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 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.

The itinerary takes you through the states of Nevada, Utah and Arizona with Vegas as the starting point.

Total driving distance is just over 1020 miles (1642 km) which equals to a calculated driving time of 17 hours. Ensure that enough time is added to fully enjoy all the stops on the route.

See the full itinerary below. Time to buckle up and explore the desert!

Click to zoom or expand the map.

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.

The desert road trip starts in Las Vegas
Las Vegas, the city that neer sleeps.

If you look a little bit further than the Las Vegas Strip you’ll 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 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 stop on the 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 is one of the most famous wonders of the world. This 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.

Grand Canyon overlook
Majestic overlook at Grand Canyon.

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. Which part is better is up to the 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. South Rim is open every month of the year.

Our next stop, Monument Valley, is just like the South Rim available for visitors to be amazed all year round.

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 is Monument Valley. The renowned valley is located on the border between Arizona and Utah.

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This is where Forrest Gump famously ended his cross-country run. And wow what a beautiful place the valley is.

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

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

Next up is 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 the the 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 arrival.

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

Read more: A perfect trip to the American Southwest and Antelope Canyon, Arizona >>

Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend which is the next destination on the itinerary are actually only about 1 mile away from each other. So it’s easy to visit and enjoy them both during the same day.

E. See the undisputable Horseshoe Bend, Arizona

  • Driving time: 0.5 h
  • Distance: 10 miles (16 km)

The bend is a horseshoe like bend in the Colorado River. It’s not part of the Grand Canyon, but it’s very close to the beginning of Grand Canyon NP. Horseshoe Bend is only a little bit more than 5 miles 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 makes up for a very scenic view.

Horseshoe Bend in Arizona
Horseshoe Bend with the Colorado River.

For the most scenic views Horseshoe Bend should be visited either when the sun goes up or when it sets. 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.

Read more: What you should know when visiting Horseshoe Bend in Page, Arizona >>

The desert road trip 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 perfect place for a hike to stretch your legs in the middle of a road trip.

Springdale which is located conveniently at the entrance to Zion is a good place to spend your nights while you visit.

The hikes you can make in Zion are amazing. The red sanstone cliffs and the 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.

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

Read more: Six reasons to visit Zion National Park, Utah >>

The last stop of the desert road trip is Bryce Canyon.

G. Contrasting candy for your eyes in Bryce Canyon, Utah

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

Bryce Canyon is just like Zion National Park excellent for hiking. But you will notice that the two areas differ a lot from each other.

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

Some of the best viewpoints are found just at the main road through Bryce, 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. The fresh air and the few light polluters in the area make up for fantastic stargazing opportunities.

Bryce Canyon during desert road trip
The stunning Bryce Canyon.

After an amazing desert road trip in the Southwest it’s time to round off the trip.

H. Time to round off the desert road trip in Las Vegas, Nevada

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

We complete the 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.

Read more: American road trip from Niagara Falls to the white beaches of Florida >>

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 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.

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 are included in the driving time.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Laura

    How many days did you spend in each place?

    1. HTBYT

      Hi Laura,
      We had 4 nights at Grand Canyon, 2 nights at Antelope Canyon/Horseshoe Bend, 1 night at Monument Valley, 3 nights at Zion and 3 nights at Bryce. So in total two weeks for the entire trip. It worked out very well for us time wise. We only used Las Vegas as entry and exit point this time.

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