Road Trip Plan – New Orleans to Grand Canyon 15 nights
The most requested road trip destination I received from my quick Twitter poll was to the Grand Canyon, so I set out to put together a two-week trip to the South Rim along with some great sights I’d add along the route.
Trip Planning Fundamentals
I think it’s important to note at the start a couple of my trip planning fundamentals as this particular route is interstate-heavy and goes against one of my fundamentals!
1 – Keep drives to fewer than 9 hours per day
2 – Avoid interstates
The most manageable drive days we have are fewer than 9 hours and generally fall along these lines:
Arrive at lodging/dinner
Now obviously you’re going to have some gas station breaks, potty breaks, or random stops along the way, but this is a framework for thinking about timing that I use every day when I’m routing a trip.
Most road trips have some element of ‘interstates to make good time toward a destination’ and unfortunately, this route has a lot at the start and the end which we don’t love, but it’s worth it to maximize the time out west near some truly world-famous destinations.
Pack or Print your Maps
While we use our phone’s maps extensively we’ve found it’s so helpful to have hard-copy maps along with us for each state we drive through. Karen is our navigator and will use any map (if you are an AAA member you can call them a few weeks before your trip and they’ll send you free maps) but now consistently shops ahead to get the Rand Mcnally EasyFinder maps now. These are laminated and easy to open and refold, or fold in half or however needed. Plus, she will trace out our route with a marker each day to follow along, and can then wipe the map clean again that evening.
If you’ve found helpful maps that you want to print and take along, put them all together in one folder to bring into the car. This Arizona scenic roads map will be helpful when in/around Sedona in particular.
Day 1 – New Orleans to Dallas (or more specifically, the west side of Dallas) – 8 hours 20 minutes
This is a day for driving. Boring interstate days can work well at the beginning of trips since there’s some excitement about the start of a great road trip adventure.
Since Dallas is roughly 8 hours from New Orleans, it makes a good stopping point that will have easy lodging options.
If you leave early and can push through four hours until lunch, the riverside park in Natchitoches, LA (pronounced nack-O-tish) is a really pretty place to have a picnic. Watch Steel Magnolias before or after your trip and you’ll recognize many sites from this quaint town. Save some leftover bread for the kids to toss down to the turtles in the river, there are TONS! Or, if you are willing to add another hour or so to your driving day because of the adrenaline of the first day. Check the timing on Maps to check other routes, but one option would be to head west at the Natchitoches exit and cross the border to Texas over Toledo Bend Reservoir and head on through Nacogdoches (pronounced nack-O-doe-chez) over to Dallas. This is one option to get a break from the interstate for a while and that less populated area of western Louisiana and eastern Texas is a bit prettier than the main route.
*Road Trip Tip – When I’m staying in/around a major city, I try to get to the ‘other side’ of a city, meaning the side closer to our destination, even if it stretches the day out a bit. Then we can avoid traffic the following morning. There’s nothing worse than getting loaded up, ready to roll, and sitting in rush hour traffic.
Where to Stay: I’m targeting the Fairfield Inn in Decatur TX for this leg. West of Dallas, nice property, head-start on tomorrow’s route, and free breakfast.
Day 2 – West Dallas to Santa Rosa, NM (or Albuquerque, NM)
It’s 5 hours from Decatur to Cadillac Ranch on the west side of Amarillo, TX. 10 Cadillacs are half-buried in a field, right off of the interstate. This is a free, public and interactive art installation of a row of Cadillac cars stuck into the ground and spray painted. The interactive part is that you are welcome and encouraged to add your own creativity to it. Bring your own spray paint or, like us, you may find that others happily pass along remnants of their own cans after they are done, so that everyone can experience this interesting and fun living art experience. https://www.roadsideamerica.com/story/2220
My typical 8 hour drive puts us in Santa Rosa, NM. On a day like this, we might try to push further to a larger city like Albuquerque, especially if it means a shorter drive the next day with more time to explore.
