The harsh-but-lively southern Arizona desert; the frontier in Nevada and Utah; the sprawling, craggy desert of mid–New Mexico.
(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.
Related: 20 Long Weekends
Phoenix to Tucson: 116 miles
Tucson to Amado: 43 miles
Amado to Tubac: 13 miles
(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 cafés 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.
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.
Santa Fe to Albuquerque: 63 miles
Albuquerque to Quemado: 169 miles
Quemado to Socorro: 93 miles
Where to Stay
GRANDE DAME Built in 1930, the Arizona Inn (2200 E. Elm St., Tucson; 800/933-1093; arizonainn.com; doubles from $329) is a swanky throwback to another era. The pink adobe-style resort has a gorgeous pool, croquet on the front lawn, and vintage bikes for riding the nearby paths.
Great Value SPANISH FLAIR Hammered-tin lamps and carved-beam ceilings add old-world atmosphere to the Hacienda del Sol Guest Ranch Resort (5601 N. Hacienda del Sol Rd., Tucson; 800/728-6514; haciendadelsol.com; doubles from $175). Set in the Catalina foothills, the 1929 former girls’ boarding school has lush gardens and an award-winning restaurant.
SADDLE UP Indulge your city-slicker fantasies at the Tanque Verde Ranch (14301 E. Speedway Blvd., Tucson; 800/234-3833; tanqueverderanch.com; from $275 per person, all-inclusive), located between Saguaro National Park and Coronado National Forest. A horse comes with your vacation, and wranglers lead wilderness rides into the sunset.
Where to Eat & Drink
FOR MEAT LOVERS John Wayne ate here, so a meal at the Cow Palace (28802 S. Nogales Hwy., Amado; 520/398-1999; dinner for two $59) is obligatory for all True Grit fans. Keep in mind: real cowboys order steak. And don’t let the kitschy steer on the roof put you off.
Great Value CULT FOLLOWING Everything seems supersize at Wisdom’s Café (1931 E. Frontage Rd., Tumacacori; 520/398-2397; dinner for two $30), a three-generation-strong family enterprise known for its mason-jar margaritas and deep-fried, cinnamon sugar–dusted fruit “burros.” Even the fiberglass chicken statues are larger than life.
What to See & Do
CACTUS CENTRAL A surprisingly lush landscape, Saguaro National Park (nps.gov/sagu) is divided into two parts: one east of Tucson, in the Rincon Mountain District; the other 30 miles west, on North Kinney Road. Both have excellent hiking trails and scenic drives that showcase the park’s plant specimens and wildlife.
STUDIO VISIT Whether or not you’re a fan of Ted DeGrazia’s much reproduced art, the DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun (6300 N. Swan Rd., Tucson; 520/299-9191) is worth a visit: the adobe walls seem to glow in the morning light, and the open-air chapel, built by the artist in the 1950’s, features his colorful murals.
LOOK SHARP Seventeen acres of prickles and thorns mean heaven for succulent lovers at Mesquite Valley Growers (8005 E. Speedway Blvd., Tucson; 520/721-8600), a nursery that stocks a vast selection of garden art.
DESERT FASHION The two locations of Tucson’s W Boutique (4340 N. Campbell Ave., 520/577-3470; 7049 N. Oracle Rd., 520/877-8790) are good sources for warm-weather staples, including slouchy linen pants by Georgie and Warhol-print swimsuits by Diane von Furstenberg.
BOUTIQUE BLOCK Once a fort that marked the northern frontier of New Spain, the 150-year-old Old Town Artisans (201 N. Court Ave., Tucson; 520/623-6024) houses a cluster of charming shops (although the turquoise-jewelry quotient is a little high). The best part: sitting in the courtyard with a prickly-pear margarita.
STAR POWER One of the world’s largest telescopes sits atop Mount Hopkins at the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory (670 Mt. Hopkins Rd.; 520/670-5707; www.cfa.harvard.edu/facilities/flwo/about.html), just outside Amado. Amateur astronomers can check out the scaled-down models at the visitors’ center, 10 miles below.
HISTORY LESSON The remnants of not one but three Spanish missions are on hand at Tumacacori National Historical Park (1891 E. Frontage Rd., Tumacacori; 520/398-2341), accessible via a 41/2-mile trail from Tubac.
