Travel
5 min

Exploring the desert of the US southwest

A Phoenix to Santa Fe road trip

On Highway 89, heading toward the Grand Canyon. Credit: Aefa Mulholland
The American Southwest is the perfect place to escape winter. As well as boasting lots of sunny days, dramatic desert views and a slew of quirky towns, this part of the world has some incredible roads, from Interstate 17, which winds north from the Valley of the Sun through the red rocks of Sedona, to Highway 64, which clings to the brim of the Grand Canyon, to New Mexico’s rugged I-40, better known as Route 66. These desert roads offer outstanding opportunities to see awe-inspiring scenery, experience weird and wonderful slices of Americana and, most importantly, indulge those Thelma and Louise fantasies. 
 
Distance: 1,397 kilometres
 
Drive time: 16 hours
 
Pit stops: Wild Horse Pass/Tortilla Flat/Scottsdale/Phoenix/Jerome/Sedona/Flagstaff/Grand Canyon/Acoma Pueblo/Albuquerque/Santa Fe
 
DAY ONE
 
(18 kilometres) Fly into Phoenix, capital of the Copper State. What was a sleepy little Southwestern town before the Second World War, known for its lemons, oranges and fields of cotton, now sprawls for 650 kilometres. Take it easy on your first night in the desert; Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort (wildhorsepassresort.com), just 18 kilometres from Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, is nestled between the Sierra Estrella and South Mountains on the Gila River Indian Reservation. 
 
Once you’ve checked in, prepare yourself for the rigours of the road with a Blue Coyote Body Wrap or River Salt Glow at Aji Spa, take a tour with cultural concierge Ginger Sunbird Martin, dine at the AAA five-diamond Kai restaurant or simply soak up the spectacular scenery. Early risers might see some of the local herd of 1,500 wild mustangs galloping across the desert.
 
DAY TWO
 
(82 kilometres) Drive the Superstition Freeway toward Apache Junction and take in the jagged Superstition Mountains, which spike up to 1,530 metres. Pass towering saguaro and chola cactus, as well as such atmospheric directions as the sign to Deadman Wash as turkey vultures watch from the gnarled, charcoal-coloured branches of mesquite trees. The highway enters Tonto National Forest and reaches the tiny old stagecoach stop of Tortilla Flat (tortillaflataz.com), population six. Stop for prickly pear gelato at the general store. Park and hike along the Apache Trail, but be warned: it’s home to quite a cast of creatures. In addition to deadly snakes, scorpions and tarantulas, local wildlife includes javelina pigs, coyote and black bears. 
 
(85 kilometres) Head west to Scottsdale, the “Resort Capital of the World,” which, as well as offering some sumptuous spas, boasts droves of tempting restaurants, an exciting arts district and irresistible shopping (scottsdaledowntown.com). Soak up the exclusive Scottsdale vibe over lunch on the terrace at Elements, at the exclusive Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain Resort (sanctuaryoncamelback.com). 
 
(14 kilometres) Continue west to downtown Phoenix. The USA’s fifth largest city is a sizzling destination in every way. Its 325 days of sunshine have attracted an energetic population that makes the most of the stunning setting. Tumbles of dusty red buttes rise at unexpected intervals throughout its neighbourhoods. Escape the afternoon heat at the impressive Phoenix Art Museum (phxart.org). Phoenix is a titillating town if you’re a foodie: don’t miss gay Senator Ken Cheuvront’s eponymous bistro (cheuvronts.com) for wonderful wines, great ambiance and Southwestern flavours. The city really heats up once the sun goes down. Queer folks booze and cruise at the modern, two-level Amsterdam (amsterdambar.com) and the adjoining dance club and beach bar. For an overnight pit stop downtown, pull up at the hip, gay-owned, high-octane Clarendon (theclarendon.net). Alternatively, beside the airport in Tempe, the spectacular Buttes (marriott.com) boasts poolside waterfalls and hot tubs carved right out of the mountainside. 
 
DAY THREE
 
Grab an eye-catching cake plus coffee at the quirky, queer-adored La Grande Orange (lagrandeorangegrocery.com) and hit the road north.
 
