An American Southwest Road Trip. There’s nothing like it!
Road tripping is by far the best way to see and experience everything that America has to offer.
A road trip through the American Southwest takes you past unique deserts, mountains, canyons carved by rivers and spectacular national and state parks.
We are happy to share this article from Jennifer Wolff, one of our contributing writers:
As a school teacher from Southwest Michigan, I look forward to summer road trips exploring the US with my wonderful daughter! I’m drawn to geological features and the American Southwest has so many to admire!
Here’s the 8-Day Southwest Itinerary that my daughter and I took in July last year.
This road trip guide includes so many things to do and see in the southwest region of the US!
GUEST POST BY Jennifer Wolff, Contributing Writer.
Stops along the way:
We decided to start and end our Southwest Road Trip in Albuquerque, New Mexico since my brother lives there.
Before arriving at Petrified Forest National Park, I had been missing the landscape of the Badlands from last summer’s vacation. The first stop at Petrified Forest reminded me of the landscape of Badlands National Park and brought the biggest smile to my face!
I had also been quite tense flying from Michigan to New Mexico and then driving from Albuquerque to Petrified National Park. Seeing the beautiful landscape of the American Southwest relaxed me immediately.
The layers of different colors making up the landscape of Petrified Forest National Park (and Painted Desert) were just beautiful. The deposited layers are quite diverse with some areas a more orange color and other areas are a more blueish color.
We spent about 3 hours exploring the park, and could’ve stayed longer, but the weather took a wicked turn so we left in an attempt to beat the oncoming monsoon. If I ever go back to Petrified Forest, I would get there earlier, hope for good weather, and hike more trails.
SOUTHWEST US ROAD TRIP TIP: Be aware of the weather during the summer monsoon season in the southwestern region of the US.
One of the best parts of a road trip is stopping at fun and quirky places.
When you drive through Winslow, you must take a photo on the corner. You know, for the song “Standing on the Corner in Winslow Arizona” by the Eagles.
Our Southwest US itinerary included a stop at the Meteor Crater Natural Landmark on our way from Winslow to Flagstaff, but the monsoon storm prevented us from going.
ROAD TRIP TIP: Be flexible and prepared to make adjustments due to unexpected weather, construction, etc.
Stops along the way:
Since we were still on Michigan time, it was easy to get up early each day. We highly recommend starting out early to avoid the crowds and heat that are inevitable on an American Southwest road trip in the summer.
Our first stop today was the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park. The South Rim is open all year.
The easiest and fastest way to get around and see the Grand Canyon is to take the scenic Kaibab Rim Shuttle Bus. It’s the only way to access the South Kaibab Trailhead and Yaki Point.
There is a Hermit Road Shuttle bus that operates most of the year. It stops at 9 canyon overlooks along the scenic 7 mile Hermit Road.
We decided to spend a bit of time in the Village area to explore Mather Point and hike the rim trail for a bit.
Our itinerary for the day had us driving to Page, Arizona so we set out along Desert View Drive headed toward the Watchtower.
Each viewpoint along Desert View Drive offers something just a bit different from all the others.
It’s definitely worth the time to stop at each viewing point on Desert View Drive along the way!
The watchtower is really neat inside. Be sure to climb to the top.
On our way to Page we stopped at the Little Colorado Overlook. It was a nice place to get out of the car to stretch our legs and enjoy the scenery.
SOUTHWEST ROAD TRIP TIP: Dehydration is serious in the summer months. Make a point to drink water at all the stops you make on your Southwest road trip. Keep water in a cooler in the trunk!
Nothing says American Southwest like a photo of Horseshoe Bend.
We got up EARLY to hike to Horseshoe Bend, arriving at the trailhead at 7 am to avoid the crowds and heat.
CARRY WATER with you on the hike since there is no shade along the 1.25 mile roundtrip hike that takes approximately 30 minutes to an hour.
Since we had a scheduled tour at Antelope Canyon the same morning, we didn’t stay long at Horseshoe Bend.
Visiting Antelope Canyon was a must on our Southwest Road Trip itinerary. We participated in the regular Dixie Ellis tour of Antelope Canyon (they offer a teacher discount.) Even though we had made an online reservation, we still had to wait in line to check in and then again before our tour time was called.
Once our tour was called we walked over to another waiting area. The tour guides are quite knowledgeable about camera phones and gave advice on how to take the best photos. Our guide also took our photos and made sure no one was in it.
Plan on shuffling through the canyon because it is packed with people!
Be sure to LOOK UP! The canyon is so spectacular, but it’s also amazing to look up and see the height of the canyon.
I think Antelope Canyon is incredible, but be sure to pack your patience and plan on your tour time running much later than expected. It doesn’t matter which tour company you book with because they both enter from the same location.
