If there’s anything I will suggest to anyone when traveling around the United States, it’s to do a Southwest road trip! The southwest is a road trip that needs to get on your bucket list ASAP. The southwest part of the country has some of the most breathtaking spots you’ll ever come across in your life from beautiful geological formations to sweeping desert views to exhilarating cities.
It’s no wonder why there are a lot of national parks based around the southwest. You will be amazed by how relatively close they are to one another too. I’ve decided to compile an itinerary for the ultimate southwest road trip, expanding out to 4 states (Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and California).
I can tell you that I look back at the southwest with such fondness. Not just because I actually live within the southwest, but before I came out to the west coast and I was visiting back and forth before my family decided to settle here, we would go on all these long road trips. The southwest captivated our attention and we were in awe of all we got to see. My southwest road trips are the reason I fell in love with the desert and with national parks so this trip can be life-changing as it was for me. Feel free to use the Table of Contents to skip around for ideas in each state.
Know before you go
If you’re flying from different states in the country that’s not listed in this itinerary, I would book a one-way flight ticket unless you figure out exactly how long doing this whole trip will take you. (I would say a 12-14 day road trip would be ideal to get through all this.) Otherwise, you need to do round-trip tickets, but then you would have to choose one location here to fly to and fly from.
Or if you want a shorter road trip from 7-10 days, you can choose to go through this and just choose places that pique your interest the most.
Depending on when you visit, the southwest is mainly around the desert areas. It can get very hot and it can come with a number of dangers too and that’s why I highly recommend you read my post “Dangers of Hiking in the Desert and Safety Tips” blog post to get familiar with what to watch out for in the desert.
You also want to figure out if you need a car rental or to drive around with your own car… This all depends if you aren’t far from these states and don’t feel it’s necessary to go on air flights, but if your car is older, prone to getting problems, needs work to be done, and already has high mileage, I would go with a car rental to make your road trip a lot smoother. You want to make sure your A/C works well too because you’ll be driving hours in the sun and heat, most likely.
You could also rent around an RV if that fits your budget and to help you not worry so much about lodging if you just drive to RV parks. Check out Cruise America if there are RV rentals around the areas below.
You need to bring a GPS and a GPS holder too, in case your car doesn’t come with it. You definitely need to pack a cooler and refill that with snacks and cold drinks. Other things you need to bring with you to this road trip:
- Portable charger
- First aid kit
- Car pillow
First state to stop by is Arizona! This is the state that changed it all for me. In Arizona, there are a lot of noteworthy spots and it’s almost endless. You’ll discover there are a lot of Native American reservations here (which we will cover some spots there) and a lot of intricate geology. Arizona is known for the Saguaro cactus, which can only really be found in this state.
If you ever end up exploring the cities of Phoenix and surrounding cities, you’ve gotta make it up to Sedona. Not only does Sedona have its own established city too (minus with skyscrapers), but it has literally the best red rock hikes in the state. It’s a peaceful city known for its vortexes found in nature, its new age spiritual stores, and canyon spots.
I write a lot of blog posts on Sedona, which you can find here. The spots that are the best to see in Sedona are:
- Bell Rock Trail
- Cathedral Rock
- Oak Creek Canyon
- Read my “10 Best Things to Do in Sedona, Arizona” post for more ideas!
Find places to stay at in Sedona here:
Grand Canyon National Park
This is just a hole in the rock, why am I even including this, you wonder? Just kidding hahaha.
This is absolutely NOT just a hole in the rock. Grand Canyon is layers of rock that are millions of years old and it’s SO deep that it goes down to 6,000 feet. It’s also very wide that it is 277 miles and is shared with other states like Utah and Nevada. You’ll also get to see the majestic Colorado River from the Grand Canyon, and this river is so important to the canyon because it’s how it formed the canyon.
The Grand Canyon is best viewed through Grand Canyon National Park, the park protected by the National Park Service. I recommend reading my blog post on the Grand Canyon if you want to view it from the South Rim.
You also have the option to hike this national park if you are NOT a beginner hiker (would recommend it for pro hikers) and the most recommended hikes are Bright Angel Trail, a 15.3-mile hike with an elevation of 4,478 feet, and the Rim-to-Rim Trail, a 24-mile hike with 5,150 feet elevation.
