An Epic Cross Country Road Trip
During my fourth year of Medical School, I planned an epic cross-country road trip starting in Los Angeles, renting a car, and making my way taking a southern route to New Orleans. Since I realized there wasn’t a ton I wanted to see between New Orleans and making my way back to NYC, we did skip a bit of the country. And while technically we didn’t make it ALL the way across the states, I think we covered the good parts. In the winter, I definitely recommend taking this southwest route. If you’re traveling in the spring/summer you might consider a northern route. See the itinerary below with tons of suggestions for activities, hikes, National Parks, and important foodie stops!
Why rent a car?
Since we started in LA, we decided to rent a car and drop it off at our final destination. I think this is a good choice for several reasons.
A road trip can take a toll on a car. If you have a new car, why add all these miles so early in its career?
If you have an old car, you may be subject to frequent road side issues, breakdowns, etc.
A rental with good insurance relieves some of these stresses and you can keep costs down by being smart about where you rent!
PRO TIP: Renting your car from the airport usually = higher rates, where as finding a random rental company in the city is usually cheaper! Keep this in mind when selecting pick up and drop-off locations.
ROAD TRIP ITINERARY
Los Angeles to Joshua Tree National Park
Starting from LA we drove to Joshua Tree National Park. We stayed at the Joshua Tree Inn which had a cool, funky, motel vibe. I highly recommend considering an AirBnb in the area. We met up with my brother and his wife who had rented one very close to the park with a hot tub and it was super fun. In particular, I recommend The Hicksville Trailer Palace & Artist Retreat.
There is so much fun, quirky stuff to do in the area and we only had 2 nights to explore everything. We spent most of our time exploring the park with the highlights being Skull Rock, Keys View, Cottonwood Spring, Black Rock Canyon, Intersection Rock, Arch Rock, Hidden Valley, and the Chola Cactus Garden. We enjoyed the park so much we are going back again this year for a whole week of fun.
Since we planned on visiting multiple national parks over the course of the road trip, I recommend buying the Annual America The Beautiful Recreation Land Pass for $80 which gives your car access to all National Parks for a year. Visit fees average $20/car so it’s a deal if you’re planning on visiting at least 4 parks/yr.
Other activities to do in the area include a visit to The Integratron (definitely reserve your sound bath weeks in advance), stopping by the gift shops in town, The Crochet Museum, a visit to Pappy and Harriet’s (make a reservation for dinner and music!), and Noah Purifoy’s Outdoor Sculpture Park.
Top FOODIE spots include a stop at Natural Sisters Café, Country Kitchen, La Copine, and Crossroads Cafe. If you’re willing to travel for food, a visit to one of the top restaurants on Yelp is in your best interest. Located in nearby town of Indio, TKB Bakery & Deli, is consistently voted one of the top restaurants in the world on yelp!
Joshua Tree to The Grand Canyon
Full on life and adventure, we drove the 5.5 hrs to the The Grand Canyon for 3 nights of exploring this unbelievable wonder! I had been as a kid and returning as an adult was a whole different experience. I think it’s super important to stay in the park and as close to the rim as you can. We booked a small, quaint room at the Bright Angel Lodge which was perfect for us as you could wake up and walk right out to the rim trail. This park is very well run and manages tons of visitors every year. Going in the winter meant we weren’t dealing with overwhelming crowds and temperatures were manageable with the right gear. The main downside was that access to the North Rim is restricted during this time of year and therefore you see less of the park overall.
Some of the top sites on the South Rim included Hopi Point, Mohave Point, Powell Point, Yavapai Point, and Desert View. Easy to navigate shuttles can take you between different destinations as well as some trekking by foot! Some of the further out destinations are Havasu Canyon & Havasu Falls; Shoshone Point, Cape Final, Toroweap. For the truly adventurous, book a mule ride way in advance from the South Rim down to the Canyon Valley for a stay at the legendary Phantom Ranch.
I have to say that overall I was somewhat disappointed by the food in the park. Even the more expensive restaurants on site were fairly mediocre as far as NYC standards go and I’m not quite sure I really understand the meaning of Arizona flavors. That said, the places to go are El Tovar (also home to the fanciest accommodations on site), The Arizona Room, and the Café @ Mather Point.
