5 little-known, must-see sites on a Southwest road trip

So, you’ve settled on the American Southwest as your next road trip destination. Congratulations — you’ve made a sound choice indeed. Picking one of America’s most storied regions to ramble around in is the easy part, but selecting the routes and spots to see is a bit more difficult. You’ve always got the obvious choices – Grand Canyon and Zion National Parks, for instance — but it’s the offbeat gems that really stick with you long after you dust off your boots, hang the cowboy hat and return the rental car.

We recently embarked on a 3,600 mile journey that crisscrossed the Southwest, touching parts of Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Texas. The cliché stops were nothing short of awe-inspiring, but we found five must-see areas along the way that showcased exactly what this region of the country is all about. Read on if you’re eager to get your wheels turning.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area

When you think of beautiful sights in the south of the Silver State, you probably think of neon skyscrapers, or if we’re talking really south, the Hoover Dam. Frankly, there’s no need to fight the crowds at either. For just $5 per vehicle, the 40 or so mile drive from south to north of the park is a wild ride full of expansive views, a plethora of short (albeit rewarding) hikes and a relative lack of human life. Don’t be shocked if you find yourself atop a peak, overlooking miles of pristine desert mountains, with nary a soul in sight. If you’re looking to connect with nature (or just disconnect from the hustle and bustle of the real world), you won’t find a more stunning hour-long drive in Nevada.

Bryce Canyon City, Utah

Just a few short hours outside of desert lies a brisk, highly elevated region of Utah that few outsiders bother to explore. The minuscule town (or should we say village?) of Bryce Canyon City has but two real hotels, and one of those were constructed last May. This place truly shines in the winter; we checked in to the Bryce Canyon Grand Hotel to find an exceptionally friendly staff, a well appointed room, a steaming outdoor hot tub circled by snow and a hot breakfast that would make your local Shoney’s envious. Horseback rides overlooking Utah’s gorgeous orange rocks are but miles away, and the exceedingly underrated Bryce Canyon National Park is right next door. You’re also under two hours away from skiing at Brian Head, and better still, Scenic Byway 12 is just up the road. Speaking of…

Scenic Byway US 12

You’d be doing yourself a huge disservice by not traversing the entire 120 mile stretch of asphalt, which is known as Utah’s first all-American highway. Starting at Bryce Canyon City and terminating at Torrey, this sparsely driven gem carves through towering mountains, stunning monuments and a few towns in particular that are just oozing with character (Tropic and Escalante, if you’re wondering). We found dozens of scenic pulloffs that were impossible to pass by, and the dearth of other vehicles allowed for countless in-road snaps that truly demonstrate the magic of a road trip. For those with ample time, an off-road tested vehicle and plenty of spare gas cans, the 55.5 mile Hole-in-the-Rock Road at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is the preeminent “road less traveled.”

Four Corners / Scenic Byway US 163

There’s really only one way to start the southbound journey down US 163, and that’s from the east after a jaunt down to the Four Corners of America. Sure, you could cut through Utah from the north, but where’s the fun in that? Stepping foot in four states simultaneously generates a feeling of pride and joviality that we have personally never felt in any other scenario — in a sense, it’s the ultimate travel accomplishment, or at least the one that you’ll never forget to tell your grand-kids about. Shortly after you pass Bluff, UT, US 163 begins; it takes but a mile to captivate. Sandwiched on both sides by towering rocks and colossal peaks, the town of Mexican Hat (and the aptly named rock to which the place owes its moniker) is a comedic break in the otherwise solemn excursion. Monument Valley State Park, just north of the Arizona border, is a satisfying conclusion to the buildup that precedes it. A seemingly never-ending expanse of otherworldly statues dot the roadside, inviting you to rest your laurels while soaking in the untamed southwest sun.

Pecos, Texas

If you notice yourself on I-10 heading east (which you won’t, given that Interstates are strictly forbidden ’round these parts), you’ll see a billboard or two beckoning you to visit Pecos. Unlike those signs coaxing you to break for “The Thing?,” this sleepy town of under 10,000 is certainly worth a look. As the story goes, the world’s first rodeo was held here in 1883, and by the looks of it, the weekend wranglin’ is still at the height of popularity over a century later. You’ll find wildly colorful buildings lining the generally wide-open downtown, more pick-up trucks and spurs than you could ever imagine, and beyond all of that, a real, bona fide taste of Texas. Without question, the essence of Texas is still alive and well in the far west of the state. If you dreamed of tumbleweeds and dusty streets but stumbled upon meadows and metropolises when you landed in central Texas, you’ll find the authentic Lone Star vibe you’re searching for just a few hundred (lonely) miles to the west.

[Images provided by Dana Jo Photography]