Road tripping is by far the best way to see and experience everything that America has to offer.
There are so many US southwest vacation ideas to see unique deserts, mountains, canyons carved by rivers and spectacular national and state parks.
Use this American southwest road trip guide that’s an 8 day itinerary for visiting New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado.
This road trip guide includes things to do, what to pack and where to stay as you travel through the southwest region of the US!
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PLANNING YOUR SOUTHWEST ROAD TRIP
This article was written by 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.”
National Parks Pass
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.
Water, Water, Water!
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.
What to Pack
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. Check out the full list of family road trip items to pack.
- Maps – download a map beforehand – cell service may not be available for long stretches of road (we use a road atlas as a backup as well)
- Water – reusable water bottles
- Food – healthy road trip snacks
- Roadside Emergency Kit
- Sunscreen & Hat
- Clothing – layers for variations of temperature and weather
AMERICAN SOUTHWEST ROAD TRIP GUIDE
DAY 1: Albuquerque to Flagstaff
Stops along the way:
- Petrified National Park
- Winslow, Arizona
Albuquerque, NM to Petrified Forest National Park, AZ – 3 hours drive time
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.
Petrified Forest to Winslow, Arizona – 1 hour drive time
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.
Winslow to Flagstaff, AZ – 1 hour drive time
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.
DAY 2: Flagstaff to Page, AZ
Stops along the way:
- Grand Canyon South Rim
- Grand Canyon Desert View Drive
- Little Colorado Overlook
Flagstaff, AZ to Grand Canyon National Park, AZ – 2 hour drive time
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.
Mather Point to Desert View Watchtower – 35 minute drive time (with NO stops!)
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.
Desert View Watchtower to Page, AZ – 2 hour drive time
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!
Day 3: Horseshoe Bend and Antelope Canyon
Page, AZ to Horseshoe Bend – 10 minute drive time
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.
Horseshoe Bend to Antelope Canyon, AZ – 30 minute drive time
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.
Day 4 – Bryce Canyon National Park
Page, AZ to Bryce Canyon National Park, UT- 2.5 hour drive time
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 are so many things to do at Bryce Canyon National Park – 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.
- Bryce Canyon Travel Guide
- Best Time to Visit Bryce Canyon
- Things to Do at Bryce Canyon National Park
- Bryce Canyon Tours
Where to Stay Near Bryce Canyon:
- Bryce Canyon Places to Stay
- Bryce Canyon Hotels
- Bryce Canyon National Park Camping
- Bryce Canyon National Park RV Vacation
- Vacation Rentals Near Bryce Canyon
- Best Western Ruby’s Inn – easy access right outside the park
- Best Western Plus – also right outside the park
- Rent an RV – have it dropped off at your vacation destination!
Day 5 – Page, AZ to Moab, UT
Stops along the way:
- Monument Valley
- Goosenecks State Park
- Wilson Arch
- Hole N” The Rock
Page, AZ to Monument Valley, UT – 2 hour drive time
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.
Monument Valley to Goosenecks State Park, UT – 35 minutes drive time
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.
Goosenecks State Park, UT to Moab, UT – 2+ hour drive time (with 2 stops)
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!!
There are all types of lodging in and near Moab from budget-friendly hotels to higher-prices resorts. You’ll also find vacation rentals, a hostel, campgrounds and RV parks.
Where to Stay in Moab:
There are all types of lodging in and near Moab from budget-friendly hotels to higher-prices resorts. You’ll also find vacation rentals, a hostel, campgrounds and RV parks
READ OUR FULL GUIDE: Where to stay in Moab
- Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites Moab – we enjoyed our stay and highly recommend this hotel due to its location close to Arches.
- Purple Sage – our all-time favorite place to stay in Moab – walking distance to shopping, full kitchen, and only 8 units so you don’t feel lost in a large hotel.
- Red Cliffs Lodge – rooms up to 6 people – located 17 miles from Moab, this lodge is known for its beautiful location, winery and activities like horseback riding, fishing and more!
Day 6 – Moab, Utah
Places we visited:
- Arches National Park
- Dead Horse Point State Park
- Canyonlands National Park
- Moab Giants
Moab, UT to Arches National Park, UT – 10 minute drive time
Arches National Park has over 2,000 natural stone arches and cool rock fins and large balanced rocks.
Out of all the Arches National Park hiking trails, 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 the park.
WHAT I WOULD DO DIFFERENTLY: I would plan on spending at least 2 days at Arches next time, especially to focus on the Arches National Park photography!
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!
- Arches National Park Travel Guide
- Arches Packing List
- Where to Stay Near Arches National Park
- Tours Near Moab, Utah
Arches National Park to Dead Horse Point State Park, UT – 35 minute drive time
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.
Dead Horse Point State Park to Canyonlands (Island in the Sky), UT – 15 minute drive time
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. Needles Canyonlands is about 55 miles south of Moab.
The landscape at each viewpoint along the Island in the Sky scenic drive is different. Take the time to stop, hike and explore as many as you can.
- Grand View Point
- Green River Overlook
- Mesa Arch
- Buckhorn Overlook
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.
- Canyonlands National Park Guide
- Best Time to Visit Canyonlands National Park
- Things to Do at Canyonlands National Park
- Where to Stay in Moab Near Canyonlands
- TOURS Near Canyonlands
Canyonlands to Moab Giants near Moab, UT – 30 minute drive time
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.
Day 7 – Moab, UT to Albuquerque, NM
Stops along the way:
- Mesa Verde National Park
- Four Corners Monument
Moab, UT to Mesa Verde, CO – 2 hour drive time
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.
Mesa Verde, CO to Four Corners – 1 hour drive time
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.
Four Corners to Albuquerque, NM – 4 hour drive time
We drove to Albuquerque to spend the night.
Day 8 – Albuquerque, NM Area
Places we stopped:
- Bandelier National Monument
- El Santuario De Chimayo Historic Site
Albuquerque, NM to Bandelier National Monument – 2 hour drive time
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.
Bandelier National Monument to El Santuario De Chimayo Historic Site, NM – 1 hour drive time
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.