There’s more to this town than the three C’s (chili, corn, and cilantro). From breakfast to nightcap, here are eight of the latest dining destinations.
THE HIDEAWAY Behind the RumRunner wine shop lies the Dish (3131 E. First St.; 520/326-1714; dinner for two $80), a bite-size boîte. On Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, the bar offers a special: mussels and a glass of wine for $11.50.
REGIONAL DARLING Suzana Davila, who runs the nouvelle-Mexican Café Poca Cosa (110 E. Pennington St.; 520/622-6400; dinner for two $75), constantly updates her chalkboard menu—look for pollo en pipian or the irresistible tamale pie.
STAR CHEF James Beard Award winner Janos Wilder peppers his creative dishes at Janos (3770 E. Sunrise Dr.; 520/615-6100; dinner for two $105) with native ingredients like cholla buds, mesquite flour, and saguaro blossoms.
THE ROMANTIC Muscovy duck and short ribs with Yorkshire pudding are a few of the old-world favorites at the Grill at Hacienda del Sol (5601 N. Hacienda del Sol Rd.; 520/529-3500; dinner for two $100). The wine list is exceptional.
THE TAKEOUT SPOT Among the 25-plus rotating varieties at the Tucson Tamale Company (2545 E. Broadway Blvd.; 520/305-4760; lunch for two $17): vegan-friendly spinach and wild mushrooms, and a fiery slow-roasted sirloin.
MORNING RITUAL Whether it’s sausage and biscuits or “eggs & gunpowder,” breakfast at the Hotel Congress’s Cup Café (311 E. Congress St.; 520/798-1618; breakfast for two $15) is funky and fun.
COCKTAIL HOUR Tucson’s bar scene isn’t all about tequila. For proof, look to VinTabla (2890 E. Skyline Dr.; 520/577-6210; dinner for two $65), which serves 90 wines by the glass and is co-owned by a master sommelier.
CARNIVORE FEAST Cure a serious iron deficiency at Jonathan’s Cork (6320 E. Tanque Verde Rd.; 520/296-1631; dinner for two $85) with a thick cut of steak, ostrich, bison, or the tried-and-true liver and onions. Don’t pass up the margaritas.
Where to Stay
EASY ACCESS Aside from campsites, the only place to stay inside Zion National Park is Zion Lodge (Springdale, Utah; 888/297-2757; doubles from $159), which lets you roll out of bed and onto a trail (it’s right across from the Emerald Pools hike). Ask for one of the historic 1920’s cabins with a fireplace and front porch.
Great Value CANYON VIEWS A spa, a hilltop labyrinth, and the popular Spotted Dog Café make Flanigan’s Inn (450 Zion Park Blvd., Springdale, Utah; 800/765-7787; discoverzion.com; doubles from $119) feel like its own little village. Several rooms have decks or patios; Zion National Park is a five-minute walk away.
MIND-BODY-SOUL With the help of the “adventure concierge” at the Red Mountain Resort & Spa (1275 E. Red Mountain Circle, Ivins, Utah; 877/246-4453; redmountainspa.com; from $199 per person, including meals and some activities), guests choose from an extensive list: yoga or tai chi on the rocks; biking; even a hike with dogs from the local animal shelter. The rooms may be understated, but the landscape sure isn’t, and neither is the food (like the deceptively decadent lemon cheesecake).
Where to Eat & Drink
COWBOY CUISINE Located in the ghost town of Silver Reef, the Cosmopolitan Restaurant (1915 Wells Fargo Rd., Leeds, Utah; 435/879-6862; dinner for two $80) is worth finding, even on the darkest nights when you’ll have to watch for wildlife crossing the road. The Western-saloon exterior is a somewhat incongruous prelude to the cooking of Hungarian chef Imi Kun, whose goat-cheese spaetzle is out of this world.
SWEET TREAT Long live the cake parlor—thanks to Twentyfive Main (25 N. Main St., St. George, Utah; 435/628-7110; lunch for two $20) and its daily selection of house-baked cupcakes, from orange blossom to peanut butter cup. Savory items include pressed sandwiches, pastas, and salads.