ROAD TRIP TIP: Always be aware of the TIME ZONE as you travel. The time zone in Page, Arizona is NOT THE SAME as Antelope Canyon only 5 minutes away.
Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah was everything I thought it would be… and then some! I absolutely love the hoodoos and colors!
We arrived early and hiked the Queen’s Garden – Navajo Loop trail, starting from Sunrise Point. The trails goes past Queen’s Garden and connects with the Navajo Loop.
Hiking UP the Wall Street switchbacks to the top of the canyon is a workout. We were pretty tired by the time we were done, but it was worth every single step!
Again…BRING LOTS OF WATER and start EARLY. It gets very hot in the summer, there is not much shade, and the end of the trail climbing those switchbacks is a workout!
Our horseback riding experience through Bryce Canyon was the BEST horseback riding experience ever! Riding into the canyon on horseback was quite intimidating, but once I put all my confidence in that horse, I felt like I could enjoy the ride so much more!
I was surprised how different the canyon looked once we got to the bottom because it was full of trees!
WHAT I WOULD DO DIFFERENTLY: There is so much to see, do and photograph at Bryce Canyon! Next time, I would get to Bryce earlier and plan to spend two days to hike more trails. I would also stay at a hotel closer to Bryce Canyon so I wasn’t driving to and from Page, Arizona.
We left Bryce and went back to our hotel in Page because I wanted to drive through Monument Valley on our way to Moab, Utah.
Capitol Reef National Park is one of Utah’s Mighty 5 national parks, but it gets overlooked because it’s not close to the other parks in the state. Once you visit Capitol Reef, it soon becomes your favorite.
Stops along the way:
Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park is located in a remote area on the Utah/Arizona border. This destination was another must-see on our American Southwest road trip.
I am so glad I rented a Jeep because the drive through Monument Valley was rough! It’s a 14-mile graded dirt road that takes you past scenic spots like The Mittens, Three Sisters, John Ford’s Point, Totem Pole, and more.
There are also tours where Navajo guides can take you deeper into the Valley that you can’t do on your own.
We enjoyed stopping at all of the scenic spots as we drove along the road, and even ate fry bread and purchased jewelry at one location.
It took about 2 hours to drive though Monument Valley and stop at all of the scenic pullouts.
If I were to return, I would go horseback riding through Monument Valley.
After leaving Monument Valley we drove through the iconic Forrest Gump spot. I was shocked at how many people were standing in the road trying to the perfect picture.
Goosenecks State Park, Utah was a quick stop on our way to Moab. Driving along the road to get to Goosenecks made me wonder if I was still on Earth because it looked so different and I hardly passed a car for miles! I was happy to see a dozen cars in the parking lot when we arrived – it was nice to see people!
Take the time for the short drive to Goosenecks. It’s unlike any other stop along your road trip in the Southwest. The area is so much larger than I expected! It’s really neat to see how erosion creates incredible winding rivers.
We discovered on this trip that Utah State Parks are fun to explore and photograph.
When you travel around the American Southwest by car, you find gems along the way. We came across two on our drive toward the adventure town of Moab, Utah.
Wilson Arch is a fun place to stop, stretch your legs and hike around the arch. Remember to stay hydrated!
You’ll pass by Hole N” The Rock, a 5,000 square foot home home carved out of a huge rock. There’s a gift shop, trading post and small petting zoo.
It was nice to spend some down time in Moab. We really enjoyed the Buffalo Bleu Cheese pizza at Zax! BEST pizza!!
The Needles District of Canyonlands National Park is a remote part of the park. It features extensive hiking trails, amazing geology, and relatively few people. The park is a 35 mile detour of the highway as you drive toward Moab.
Places we visited:
Arches National Park has over 2,000 natural stone arches and cool rock fins and large balanced rocks.
Out of all the hiking trails in Arches National Park, we really wanted to hike to Delicate Arch. We got up early and made it to the trailhead at 7 am.
It’s best to hike to Delicate Arch in the morning so you get a parking spot and avoid the full sun and heat as much as you can.
The hike is 3.2 miles roundtrip. It took us about 1.5 hours. I think they say 1 hour per mile to hike out west due to the increase in elevation.
Since the hike to Delicate Arch took most of our energy for the day, we didn’t attempt any more trials. Instead we drove to all the lookout points to enjoy the unique landscape of Arches National Park.
WHAT I WOULD DO DIFFERENTLY: I would plan on spending at least 2 days at Arches next time. There is so much to see, do and photograph at Arches National Park!
I’d strongly recommend getting to Arches early to avoid the crowds (and the heat). This is what the entrance looked like at 10 am as we were leaving the park. Look at that line of cars waiting to get into Arches!
Dead Horse Point State Park, Utah is located at the end of a mesa 2,000 feet above the Colorado River, on the edge of Canyonlands National Park. You can see endless views of the river and surrounding canyons.
