Southwest USA Itinerary: 17 Day Road Trip
How we planned our Southwest, USA Itinerary…
Decorators suggest designing a room around a favorite inspiration piece – a painting, pillow, or rug.
Having a jumping-off point makes the plan come together.
A similar strategy works when planning a trip.
Start with a key piece of the puzzle – an event, seasonal specialty, or life milestone and work from there.
That’s how we planned our Southwest, USA Itinerary.
Why this trip?
The International Balloon Fiesta, in Albuquerque, has been on our dream list for years. It runs the first full week in October – for nine days.
The Fiesta was the nucleus we planned the rest of the itinerary around.
After pouring over a map (a real paper one!), we decided that the Grand Canyon, Carlsbad Caverns, Las Cruces, and Santa Fe were the must-see outlying points.
That gave us a rough driving route.
Starting in Las Vegas was a no-brainer because of the inexpensive flights.
Once we had the outline, it was a matter of plugging in the details.
Southwest Itinerary at-a-glance
Las Vegas: 3 nights (fly-in)
Grand Canyon (Tunysan): 2 nights
Flagstaff: 1 night
Albuquerque: 2 nights
Roswell: 1 night
Las Cruces: 1 night
Truth or Consequences: 1 night
Santa Fe: 3 nights
Albuquerque: 2 nights (fly-out)
Flight from Portland, OR
Shuttle from the airport – there are several shuttle services from McCarran airport, pick one and purchase a ticket (you can do this when you arrive) – they are comparable in price to Uber if you have 1-2 people in your group. Order an Uber or Lyft ride if you have 3 or more people.
Some hotels provide shuttle service, our hotel, The Flamingo, did not.
(Money-saving tip: free-ride tickets for Uber and Lyft flow through Vegas like water – for first-time users. My husband already had an active Uber account; we got around this by creating an account in my name/email and saved $15 on a ride)
Highlights in Las Vegas:
Bellagio Hotel and Casino – dancing fountain, garden conservatory, art gallery, chocolate fountain, interior decor.
Blue Man Group – fabulous, clean (family-friendly) show at the Luxor.
Fremont Street Experience – live music, people watching (sometimes, too much of people), restaurants.
Walking the strip at night – it cools off, the lights go up, and the fantasy is at it’s best.
High Roller – tallest Ferris wheel in the world, a half-hour trip to see the Vegas skyline. Don’t be put off by the website photos, which make it look like a drunken dance party. Not so much.
Real Bodies Exhibit at Bally’s.
On day three we picked up a rental car at Enterprise – just a few blocks from our hotel. Not dealing with a car in the city was a major stress-relief.
A quick stop at the grocery store to stock up on water, ice, snacks, and lunch supplies and let the road trip begin!
We found a park in a Las Vegas neighborhood and ate our picnic lunch. It was a good reminder that people live real lives in this town and it’s far more than The Strip.
We headed east, stopping at Hoover Dam for the afternoon.
Tunisian is at the edge of the park entrance, the perfect place to find a hotel room. We used reward points at Holiday Inn Express.
Because it was off-season (and I highly recommend October in the Grand Canyon), we drove to the park.
During the busy season, there’s a shuttle from town.
Highlights in the Grand Canyon:
Rim trail – a combo of walking and shuttle hopping – several shuttle lines run through the park, they’re free, hop-on/hop-off.
Visiting the museums along the Rim Trail – stop at the visitor’s center first thing and check out the packed schedule of nature/geology/history talks available that day.
Lunch at El Tovar – historic hotel worth a lunch stop, the food was decent (price and quality-wise).
Desert Drive, stopping at the Tunysan Museum and Ruins, and Watchtower.
Drive to Flagstaff, AZ
Flagstaff 1 night
Highlights in Flagstaff:
Drive to New Mexico
On the way, we stopped in Winslow to get a cheesy, tourist shot of the corner (made famous by the Eagles song) on Route 66.
Another good detour is the Petrified Forest National Park
By hopping off Hwy 40 at Holbrook, you can enter the south end of the park.
A driving tour through the park will put you back on Hwy 40 and on your way.
Albuquerque 2 nights
Highlights in Albuquerque Pt.1:
Jambo Cafe – excellent African home-style food. The Albuquerque location closed – there’s another location in Santa Fe.
Balloon Fiesta – the morning session included the dawn patrol, morning glow, and mass ascension – it was worth the entire trip!
After a nap (we had to get up at 4 a.m.) and lunch we returned for the evening festival.
The next morning we left Albuquerque to avoid the festival crowds.
Roswell 1 night
Highlights in Roswell:
UFO museum – (not so much) we are not UFO enthusiasts, this museum left us more bewildered than anything.
To be fair, we had travelers fatigue.
That’s the malady every traveler gets when they don’t care anymore, about anything.
We picked up dinner at the grocery store, went back to our room, and enjoyed an evening of Sunday Night Football.
Traveler’s fatigue cured.
