Post Summary: Everything you would ever want to know about planning and executing an epic Southwest road trip itinerary.
The American Southwest.
This classic American road trip is packed full of iconic Southwest locations, Instagram-worthy stops, and incredible natural wonders.
We’d even go far enough to say that it’s a must-do for all Americans at least once in their lifetime!
Planning a route this large and complex can get a little crazy and overwhelming. That’s why we’ve created the ultimate American Southwest road trip itinerary to help set your plans in motion.
We’re sharing the best route to take and even breaking it down into smaller bite-sized trips.
No matter how many days you have for your Southwest US road trip itinerary, we’re sharing how you can still have the maximum amount of fun!
The Ultimate American Southwest Road Trip
This post is a compilation of may trips we’ve taken to some of our American Southwest bucket list destinations. We’re constantly updating this post as we explore more, so keep coming back for more Southwest USA inspiration in the future!
Where Is The American Southwest?
The American Southwest area is a broad term with borders that depend on the person you are talking to!
In a large, encompassing stroke, it would cover Southern California, Southern Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and sometimes even Western Colorado.
It’s a unique area of the United States that showcases vast deserts, red rocks, cool ecological formations, and so many unique and natural landscapes.
Covering all these areas on an American Southwest road trip would require weeks off of work and tons of planning. Stay tuned as we tell you how you can break up your trip into smaller loops for a more manageable trip!
Where Do I Start My Southwest Road Trip?
There are many potential starting points for a southwest road trip, and we’ve created ours to be in an enormous loop so you can really start wherever is most convenient for YOU!
However, you may not have time for a mega trip like this one. That’s why we’ve split our route into many smaller routes, to target more specific areas of the American Southwest if you choose to do so.
Here are a few options below to help you pick the best southwest road trip that’s right for you!
The Utah National Parks Trip
Starting Point: Las Vegas, Nevada.
Total Driving Time: 19 Hours there and back – 1,082 miles
This trip includes five US National Parks, lots of hiking, and red rock landscape.
Don’t want to drive back the way you came? Make it a loop and make your way south through Monument Valley and Page, Arizona. This way you can see Horseshoe Bend and even Antelope Canyon!
Click here to see our full detailed road trip route to all five Utah National Parks.
The Southern California Loop
Starting Point: Los Angeles or San Diego, California
Total Driving Time: 35 hours in a loop drive – 1,200 miles total
This Southern California road trip route includes driving parts of the iconic Highway 395, visiting at least two US National Parks (Death Valley and Joshua Tree).
There is also a potential extension to three more (Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Park)!
This trip will bring you through major cities, scorching deserts, and incredible views of the Eastern Sierras. Best driven in the springtime to avoid super-hot days, it’s an iconic area to explore in the Southwest USA.
If you are hoping to begin your southwest road trip from Los Angeles, this route is a great place to start!
Stay tuned for our Southern California Road Trip Route here!
The Grand Canyon / Desert Loop
Starting Point: Las Vegas, Nevada
Total Driving Time: 18 hours 30 minutes hours in a loop, 1,100 miles total
This route is perfect for lovers of the red landscape of the American Southwest. Some of the most popular adventures in this area are road trips to the Grand Canyon, so you’re in good company if you like this southwest road trip route!
Driving the Grand Canyon and Desert Loop will have you spending a lot of time outside.
The Mega American Southwest Road Trip
Total Driving Time: 37 hours in a loop, 2,144 miles total
***This is what we’ll be covering below. Keep reading!***
In this post, we’re going to cover a Southwest road trip route that covers every ‘major’ stop. (Note: We really can’t cover EVERY SINGLE STOP, so we’re trying out best to cover the highlights!
Every major desert, national park, and hidden place we can think of will be included!
If you spent one day in each of these included locations, this Southwest USA trip would take you a little over two weeks.
We’re sharing the largest itinerary so that you can see all your options, and custom fit your route to however long and far you’d like to travel!
All The Best Stops On A Mega Southwest Road Trip Itinerary
Again, this American Southwest road trip guide below includes ALL the stops.
If you are hoping to break it down into a more in-depth trip around just one area, scroll back up to see examples of our bite-sized itineraries!
1. Alabama Hills
Alabama Hills Recreational Area is an area east of the Sierra Mountains in Southern California. It’s managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and its sole purpose is to be for the enjoyment of the people. Yay!
This place is chock-full of amazing rock climbing, desert hikes, interesting natural arches, and so much more. There are even free camping spots pretty much anywhere and everywhere, so you can sleep and play all in one place.
