The ultimate Southwest road trip itinerary

  • Post last modified:September 17, 2021
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Deep canyons, red deserts and thrilling national parks are appreciated ingredients on the ultimate Southwest road trip itinerary. The breathtaking drive starts in Las Vegas and takes you to some of the most unique places in the world. The Southwest USA road trip has so much on display that you really don’t want to miss.

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Southwestern desert road trip guide

You find the stops on the itinerary marked out on the American Southwest road trip map below.

  • Total driving distance: 1020 mi / 1642 km
  • Total driving time: 17 h

A. Las Vegas, Nevada – The Southwest USA road trip begins

The American Southwest road trip begins in Las Vegas. When gambling was legalized in Nevada in 1931 no one could have known what a boom it would mean for the state in general and Las Vegas particularly. Vegas is today recognized as an entertainment oasis in the middle of the desert.

But there’s a lot more in the city to do than to just gamble, eat and shop. It’s a dynamic city that attracts both tourists and new permanent residents. The climate feels healthy and the surroundings are beautiful.

If you look a little bit further than the Las Vegas Strip you find the charm of Fremont Street. That’s where the original Vegas boom in the 1930s took place.

Las Vegas is a great starting point for the Southwestern desert road trip. Apart from all the entertainment it offers it’s usually possible to find cheap flights to the city and great hotel rates when you look for accommodation.

What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas is an old saying. But just remember that the next destination on Southwest road trip is one you really don’t want to miss, the Grand Canyon.

The desert road trip starts in Las Vegas
Las Vegas, Nevada.

B. Grand Canyon, Arizona – A must on the American Southwest road trip itinerary

  • Driving distance: 279 mi / 449 km
  • Driving time: 4.5 h

The first of three national parks on the Southwest road trip itinerary sets the expectations high. Mighty Grand Canyon is one of the most famous wonders of the world.

Grand Canyon in northwestern Arizona is carved by the Colorado River and has a length of 277 miles (446 km). It’s up to 18 miles (29 km) wide and reaches a depth of more than a mile (1847 meters). Grand Canyon is simply put huge and a pleasure to visit on the Southwest road trip.

Two spectacular Grand Canyon rims

As the elevation differs so much the temperatures do too. The highest peaks in the area see snow in the winter, while the bottom of the canyon faces very hot temperatures in the summer.

The different parts of Grand Canyon have different attributes even though they belong to the same national park. The South Rim of the park is much busier and offers more lodging than the quieter North Rim. Both offer great viewpoints of the park as you visit on the ultimate Southwest desert road trip.

As the altitude is higher in the northern part it’s colder and gets more snow. The snowy conditions keep the North Rim closed during the colder months of the year, while South Rim is open every month of the year.

Grand Canyon through branches of a tree during daytime
Grand Canyon South Rim.

Where to stay when visiting

Grand Canyon Village and Tusayan are the options for where to stay near Grand Canyon closest to the year round open South Rim. For the less accessible Grand Canyon North Rim there are much fewer alternatives for lodging.

Grand Canyon rocks during foggy day
Majestic overlook at Grand Canyon.

C. Monument Valley, Arizona/Utah – Time to feel like Forrest Gump

  • Driving distance: 175 mi / 281 km
  • Driving time: 3 h

A dream destination on every road trip itinerary is the iconic Monument Valley. The renowned valley is located on the border between Arizona and Utah.

A surreal valley on the American Southwest road trip

The region is especially characterized by the red color and huge buttes, the rock formations, standing on the floor of the valley. The desert valley is red because of iron oxide in weathered siltstone. The red color and buttes make the place feel like out of this world.

Monument Valley is where Forrest Gump famously ended his cross-country run in the movie with the same name. And Monument Valley is really a beautiful place that puts things into perspective. Time you spend in Monument Valley is time you never forget.

Red rock formations in Monument Valley, Arizona/Utah
Monument Valley, Arizona/Utah.

Where to stay when visiting

The View Hotel and Goulding’s Lodge are options for where to stay in Monument Valley that offer stunning valley views. Other alternatives are the towns Kayenta and Mexican Hat that are located about 30 minutes away.

