If you blindly follow your GPS, a Flagstaff to Albuquerque motorcycle ride is a 320‑mile drone on Interstate 40. That’s fine if Point A to Point B is your only plan. However, most motorcyclists are suckers for interesting byways and intriguing places, and I am no exception.
Embracing that character trait, I planned a convoluted ride that would add about 180 miles and several hours to this trip. I was not just adding saddle time; I was also adding several historically and culturally significant landmarks. Instead of simply slaloming through long‑haul trucks on the freeway, I would make a loop through three national monuments near Flagstaff: Wupatki, Sunset Crater Volcano, and Walnut Canyon. Continuing east, I’d visit Meteor Crater, Standin’ on the Corner Park, Petrified Forest National Park, and in New Mexico, El Malpais National Monument.
Before that roundabout route, I needed to spend some time in my all‑time favorite small city, Flagstaff. I lived some of my most memorable years in these mountains. I am a graduate of Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, and any time I’m in the sky‑high city is a personal joy.
As I rolled through the campus for some serious reminiscing, many of the buildings brought back indelible memories. There is one location that is uniquely special. I spent my sophomore year in the school’s stately Old Main building when it was still a dormitory. Decades before I was a gleam in anyone’s eye, my parents took a photo on its iconic steps. The historic red Moenkopi sandstone building was constructed in the late 1800s and is the centerpiece of both the beautiful campus and my love for Flagstaff.
After leaving the campus, I rode through Flagstaff’s charming downtown area. Iconic hotels in the area like the Hotel Monte Vista and the Weatherford cast a historic shade over the lively, rejuvenated entertainment and shopping district.
There is no shortage of things to do downtown, including the Orpheum Theater, many dining options, and unique specialty shops. The area is much more polished and refined than when I was in college.
As an undergraduate, I spent a fair amount of time “studying” in various Flagstaff watering holes, like the venerable Museum Club. This time around, as I dropped the kickstand in front of the log‑built establishment dating back to 1931, visions of live bands and lukewarm beer flooded my memories. Some of Flagstaff’s history was lost on me while matriculating, but the slightly more mature “me” appreciates the vintage, mountain‑chic nature of the city that lies on historic Route 66.
After leaving Flagstaff, I headed north on U.S. Route 89 toward the scenic loop through the first two national monuments slated for my ride. This first little spur of my wandering route to Albuquerque was more of a flyby, as I have visited both Wupatki and Sunset Crater Volcano in the past.
Near the northernmost point of what is fittingly called the Sunset Crater‑Wupatki Loop Road is a significant archeological site. In the early 1100s, Pueblo communities built Wupatki, a bustling center of trade and culture. The site is well worth a walkabout. After looping farther through the otherworldly landscape of this part of northern Arizona, I came to Sunset Crater Volcano. You can see virtually the entirety of the park from the saddle along the loop road. Peering directly into the mouth of the cinder cone is no longer permitted due to foot traffic erosion; however, a long view of the nationally protected volcanic field is still a wonder to experience.
After completing the loop road, I headed east on I‑40 for a skinny minute to the access road for a national monument I had not visited previously. Walnut Canyon is just a short jog off the interstate through pines, oaks, and junipers. The endgame is a visually stunning canyon environment rich in rugged natural beauty and early human history. I did not walk the park’s Island Trail, a strenuous one‑hour hike past the early cliff dwellings; however, I took in the big‑picture experience of the park’s rim trail, which offers great views of the dwellings and the rugged topography.
At this point in my Flagstaff to Albuquerque motorcycle ride, I had been in the saddle or exploring for well over an hour, and I was only 8 miles outside of my original launching point. I did say I was not taking the most direct route to Albuquerque! My eastward trek resumed on I‑40 and was exactly what freeway travel is designed to be: fast, efficient, and boring. My speedometer needle was pinned resolutely at 75 mph as I rolled through the tall pines of northern Arizona, which melted into junipers and then grasslands as I made my way toward the next attraction.