Getting into Santa Rosa at a reasonable time, I might consider the 7 mile drive to Santa Rosa Lake State Park to set up and have a cookout dinner at the picnic area, with a 10 minute drive to the hotel afterward.
One thing I really like about Furkot (my primary road trip planning tool) is the ability to pop open the ‘sleep’ tab and see what options I might have around a town like Santa Rosa. Not only can I get a sense of options and rates, I can click right through to these links to book our room. It will even include my dates if I’ve planned those into Furkot.
Day 3 – Four Corners, Mesa Verde if you want to be quick, and Monument Valley
Now we finally get into some of the better drive parts and western sights. Every trip comes with tradeoffs, as I’d normally prefer the northern route through Santa Fe and Taos here, but mostly we’re focused on getting to a few major sites today.
Four Corners is the site where Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico come together. Jude had never been before and remembers talking about it with friends, back in high school, and they’d thought it’d be fun to play a game of cards with each person sitting in a different state. He was especially excited to see this. Karen had been before with her own family (who were road trip warriors as we are now) when she was a child. If your visit is like ours, there will be a line of people waiting to take their photos so you can do what you want, but you’ll want to make it quick.
Mesa Verde National Park is nearby, but really should have a longer trip as even the short visits on the NPS site recommend 4 hours (2 of which is driving). If you’re hoping to see cliff dwellings you can stop at Navajo National Monument on the next day’s shorter drive. If you want to spend some time here, be my guest, but I’d choose to roll on to one of the prettiest sites in the old west that I’ve ever seen: Monument Valley. I grew up watching westerns on TV and this was such a quintessential landscape.
Where to Stay: There are not a ton of lodging options in Monument Valley. We stayed at The View Hotel – Monument Valley. It is a Navajo owned and operated Hotel with a Restaurant and Trading Post (gift shop). It has a nice balance of rich culture, basic modern amenities, and simplicity which keeps you focused on what you are there for: the view! You can also book guided tours out through the area to see these famous rock formations up close if you’re up for an adventure. (Be warned, we saw lots of rattlesnake warning signs!)
We rented a premium cabin so we could have bunk beds for the kids and a small kitchen with living area separate from our bedroom. That, and the amazing view!
Get a good night’s rest, because the next day will take you to Page, AZ and two great outdoor spots that are becoming famous for being so ‘instagrammable’
Day 4 – Antelope Canyon, Horseshoe Bend, and Page AZ
It’s a relatively short drive to Page, but what should define your agenda for the day is whatever time you can get your tour booked for Antelope Canyon. Antelope is a slot canyon (a narrow channel with sheer rock walls significantly deeper than it is wide) that is on Navajo tribal land and is such a stunning landscape to be able to walk through. The closer to mid-day you can book your trip the better the light into the canyon, but it’s spectacular any time of day you can make it.
From here you can check in to your hotel in Page and drop off some things before heading to see Horseshoe Bend. Here the Colorado river makes a deep horseshoe cut and creates an amazing landscape. There’s a 1.5 mile hike out to the viewpoint that is largely flat but can be hot. Bring water and snacks and wear good hiking shoes.
In the afternoon (or early next morning) you can drive over and look at take the scenic drive to the Lake Powell Resort complex, or take in the Lake Powell Dam visitor’s center and overlook.
*Road Trip Tip You’ve now been on the road for 4 days so Page is a great place to restock any groceries or other items you need before you head to the next three day stretch.
Where to Stay: Courtyard by Marriott in Page. It’s not your typical courtyard property, and the location on the far west side of town gave it great proximity to the outdoor adventures that Page has to offer. There’s a great pool and restaurant on-site as well!
Day 5 – Arrive at the Grand Canyon!
It’s a 2.5 hour drive from Page to the south rim accommodations so feel free to explore around Page further and take your time on the drive from Page to enjoy desolate highway 89 til you get to the Cameron Trading Post (about a mile before you turn onto highway 64 to visit the South Rim of the Canyon). This is a huge gift shop and a great bathroom stop.