Alabama Hills is also the site for over 150 movie filming locations including American Westerns like Round-Up and The Long Rangers, and more recent films like Django Unchained and Iron Man.
Note: Alabama Hills is mainly dirt roads, so 4-wheel drive vehicles are recommended for travel.
Movie Flat Road is generally in acceptable condition for all vehicles, but take caution after heavy rainfall. The rain may cause ruts in the road or even wash it away completely. Check the weather before you venture out!
2. Death Valley National Park
Death Valley National Park is not only the largest national park in the US, but it’s also the hottest, driest, and lowest elevation one too!
Despite its morbid name, Death Valley is actually home to many species of wildflowers, desert animals, and plants that can withstand the harsh environment. The Death Valley NPS Website even has a calendar for blooming wildflowers and the best times to visit to see them.
We recommend spending a night or two in the park. You can reserve traditional camping spots at Recreation.Gov or pop into the Furnace Creek Visitor Center and ask for free backcountry roads for camping.
Highlights of Death Valley National Park:
- Badwater Basin – The lowest point in North America.
- Zabriskie Point – Colorful hills in all directions.
- Devil’s Golf Course – Rough, rocky terrain as far as the eye can see.
- Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes – The quintessential view people expect at Death Valley. A vast area of sand dunes as tall as 100 feet, perfect for wandering in the evening.
- The Racetrack – Death Valley’s most peculiar site. Stones seem to move and make tracks in the dirt.
3. Valley of Fire State Park
You thought Nevada was just casinos and bright lights? Think again!
Directly around Nevada (in all directions!) are incredible desert landscapes and opportunities to get outside and enjoy nature.
This part of the Southwest is particularly popular for rock climbers, so if you fancy that you should plan more time in your trip to hang around Las Vegas.
One of these amazing state parks near Las Vegas is Valley of Fire State Park – an outcrop of fiery red Aztec sandstone jetting out of the earth. The park covers over 40,000 acres of land and is at its best and brightest during sunrise and sunset.
Some of the best attractions at Valley of Fire State Park include:
- Rainbow Vista – color-streaked rocks with a great view
- Atlatl Rock – ancient petroglyphs
- Elephant Rock – natural arch shaped like said animal
- Mouse Tank Road – epic road with surrounding red rocks (that road you see all over social media!)
- White Domes Trail – beautiful view, best at sunrise
- Fire Canyon/Silica Dome – great sunset views
- Arch Rock – natural arch, conveniently on the side of the road
- Fire Wave – beautiful streaks of color on a short, easy trail
If you find yourself driving through Las Vegas on your Southwest road trip, we highly recommend visiting Valley of Fire State Park! The entry fee per day is $10.00 per vehicle, and $20.00 for overnight camping.
4. Zion National Park
Zion National Park is one of the most popular Utah national parks to visit on any Southwest road trip.
This is because it’s usually the closest to any starting point you may have (especially if you’re starting in Las Vegas, Phoenix, or California).
With over 4.5 million visitors per year, there are tons of activities to do like biking, hiking, cave exploring, and camping!
Planning out your days in Zion National Park are of the utmost importance. Because cars aren’t allowed in the park, you’ll be riding around on scheduled shuttles with all the other crowds in the park.
If you are visiting during a busy season or busy time of day, it’s important to arrive early and avoid long queues for the buses.
Zion National Park HACK: If you want to hike in a location before the shuttle begins for the day, we know of friends who have rented bikes for the week in Zion.
Bikes will give you more freedom to come and go from trailheads without waiting for the busy shuttle times and dealing with crowds. You can easily rent bikes at Zion Outfitter.
Travelers Tip: Stay outside of the park at hotels in Hurricane, UT for a budget-friendly stay. You’ll need to drive into the park every day, but it’s not too far of a drive, and the views are great!
If you really want to stay closer to the park, we highly recommend booking accommodations in Springdale, Utah at least 6 months in advance or booking your camping spots very early. Accommodations near the park fill up FAST in high season!
Best Hikes and Attractions In Zion National Park:
- Angels Landing Hike (Difficult To Challenging)
- The Narrows (Canyon hike)
- Emerald Pools Trail
- Canyon Overlook Trail
- Kolob Canyons
- Weeping Rock
- Riverside Walk
- West Rim Trail
5. Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce Canyon is located in Utah, one of the “Mighty Five” Utah National Parks. It’s often paired with Zion National Park because of their proximity to one another.
This park is unique for its bright orange hoodoos, which are tall skinny spires that form at the bottom of a dried up basin after thousands of years of erosion.
