Adventure Travel

An Interstate 40 roadtrip itinerary

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Palo Duro Canyon State Park

Image: Shutterstock/Zack Frank

We all have to face the inevitable road trip along the dead-straight Interstate 40 at some point in our lives. Luckily through Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, there are plenty of places to spend the afternoon, stretch your legs, and camp overnight. Between iconic American National Parks like the Grand Canyon and lesser-known spots like Palo Duro, the old Route 66 path is downright enjoyable. Whether you’re heading from west from Amarillo to California or driving east, the exciting pit stops never seem to end.

Palo Duro Canyon State Park, Texas

Just southeast of Amarillo rests Palo Duro Canyon, a severely underrated and underexplored slice of desert heaven. In fact, Palo Duro is the second-largest canyon in the entire country, second only to The Grand. The mountain bike trails are especially epic, so come prepared to spend all day in the dirt. Feel free to camp overnight to give you more time to adventure through the towering hoodoos and deep caves.

Sandia Peak Tramway, New Mexico

Sandia Mountains Tramway approaching the peak

Image: Shutterstock/Henryk Sadura

A quick jaunt from I-40 through Albuquerque, this regional staple is quick and dirty. Take the Sandia Peak Tramway for an easy, yet fulfilling experience while road-tripping through town. As the largest aerial tram in the United States, the cruise goes from 6,559 feet at the base to 10,378 feet at the summit. At the top you’ll find scenic views, a restaurant, and numerous hiking opportunities to stretch out those legs!

El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico

El Malpais National Monument

Image: Shutterstock/Zack Frank

Take a southern dip from Interstate 40 into El Malpais National Monument just east of Gallup. The site of a historic lava flow field, El Malpais contains cinder cones, lava tube caves, and sandstone bluffs. A lengthy hiking trail wraps throughout the park, but there are also several opportunities for short hikes. A local favorite is the Bluffs Overlook and La Ventana Natural Arch.

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Petrified Forest Tepee Rock Formations - Arizona

Image: Shutterstock/Brian Lasenby

Across the border into Arizona rests Petrified Forest National Park, an easily accessible badland area named after the vast amounts of petrified wood found within. Located just off of I-40, it’s recommended to head towards the Painted Desert area (named after the dense layers of colorful Chinle deposited throughout) and the vast archaeological sites complete with petroglyphs and fossils. The Blue Mesa overlook is the perfect pull-off for a quick view of the enormous Chinle cones and petrified logs.

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Sunset at Toroweap, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Image: Shutterstock/Doug Meek

Although it’s a bit north of Interstate 40, the Grand Canyon is a mandatory stop on any decent road trip. The South Rim is accessed by driving north on 180 from Flagstaff, which can be completed in a full day trip. The canyon views are simply indescribable, layered with colorful sandstone and often covered with a gorgeous mist or distant rainfall. The South Rim has hiking routes, campsites, and a museum to enjoy while you visit this American classic.

Honorable Mention

Mojave National Preserve, California

Boulders and Joshua Trees in Joshua Tree National Park, California.

Image: Shutterstock/Gary C. Tognoni

Something of a California staple, Mojave National Preserve has hundreds of natural monuments to explore. Large swaths of the preserve are covered by impressive Joshua tree forests, where the ghost town of Kelso is found. The original train depot has been converted into a visitor center, so be sure to check out the historic site.

Lake Havasu, Arizona

Beautiful landscape of Lake Havasu in Arizona

Image: Shutterstock/SNEHIT

If you arrive at the right time of the year (Spring Break), Lake Havasu becomes houseboat party central. Join the throngs of spring breakers who flock to Havasu for the beautiful views, cool water, and upbeat atmosphere. Partying not your thing? There are plenty of chill sites away from the crowds to enjoy the scenic waters surrounded by limestone cliffs.

Mandy Burkholder is a travel, adventure, and outdoor writer who honed her craft in the foothills of the La Plata Mountains of Southwest Colorado. After a stint in the Swiss Alps, she now resides in Tennessee. Follow her on twitter — @mandyburkhold3r