Trae and I recently went to New Mexico for some time off together and it was tha best. Our original plan to do absolutely nothing for two weeks changed when Trae had the great idea to take me to the Grand Canyon! I had never been and always loved the idea of road tripping out there just like The Brady Bunch. But it turns out that there’s so much to see on the drive from Taos to the Grand Canyon! So we took six days to do a road trip loop of National Parks and natural wonders!
Here’s what our Southwest road trip route looked like. We stopped to see Great Sand Dunes National Park, Durango, Mesa Verde National Park, The Four Corners Monument, Antelope Canyon, Horseshoe Bend, Grand Canyon National Park, Flagstaff, The Petrified Forest National Park, The Painted Desert, Albuquerque, and Santa Fe.
G R E A T S A N D D U N E S N A T I O N A L P A R K
Great Sand Dunes National Park is only a two hour drive from The Enchanted Circle area of New Mexico (Taos, Red River, Eagle Nest, and Angelfire). This could easily be a day trip if you’re in that area! Trae had been when he was younger but I had never been. It was seriously impressive. My initial thought was “It’s a pile of sand. How exciting can that be?” But wow. It is so massive! 750 feet high massive!
The highlights of the park for us were the sand sledding (though we did not do it, we watched others and decided we want to come back prepared do it!) and the freedom to wander wherever you want. I feel like most National Parks have designated trails and whatnot but the dunes are completely open for roaming. You can even camp in the dunes!
Our takeaway tips:
- OMG wear sunscreen. Lots of it and carry it with you. Put it on places you don’t usually burn b/c my calves got burned and that has never happened in my entire life.
- Wear waterproof shoes because you have to cross Medano Creek to hike the dunes and if you read about Medano Creek here you’ll see that it can be low like it was here or high enough to float in!
- The sand makes a really great tripod for a selfie stick. Just sayin’ :)
D U R A N G O , C O L O R A D O
We spent the night in Durango after visiting the Sand Dunes. We stayed at an awesome Best Western. And by awesome I mean their hospitality was so good. Warm chocolate chip cookies upon arrival good. We spent the following day exploring Durango in the form of coffee shops, liquor stores, breweries, and shopping downtown.
M E S A V E R D E N A T I O N A L P A R K
So Mesa Verde National Park was like the underdog experience of our trip. Its presence on the NPS website had us expecting a kind of bland experience, but it actually turned out to be our favorite experience of the entire trip! The impressiveness began at the entrance to the park with an incredible view from the Visitor Center and then an even more incredible drive up to the mesa tops.
We booked a stay inside the park at the Far View Lodge. The accommodations were bare bones (no tv, no telephone, no a/c, double bed) but as the name states, it’s all about the view. It stormed pretty intensely that night which gave us a spectacular lightning show (we also learned the next day that the park is highly prone to fires from lighting strikes).
We booked two cliff dwelling tours (Cliff Palace & Balcony House) the following morning and then did a little drive around the mesa to see some sights that didn’t require a ranger-guided tour.
The cliff dwelling tours were so awesome. You have to climb down the side of a cliff – they have designated steps and everything so getting down is pretty easy. The rangers we had were really great, particularly Bailey who guided our Cliff Palace tour. While giving us facts and history about the dwellings, they kept the information honest (there’s a lot of unknowns and they leave it at that until they know) and encouraged the group to discuss. I think their goal is to help people understand that even though technology is different now than it was from AD 600 to 1300 when the Ancestral Puebloans lived there, we are all still humans and at the core, our wants and needs are really not that different. It was just an awesome discussion. I think one grumpy old conservative man hated it, but if you’re not grumpy and conservative then I’ll think you’ll like it too.
Making it back up from the dwellings was the most exciting part! It’s part scary, part thrilling, but I never felt unsafe. Depending on which dwelling you are leaving you may have to climb ladders or crawl through a hole on your hands and knees!
Our takeaway tips:
- Have a backpack or somewhere safe to put your camera so you can use both hands for entering/exiting the dwellings.
- The pre-tour speech the rangers give you about the conditions of the tour will scare the shit out of you. It’s okay. It will make everything seem really easy once you’re doing it lol.
- Food options in the park are limited and sub par. Think school field trip cafeteria type stuff. Just a heads up!
F O U R C O R N E R S M O N U M E N T
From Mesa Verde to Arizona we drove straight through the four corners of Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. This was one of the prettiest drives!! So pretty that I had Trae pull over so I could set my tripod on the side of the road to get a picture of us with our super fun and borrowed road trip vehicle: the H2!
We had to stop at the Four Corners Monument though so we could officially say we’ve stood in four states at once. It was cheesy and so fantastic.
A N T E L O P E C A N Y O N
Antelope Canyon is one of the most photographed places in the world. It’s located on Navajo land just east of Page, AZ. The canyons are iconic for the ray of light that comes through the slots at noon!
It’s best to book a tour in advance, which you can do online with a few different companies. We booked with Chief Tsosie for a 10:30 – 11:30am tour of Upper Antelope Canyon (there is an Upper and a Lower) and it was a great choice! We had to meet a half hour early in a parking lot where we were pleasantly surprised to see Chief Tsosie perform a hoop dance. Then we piled into the back of pickup trucks that drove us out to the reservation and onto the very bumpy dried up river bed!
