Desert Destinations for Wander-Lusters: Road Trip From Las Vegas to Albuquerque

August 22, 2021
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Albuquerque is about nine hours west of Las Vegas by car—if you drive straight through, that is. But, with so many iconic southwestern cities dotting the road from Nevada to New Mexico (like Phoenix, Sedona, Tucson, and El Paso, just to name a few!), why would you want to rush? The destinations between Las Vegas and Albuquerque range from state-of-the-art museums and stunning parks to specialty shops and breathtaking views. Keep reading to find out some of our favorites! 

Tlaquepaque Arts & Shopping Village 

📍 Sedona (AZ)

Specialty Shops, Art Galleries, and More

336 AZ-179 | Tlaquepaque | www.tlaq.com

Sedona is about four-and-a-half hours southeast of Las Vegas, and it’s a delightful, energetic town that makes for a perfect first stop on your way to Albuquerque. Located in the midst of Red Rock Country in the Coconino National Forest, Sedona is surrounded by natural landmarks and notable geological formations, some of the best-known of which are the Chapel of the Holy Cross (a church built into the side of a red rock butte!), Cathedral Rock, Bell Rock, and Oak Creek Canyon. In the town itself, you’ll find a well-established arts and culture scene that features an array of local galleries, museums, and outdoor public art. Speaking of arts and culture, another place that you don’t want to skip in Sedona is the Tlaquepaque Arts & Shopping Village, a social center and outdoor market that’s become a Sedona staple. 

Formerly a living arts community founded by Abe Miller in the 1970s, Tlaquepaque is modeled after a traditional Mexican village, and today, it features an eclectic mix of shops and art galleries where you can find everything from jewelry and food to clothing and trinkets. The shops at Tlaquepaque are open daily from 10 am to 6 pm, while the restaurants in the village are open slightly later. (Tlaquepaque frequently hosts festivals and other special events, so before visiting, make sure you check out the online events calendar to see what’s happening while you’re in town!) 

Heard Museum 

📍 Phoenix (AZ)

Exhibitions and Festivals Centered on American Indian Art

2301 N. Central Avenue | Alvarado Place | www.heard.org

Close to five hours southeast of Vegas, Phoenix is both the state capital and Arizona’s biggest city. Sometimes called “Arizona’s Urban Heart,” Phoenix boasts plenty of compelling attractions, some of which include the Desert Botanical Garden, the Phoenix Zoo, the Musical Instrument Museum, the Pueblo Grande Museum, the Arizona Science Center, and, last but not least, the Arizona State Capitol Museum. One more place in Phoenix that you don’t want to miss is the Heard Museum, a leading institution for the preservation and display of American Indian artwork. 

Founded in 1929, the Heard Museum has evolved with Phoenix’s growth as a travel destination, and it’s transformed in not only size but also stature. The museum’s permanent collection features over 40,000 objects, and its work primarily focuses on pieces from the Greater Southwest and contemporary native fine art in North America. (Types of art that can be found in the permanent collection include Hopi katsina dolls; Navajo and Zuni jewelry; Navajo textiles; Southwestern ceramics; and baskets from the Southwest, California, the Great Basin, and the Northwest.) In addition to its permanent collection, the museum also hosts rotating exhibits, as well as events and educational programs. 

Arizona State Museum 

📍 Tucson

The Official Archeological Repository For the State of Arizona

1013 E. University Boulevard | University of Arizona | www.statemuseum.arizona.edu

Tucson is a little over six hours southeast of Vegas, and it’s known for its striking desert scenery and year-round sun—and, of course, serving as home-base for the University of Arizona. Some of Tucson’s top attractions include Reid Park Zoo, the Tucson Botanical Gardens, the Pima Air & Space Museum, and Mission San Xavier del Bac. But, if you’re really trying to get up-close-and-personal with Arizona, then one place you’ll want to see in Tucson is the Arizona State Museum, a mammoth institution that’s dedicated to the history, culture, and archeology of the state of Arizona and its surrounding areas. 

Overseen and operated by the University of Arizona, the Arizona State Museum was established in 1893, making it the oldest—and, later, the largest—anthropological research museum in the American Southwest. In the museum’s permanent collection, you’ll find everything from pottery and hand-woven baskets to fossils and photographs. The museum also has temporary exhibits, lectures, and workshops that encompass a wide range of anthropological topics. Admission is $8 for adults (ages 18 and over) and $6 for seniors and active or reserve military personnel, and the museum is open Monday through Saturday from 10 am to 5 pm. 

Kartchner Caverns State Park 

📍 Benson (AZ)

Home to the World’s Longest Stalactite Formation

2980 AZ-90 | South of Benson | www.azstateparks.com

Around seven hours southeast of Vegas and about six hours southwest of Albuquerque, Benson, Arizona, makes for an ideal halfway point on your drive from Sin City to Burque. A small, charming city with roots as a railway town, Benson is a hidden gem of southern Arizona that you’ll love exploring. Some of Benson’s key points of interest include the Oasis Exotic Bird Sanctuary, San Pedro Valley Observatory, Singing Wind Bookshop, and Forever Home Donkey Rescue. However, Benson’s best-known attraction isn’t even in the town itself—it’s actually about 15 minutes south: Kartchner Caverns State Park, a limestone cave with over two miles of passageways. 

