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 out remaining road trip ideas.
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 to 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 Twentynine Palms so pack road snacks (or make your own!) or before you leave Palm Springs.
After passing through Twentynine Palms, head north through Havasu to take the Interstate 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 for best road trip destinations. 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 Interstate 10 due east and go to Scottsdale for the night instead. Check our links below for all our Scottsdale road trip ideas and 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 state line. 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 road trip destinations. 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 and 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 of 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 there’s a reason we consider it one of the best road trip destinations for those living on the west coast. Check out below and our One Perfect Day: Austin for recs.
All my favorite places are listed in our Palm Springs Travel Guide.
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
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
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
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
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 with Southern Texas flair at: 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
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
What's your favorite road trip? Let us know in the comments below!
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Updated March 2019
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