1. BLACK HILLS OF SOUTH DAKOTA
The southwest corner of South Dakota surprises with stunning landscapes, rich history, and abundant wildlife.
Western South Dakota abruptly changes into two beautiful but distinct landscapes, the striated, fossil-rich sedimentary buttes of the Badlands, and the nearby mountains thick in evergreens that the native Lakota called them “hills that are black”. Following a lopsided figure-eight drive of about 350 miles (563 kilometers), with Rapid City at the junction, packs a best-of-the-west itinerary with a variety of sights, Wild West towns, free-ranging wildlife, and the iconic expression of American democracy, Mount Rushmore. Originally carved to get motorists out to South Dakota, the monument draws some three million visitors annually.
Heading east from Rapid City on I-90, take Exit 131 to the northeast entrance of Badlands National Park. The Badlands State Scenic Byway drops immediately beside the park’s serrated sandstone spires, which are banded in layers of purple, red, and orange rock that indicate their age. The quarter-mile Window Trail and the less-traveled Castle Trail across the road acquaints hikers with the striped sediment
For an off-the-beaten-path sight, follow the gravel Sage Creek Rim Road to Prairie Dog Town, where the social rodents sit perched atop their burrows throughout the day despite the presence of nearby bison.
In Wall, billboard advertiser Wall Drug Store has been attracting drivers with promises of “free ice water” since 1931. The most self-promotional tourist trap in the West now stocks most everything, but you can still get their classic souvenir “jack-a-lope” (a mounted hare’s head with antelope-like antlers), polished fossils, and sheriff’s badges along with that ice water.
Heading back toward Rapid City, swing south via Highway 16 to Mount Rushmore National Monument, where sculptor Gutzon Borglum, the original artist assigned to carve Stone Mountain in Georgia, immortalized Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt on a 5,725-foot-tall (1,745-meter-tall) stone mountain. The Presidential Trail provides dramatic views from the foot of the mountain and passes the sculptor’s studio, where rangers offer talks on how 400 men and women blasted, chiseled, and smoothed the monument for 14 years with no fatalities.
A tangle of winding mountain roads leads to and away from Rushmore, but don’t miss Iron Mountain Road (Hwy. 16A), which wriggles around the granite spires and through tunnels that frame the monument in the rearview mirror. The road takes a western turn within Custer State Park, 71,000 preserved acres of granite, pine, and prairie. Drive the park’s 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road, where grasslands support a herd of 1,500 bison in addition to pronghorn, bighorn sheep, and mountain goats. About halfway along the route, get out for the three-mile (five-kilometer) Prairie Trail.
Back in the park, drive the stunning 13-mile Needles Highway, which threads the namesake granite spires in a series of dizzying twists and turns. Look for the roadside turnoff at the Cathedral Spires Trail for a three-mile round-trip hike through ponderosa pines and granite boulders. At the edge of the mountain, enjoy views of 7,242-foot Harney Peak, the state’s tallest mountain.
Emerging from the park, head west to Custer, then north five miles (eight kilometers) to the still-under-construction Crazy Horse Memorial. The Native American answer to Rushmore commemorates the 19th-century Lakota warrior who fought to preserve traditional tribal values.
Northbound 385 leads straight into the honky-tonk town of Deadwood, where Old Style Saloon #10 stages daily reenactments (during the summer) of Wild Bill Hickok’s murder at the poker table.
The best times to drive this route are summer, late spring, or early fall.
2. ROUTE 66
Driving Route 66, the iconic 2,400-mile road connecting Chicago with Santa Monica, explores a bygone America, an era of neon signs and mom-and-pop diners. It’s more than nostalgia, the real adventure is that it’s unpredictable. Often that’s a bond made with the folks you meet.
From the get-go of its opening in 1926, Route 66 has been a celebrity. Other highways crossed the country too, but only the “Main Street of America” has the ability to continue winning new hearts. Take it slow, the full trip, which winds on and off five interstates, requires at least two weeks. If you have less time, consider cherry-picking some areas to explore. Here are a few to help you get started.
Springfield, Illinois’ family-run Cozy Dog Drive In has been serving corn dogs in Lincoln’s hometown since the ’40s. The $1.95 dogs sizzle fresh from 8 a.m., when locals come to chat over coffee.
Funks Grove Pure Maple Sirup in Shirley, Illinois has been selling their hand-tapped “sirup”—as syrup without sugar used to be known—from their grove of maples here since 1891, offering a rare Route 66 souvenir that actually predates the road.