The Grand Canyon can basically be explored in many ways. There are also helicopter tours and horseback riding tours that can be offered.
After the Grand Canyon, consider checking out Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. In this recreation area is Horseshoe Bend and Antelope Canyon (mentioned below this section). These are two highly visited tourist attractions, but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t visit them! Horseshoe Bend still sticks out in my memory even though it’s been a long time now since I’ve visited it, and it’s also in my website logo.
Located in Page, Arizona and 1 hour and 58 mins from Grand Canyon National Park, Horseshoe Bend is known for its shape as a horseshoe and it is actually more massive than it looks through social media. The drop is 1,000 feet! You can see the Colorado River looking down too. I have to say it’s still worth visiting and all of these major attractions despite the crowds!!!
Check out my guide to seeing Horseshoe Bend here.
After Horseshoe Bend, you need to go see Antelope Canyon. Less than 5 miles away from Horseshoe Bend, Antelope Canyon is also a major tourist attraction. Therefore, you can do both of these in one day! Antelope Canyon is a slot canyon that is on Navajo land, so in order to enter, you need to obtain a permit first. Antelope Canyon has more than one slot to visit because there’s 5 of them but the most common ones are the Upper and Lower Antelope Canyons.
I visited the Lower Antelope Canyon back in 2016 and I made a guide about it here. The Lower Antelope Canyons have a lot of tour companies that can assist you to get down to the slot canyon and will provide a detailed history of what you’ll see down there. It’s worth supporting these local tour companies anyways.
Lake Powell is a pretty 254.1 square miles artificial reservoir that has the water source from.. Guess where? The Colorado River! Many tourists come here to spend their vacations because there are a lot of water activities to do here from swimming, fishing, boating, waterskiing, wakeboarding, and tubing.
You’ve probably seen this iconic scenery from the movie Forrest Gump, the best classic movie there is. Monument Valley is a 17-mile loop road and it shows beautiful sandstone mesas and buttes that are as tall as 400 to 1,000 feet high! There is an entry fee to enter the park ($20 per vehicle with up to 4 people) and it does not accept National Park passes.
The second state in the southwest to travel to is Utah. Utah is a very diverse state and it does share similar features to Arizona, at least with the desert side of it. This state is the 3rd state with the most national parks in a state in the country. Although I’m not covering all the national parks here, I will list out the closest ones to the places by these states.
Sand Hollow State Park
Located by Hurricane, Sand Hollow State Park is a 1,322-acre reservoir that is known for its blue water around sandstones and it really balances water and sand. If you like water activities, there is the choice to go fishing, boating, and diving here. You can also do some sand activities here like ride the dunes and this is a place you can go camping.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce Canyon is a majestic national park because it has an amphitheater of red rock hoodoo formations! Therefore, Bryce Canyon really isn’t a “canyon”, but an amphitheater. I wrote a guide on how to explore Bryce Canyon within a day.
There are overlooks you can stop by called Sunrise Point, Bryce Point, and Inspiration Point – they’re breathtaking upon your first step! You can also choose to hike these views as I’ve provided a few trail ideas on my guide from the link above.
Zion National Park
Just an hour and 17 minutes from Bryce Canyon, this is one of the best national parks in the country that really deserves its hype. I wrote a guide on how to explore Zion National Park within a day, if you only want to come here for a day. Zion National Park is known for its really steep cliffs that surround the Virgin River, a river that is 162 miles long.
The hikes here are all very scenic and for an easy one: Try Emerald Pools Trail and Canyon Overlook Trail. You may have also heard about the challenging hike called Angel’s Landing, which now requires a permit. Then there’s also The Narrows Trail, where you can have the chance to hike through knee-deep water in between the towering canyons.
After touring Utah, you’ll want to go to Nevada next (assume we’re driving more west). Nevada is probably best known for having the popular “Sin City”, Las Vegas. Nevada is known as the “Silver State” because of its importance to silver. Just like Arizona, Nevada is mostly deserted areas.
