Road Trip Los Angeles To Austin: Why You Should Sometimes Definitely Take The Longest Way

Let’s get one thing straight, shall we? I believe road trips should be a form of travel where you spend a lot of time getting from point A to point B. Where you enjoy the journey as much as the destination (you know, like that good old metaphor for life). To me, road trip perfection was that time I headed out of Los Angeles and took my sweet time to get Austin, as in 6 days amount of time. 

Yes, I drove just over 1800 miles which, yes, is about 400 miles out of the way according to Google Maps. And, yes, it could be driven in one day if you really wanted to but that is the last thing I ever want to do.

So, we left early one morning from the West Coast and took our time, though we still drove anywhere from 100 to 400 miles a day. What I learned: this is a trip to do with your closest friends, like when you want to make like Thelma & Louise (sans roadhouse rowdiness or those last few fatal feet), and when you want to stop to smell the cactus flowers.

DAY 1: LOS ANGELES TO PALM SPRINGS (~100 miles)

Road trips are like diets: you gotta ease into them so you don’t get hangry or harried. That meant we drove just 90 miles from Los Angeles to Palm Springs on Day 1 and made the most of the rest of our day. I make a point to go to Palm Springs often (usually for a whole weekend), so trust that there's more than enough to do. On this stop we spent the afternoon hunting down Date Shakes, spending time in the spa, and plotting the rest of the trip.

DAY 2: PALM SPRINGS TO SEDONA (~400 miles)

Wake up early and do a sunrise hike in Palm Springs or book it at dawn to Sedona in time for sunset — either way plan out Day 2 because this drive will take up most of your day. Go off the beaten path and take Route 62 so you can pass through Joshua Tree and TwentyNine Palms and grab a quick bite. Stop by Natural Sisters Cafe in Joshua Tree for something healthy or detour to Pionneertown for some frontier vibes and American food at Pappy + Harriets If not, take it from me that there aren’t many places to stop for a bite after you leave Twenty Nine Palms so pack road snacks or get food to go before you leave Palm Springs. 

After passing through Twenty Nine Palms, head north through Havasu to take the Insterstate 40 because it overlaps with Route 66 at this point. This Northern route takes you through the forests of Flagstaff and then drops you onto Route 89A past the stunning sienna cliffs of Sedona. Between the posh resorts, the stunning views, and the alternative energy vortexes, it's no wonder why Sedona is on a lot of bucket lists. But, I’m not gonna lie: Sedona can get touristy in the Spring and Fall, so, to have some peace of mind I'd rec staying at a less central (albeit pricier hotel) like the Amara Resort or Mii Amo. Also, from here on out, know that the majority of the food is super Southwest or TexMex so don’t fight it — just embrace it.

Detour: If you want to drive less this day you could instead take the Insterate 10 due east and go to Scottsdale for the night instead. Check our links below for all our Scottsdale recs if that's the way you go!

DAY 3: SEDONA TO SANTA FE (~400 miles) 

Speaking of super Southwest, the drive along Interstate 40 from Sedona to Santa Fe is full of mesas, buttes, and all that other scenery you associate with this region. To break up the drive, stop at the truck stop just at the Arizona-New Mexico stateline. This truck stop’s diner-cum-convenience store is straight out of the 1950s, including a bouffant-clad cashier, and throwback candy like Clark bars and Charleston Chews — which were likely on that shelf before any of us were born. 

Most of New Mexico is magical but Taos and Santa Fe (the people, the vistas, the light, the food) are two really special places. That said aim to make it to Santa Fe by the afternoon so you have enough time to walk around and enjoy it. Speaking of which, we stayed on the plaza at the Hotel St Francis because it's super central; if you have more time, there are plenty of resorts (hello, Hacienda at Hotel Santa Fe and Rosewood) if you want to get away from it all. 

DAY 4: SANTA FE TO MARFA (~450 miles)

You can’t really say you went to Santa Fe until you have a full-on Southwest breakfast. A lot of people swear by Tia Sophia’s and The Pantry but we loved the all-out nature of both the food and décor at Café Pasqual’s. The décor in Pasqual’s is thoroughly New Mexican — papier-mâché trucks and dried chiles hanging around. The Café Pasqual’s menu is an eclectic mix of New Mexican food so we had the waiter bring us the three most popular dishes: papas fritas, chile relleno, and huevos motuleños. If breakfast burrito history is more you speed, head to Tia Sophia's which is the alleged birthplace of that very dish!

Eat enough so you’re full enough to last you for hours and caffeinated enough you don’t slip into a food coma, because the drive to Marfa is long. Don’t fret if you don’t know Marfa – it’s a small town in the Texas desert that became a minimalist and modern art mecca thanks to the longtime presence of Donald Judd and his foundation. It is in the middle of absolutely nowhere it feels like a cleaned-up, miniature, warm-weather take on San Francisco.

