Arches National Park

American Southwest Road Trip: The Ideal Itinerary

Our family LOVES a good road trip. Last summer we took the ultimate American Southwest road trip! There are so many amazing national parks within driving distance in this area. We have had a lot of people ask us to share our itinerary for this specific trip. So, here is our version of the BEST itinerary for a road trip through the American Southwest.

We took this trip at the end of May into the first week of June in 2019. We actually did the trip in the reverse direction that I am going to list here, but you get to learn from our experience. If you travel in late spring or early summer, we feel that the direction below is the best direction. If you travel in late summer or early fall, you would want to reverse the direction.

Day 1: Las Vegas, NV to Flagstaff, AZ – the beginning of an amazing American Southwest road trip

You can get cheap flights to Las Vegas from almost anywhere in the United States (and probably even internationally). These cheap flights are why we recommend starting and ending your road trip here. We chose to add a day in Las Vegas at the end. If we were to do it again, we would not make that choice. It really just depends on how much you enjoy the Vegas atmosphere.

As long as you land by late morning, you can grab your rental car and head towards Flagstaff. If you can’t get in until later, we would recommend spending one night in Vegas before you start this itinerary.

When you get to the Lake Mead overlook, pull in and take a look. Sadly, this lake is drying up at a fairly alarming rate. You will then want to stop at the Hoover Dam. At minimum, you can get out and walk across the dam and take in just how big it is. The tour that they offer is also really good (costs between $10 and $30 per person depending on which options you choose). If it is a warm, sunny day, expect it to be quite hot and drink lots of water! It’s also fun to toss water off the side of the dam and watch it ‘magically’ float up from the air current produced by the size of the dam!

From Hoover Dam, it is a fairly uneventful drive into Flagstaff (albeit beautiful scenery) that takes just over three hours. Flagstaff is a cool little western town with some fun shops and good restaurants. We enjoyed meals at Fratelli Pizza and the Lumberyard Brewing Company. There is also a wide range of hotels available, but we chose a great Airbnb.

Day 2: The Grand Canyon

No American Southwest road trip could be complete without this stop

The South Rim of the Grand Canyon is easily accessible from Flagstaff (an hour and 15 min). So, after grabbing coffee and a bite to eat at the Single Speed Cafe, head to the Grand Canyon. This is where you will want to buy your National Park Annual Pass if you have not pre-purchased online. The regular Annual Pass is $80 and provides entrance to the driver and all passengers. For parks with walk-up entrances, the pass admits four adults and children 15 and under are free. The Annual Pass is free for current military families as well as families with a current 4th grader! Seniors (62 and older) only pay $20 for an annual pass or $80 for a lifetime pass.

Have you even been to the American Southwest if you have not seen the Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon is the type of place that you can spend as little or as much time as you would like and enjoy your time either way. You can choose to just drive along the rim, stopping at overlooks, or you can choose to hike down into the canyon at various places in the park. Just remember that you have to hike back up to get out, and it is always easier hiking down! A sunset over the canyon is one that you will never forget!

If you plan far enough in advance to secure lodging in the park itself, you can spend this night in the park. This allows you to take advantage of thinner crowds in the late afternoon and early morning for hikes, etc. We did not stay in this park on this last trip. However, we have never regretted staying in one of the parks. If you are not able to stay in the park, we would recommend going back to Flagstaff for this night due to the wide range of accommodations and restaurants.

Day 3: Flagstaff to Page, AZ

Flagstaff to Page is just over two hours driving. Be sure to stop at Horseshoe Bend on your way in. By going in the morning, you will avoid the large crowds that show up for sunset. Because of the orientation of the overlook, it is also easier to get pictures without the evening sun reflection. As you will see in our pictures, we went at sunset. While it was still beautiful, this is one of those things we wish we had done differently. The city of Page has created a very nice parking area ($10 fee). The path down to see the canyon is just over half a mile each way with about a 1000′ change in elevation. Bring comfortable shoes and water, if it is hot.