From here on, continue to take your time and stop at some of the many wonderful viewpoints along the way, from Desert View Watchtower (which should be the first stop you come across inside of the park), further west to Grandview Point (which also has a picnic area), and then the large Grand Canyon Visitor’s Center. From that parking lot you can also walk to Mather Point and Yavapi Point, and more.
*Pro-Tip – My ‘secret’ place at the Grand Canyon South Rim is Shoshone Point. There’s a small unmarked parking lot that is the beginning of the trail to the rim. It’s roughly a mile out and a mile back. The trail ends at a small picnic area, with an amazing place you can largely have to yourself with amazing views of the canyon. Like most photos of the Grand Canyon, they just don’t do it justice.
For planning your time at the South Rim, the Grand Canyon’s excellent trip planners are a great place to start.
Where to Stay: If you’ve booked south rim lodging well in advance you can then continue west to the Grand Canyon Village where most of the rim lodging is located. There are lots of options here that generally book up quite fast: reservations at Bright Angel Lodge, El Tovar, and other South Rim lodging open up 13 months in advance on the 1st of the month for the following year (on May 1st 2021, reservations will open up for all of May 2022). Read the terms and conditions because they can change, but on my last check, reservations could be cancelled 2 days before arrival. Loding will generally take a deposit of your first night’s room and tax on credit card at the time you make the reservation.
If you choose not to stay at the South Rim you can stay in nearby Tusayan which has more traditional western lodging. There’s also the Maswik Lodge which is about a half-mile from the rim and offers more traditional accommodations while still in the park, for a lower price point. At Maswik there’s also a great gift shop, trip planning desk, and cafeteria with a wide variety of options.
Day 6 – at the Grand Canyon
A great way to experience the canyon is to get below the rim, and a shorter hike like the start of the Bright Angel Trail to the 1 ½ mile resthouse can be a great option. The Canyon is a desert with steep walls, a lack of water and shade, and other risks so perhaps you might want to take this trip down a ways and then return without going that whole distance. Remember, downhill feels easier than coming back up and the climb back of over 2000 feet in 1 & ½ miles is quite a trek in itself.
Some other options are to use the excellent park shuttles or rent a bike out to Hermit’s Rest, or or take the Greenway Trail for a different canyon experience, take in one of many free ranger programs, and don’t forget to have a cone from the Bright Angel ice cream shop to cool off after your day of exploring.
We happened upon an incredible Native performance right outside the Hopi House which is on the east end of the village.
At night, the South Rim is an amazing place to take in the dark sky and see wonderful stars If you’re so inclined, you might want to grab a nap during the day and stay up later for some incredible star gazing, and you can sleep in a bit the next morning to get a later start on a short driving day.
If you are interested in really checking off the bucket list and hiking all the way in and out of the canyon, it is an amazing experience and deserves a post of its own, but reach out to us if you want some tips or advice if we haven’t done that post yet when you read this. It is truly one of the neatest experiences either of us have had in our life. We hiked down the South Kaibab Trail, spent the night at the bottom at Phantom Ranch, and came up the next day on the Bright Angel Trail. We couldn’t walk normally for a few days after it, but it was truly incredible.
Day 7 – Grand Canyon to Sedona (2 1/2 hours)
Take one last morning walk at the rim and get any last pictures and then get ready for a short drive to lovely Sedona. This is a day full of short scenic drives with lots of stops along the way.
Head south and take highway 180 at Vaile to take the San Francisco Peaks Scenic Road, which is slightly longer than taking highway 64/I40, but far more scenic. You will hop onto I-17 for a bit.
If you’ve ever wanted to ‘Take it Easy’ like The Eagles suggested by ‘Standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona – you’ll need to take I-40 East from Flagstaff to exit 252 for Winslow, about a 50 minute drive each way.
