Michelle Gross |
My partner and I drove 6,036 miles from New York to San Diego and back during the pandemic.
On our road trip, we stopped for regional food, incredible nature, and quirky roadside attractions.
If I were to drive cross country again, these are the places I'd return to and those I would skip.
Driving cross-country was never something I planned on doing. But it was my partner's life-long dream, and we recently road-tripped from New York to San Diego and back.
Driving cross-country is an ambitious journey that always sounded a bit more romantic to me in theory than in practice.
But when my partner convinced me to expand my horizons, we started planning with the Ralph Waldo Emerson adage "it's not the destination, it's the journey," as our guiding principle. I figured we might as well see as many cool and quirky things along the way as possible.
Here are the places we stopped that I would go to again and the places I would skip next time.
After leaving New York, our first stop was in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where we ate pizza and visited The Andy Warhol Museum.
I married a Pittsburgher and have visited the Steel City many times. And while there always seems to be a new spot to check out in Lawrenceville or South Side, after a requisite stop to the Strip District to try Pizzeria Davide, we headed over to the Andy Warhol Museum.
After touring the exhibits, I thought it was an absolute must-visit for anyone to Pittsburgh to witness more than seven stories of some of Warhol's (a Pittsburgh native) most seminal works of art. The museum was also well-placed to follow with a stroll to The Point downtown where the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers merge into the Ohio River.
We left Pittsburgh en-route to Cincinnati, Ohio, stopping at Buckeye Lake State Park to stretch our legs and grab lunch.
It's also home to a local winery, brewery, and beer pier, which sounded intriguing and looked to be an ideal spot to stop and refuel.
However, we found the food options and lack of masks and mask compliance in general to be a bit off-putting, and while it was a good enough place to get out and stretch our legs, we would skip a stop to Buckeye Lake in favor of another park or town if we could do it over again.
From Cincinnati, we drove to Nashville, Tennessee, where we had drinks at a Dolly Parton-themed restaurant.
The road to Nashville was peppered with so many cool pit stops, but due to bad weather, we bypassed places we'd been looking forward to like Louisville and Bowling Green, Kentucky.
Instead, we went straight for Nashville, arriving hungry and ready for a drink at White Limozeen, a Dolly Parton-themed rooftop restaurant located just off the Vanderbilt University campus.
We sat alfresco overlooking a giant Dolly Parton bust and didn't miss a chance to try the signature champagne Jell-O shots, which come topped with sprinkles.
Along with the pink décor and convivial rooftop vibes, the stop was a pleasant and completely unexpected surprise. It was definitely well worth a visit, but next time, I would come here just for drinks and save dinner for The Pharmacy Burger Parlor and Beer Garden, which was hands down the best burger we had on our trip.
Next, we stopped at one of my all-time favorite BBQ joints in Memphis, before driving through Ozark National Forest to a memorable hotel in Northwest Arkansas.
After a quick stop at one of my all-time favorite BBQ joints, Rendezvous in Memphis, we headed straight through the wilds of Arkansas Ozark National Forest, one of the greenest and most scenic stretches of our drive.
Along the way, we paid a last-minute visit to Fayetteville, a charming college town tucked away in the northwest pocket of the state.
The Fayetteville-themed lobby along with camouflage carpets and Arkansas ephemera all over the walls was a fun touch, and we loved the hometown pride that this place had to offer.
We continued along Route 66 and spotted an unusual roadside attraction in the shape of an 80-foot-long blue whale on the way to Oklahoma City.
The ride through the plains of Oklahoma provided a stark contrast to the lush and wild landscapes in Arkansas.
We made our way through Tulsa, home to architectural marvels such as The Philbrook Museum of Art and one of the largest collections of art deco architecture in the country. But our stop at The Blue Whale of Catoosa left a lot to the imagination.
We learned that this giant 80-foot sperm whale was built as a diving platform and slide for kids in the early '70s and has been basically marooned ever since.
While I can see the appeal if you have young kids in tow, and indeed, there were a few families with children who could not have been more delighted by this unique waterside sculpture off Route 66, it wasn't a must for us.
Just off Interstate 40, Cadillac Ranch outside Amarillo, Texas, was Instagram-worthy surprise.
It was windy and dusty the day we visited Cadillac Ranch, a public art display that's free to check out and well worth a quick visit to walk around and snap some photos.
Comprised of a colorful collection of upended Cadillacs covered in paint, you can even bring your own spray paint or buy some from one of the local vendors just outside the entry point to tag the cars if you're so inclined.