Grand Canyon to Saguaro National Park
We were sad to say goodbye to this unforgettable place, but off we went on a 3.5 hr drive to Phoenix for a lunch stop at Pizzeria Bianco, touted as one of the top pizza joints in the country, order the most popular pizzas and any specials and you won’t regret it!
Back in the car for another 2 hr ride to Saguaro National Park, we booked just one night at La Posada Lodge and Casitas. The park itself had trouble living up to the Grand Canyon but there were a couple easy nice trails for getting good views of the famous saguaro trees and old hieroglyphics.
Saguaro National Park to Kartchner Caverns State Park
It was a short 1 hr drive to our next destination for some cave exploring. This park requires some advance booking of a tour. We did the Big Room Tour and it was our first experience inside a cave, you learn a lot about the formation and maintenance of the caves and overall they do a really nice job.
For the night we decided to have fun and stay in Tombstone, Arizona at Wyatt’s Hotel. The town is a trip and we spent the evening walking around, shopping, and eating in saloons. It’s worth an afternoon stop or night here for an early start the next day.
Tombstone to Carlsbad Caverns National Park
The next morning we left early for a 6hr drive to Carlsbad Caverns National Park. We were glad we had done our first tour at Kartchner Caverns so we could enjoy a self-guided tour of Carlsbad. We opted for the natural entrance which is roughly a 1 mile downhill hike into the caves. I loved it while my partner had a bit of a panic attack, but that’s a story for another time. We did the self-guided Big Room Tour combined the hike down into the caverns was a fair amount of walking. The caves are quite impressive and way more massive than Kartchner. I found it pretty difficult to get any great pictures in the caves, but tried my best.
We spent the night at the Days Inn Carlsbad, nothing too special as you might expect.
Carlsbad to Marfa, Texas
Back in the car for a 2 hr jaunt stopping at the instagrammable Prada Marfa. A roadside art installation that juxtaposes materialist minimalism in the desert environment. I loved finally getting to see this place in person.
One of my favorite stops on the entire trip was Marfa, Texas and our stay at El Cosmico in a safari tent. The town of Marfa is low key art royalty and if you were simply driving through you might blink and miss it or fail to notice the masterfully curated shops and galleries. We ate a delicious meal right at El Cosmico the night we arrived, enjoying music and an outdoor wood fired hot tub. The next day we explored the Chinati Foundation and outdoor art installations. You can also make appointments at many of the galleries in town.
Plenty of FOODIE finds here including Food Shark, Stellina, Marfa Burrito, and Buns N’ Roses.
Marfa to Big Bend
It was hard to leave Marfa and we definitely wished we had more time to explore the town, but we headed out for a 2hr drive to Big Bend National Park. This park was probably too big to explore in one day but we were ambitious nonetheless. We had lunch at Chisos Mountain Lodge in the park and mostly explored this one by car. Spent the night at Big Bend Resort and Adventures which sounds considerably more exciting than it actually was. If we had more energy we would have option for one of the following hikes Santa Elena Canyon Trail, Rio Grande Village Nature Trail, Lower Burro Mesa Pour-off Trail, and Chisos Basin Road.
FOODIE find would be to make a reservation at 12 Gage.
Big Bend to Austin
We thought about popping right over the border into Mexico but instead made the 6.5hr drive to Austin for a 2 night stay at an awesome AirBnB. Food and fun were at the top of the list this trip and the recommendations are practically endless.
Brunch: Takoba, Frank, 24 Diner, Moonshine, Cafe no se, Pacha, Peached tortilla
The must do activities include live music and a visit to Rainey Street.
Austin to New Orleans
This was probably the longest and most stressful drive of the trip as we had to complete a roughly 8hr leg to return the car in New Orleans before they charged us for a whole extra day. We made it right under the wire and had 3 relaxing nights to explore New Orleans before flying home. We stayed at the Country Inn & Suites By Carlson which felt like it was about a block away from the French Quarter and easily walkable to everything. We spent a ton of time just walking around the city, sitting and people watching at cafes, listening to music, and of course eating. I made a couple fancy reservations for lunch (always the best deals) at August and Commander’s Palace.
FOODIE finds include Casamento, Willa Jean, Po-boys at Parkway, Café DuMonde, Sylvain, Cake, Jaques-Imo's, District Doughnuts, Cochon
Activities include visiting the Mansions of the Garden District (1st, 2nd, 3rd streets between Prytania and Magazine are best), shopping along Magazine Street, and jazz clubs on Frenchman.