Although I’ve made this drive before not once, but twice, the experiences and sights were still brand new and different. It really makes me stop and think about the things I likely missed in my previous trips, literally anywhere, and what I’d discover by going back. Also, I suspect that going through these states at different times of the year has an impact. It puts a completely different spin and feel to the surroundings, making some things seem entirely brand-new… even if they were not.
Day 1: We began in southern Indiana, making our way to Springfield, Missouri, where we had booked an Airbnb for the night. We stayed in Airbnbs the whole trip, and I’ll go into more detail about them later. The drive was relatively short and uneventful, coming in at around 6 hours due to the very heavy U-Haul trailer we had hitched to a tiny Kia Soul. We also got a late start, so sadly sight-seeing was not a priority on this day.
Day 2: This day consisted of finishing our drive through southwestern Missouri and into Oklahoma, or as I like to call it, Toll-klahoma. We stopped at the “3 Corners”, which is where the states of Missouri, Oklahoma, and Kansas meet. After that, we trudged through the eastern half of the Texas panhandle, staying in Amarillo at our second Airbnb near I-40.
Day 3: We piddled around Amarillo for a couple of hours in the morning, checking out a few of the 100s of horse statutes that are sprinkled throughout the city. Then we visited the famous Cadillac Ranch (which is worth the stop). We continued to New Mexico, eventually landing at our 3rd and final Airbnb in Albuquerque.
Day 4: The Petroglyph National Monument in Albuquerque was supposed to be in the morning (but we never managed to see it; more on that later), and the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert in northern Arizona was in the afternoon. After that, it was time to lug it home to Phoenix.
In total, this was one of the most chill (if not THEE most chill) road trip Kristi and I have ever taken together. Since we had a rambunctious pitbull puppy with us and a U-Haul trailer that was super heavy and super attached, our ability to plan stops was very limited. We did what we could, which was thankfully still a moderate amount.
Per usual, I will break this blog down into days.
As stated in the introduction, we began in southern Indiana, in a town about an hour north of Evansville and a hop and skip from the Illinois border. We quickly crossed into Illinois and began the drive through the mundane farmland we’ve both come to know intimately from being raised in the area. We both have made countless trips to St. Louis over the years (St. Louis, Missouri: The Arch is the Best Part.), so this was nothing new to us.
We quickly made it to St. Louis, where the interstate winds around, affording a perfect view of the Arch. If you’re driving through St. Louis but cannot stop, and worry that you will miss the famous Arch, fret not. You can definitely see it from the interstate.
Most of Missouri is rather hilly, but not mountainous like Tennessee, North Carolina, or Montana… it’s just hilly. As far as midwestern states go, Missouri is interesting and has much to do. There are the well-known cities of St. Louis, Branson, and Springfield, as well as the caves (Bridal Cave, Onondaga Cave State Park, Meramec Caverns, and Fantastic Caverns), and national and state parks like Gateway Arch National Park, Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park, Elephant Rocks State Park, and Table Rock State Park. There is also a lot of early American and civil war history in the area. Driving the U-Haul through Missouri was a learning experience, to say the least. Kristi did all the driving this day, as we were only going about 5 ½ hours and she was so nervous about it that she wanted to be in control. I didn’t mind as I was terrified to drive the thing (I eventually did, the next day).
We passed countless signs for various roadside attractions, as Missouri really likes to promote Branson, the caves, and other “Hatfield and McCoy” type stuff. We stopped at a super cool rest stop, called the Missouri Route 66 Welcome Center, although it was about 1.5 hours from the border. There was a sign commemorating the armed forces in WWII and a unique Route 66 map on the floor.
The most interesting thing – two vehicles that had been involved in car accidents, one where the occupants survived and the other where they did not. Its purpose was to showcase the importance of wearing a seatbelt. The person who passed away was not wearing her seatbelt, even though her car appeared less mangled than the other car. The more mangled car’s occupants did survive because they were both wearing seatbelts. It’s a grim scene to be presented with when pulling up somewhere simply to use the bathroom, but an important one, nonetheless. This is particularly so since deadly car accidents are always one bad decision away on interstates like I-40.
Bottom line: Wear your seatbelt! Also, don’t drink and drive!
We made it to Springfield, Missouri a short time later, meeting our wonderful Airbnb host, Todd, at the house and checking in. This was a great Airbnb, complete with a hot tub and huge backyard for those traveling with kids and or pets. Todd was super friendly, and his place was very welcoming, clean, and pet friendly. Check it out if you’re ever planning on staying in the area!