There are many opportunities to hike down in the basin and next to these towering hoodoos. Some of the most iconic hikes in Bryce Canyon National Park include:
- Queen’s Garden Loop (most iconic Bryce features) – 2.6-mile loop
- Rim Trail (Best for sunrise and sunset) – entire length is 5.5-miles with multiple stopping points
- Mossy Cave Trail – 0.9 miles out-and-back trail
- Navajo Trail – 1.3-mile loop
- Swamp Canyon Loop – 4.1-mile loop
- Tower Bridge Trail – 3.4-mile out and back trail
- Fairyland Loop Trail – 8.0-mile loop
- Riggs Springs Loop Trail – 8.5-mile loop
- Peek-A-Boo Loop Trail – 5.5-mile loop
Because of its high elevation (8,000 to 9,000 feet depending on your location), Bryce Canyon stays cold nearly year round.
In January, temperatures barely rise above freezing at 15-37 degrees Fahrenheit, and its hottest month (July) sits between 53-80 degrees Fahrenheit.
That being said, we suggested earlier that the best time to make a southwest road trip itinerary would be between March/April or October/November. We still think this is true, but you should definitely add warm clothes to your southwest USA packing list.
If you’re packing light, here’s what we suggest you bring for warm clothes at the very minimum for visiting Bryce Canyon:
- Lightweight Down Jacket
- Thin, e-tip gloves (trust us, these are a lifesaver)
- Down-filled throw blanket
6. Capitol Reef National Park
Capitol Reef National Park is a hidden gem on any adventurous southwest road trip. Located in central Utah, this park’s unique feature is a wrinkle in the earth called the “Waterpocket Fold“, which runs north to south for nearly 100 miles.
This formation has created some interesting details in the area. Deep canyons, monoliths, and rocky reefs are waiting to be explored here!
To take your trip to the next level, we suggest reading our post about getting to Cathedral Valley to visit the Temple of The Sun And Moon. It’s a journey you won’t soon forget.
These towering twin rock monoliths are a two-hour drive down a dirt road – but well worth the detour! Just make sure to have a high-clearance 4×4 vehicle, and/or very confident driving skills.
It also doesn’t hurt to stop by the ranger’s office before heading out – the rangers can tell you about the current road conditions.
Around Cathedral Valley is also a great place to camp. BLM land surrounds most of the park, so you can find a free camping spot just outside the national park borders and wake up in the valley!
(Just remember that camping IN the park is not permitted unless you have a backcountry permit or are in a designated camping spot!)
Here are some iconic things to do in Cathedral Valley:
- Hike The Grand Wash
- Drive The Backroads to Cathedral Valley
- See The View At Gooseneck Overlook
In Capitol Reef National Park, you’ll get a good perspective of the landscape of the American Southwest!
7. Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands National Park is the sister park to Arches National Park. Canyonlands and Arches are right next to one another, so travelers usually come to the Moab area and visit both parks in one trip.
This park is divided up into three sections: The Island In the Sky, The Needles, and The Maze areas. Island In The Sky is the most accessible for all cars, has amenities like bathrooms and water, and has some of the park’s best overlooks.
If you’re hoping to spend one day in Canyonlands, we suggest coming to the Island In The Sky and leaving the other sections for a longer trip. There is plenty to see in this section, with tons of overlooks, short hikes, and attractions.
This part also includes the famous Mesa Arch, which looks incredible during sunrise!
It’s also important to note that there is little if any cell service in the park. Make sure to pick up a park map, or download an offline map from Google to help you get around.
Camping? Moab can be a good home base if you’re searching for an Airbnb or a hotel. However, if you want to rough it a little bit, there is tons of BLM land around the area where you can camp for free!
Read our complete guide to finding the perfect free camping spot in the USA. We’re sharing researching tips, best practices and so much more!
Highlights of Canyonlands (Must-See Spots In The Park):
- Candlestick Tower
- Mesa Arch
- Grand View Point
- Green River Overlook
- Shafer Canyon Overlook
- Upheaval Dome
- Buck Canyon Overlook
- Dead Horse Point (Outside of the park but accessible from the same main road!)
8. Arches National Park
Arches National Park is one of the most visited of the “Mighty Five” Utah national parks. We also think it’s an essential stop on your Southwest road trip itinerary!
Here, you can experience iconic American landmarks like Delicate Arch, Double Arch, and the Windows Loop.
It’s possible to experience this park’s main attractions in a day, and the highway is set up to show you all the highlights. We wrote a post about the 10 best hikes to take in Arches National Park, and they are easily accessible and doable in 24 hours!
We suggest coming to this park early – the entrance line can get extremely long starting at 9:00 am!