POWER MEAL The berry-topped waffles at Oscar’s Café (948 Zion Park Blvd., Springdale, Utah; 435/772-3232; breakfast for two $20) will satisfy even the heartiest appetites. Breakfast burritos and hiker’s granola are other popular options at this colorful restaurant.
What to See & Do
HOT ROCKS Geology class would have been so much more riveting after a field trip to the Valley of Fire State Park (Overton, Nev.; 702/397-2088; parks.nv.gov). Nevada’s oldest state park is made up of some 35,000-odd acres of petroglyphs and dramatic rock formations.
SCENIC SPECTACLE Stop in at one of the two visitors’ centers in Zion National Park (Springdale, Utah; 435/772-3256; nps.gov/zion) to find the right hike for your time and skill level. (Among the most memorable routes: wading along the Virgin River in the famed slot canyon known as the Narrows.) For a quick overview, drive the Zion–Mt. Carmel highway from the western entrance.
TOWN CRAWL The roughly 10-block, self-guided walking tour of St. George (maps available at 1835 S. Convention Center Dr.; 435/634-5747; utahsdixie.com) features mid-1800’s Mormon sites such as Brigham Young’s winter residence and the 1876 Tabernacle.
LOSE THE CROWDS Should Zion ever get overrun (and it does), Snow Canyon State Park (1002 Snow Canyon Dr., Ivins, Utah; 435/628-2255) is a much better kept secret. The kid-friendly, two-mile round-trip Butterfly Trail brings you to the park’s impressive lava flows.
CREATIVE HUB Four galleries, a pottery studio, an arboretum, and more make up the Coyote Gulch Art Village at Kayenta (875 Coyote Gulch Court, Ivins, Utah; 435/688-8535; coyotegulchartvillage.com). Painter Gina Jrel and sculptor Quinn are standouts at Juniper Sky Fine Art Gallery, while Gallery 873 has distinctive metalwork. Take a break beneath the round skylight at the adobe Xetava café.
Where to Stay
PUEBLO LUXE Golf, horseback riding, and post-adventure pampering (try the ancient-drumming mud mask) are part of the draw at the Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort & Spa (1300 Tuyuna Trail, Santa Ana Pueblo; 800/554-9288 or 505/867-1234; hyatt.com; doubles from $199), a sprawling Native American–owned hotel near Bernalillo.
GREEN ACRES A 200-year-old hacienda, Los Poblanos Inn & Cultural Center (4803 Rio Grande Blvd. N.W., Los Ranchos de Albuquerque; 505/344-9297; lospoblanos.com; doubles from $155) also runs an organic farm with fruits, vegetables, and fields of lavender. The eight guest rooms have kiva fireplaces and colorful New Mexican folk art.
Great Value BUNKHOUSE DIGS Kick back on the porch swing at the Fite Ranch Bed & Breakfast (Co. Rd. A153, San Antonio; 575/838-0958; fiteranchbedandbreakfast.com; doubles from $100), a 1930’s working cattle ranch in a dusty hamlet near the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.
Where to Eat & Drink
DOWN-HOME DISH Southwestern comfort foods (chiles rellenos; chimichangas) are the specialties at the Range Café (925 Camino del Pueblo, Bernalillo; 505/867-1700; dinner for two $40), in a cheerful, bustling adobe on Bernalillo’s main drag.
TRIBAL EATS Corn—the Acoma people’s sacred sustenance—is the base for many of the dishes at the Yaaka Café (Sky City Cultural Center, Acoma Pueblo; 800/747-0181; lunch for two $20), which serves beef pozole and traditional lamb stew in a sunny room that opens onto the Haaku Museum’s courtyard.
FRESH BAKED Named after a homegrown apple-pie business in the 1920’s, Pie Town still lives up to its reputation, thanks to the diminutive Daily Pie Café (Rte. 60, near mile marker 56; 575/772-2700; dailypie.com; slices from $4) and Pie-O-Neer (Rte. 60; 575/772-2711; pie-o-neer.com; slices from $5).
STATE TREASURE The parking lot of the low-slung, ramshackle Owl Bar & Café (77 Hwy. 380, San Antonio; 575/835-9946) is almost always full, a testament to its mastery of New Mexico’s culinary sensation: green-chili cheeseburgers. Order two.
