Planning an epic road trip through America’s Southwest? You’ll be richly rewarded with insane Martian-esque landscapes, beautiful national parks, empty stretches of road, and stunning sunsets. I’ve highlighted all the best on and off the beaten path adventures so you can create a Southwest road trip of your dreams. This itinerary should take you from 10 days to two weeks to complete, though if you were pressed for time, you could certainly condense it to a one week road trip.
As written, this road trip will take you through six national parks, three state parks, a handful of national monuments, and through hundreds if not thousands of miles of untamed landscapes. You can also easily continue the road trip by sidetripping west from Vegas to see some of California’s famous parks (Joshua Tree and Death Valley come to mind) or swinging up north after Moab to visit the famous Yellowstone National Park.
To save money, be sure to buy an Annual Pass for the national parks– you can easily purchase one at the first national park you visit. For $80, you have unlimited entrances for one vehicle for a year. Seeing as national parks cost anywhere from $10-30 to enter, you’ll definitely save money buying an annual pass.
Another way to save money is to travel by campervan or RV, eliminating or reducing your accommodation costs. There is free camping in BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land across most of the Southwest, and paid campgrounds are typically around $30 per night.
Southwest Road Trip, Stop One: Las Vegas, Nevada
My Southwest road trip itinerary has you starting in Las Vegas for a variety of reasons: the first being that renting a car in Vegas is miles cheaper than renting in Arizona or Utah. You can also cheaply rent an RV in Las Vegas and use that as your transport and accommodation all in one. The second reason being that flights to Las Vegas are often incredibly affordable — my flight from Vegas to San Francisco was only $32 on Southwest, which even includes a bag!
While in Vegas, check out the Seven Magic Mountains about 20 minutes outside of town – it’s a fabulous an art installation by Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone, which will be dismantled in 2018.
If money permits, there’s no better way to get excited for the landscape you’re about to see than to take a helicopter tour from Las Vegas.
There are several ones you can do — I did the Grand Canyon and Valley of Fire sunset tour with 5 Star Helicopter tours and loved it. But if you’re on a tight budget and still want to ride in a helicopter, there are several more affordable rides you can do, including a nighttime flight over the Las Vegas strip!
Recommended photo spots: Anywhere and everywhere, really! A helicopter ride will give you stunning views; The Bellagio, the W, the Wynn, and pretty much anywhere on the Strip are also great places for photos.
Southwest Road Trip, Stop Two: Valley of Fire
About 45 minutes from Las Vegas is what I deem to be the most underrated spot in the entire Southwest: the Valley of Fire State Park. I literally have no idea why this isn’t a national park — it’s so massive and the vistas are so spectacular that it surely deserves the title.
That said, the fact that it’s a lowly state park will serve you well, as despite its proximity to Las Vegas there are very few people at the park.
Recommended photo spots: Rainbow Vista trail, The Beehives, Elephant Rock, Balanced Rock, pretty much anywhere with an open road!
Recommended accommodations: Overnight somewhere in Vegas; we loved our stay at The W but there are ton of other budget-friendly options. You can also camp inside the park, first come first serve.
Southwest Road Trip, Stop Three: Hoover Dam
After visiting the Valley of Fire, you’ll need to route back via Vegas on your way to the Hoover Dam. This is right on your way to Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon – no circuitous rerouting required – so you might as well see one of America’s biggest engineering marvels.
The Hoover Dam used to be the tallest dam in the world when it was first built, but it’s since been overtaken by a dam no one has heard of in Tajikistan *shakes fist*. The most amazing fact, to me at least, about the Hoover Dam is that the concrete holding up is still not dry all the way through!
At its base, it’s a massive 660 feet thick — the equivalent of two back-to-back football fields. Scientists say it’ll take 125 years for it to cure all the way through; at only 80 years since its construction, we’ve still got 30 to go.
