A Two Week American Southwest Road Trip
A Two Week American Southwest Road Trip was originally published in December 2020
Hitting the open roads of the American southwest is an iconic adventure to some of the United States’ most awe-inspiring destinations and most-loved national parks. This two week American southwest road trip will take on a 2,000 mile journey through five states- Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico. You’ll also hit 11 national parks and four state parks as you make your way across this gorgeous stretch of the American southwest.
Two Week American Southwest Road Trip Itinerary
- Las Vegas, Nevada
- Zion National Park
- Bryce Canyon National Park
- Grand Staircase Escalante National Park
- Capitol Reef National Park
- Goblin Valley State Park
- Dead Horse Point State Park
- Canyonlands National Park
- Arches National Park
- Mesa Verde National Park
- Great Sand Dunes National Park
- Santa Fe, New Mexico
- White Sands National Park
- Petrified Forest National Park
- Horseshoe Bend
- Antelope Canyon State Park
- Grand Canyon North Rim
Two Week American Southwest Road Trip Itinerary
Day 1: Vegas to Zion National Park
Distance: 165 miles
Drive Time: 2 hours 45 minutes
Kick of your American southwest road trip from none other than Las Vegas, Nevada. Love it or hate it, Vegas is a great jumping-off point for further exploration of the American southwest (most of my family has moved here from Alaska over the last 15 years). I don’t love Vegas, but I appreciate it for being a perfect staging ground for my adventures in this part of the USA. But first things first, grab your rental car at the airport, you can check rental car prices on Expedia, rentalcars.com, or Skyscanner.
I’d recommend getting an early start, grabbing anything you need in Vegas before setting out, though don’t stress too much as there are plenty of major stores along the way where you can stock up. If you are spending the night in Vegas the night prior to your American southwest road trip departure, shop the best deals on hotels and more at booking.com and hotels.com.
From Vegas, you’ll head north on the I-15. En route to Zion National Park, I recommend making a stop off to visit Valley of Fire State Park. Valley of Fire is located about 50 miles north of Las Vegas. The main allure is to see the unusual and fascinating red sandstone rock formations littered about the park.
When you arrive closer to Zion, you can either head straight to Zion National Park or get situated in your hotel in nearby Springdale or St. George. There are several campsites within Zion National Park for those that are planning to camp in the national park.
I recommend purchasing an ‘America the Beautiful’ pass when you enter the park. They are $80 and get you into most all US national parks for one year. This is a better deal than paying the individual $20 park fee at every national park on this itinerary.
Day 2: Zion National Park
Take the second day of your American southwest road trip to explore Zion National Park, though know that if you want to explore the park thoroughly, you’ll need much more time. But if one day is all you can budget, it’s entirely possible to hit the highlights that this Southern Utah gem has to offer.
On a one day Zion National Park itinerary, I would recommend visiting Canyon Overlook, Checkerboard Mesa, Kolob Canyon, Canyon Junction Bridge, and cruise the Zion-Caramel Highway, and trying to squeeze in a short hike or walk if you have the time. Some good short (under 3 miles roundtrip) hikes to look into are Emerald Pools, Weeping Rock, Canyon Overlook, Watchman Trail, Riverside Walk, and Hidden Canyon. If you have a bit more time to dedicate to Zion there are several great long day hike options including the Narrows, Angel’s Landing, Observation Point, or the West Rim Trail.
Short on time? Check out my 7 day Southern Utah road trip itinerary
Day 3: Bryce Canyon National Park
Distance: 75 miles
Drive Time: 1 hour 20 minutes
Hit the road early to start your journey to Bryce Canyon (or you could opt to depart Zion in the evening and wake up in Bryce). You can hit the highlights of Bryce Canyon National Park in one day, though much like nearby Zion, there are heaps of things to do that could keep you there for days.
Must-see destinations in Bryce Canyon National Park include Bryce include Sunset Point, Sunrise Point, Inspiration Point, Bryce Point, Rainbow Point, and the Natural Bridge. If you want to squeeze in a day hike while here, you could try the Navajo Loop, Queen’s Garden, or the Bryce to Inspiration Point Rim Hike.
If you’re planning to camp, there are two national park service campgrounds at Bryce Canyon that you’ll want to book in advance. If want to stay in a hotel, try the Bryce View Lodge (check rates on booking.com and hotels.com) or the Bryce Canyon Grand Best Western (reserve on booking.com and hotels.com).
Day 4: Bryce Canyon To Moab, Via Grand Staircase-Escalante, Capitol Reef, & Goblin Valley
Distance: 270 miles
Drive Time: 5 hours
Day 4 of your American southwest road trip is a jam-packed one, taking you up to the city of Moab, Utah that will serve as a base for exploring Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park, so get an early start. Total drive time is roughly 5 hours, but do note that this does not include scenic stops, so you’ll need to factor in time to explore on the 5 hour long drive.
