As teachers, Jim and I get one week of spring break each year. It’s a decent amount of time for a trip. It’s just about the right amount for one epic road trip to cross the country. We drove from Atlanta to L.A., in nine days. Only taking one week wasn’t our first choice, because there is so much to see, but Devon initially needed to move a car from one side of the country to the other and naturally thought her parents would just love to do it with her.
We made a plan, bought our air tickets, and wouldn’t you know it? The car fell through and we ended up having to rent a car to do the trip. We decided to take Interstate 40, hitting as many attractions as we could on Old Route 66. Can it be done in only a week? It sure can, and we had lots of fun to boot!
I-40 Road Trip Map (1 Week)
Interstate 40 Facts
Created in 1964, I-40 is the third longest coast to coast highway in the U.S. There are only three others (I-10, I-80, and I-90), all worth a trip sometime. For us, however, I-40 gave us the most efficient bang for our buck. We had a very limited time, and we were not going to get to see everything. We had to be picky.
We weren’t going to be able to do anywhere near the route from start to finish, which would have been 2,556 miles. The eight states that it crosses are North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Arizona, and ending in California (source). For us, due to commitments, we missed North Carolina all together, and picked up the highway just east of Memphis, our first stop.
We veered off-piste a few times, like when we did the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas, but we did drive past Barstow and ended our trip in Los Angeles. In all fairness, we put on quite a few more miles as we rounded out our trip.
Road Trip – Atlanta to L.A. in 1 Week on I-40
Devon met us at our Atlanta airport hotel. We’d flown in from Germany, picked up our car, went to dinner and then to sleep. Our overall plan was to get up early each day, drive until early afternoon, and then spend the rest of the time sight-seeing and having some great food before we knocked off and started up the next day.
It turned out to be a pretty good way to cover a lot of ground, see some amazing things, and not get too crabby. Road trips are great for family bonding, but they also have the potential to blow up into some epic fights if someone gets too tired, too cramped from sitting, too hungry, or whatever. We were trying to balance our necessary driving hours with some fun, and I think it worked.
Note: If we mention a restaurant, it’s because first we researched and chose it, then we ate there, we loved it, and we recommend it. The others maybe…not so much.
I-40 Attractions and Stops
Our route looked basically like this: Atlanta – Memphis – Oklahoma City – Albuquerque – Grand Canyon – Las Vegas – Los Angeles
I-40 Tennessee – Memphis
As we approached the on ramp for I-40, we knew this was the true beginning of our road trip. Interstate on-ramps are nothing special. They all look alike, but for us, we were excited…and ready!
Memphis is a city we’d never been to before, we wanted to do a couple of key things like watch the duck parade at the Peabody Hotel, check out the amazing pyramid housing a Bass Pro Shop, walk around Beale Street, and eat some of their famous fried chicken.
We accomplished all this and had a great time wandering around looking at all the music placards and information as well. We enjoyed a gorgeous sunset under the highway bridge, and decided our formula of morning drive – afternoon and evening fun was working. A good first day, that’s for sure.
Where we ate: Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken
Where we stayed: Hilton Garden Inn Memphis Downtown
Additional Reading: Top 10 Tips for Planning a Family Road Trip
I-40 Arkansas – No Stopping!
Heading out of Memphis in the early morning gave us the opportunity to enjoy crossing the mighty Mississippi River in the golden light of sunrise. The sun was shining bright, and our new day dawned with us crossing the border into Arkansas.
Green and lush, the countryside views pleased us for the entire 248 miles that we were in the state. However, we needed to keep on a schedule and even though there are some great things to see and do, they didn’t make the cut. We needed to get to Oklahoma, our next stop.
I-40 Oklahoma – Tulsa and Oklahoma City
After the brilliant green ride through Arkansas and the Ozark mountains, we crossed over into Oklahoma. Almost immediately the landscape turned shallower. It was more like driving on rolling hills, and you could see miles ahead of you. The greens became more muted, still green, but a little less so than before. We were heading west, young man, and we had 331miles of I-40 to enjoy in the Sooner State.
Oklahoma City was Devon’s choice. She went to school there and wanted to catch up with her college buddies, which actually meant we started in Tulsa. We made an exception to the driving formula since one of her college mates lives in Tulsa, and we wanted to meet up with her and have lunch. We ate Mexican (always the right choice in my opinion) and drove through town. In all, we may have spent two hours here, far from enough. It’s now on our list of must-dos in the future.
Boy that list is getting long. We checked in at our hotel and Devon went off with a group of friends, leaving Jim and I to hit the sights. We took in the National Cowboy Museum, the Stockyards, and a couple of Route 66 icons. We’d been to this city a couple times before, and it felt like home. I always think of it as the beginning of the wild, wild west from days gone by, and the city embraces its Native American and cowboy heritage.
That evening we hung around the hipster Bricktown and found a good pizza for dinner. We were saving ourselves, because on our way out of town, we had plans for our favorite breakfast at Cattlemen’s, steak and eggs as near to the Stockyards as you can possibly get!