The next morning, on to Carlsbad.
Highlights in Carlsbad:
The caverns were one of my favorite parts of the trip.
Carlsbad is incredible, and I think it belongs on everyone’s travel bucket list.
On our way to Las Cruces, we stopped by Guadalupe Mountains National Park.
This stop was not part of the plan, but I’m collecting National Park stickers, and when I realized it was on our route, there was no arguing.
We dipped down to El Paso and stopped at the L&J Cafe for Mexican Food. Best food on the trip!
Las Cruces 1 night
Highlights in Las Cruces:
There are many cool things to do in Las Cruces, but Jody (husband) went to college here on exchange one year, so we focused on touring the campus.
It turned out to be propitious. Jody’s old dorm building was slated for demolition later in the week.
Since his room was abandoned, we got to take lots of photos without looking like creepers!
We found the engineering building, bought souvenirs at the bookstore and took a trip down memory lane.
In the afternoon we stopped at White Sands National Monument.
After touring the park, we joined a ranger-led sunset hike. Well worth staying for, but we got into Truth or Consequences much later than we intended.
Highlights in Alamogordo:
Truth or Consequences 1 night
Highlights in TorC:
Blackstone Hotsprings – our own private mineral soaking tub.
The next day on our way to Santa Fe we stopped at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Preserve and did a little wildlife viewing while we ate a picnic lunch.
We stayed at the Inn of the Governors. It’s a few blocks off the historic square. A charming hotel, which we were able to book with reward points.
Highlights in Santa Fe:
Trolley Tour from the hotel – well worth the money for an overview of historic downtown – this made the rest of our sightseeing richer.
Palace of the Governors and New Mexico History Museum – we spent a big chunk of the day here.
Lunch at Tia Sophia’s on the square – check out the lunch specials.
Santa Fe art scene – Saturday’s are lively, with artists-in-residence doing demonstrations.
Historic Square – pick up some excellent street food at one of the food carts.
Loretto Chapel and the miraculous staircase – beautiful stained glass too.
We spent the next day in Los Alamos, a town about 45 minutes from Santa Fe.
We didn’t give ourselves enough time to explore this fascinating town – we’re going back soon.
Highlights in Los Alamos:
Docent tour – from the history museum – favorite tour on the entire trip.
Manhattan Project National Historic Park – an enthusiastic ranger and a video giving an excellent overview of the town’s history.
Bandelier National Monument is a short drive from Los Alamos – hiking through ancient pueblo and cliff dwellings.
Albuquerque 2 nights
We finished our trip by circling back to Albuquerque.
A week after the Balloon Fiesta the town was back to normal and we had the tourist attractions to ourselves.
Highlights in Albuquerque Pt.2:
International Balloon Museum.
66 Diner – best green chile cheeseburgers.
Petroglyph National Monument.
Duran’s Pharmacy – lunch counter with homemade tortillas and authentic New Mexican food.
National Museum of Nuclear Science and History – more interesting than it sounds.
Sandia Peak Tramway – climbs to the top of Sandia Peak, go up an hour before sunset, and stays a few hours until the city lights up for the night.
The Albuquerque airport surprise – Cavalcade of Wings – a massive collection of model airplanes on display in the lobby.
The final day, we dropped off our rental car at the airport and caught a flight out of Albuquerque.
This was an open-jaw trip, the rental car charged a stiff fee to drop-off in a different location, but it was worth the price to see such a big chunk of the country.
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What would we do differently?
There are a few things we would change about our Southwest USA Itinerary:
- Two nights in Vegas would have been plenty for us. We are not at our best in crowded cities, spending copious amounts of money.
- Balloon Fiesta – skip the night events. The real action is in the morning. The evening is more about spending money at the souvenir and food booths and less about the balloons.
In our case, the wind was up in the evening, and the balloons didn’t even make an appearance. With our shuttle/entrance and Chaser’s Club tickets we spent $100 to have a school-cafeteria quality dinner, sitting in folding chairs.
- Not stay in Roswell – instead, head straight to Carlsbad and spend the night there. Roswell was less expensive than Carlsbad, but unless you are a big fan of aliens, keep moving.
- I would like to stay at the Blackstone Inn longer – enjoying the room, private patio, and in-room mineral tub.
- We would stay in Los Alamos for 1-2 nights.
- Spend more time in Santa Fe. We’re planning another trip centered around Santa Fe, Los Alamos, Taos, and Albuquerque.
For us, a major enjoyment of travel is the anticipation.
Pouring over maps, guidebooks, and websites, perusing restaurant reviews and blogger travelogues is almost as much fun as the trip itself.
Every vacation starts with a seed of an idea, motivation or jumping-off point.
Filling in the details is like adding the final flourishes to a beautiful room.
What will inspire your next trip?
We would love to hear about a trip you took that started with an inspiration point.
Tell us in the comments what the inspiration was and the trip it inspired. If you have a blog post related to the trip, we invite you to link to it.