- Delicate Arch (least crowded during sunrise)
- Fiery Furnace (permit required)
- Double Arch
- Windows Loop
- Devil’s Garden Loop
Read More: How To Spend One Day In Arches National Park
9. Monument Valley
Monument Valley will be nearly everyone’s iconic assumption of what the landscape of the American Southwest looks like.
Want to reach that famous Forrest Gump Road? It’s a bit outside the official Oljato-Monument Valley area.
Starting from the town of Mexican Hat, drive west on Highway 163 towards Monument Valley to catch a glimpse of the towering pinnacles in the distance.
There are a few spots to pull over and snap a few pics of the road. Just be sure to look out for traffic both ways!
Camping Tip: There is BLM land all around Monument Valley, but do your research before heading out to search for your next spot. Read up on any specific rules for Native American reservation land, and what is allowed in these specific areas.
Read More: Exactly How To Find Free Camping In The USA
10. Horseshoe Bend & Antelope Canyon
Horseshoe Bend and Antelope Canyon are often coupled together because of how close they are to one another!
It’s important to note the time zone change from Page, Arizona. It’s very confusing – especially if you have tours reserved in the area.
Be sure to confirm any scheduled events or reservations you may have. As a last resort, consider arriving an hour early (rather than being an hour late!).
Antelope Canyon is a slot canyon in Page, Arizona. It’s split into two sections: “Upper Antelope Canyon” and “Lower Antelope Canyon”.
This place is growing in popularity, so it’s important to book Antelope Canyon tours online and reserve your spot in advance.
You can take a sightseeing tour, or spend a little more time in the canyon on a Photographer’s tour. The route is the same, the only difference is that the photography tour is longer.
Horseshoe Bend is an extremely picturesque bend in the Colorado River, located just outside of the city of Page, Arizona.
There is lots of grief about the Horseshoe Bend area being overcrowded.
Yes, in recent years this place has received a lot of social media attention, thus creating a large and fast influx of visitors before the state could build proper infrastructure.
Regardless, we still think it’s an incredible place to see with your own eyes.
We recommend coming during sunset, even though this is by far the most popular and crowded time.
Just know that you will be sharing it with a lot of other people, and arm yourself with patience and grace. And remember, they are coming to experience its beauty just like you!
11. Grand Canyon National Park
Grand Canyon National Park is the quintessential activity for any adventurous southwest road trip.
Spanning 277 miles long and 18 miles wide at some points, the Colorado River has been carving this canyon for thousands of years!
If you are looking to see the highlights of the Grand Canyon, we recommend visiting the South Rim. This area is the most accessible to all vehicles and includes campgrounds, visitors centers, and more accommodations nearby.
Here are some of the best viewpoints in the South Rim of the Grand Canyon:
- Mather Point
- Mohave Viewpoint
- Pima Point
- Moran Point
- Desert View Point
- Yavapai Point
12. Sedona, Arizona
Love hiking in the desert? This eclectic town in the middle of Red Rock State Park is a perfect place to reconnect with your mind, body, and soul.
We’ve written an incredibly in-depth guide to hikes in Sedona and what to expect on these beautiful trails!
Soldier’s Pass Trail: This hike features lots of interesting attractions. Some highlights include the Seven Sacred Pools, Devil’s Kitchen sinkhole, and cave entrances.
Cathedral Rock Hike: One of the most popular hikes in Sedona, Cathedral Rock trail is a popular location to watch the sunset. Towering spires, sharp cliff edges, and a little climbing will bring you to some of the most incredible desert views!
Devil’s Bridge Trail: Devil’s Bridge is a natural sandstone arch that’s accessible by a 4.2-mile hike. The best time to visit is during sunrise and sunset when the red landscape glows!
The Birthing Cave Trail: This short hike leads you to one of Sedona’s beautiful caves on the side of a mesa!
Trail Tip: These southwest hikes can get really hot in the middle of the day! We recommend taking on these trails in the early morning, or during sunset/late evening for some cooler weather.
13. Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park has it all – desert vibes, interesting landscape, beautiful cholla gardens, and so much more.
It’s located east of Los Angeles, neighboring with the resort town of Palm Springs.
It’s most well known for its namesake, the Joshua Tree, which cover much of the park’s landscape. Unique boulder piles like Skull Rock (see photo below) combined with the high desert shrub make this place a unique part of any southwest road trip.
There are several types of accommodations near Joshua Tree National Park.
You can find tons of free camping spots around the park, wilderness areas within the park (with the proper permits) and campgrounds to be as close as possible to the attractions.