What to See & Do
MOUNTAIN HIGH Climbing 2.7 miles in 15 minutes, the Sandia Peak Tramway (40 Tramway Rd., Albuquerque; 505/856-7325; sandiapeak.com) is the world’s longest aerial tram—and a much speedier way up to the peak of 10,378-foot Sandia Crest.
ANCIENT DWELLING Take a guided tour of the vibrant pueblo above the Sky City Cultural Center and Haaku Museum (Acoma Pueblo; 800/747-0181; acomaskycity.org; tours $20). You can buy crafts and jewelry from Acoma artisans, shop for hand-coiled local pottery at the Gaitsi Gallery, or view exhibits on hundreds of years of Acoma culture.
FORCE OF NATURE In 1977, sculptor Walter De Maria stuck more than 400 stainless-steel poles into a stark desert basin 45 minutes outside Quemado. The Lightning Field (505/898-3335; lightningfield.org; May 1–Oct. 31; admission from $150 per person, including overnight stay) is named for the poles’ propensity to attract electrical strikes during summer storms. The site can accommodate only six visitors at a time; after checking in at the Dia Art Foundation’s office in Quemado, you’re taken to spend the night in a rustic log cabin with three bedrooms, a fridge stocked with enchiladas, and a porch that opens right onto the exhibit.
SCI-FI SITE The Southwest’s most surreal roadside attraction is easily the Very Large Array (36 miles east of Pie Town on Rte. 60; vla.nrao.edu), a collection of 27 giant dish antennas used by astronomers to study radio waves emitted by stars and planets. (Look familiar? The 1997 movie Contact, starring Jodie Foster, was filmed here.) Don’t miss the hands-on exhibits about life in outer space.
The country’s oldest state capital celebrates its 400th anniversary this year. Spend a day catching up on the city’s most compelling sights.
For jewelry, textiles, and high-quality crafts, go directly to the Palace of the Governors (105 W. Palace Ave.; 505/476-5100; palaceofthegovernors.org), on the plaza’s northern side, where Native American artisans from 23 tribes gather daily to sell their handmade goods.
Hidden amid a slew of kitschy curio shops, Dressman’s Gifts (58 Lincoln Ave.; 505/982-0227; dressmansgifts.com) is the real deal, with a good selection of carved wooden angels and other New Mexican folk art.
Built in 1922, La Fonda on the Plaza (100 E. San Francisco St.; 800/523-5002; lafondasantafe.com; doubles from $319) is a landmark Santa Fe hotel with wood vigas (beams), kiva fireplaces, and polished tile floors. The rooftop Bell Tower Bar is the place for sunset cocktails with a view of the Jemez Mountains.
Breakfast at Café Pasqual’s (121 Don Gaspar Ave.; 505/983-9340; breakfast for two $30), a block off the Plaza, has been a well-loved tradition for 30 years. Lines form early for smoked-trout hash and huevos motuleños.
Fresh-baked croissants and other snacks are on hand at Station Coffee (530 S. Guadalupe St.; 505/988-2470), an airy new café in one of the Railyard District’s original brick warehouses.
Scout for organic meats and greens, hothouse tomatoes, and green chilies at the always-mobbed Santa Fe Farmers’ Market (1607 Paseo de Peralta; 505/983-4098; santafefarmersmarket.com), every Saturday morning in the progressive Railyard District.
The newest addition to art-filled Canyon Road is Bittersweet Designs (901 Canyon Rd.; 505/660-1953; bittersweetdesigns.com), which sells handcrafted jewelry and journals made with vintage wallpaper.
Legendary cantina El Farol (808 Canyon Rd.; 505/983-9912; dinner for two $70) dates back to 1835. Stake out a spot in the bar for live music and dancing, or sit on the porch and check out Canyon Road’s Friday night gallery crowds.
Part roadhouse, part specialty grocer, Tesuque Village Market (138 Tesuque Village Rd.; 505/988-8848) is located just north of the center, in the neighborhood of Tesuque. Refuel with an oven-fired pizza after a hike on the Winsor Trail.
Santa Fe’s first luxury resort to open in a decade, Encantado (198 State Rd. 592; 877/262-4666 or 505/946-5700; encantadoresort.com; doubles from $550), from Auberge Resorts, has 65 casitas, a spa, and the most talked-about new restaurant in town.