Recommended photo spots: The dam, obviously; the Pat Tillman memorial bridge
Recommended accommodations: No need to stay overnight – this is best done as a quick stop off on the way to Flagstaff and/or the Grand Canyon.
Southwest Road Trip, Stop Four: Flagstaff, Arizona (the Grand Canyon & Sedona)
Flagstaff is a perfect base for further road tripping around Northern Arizona. That said, Flagstaff on its own has plenty to write home about — don’t miss Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, with its beautiful landscape and exciting lava trails.
But perhaps the best thing about Flagstaff is its proximity to some of Arizona’s greatest attractions. 30 minutes through a winding national forest, you’ll find Sedona — one of Arizona’s most scenic places, and a must on any Southwest US road trip itinerary.
Check out the stunning red rocks arching into the sky, and be sure not to miss the Devil’s Bridge hike or the Church of the Holy Cross — a stunning chapel quite literally built into the side of a mountain.
Sedona is great for a day trip, but the main attraction when visiting Flagstaff is the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, which is a mere 90 minutes away.
No amount of preparation can truly ready you for the grandeur of what it’s like to stand at the edge of this canyon in person. I even flew over the Grand Canyon in a helicopter a few days prior to seeing it from the edge; while the helicopter ride was an amazing experience, truly nothing beats standing at its edge and seeing its vastness from the ground.
Southwest Road Trip, Stop Five: Page, Arizona (Horseshoe Bend, Antelope Canyon, & Lake Powell)
Page, Arizona is probably the most Instagrammable town no one has ever heard of, although that’s quickly changing. For one, Horseshoe Bend, one of the most iconic photography spots in the entire Southwest US, is located a mere 3 miles down the main highway.
But the main draw to Page is the stunning Antelope Canyon. Broken into two parts, Upper and Lower, we opted for the Lower — having heard that it has more vibrant colors, as opposed to Upper which is famous for its sun beams much-loved by photographers.
Upper is more popular (and thus more expensive and more crowded) than Lower, plus it requires advance reservations. Chronic underplanners as we are, we opted for Lower, as we were able to book next-day tickets quite easily. The information online is a bit out of date; there are now two tour companies operating tours to Lower Antelope Canyon. Ken’s Tours charges $20 as far as I know, Dixie Ellis’ $25; plus the $8 tribal lands fee. We went with Dixie Ellis’ Lower Antelope Canyon Tours as the line was shorter and highly recommend the experience.
Be aware that this is an incredibly popular tour no matter who you go with, and you will be waiting in line quite a bit – not to mention the waiting you’ll have to do in order to snap photos without people in them. However, it’s entirely worth the experience in my opinion!
Horseshoe Bend is a bit less crowded than Antelope Canyon, mainly because it’s more spacious. We went three times in the span of 24 hours seeking the perfect shot. Sunrise is fantastic because so few people are there, although the sun rises on the opposite side of the bend so if you’re looking for sunbursts, you’re better off at sunset. Midday, you’ll see a wild array of colors that you can’t quite see during sunrise/sunset, so it’s worth a separate trip just for that as it’s not so far away from Page
While sunset is the most crowded at Horseshoe Bend, it’s also the most magical. As a bonus, if you scrabble up the rocks a bit, you can quite easily get epic photos with no one else in the shot!
Finally, as if I haven’t written enough about Page to fill an entire blog post all on its own, you must check out Lake Powell. This lake is simply stunning, with glassy blue water amidst a desert landscape. You can rent a paddleboard and check out the lake at your own speed, or go to one of the many viewpoints to see it from above.
Recommended photo spots: Horseshoe Bend, Lower/Upper Antelope, Lake Powell, Wahweap Overlook
Recommended accommodations: We stayed at Hampton Inn & Suites – Page Lake Powell and highly recommend it. The rooms are large with plenty of space to work and relax in, with all the comfortable amenities you’d expect like a fitness room, a heated indoor pool, a Jacuzzi (perfect for sore legs after hiking all day!). Breakfast was also delicious and included in the price of the room.