The drive from Springfield, Missouri to Amarillo, Texas, is about 10% Missouri, 80% Oklahoma, and 10% Texas. There’s not a ton to do along I-40, but there’s some. If you choose, you can stop in both Tulsa and Oklahoma City, although the latter is not right on I-40. There is also the “World’s Biggest Route 66 Sign” located in Elk City, Oklahoma. We didn’t stop because we had already seen it when we made this trip together in 2017 (2017 Cross Country Road Trip: from Sea to Shining Sea (well, not quite).). If you have the time, I suggest stopping to see it (there is more there than just the sign).
One place we did stop, at my insistence, was the “3 Corners”. This is the “4 Corners’” lesser known, less popular cousin. I had never heard of it until I researched things to do for this trip. This is where the states of Missouri, Oklahoma, and Kansas meet. You can flip flop between the three, never knowing where one state ends and another begins.
Truth be told, it’s not that impressive. It’s fun to stop at because it’s right off the interstate, but it’s nothing compared to the “4 Corners” (I’ve never been – bucket list!- but I’ve seen photos). It’s tucked back into the woods, down a bumpy and worn gravel road, and almost seems forgotten. It’s another roadside attraction that you would miss if you didn’t know it was there.
There is an odd tower next to the marker, which was completely covered in graffiti. I didn’t know what it was, as there was no sign or marker in sight. About 20 feet away sits the actual marker for the “3 Corners” which is simply a small concrete map on the ground with a small sign behind it. That’s it.
While it was fun and noteworthy to “stand in 3 states at the same time”, there is not much else to do there, except exactly that. Once you’ve stood there and taken your pictures, it’s time to move on. The whole thing took about 15 minutes (once we ultimately found it; we got lost and were bouncing between Kansas and Missouri). Also – it’s not something I’d suggest doing at night… particularly if you are alone or just two women, like us.
After moving on from the “3 Corners”, it was a straight shot through Oklahoma and into the Texas panhandle. I once again marveled at the red dirt, something Oklahoma is known for. Most of Oklahoma is the exact same; flat, yet rolling land littered with various farms and ranches. Oklahoma is also where the giant windmills begin and continue into Texas.
*Important note and suggestion*: I call Oklahoma “Toll-klahoma” for a reason. There are toll booths when you exit and enter the interstate, on practically every on and off ramp, but also in the middle of the interstate. The most frustrating part? Many are unmanned, with only a coin machine present to take your money. And it only accepts coins, NO CASH OR CARDS. So, don’t be like us, and get yourself at least $10 worth of change (if not more) just in case. Otherwise, the state of Oklahoma will be sending you a nice bill.
Once we made it into Texas, it was about a two-hour drive to Amarillo, where the world gets insanely flat and boring. We eventually made it to our 2nd Airbnb, which was right off the interstate and very accessible. We liked this Airbnb too, but it wasn’t our favorite, mainly because it was older, a duplex (we thought it was a house), there was no TV in the living room, and no washer or dryer. Other than that, we enjoyed it.
We were up bright and early, ready to get to Cadillac Ranch before the masses. We first stopped by a few of the famed horse statues that are scattered about Amarillo. Even though I’ve driven through Amarillo twice, I’ve never stopped there, so I was unaware these statues existed. While we only saw 3, there are over 100 of them. According to the official city website, “More than 100 horses have been placed throughout Amarillo since 2002. Each horse is painted by a local artist, who receives an honorarium for the artistic work. The horses are an exact replica of a full-size Quarter Horse. The fiberglass statues weigh approximately 125 pounds.”
Officially called “Hoof Prints of the American Quarter Horse” (fun personal fact: I used to have an American Quarter Horse named Snickers), each horse is sponsored by a different business in Amarillo, and each is painted by a different local artist. It’s the brainchild of the Center City of Amarillo and the American Quarter Horse Association, “with support from the Amarillo Cultural District, Texas Commission on the Arts, and State Cultural District”.
We visited three, although we could have visited far more if it weren’t for the ball and chain around our necks known as the U-Haul. We stopped to admire Hooter’s Philly, located at 8101 West I-40 (Hooters), Salty, located at 8300 West I-40 (Landry’s Management), and Longhorn Horse, located at 8200 West I-40 (Longhorn Steakhouse). There was another horse nearby at Fuddruckers, but we didn’t stop. Hooters Philly is located on the south side of I-40, and Salty and Longhorn are located right across, on the other side of the interstate. If you’re interested in seeing more of the statues, this website has an excellent comprehensive list with pictures and locations: https://centercity.org/hoof-prints/.
