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The Ultimate I-40 Cross-Country Road Trip (CA, AZ, NM, TX, OK, AR, TN, NC)

We live in Dallas and frequently take long-distance road trips. Coming from the South, we often connect to Interstate 40 if we go east or west. It’s a great highway through the heart of America and has some of my favorite cities along its route (Santa Fe and Memphis, I’m talking to you!).

The first time we took it west towards Albuquerque, I was surprised to find that it aligned with a large portion of the original and historic Route 66.

You may take I-40 from California to North Carolina or just a segment. Along the way, you will find a pleasing mix of cities, rural America, history, National Parks and fun attractions.


Table of Contents

What is the history of I-40?

Where Does I-40 Start and End?

How Many States Does I-40 Go Through?

How Many Miles Long is I-40?

How Many Hours Does it Take to Drive I-40?

What are Major Attractions or Points of Interest Along I-40?

What are the Major Cities Along Interstate 40?

How many National Parks are Near I-40?

How Do I Find Up-to-Date Information on Traffic or Road Construction on Interstate 40?

Is Route 66 and I-40 the same highway?

What is the history of I-40?

The inception of Interstate 40 dates back to the mid-1950s when the U.S. embarked on a nationwide project to create a comprehensive interstate highway system.

I-40, spanning from coast to coast, was envisioned as a key artery connecting the east and west of the country.

Where Does I-40 Start and End?

Interstate 40 begins in Barstow, California, on the west, and extends to Wilmington, North Carolina, on the east.

How Many States Does I-40 Go Through?

I-40 traverses through eight states, including:

  • California

  • Arizona

  • New Mexico

  • Texas

  • Oklahoma

  • Arkansas

  • Tennessee

  • North Carolina

How Many Miles Long is I-40?

The entire length of Interstate 40 spans approximately 2,559 miles, making it one of the longest interstate highways in the United States. In fact, it is the 3rd longest after interstates 90 and 80.

How Many Hours Does it Take to Drive I-40?

The time it takes to drive the entire length of I-40 depends on various factors, including your speed, stops, and traffic conditions. On average, a non-stop drive might take around 35 to 40 hours.

What are the Major Cities Along Interstate 40?

  • Flagstaff, AZ

  • Albuquerque, NM

  • Amarillo, TX

  • Oklahoma City, OK

  • Little Rock, AR

  • Memphis, TN

  • Nashville, TN

  • Knoxville, TN

  • Winston-Salem, NC

  • Greensboro, NC

  • Durham, NC

  • Raleigh, NC

What are Major Attractions or Points of Interest Along I-40?

Interstate 40 is a treasure trove of attractions. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Grand Canyon (AZ)

  • Petrified Forest National Park (AZ)

  • Santa Fe (NM)

  • Palo Duro Canyon State Park (TX)

  • Crater of Diamonds State Park (AR)

  • Hot Springs (AR)

  • Memphis (TN)

  • Nashville (TN)

  • Blue Ridge Mountains (NC)

Attractions Along I-40 in California

  • Lavic Lake Volcanic Field: off of a small road, you can see the remains of a volcanic eruption. This volcanic field is a hidden gem for geology enthusiasts. The extinct cinder cones and volcanic features provide a glimpse into the area’s ancient volcanic activity. Exploring the terrain offers a sense of being transported to a different geological era, making it an exciting stop for those interested in Earth’s history.

  • Mojave National Preserve: This expansive desert landscape is home to a diverse array of ecosystems, including Joshua Tree forests, sand dunes, and unique geological formations. Visitors can enjoy hiking, stargazing, and exploring the vast expanse of the desert. The preserve’s solitude and untouched beauty are a draw for nature enthusiasts.

  • Route 66 Mother Road Museum: Located in Barstow, this museum is a treasure trove of Route 66 history. It provides insights into the cultural and historical significance of the iconic highway and the area’s mining heritage. Visitors can better appreciate the road that was crucial to American travel and culture.

Attractions Along I-40 in Arizona

  • Lake Havasu: Located in Arizona on the Colorado River, Lake Havasu is renowned for its stunning desert landscape and the iconic London Bridge, relocated here in the 1960s. This picturesque lake offers a haven for water enthusiasts, with boating, fishing, and water sports, making it a popular destination for outdoor enthusiasts year-round.