Before making the drive across the Mississippi into Missouri on the Chain of Rocks Bridge, walk it. Built in 1929 with a unique 22-degree angle partway across, the bridge faced an uncertain future but it was converted into a walk-and-bike trail, connecting riverfront trails in both states.
Over the past 40 years, the Delmar Loop in St. Louis located a couple of miles off the road, has transformed from a drug den to an entertainment district with an eye on the past. The hub is Blueberry Hill, a buzzing, pub-style joint where once monthly, 87-year-old hometown hero Chuck Berry plays the basement Duck Room.
Missouri’s limestone bedrock is dotted with over 6,000 caves, but the most popular one is the 4.6-mile Meramec Caverns luring road-trippers since 1935.
“Everyone’s happy on Route 66,” according to Ramona Lehman, who runs Lebanon, Missouri’s classic Munger Moss Motel. “Because everywhere you go, it’s people talking to people.” Another place for chatting up locals—the epic Elbow Inn Bar is set on a wild bend of the Big Piney River known as Devil’s Elbow. Add another day to canoe the waterways here. The Ozarks are gorgeous.
Tulsa’s Brady District. Across the tracks from downtown, the revitalized Brady District gives the best sense of Tulsa’s 66 era. You can catch a show at the ever present Cain’s Ballroom, where Bob Wills housed his Western Swing in the ’30s, and visit its new neighbor, the Woody Guthrie Center, to learn how Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” served as a leftist rebuttal to “God Bless America.”
Stroud, Oklahoma. A highlight of the approximately 120-mile, land-hugging ride between Tulsa and Oklahoma City is Stroud’s Rock Cafe, which has been here since the ’30s”. Get the peach cobbler.
Clinton, Oklahoma. “People in Clinton will not ever let go of their highway,” Michael Wallis writes of this western Oklahoma town. A handful of 66-era motels and diners prove the point, along with the Oklahoma Route 66 Museum, a modern collection featuring donated knick-knacks.
Palo Duro Canyon State Park, Texas. About 30 miles southeast of Amarillo, the grasslands suddenly drop 800 feet at this 120-mile-long canyon, the Lone Star State’s “grand canyon.” Palo Duro Canyon. You can stay in rustic New Deal-era cabins that lured Route 66 travelers of old.
Tucumcari, New Mexico. Overnight at the Blue Swallow Motel, a 12-unit place with a cozy courtyard to take in the big sunsets. People from all parts of the world sit here, talk, drink wine, listen to the neon buzz.
Take in a movie at the Odeon Theatre open since 1936. It’s the only place you can go in town.
El Morro National Monument, New Mexico. A detour via Hwy 53 from Grants, over 2,000 trailblazers passed this way, carving their names on the base of the 200-foot-high sandstone questa. You can see seven century-old Native American petroglyphs of bighorn sheep, birds, and lizards. Also here are marks left from Don Juan de Oñate, the colonizer who conquered the pueblo at nearby Acoma. He wrote his name here on April 16, 1605—right on top of a petroglyph.
Meteor Crater, Arizona. About 50,000 years ago, a meteor about half the size of a football field crashed here, leaving a nearly mile-wide crater you can tour.
Seligman to Kingman, Arizona. This 85-mile stretch of Route 66 bends past sagebrush, rugged mountains, and ranchland before passing a ’57 Corvette and a couple dozen old cars. This is the Hackberry General Store, a makeshift Americana museum with a wall mural of Route 66 and a ceiling’s worth of donated license plates. It even smells old.
Oatman, Arizona. Take the wild road west from Kingman past saguaro cacti and loose boulders to a terrifically weird place: Oatman, an old gold-mining town gone camp.
Needles, California. When it’s 115 degrees out, go for a swim in the Colorado River at Jack Smith Park. Afterward pay a visit to El Garces, an iconic hotel and train station that dates to 1908.
Rialto, California. Just past San Bernardino, as the cityscape of metropolitan L.A. takes over, stay at the Wigwam Motel, the best of the three remaining “wigwam” motels that appeared in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s. Their infamous sign “Do it in a teepee”, says it all. Each concrete room faces a palm-dotted lawn with a pool.
Los Angeles. A plaque for the Will Rogers Highway in Santa Monica’s Palisades Park marks Route 66’s unofficial end—the real one was buried by a freeway ramp at Lincoln and Olympic Boulevards. The plaque pays tribute to Rogers, an Oklahoma native. At the nearby Will Rogers State Historic Park, you can tour his ranch, hike mountains overlooking the Pacific, and ponder his quip that the Dust Bowl immigration of Okies to California “raised the average intelligence of both states.”
