, Iowa, 486.5 miles
- Day 31: Keokuk, Iowa to Elgin, Illinois, 268.8 miles
*The mileage numbers don’t quite add up to the total of 6,479.5 that was on the tripometer when we got back. I cite user error (mine), even though I tried to be diligent about recording our daily mileage.
Epic Southwest USA Road Trip Map
Click on each number to see where we went. Not every location we visited is included, but every destination is. For example, we visited several spots in Yuma, Arizona, but only the city destination is on the map.
How do you begin a 31-day road trip? At a UNESCO World Heritage Site! Our first stop, Cahokia Mounds, is considered by many to be the most important archaeological site in North America.
After exploring the mounds, we got back on the road. We were headed to Pulaski County, Missouri. We checked into our rustic cabin at Blue Jay Farm and took a spin on a cantankerous four-wheeler named Wilma, ate the best fried pickles EVER, and woke up the next morning to chicken-fried steak with a side of history.
After some pizza and wings at Roadhouse Bar & Grill, it was a dash to Eureka Springs. All went well until GPS decided to take us the back way on a one-lane dirt road on the side of a mountain! Fortunately, we arrived safely at our haunted hotel and checked in without a minute to spare, barely catching the last shuttle for the Mardi Gras Parade.
There's nothing like a Mardi Gras parade in a town with no right angles and drinking moonshine for breakfast. Welcome to the Ozarks.
We visited this home for abused, abandoned, and neglected wild cats and bears on our way out of Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Cecil the Macaw greeted us in the Refuge’s gift shop entrance and we exited the other side of the building, entering a world of rescue, education, and sanctuary.
Located in Bentonville, Arkansas, this museum offers a premiere collection of American Art - and it's free!
After a respectful drive on the Trail of Tears, a hiccup creates some unexpected, and welcome, down time.
You know how you feel when you’ve been going non-stop, pushing yourself and getting no sleep and eating everything you’re not supposed to and just feeling generally exhausted, and then suddenly your full day becomes empty and you realize you’ve been holding your breath and now you can breathe?
This was our first night of camping, and the first time - ever - I hadn't reserved a spot in advance. Not only did we find the perfect campsite, it was downright magical (despite the creatures clawing at our tent all night).
Turkeys are jerks.
Selecting Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge and Palo Duro Canyon State Park as destinations for this road trip was based on geography, geology, and convenience. After visiting both, we found some mind-blowing connections.
If you've driven I-40 through the Texas Panhandle and into New Mexico, you know it's mind-numbing. Fortunately, a few stops along the way break up the monotony (including some buried cars).
Although it was a short hop from Santa Rosa Lake to our next destination, I still had plenty of time to reflect on everything we'd seen in our first six days.
A stop at the Old Town Albuquerque Visitor Center turned into much more than a request for tourist tips when we encountered a very special gentleman.
You might expect a tourist destination to be filled with tourist traps. You know, overpriced restaurants, gaudy shops offering cheap merchandise, and souvenir emporiums designed to get you to leave as much money as possible before you go.
Old Town Albuquerque is most assuredly a tourist destination, but if the places we visited are any indication, it is delightfully lacking in all of the above.
A stay at this historic mansion on Route 66 yields more than tasty quiche and fresh-squeezed juice.
Exploring two New Mexico historic sites gives an insight into the past.
There's nothing like staying in a place where everything has meaning, especially when that place is on a vineyard with an accidental winemaker.
It was our final day in New Mexico, so we packed in a singing road (literally) and TWO National Monuments.
At this point in our journey, we'd learned some important lessons. Namely, how not to kill each other.
Now this was an epic day. Not only did we visit an abandoned mountain lion zoo, we took a heritage train ride with wine and a singing engineer.
Arizona's sunny, right? Riiiiight. Not this day it wasn't. We could barely see the switchbacks in front of us. Fortunately, Jim is an excellent driver.
A ghost town is even spookier when it's a gloomy day and you have to drive through unexploded ordnance to get there.
A visit to Yuma meant eating the "most consarned concoction" and staying in Arizona's oldest motel.
After a tour of this date farm, I will never ever ever EVER complain about the price of the fruit again.
Lunch outside in February was pure heaven for us Midwesterners, followed by a stint as a post-mortem photographer and a lady of the evening (I'll let you guess which one of us was which).
Why yes, yes we did tour the most-feared prison of the American west.
Our visit to Yuma ends. Helloooo, California! Land of sunny skies and the Center of the World.
A trip to the dying lake yields more than fish skeletons. We also found "Salvation" and a bartender named Scheherazade.
We made it! And, we found "our people."
Although we stayed for a week, we weren't able to play much because of the Travel & Adventure Show. So, here are some fun things to do from another visit. (It's sweet having relatives in sunny SoCal.)
A friendly ranger saves the day! That, and Jim's eagle eye nets us an amazing camp site in this International Dark Sky Park.
If you love movies, a visit to Lone Pine on US-395 is a must.
A few miles north of the Alabama Hills and its land of make-believe is a place that's all-too real.
After the sobering, somber visit to a Japanese internment camp, a restful night and exploring a historic town was welcome.
When I found out that Tonopah, Nevada, is home to the first electric elevator west of the Mississippi, and that it still works, we had to visit this former mining town. Bonus points that it was in a hotel owned by the Cline family - yes, those Clines.
Have you lost your sense of the bizarre? Don't worry; we found it.
Utah was calling, but first we had to see a park about some red rocks.
Entering Zion was like driving into an artist’s rendering. The intensity was nearly overwhelming. The colors were HDR vivid, the contrast of red mountains against an unbelievable blue sky breathtakingly crisp and bright.
Seriously, Utah, could you get any more beautiful? We left Zion and drove to Bryce and the state kept smacking me in the face with its awesomeness.
We thought the rainy drive in Arizona was harrowing? "Hold my beer," says Utah. (Not while actually driving, of course.)
Entering Goblin Valley was like stepping onto Mars, if the red planet had oxygen and a $15 entrance fee.
Visiting this UNESCO World Heritage Site was one of the few non-negotiable items on our itinerary.
Sand dunes? In Colorado? Yes, and visiting is to a see a place of majestic silence.
I have no idea how we got to Timpas, but somehow we found this former stop on the Santa Fe Trail, complete with wagon tracks.
Next time we visit, we'll know to bring items to trade. These people are serious about their living history!
What can you do in 41 hours in Wichita? A LOT, we discovered.
Are you inspired to visit any of these places, or have you been to some of the same destinations? Please leave a comment below!
And, if you wouldn’t mind sharing this to Facebook, Twitter, and/or Pinterest, I’d be forever grateful.
Love and wanderlust,