Crossing the Country with Interstate 40
By Kimberly Graf. Published on September 24, 2018
Interstate 40 runs nearly the entire length of the United States, cutting across the south from California to North Carolina. Most of the drive is a four-lane highway winding through the plains, hills, and forests of each state. Along the way, you'll encounter some of the largest cities in the southern US.
But even the smallest towns along this route have interesting things to see. Small towns like Shamrock, Texas and Elk City, Oklahoma have fully embraced the 'highway culture'. In fact, the entirety of this 2,555 mile highway is a celebration of road trips and car travel. Most of the highway runs along the Mother Road, or historic Route 66.
This popular highway is a quick way to get from one end of the country to the other, but it's also an experience. Littered with roadside diners, truck stops, and vintage gas stations, this road is always a pleasurable drive.
I-40 begins in Barstow, California. This part of the road is called the Needles Freeway, as it links Barstow and the Arizona border town of Needles. The highway here runs through a valley with sparse desert vegetation, surrounded by mountains and hills. This 155-mile stretch has no services, so make sure you have enough gas to make it to Needles.
As you approach the Arizona border, the vegetation becomes a little greener. Just before the border you make a sharp southern turn and run along the Colorado River for a while. I-40 eventually crosses over the Colorado River and puts you squarely in Arizona.
An hour from the Arizona border is the town of Kingman, Arizona. There is no better example of a highway town embracing its road trip identity as this town. Classic cars and kitschy diners make this town the ideal place to stop and get something to eat. The next major stop is Flagstaff, Arizona, an oasis in the desert at 7,000 feet. Flagstaff is full of evergreens and even snow for a large portion of the year.
Winslow is another hour past Flagstaff, a tiny highway town made famous by the song. Take a picture on the corner and move on.
The rest of the drive through Arizona is populated with red dirt and dense brush. There are no mountains to take up the skyline here –just blue skies for the remaining 105 miles. Lupton, AZ is the gateway to New Mexico. There's only really a truck stop and a few Native American trading posts here.
Gallup, New Mexico is half an hour down the highway. This sprawling desert city is growing rapidly and full of hallmarks of road trip culture. Two hours away is Albuquerque, which is a good place to stop for the night and take in the sights of the largest city in New Mexico. Home to more than five times the population of the state's capital, this city just keeps going! If you happen to pass through here during the second week in October, make sure to stop and take a look at the colorful hot air balloons in the air for the International Balloon Fiesta.
Wake up refreshed and carry on to Tucumcari, New Mexico, a classic Route-66 style town with interesting locals and numerous truck stops and travel centers. From here, it's another hour to the border of New Mexico. Get ready to leave the Land of Enchantment behind and enter the panhandle of Texas.
I-40 only travels through 177 miles of the large state of Texas. The drive through the panhandle is mostly prairies and huge wind turbines. Notable places include Amarillo, the largest city in the Texas Panhandle. Sights here include Cadillac Ranch and the unique architecture that blends Spanish Revival with modern art. There's also a huge Route-66 museum here that's worth checking out.
Almost to the Oklahoma border is a town called Shamrock. Here there are many restored vintage Route-66 diners and gas stations. This town is proud of their highway heritage and it shows. It's always fun to stop and look around here.
Elk City is the first stop on the other side of the Oklahoma border. This town is very tourist friendly, full of truck stops and fast food locations. The next notable stop is almost two hours away in Oklahoma City, the cowboy city. This city is steeped in western heritage and Native American history. Other notable sightseeing ventures are the butterfly gardens and the Oklahoma City National Memorial, set up for the victims of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
The next leg of your journey changes the landscape rapidly. You are approaching Arkansas, and things get very, very green. From here on out we leave the desert behind and focus on towering trees and amazing views. You'll travel through the southern part of the Ozarks and through several National Forests.
I-40 cuts right through the middle of Arkansas. This part of the drive is extremely scenic and takes you through Little Rock, the capital of Arkansas. There are bunches of outdoor recreation opportunities along this road. From Fort Smith, it's two and a half hours down to Little Rock, but there are plenty of small southern towns along the way.
Little Rock is the perfect place to stop for the second leg of this journey. It's a large, hospitable city on the bank of the Arkansas River. It's a good place to do some exploring, but it won't be long before you'll want to get back to nature.
It's two hours past Little Rock to get to the Arkansas border, and right on the other side is Memphis, Tennessee.
Because the I-40 runs the entire length of Tennessee, you'll spend the longest amount of time here. The road runs through all the major cities in the state, through Memphis, Nashville, and Knoxville. Memphis is full of culture, nightlife and burger joints, not to mention its biggest draw: Graceland, former home of Elvis.
It's worth spending some time there, but when you're ready to move on, it's a three-hour drive scenic drive up to Nashville. Nashville is the home of country music and the entire city seems to commemorate this. You're in the deep South now, full of small towns and people who have never left the area around their home. It's charming and a little rustic.
If you think you can make it, it's another three hours to Knoxville. Either place is good to stop for the night. On the other side of Knoxville, it's a short drive over the North Carolina border.
Waynesville is a quaint town just over the border, and from there it's a long drive with very little attractions or stopping points. There are services, but at this point it's nice to just enjoy the scenery and the laid-back atmosphere of this state. You avoid Charlotte altogether following this road, and the next major stop is three hours away in Greensboro, North Carolina. Stop and rest here, but you're so close to Raleigh, the capital of the state.
You're in the final stretch to the I-40 now, heading an hour down from Greensboro to Raleigh. Raleigh is the hallmark of the North Carolina way of life; nice people, good food, and fun. Another two hours past Raleigh is the end of our journey, a town close to the ocean called Wilmington.
By traveling the I-40, you can experience all of the diversity and variety of the southern states, driving through most of them and experiencing their unique atmospheres and landscapes. Even just a portion of this drive is delightful to undertake. The road are well-maintained, there are plenty of services in most places, and everyone seems to be doing the same thing. There are countless cars and minivans packed with families traveling along this road.
There's something special about this great American highway, and the only way to truly understand is to go experience it yourself.