Forrest Gump Point in Monument Valley
The point where Forrest Gump stopped running.

D. Antelope Canyon, Arizona – A unique canyon with wavy walls and light beams

  • Driving distance: 116 mi / 186 km
  • Driving time: 2 h

Not many geological formations are as fabulous and mysterious as Antelope Canyon in Arizona. Its most famous features are the distinctive wavy canyon walls and fantastic light beams that reach through the openings in the canyon. Together the features creates a magnificent appearance, a photographer’s wet dream.

Upper and Lower Antelope Canyon

The canyon consists of two canyon sections, Upper and Lower Antelope Canyon. Both parts of the canyon are spectacular to visit on the Southwest United States road trip. The wavy canyon walls in the Arizona canyon are nothing less but spectacular.

But the famous light beams only appear in Upper Antelope Canyon. They do so at midday when the sun is at its peak during the warmest months of the year. So although both parts of the canyon are spectacular the light beams only appear in its upper section.

No matter which part of the canyon you aim for you need a tour guide to enter. The only way to get access to the canyon is to go through a licensed tour operator. Therefore make sure that you book your tour in good time before your American desert road trip as the tours are very popular.

Antelope Canyon, AZ.

Where to stay when visiting

If you pick Page for where to stay near Antelope Canyon you only have about 4 miles (6 km) from your base to the canyon exploration. Then you with little effort can go between your lodging and the photogenic Arizona canyon.

Wavy canyon walls and white sky
Antelope Canyon, Arizona

E. Horseshoe Bend, Arizona – One more geological wonder just a few miles away

  • Driving distance: 7 mi / 11 km
  • Driving time: 0.5 h

Horseshoe Bend is a horseshoe like bend in the Colorado River. It’s not part of the Grand Canyon, but Grand Canyon National Park is not far away. Horseshoe Bend is only a little bit more than 5 miles (8 km) away from where Grand Canyon NP starts.

A drop worth driving for

When you stand and enjoy the views at Horseshoe Bend you can easily see the Colorado River down at the bottom of the canyon. The light reflected by the red cliffs and the blue Colorado River make up for a very scenic view.

But remember that the drop from the overlook down to the Colorado River is about 1,000 feet (300 m). So make sure that you are careful when you walk at the edge. You certainly don’t want to miss the next stop on the American Southwest road trip itinerary.

Where to stay when visiting

The city Page is the best pick for where to stay near Horseshoe Bend just as it is for Antelope Canyon. It’s in fact not more than 7 miles (11 km) between the two Arizona highlights. The short distance makes it easy to visit both sights on the same day of the Southwest desert road trip.

Horseshoe Bend in Arizona
Horseshoe Bend and the Colorado River.

F. Zion National Park, Utah – Hike the diverse environment

  • Driving distance: 107 mi / 172 km
  • Driving time: 2 h

The American Southwest road trip loop continues on the other side of the Arizona-Utah state border. Zion National Park in Utah is the second national park on the itinerary and the perfect place for a hike to stretch your legs on the desert road trip in the Southwest.

Spectacular hikes on the Southwest USA road trip

The hikes you can make in Zion are just amazing. The red sandstone cliffs and green trees in the canyons make a really good combination. And you can choose between easier hikes and more demanding ones. You can spend the whole day hiking from early until late, or just make it a morning activity.

Road through Zion National Park, UT
Zion National Park, UT.

Where to stay when visiting

The closest option for where to stay near Zion National Park is Springdale. The town Springdale is conveniently located right at the entrance to Zion National Park. If you make Springdale your base you don’t even need a car to get to the trailheads.

Road trip to Zion National Park
In Zion National Park red sandstone cliffs are met by a green oasis.

G. Bryce Canyon, Utah – Peculiar hoodoos on the Southwest road trip itinerary

  • Driving distance: 73 mi / 117 km
  • Driving time: 1.5 h

Bryce Canyon is the third and final national park on the Southwest road trip itinerary. And Bryce is just like Zion National Park excellent for hiking. But you will notice when you visit on the American Southwest desert road trip that the two areas differ a lot from each other.