Discovered in 1974 by Gary Tenen and Randy Tufts, Kartchner Caverns has become one of the most-studied public caves, due to its idiosyncratic mineralogy and the extraordinary formations that it contains. Tours of the caverns are led by trained guides, and there are a couple of different options that visitors can choose from when it comes to tour duration and hike length. (Visitors are advised to make tour reservations as far in advance as possible, as same-day bookings are not always available.) While you’re at the park, make sure that you check out the Discovery Center, where you can learn more about the caves and how they formed, as well as the events that led to the land becoming a state park. 

City of Rocks State Park 

📍 Faywood (NM) 

Volcanic Rock Formations in the Chihuahuan Desert

 327 New Mexico 61 | Southwest of Faywood | www.emnrd.state.nm.us

City of Rocks State Park is just under four hours south of Albuquerque, and it’s truly a sight to be seen. Distinctive rock formations create a remarkable landscape, proving that Mother Nature is a master architect who simply cannot be surpassed. The pinnacles that you’ll see in this “City of Rocks” tower as high as 40 feet, and they’re over 34 million years in the making. 

While the rocks themselves are undoubtedly the main attraction at the park, hiking trails, cactus gardens, and even a star observatory all add to the unforgettable experience to be had at City of Rocks. Learn about native plant and animal species like yucca, bunny-ear cacti, antelope, and javelinas as you wander the unbelievable desert wilderness and marvel at the clusters of monolithic blocks. (Camping, picnicking, birding, and photography are also popular activities to enjoy at the park.) 

Scenic Drive Overlook

📍 El Paso (TX)

Some of the Best Views of El Paso and Juarez 

Scenic Drive Road | Between Rim Road & Wheeling | www.visitelpaso.com

El Paso is around four hours south of Albuquerque, and trust us when we say that “The Sun City” is a detour that’s definitely worth taking! Some of El Paso’s most-visited spots include Franklin Mountains State Park, the El Paso Zoo, the Plaza Theatre Performing Arts Center, and the El Paso Museum of Art. But, no trip to El Paso is complete without taking a trip to the Scenic Drive Overlook, a vista point that rewards visitors with panoramic views of El Paso and the areas around it. 

Considered to be the best view of the city accessible by car, the Scenic Drive Overlook is a must-do when visiting El Paso, especially if it’s your first time in the city. Whether you take this memorable drive during the day or make your way along the winding mountain road at night, Scenic Drive is a classic El Paso attraction that’s also free! (You’ll also drive through a historic neighborhood that’s filled with elegant, old-time homes, giving you a taste of some of El Paso’s colorful heritage.) 

White Sands National Park

📍 Alamogordo (NM)

The Largest Gypsum Dunefield in the World

Highway US-70 | Southwest of Alamogordo | www.nps.gov

Alamogordo, New Mexico, is about three hours south of Albuquerque, and it makes for a convenient, entertaining last stop before heading into Burque. Some of the city’s most noteworthy attractions include the Alameda Park Zoo (thought to be the oldest zoo in the American Southwest), the New Mexico Museum of Space History, the Toy Train Depot, and McGinn’s PistachioLand (where you’ll find the world’s largest pistachio!). But, while you’re driving through this part of New Mexico, you don’t want to pass up the chance to see a natural wonder that’s unlike any other place in the entire world: White Sands National Park, nearly 300 square miles of majestic sand dunes. 

As its name suggests, White Sands National Park is comprised of arrestingly pure, white sand that’s composed of gypsum crystals. These sprawling dunes make up the biggest gypsum dune field on Earth, creating a dazzling topography that really is one of a kind. Upon first glance, you might assume that White Sands is devoid of plants and animals—but despite its stark appearance, the park supports a great deal of life, including cacti, desert trees and shrubs, and even several species of wildlife. (Gophers, porcupines, coyotes, bobcats, kit foxes, lizards, burrowing owls, and roadrunners are just some of the animals that can be found in the park.) While White Sands is conducive to many typical park activities, such as camping, hiking, and picnicking, one somewhat unconventional park-goer favorite that you’ll want to try is sand sledding! Waxed plastic saucers are sold in the park’s gift shop, but you can also bring your own sled, too. 

Adventure Awaits in Albuquerque! 

As New Mexico’s biggest city, Albuquerque offers visitors a long list of diverse attractions to choose from. Some of the most popular places to go while in “The Duke City” include ABQ BioPark, the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History, Old Town, the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, and the Rio Grande Nature Center State Park. (But, they don’t call it “Albuquirky” for nothing… A few of our favorite offbeat attractions in Albuquerque are the American International Rattlesnake Museum, the Pueblo Montaño Chainsaw Sculpture Garden, and the Bart Prince Residence and Studio.) All in all, Burque is a city where excitement is never hard to find, and adventure is waiting around every bend.

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