3. BEARTOOTH HIGHWAY, Montana
Unbelievably beautiful mountain vistas and a jaw-dropping elevation of 10947ft on Beartooth Pass make this one of the USA’s most scenic drives. Tracing the border between Montana and Wyoming in the Beartooth Mountains, the Beartooth Highway runs from Red Lodge, Montana to Cooke City along US Route 212.
4. BORDERLANDS OF TEXAS
The Big Bend region of Texas is situated roughly west of San Antonio, east of El Paso, and north of the mythic Rio Grande river. It remains one of the last true frontiers in the Lower 48, a landscape unique in the world. Home to Big Bend National Park and the adjoining Big Bend Ranch State Park, this borderland is characterized by rugged mountain ranges, grassland, and immense tracts of desert.
The route starts in the oil town of Fort Stockton and head west on Interstate 10, then exit to continue south on 67 before heading west on Hwy. 90 into the town of Alpine. The region’s hub and a gateway to Big Bend National Park, Alpine is ringed by mountains and possesses the highest number of historic adobe structures in Texas outside of El Paso. On the campus of Sul Ross State University is the recently redone Museum of the Big Bend.
Leaving Alpine toward the west on Hwy. 90, cruise through photogenic Paisano Pass, dotted with juniper shrubs and dark outcroppings—the remains of an ancient volcano caldera. When you reach a grassy plateau, you’re approaching the Marfa Lights Viewing Stand, a modern building where visitors can look for the legendary floating spheres known as the Marfa lights. Another highlight here is the Chinati Foundation (1 Calvary Row; www.chinati.org), which was founded by modern sculptor Donald Judd to showcase his work—a spare arrangement of massive blocks of aluminum and stone.
Proceed south on Hwy. 67 toward the border town of Presidio, passing the ghost town of Shafter, nestled at the start of the Chinati Mountains. In the 1880s, silver was discovered here. Now the town is deserted, its buildings abandoned to the wind—though day-trippers stop by to see the evocative ruins.
From Shafter, drive to Presidio and pick up signs for the River Road (FM-170); the 67-mile (108-kilometer) stretch between Presidio and Study Butte offers photo-worthy scenery along the way. The road continues on through the town of Terlingua, home of feisty river runners. The River Road stops its course in Study Butte.
From Study Butte, take Hwy. 118/Maverick Road into Big Bend National Park. Visitors can spend days exploring the 801,000-acre (324,000-hectare) park, but if you’re planning to only drive through, make a right onto Basin Road, a 6-mile spur that leads into the Chisos, a remote, picturesque mountain range located in the park’s midsection. Returning on Maverick Road to Panther Junction, follow Highway 385 toward I-10, which leads you through some rugged land and into the tiny haven of Marathon.
This drive is doable year-round, but is most enjoyable in spring and fall; winters can turn cold, while summers can be blisteringly hot.
5. GHOST TOWNS OF COLORADA
During the late 19th century, gold fever roared through central Colorado like wildfire, sparking instant towns. Like the mines nearby, most of the towns played out—though some still stand as ghostly reminders of the salad days. Besides ghost towns, natural wonders abound on this road trip, from towering mountains to fossil beds, from prime white water to a gorge.
Head west on U.S. 24 from Colorado Springs, stopping first at the Garden of the Gods park (exit Hwy. 24 onto N 30th St.), whose towering sandstone fins and red, gravelly cliffs are spiritual places for Native Americans. Just past the Garden of the Gods, in Manitou Springs, is the Cave of the Winds with geological wonders on a 45-minute Discovery Tour.
At Cascade, turn off for the 19-mile toll road leading up to the 14,110-foot (4,301-meter) summit of Pikes Peak. Along the way, look for Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep patrolling the alpine zone of stunted trees and shrubbery. Take a trip on the Pikes Peak Cog Railway to the village of Manitou Springs.
A left turn at Divide onto State Highway 67 leads you to Cripple Creek, a National Historic Landmark in a former mining town where you can take a ride on the Cripple Creek & Victor Narrow Gauge Railroad. From 1890 to 1910, some 500 mines in this area produced 22,400,000 ounces of gold.
Just past Cripple Creek lies the ghost town of Victor, which, though still inhabited, has many period buildings – the trolley depot, the Masonic Hall, the Victor Daily Record newspaper office, the Victor Hotel, still open for business, and the local Lowell Thomas museum
Back on U.S. 24, a short drive west leads to the town of Florissant and the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, home to one of the world’s richest deposits of fossils. Huge petrified redwood stumps and thousands of insect and plant fossils record the story of what this region was like in prehistoric times.