I loved Dead Horse Point! It’s amazing to see the way water erodes at a canyon over time and creates a horseshoe-type shape.
We enjoyed walking the trails, climbing the rocks and taking photos at Dead Horse Point.
Canyonlands National Park, Utah is actually comprised of three Districts. The closest one to Moab, and the one we chose to visit, is called Island in the Sky. Canyonlands Needles is about 55 miles south of Moab.
The landscape at each viewpoint in Canyonlands Island in the Sky is different. Take the time to stop, hike and explore as many as you can.
The trail to Mesa Arch is a quick, easy hike (.5 miles roundtrip). The arch is right on the edge of a 500-foot cliff and it’s one of the most iconic views in Canyonlands.
There are many things to do, see and photograph at Canyonlands Island in the Sky. It’s hard to narrow down your itinerary when you only have a short amount of time to explore.
We LOVE dinosaurs and spent about an hour at Moab Giants just outside town in the middle of a 100 degree day!
We packed lots of water, but Moab Giants clearly cares for their visitors because they have misting stations, drinking fountains, and canopies set up to give you a break from the sun. There is also a vending machine about halfway through the trail.
It’s a half mile loop trail with so much to see and learn along the way. The life-size dinosaurs and footprint castings are impressive and help you understand the incredible size of these magnificent creatures!
SOUTHWEST ROAD TRIP TIP: Get the US National Park Pass to save money! You will visit amazing US National Parks on your road trip around the American Southwest. Buying the National Park Pass is worth it.
Moab, Utah is considered one of the best adventure towns in America. The outdoor activities in the area include mountain biking, rock climbing, hiking, river rafting, off roading in Jeeps and ATVs, and more!
Stops along the way:
One of the most amazing stops on our Southwest US road trip was visiting Mesa Verde National Park. The park was developed to preserve and interpret the archeological heritage of the Ancestral Pueblo people.
Mesa Verde is quite cool! I found it interesting that people decided to live at the top of the mountain.
We spent 2-3 hours at Mesa Verde stopping at all of the scenic spots. Next time I would plan to be there longer and take a guided tour of the Cliff Palace.
If you’re road trip across the US Southwest takes you close to the Four Corners Monument area, you probably should stop.
With that being said, everyone else thinks the same thing which made for a LONG line.
The line moved somewhat slow because people want to get lots of poses in all four states. We skipped the line and took a photo from one of the elevated platforms.
We drove to Albuquerque to spend the night.
Places we stopped:
The next morning we visited Bandelier National Monument and explored the area for about 3 hours. It’s relatively small but packed with history.
I was so impressed with the landscape and wilderness in Bandelier. We loved climbing all of the ladders and looking at early civilization sites.
Half way through the Main Loop Trail, you must either turn back toward the visitor center or continue another half mile to Alcove House. We decided to walk the additional distance. In order to get to the Alcove House we had to climb 4 separate ladders 140 ft to the top.
One thing to consider when visiting Bandelier is that you can only get to it by a Shuttle bus during the summer months.
After Bandelier, we drove over to El Santuario De Chimayo Historic Site.
I wanted to see the church while I was close to it since I probably won’t be in the area again any time soon.
Our Southwest road trip itinerary has you visiting 6+ national parks, all of which charge a per-car entrance fee. The best way to save money is to buy a National Parks Pass. You can buy the pass through REI before you go (they will donate 10% of sales to the National Park Foundation), or you can get it when you arrive at the first National Park. The pass is good for one year at any site managed by the National Park Service. The US National Park pass is a good deal and will save you $50+ just on this road trip.
Carry plenty of water with you when traveling around the Southwest US. Dehydration is serious, especially during the summer. Keep extra water in a cooler in your car (we like the Koolatron that doubles as a fridge in our hotel room too). Use a hydration pack when hiking. Fill it every chance you get – most national parks will have water bottle filling stations.
Do you really need travel insurance? It’s a good idea for a road trip when you’re driving through unfamiliar territory. The vehicle you drive (rental or your own) should be covered in case of an accident. And you never know when the unexpected might happen to you. We use World Nomads for affordable travel insurance. It’s better to be safe than sorry!
You must be prepared for a road trip around the American Southwest. There are long stretches of road with no services for gas, food or lodging. There are sporadic small towns that may not offer services or they aren’t open at ‘normal’ hours to the public.
Cell service is random to non-existent in more remote areas around the Southwest. There are many National Parks that also don’t have cell service, gas, food or lodging.
What you pack for a Southwest road trip will depend on the time of year, the locations you visit, and the activities you will do – use our National Parks Packing Lists as a guide.
Here’s a small list of the items you really must have when driving around the Southwest US:
We use Airbnb (here’s a $40 coupon) | Hotels.com | HotelsCombined to rent accommodations that have a kitchen. Cooking our meals saves us quite a bit of money compared to eating out, and it’s much healthier!