Our recommendation would be to skip Winslow and hop onto Arizona 89A to drive through stunning Oak Creek Canyon and Coconino National Forest on the Sedona-Oak Creek Canyon Scenic Road. First stop at the Oak Creek Canyon Vista to take in the overlook. There are numerous overlooks, trails, places to take a dip, and picnic areas. Do be sure to stop at Midgely Bridge to take in the vista there before you leave the canyon and drive into Sedona.
From Sedona take 89A South (but really West) along the Dry Creek Scenic Road. This road has huge views and lots to take in for a 6.5 mile drive.
If you’re up for more scenic driving, continue on to the Jerome, Clarkdale & Cottonwood Historic Road (9 miles) and the Mingus Mountain Scenic Road (13 miles). These roads aren’t super long but they are winding and scenic so give yourself plenty of time to explore, and turn back early if you need to. You’re on vacation so don’t feel like you have to be rushed.
Backtrack to your hotel and spend the evening relaxing!
We suggest taking this chance at the end of the day to restock supplies in Sedona, potentially do some laundry, and get ready for a full day exploring Sedona tomorrow.
Day 8 – Sedona
Explore Palatki Heritage Site – I brake for Heritage Sites, and here’s one right in the Red Rock 13 miles northwest of Sedona with cliff dwellings and pictographs estimated to date back from the 12th through 14th century. There are three trails at the site that are roughly ¼ mile one way making it possible to do all three in a mile and a half. (As of our posting date, this site is currently closed for COVID measures, but you should check on this if you’re in the area as this hopefully won’t be true in future years or even months). Tour group reservations are required and near the cliff dwelling is limited to ten visitors at a time so call to make reservations at (928) 282-3854 between 830am-300pm to make reservations with the US Forest Service.
Have a picnic and take in one of Sedona’s most famous views. Drive to the Crescent Moon Picnic Site in the Coconino National Forest and enjoy this beautiful day-use area. You can set up and have your picnic using the tables available, and then take a walk along Oak Creek and see the iconic Cathedral Rock reflecting off of Oak Creek. The Crescent Moon Spiritual Area is also reported by some to be “an energy vortex” so you may get some different sensations as you spend your time in the area.
Slide Rock State Park – If the weather is warm and water is flowing well, Slide Rock State Park can be a great family adventure. Walk the 0.3 mile trail along Oak Creek to the Slide Rock Swim Area where natural forces have made a natural water slide along part of Oak Creek. It’s a very popular area so if you’re visiting on a weekend you may find yourself with many other nature lovers; that said who could pass on the opportunity to waterslide down an actual creek!
Day 9 – Sedona to Tucson (4 hours)
The goal here is to get to Tucson and experience Saguaro National Park. Saguaro is split into two separate parts, one on the east and one on the west side of Tucson. It’s about 45 minutes between the two parks so you could visit both and do the two scenic drives in an afternoon.
Saguaro West (Tucson Mountain District) has more dense cacti and amazing overlooks of the canyon. The Bajada Loop Drive is ~ 6 miles with lots of stops and pull-outs available. Here you can take the Valley View Overlook Trail that is a 0.8 mile hike with a great view.
Another great short hike is the Signal Hill Trail. At 0.3 miles it’s one of the shortest hikes you’ll ever take, and as a bonus you can get right up close with some petroglyphs!
If you want a longer trail in Saguaro East the Mica View Loop will get you into the foothills. The East section of the park (Rincon Mountain District) is closer to the mountains so you’ll see the catcii with a lovely mountain background.
If you have some extra time, a visit to the Desert Museum could be in order. This is a combination Zoo / Museum / Aquarium / Botanical Garden that does a great job of synthesizing the whole experience.
Where to Stay: I’d be very tempted to splurge and stay at the JW Marriott Tucson. There’s an amazing pool and lazy river, spa & golf course for grown ups, and great views all around. That said, I’d probably book us in at the Residence Inn Williams Centre so I’d be on the East side of town for tomorrow’s drive.