Our tour group consisted of the 12 or so people on the truck with us. Lilian was our guide and she was really great – very knowledgable about the canyon and how to photograph it. The canyon is kind of broken up into “rooms” where there will be different features in each one. Since it’s very dim in there you have to take your time with your shots since you can’t bring a tripod on the regular tours (there are photography tours where a tripod is required). The struggle with taking your time though is that the canyon is so crowded with people that your window of time to get a photo without a person in it is very small. I was stressed out the entire time, honestly, but nonetheless I still got some amazing images that I’m very happy with! And Lilian offered to take our picture twice so I really appreciated getting photos of us in the canyon too!
Now that you’ve looked at these photos, go watch Britney Spears’ Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman music video.
H O R S E S H O E B E N D
We had never heard of Horseshoe Bend until we checked into our Best Western in Page, AZ the night before! The woman at the counter showed us a picture of it on her desktop and we were blown away, but thought something that amazing would probably take a long hike to get to. Um, no. We stopped at Wal-Mart in Page on our way out to the Grand Canyon when a few miles down the road we saw the sign and parking lot for Horseshoe Bend. We pulled over and found out it was only a 3/4 mile flat hike.
Just remember, minutes before we had been in Wal-Mart. There is no reason you should not stop here lol.
Our takeaway tips:
- OMG wear sunscreen. So much sunscreen.
- Be careful how long you stand out there because the heat is real, my friends.
- Wear this mascara because when you get sweat in your contacts on the walk back you can completely wipe your eyes and it will not come off!! :)
G R A N D C A N Y O N N A T I O N A L P A R K
The peak of our trip, the Grand Canyon! Planning for this part alone was kind of overwhelming because I had no idea how visiting the park worked. If you’ve never been, let me break it down easily for you. The park is broken up into three sections based on the bus routes that run through them. Each section has lots of stops of lookout points. There is a rim trail if you want to walk from viewpoint to viewpoint, or you can just ride the bus and it will take you. You can seriously come to the Grand Canyon in a cocktail dress and heels and see it easily. No hiking or stepping off of concrete is necessary. This just blew my mind!
But the canyon also blew my mind. It’s just so big and amazing that it’s hard to take it all in by just staring at it from above. We attempted to hike down into the canyon at Hermit’s Rest but didn’t make it too far down thanks to my tired knees. But I really think getting into the canyon makes the experience much more organic!
Our takeaway tips:
- If you can’t find accommodations in the park (they book out far in advance) look for hotels just south of the main entrance in Tusayan. We stayed at – you guessed it – another Best Western.
- Pack your big zoom lens. I wasn’t going to, but Trae convinced me to throw it in the backpack and I’m so glad I did!
- Get to a sunset spot early to stake out your spot!
F L A G S T A F F , A R I Z O N A
We spent one night close to the Grand Canyon and then the second night in Flagstaff because it was much less expensive, and closer to our next destination. We stayed a ghetto Travelodge, but it did have this cool painting on the side of it.
We had dinner and beers that evening at Lumberyard Brewing Co. The Vietnamese Burger rules. Other highlights were Macy’s European Coffeehouse, eggs Benedict at La Bellavia, and Historic Brewing Company.
P E T R I F I E D F O R E S T N A T I O N A L P A R K & T H E P A I N T E D D E S E R T
We timed our departure from Flagstaff so that we would be going through the Painted Desert at sunset, but it turned out that it didn’t matter because a big storm followed us the whole way! I was driving when the rain got so heavy that I couldn’t see anything in front of me. So scary! It made for an even more eery experience at the Petrified Forest National Park with the dark clouds looming over the post-apocalypic looking scenery!
The landscape was unlike anything we’d ever seen. It was hard to grasp the idea that this was once a forest and that these pieces of petrified wood are 225 million years old!
The park is experienced via car with hiking trails at some of the stops. We pulled over to see Crystal Forest, Blue Mesa, Agate Bridge, and Newspaper Rock. Because it looked like it was going to be lightening we didn’t get to hike any of the trails, but that would have been fun to do!
I felt like the Painted Desert was not as impressive as it would have been if it were sunny (or maybe it wasn’t as impressive compared to the other amazing things we had seen prior?) We stopped at a few places for pictures and tried not to get blown over by the wind, seriously!
Our takeaway tip:
- We came in the south entrance of the park off Hwy 180 and then drove north through the park so we would end at the Painted Desert and not have to back track to get back to I-40. Thank you to Kyle and Tiffany for that piece of advice!
A L B U Q U R Q U E & S A N T A F E
From the Petrified Forest we headed into ABQ for our last night of this trip within our trip. I booked our stay last minute and ended up getting an $89 deal at the Sheraton. It was glorious!! :) We didn’t do much in ABQ the next day except visit a well-reviewed liquor store which definitely held up to its reputation.
T H A T ‘ S A L L , F O L K S !
Fortunately when we got back “home” to Eagle Nest we had four more days to chill and recoup from all of these adventures! We definitely thought about keeping the trip going though. There is just so much to see that would only be a few hours this way and then a few hours that way….so if you have more time you could do this loop and also add on Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah, and then Sedona National Park in Arizona. We kept encountering people on our trip that were making the same loop but were also doing these parks or spending more time in one area to do more things. It’s so hard to do it all, but I think you’ve got to just pick your top faves and do those!
If you made it to the end of this post you get a gold star!! Thanks for reading :)