Buff Strickland
updated 6/25/2009 10:52:26 AM ET 2009-06-25T14:52:26

The harsh-but-lively southern Arizona desert; the frontier in Nevada and Utah; the sprawling, craggy desert of mid–New Mexico.

Southern Arizona
(330 miles round-trip from Phoenix)

All hail the saguaro—a plant that can weigh up to eight tons and live more than 150 years, and thrives in the harsh light of the Sonoran Desert. It’s the de facto icon of southern Arizona, a parched and prickly region of acacia, mesquite, and cacti, complete with the odd rattlesnake. Yet you’ll also find mountains, sometimes even snow; a vibrant culinary scene; and hiking trails that lead to sacred tribal lands and centuries-old Spanish missions. This isn’t your average desert adventure.

Lay of the land

Phoenix and Tucson may be less than two hours away from each other, but their souls couldn’t be more different. Head south from Phoenix on Interstate 10, and the manicured lawns and transplanted palms soon give way to open desert plains.

• North of Tucson, the Santa Catalina Mountains provide a cool break from the blazing summer heat. Take the winding, scenic highway to the top of 9,157-foot Mount Lemmon and the resort village of Summerhaven, where the Mt. Lemmon General Store & Gift Shop sells sinful slabs of homemade fudge (locals swear by the cookie-dough variety).

• Just outside Tucson, Saguaro National Park gives the ultimate overview of this ecosystem—green paloverde trees, purple cacti, and fuzzy teddy-bear cholla, not to mention cartoonish road-runners and piglike javelinas. Despite its seemingly ubiquitous presence on Arizona license plates and postcards, there’s nothing like the real thing: a live encounter with a giant saguaro.

• In downtown Tucson, the desert disappears for a spell amid historic districts with good secondhand shops and an Art Deco movie palace. The vintage-style Hotel Congress has a hopping performance space and a stellar breakfast spot, plus bragging rights from its role in the 1934 capture of John Dillinger.

• Follow I-19 out of the city to the bird-watching town of Amado, where you can lose yourself in the cottonwood forest and check out the world-famous telescope on nearby Mount Hopkins.

• The drive ends in the blossoming arts town of Tubac, with a hike to the missions at Tumacácori National Historical Park—a mere 15 minutes from the Mexican border. — Mary Bianco

The route

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Phoenix to Tucson: 116 miles

Tucson to Amado: 43 miles

Amado to Tubac: 13 miles

Desert backcountry
(381 miles round-trip from Las Vegas)

WELCOME TO THE GREATEST EARTH ON SHOW, declares one highway sign. Those words couldn’t be truer about this drive from Las Vegas through Nevada and Utah where the sky is vast, the landscape is alive, the cowboy hats are big, and the pickup trucks come caked and splattered with red dirt. This is the real American Southwest, with a wildness and emptiness that allows you a taste of frontier life. It’s a trip through the land of the Marlboro Man and Thelma and Louise.

Lay of the land

Twenty miles outside Las Vegas, a world away from the fountains at Bellagio, the I-15 freeway traffic starts to dwindle, and a realization sets in: this is 100 percent desert—mesquite-shrub, cholla-sprouting, brittlebush-parched earth. Make a stop at Nevada s Valley of Fire State Park, where red sandstone that s been whipped, beaten, and sculpted by wind and rain forms odd geological structures, such as beehive- and piano-shaped stones. 

"The drive north passes through Joshua tree—strewn desert and canyons, ending up in the hub of St. George. Remnants of its Mormon pioneer past live on downtown, but the area shows signs of overdevelopment from the snowbirds who have flocked to this sunny corner."

East of St. George lies the 1950’s-style town of Springdale, reached by State Route 9, which dips along the Virgin River and ascends into pasture surrounded by mesas. Motels and cafes line Zion Park Boulevard, Springdale’s main drag, along with galleries and (of course) adventure outfitters. The main draw here is nature you re right outside Zion National Park.

"Head northeast from St. George to Silver Reef, an atmospheric ghost town that was once the largest settlement in southern Utah. An 1879 Wells Fargo bank (which now houses a bronze-sculpture gallery), an old stone kiln, some photogenic ruins, and the Cosmopolitan Restaurant (see next page) are all that remain of the former silver-mining boomtown."

West of St. George is Ivins, set in the foothills of Snow Canyon State Park. The landscape forms a jigsaw puzzle of snowcapped mountains, jagged cliffs, deep valleys, and jumbled lava rock. In these parts, sunsets are an event, with the mesas and cliffs morphing from maroon and orange into green, purple, and black. — Mary Bianco

The route

Las Vegas to Valley of Fire: 73 miles

Valley of Fire to St. George: 84 miles

St. George to Springdale: 41 miles

Central New Mexico
(464 miles round-trip from Santa Fe)

Many visitors to New Mexico rarely venture far from the northern part of the state, missing out entirely on its midsection—sprawling, craggy desert with no shortage of superlatives. Where else in the span of 500 miles can you find the country’s oldest continually inhabited Indian pueblo, an internationally acclaimed art installation, the largest collection of radio telescopes in the world, and a town dedicated entirely to pies?

Lay of the land

Forty-seven miles southwest of Santa Fe on Interstate 25, Bernalillo borders the Rio Grande, in the shadow of the imposing Sandia Crest. The challenging La Luz Trail switchbacks eight miles and 4,000 feet to the summit, but even a one-mile trek will earn you sweeping views of the Rio Grande Valley.

• Heading west on I-40, you’ll trade the urban sprawl of Albuquerque for wide, lonely landscapes en route to Acoma Pueblo, an 860-year-old, still-inhabited “sky city” atop a 370-foot sandstone mesa with views of colorful badlands. Fifteen miles farther on, the turnoff onto Highway 117 marks the entrance to El Malpais National Monument and National Conservation Area, a jagged maze of lava flows and cinder cones.

• The blink-and-you’ll-miss-it outpost of Quemado might seem an unlikely place to find cutting-edge art. But the Dia Art Foundation’s Lightning Field is both impressive and provocative—a meditation on unexpected symmetry amid natural chaos. Even the caretaker, a reticent and rangy cowboy straight out of No Country for Old Men, seems like part of the installation.

• From Quemado, drive 10 miles east on Highway 60 to quirky Pie Town, then continue to the Very Large Array, a center for radio astronomy whose 230-ton antennas stand out in stark contrast to the empty plains. Next stop is Magdalena, a pioneer settlement and artists’ colony at the foot of the Magdalena Mountains.

• The city of Socorro, a 16th-century trading post on the Camino Real, is home to the Old San Miguel Mission, an adobe Catholic church founded in 1598. Nearby, scout for pelicans and sandhill cranes at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, a lush oasis with trails and picnic areas on the Rio Grande. — Katie Arnold

The route

Santa Fe to Albuquerque: 63 miles

Albuquerque to Quemado: 169 miles

Quemado to Socorro: 93 miles

Copyright © 2012 American Express Publishing Corporation


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