Day 10 – Tucson to Alamogordo (5 hours)
If you visited Saguaro West yesterday, Saguaro East is on your way out of town so you could easily do the loop drive and a short hike, and then really get on the road. Your destination is White Sands National Park, the world’s largest gypsum dunefield. Who knew that was so exciting?! Here you can take Dunes Drive which is the 8 mile road to the heart of the park. One of the main activities here is sledding, so you can buy a plastic snow saucer from the gift shop and sled to your heart’s content.
Toy Train Depot – If you are a train fan or have one in your family, make a stop at the Toy Train Depot. It’s got a great history about rail travel, model trains, and of course a train ride as well.
Where to stay: The Fairfield Inn Alamogordo is our choice for a simple and clean property with free breakfast and easy parking.
Day 11 – Alamogordo to Carlsbad (3 hours 15 minutes)
Don’t leave Alamogordo without seeing the World’s Largest Pistachio as you may never pass this way again. There’s much more at PistachioLand so if you love those little nuggets don’t miss this stop!
There are two possible side trips you can add to this drive if you want to make more of a day of it.
Billy the Kid Byway – If you’re an old west fan, you can drive through much of the historic territory that Billy the Kid was famous for in Lincoln County. The website gives a good overview of the drive and terrain. The byway is 84 miles and you should plan 2 hours to drive it and stop in Lincoln at a minimum.
Where to stay: Arrive in Carlsbad and settle in for a good rest to prep for a day’s exploring of two national parks in one day tomorrow. There’s a TownePlace Suites Carlsbad and a Fairfield Inn & Suites Carlsbad to choose from here.
Day 12 – Carlsbad – Explore Carlsbad Caverns, drive Guadalupe National Park
Carlsbad Caverns National Park If you’re up to go underground, then Carlsbad Caverns National Park is the place for you! First recognized as a national monument in 1923 it became a National Park in 1930 and is now even recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This Cavern is believed to be one of over 300 limestone caves built by an inland sea over 250 million years ago. Today there are 110 miles of mapped caves for exploration, though for many of us with our kids we’re going to hit the high points and save the deep exploration for the experts.
Closed-toe shoes with good soles are strongly recommended. Much of the caverns are wet from natural water drips so you’ll want to step carefully. The cavern is also dimly lit so while you can see, you might want your own flashlight or headlamp.
Bat Program It’s a cave, so you know there are bats! From late May through October you can go on a special program that allows you to see the Brazillian free-tailed bats that live in the caverns fly out in the evening. If you do plan to go to the Bat Flight Program it’s important to note that electronic devices of any kind are not allowed as they can interfere with the bats so you’ll want to lock them all up elsewhere. No cameras, phones, tablets, etc.!
Walnut Canyon Desert Drive Don’t forget that much of the national park is above the ground! The Walnut Canyon Desert Drive takes a ~10 mile gravel loop through the park. Take a slow drive and look for wildlife which is always more abundant in these environments than it seems at first glance. There are lots of pull-outs for pictures as well as short walks to the canyon rim.
Sitting Bull Falls – if you’re up for a short hike, it’s 0.7 miles on a paved trail with some steps to Sitting Bull Falls. The trail begins at a great parking lot and picnic area with shelters that asks for a fee to park, but it is waived if you have a National Parks pass or paid entrance to Carlsbad Caverns. If you hike down to the base you can explore the pools and some small caves near the larger falls. It’s a short trail but rugged so wear good footwear!
Guadalupe Mountains National Park – it’s an hour’s drive from Carlsbad to the Guadalupe Mountains National Park which is southwest, across the Texas border. This is a high desert and with that comes a few water sources that can be great for wildlife viewing. Smith Spring, McKittrick Canyon and Mazanita Spring are all options that aren’t too far off the beaten path. If you’re lucky, you may come across a pack of javelinas! The mix of desert and mountains is quite a striking scene and unlike any other you may come across in the states.