Leaving the monument, climb to Wilkerson Pass at 9,127 feet (2,782 meters), where views of snowcapped peaks are visible from the visitors center. Continuing west from the pass, cross the grassy-banked South Platte River at Hartsel. About 18 miles (29 kilometers) north of the crossing, on Route 9, you’ll find South Park City, a restored and re-created ghost town now operated as a museum, in Fairplay.
From Fairplay, head south on U.S. 285 to return to U.S. 24. At the town of Buena Vista, follow Country Road 162 southwest for 19 miles to the ghost town of St. Elmo. Explore the town’s ghostly Main Street, peering into the windows of its frame buildings, which include the saloon, store, and several private homes. Back in Buena Vista, at the foot of the Collegiate Peaks, sign up for a whitewater rafting trip on the Arkansas River, which draws legions of rafters and kayakers in spring and summer.
From Buena Vista, head south on 285 to Highway 50 east. Five miles from the junction lies the town of Salida, whose downtown historic district is crammed with attractive Victorian buildings.
Continuing east on 50 for 47 miles, you’ll come to the turnoff for Royal Gorge, with its “World’s Highest Suspension Bridge,” a span built in 1929. Here you can ride a cable car above the gorge, board the Incline Railway for a trip down to the Arkansas River, or ride the Royal Gorge Scenic Railway to the Buckskin Joe Frontier Town, a re-creation that appeared in the movies Cat Ballou and True Grit. Not far from Royal Gorge is the Museum of Colorado Prisons, housed in a former women’s correctional facility built in 1935.
Ten miles beyond Cañon City, pick up Route 115 north at the town of Penrose. Get a final taste of wilderness before returning to Colorado Springs at the Aiken Canyon Preserve, which boasts the largest remaining intact foothills ecosystem of the Front Range. An area of shrublands and woodland, Aiken Canyon contains a rich diversity of wildlife, including black bears, mountain lions, elk, and golden eagles.
June through September is the best time to drive this route, a loop of around 225 miles (362 kilometers) with numerous side trips bringing the total distance to about 375 miles (604 kilometers). For background information on Colorado’s ghost towns, see Ghost Towns of Colorado: Your Guide to Colorado’s Historic Mining Camps and Ghost Towns, by Philip Varney, Voyageur Press, 1999. Also see these websites: www.coloradoghosttowns.com/index.htm
6. NORTHEAST NEW MEXICO.
A harsh, starkly beautiful landscape marked by prairies, volcanoes, pioneer homesteads, and villages straight out of a Western movie set. A 400-mile driving route looping east from Taos makes a classic American road trip.
From Taos, wind 55 miles east along NM 64 as it drops through deep gorges of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the edge of the plains and the village of Cimarron, once a hub on the mountain branch of the Santa Fe Trail. More than a dozen historic buildings survive.
As NM 64 pushes 40 miles east to Raton, the mountains peter out into the high plains. Raton, once a flourishing railroad town along the Santa Fe Trail, hasn’t changed much in the past century.
Sugarite Canyon State Park, six miles north of Raton on NM 72 and 526, protects the remains of a 1912 coal-mining town once inhabited by hundreds of fortune-seeking immigrants. Nearby, stroll through wildflowers and up onto a mesa for views over the canyon on some of the park’s 14-plus miles of hiking trails.
Drive 36 miles east on 72 over the sprawling Johnson Mesa and past a pioneer church, old homesteads, and views of the Rocky Mountains. Folsom, a loose collection of ranches and abandoned storefronts, was where archaeologists proved humans walked the continent some 10,000 years ago, far earlier than previously thought.
Drive nine miles south on NM 325 to reach Capulin Volcano National Monument, one of the nation’s best-preserved cinder cone volcanoes. A trail leads around the rim of the crater and offers views over the 8,000-square-mile Raton-Clayton volcano field, dotted with craters and hardened lava flows. On a clear day, visitors can see four states from the tallest point on the rim.
Backtrack up 325, then take NM 456 east through mesas, canyons, and valleys, then turn right on NM 370 to Clayton Lake State Park. A half-mile path leads to a trove of dinosaur tracks with about 500 footprints from some six species.
Traveling 150 miles southwest along 370, 412/56, and I-25, get views of the Rockies. Along the way to Fort Union, stop to see the Eklund Hotel in Clayton and the Santa Fe Trail Museum in Springer; both are sleepy farm towns spattered with historic buildings. Fort Union was first established in 1851. Today see the fort’s adobe ruins and the largest visible network of ruts from the famed wagon route.
Las Vegas, about 30 miles south on I-25 was founded in 1835, the last Spanish colony to be formed in North America. 900 buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.