  • Grand Canyon National Park: One of the world’s most iconic natural wonders, offering breathtaking vistas and hiking opportunities.

  • Walnut Canyon National Monument: When you


Read my tips and itinerary for the Grand Canyon and Sedona

  • Petrified Forest National Park: Home to ancient petrified trees and fascinating geological formations. This is a really cool park if you take your time along the drive and read the signs and the NPS map. I couldn’t get over seeing so man pieces of petrified wood that

  • Meteor Crater: A colossal impact crater that provides insights into the Earth’s history.

2 people ride on mules down the Bright Angel Trail in Arizona at the Grand Canyon (just off of Interstate 40)

Grand Canyon Bright Angel Trail

Attractions Along I-40 in New Mexico

Albuquerque

  • Albuquerque Old Town: A historic district filled with adobe buildings, shops, and cultural attractions.

  • Sandia Peak Tramway: We all really enjoyed this. You get on a mountainside tram and and take it up to Sandia Peak. Once at the top, there’s a restaurant or you can hike or ski along several trails. If you have young children like us, you can

  • Explora Science Center and Museum: Highlights include a giant bubble exhibit, a planetarium, outdoor exhibits, and interactive displays on topics like physics, biology, and renewable energy.

  • Petroglyph National Monument: This park contains one of the largest petroglyph concentrations in North America, with thousands of ancient rock carvings created by Native American and Spanish settlers. Visitors can hike along designated trails to see these petroglyphs, which depict various symbols, animals, and human figures. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the region’s history and the artistry of its early inhabitants.

  • The National Museum of Nuclear Science & History: This museum explores the history and science of nuclear energy and its impact on society. Visitors can learn about the development of nuclear weapons, nuclear power, and the peaceful applications of nuclear technology. The museum features a wide range of exhibits, including artifacts, interactive displays, and a collection of Cold War-era aircraft and missiles. It offers a comprehensive look at the role of nuclear science in the modern world.

  • Turquoise Museum: The Turquoise Museum, also known as the “Tiffany of the Southwest,” is a hidden gem in Albuquerque that focuses on the history, geology, and cultural significance of turquoise. Visitors can take guided tours to learn about the formation of turquoise, its mining history, and its use in Native American jewelry and art.

Other New Mexico I-40 Highlights

  • Acoma Pueblo: Visit the “Sky City” atop a mesa to experience the oldest continuously inhabited community in the U.S.

  • Tucumcari: Tucumcari, located in eastern New Mexico along historic Route 66, is a charming town known for its nostalgic Americana vibes. It boasts a collection of colorful vintage neon signs, classic motels, and diners, making it a popular stop for travelers retracing the iconic highway. Tucumcari also offers a glimpse into the past with its historic architecture and ties to Route 66’s heyday, making it a must-visit destination for those seeking a taste of retro America. For us, it makes a great overnight from Dallas when we are traveling west or returning home.

Attractions Along I-40 in Texas

Amarillo

  • Cadillac Ranch: An art installation featuring buried Cadillacs, perfect for adding your own spray-painted mark.

  • Palo Duro Canyon State Park: Often called the “Grand Canyon of Texas,” this park offers hiking, camping, and stunning views.

  • Big Texan Steak Ranch: Known for its oversized steak challenge and iconic giant cowboy statue.

Need a fun, quirky motel to stay at? Read my review on The Big Texan Motel.

The Big Texan neon sign shows a tall, cartoon-like cowboy touching a sign that says,

Big Texan Sign on I-40 (Route 66)

Attractions Along I-40 in Oklahoma

Oklahoma City

  • Oklahoma City National Memorial: Pay tribute to the victims of the 1995 bombing at this moving memorial.

  • Bricktown: Explore this entertainment district with restaurants, shops, and a canal.

  • National Cowboy & Western Heritage: Discover the history and art of the American West.

Other Attractions in Oklahoma


Attractions Along I-40 in Arkansas

Things to Do in Little Rock, AR:

  • Central High School National Historic Site: Learn about the Civil Rights Movement and the Little Rock Nine.

