Southwest Driving Tour: 4 Historic Stops

The American Southwest is rich with spectacular landscapes, but did you know it’s rich with millions of years of history, too? Dinosaurs, pioneers and Native Americans all left behind living histories in the valleys, deserts and ghost towns in Nevada, Utah, California and Arizona. Travel back in time on an epic family driving tour of the Southwest and connect over shared experiences in places that existed long before the digital revolution.

How to Get There

Fly into Las Vegas McCarran International Airport, where you’ll pick up your rental car and begin to explore the Southwest’s historic landmarks. Bring a road map or download driving directions to your smart device prior to departure — GPS navigation may be poor to nonexistent in some areas.

Peek into the Past at Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada

Without knowing it, dinosaurs and prehistoric people left a time capsule with fossils and petroglyphs in the red Aztec sandstone formations in Valley of Fire State Park. These historical treasures reveal that dinosaurs roamed here more than 150 million years ago. The Ancestral Puebloans (also known as Anasazi) from the nearby Moapa Valley hunted bighorn sheep and performed religious ceremonies here from 300 B.C. to 1150 A.D.

Experience the fiery glow of their red rock homeland yourself on a day trip to the 40,000-acre park, located 50 miles northeast of Las Vegas. Walk to sandstone formations with names like Elephant Rock and Arch Rock. Throughout the park are petroglyphs, carvings by ancient people depicting scenes from their lives, such as births, weapons and the animals they hunted. These are most easily seen at Atlatl Rock and Petroglyph Canyon. Another must-see, Petrified Logs Loop trail features remnants of a petrified forest millions of years old.

Pay close attention to Atlatl Rock in Valley of Fire State Park, and you may just find the past revealing itself to you through etchings of inhabitants from long ago.

Drop by the visitor center for information about the park, including day hikes and driving tours, like Valley of Fire Road. Named a Nevada Scenic Byway in 1995, a 10.5-mile stretch of Valley of Fire Road connects the east and west entrances of the park while serving up incredible scenery. Hit the road at dawn or dusk as the sun’s rays strike the rocks for the best look at how this park earned its name.

Visit Grafton Ghost Town in Southern Utah

Located on the banks of the Virgin River, Grafton was settled in 1859 by Mormon pioneers who answered the calling of their prophet and church president, Brigham Young, to establish towns throughout Utah. They built homes and a schoolhouse and attempted to grow cotton in Grafton. But severe flooding, tensions with Native Americans and the closing of the local Mormon church shortly led to Grafton’s demise.

All that remains are a small group of buildings and a well-preserved cemetery from the 1860s with inscriptions that tell of lives cut short in the harsh environment.

While you can’t enter the schoolhouse, it makes for great photos and is one of the most pristine abandoned buildings in all of Utah’s ghost towns. Some say that Grafton is the most photographed ghost town in the West. In fact, it was the filming location for parts of Hollywood movies like “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”

Built in 1886, Grafton’s schoolhouse also served as a public meeting spot for the town during its heyday.

Located about 170 miles from Las Vegas, Grafton is 8.1 miles from Zion National Park, well worth the short drive to see the canyon and Emerald Pools. Fuel up with a Southwest chicken and black bean salad at Cafe Soleil or with a rotating regional specialty like wild game meatloaf at The Spotted Dog Cafe. Then visit an art gallery in the historic John Jacob Ruesch home before finding lodging at Cliffrose Lodge & Gardens in Springdale, the gateway city to the park.

Hike and Stargaze in the Mojave National Preserve in California

If this 1.6 million-acre desert wilderness could talk, it would tell stories about the Mojave Indians who settled here centuries ago, before the arrival of railroads and fortune-seeking miners. Those late arrivers began to show up in 1872, when mines sprung up throughout the desert. Steel from the iron ore mined at the Vulcan Mine in the 1940s was used to build U.S. ships during World War II.

Located about 60 miles southwest of Las Vegas, the preserve will delight both history buffs and nature lovers. The petroglyphs, military outposts and long-abandoned mines are a visual link to the past, while the canyons, mountains and mesas provide solitude from busy urban life. Hiking is a great way to explore the area’s massive dunes; try the 3-mile round-trip Kelso Dunes trail. See the world’s largest Joshua tree forest and views of Cima Dome on the 3-mile round-trip Teutonia Peak Trail, the Mitchell Caverns on guided tours, or ancient lava flows in the Cinder Cone Natural Area off Kelbaker Road. For world-class stargazing in the preserve, stay the night. Sites at the Hole-in-the-Wall Campground are first come, first served.

Stop by the Kelso Depot, which was once a home base for Union Pacific Railroad employees but today serves as a visitor center. Here you’ll find information about the preserve and exhibits describing the area’s cultural and natural history.

As you catch a sunset over Mojave National Preserve, think about its vast history and how people have resided in the area for more than 10,000 years.


Explore an Authentic Western Town in Oatman, Arizona

Named after a pioneer girl taken captive by the Apache Indians and traded to the Mojave tribe, Oatman was a mining tent camp until 1915, when two miners hit the jackpot with a $10 million gold find. That event triggered one of the desert country’s last gold rushes and put Oatman on the map. For 10 years, Oatman’s mines were some of the largest gold producers in the West. But a 1921 fire that burned most of the structures, and the closing of United Eastern Mines (the town’s main employer), nearly destroyed the boomtown on Route 66. The straw that broke Oatman’s back came in the early 1950s, when the construction of Interstate 40 bypassed the town.

Pull over in Oatman and opt for a different sort of afternoon ride as you make your way through town via historic Route 66. Photo by Deborah Lee Soltesz,

Today, while only about 100 people call Oatman home, this authentic Western town roughly 125 miles southeast of Las Vegas offers visitors plenty of old-timey fun. Take photos with wild burros (descendants of burros brought here by miners in the 1800s) and shop for handmade leather goods and jewelry at places like Dakota’s Leather & Gifts and Yellowhammer’s Place.

Weather permitting, watch daily staged gunfights on Main Street. Still standing after the town’s fires, the Oatman Hotel — where Clark Gable and Carole Lombard spent their honeymoon night, according to legend — invites its visitors to relax over a meal or for a night’s rest. Some say the hotel is haunted by several ghosts, including those of Clark and Carole. See what you think for yourself, or exchange your favorite ghost stories on your way out of town.

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About the Author

Mimi Slawoff is a Los Angeles-based writer who travels the world with her three kids. A former Los Angeles Daily News reporter, Mimi writes for L.A. Parent magazine, and several other outlets. Follow her adventures on Twitter @Mimitravelz, Instagram @Mimitravels and at