(187 kilometres) A former copper-mining town, Jerome found a new identity as an eccentric arts town in the 1960s. Stop by the Shoe College (wilmaworld.com), where irrepressible shoe designer Tamera Lyndsay — who has shod Joan Jett, Annie Lennox and Cindy Wilson, of The B52s — rustles up her fetching footwear. 
 
(45 kilometres) Wind down through Jerome State Historic Park, on 89A, to Sedona. Scenery such as Coffee Pot Rock is otherworldly, but in-town attractions like the Red Planet Diner, with its parking-lot UFO, and the nearby Ye Olde UFO Store are out there in their own way.
 
(50 kilometres) Head north to Flagstaff, the friendly high-desert town that’s home to Northern Arizona University. Brix (brixflagstaff.com) is Flagstaff’s finest farm-focused dining destination; ingredients are local and sustainable. Try crispy pork belly with Black Mesa Ranch chevre and the excellent steak frites. Swill cocktails at the historic Monte Vista (hotelmontevista.com) amid an eclectic, mixed crowd. Stay downtown, within strolling distance of the historic district, at the luxurious Inn at 410 (inn410.com). The gay-owned 1894 gem has 11 rooms, incredible breakfasts and an open bar. For something a little quieter, the gay-owned Starlight Pines (starlightpinesbb.com) is a lovely four-room Victorian B&B with character, gourmet breakfasts and charming hosts. It’s just off the old Route 66 and is a perfect starting point for Grand Canyon expeditions. 
 
DAY FOUR
 
(87 kilometres) From Flagstaff, Highway 89 takes you to the brim of the Little Colorado River Gorge (navajonationparks.org) at a point where the gorge is a kilometre deep and the river is a tiny, churning force far, far below. 
 
(90 kilometres) The Grand Canyon wows — even with the hordes of tourists milling between you and everything you want to take photos of. The best vantage points for the mighty, mile-deep canyon include Mather, Yavapai and Yaki points.
 
(153 kilometres) Drive back to Flagstaff on Highway 64 via the quaint town of Williams, Arizona.
 
DAY FIVE
 
(425 kilometres) Cruise east along Route 66 and succumb to the temptation of exit signs promising pieces of authentic Americana, including rusted old gas stations; abandoned theme parks; ghost towns, such as Two Guns (recently bought by Russell Crowe); offbeat attractions, like the world’s largest dreamcatcher (in Meteor City); the crumbled Twin Arrows Trading Post (exit 219); and Holbrook’s sizeable dinosaur collection, an eccentric nod to the area’s original inhabitants where you’ll meet everything from local chindesaurus Gertie to a cast of far less paleontologically accurate characters.
 
Continue along I-40 through the Petrified Forest National Park and into New Mexico. Disappointingly, the state bird, the roadrunner, is neither purple nor common. They’re shy and brown and scuttle surreptitiously through the shrubbery. The landscape, however, does not disappoint. The El Malpais ice caves, Bandera Crater and Chaco canyon’s cliff dwellings all make stunning stops. One of the most dramatic sights, Acoma Pueblo, the Acoma tribe’s mesa-top village, perches on a sheer 112-metre sandstone bluff. Continuously inhabited since 1150, today it’s a welcoming oasis in the desert. After lunch at Huwak’a, at Acoma’s Sky City Cultural Center and Haak’u Museum (skycity.com), go up top and tour the ancient pueblo. 
 
(101 kilometres) Drive along Albuquerque’s Central Avenue, a fabulous motel- and neon-studded flashback to the heyday of Route 66 and a fine photo-stop.
 
(100 kilometres) I-25 takes you north to the final stop of this road trip, Santa Fe, a marvellous melding of Hispanic, native American and anglo influences, backdropped by the 1,100-metre Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Check in to a private adobe casita at lesbian-owned, all-welcoming Triangle Inn (triangleinn.com), sample the tapas at La Boca (labocasf.com) and then check out the action at the elegant queer-owned Rouge Cat (rougecat.com). 

For map locations and website links to more than 100 places of interest see our 
gay Albuquerque, gay Phoenix and gay Santa Fe listings pages.