Suffice it to say, it’s a mix of everything — a bit rustic, a bit quirky, a dash old Texas, and a bit contemporary and that’s why it’s a place you have to visit at least once. If you’re wondering why you’d want to spend the night here, it’s one part “trust me,” but mostly it’s because you’ll want to stay up and see if you can spot the Marfa lights. If you decide to spend the night, stay at the Thunderbird Hotel or, for some yurt living, at the El Cosmico

 

Day 5: MARFA TO SAN ANTONIO (~400 miles)

I’m going to go on record and say the world's largest collection of tumbleweed is most probably on the stretch between Marfa and San Antonio. Or maybe that's just the impression because that’s all you see for most of the 400 miles. So gas up, eat up, and get a good playlist together before you start this drive. 

San Antonio is the perfect first city stop in Texas because it’s soooo Texas — high humidity, high hair, and a whole lotta TexMex — and yet it's often overlooked. If you haven’t been there, people will tell you to stay on Riverwalk — and it is worth a quick glimpse but it's a bit like Disneyland-in-Texas level cheesiness if you ask us — so make time to check out the rest of town. Head to Southtown (as in south of downtown) for classics like local-style tacos, cocktails, or coffee (scroll down for all our picks).

And before you leave town, visit the Pearl  if you want to dork out food-lover style and check out everything from the Culinary Institute of America’s San Antonio branch to great restaurants and a fabulous farmers market (if you're there on Saturdays and Sundays).

Day 6: SAN ANTONIO TO AUSTIN (~80 miles)

If you take Highway 130 (and you should) you can zip up to Austin in two shakes (or whatever it is they say in Texas) because, with an 85 mph speed limit, it’s the fastest road in the state.

If you have time, take a couple of days in Austin because, it’s an amazing place, especially if you’re into food. From barbecue to farm-to-table, there’s too much to list here but check out below and our One Perfect Day: Austin for recs.

ESSENTIAL DETAILS

PALM SPRINGS

All my favorite places are listed in our Palm Springs Travel Guide. 

SCOTTSDALE

DRINK morning coffee at Fourtifour Coffee Bar

EAT nachos and margaritas at Diego Pops

EAT dinner at Fat Ox

EAT dessert at Super Chunk

SHOP vintage at Vintage by Misty

SEDONA

EAT no-joke Southwestern fare: Elote Café

EAT sandwiches that don’t suck: Indian Gardens Café & Market

STAY for some peace and quiet: Amara Resort

SANTA FE

EAT real-deal New Mexico breakfast: Café Pasqual’s

EAT high dining in the high desert: Terra

STAY in a central location with a slice of history: Hotel St Francis

STAY for top-notch service: Hacienda at Hotel Santa Fe

MARFA

EAT Middle Eastern-quality falafel out of a 1974 food truck: Food Shark 

EAT New York City-level food in the desert: Cochineal 

DRINK with memorable décor: Planet Marfa 

STAY like a happy hippy: El Cosmico

SAN ANTONIO

EAT griddled tacos you'll talk about for days: Rosarios 

DRINK local craft beer: Blue Star Brewing

DRINK well-made coffee or cocktails: Halcyon Coffee Bar 

STAY at a boutique hotel on the riverwalk: Hotel Valencia 

STAY chez my favorite Texas hoteliers: Hotel Havana 

STAY at the anticipated newcomer (opening October 2015): Hotel Emma

CHECK OUT the local food hall and farmers market: The Pearl 

GEEK out at this historical house (after you've seen the Alamo, of course): Guenther House 

AUSTIN

In addition to our One Perfect Day: Austin recs, here are a few of my faves:

EAT chic contemporary Thai: Sway Thai

EAT award-winning, inspiring seafood: Uchi

EAT no-fuss TexMex tacos: Guero’s Taco Bar

EAT late night TexMex like their Love Migas: Magnolia Cafe

EAT Vietnamese for brunch: Elizabeth Street Cafe

EAT worth the queue barbecue: Franklin Barbecue  

DRINK at a hole-in-the-wall joint: Midnight Cowboy Modeling Bar

STAY with cowboys and haunted halls: Driskill Hotel 

STAY where we’d move in if we could: Hotel Saint Cecilia 

STAY at the affordable but chic joint: Hotel San Jose


Updated July 2017

Photo credits: Girl with hat by Evan Dalen; Palm Springs hills by Laura Austin; open road by Leandro Crespi; adobe building by Drew Schrimsher; landscape by Suzanne Clements; cactus photo by Latisha Carlson; road closed by Tommaso Tuzj; old building photo by Hillary Fox; rock by Paul Edmondson; Austin by Tod Kapke; rearview mirror by Jeremy Pawlowski

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P.P.S. Hitting the road soon? Show us how you travel in good taste by sharing your adventures on Instagram with the #swsociety hashtag!

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