If you are into glamping, you’ve got to check out the insta-famous Joshua Tree House by Sara and Rich. Their picture-perfect home is close to the park, with all the luxurious amenities of a desert oasis. (Also, get $40 off your first booking with this code!)
14. San Diego, California
Oh, the options are endless in San Diego! This is where we began our Southwest road trip itinerary, but this is not where we ended it.
With the endless cafes, ice cream shops and restaurants to discover, there’s also a ton of amazing natural beauty to explore around San Diego.
Here are a couple of spots we were lucky to see on our latest trips:
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve (La Jolla, California)
With over 8-miles of trails in this park by the ocean, you can explore as much or as little as you’d like. Torrey Pines is a preserved site with rugged cliffs, rare pine trees, and incredible views of the Pacific Ocean.
You can come to join a 1-hour ranger-guided tour of the park on weekdays from 10:00 am to 2:00 pm at the Visitors Center. Spaces are limited to 10 people per day!
California State Beaches
What’s a trip to sunny California without visiting the Pacific Ocean? Below are some of our favorite beaches to explore. Call it a last hurrah or celebration on finishing your epic Southwest road trip! Congratulations, you!
- Moonlight State Beach
- Cardiff State Beach
- Torrey Pines State Beach (North and South Shore)
- South Carlsbad Beach
- Coronado Beach and Dog Park
Our 10-Day Southwest Road Trip Route
Looking for a day-by-day itinerary through the southwestern region of the US? Here’s what our exact southwest road trip itinerary looked like during our last journey around this corner of the USA.
Again, driving around the southwest US can be as short or as long as you want it to be! There are endless things to explore, so if your time is limited here’s a 10-day southwest road trip itinerary we suggest you follow.
This way, you can dip your toes in a ton of different areas, and then return to your favorites on a future trip!
Day 1: Alabama Hills, California
Day 2: Death Valley National Park (See our 24 Hours In Death Valley Itinerary!)
Day 3: Valley of Fire, Nevada
Day 4: Zion National Park
Day 5: Bryce Canyon National Park
Day 6-8: Sedona, Arizona
Day 9: Joshua Tree National Park
Day 10: Torrey Pines, San Diego, California
Frequently Asked Questions About Driving Around The Southwest USA
Still have questions about your upcoming road trip? Here are some of the most common questions around planning a southwest road trip itinerary:
How Do I Get Around On A Trip In The American Southwest?
Unfortunately, we don’t live in any of those Southwest cities listed above. If you’re like us, you’ll probably be flying into the cheapest airport you can find, which will depend on the type of route you want to take!
If you need help finding cheap flight deals, you can track destinations with Skyscanner and buy when tickets are the cheapest!
We suggest flying into large airports to get the best deals on flights. Large airports mean there are more flights coming in per day, which means more people can book and they won’t be in such high demand.
Here are the major cities this mega Southwest itinerary will pass through – all are great starting points for your road trip around the American Southwest.
- Phoenix, Arizona (Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport – PHX)
- Las Vegas, Nevada (McCarran International Airport – LAS)
- Los Angeles, California (Los Angeles International Airport – LAX)
- San Diego, California (San Diego International Airport – SAN)
Looking to go camping during your Southwest road trip? We did too! There are TONS of areas in the southwest perfect for free camping, so you can have an epic trip on an epic(ly cheap) budget!
To make your car camping adventure as cozy as possible, we’d suggest renting a car that can fold the backseats down completely flat.
Looking For A Camper Van or RV?
One of our favorite places to look for RVs for rent is a place called Outdoorsy. It’s kind of like Airbnb for recreational vehicles. People will lend their camper vans, mobile homes, and more for travelers like you!
It’s fully insured, and an awesome way to save money on the road and get the full road trip experience. Click here to browse their huge selection!
What’s The Best Time Of Year For A Southwest Road Trip?
In our opinion, we think the best time of year for a perfect Southwest road trip would be between the months of March and April.
This is when most of the snow has melted in the spring (except for in Bryce Canyon!) but the desert weather is not yet too hot.
We also think that between October and November is a good time to plan your southwest road trip itinerary.
The weather is getting cooler from the summer, and most families have children back in school, so crowds are less than the peak summer season.
This Isn’t The End…
Didn’t see your favorite American southwest destination in this blog post? That’s because we haven’t explored there yet!
We can’t wait to do some more driving around the Southwest US. As we explore more destinations, we’ll be updating this post with more information. Keep coming back!
Are you planning your own amazing Southwest road trip? Tell us about the stop you are looking forward to the most!
Want to find the best places in the PNW?
Stop searching through internet noise and download our curated list just for you.
Enter your email below and we'll send you your PNW Bucket List!