Your first scenic area today will be just east of Bryce Canyon as you pass through Grand Staircase Escalante. You do drive past a section of the national monument, however, you can easily take a bit of time to explore the area more.
Grand Staircase Escalante and Capitol Reef National Park almost butt up against each other, so Capitol Reef will be your next venture. Similar to Grans Staircase Escalante, you also drive through a portion of Capitol Reef National Park, but you can turn off of Highway 24 for further exploration into the national park.
Beyond Capitol Reef, you’ll want to make a pitstop from Highway 24 into Goblin Valley State Park. This hidden gem is home to a smattering of strange hoodoo rock stacks. You can quickly stop to appreciate them from the parking lot or you can wander down from the parking area and meander between giant hoodoos.
You’ll next reach Moab, but I recommend heading over the Dead Horse Point State Park to take in the wild wild west views of the Colorado River carving its way through the orangey-red rock. Trying to time it for sunset would be a wise decision.
Tonight, you can grab a hotel in Moab, or opt to camp at Dead Horse Point, Canyonlands, or Arches. Over the next two days, you’ll explore both Arches and Canyonlands National Parks
Day 5: Arches National Park
Distance: 45 miles
Drive Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
With more rock arches than you can shake a stick at, Arches National Park could keep you captivated for a few days. The obvious must-visit in the park is the famous Delicate Arch, which is accessible by a 2-3 hour hike. Not to fear if you’re not able to take on a trek, you can see the arch at a distance from the parking lot and road. Other highlights of Arches include the Double Arch, Balanced Rock, hitting the Windows Trail, Sand Dune Arch, and Skyline Arch.
Day 6: Canyonlands National Park
65 miles (from Moab & back)
210 miles (on to Mesa Verde)
1 hour 20 minutes (from Moab & back)
4 hours 10 minutes (on to Mesa Verde)
On your second day in the Moab area, head over to Canyonlands National Park. I’d recommend localizing to the Island in the Sky District of the park. As I had mentioned in my 7 Day Southern Utah Road Trip post, I, unfortunately, didn’t get to visit Canyonlands on my visit to this part of Utah, due to bad flash floods, but you can read more about what to see in Canyonlands’ Island in the Sky District in this post by Earth Trekkers, and you can read more about the hikes in the Island in the Sky District in this post by Unending Journey.
Great stops to make along the Island in the Sky District include Buck Canyon Overlook, Grand Viewpoint, Green River Overlook, and Schafer Canyon Viewpoint. If you want to toss in a nice (but still not too long) hike, check out Aztec Butte, Grand Viewpoint Hike, Mesa Arch, Upheaval Dome, Whale Rock, White Rim Overlook. If you want to spend most of your day hiking you can try the longer tracks of the Gooseberry Hike and Syncline Loop.
In the late afternoon, I’d recommend making your way toward Mesa Verde National Park to cut down on drive time tomorrow.
Day 7: Mesa Verde National Park & Great Sand Dunes National Park
Distance: 220 miles
Drive Time: 4 hours 15 minutes
On day 7 of your American southwest road trip, you’ll be beginning your journey into Colorado. The first stop is Mesa Verde National Park, which I recommend you do early in the morning.
The main attraction at Mesa Verde National Park is the fascinating Cliff Dwellings. Note that to visit the cliff dwellings, you’ll need to book a ranger-led cliff dwelling tour in advance, as well as that several sites in the park are only open May-October. For more info read this post about visiting Mesa Verde National Park by Dirt in my Shoes.
After you’ve wrapped up your time at Mesa Verde, make the four hour trip to Great Sand Dunes National Park. I recommend catching the sunset out here and going camping in the park, as it’s a great spot for stargazing. For more info about visiting, check out this post on Great Sand Dunes National Park by the Paryting Traveler.
If you opt not to camp at Great Sand Dunes, there are a handful of hotels on offer in nearby Alamosa. Check out Alamosa hotel rates.
Day 8: Great Sand Dunes National Park & Santa Fe
Distance: 175 miles
Drive Time: 3 hours
Take some time in the morning to catch the sunrise and climb any dunes you may have skipped when you arrived yesterday before you set out for Santa Fe.
You’ll next cross into New Mexico, bound for the city of Santa Fe. Especially for those that camped in Great Sand Dunes, this will be a nice change of pace, so check into a nice Santa Fe hotel and grab a shower and a good nights’ rest in a comfy bed again tonight. To plan out your visit to Santa Fe and ideas for the best things to do, read this post by Finding the Universe.
Day 9: White Sands National Park
Distance: 230 miles miles
Drive Time: 3 hours 45 minutes
On day 9, you’ll be bound due south toward the US border with Mexico. Your destination for today is White Sands National Park, and my personal favorite of all the parks you’ll visit on this American southwest road trip.
When you arrive at White Sands, I recommend swinging into the park office and reserving a campsite for tonight. Once you’ve either shown your America the Beautiful yearly pass, or you’ve paid the park entrance fee, drive in, stopping off at various pull-offs throughout the park. Eventually, in the later afternoon, once the temperatures have cooled a bit, you’ll want to make the short trek to your camping spot between the dunes.