  • Clinton Presidential Library: Explore exhibits about the life and presidency of Bill Clinton. If you are someone that likes to visit Presidential libraries, check out my article on what I call 101 Super Travel Bucket List Ideas.

Attractions Along I-40 in Tennessee

Memphis Attractions

Not gonna lie…Memphis is easily one of my favorite cities in the U.S. And people admittedly either love it or hate it. For me, it’s all about the confluence of music, food and good people. I’ve never had a bad time in Memphis.

  • Graceland: Visit the iconic home of Elvis Presley. I have been lucky enough to be here on the anniversary of his death when Elvi (I guess that’s the plural?) come from all over the world to honor him. It’s quite a spectacle. It’s fun to see the house, kept in its 70s period decor and the famous Jungle Room.

  • Beale Street: Experience the lively music scene, bars, and restaurants. I guarantee you’ll hear a musician singing, “Walking in Memphis.”

  • Stax Museum of American Soul Music: Explore the history of soul music and its legends.

  • Sun Studio: Discover the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll. I love this small studio tour so much that I’ve done the tour 3 times. Come see the actual room where Elvis Presley walked in to record a song for his mom. You can also see the recording studio where Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis recorded their music as well as took the impromptu picture of “The Million Dollar Quartet.” Seriously, don’t miss this place!

Nashville

  • Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum: Dive into the history of country music and its stars.

  • Grand Ole Opry: Attend a live show at this legendary country music venue.

  • The Parthenon: Admire a full-scale replica of the ancient Greek Parthenon.

  • Honky Tonk Highway: Enjoy live music and entertainment on Lower Broadway.

Knoxville

  • University of Tennessee: Explore the campus, Neyland Stadium, and the University of Tennessee Gardens.

  • Market Square: Stroll through a lively downtown square with shops and dining.


Attractions Along I-40 in North Carolina

  • Great Smoky Mountains National Park: The North Carolina side of the park also offers stunning landscapes and hiking trails

  • Biltmore Estate: A grand mansion and estate with beautiful gardens and winery.

  • Blue Ridge Parkway: A scenic drive offering panoramic views of the Appalachian Mountains.

Winston-Salem, NC

  • Old Salem Museums & Gardens: Step back in time to explore Moravian history and architecture.

  • Reynolda House Museum of American Art: View an impressive collection of American art.

  • Tanglewood Park: Enjoy outdoor activities, gardens, and a golf course.

Greensboro, NC

  • Greensboro Science Center: Visit the zoo, aquarium, and science museum all in one place.

  • International Civil Rights Center & Museum: Learn about the Greensboro sit-ins and civil rights history.

  • Bicentennial Garden: Relax in a beautiful botanical garden.

Durham, NC

  • Duke University: Tour the stunning Gothic-style campus and Duke Chapel.

  • Sarah P. Duke Gardens: Enjoy the serene beauty of these landscaped gardens.

  • American Tobacco Campus: Explore shops, restaurants, and entertainment in a historic setting.

Raleigh, NC

  • North Carolina Museum of Art: Admire a diverse collection of art, including works by famous artists.

  • Pullen Park: Have fun at one of the oldest amusement parks in the U.S.

  • North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences: Learn about the natural world and dinosaurs.

How many National Parks are Near I-40?

As you journey along I-40, you’ll find several national parks within reach, including:

  • Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona

  • Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee

  • Appalachian Trail in North Carolina

How Do I Find Up-to-Date Information on Traffic or Road Construction on Interstate 40?

To stay up-to-date on traffic conditions, road closures, and construction updates along Interstate 40, you can utilize resources like GPS navigation apps, state transportation department websites, and real-time traffic information services. My first stop would be the Department of Transportation for the state followed by an app like Waze, Google or Apple Maps.

Is Route 66 and I-40 the same highway?

Interstate 40 and Route 66 share a historic connection, as I-40 largely replaced the iconic Route 66 as a primary cross-country route. While they are not the same highway, I-40 often follows the path of Route 66 in many places, allowing travelers to explore a blend of nostalgia and modernity.