Monument Valley and Sedona in a 2019 Ford Expedition
According to pre-COVID-19 data from the American Automobile Association, 53 million Americans were expected to pack themselves and their stuff into 12 million automobiles and hit the road for an average 300-mile road trip in 2020. Most point to the relatively low cost, schedule flexibility, and reduced packing constraints as reasons to use their car versus anther conveyance.
But it’s the joy of the journey, baked together with a healthy dose of nostalgia, that drives me. Cars are necessary mobility implements in most of our day-to-day lives, but come road trip time they transform into chariots of adventure. Conduits to discovery.
As a kid, a 1979 full-size Chevrolet Van was my family’s dutiful wagon of exploration. We crisscrossed the West from Glacier National Park on the U.S.-Canadian border to Yosemite National Park in the central Sierra, up and down the Pacific Coast Highway, and points between. Road trips were coveted family time and these van-born experiences played no small part in the development of my love for the American West, as well as the automobile. And like all parents, I want to share the peak experiences of my childhood with my progeny.
The Chevy van of my childhood was a reverberation chamber known to achieve searing interior temperatures thanks to its battleship grey livery, deep maroon interior, and vinyl seats. Traversing the arid expanses of the west without extravagances such as AC didn’t help, either. Needless to say, my family has different expectations for comfort today than we did back in the 80’s. And if I was not careful, our first long-range adventure in the West might be our last. So when it came to selecting a vehicle, it had to be voluminous, endowed with enough power to shrug off mountain passes, retain the ability to take on unimproved roads, and of course be equipped with multi-zone climate control.
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One of the benefits of living in San Diego is its proximity to the great national parks, monuments, and open spaces of the Southwest. But with just 8 days, the challenge was balancing quality and quantity, so we built an itinerary around two primary destinations: Monument Valley and Sedona. Between two Saturdays last Spring myself, my wife, and our two boys, aged five and seven, transited five states, made at least six wrong turns, stopped for eight unscheduled bathroom breaks, and shared countless memorable vistas across 1,960 miles in a 2019 Expedition Limited 4×4 generously provided by Ford. Few vehicles could have been better suited to the task. Spacious and easy to drive, our aptly named steed consumed gear, provided ample personal space, and took us beyond trailheads down roads avoided by the minivan and RV set.
Escaping Southern California via Interstate 15 is an easy high-speed run. Five-hours after leaving home we arrived at Hoover Dam, an awe inspiring spectacle of 4.3 million cubic yards of concrete rising 726 feet from the bottom of Black Canyon. We took in the impressive Power House Tour, then departed on schedule just as the sun set, guaranteeing four delightfully quiet hours to Kanab, Utah.
Kanab is a small community, not a destination unto itself, but a gateway to a dozen high-quality natural wonders in south-central Utah. We left all but one for another trip, electing to visit a slot canyon. Buckskin Gulch is accessed via a lightly maintained dirt road at the southern end of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. The Expedition is low-slung for a body-on-frame SUV. It does not sit high like its F-150 cousin. But our standard-wheelbase tester spanned a full 22-inches less than an F-150 SuperCrew, making the off-camber water crossings that bisect the road to Buckskin Gulch little more than a nuisance. From the trailhead, a one-mile path leads to a network of narrow winding passages. The labyrinth of slot canyons exceed 100 feet deep and extend for miles, funneling in cool breezes. Gorgeous water-carved patterns decorate the sedimentary rock walls. You might even find a petroglyph. When in south-central Utah, visit a slot canyon — unless you’re claustrophobic, or the forecast includes rain.
From Buckskin Gulch, it was a 160-mile eastward sprint to Monument Valley (thank you, Utah, for 65 and 70 mph rural highways). After more than 15 driving hours, the virtues of adaptive cruise control were evident. For those who have never used adaptive cruise, you are missing out on the best stamina-extending technology of the past decade.
Another welcome feature in this Ford is its twin-turbo 3.5-liter Ecoboost V6. Its 365 horsepower and 10-speed transmission simplifies the passing calculus – no more manipulating transmission shift-points, accounting for uphill and downhill grades, or timing the throttle to ensure acceleration arrives when needed. Nope. Hot or cold, full or empty, just point and punch for instant, effortless velocity. But don’t get in too much of a hurry or you risk forgetting something. Monument Valley is dry and there is not much rain, either. So if you like wine, beer, or spirits on your vacation, pick it up before arriving in the 27,400 square mile Navajo National Reservation in which Monument Valley is located.
Our children elected to occupy the third-row for the entire trip. And it worked remarkably well. The middle row seats fold and tumble, providing access to an adult-friendly, reclining third row. One suggestion for Ford: make your middle-row buckets removable like those in a minivan. Taking them out would open significant acreage, adding more configurability to a vehicle which is, after all, a minivan alternative.
Monument Valley delivered on expectations. Few places offer such remarkable sunsets and sunrises, each equally enjoyable from the exact same spot. Both the 17-mile Monument Valley Loop and the guide-only Mystery Valley tour are recommended. And if you are into the gritty, if thin automotive history of the valley, check out Goulding’s Museum for a look at some faded photographs of the off-road tour buses that once served the area, as well as images of Clint Eastwood and friends in a first-generation Bronco during filming of the 1975 period action-adventure film, The Eiger Sanction.
Monument Valley is a remote, austere place, ensuring its fame exceeds its popularity as a travel destination. And it was well worth the three rotations of the earth we spent there. However, we tried every eatery in the valley and came to understand one does not visit Monument Valley for its culinary delights. The good news is that when departing Monument Valley northbound, there is an elderly café literally hanging over the San Juan River in the small community of Mexican Hat. The Olde Bridge Grille restored our belief that good food can be had in the high desert. Eat there. Following an early breakfast, we strung together a long day including Four-Corners, Shiprock, and Petrified Forest National Park before reaching Sedona late that night.
Sedona is a back-to-civilization experience with all the trappings of a fully mature tourist destination. We thoroughly enjoyed the self-drive off-road RZR adventure to the 900 year old Honanki cliff dwellings and city slickering it for an evening at a dude ranch. But family pool time was the highlight of our time in Sedona.
We were ready to be home after seven days on the road, but not because we tired of the Expedition. It delivered everything we asked of it. And when I was unloading it in our driveway I reflected on the appeal of such a machine. It is large, though by no means out of scale for the trip we took. And it consumed $376 in fuel, but I would not trade its girth, creature comforts, or margin of safety for a compact crossover and $100 back in my pocket.
The Expedition can carry seven adults, haul 2,000 pounds, tow 10,000 pounds, and cover 0-60 in less time than any full-size SUV should. Across eight days our Expedition returned 18.2 mpg and 21 mpg was observed one day when I committed to keeping it under 75 mph (EPA rated fuel economy is 17 city, 22 freeway, 19 combined). And at $75,325, including destination, our Oxford White chariot is a compelling value in the full-size SUV segment.
The road trip is a special slice of Americana, one of my favorite intersections of culture and the automobile. If road tripping is part of your future vacation plans, consider an Expedition.
[Images: Seth Parks/TTAC]
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"at $75,325...a compelling value in the full-size SUV segment" Not everyone can point to the precise moment they realized they were irrevocably out of touch with their own culture. Now I can.