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Plants like this Joshua Tree in the Mohave desert, Nevada, is one of the sights you'll see on your Southwest desert road trip; photo by snyfer.

“You can’t fight the desert… you have to ride with it. — Louis L’Amour

Where did everybody go?

That’s a question that popped into my mind more than once on my recent road trip through the American Southwest. Mile after mile I saw hills, mountains, Joshua trees, shrubs, and zero people.

That’s the special geography of the desert southwest: Large areas of land with low population, long distances between cities, dry-to-the-extreme weather. All of these factors together can make a Southwest desert road trip a unique and unforgettable experience.

This post is all about making your desert road trip unique and unforgettable for the RIGHT reasons.

Below are 6 lessons I learned on my Southwest road trip with takeaways you can use to make your own a blast.

Applying them will help you make the absolute most of your trip . . . super-fun.

Not applying them could leave you on the side of the road, hungry, you thirsting for water and your car thirsting for gas . . . no fun at all.


1. Road signs lie.

Just because a town’s name appears on a road sign doesn’t mean anyone actually lives there.

Road sign, Mina, NV

Many of these places, like Mina, NV, are little more than ghost towns. That means nowhere to get gas or a meal.

If you do come across a town just large enough to have a restaurant or gas station, it may not be open at the time of day you happen to be passing through.

TAKEAWAY: Fill up on gas, good food, and fresh water whenever you can.

2. Country music can save your life.

Listen to the lyrics of some country tunes and you can’t help but stay awake behind the wheel, the stories are so over the top.

Besides Mexican music, country may be the only genre of music you’ll find in many localities you drive through in the Southwest.

Whether you’re a country music fan or not, titles like, “You Look Like I Need a Drink” tend to catch your attention. At least, it did mine.

And there’s nothing like hearing Carrie Underwood describe how she “took a Louisville slugger to both headlights” of her cheatin’ ex’s truck to keep you entertained and alert with eyes on the road.

Oh, the drama.

TAKEAWAY: Either head out for the trip loaded up with your favorite tunes or prepare to return home well-schooled in …um, alternative methods of dealing with those difficult relationships.

3) Gluten-free fare is rare. (I know, I’m such a poet!)

When it comes to maintaining a gluten-free diet, it’s strictly BYOM ~ Bring Your Own Munchies.

Merchants in low populated towns and cities don’t stock certified gluten-free products; there’s just not enough of us gluten-sensitive or celiacs to warrant it.

Only in large cities will you find eateries and shops, such as Whole Foods and others, serving certified gluten-free food.

TAKEAWAY: Bring along a stash of gluten-free snacks to hold you over during those long stretches between larger cities. And compile a list of places serving gluten-free food near or along your proposed route.

One such place I experienced this trip is Black Bear Diner in Goodyear, Arizona. Restaurants in the Black Bear Diner chain customize meals for the gluten-sensitive, substituting, or removing menu items upon request. They also offer gluten-free options for foods typically containing the stuff. These include an ice-cream and chocolate syrup topped brownie called “Sugar Bear’s Lava Cake” . . . this I did not have. And a honey Dijon salad dressing and BBQ pork ribs slathered with “gluten-free” barbecue sauce.  This I did have. 

Black Bear Diner salad.

BBQ Pork Ribs, Black Bear Diner.

4) The desert is not always hot.

Whatever the daytime temperature, overnight temperatures in the desert can be up to 40 degrees cooler.

And desert daytime weather is never ONE particular way or the other.

After a little while out there, you come to learn Nevada air can feel extra dry, Southern California mornings can feel extra cool, Southern New Mexico’s afternoon sun can be extra intense, and Arizona winds can blow you into next week.

With gusts strong enough to pick up that desert sand and throw it in your face and hair, force you to pull off the road until it clears.

One Arizona morning, the wind was wailing so loud, I asked a hotel receptionist if this was typical for the season.

The young brunette smiled and nodded, ”This time of year when it’s windy, we’re saying, ‘Stop the wind.’ Then in the summer and you’re burning up, it’s so hot, we’re saying, ‘Where is the wind?’ ”

Then she paused and added, “Welcome to hell!”

Actually, this was my welcome to Kingman, Arizona ~ but you get the point. The weather is changeable, so come prepared.

TAKEAWAY: Pack a hooded jacket no matter what time of year you’re traveling.

5) Good coffee is crucial.

The desert is no place to be a coffee snob.

When you’re traveling a minimum of 250 miles a day, with cities and filling stations far apart, you learn to keep that gas tank full.

In the same way, you’ll want to refuel your own tank with caffeine to drive all those miles.

Coffee sign on a truck.

The 300-mile drive between Las Vegas and Fallon, NV felt like the longest of the trip with not a coffee bar in sight, not even a Starbucks.

Were it not for morning coffee at the Mizpah Hotel . . . well, I just don’t know.

TAKEAWAY: Learn to get happy whenever those golden arches of McDonald’s come into view. Not just for the trip to the loo but for the hot cup of java available to you.

6) Good company is essential.

Sharing the ride with your best friend, as I did, is ideal. But a close friend works, too.

Now if that friend not only cranks up the radio when her favorite song comes on but sings along with it ~ THAT is a bonus.

It’s cool to be traveling with someone, making new memories, while you’re enjoying old memories together with those songs.

And oh, yeah, it’s good not to have to do all the driving yourself.

TAKEAWAY: Way in advance of your Southwest desert road trip, make friends with people who like to drive and ~ if at all possible ~ know how to sing.

On a desert road trip, staying power is the key in so many areas.  

Use these takeaways and, throughout your trip, you will stay:

  • aware of your surroundings, how far you are from the closest city and the services it provides should you need them;
  • well-hydrated;
  • mentally alert and on the road;
  • well-fed and healthy;
  • warm and protected from the elements;
  • in a great mood.

Time to hit the road!

If you’re planning a desert road trip or know someone who is, did I leave anything out you’d like to know?


Featured image, Joshua Tree in Mohave, by Snyfer