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 several stories from this journey.
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.
Epic Southwest USA Road Trip Itinerary
Follow our 31-day journey from the Chicago-area to San Diego and back.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.