We moved on a few miles down the interstate to the main draw in Amarillo, Cadillac Ranch. I’ve passed by this place two times before and wasn’t going to miss it a third time. For those unaware of what the heck a “Cadillac Ranch” is, it’s basically a car Stonehenge. It’s located in a large, flat, cow pasture, and you can see the “ranch” from the interstate. However, the cars are actually located quite a way into the field and appear small from the interstate. It could be easy to miss if you weren’t paying attention and didn’t know it was there.
The “ranch” is the creation of Chip Lord, Hudson Marquez, and Doug Michels, who were all part of an art group called Ant Farm. It was created in 1974 and consists of 10 Cadillacs (all made between 1949 and 1963) buried nose-first deep into the ground. If you’ve ever watched the children’s movie Cars, or ridden the Cars ride at Disneyland California Adventure, you’ve seen an artist’s rendition of these very Caddies. They routinely make the list of America’s most famous roadside attractions and have been painted over so many times that there is probably a 10-inch-thick coat of paint over every car.
The cars were originally located somewhere else, in a wheat field, but quietly moved in 1997 to their present location. This was because Amarillo was growing, and they needed to move it outside city limits. Both the original site and the new site were owned by local millionaire, Stanley Marsh 3, who funded the project. While the cars have their almost footlong coating of paint, they are still routinely repainted to give passing motorists a clean canvas or to represent a special event (painted black when Doug Michels passed, painted in rainbow colors to commemorate gay pride day, and painted black again in June 2020 with the words “Black Lives Matter”). They were once painted their original colors by the motel chain Hampton Inn, for a public Route 66 landmark restoration project, but the cars didn’t last even 24 hours before being branded with graffiti once again.
While there is no sign explicitly allowing people to paint the cars, it’s not forbidden, and it’s even encouraged. You can either bring your own paint or you can find discarded spray cans that still have plenty of paint left them. That’s what we did. We found multiple spray cans that were still somewhat full and used those to brand our initials onto the cars. Speaking of discarded spray cans, the trash around Cadillac Ranch is quite sad and despairing. There is a large graffitied dumpster right outside the gate, yet there was sooo much trash littered about, near the dumpster and road, but also around the actual Cadillacs. It’s disgusting, people. Please, if you go to these places – literally any place – be decent and take your trash with you. Thanks.
We piddled around the Caddies for a while, taking photos and spraying our initials onto them. It’s fun to gawk at and read all of the things graffitied on, but that’s about it. Unless you’re there to repaint an entire car or do a Van Gogh level painting, you’re not going to stay for more than 30 minutes.
After we had our fill of Cadillac Ranch, it was time to trudge on through the western half of the panhandle in the second-most boring state in the United States (Ohio is number one), and into New Mexico. We watched as the boring, monotonous, flat dirt patch of Texas turned into the more hilly, mountainous, somewhat green, deserty region of eastern New Mexico. We made it to the border, stopping at the “Welcome to New Mexico” sign and being blasted in the face with some of the most intense wind I’ve ever experienced (only on par with the wind at Walnut Canyon National Monument). It was absurd!!! We had a terrible time driving through this part of New Mexico, due to a combination of the ridiculous powerful wind gusts, the large hills and inclines, an extremely heavy and packed U-Haul trailer, and the fact that our small car didn’t have the necessary horsepower to pull it. There were times we’d have the gas pedal pressed all the way to the floor but couldn’t make the car move past 55mph. Semis would routinely fly past us, shaking due to the wind, and it felt very dangerous. It’s not something I’d ever want to do again, or suggest to anyone.
We eventually made it safely to Albuquerque, and to our Airbnb around 3pm. We had planned to visit the Petroglyphs then but opted to wait until the morning (mistake). We ended up staying in and ordering dinner again. This Airbnb was nice, a 3-bedroom, 2-bath house with a side yard that offered privacy. They had a washer and dryer, which we were extremely excited and grateful about. It was also the first Airbnb that had a working TV in the living room, although the couch was so terrible, we could not stand to sit on it and watch the TV. Other than that, I liked this Airbnb.
On our last and final day of this trip, we woke up way too early, thinking we could beat the crowds at the Petroglyph National Monument. Unfortunately, with our poor planning on this day, we made it to the park gate a full hour before they opened (hours are 8:30am to 4:30pm, open daily). We were going to wait in front of the gate but decided to call it a wash and drive to the Petrified Forest, so we could spend more time there than originally planned.