The characteristic hoodoos in Bryce

The canyon is packed with its characteristic rock hoodoos. Hoodoos are rock columns that stand out from the bottom of a terrain. They typically have a high density top that protects them from erosion.

When you visit Bryce Canyon on the Southwest USA road trip you find them in various colors of orange, red and white. The rock hoodoos look peculiar and there are thousands of them in the park for you to explore.

Rock hoodoos in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
A peculiar rock hoodoo, UT.

Exploring Bryce on the Southwest itinerary

Over millions of years natural amphitheatres have been created in Bryce Canyon. Because of that it’s rather easy to in relatively little time get to many of the park’s highlights when you visit Bryce on the Southwest itinerary.

Some of the best viewpoints in Bryce are found just at the main road through, Highway 63. So if you can’t hike, don’t want to do it or simply are in a hurry you can still reach many extremely beautiful points from the comfort of your own car.

In Bryce you also have the chance to enjoy one of the darkest night skies in the country when you visit on the Southwest USA road trip. The fresh air and few light polluters in the area make up for fantastic stargazing opportunities.

Where to stay when visiting

A very convenient option for where to stay near Bryce Canyon is Bryce Canyon City. The small Utah town is located just outside the national park. So in just minutes you can go from your base in Bryce Canyon City to exploring the national park.

Bryce Canyon during desert road trip
Bryce Canyon National Park, UT.

H. Las Vegas, Nevada – Finishing the Southwest road trip loop

  • Driving distance: 260 mi / 418 km
  • Driving time: 4 h

After an amazing desert road trip in the American Southwest it’s time to round off the trip. The last leg completes the Southwest road trip loop back to where it all started, Las Vegas.

An alternate route is to drive north to Salt Lake City and finish the trip in the biggest city in Utah.

Find a hotel in Las Vegas

Use the booking tool below to find perfect accommodation for your stay in Las Vegas. Browse the map for options in various areas, or click on the search button to get all options listed.

Booking.com

Additional destinations on the Southwest road trip itinerary

You can easily add more destinations to the ultimate Southwest desert road trip. Zion National Park and Bryce National Park are only two of Utah’s group of five mighty national parks.

So if you want to continue exploring the deserts in the American Southwest it’s a great idea to add Utah’s other national parks. They are Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park and Capitol Reef National Park.

Arches National Park – Find more Arches than you can imagine

Just like Bryce Canyon has its distinctive hoodoos, Arches National Park has its arches. They are in thousands in the national park with the most famous being the delicate arch. You can see it with little effort from afar or you can hike all the way to the Delicate Arch for a real close-up encounter. Either way Arches National Park is a fun addition to the Southwest USA road trip itinerary.

Canyonlands National Park – A park in the American Southwest with more than one side

Canyonlands consists of four different districts with different faces. The most visited and easily accessible part to include on the American Southwest road trip is Island in the Sky. In the park you find many beautiful overlooks. One of them is Mesa Arch, from which you can look down on the land of the canyons.

Capitol Reef National Park – Combine history and nature on the Southwest road trip

Capitol Reef is often overlooked, but the park should get more attention than it gets. In the national park you can combine history in Fruita Historic District, or you can venture on hikes to explore the diverse Utah landscape. The combination of history and nature makes it a unique stop to add to the American Southwest road trip itinerary.

Mesa Arch in Canyonlands of Utah's mighty five
Canyonlands National Park.

The ultimate American Southwest desert road trip FAQ

You find the answers to some frequently asked questions about the ultimate road trip in the Southwest below.

How long time do you need to make the Southwest US desert road trip?

The road trip itinerary demands 17 hours of driving. Then you need to add time for each stop along the way. To really grasp the opportunity to see the Southwest you should have at least two weeks for the trip. That doesn’t include a lot of time in Vegas so add more days if you want that.

When can you make the Southwest road trip?

The Southwest desert road trip can be made throughout the year. However, be prepared that in the summer the temperature in Nevada, Arizona and Utah frequently goes above 100°F (38°C).

How did you calculate the driving time?

The estimation was done with Google Maps by taking the shortest amount of time from point A to point B and rounding upwards to the closest half hour. No stops on the Southwest desert itinerary are included in the driving time.

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