One of the most recognizable spots, as we learned in our history books, is the Hoover Dam. The Hoover Dam is a concrete arch that contains the Colorado River and was constructed during the Great Depression.
This construction project was probably one of the hardest in history because it had cost the lives of hundreds of hardworking people. So going to this place is really full of stepping into straight US history and you really get to appreciate the massive effort of this massive place that provides hydroelectric power to 1.3 million people each year (for the residents of Nevada and Arizona).
Watch my YouTube video on this!
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Las Vegas City
We’ve all heard or seen about this city. It’s the city that’s a parody featured in a good classic, The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas. There are so many things to do in Las Vegas, whether you’re just simply looking to check into a hotel, soak in their pools and hot tubs, go to a live musical performance, or just walk the Las Vegas Strip (the strip is a line of upscale casinos, shops, and restaurants), there’s something for everyone.
I recommend Fremont Street Experience because it is a mall and attraction area that has some interesting entertainment from the interactive LED-roof Viva Vision Light Show to casinos, food, shops, and plenty of vendors.
Some of my favorite hotels I’ve stayed in were:
- If you’re looking for high-end: Bellagio Hotel and ARIA Resort & Casino (check out my blog post on this!)
- If you’re looking for a budget-friendly one: Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino and Treasure Island
Find other hotels to stay at in Las Vegas here:
Red Rock Canyon
Looking for nature in Las Vegas? Red Rock Canyon is a great choice! It’s only about an half an hour from the city of Las Vegas. Located in the easternmost parts of the Mojave Desert, this 13-mile scenic drive is full of trails and camping spots and you can see the geology of the sandstone peaks where its walls can be up to 3,000 feet high! Check out a list of the best trails in Red Rock Canyon here.
Valley of Fire State Park
About an hour away from Red Rock Canyon and Las Vegas is Valley of Fire State Park. If you’re still not sick of red rocks, then you won’t regret visiting Valley of Fire. This geological wonderland has intriguing formations to it and some history attached to it with petroglyphs left by Native Americans to find and petrified trees. You will also get a glimpse of sand dunes from 150 million years ago. Check out a list of the best trails in Valley of Fire here.
Watch my YouTube video on this!
Coming soon. Please subscribe to my YouTube channel in the meanwhile to be notified.
The last state in this itinerary is beautiful ol’ California! You might know of California from Hollywood and its beaches, but California also has a part of it that’s deserted in its bottom corner that is closer to Arizona.
Death Valley National Park
This national park is so huge that it is shared by Nevada and California. Spanning to 3,000 square miles, Death Valley National Park is considered the lowest, hottest, and driest national park in the country because it does have the lowest elevated point! When you drive through the national park, you will almost feel like you’re going to a different planet. There are badlands and sand dunes.
There are overlooks and great hikes to do in this national park, I suggest seeing:
- Zabriskie Point: Check out my guide on seeing this overlook.
- Badwater Basin: The lowest point at 282 feet below sea level. There are salt flats that you can explore here.
- Artist’s Palette: Visitors can marvel at multi-colored hills that are rich in volcanic deposits of iron oxides and chlorites.
- And more of the best trails to find here.
Stop by Area 51 Alien Center if you have time
If you have time before or after visiting Death Valley National Park, I recommend you check out Area 51 Alien Center! Although you can’t actually access Area 51, this might be the closest thing as this fun alien center has a lot of extraterrestrial-themed merchandise, fun photo opportunities, and a diner at the back.
Joshua Tree National Park and Twentynine Palms
Nestled in the Mojave Desert and Colorado Desert, Joshua Tree National Park is known for its “joshua trees”. This national park is not only full of these trees, but it has some impressive rock formations/boulder hikes and desert plains. I have a guide you can read here for Joshua Tree National Park with a list of the best hikes to do there.
On the base of Joshua Tree National Park is the city of Twentynine Palms. In Twentynine Palms, you can discover public art and cultural arts, go stargazing, go bird watching, go to events, eat food, and stay for lodging. The lodging here includes desert motels, RV parks, campsites, and vacation home rentals.
Find places to stay at in Twentynine Palms here:
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