Possible things to do with the rest of your day include taking a tour of Upper or Lower Antelope Canyon, renting a boat on Lake Powell, or just hanging out at the lake for the afternoon. It seems funny to us that Page did not used to be on most people’s radar for the best American Southwest road trip. Now, it seems to be at the top of everyone’s list, and we think it is for good reason!

All you need to know about visiting Antelope Canyon on your American Southwest road trip

Reservations for the Antelope Canyon tours need to be made well in advance (particularly during the busier times of the year). If you have not done that, be sure to check with them to see if they have cancellations. We used Dixie’s Antelope Canyon Tours for our Lower Antelope Canyon tour. Chief Tsosie’s Antelope Slot Canyon Tours was our choice for our Upper Antelope Canyon tour. We were very happy with both of them.

For the tour of Lower Antelope, you park within 100 yards of the entrance of the canyon. For the Upper Antelope Canyon tour, you park in Page and take a comfortable, air-conditioned bus to the entrance of the slot canyon. The Lower Canyon is a bit more physically demanding with ladders and smaller spaces. However, we saw people of all ages enjoying the tour. The Upper Canyon is accessible for just about anyone. It is all flat ground and the slot canyon rises above you. If you only have time or the budget for one of the tours, we would recommend the Lower Antelope tour. It does not feel as crowded, and the lighting is good for pictures no matter what time of day you take the tour.

Lower Antelope Canyon

For lodging in Page, we had a terrific Airbnb experience. We also explored the Lake Powell Resort and Marina, and we would recommend that if you want to stay right on the lake in more of a resort setting. There is also a public access beach (Wahweap Beach) just past the resort. This would be perfect if you want to just spend some time by the lake.

Day 4: Page, AZ to Moab, UT

The drive from Page to Moab takes you through a great deal of the Navajo Nation. There is not much along the way. Make sure you fill the gas tank before leaving Page, and don’t expect to find lunch along the way. It is about a 4 1/2 hour drive without making any stops. Be sure to take the route via US-163 that takes you through Monument Valley for some breathtaking scenery. We would recommend heading towards Moab after having lunch in Page.

Depending on the time of year and the length of the days, you may arrive in Moab in time to get your first glimpse of Arches National Park! Some trails that are pretty short and easy to do with limited time are the following: Park Avenue Viewpoint, Balanced Rock, Double Arch, North and South Window. There is a wide range of hotels in Moab as well as campgrounds that have small cabins with AC and TV (but campground bathrooms). Arches is one of the National Parks that does not have its own lodge.

Day 5: Arches National Park

You will want to spend at least one full day in Arches National Park. We first visited Arches when our kids were about five and two, and we have loved it ever since. There are so many trails in this park that are fairly flat and easy hikes. Regardless of the difficulty of the trail, the natural beauty is in no short supply.

We recommend starting your day with the hike to Delicate Arch if you plan to make that hike. We made the strenuous hike up to Delicate Arch on this trip, and it was well worth it. However, know that it is quite a climb and almost all of it is without shade. Bring water with you and start early in the morning in order to avoid both crowds and heat illness.

Our other favorite trails are Sand Dune Arch, Landscape Arch, Double Arch, and North and South Window. Skyline Arch is visible from the road. A very short hike from the road gives you great views of it.

Downtown Moab is also worth walking around with fun little shops and restaurants. There are also lots of four-wheel-drive excursions that leave from Moab.

Day 6: Moab, UT to Bryce Canyon

It is about a four hour and fifteen-minute drive from Moab to Bryce Canyon. There are not many lodging or dining options in the town of Bryce. As a result, the prices are quite a bit higher than you typically see (we spent $50 for our family of four to eat at Subway). However, you will not regret a stop at Bryce National Park.

We strongly recommend staying at the lodge in the park as it sits right on the canyon’s edge. It makes for amazing evening and morning views, and some of the best star gazing you will find anywhere. We splurged on one of the Western Cabins and absolutely loved it! One good budget saver is to stop at the grocery store in town on your way into the park. The cabins have small fridges where you can easily store sandwich or breakfast stuff.

Day 7: Bryce Canyon National Park

Spend the day hiking on the trails just outside the lodge or drive farther in the park to some of the more remote trails. Even if you don’t choose to hike the more remote trails, do drive to the end of the park to take in the various vistas.