It also couldn’t be any closer to Horseshoe Bend, just a three miles and a quick five-minute drive down the road. If you’re planning to visit Horseshoe Bend multiple times for the perfect photo like we did, it’s an awesome place to base yourself because as soon as you leave the parking lot you’re already on the road to Horseshoe Bend!
Southwest Road Trip, Stop Six: Kanab, Utah
On the way from Page to Utah, you can go two different ways. We actually did both as we did a huge circle from Page to Kanab and back all in one day, so I can report on each way.
The first way, via I-89, you’ll pass a view of Lake Powell at Wahweap Overlook before making your way to the Visitor Center of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Park. Stop off at the visitor center in Big Water, Utah and maybe you’ll be lucky enough to meet a man who discovered a brand new species of dinosaur!
On the way to Kanab, you can stop off to do the Toadstools hike — a short one-hour roundtrip hike that ends in a truly Martian landscape.
“Toadstools” are formed when rain makes boulders fall from cliffs and land atop softer rocks, creating mushroom-looking rock structures. They look manmade but they’re entirely natural!
After passing Kanab, quickly grab lunch somewhere before making your way to the Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park. This little-visited park has sand dunes that look as if they’re straight out of the Sahara — all against the backdrop of some legendary Utah mountains.
This park is so close to Zion that I don’t know why it’s more popular, but all the better for you to snap some epic photos without the crowds! With the clouds it looked more orange than pink, but on a sunny day I’m sure the sands are more true to their name.
If you go the other way from Page via the longer but more scenic route (I-89A), you can go over a beautiful mountain pass filled with lush evergreen trees and stop at the Vermillion Cliffs viewpoint and LeFevre Overlook.
There, you can see four plateaus that make up the “Staircase” of Grand Staircase-Escalante in a variety of hues — including chocolate brown, vermillion, and purple (two of the plateaus was unfortunately covered by some clouds when we were there!)
While you’re in Kanab, you’re so close to Zion, but I urge you to skip it — for now — in lieu of visiting it on your way back to Las Vegas!
Recommended photo spots: Lefevre Point, Vermillion Cliffs overlook, Toadstools, Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park
Recommended accommodations: We didn’t stay in Kanab, but Canyons Boutique Hotel would have been a great choice. We stayed nearby in a yurt overlooking the Narrows with Zion Backcountry Yurts; the views of the Milky Way were insane and it was total off the grid luxury. Check out my full review here.
Southwest Road Trip, Stop Seven: Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Bryce Canyon is truly one of the most memorable stops on any Southwest US road trip itinerary. For one, it has its distinctive hoodoos which you’ll be hard-pressed to find anywhere else in the world in such number and scale.
Hoodoos (also called “fairy chimneys”) form when the water from melting snow seeps into the cracks of the rock and freezes overnight. Bit by bit, the cracks expand until large chunks of rock fall away, leaving pillars in their place.
Hoodoos form all over the world, but there are thousands of them at Bryce Canyon, partly because the elevation is so high (around 8,000 feet!) that the melt-freeze cycle happens at least 200 nights per year
Recommended photo spots: Queen’s Garden Trail, Navajo Loop, Inspiration Point, Natural Bridge, and Sunset/Sunrise Points.
Recommended accommodations: Bryce Canyon doesn’t have the most exciting options for accommodations; something simple like a Best Western is probably your best bet.
Southwest Road Trip, Stop Eight: Capitol Reef National Park
On your way to Moab from Bryce, you can take a scenic route passing through Capitol Reef via Highway 12, which I highly recommend. The least visited of Utah’s staggering five national parks, it’s not quite as epic as Zion or Bryce but it has its own charms. It’s worth a quick stop as you pass through, at the very least.
Recommended photo spots: The cute barns and old schoolhouse on the main road, the Scenic Drive, Panorama Point
Recommended accommodations: Not really much in the way of accommodations here – I recommend you move on to Moab rather than overnight here, unless you have a campervan or tent for camping.