Where we ate: Tulsa lunch: Calaveres
Bricktown: The Wedge Pizzeria
Where we stayed: Holiday Inn Express & Suites Oklahoma City Downtown – Bricktown
I-40 Texas – Amarillo and Cadillac Ranch
Interstate 40 really only drives through the panhandle of Texas, a mere 177 miles. This is a very small piece of land in the northern part of the state. It used to be a lively area, but now the only real place that still exists is Amarillo. It’s dusty; it’s a bit beat up, but it had its charm.
Unfortunately, we could only stop for lunch. We wanted barbecue ribs. Who goes through Texas and doesn’t eat ribs? We found them and we loved them, and we tried their fried pickles as a bonus. We decided we probably wouldn’t need to eat another thing all day because boy, those portions were big. Texas style. I tip my hat to that grill master, I do.
Where we ate: Dyer’s Bar-B-Que
After lunch, we stopped at the famous Cadillac Ranch. Can I just say, this was probably my biggest let down on the whole trip. I was looking forward to taking some colorful photos, but well, that didn’t happen.
First of all, the cars are a bit further off the road then we anticipated and we’d arrived after a big rain, so it was pretty muddy. That didn’t stop the majority of Route 66-ers, though, they were there with their spray paint having a blast. Maybe we need to go back…at sunrise. We’ll see.
I-40 New Mexico – Albuquerque
The Texas panhandle was the beginning of the full-on west and as we crossed into New Mexico, you could tell that we were in for the hot, dry, and expansive part of the trip, 374 miles of it, in fact. It wasn’t flat, but with very few, short trees to break the monotony, it was hard to tell.
We did cross the Continental Divide in New Mexico. There was a sign with the elevation clearly marked at 7,275 feet, but the view was a bit underwhelming. I lived in the Land of Enchantment for a year, and the landscape always reminded me of a toy train setting with its stubby bushes and brown earth.
At first, it seems like there’s not much to look at, but I found that New Mexico is one of my favorite states. It is beautiful. I’m just not sure you can get it all from only traveling on the interstate.
Albuquerque is one of our favorite cities in the U.S.A. It’s cowboy charm added to the best Mexican food this side of the border has Jim and I checking it out as a place to retire. This time around, though, we wanted to visit the Old Town and enjoy the shops, some old adobe buildings and homes, and some great food.
Many of the places I used to frequent are long closed, but the cuisine of New Mexico remains number one for me. I needed some green and red Christmas chile sauce…stat!
Where we ate: Dinner: Frontier Restaurant
Breakfast: The Range Cafe
Where we stayed: Hotel Chaco
I-40 Arizona – Grand Canyon
There is something about a western road trip that compels you to go to the Grand Canyon. No matter how many times you’ve been, it draws you back like a siren calling to you from the mesas, again, and again, and again…I’m not sure how many times I’ve been, I just can’t stop going.
To say it’s amazing, majestic, beautiful, really just doesn’t capture it. It’s one of those places you just have to see, to be there, to feel the hot, dry wind in your face, and after sunset the inevitable shivering as you can’t believe how damn cold it gets.
At any rate, we weren’t passing by and not stopping, so we took that right turn off of I-40 and north we drove. It took a huge chunk out of our 359 miles we should have driven in the state on the interstate, but I think we got the better part of the bargain. What we didn’t get to do is go to Scottsdale, which has been on my list for ages. Sigh. Next time.
Where we stayed: Best Western Premier Grand Canyon Squire Inn
Detour – Las Vegas
Detour indeed. I-40 doesn’t even go through Nevada at all. Right under the apex of the state, it sneaks right over and gets into California. Vegas is someplace we’ve also been a number of times, but this was a commitment, we had to go.
So, we headed a bit north and found ourselves in the midst of casinos and strip malls. In the day time, Vegas is really not a pretty city; it’s fun, but it’s not pretty. By the twilight blue of early evening it begins to liven up and the fountains and lights are lit, making it a happier place.
Sin City is just one of those places that is always changing, and it draws in visitors of all kinds, gamblers and non-gamblers alike. We couldn’t wait to have some family fun where we played Black Jack, checked out the Rock n’ Roll mini golf, took in the show at the Neon Museum, and even ate at Gordon Ramsey’s Hell’s Kitchen.
We couldn’t afford to stay in Vegas long, so after 2 nights we moved on, mainly because we had a flight to catch back to Germany.
Where we ate: Hell’s Kitchen
Where we stayed: Circus Circus
I-40 California – End of the Road
Our final destination was L.A. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to do much other than turn in the rental car and head to the airport for our early flights. We wouldn’t see Devon again for a few months, so we just had a great prime rib dinner and spent the last few hours of family time together before heading home.
Where we ate: The San Franciscan
Where we stayed: Renaissance Los Angeles Airport Hotel
If you are looking for a convenient and easy route to take cross-country, I-40 is it. With fantastic cities and sights to see along the way, you can have that classic American road trip experience, and you can do it one week! Have you traveled I-40? Got any tips or hints for us?