I’m grateful for that unseat-belted, late 1970s family journey across the Mojave Desert for getting me hooked. Ever since, the drone of late-shift driving, the redolence of possibility and the lullaby of boredom beckon me to the open road.
Last winter, my daughter and I dry-docked our 1974 VW Joy Bus to refurbish her interior. As we scraped and buffed the barnacled rust, dust and accumulated miles, we penciled future road trip stories on a sketch pad as visions for our renewed adventure mobile.
The 100 hours in our unheated garage were warmed by the voice of actor Joe Barrett narrating William Least Heat-Moon’s soliloquy Blue Highways: A Journey into America. His back-road sauntering convinced me that authentic road trips are best discovered along America’s two-lanes, the routes traced in blue on old-school Rand McNally road maps.
“Unforgettable experiences are born from the unexpected,” we read in the Wildsam Field Guides Desert Southwest. “And road trips, most especially, beg the traveler to write plans in pencil and trace routes on the fly.”
We complied, hitting the road with no real plans or reservations, just a general orientation west, and south. One thousand miles later, we returned with this bouquet of postcard highlights from Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico. Consider it your guide to similar adventure—just keep it traced in pencil.
Salida Big Brown Ale
Stop in Salida for a Big S Brown Ale and Roma wood-fired pizza at Amicas Pizza and micro brewery. Then walk two blocks to dip your feet in the rolling Arkansas at Riverside Park.
Soak Away Your Stiff Back
Family owned and operated as a rural dude ranch since 1962, Wuanita Hot Springs Ranch now welcomes day visitors. Old West cliffs create the perfect backdrop for the no-frills hot springs pool, and you’ll find authentic cowboy wear in the quasi-gift shop. Day soak pass for two: $25.
“No other canyon in North America combines the depth, narrowness, sheerness and somber countenance,” says geologist Wallace Hansen of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. It’s rumored that the deepest parts of the canyon receive only 30 minutes of sunlight each day.
Drive 12 miles into the park on South Rim Road to the dead end at High Point, and walk out to Warner Point. Plan two to three hours to explore the vertiginous overlooks. Stay overnight in the 88-spot South Rim Campground for $16 to $22 a night.
Worth the Hike: Ouray Box Canyon Waterfall
Discover the culprit responsible for carving this dramatic box canyon by hiking up ramps and trails to this 285-foot waterfall. Take County Road 361 south of Ouray to the trailhead.
Be a Hero
The spectacular Million Dollar Highway from Ridgeway to Durango is the most avalanche prone road in the Lower 48, and no section is more treacherous than 11,018-foot Red Mountain Pass. Check the road report first; Red is prone to closure from rockfall, slides, and avalanches. We turned heads toward the top. Nobody expected our Joy Bus on top of this high alpine route.
The three indoor Shangri-La Soaking Pools are proof that the gold miner entrepreneurial spirit is still alive. Water is not from a natural hot spring, but the pools are quiet, simple and clean for $12 to $18 a person.
Access Inaccessible Wilderness
Hop a train for a perfect break from being behind the wheel. Ride the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge rails—operating since 1882—to unlock wilderness grandeur inaccessible by car. Plan on a full day, starting at $89 per person roundtrip.
Durango’s Siesta Motel offers a funky, throwback, mom and pop motor lodge-style stay. Look for the neon cactus.
Explore Ancient History
We romped to views of the cliff dwelling clusters of Cliff Palace, Balcony House and Spruce Tree House at Mesa Verde National Park. From May through September, you must purchase tickets for ranger-guided access to climbing long ladders and scooch through short tunnels in the popular cliff dwellings.
Four in One
Earn your honorary Clark Griswold Vacation badge at Four Corners Monument. Stand on the only point in the U.S. where four state lines intersect: Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico.
Once the throat of a volcano, Shiprock rises 1,583 feet above the high-desert plain. The magnificent and sacred Navajo Nation summit has been featured in movies from Easy Rider to Transformers. We followed unmarked dirt roads off Route 13 to the base to pause in the solitude.
Soak It All In
Like a treasure at the end of the road trip rainbow, Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs delivers a high-end Santa Fe spa feel with Manitou Springs prices. De-stress soaking pools are notched into a sandstone cliffside safe enough for desert bandits like Billy the Kid. One hour from Santa Fe, 50 minutes from Taos, the collection of nine mineral pools are world famous. Day soaking from $20 to $32 per person.
Joy Bus Soundtrack
Strange Trails, Lord Huron
The Legend of Johnny Cash
Bringing on the Weather, Jackopierce
Road Trip Mantra
“To see America, be a traveler, not a tourist.” —Inspired by a New York Times interview with William Least Heat-Moon
Cheap eats on the go. Add slices of fresh avocado and hard-boiled egg to a 29-cent ramen noodle packet, heated over a camp stove. Throw in a handful of spinach. Roadside goodness.
Explorers’ Sleep Cheap Tip
National forests and forest service roads are plentiful in Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico. An old-school paper atlas comes in handy. Follow your nose; sniff out a free campsite.
This Field Report first appeared in Springs Magazine.