Set up camp and then go out and explore. White Sands is my favorite national park in the US (well, the Lower 48 part of it anyway). Tonight make sure and get up in the middle of the night to go stargazing and/or shoot astrophotography. This is by far my all-time favorite stargazing spot.
For more info on visiting White Sands yourself and planning your visit, check out my White Sands National Park guide.
If you aren’t up for camping in White Sands, that’s okay. There are accommodations available in nearby Alamogordo. Decent places to check rates at are Rodeway Inn (booking.com or hotels.com), Quality Inn (booking.com or hotels.com), and Holiday Inn Express (booking.com or hotels.com).
Day 10: Petrified Forest National Park
Distance: 365 miles
Drive Time: 6 hours
Day 10 of the American southwest road trip is a long one, taking you about halfway across New Mexico and into Arizona, along part of the historic Route 66. Get an early start after catching the sunrise at White Sands to give you time in the afternoon to explore the Petrified Forest.
This vast area was once covered by ancient forest. Over millions of years, the forest slowly died, leaving behind fascinating fossils of the trees that once covered this landscape.
Petrified Forest National Park is somewhat off the beaten track, not visited nearly as much as some of Arizona’s other, more well-known parks. Aside from the petrified trees, a definite highlight is the Painted Desert, a beautiful color-striated section of the park.
Plan your visit with this post about visiting the Petrified Forest by Solo Tips & Tricks.
There are campgrounds in and around Petrified Forest National Park, but if you’re not keen on camping tonight, there are a few hotels, motels, and inns to choose from in nearby Holbrook.
Day 11: Antelope Canyon & Horseshoe Bend
Distance: 235 miles
Drive Time: 4 hours
With another long drive ahead, get an early start, departing the Petrified Forest before sunrise. On day 11 of your American southwest road trip, you’ll be making way for Horseshoe Bend and Antelope Canyon. Aim to reach Horseshoe Bend by mid to late morning to get illuminated views into the canyon.
Horseshoe Bend will only take you about an hour tops to visit. It’s actually quite small (and I don’t mean that in a bad way whatsoever). Do note that you will need to walk about 0.6 miles on a maintained trail from the parking lot to get to the famous viewpoint.
After you’ve had some time to appreciate Horseshoe Bend in all of its glory, it’s time to make way for Antelope Canyon, located roughly 30 minutes and 10 miles away by car. 11 am to 2 pm is typically the best time of day to visit Antelope Canyon to get the best lighting, so I’d aim to get there in the afternoon to get the best photos. You’ll want to arrange this ahead of time of course, as Antelope Canyon is incredibly popular.
For tonight, I recommend camping in the Marble Canyon or Vermillion Cliffs area to cut down on your drive time tomorrow. If you want to stay in a hotel and don’t mind taking on a bit longer of a drive tomorrow, you can always opt to stay in Page with a plethora of accommodation options.
Day 12 & 13: Grand Canyon North Rim
Distance: 85 miles
Drive Time: 1 hour 40 minutes
If you didn’t spend the night in Marble Canyon or Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, I’d recommend making quick scenic stops at them en route to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.
To he honest, before I arrived at the Grand Canyon my mental images of what it looked like were almost entirely gauged off of the cartoon backdrops of Wylie Coyote and Roadrunner episodes I watched as a kid (also I’m really bad about googling what places look like in advance, and I also visited before blogging had ever occurred to me).
I was blown away by the views I had from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, that is, once the clouds lifted. I spent a few days camping in the pissing rain at the Grand Canyon. Luckily, the clouds lifted and I ended up with almost two solid days to actually see the world’s largest canyon.
Places at the Grand Canyon North Rim you absolutely must see include Cape Royal, Point Imperial, Walhalla Overlook & Walhalla Glades Pueblo, Roosevelt Point, Vista Encantada, Bright Angel Point, North Kaibab Trail, Point Sublime, and Cape Final.
There are campgrounds along the Grand Canyon North Rim, but you’ll need to book in advance. There is also a lodge near the visitor center, or you can opt to do a day trip to the Grand Canyon from Kanab, which offers quite a few accommodation options.
Note that facilities along the North Rim of the Grand Canyon are only open from mid-May to mid-October each year, with the access road closing December 1st. You can still visit outside these months, but you’ll need to be self-reliant and backpack in. If you’ll be visiting between November and April and don’t have time to do this, I’d recommend going to the South Rim instead, which remains open year-round.
Plan the perfect visit: A quick guide to the Grand Canyon North Rim
Day 14: Drive To Vegas, Depart Home
Distance: 265 miles
Drive Time: 4 hours 30 minutes
Today is your final day on your American southwest road trip. Bid the Grand Canyon adieu in the morning and head back west toward Las Vegas. Total drive time today is roughly four and a half hours, so make sure to factor that in so that you can make your flight home on time.
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