Photograph by Aaron Huey
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Dream catchers frame the Navajo Nation in Utah’s Monument Valley.

Photograph by Aaron Huey
TravelTraveler Magazine

Adventures in Wonderland: Road Tripping the American West

A National Geographic photographer tours the U.S. Southwest with his six-year-old Instagram rock star.

Long ago my wife, Kristin, and I came up with some simple rules for road trips: Avoid interstates whenever possible, no chain restaurants, try new roads, and stop driving before dark (to find a good place to park the van, our home on the road).

Not exactly revolutionary concepts, but they’ve defined how we’ve traveled the American West, an area we are drawn to especially now, for family trips with our six-year-old son, Hawkeye.

When I met Kristin, 13 years ago in Santa Fe, we fell in love fast. Within three days we set out on our first road trip, along back roads in New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah, tracing our route with an orange marker on a foldout map of the U.S., which I kept in the glove box of my Volkswagen van. It would be the start of a series of trips that forged our sense of family.

When Hawkeye was born, we continued the tradition, introducing him to our favorite deserts and parks—and life on the road. 

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Hawkeye and Aaron Huey pose in Joshua Tree National Park. 

The wide-open spaces and changing landscapes of the West are perfect for young children, who thrive on novelty and adventure: climbing (and falling from) sandstone formations, eating Navajo tacos at an Indian market, hiking under stars far from the light pollution of cities, watching a rodeo in a small town, sleeping in tents.  

In his first years Hawkeye hiked Joshua Tree National Park (on our backs) and saw the colorfully painted slopes of “Salvation Mountain,” by the Salton Sea.

Once he began walking, I took him on solo trips to places his mother and I had marked on our old map, places I’d especially loved, from the well-trodden lookouts in the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley to such lesser known spots as Utah’s Newspaper Rock and Shiprock, New Mexico. I wanted to instill in him a love for adventure, scraped-up knees, and the smell of rain on sagebrush.

In his fourth year I bought him a camera like the ones I had in my youth, where real photos pop out and develop in your hand—physical reminders of that moment in time, not images swiped on a screen.

The pictures he took, and others he has shot since, are great treasures to me. But most important are our family adventures along the roads that wind among America’s natural cathedrals—places that were sacred to the native peoples—and the stories and lessons we collect along the way.

Hawkeye will get dirt in his mouth and cactus spines in his shoes. And that’s the way it should be in the land of “thunder beings,” the great billowing storms that sweep the desert clean with their rains and winds—then paint their rainbows across the horizon. 

See picks and tips for three of our family’s favorite itineraries across the Southwest:

  • LOOP ONE, CALIFORNIA CURIOSITIES (4-6 Days): Start and end in Los Angeles. Outsider art and oddballs keep this road trip through desert landscapes offbeat. Head south on I-5, the glittering Pacific Ocean on your right. At Carlsbad (home to Legoland), turn inland to Borrego Springs and the Anza-Borrego Desert (perfect for stargazing!). Farther east gets you to the surreal Salton Sea, with its remnants of a planned vacation town, abandoned when the lake turned highly saline. Nearby, climb to the top of the heartfelt work of art “Salvation Mountain,” then meet the eccentric characters of Slab City. Hike Joshua Tree National Park, where the eponymous trees look like something out of Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax. 
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Three southwest road trips in North America

  • LOOP TWO, CANYONS GALORE (7-10 Days)Start and end in Las Vegas. The first stop on this road trip through canyon country: the engineering marvel that is Hoover Dam. Then crank up the tunes and drive old Route 66, stopping at the Hackberry General Store, in Arizona, for its collection of Route 66 memorabilia. Onward to the Grand Canyon! Don’t just do the view spots; go out and hike at least a portion of the trails. At the North Rim, spend the night in a cabin at the historic Grand Canyon Lodge. In Utah’s Zion National Park, hike the Narrows, with its towering canyon walls. After these natural wonders, head west for a man-made marvel, Michael Heizer’s “Double Negative” earthwork art, in Moapa Valley. 
  • LOOP THREE, NEW MEXICO BACK ROADS (7-14 Days)Start and end in Santa Fe. Breakfast burritos and other roadside eats highlight this superloop exploring back roads of the Land of Enchantment. From Santa Fe’s artful setting, head north through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to equally artistic Taos. Pie Town, on the Continental Divide, really does have the best pie, from apple to coconut cream. Nearby, listen in on the universe at the strangely beautiful Very Large Array radio telescope facility. Still dreaming of the stars? Head south to the site of Spaceport America, near the town of Truth or Consequences. Loop back to Santa Fe through White Sands National Monument, for the exhilarating experience of dune sledding. 

This article originally appeared in the April/May 2016 issue of Traveler magazine. Seattle-based photographer Aaron Huey photographed more than 20 stories for National Geographic publications and leads photography workshops for National Geographic Expeditions. Follow Aaron and his son, Hawkeye, on Instagram.