Southwest Road Trip, Stop Nine: Moab, Utah (Canyonlands, Dead Horse Point, and Arches)
Ah, Arches National Park. With its famous Delicate Arch which is featured on the Utah license plate, this is one of the most famous national parks in the US, and a must on any Southwest road trip itinerary.
In addition to the Delicate Arch hike, you should also be sure to see the North & South Window arches, the Double Arch, and the Turret Arch. The Devil’s Garden trail was closed when we visited, but you should definitely check it out if possible — it’s supposed to be a stunner.
Also near Moab is the Canyonlands National Park, which I actually preferred to Arches (blasphemy, I know!). It was super immense, with really colorful rocks and huge canyons.
There are two entrances to Canyonlands, both of which are quite far from each other. One is Islands in the Sky, and this is the one that’s closer to Moab (and also Dead Horse Point State Park, another must-see on your Southwest road trip). The other section, Needles, is rather far away, and suitable if you’re staying longer in Moab.
Other spots you can’t miss in the Moab area include Dead Horse Point State Park, a place much more beautiful than the name suggests! It’s right on the way from Canyonlands – Island in the Sky, so it’s a good idea to go there for sunset after visiting Canyonlands in the late afternoon.
Here, the Colorado River winds and rips its way through a valley, like a combination of the Grand Canyon and Horseshoe Bend all in one. It’s absolutely stunning at sunset, although sunrise is supposed to be even better.
Finally, the Corona Arch is a great sunset spot – just make sure you arrive there with about an hour to spare, as the hike is one hour on a not super well-marked path, and make sure you leave before it gets too dark.
We missed the sunset by at least a half hour and ended up walking back in the dark because we didn’t give ourselves enough time for this hike (#travelbloggerfail) but we at least made it in time for some super pretty cloud action!
Recommended photo spots: Mesa Arch (sunrise is supposed to be fantastic as the sun will rise directly through the arch!) in Canyonlands NP as well as the scenic drive pulling over at the various viewpoints, Delicate Arch and the other arches (North & South Window, Double, Turret) in Arches NP, Dead Horse Point State Park (please don’t miss this!!), and Corona Arch. Be sure to give yourself enough time in Moab, it’s stunning!
Recommended accommodations: Moab is EXPENSIVE. As in, we arrived without accommodations booked and quickly found that even a crappy motel would set us back $200 or so. Luckily we were driving along about to sleep on the side of the road when we stumbled across Lazy Lizard Hostel, with beds for about $14 per night, or $32 for a two-person private room. Call ahead and book if you’re on a budget! If you have more funds, check out hotels on Booking.com.
Southwest Road Trip, Stop Ten: Zion National Park
I recommended skipping Zion initially and saving it for the end because it’s probably one of the most epic national parks in all of the United States, and you’ll want a cool place to stop on the long drive between Moab and Las Vegas.
If you’re at all into hiking, the Angels Landing hike is truly a can’t-miss experience. Climbing up 1,500 feet over a grueling two hour hike (the last half mile of which is up rocks, which you have to use chain handrails to ascend) is not easy — but no epic view really is.
If you have more time, be sure to check out The Narrows, a full day hike wading through water through a beautiful slot canyon. We didn’t have time for this, as we were flying out of Vegas later that evening, but it’s on my bucket list for my return to Zion. There are some other shorter hikes that are also fantastic if you’re too afraid of heights to take on Angels Landing.
Recommended photo spots: the top of Angel’s Landing OR Observation Point (higher and harder hike), Emerald Pools, Watchman, the Narrows
Recommended accommodations: We stayed about 45 minutes outside of the East Ranger Station at Zion Backcountry Yurt. However, it’s more common to stay on the west entrance side, in Springdale or nearby St. George.
After Zion, head back to Vegas, return your rental, and marvel at all your photos from the trip of a lifetime!
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