The ultimate Southwestern desert road trip

  • Post last modified:March 1, 2021
  • Reading time:11 mins read
The ultimate Southwestern desert road trip

One of the best ways to explore the United States is by making a road trip. Road tripping makes you able to experience every single aspect of what America has to offer. And the ultimate Southwestern desert road trip has so much on display.

This road trip in the deserts of the Southwest is a great choice if you think majestic nature, desert landscape and enjoying the outdoors sounds exciting. Here you find some of the most unique places in the world.

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Southwestern desert road trip guide

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

  • Total driving time: 17 hours
  • Total distance: 1020 miles (1642 km)

A. Time to get lucky in Las Vegas, Nevada

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. This is 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.

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

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

B. The huge Grand Canyon, Arizona

  • Driving time: 4.5 h
  • Distance: 279 miles (449 km)

Grand Canyon National Park is the first of three national parks on the Southwestern road trip itinerary. And Grand Canyon is one of the most famous wonders of the world. The giant 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 reach a depth of more than a mile (1847 meters). It’s huge!

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.

Different parts of the canyon have different attributes even though they belong to the same National Park. The South Rim of the park is much busier than the quieter North Rim. Both offer great viewpoints of the park as you visit on the ultimate Southwestern desert road trip. Which part is better is up to each observer to decide.

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 rocks during foggy day
Majestic overlook at Grand Canyon.

Read more: Where to stay near Grand Canyon >>

Next up on the ultimate Southwestern road trip is Monument Valley, famously featured in the movie Forrest Gump.

C. Feel like Forrest Gump in Monument Valley, Arizona/Utah

  • Driving time: 3 h
  • Distance: 175 miles (281 km)

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

This is where Forrest Gump famously ended his cross-country run on the desert road through the valley. And wow what a beautiful place Monument Valley is.

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

Forrest Gump Point in Monument Valley
This is where Forrest Gump stopped running.

After visiting Monument Valley it’s time to continue the Southwestern desert road trip to Antelope Canyon, a photographer’s dream.

D. The desert road trip continues at mysterious Antelope Canyon, Arizona

  • Driving time: 2 h
  • Distance: 116 miles (186 km)

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 these features creates a magnificent appearance.

The canyon consists of two canyon sections, the upper and the lower. You can’t visit any part of the canyon just by yourself. The only way to get access to the canyon is to go through a licensed tour operator. Make sure that you book your tour in good time before you trip to Antelope Canyon as the tours are very popular.

The wavy canyon walls in Antelope Canyon
The wavy canyon walls in Antelope Canyon.

Read more: The ultimate guide for visiting Antelope Canyon, Arizona >>

Antelope Canyon and the next destination on the desert itinerary, Horseshoe Bend, just sits about 1 mile (1.6 km) away from each other. So it’s easy to visit and enjoy them both during the same day of the Southwestern desert road trip.

E. See the undisputable Horseshoe Bend, Arizona

  • Driving time: 0.5 h
  • Distance: 7 miles (11 km)

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

When you stand and look over the edge of the canyon you can easily see the Colorado River down at the bottom. 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.

Horseshoe Bend in Arizona
Horseshoe Bend with the Colorado River.

Read more: The ultimate guide for visiting Horseshoe Bend, Arizona >>

The Southwestern desert road trip loop continues on the other side of the Arizona-Utah state border, with a visit to Zion National Park in Utah.

F. Hike the unique environment in Zion National Park, Utah

  • Driving time: 2 h
  • Distance: 107 miles (172 km)

Zion National Park is the second national park on the itinerary and the perfect place for a hike to stretch your legs during the Southwestern desert road trip.

The hikes you can make in Zion are just amazing. The red sanstone 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, or just make it a morning activity.

Springdale which is located conveniently at the entrance to Zion is a good place to spend your nights while you visit during the desert road trip. Then you don’t even need your car to get to the trailheads.

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

Read more: The ultimate guide for visiting Zion National Park, Utah >>

Next up is the last destination on the Southwestern road trip itinerary before the loop goes back to Vegas. It’s time to explore Bryce Canyon.

Where to stay when you visit Zion National Park?

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

Read more: Where to stay near Zion National Park >>

G. Amazing hoodoos in Bryce Canyon, Utah

  • Driving time: 1.5 h
  • Distance: 73 miles (117 km)

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

Compared to Zion, Bryce Canyon is full of characteristic stone hoodoos. You find them in various colors of orange, red and white.

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 Canyon you also have the chance to enjoy one of the darkest night skies in the country. The fresh air and few light polluters in the area make up for fantastic stargazing opportunities.

When visiting Bryce Canyon it’s very convenient to stay in Bryce Canyon City that sits just outside the national park. Then you’re always near the magical Bryce adventure.

Bryce Canyon during desert road trip
The stunning Bryce Canyon.

Read more: The ultimate guide for visiting Bryce Canyon National Park >>

After an amazing desert road trip in the Southwest it’s time to round off the trip by finishing the loop back to Las Vegas.

H. Finish the loop back in Vegas

  • Driving time: 4 h
  • Distance: 260 miles (418 km)

We complete the Southwestern road trip loop and make it back to where we 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.

Additional destinations on the desert road trip

You can easily add more destinations to the ultimate Southwestern desert road trip. Zion National Park and Bryce National Park are 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

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.

Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands consists of four different sections. The most easily accessible part from Moab is Island in the Sky. Here 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

Capitol Reef is often overlooked, but it 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.

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

The ultimate desert road trip FAQ

You find the answers to some frequently asked questions about the ultimate Southwestern desert road trip below.

How long time do you need to make the Southwestern 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 Southwestern road trip?

The Southwestern 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 Southwestern desert itinerary are included in the driving time.

Continue reading

Utah’s spectacular mighty 5 national parks road trip >>

American cross country road trip from Los Angeles to New York >>

Ultimate guide for visiting Bryce Canyon National Park >>

Ultimate guide for visiting Zion National Park >>