A Memorable Road Trip on Interstate 40, Part 1

View of a canyon wall with striated rock.

Palo Duro Canyon State Park © Carl & Peggy Backes.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been an ardent fan of road trips, and as Moon’s American Nomad, I’ve certainly experienced my fair share of them. Down the Florida Keys’ Overseas Highway, up California’s Pacific Coast Highway, and along many scenic and historic routes in between, I’ve relished a wide variety of road trips over the years. As a child, I logged countless miles with my mother, from our home in New Orleans to destinations like Disney World; San Antonio; Branson, Missouri; the Rocky Mountains; and various landmarks along the East Coast. Years later, my fiancé-turned-husband, Dan, became my trusty traveling companion, and together, we’ve shared a number of memorable road trips, including a northern California excursion between Yosemite National Park, the gold-rich American River, the wineries of Napa Valley, and San Francisco.

Though we continue to cover hundreds of miles annually, some of our most memorable trips actually occurred during the year or so we spent as full-time RV travelers. While we both appreciate the country’s lesser-known highways and byways, perhaps our most inspiring trip took place on Interstate 40 (I-40), the country’s third longest east-west interstate, which stretches from Wilmington, North Carolina, to Barstow, California. Several stops en route include Raleigh and Greensboro, North Carolina; Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee; Little Rock, Arkansas; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Amarillo, Texas; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Flagstaff, Arizona; and California’s Mojave National Preserve. Interestingly enough, the distance between Oklahoma City and Barstow mirrors part of historic Route 66, America’s Mother Road. Of course, our particular I-40 trip began in Nashville, following a stop at Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave National Park, and continued west toward the Golden State. Here are just some of the attractions we encountered along the way:


Beale Street:
Between South Danny Thomas Boulevard and the Mississippi River in downtown Memphis, Tennessee, establishment hours vary

Beyond Nashville, our first major stop was Memphis, home of Elvis Presley’s Graceland. While we’re both fans of the King of Rock and Roll, our main interest here was Beale Street. Marked by a reputation that once rivaled New Orleans’s Storyville, Beale Street flourished during the 1920s with numerous restaurants, theaters, nightclubs, pawnshops, and blues musicians, not to mention the requisite gambling, prostitution, and murder. Though not quite as authentic as it once was, the main two-block stretch of Memphis’s Beale Street, between 2nd and 4th Streets, still lures oodles of visitors today. While staying in an RV park near Graceland, we decided to venture to this historic district one evening, and though accustomed to the bustling nightlife of Bourbon Street, I admit that we were both enticed by vibrant Beale and its plethora of live music venues and tasty barbecue joints.


Hot Springs National Park:
101 Reserve Street, Hot Springs, Arkansas, 501/620-6715, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, free
While leaving our RV parked in a campground near Little Rock, the capital of Arkansas, Dan and I took a side trip to Hot Springs, President Bill Clinton’s hometown. Here, we explored Hot Springs National Park, which occupies much of this nostalgic community. Ideal for history buffs and outdoor enthusiasts like us, the park features eight historic bathhouses, three scenic mountain drives, and 26 miles of hiking trails in the surrounding mountains.


Crater of Diamonds State Park:
209 State Park Road, Murfreesboro, Arkansas, 870/285-3113, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. daily January to May, 8 a.m.-8 p.m. daily June to mid-August, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. daily mid-August to December, $7 adults, $4 children 6-12, children under 6 free

After experiencing Hot Springs, we stopped by Crater of Diamonds State Park, which we’d previously visited. As I’ve blogged before, this relatively small, 38-acre site is truly one of the best finds – and best bargains – in the country. For a nominal fee, you can explore the world’s only diamond-producing site that’s open to the public. No wonder Crater of Diamonds is popular among couples, families, and treasure hunters alike. Here, after all, you can unearth all manner of valuable gems, from quartz to amethysts to yellow diamonds – provided you don’t mind getting a little dirty.


Big Texan Steak Ranch:
7701 I-40 East, Amarillo, Texas, 806/372-6000 or 800/657-7177, 7 a.m.-10:30 p.m. daily, $6-40
For miles between Oklahoma City and Amarillo, numerous billboards enticed us to stop by the Big Texan Steak Ranch, home of the world-famous, 72-ounce steak challenge. As I’ve written before, this is truly a can’t-miss experience – even for vegetarians. With a dining hall that boasts wagon-wheel chandeliers, picnic table-style seating, and a wide array of stuffed, mounted animals, it’s the ideal place to savor a well-prepared steak. If you so desire, you can even stay at the adjacent motel, fashioned like a Wild West town and featuring a Lone Star State-shaped swimming pool. And, yes, we’ve made return visits here, too.


Palo Duro Canyon State Park:
11450 Park Road 5, Canyon, Texas, 806/488-2227, 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday April to May and September, 8 a.m.-10 p.m. daily June to August, 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Friday-Saturday October to March, $5 per person, children under 13 free

While visiting Amarillo, we also ventured to Palo Duro Canyon State Park, which, as I’ve mentioned before, is a 29,182-acre preserve that encompasses part of the 120-mile-long, 800-foot-deep canyon dubbed the “Grand Canyon of Texas,” the second largest canyon in the country. Although we spent most of our time hiking amid the multicolored cliffs and strolling through the small interpretive center, other activities here include picnicking, mountain biking, horseback riding, and, in the summer, experiencing Texas, a family-friendly outdoor musical drama.

For other attractions encountered along Interstate 40, check out my next post, which covers the distance between Albuquerque and northern Arizona.

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