While we didn't partake, I'm glad we stopped to check it out for the photos alone. But one time was sufficient and we didn't feel the need to return on our way back to New York.
When we drove through Texas on our return, we stopped in Odessa to see a Stonehenge Replica.
Set on the University of Texas at the Permian Basin Stonehenge campus, "mini-Stonehenge" is made up of 19-foot tall slabs of limestone and was donated to the school in 2004.
It's designed to serve as a teachable moment for students and visitors here, but because I've visited the original Stonehenge, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that dates back some 5,000 years when I was traveling across the UK, I would skip this next time as nothing can truly compare to the original.
We skipped Dallas in favor of Fort Worth, Texas, where we saw dozens of longhorn cattle walking through town.
The daily cattle drive in Fort Worth happens twice a day and was one of the coolest things we witnessed on our trip. It also made us feel like we were front and center in an old Texas Western as Fort Worth is full of honky-tonk restaurants and old-timey boutiques, plus Stockyard Station, which is lined with fun shops.
There's also the Cowtown Coliseum, which is home to the country's only year-round rodeo which we didn't get to visit but would definitely check out on our next visit.
After Texas, we continued west to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where we stopped at a thermal spa.
Tucked in the foothills just outside Santa Fe, New Mexico, Ojo Santa Fe Spa is known as one of the country's oldest natural health spas dating back to 1868. With its spa and spring-fed thermal pools, it was a much-needed stop for a little rest and relaxation.
The spa was closed due to COVID-19 during our visit, but we still soaked in the geothermal mineral water, which is said to have healing powers. After spending a full day here, I'm a believer in the healing properties of that water and would definitely stop here again.
Along Route 66, Petrified Forest National Park in Northeastern Arizona was a last-minute stop that I wouldn't hesitate to go back to.
Driving into the Petrified Forest National Park felt like driving through one of Georgia O'Keeffe's abstract paintings.
The Mars-like landscapes with red and beige sandstone rock formations were utterly surreal and one of the best-unplanned stops we made along the way.
More than 200-million years old, there are many places to stop and walk around throughout the park. We decided on The Painted Desert Inn, an adobe building dating back to the 1930s, and Newspaper Rock, with the park's largest concentration of petroglyphs that were carved into boulders by the ancestral Puebloan population that dates back as far as 2,000 years ago. The carvings at Newspaper Rock can best be seen through binoculars or a telephoto lens, the latter of which I was glad to have on hand.
It's definitely worth a visit to witness this awe-inspiring landscape.
On the home stretch, we couldn't leave Arizona without seeing the Pillar at Cathedral Rock in Sedona up close.
There's no shortage of ways to see and experience Sedona's vast landscapes, but one place we couldn't leave without seeing was the view of Sedona from the summit of Cathedral Rock.
I will admit, we were not well-prepared for the intensity of this 1.2-mile out and back hike. It's labeled as "moderate-to difficult" by AllTrails.com and "popular for hikers of all ages," but I will say, the nearly vertical climb and slippery rocks were challenging for a lot of people on the trail that day, ourselves included.
However, the views from the top were out of this world. I would definitely stop here again, although I would plan accordingly and bring more water and better shoes next time.
Cathedral Rock's nearly vertical climb and extremely slippery rocks made the trail challenging.
On our way out of Sedona, we stopped at Yavapai Apache Fry Bread & Jewelry.
Just off Route 17 outside of Sedona, the selection of Native American jewelry, crafts, crystals and sweet and savory fry bread at $4 a pop was a great place for a quick break.
Located outdoors under a tent, there were tons of unique souvenirs including a dream catcher that I now have hanging above my bed.
The made-to-order fry bread topped with powdered sugar was delicious, and an added bonus.
The final stop of our road trip was in Temecula, California, to try chocolate wine.
The Temecula Valley is a burgeoning wine region in Southern California and while it's often overlooked for the wineries to the north in Napa and Paso Robles, their Italian and French grape varietals and tasting experiences are definitely worth checking out.
We stopped by Thornton Winery for a very special case of wine. Considered "the original champagne house," Thornton is known for their old-world Champenoise-method of winemaking, along with their coffee and chocolate wine flights.
I couldn't help but partake in a quick tasting, and after driving more than 3,000 miles across the country, my horizons had been broadened, and a case of wine called Milk Chocolate Kiss was the very sweet cherry on top.