So, after marveling at the famous Albuquerque hot air balloons, it was onward to northern Arizona, and to our last and final stop of the trip.
The Petrified Forest National Park and Painted Desert is somewhere I’ve been wanting to visit for a very long time. It’s an extremely vast National Park, where you must drive from point to point (hiking from point to point is technically possible, if you walk along the road, but not something I’d recommend, particularly during summer). It costs $25 per car to enter, but you can spend all day and well into the night here if you chose.
It’s a vast, fascinating area, rich in Native American culture and history, with evidence of people dating as far back as 12,000 years ago. They’ve found evidence of early nomadic groups in the area from between 8,000 BCE and 1,000 BCE. So, well before even Jesus Christ himself graced this earth. It’s freaking old.
While I was upset we weren’t able to visit Petroglyph National Monument in NM, I was slightly okay with it because there are also ancient petroglyphs located in the Petrified Forest. Unfortunately, due to humans unable to keep their hands to themselves, access to the petroglyphs has been forbidden, but you can still view them from above, through a telescope. It’s slightly irritating, because you used to be able to take a trail right to the base of the rock they’re carved on, but not anymore. Nonetheless, it’s still an enriching life experience to be able to view these thousands of years old carvings. The mere fact that they’ve stood the test of time is remarkable.
Early American settlers knew about this area in the mid-1800’s, but it wasn’t officially named a National Monument by Teddy Roosevelt until 1906. It was eventually upgraded to a National Park by Congress in 1962. Truthfully, it needs to be protected by the government, because theft of petrified wood and painted rocks is still a big problem, with an estimated 12 short tons being stolen from the park every single year. We saw countless signs warning not to take any wood or be subject to a fine, but as they would have no real way of knowing unless you’re caught red-handed, ninnyhammers still do it.
As for my personal experience there, I loved it. Kristi, not so much. If you are a lover of hiking, the outdoors, and National Parks and Monuments, this is your jam. If you are not, I would skip it. As I said, it’s vast, and can take all day (or multiple days) to really see everything. We were there for several hours and still had to skip several areas, as we still had a 3-hour drive to Phoenix ahead of us. Camping is allowed and I’d love to go back to camp. I can only imagine how beautifully clear the night sky and stars are!
While we didn’t get to visit all the places, I was able to drag Kristi to quite a few. These include Tawa Point, the Painted Desert Inn National Historic Landmark, Pintado Point, Lacey Point, Newspaper Rock (where some of the petroglyphs are), the Tepees, Blue Forest, Blue Mesa, and Crystal Forest. While this seems like a lot, this is seriously maybe only half of all the stops and lookout points located along the highway inside the park.
While Kristi may disagree (to her, all these places looked the same), I think they were all unique and beautiful in their own way. Tawa Point is one of the first stops inside the Park (if you come from I-40) and is the quintessential picture one associates with the Painted Desert. It’s breathtaking and beautiful. It’s also remarkably quiet, with the sound of the relatively nearby interstate completely drowned out by the desert.
My favorite parts were the Tepees and Blue Mesas. While all the places were magnificent in their own unique, weird way, these two were breathtaking in that I’ve never seen blue and purple rocks or hills. It makes you feel like you’ve landed on an alien world. I distinctly remember discussing how we felt like we were on Mars. The landscape is so Martian and otherworldly, combined with the absence of people and the remarkable level of silence, it’s easy to imagine you’re on another planet. Seriously, there were very few visitors, at least compared to other National Parks, Monuments, and Forests I’ve visited. I’m not sure if this is due to its location, the time of year or day, or if it’s just not as popular as other places, but whatever the reason, I enjoyed it. It’s always a bummer when you go to these places only to be fighting your way through a sea of bodies to see anything.
Overall, I cannot wait to go back (I promised my father we would go once he moves to Arizona in 2022) and spend a full day there. I fully plan on camping there one day too!
After leaving the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert, it was a straight shot home to Phoenix, as we were thoroughly pooped out and had zero desire to stop in Flagstaff or anywhere else (thanks, U-Haul trailer).
As you can see, I was not lying when I said this was probably the most chill and least packed road trip I’ve ever planned for my friend and me. I have learned from our previous road trips, but mostly it was due to the doggo and the U-Haul. There are TONS more landmarks and interesting places to stop along I-40, and what I’ve described in this blog is literally the tip of a giant interstate iceberg. It all simply depends on how much time you have and how easy it is for you to visit these places. However, please take my suggestion and don’t skip the “3 Corners”, Cadillac Ranch, and the Petrified National Forest!