Desert Companion

One tank, endless trips

How much Southwest can you see on a tank of gas? The answer from our
road-trip guru: Plenty — in every direction

We may live on an island in the sand, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t dozens of great voyages beckoning you and your land schooner. Tank up and head out on one of these 10 rewarding routes that will have you back in Las Vegas — without a refill.


Wild West road trip
Heading northbound on I-15 toward Mesquite, take exit 112. The bridge crossing at Riverside is a favorite spot for photographers. Skirt the edge of Mesquite along the Virgin River until you reach the unnamed badlands just north of town. Here — only a mile away from the highway — it’s easy to imagine that a stagecoach might come galloping around the bend. The road rejoins I-15 at Littlefield, but keep on going north. Now you’re on old Highway 91, passing through Joshua Tree National Landmark. You can take the graded dirt road that skirts the Beaver Dam Mountains if you’re driving a high-clearance truck. Otherwise, push north for a picnic at Gunlock State Park and fresh baked bread at Veyo. Snow Canyon State Park is a great place for photography and hikes in late afternoon. (I-15 north to state route 170)

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Rainbow rocks and wild loons
To visualize Rainbow Canyon, think Zion National Park — with far fewer people. The canyon’s cool ponds shaded by rustling cottonwoods are great for frog-watching, and Caliente Kershaw-Ryan State Park is a pleasant spot for picnics. Return to Las Vegas on U.S. 93 over Pahroc summit and south to the Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge to enjoy sunset to the calls of wild loons. (I-15 north to U.S. 93 north to Kane Springs Road to state route 317)

Lehman CavesOld Nevada excursion
Allow at least two days for a journey to see Ely’s vintage steam trains and get a glimpse of the wonders in Great Basin National Park, including the spectacular Lehman Caves. Consider an overnight stay in a themed (and perhaps haunted!) room at the historic Nevada Hotel in Ely. If you can spend only a day, at least go as far as Pioche and marvel at the ingenious and still-intact “sky-tram” developed to move ore from the steep mining areas in the surrounding mountains to the processing plants in the valley below. (I-15 north to U.S. 93 north to U.S. 50 east)



Railroad trains and singing dunes
Exit I-15 at Jean for a Mojave road trip. Pass through Sandy Valley and take the dirt road toward the black tailings pile. Along the narrow canyon walls are remains of mining workers’ dwellings carved into the sandstone walls. Head south through a Joshua tree forest to the ghost town of Cima, Calif., before turning west to follow the railroad tracks. Stop for a sandwich at the lunch counter in the Kelso Train Depot. Drive on to Kelso Dunes. If possible, time your hike so you reach the top of the dunes in time for photogenic vistas at sunset. Then, the big payoff: Run down the dunes and enjoy the unusual harmonic sounds created by the moving sand. Remember to carry water and a flashlight. If hiking up dunes is not for you, you can listen to recordings of the “booming sands” at the Kelso Depot. (I-15 south to state route 161 to Kingston Road to Cima Road)

Petroglyphs and mining history
At 5,639 feet, Spirit Mountain, the highest peak in the Newberry range, has long been sacred to the Yuman Indian nations. On the peak’s south side, thousands of petroglyphs adorn the rocks at the mouth of Grapevine Canyon. Returning to U.S. 95 over Christmas Tree Pass, you can stop by Knob Hill, another area with lesser-known petroglyphs. At Nelson, consider asking to see the “surprise” in the freezer at the Techatticup Millsite museum. (U.S. 95 south to state route 163 and then north to Christmas Tree Pass Road to Grandpa’s Road)


Peaks and meadows — in a jiffy
Just north of Ridgecrest on U.S. 395, Nine Mile Canyon Road climbs from the desert floor into the Sierra Nevada, gaining remarkable altitude in a very short distance. Grab a bite at the rustic diner in Kennedy Meadows, and then enjoy the southernmost paved highway in the Sierras. On a clear day, you can see the highest peak in the continental United States from the Sherman Pass vista point. Heading south, pass by Lake Isabella and return to Las Vegas through Panamint Valley. (I-15 south to state route 58 west to U.S. 395 north)

Low, high and ancient
Amazingly, a drive from the lowest point in America to the trailhead at the foot of the highest peak in the lower 48 is a one-tank trip. From Las Vegas, head out to Shoshone and explore the cave houses lived in by miners a century ago — some with two-room parlors! Then drop to 282 feet below sea level at Badwater in Death Valley. Be ready for popping ears as you climb into the Sierras to 8,360 feet above sea level. This trip can be done in one day, but for a more leisurely two-day trip, continue past Lone Pine and stay overnight in Bishop. Drive over Westgard Pass and visit the ancient bristlecone forest before returning to Las Vegas. (I-15 south to state route 160 west to U.S. 178 south)

Roughing It
Four-wheel drive is not absolutely necessary for a trip through Titus Canyon, but high clearance is. This narrow, twisty dirt road owes its existence to a well-executed mining swindle in the 1920s. Built to serve Leadville, the boomtown built to exploit what turned out to be a fake gold strike, the road follows a long, twisting gorge with steep drop-offs and sections of deep sand. It’s glorious especially in the spring, when wildflowers add even more color to the canyon’s vivid strata and unusual rock formations. (U.S. 95 to state route 374 west to Titus Canyon Road)

Mysterious sliding stones
Reaching Death Valley’s legendary Racetrack Playa is a day trip from Las Vegas, as long as you leave home before dawn and realize you’ll be returning after dark. The journey might also require a bit more than one tank of fuel and a high-clearance vehicle. The effort is worth it: Not only will you see the baffling boulders and their puzzling paths up close and personal, you can marvel at Uhehebe Crater and the ever-changing jumble of cooking gear at Teakettle Junction along the way. On the way home, Rhyolite ghost town is exceptionally photogenic at sunset. Cruise back down U.S. 95 through historic Beatty. (I-15 south to state route 160 west to Ash Meadows Road to state route 190 to Racetrack Valley Road)

Born on the outskirts of Yellowstone National Park, Mark Sedenquist managed to drive nearly a million miles around North America before arriving in Las Vegas — but he’s not done yet. He is the publisher and managing editor of, a site dedicated to planning fun and efficient road trips.


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