You’re driving to Phoenix for next week’s Fiesta Bowl. How?
In late December and early January, the answer to that question can go a long way toward determining how pleasant a trip you have. Although conditions in the Phoenix area itself are generally relatively warm and dry over the holidays, the same cannot necessarily be said for the routes that lead from here to there.
There are three basic routes a motorist can follow along the approximately 18-hour road trip. I know; members of my family lived in Phoenix for more than two decades, and I’ve driven all three of them. The key to planning a successful motor trip from here to there is keeping a close eye on the weather.
Here are your options, together with the perils of each.
1. The shortest trip
Given optimal road conditions and a preference for driving the fewest miles, you’ll head southwest through Salina, Hutchinson and Pratt to Liberal, continue to Tucumcari, pick up I-40 west to Holbrook, Ariz., then dive southwest again through Heber to Phoenix. You will have driven 1,128 miles, probably with an overnight stay between Albuquerque and Gallup.
If you take this route, be prepared to cope with weather and about 600 miles worth of two-lane roads. Two-thirds of that is the distance between McPherson and Tucumcari; the remainder lies between Holbrook and Phoenix. The weather can come up anywhere along the route; you know about southwest Kansas, and New Mexico near Albuquerque is famed for drifting, blowing snow or ice with an occasional blizzard. Ducking off the interstate at Holbrook through the Mogollon Rim country between Heber and Phoenix can be an exhilarating drive, especially if you are fond of 6,000 foot elevations and mountainous forests. You’ll also get to see the Painted Desert in northern Arizona, and the Petrified Forest is a second enjoyable option. But understand that Heber is high, cold and snowy and you are driving in January.
If that portion of Arizona sounds a bit adventurous, or you just don’t like two-lane roads through southwest Kansas, you may wish to consider…
2. The Interstate route
Assuming you can get to I-70, every bit of the rest of this trek is via four-lane interstate. Head south from Salina to Oklahoma City, pick up I-40, rumble due west to Flagstaff, Ariz., and veer south along I-17S to Phoenix. You’ll cover a hair under 1,300 miles — about 170 miles more than the short route —but you’ll do it at interstate speed, which by the way is a rocking 75 mph through New Mexico. You’ll avoid the trucks haunting U.S. 54’s two lanes from Pratt to Tucumcari, and also the 180 miles of two lane winter driving —with all its scenery and peril — separating Holbrook from Phoenix. You can, if you choose, take a break at Meteor Canyon near Williams. Finally, you’ll drive right past Sedona, unless of course you want to stop there. In that case, bring money.
What you may or may not avoid is winter weather. You’re still driving through northern New Mexico, and the tradeoff for losing southwest Kansas is picking up the Texas panhandle, which can be just about as nasty. Beyond that, by missing the winter glories of Heber you’re volunteering for the winter glories of Flagstaff, which at 6,903 feet is nearly as high as Heber, and which averages 108 inches of snow per season. Be prepared. If the forecast looks bad, consider a swing south to …
3. Texas, Texas, Texas
These several days out, the forecasts for much of New Mexico and Arizona for thee first few days of 2013 look pretty good. But that may change, and even if it doesn’t storms could blow up on your return. If they do, or if you want to eliminate weather as a factor, you can take the southern route through the heart of west Texas.
On this route, resist the urge to turn west at Oklahoma City and continue south to Fort Worth. At this point, hunker down and make sure you’ve got a good motel reservation because you are 300 miles from Midland, which is 300 miles from El Paso, which is 300 miles from Tucson, which is not Phoenix, which is not Glendale.
The southern route checks in at a hefty 1,537 miles — that’s 230 miles more than the interstate route and 400 more than the short route — but somewhere between Wichita and Fort Worth you can pretty much take bad weather out of the equation. It is also lightly trafficked, so you can dial the gas pedal as far down to the floor as you dare; the Texas drivers will. Another downside is that unless you like oil derricks and scrub brush, the good scenery is mostly confined to about a 15-mile stretch of southern Arizona east of Tucson