Day 13 – Carlsbad to South Austin (8 hours)
Days like these final two could be all interstate, all the time which is our least favorite way to drive. It’s not like there’s nothing to see along the way as there’s all sorts of add-ons you could fit in here if you had time (Big Bend National Park & Texas Hill Country are the first two that come to mind) but since this is what the route calls for let’s just talk it through as a road trip plan.
You could drive this entire day on I-10 and get from Carlsbad to San Antonio in 7 hours, have a walk around downtown, walk by the Alamo, and then get dinner and ready for the drive home. I’ll suggest a different route will provide a much more enjoyable day for everybody.
Road Trip Tip – US Highways are what change a really long drive into a cool road trip adventure.
You can head directly south through Pecos and take I-10 the rest of the way to New Orleans, but I highly recommend taking US 62 East through Big Spring, and then 87 to Buda, TX.
Driving roads like US 62 & US 87 on days like today provide a much more interesting visual experience than the 18 wheelers and billboards of modern interstate driving. This route takes you east through Andrews & Big Spring, down through San Angelo & Llano, and then just around the south side of Austin. Choosing US Highways over Interstates is the game changer of our road trips. As people who obviously spend a lot of time on the road, we find driving interstates for long periods of time simply painful. We’d much rather add a bit of time to “take the road less traveled”. Here are a few of the many reasons we choose to get off the Interstates as much as possible:.
Food – you’ll have lots of varied and local options to choose from, beyond the chains you will come across next to the interstate
Town Amenities – If you’re stopping to have a sandwich, it’s so easy to find a small park or playground in a town. A quick pop up look on your phone’s maps feature will show you good greenspace options
Experience – The interstates don’t bring you through towns anymore. We find US Highways the only way to really and truly see and experience the country.
Preservation – While all too many small towns are seeing abandoned main streets, many are still holding on and this is a great way to share some tourist dollars to help out unique small businesses.
Speed – While speed limits on the Interstate are usually around 70, most U.S. Highways have a speed limit of 60 or 65, so you are moving almost just as fast and often with very little other traffic to have to pass or deal with. (We also rarely see much patrol of these speed limits out on the highway, though you will always slow down through the towns and should take those speed limits seriously as there are often speed traps in these areas… plus you can enjoy the towns more when you can slow down to see them better.
No 18-wheelers! – Nothing against 18-wheelers or their drivers, we both have or have had them in our extended family. That said, driving interstates surrounded by them or getting stuck behind them as they pass each other can add much stress to your drive and certainly takes away from any views (which are also better on the US Highways). Not only do you hardly ever see any big trucks (weli, we’ve seen lots of huge tractors and such, but those are neat in a different way,) there is rarely much traffic at all and you can set cruise control and enjoy open lanes and clear views!
Where to Stay: While it’s tempting to head right into a vibrant town like Austin we’ve found it’s better to save a place like this for it’s own trip so we’d opt for the TownePlace Suites in South Austin or Fairfiled Inn Buda using our evenings for enjoying a local restaurant with an interesting view.
Day 14 – South Austin to New Orleans (8 hours)
If you need to make it back to New Orleans in a day, then there’s not much avoiding I-10 to do here. It will take you through the seemingly-endless construction zone that is Vidor & Orange TX, and then across two of the world’s longest bridges to get you back to New Orleans.
We’d suggest you take Highway 90 from Lafayette south around through Morgan City to come around to the other side of New Orleans and avoid another seemingly endless construction zone on I-10 in Baton Rouge, and will only add about 30 minutes of time.
If you can spare even more time, you could explore the Creole Scenic Nature Trail which is in Southwest Louisiana, however much of that area is currently (as of posting date) still reeling from the effects of Hurricane Laura in 2020.
We’ll let you decide if you want to get out to do any of the area hikes!
Get home and unpack!
You’ve come to the end of an amazing trip, or at least an extremely long blog post! We hope this information and format are helpful. We’d love your questions, comments, and feedback as this is one of our first posts so we are still trying to find out what you, our readers, find most interesting and helpful.