You really can’t go wrong with any of the overlooks in the park, but do take the time to hike down into the canyon. The view from above is awe-inspiring, but the view from down in the canyon is absolutely amazing and such a different perspective on the hoodoos (the tall, thin spires of rock that cover the canyon). Just remember to bring water and that the hike back up is a lot tougher than the hike down!

Day 8: Bryce, UT to Springdale, UT

It is about a two-hour drive from Bryce to Springdale, your base for exploring Zion National Park. In our opinion, we have saved the best stop on the best American Southwest road trip for last. Zion is so diverse and so beautiful, but in recent years it has also become much more crowded. Get an early start from Bryce, so you can stop to see the Checkerboard Mesa on the way and still have time to do some exploring in Zion in the afternoon.

Springdale is the small town (really just a strip) outside of the west entrance to Zion with all of the hotels and restaurants. Most importantly, the entire town is serviced by the shuttle bus that picks up in front of most hotels and takes you directly to the entrance to Zion. We stayed at Driftwood Lodge and were very comfortable.

We were originally concerned about being 7 stops away from the entrance, but the total distance is very close. It also allowed us to see all of the dining options in town. Then we could stop along the way after a long day in the park. Parking at the entrance is very limited, and the buses come very frequently and are free. Do yourself a favor and plan to take the bus!

Once you get to the main entrance, you will then get on another shuttle bus within the park to go to the various parts of the park. Again, the buses come frequently and are very convenient.

The least strenuous (but still amazingly beautiful) hike is the Riverside Walk that follows the river and ends at the entrance to the Narrows. It is a great place to go for a leisurely afternoon stroll. If you want to hike the Narrows, you will want to wait until you have a full day in order to get an early start to avoid the crowds. We had planned to on our last visit, but the snowmelt had the river flowing too fast for it to be open to hike. Other trails that can be done in a short afternoon are Weeping Rock and Lower Emerald Pools.

Day 9: Zion National Park

We definitely recommend taking the Angel’s Landing hike even if you stop short of actually going up the chain trail to Angel’s Landing. The views on the entire hike are beautiful. Walter’s Wiggles and the view from the top of them are something to see! However, this is definitely a more strenuous hike with around 1,500 feet of elevation gains, so plan accordingly. It is about a 5 mile hike roundtrip, but the elevation gains makes it feel longer. Take your time and enjoy all of the views!

If you do Angel’s Landing in the morning, you can grab lunch at the lodge in the park and take your pick of the other trails. You really can’t go wrong. By the time you head back into town in the evening, you will be ready for a good dinner! We enjoyed eating on the porch at the Zion Pizza and Noodle Company.

Day 10: Springdale to Las Vegas

It is a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Springdale back to Las Vegas. Like the rest of this trip, much of it is scenic. Depending on your flight time, you may be able to get in one last Zion hike in the morning before heading back to reality! St. George is about an hour from Springdale and has tons of dining options. So, it is a good place to stop for lunch on the way.

Additional Tips for Your American Southwest Road Trip

If you have more than ten days, you can easily add days to any of these national parks and not be disappointed. There are also some other national parks that you will pass along the way. Canyonlands is right outside of Moab. Capital Reef is just north of Bryce. The Painted Desert, Petrified Forest, or Sedona are all great possible day trips from Flagstaff. Another great addition in the summer would be to rent a houseboat in Page, AZ on Lake Powell, and explore the canyons from the water.

Regardless of the time of year, expect Bryce Canyon to be the coolest location on this itinerary. Arches and the Hoover Dam will be the warmest. If you have the extra time to go to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, it is almost always less crowded. However, roads are often closed until early summer due to snow.

With the dry climate and the amount of hiking, drink more water than you think you need. Bring comfortable hiking shoes, and dress in layers as the temperatures can change pretty drastically with the changes in elevation. Expect quite a bit of sun exposure, so wear hats, sunscreen, etc. for protection. We always recommend packing light, so you spend less time packing every day and more time experiencing the sights!

The bottom line is that you almost can’t go wrong going on an American Southwest road trip! Good luck and happy travels!

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