About 40 miles out of Flagstaff, I came to the exit ramp for Meteor Crater. There are numerous “teaser” signs along the access route that are intended to build anticipation for the natural wonder at the road’s terminus. As I approached, I saw the ultimate teaser: an enormous raised, round “lip” that is evidence of the cosmic collision that occurred thousands of years ago.
I rolled into the parking lot and secured my pass to see the crater. On my way to the viewing areas, I enjoyed a series of museums and displays that cover the history of space travel, hypothetical (corny?) representations of aliens, and the scientific nature of the meteor that found its way to earth some 50,000 years prior to my visit.
As I finally made my way outside the facility to the viewpoints along the rim of the crater, the massive bowl did not disappoint. One cannot help but stand in awe of the impact that created the earthen wound. There are several vantage points from which to view the crater, as well as preset telescopes for a closer look at its interesting features. Well worth the visit.
With the cosmic pockmark fading in the rear views, I was back on the interstate for a quick jaunt. Most of this ride was a survey in ancient places, but there was a little musical interlude singing its siren song in downtown Winslow. I pulled up to the intersection of Route 66 and North Kinsley Avenue, now designated as Standin’ on the Corner Park, where a flatbed Ford was conspicuously parked.
Sure, it’s kitschy, but for anyone who has crooned along with the 1972 Eagles song “Take It Easy,” it’s a must stop. I took the requisite photo with a bronze Glenn Frey and searched in vain for the girl in that flatbed Ford. Winslow is also home to the historic La Posada Hotel, the Old Trails Museum, and Homolovi State Park.
Again heading east, the next town of note into which I rolled was another Route 66 remnant. Just off Holbrook’s main drag rests an iconic mid‑century attraction. Over a dozen large, conical teepees make up the historic Wigwam Motel. Those structures and the classic cars staged around the property beg for a visit and photos.
Just 30 miles east of Holbrook is the exit for Petrified Forest National Park. I rode due south on what would be an extended departure from any interstate highway. After paying my entry fee, I rolled into a lunar‑esque landscape rich in pastel hues and forever views. The road through the heart of the park is 26 miles of intrigue.
I stopped at Newspaper Rock, which features hundreds of ancient petroglyphs of animals, weapons, and humans. The etched figurines tell a fascinating story, including how the exaggerated endowment on the male stick figures speaks to the fact that men never change.
At my next stop, the park’s Crystal Forest, I pulled off my gear for a walk among the massive petrified logs that lay strewn throughout the undulations of the walking path. The path is a sojourn into a prehistoric wonderland. Logs lay as massive, independent rounds as well as segmented pieces where they fell millions of years ago.
Geared up again, I exited the park to the south and continued on the longest side leg of this elongated ride to Albuquerque. I rode through the remote eastern Arizona towns of St. Johns and Springerville before heading due east on U.S. Route 60 into New Mexico. The grasslands and high chaparral landscape are wide‑open and beautiful, making for a fun Southwestern riding experience.
At the small New Mexican town of Quemado, I stopped for a quick look at the tiny Catholic mission on the outskirts of the hamlet, one of many such historic missions in New Mexico, before heading north on State Route 36. The high‑desert riding continued on State Route 117 until I came to the last of my planned stops.
The Narrows is a striking rock rim feature within the El Malpais National Monument. The road follows that sheer rim for a nice stretch before the ledge eases and separates from the tarmac. The next notable feature is a picturesque natural rock bridge to the north of The Narrows. A short walk reveals the grandeur of the La Ventana Natural Arch. After a visit, my route rejoined the freeway for the final stretch to Albuquerque.
Nope, this was certainly not the quickest Flagstaff to Albuquerque motorcycle ride, but it was infinitely more memorable.
Flagstaff to Albuquerque Motorcycle Ride Resources
- Discover Flagstaff, Arizona
- Wupatki National Monument ($20 per motorcycle, includes Sunset Crater)
- Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument
- Walnut Canyon National Monument ($20 per motorcycle)
- Meteor Crater & Barringer Space Museum ($22 per adult)
- Petrified Forest National Park ($15 per motorcycle)
- El Malpais National Monument (The Narrows)
- Visit Albuquerque, New Mexico
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