The American Southwest is hands-down one of the best road trips in the world. The baby blue waters, deep canyons, curious rock formations, and deep oranges make it feel otherworldly at times.
This road trip itinerary is based on the famed Grand Circle trip with a few variations on the theme thrown in. You can pick and choose and do this in a week and a half, or spend months and see everything on this list. Choose your own adventure.
Gear up, because this is one of the finest adventures in the wild west!
This itinerary begins in Los Angeles, California. You can start it in Las Vegas, Phoenix, or Salt Lake City if you prefer. This is a ‘choose your own adventure’ type of itinerary.
I went with a camper van from JUCY (you can compare options incl. Jucy here) which had a sink with a water tank, a comfortable bed, a full kitchen, and a solar panel to keep me charged when I was otherwise off the grid. It was a convenient way to do this since I never had to set up a tent, could pack up and drive easily every morning, and could cook and eat anywhere and everywhere. I also encountered some rain on my trip and rain in a camper van is a non-issue but in a tent it can be most uncomfortable.
Much of the land in Utah, Arizona, and even parts of California is BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land which means it’s public and free to camp as long as you’re not visible from the road and you leave no trace. That’s what makes a camper van such a good deal and one of the best ways to see the American Southwest! You’ll see me reference this throughout the article.
Here’s a video with some of the best adventures:
By the way, I did most of this trip alone, so don’t despair if you don’t have anyone to go with. The solo aspect of this trip made it all the more magical. Without further ado, here’s the fabulous itinerary:
Nevada is typically synonymous with the booming nightclubs, dazzling lights, and poker tables of Sin City. While I’m a big fan of the strip for a girl’s trip, I also know that there’s much more to Nevada than just Las Vegas. The surroundings can be beautiful as well, and if on a trip where your aim is to appreciate the natural beauty, you’re still in luck in gorgeous Nevada.
1. Seven Magic Mountains
Seven Magic Mountains is an art installation by Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone off of Highway 15 just before Vegas if coming from Los Angeles. It’s a series of, you guessed it, seven stacks of brightly painted rocks meant to symbolize the midway between the natural and the artificial which are the mountains and the highway. It’s meant to stay only through the end of 2021, so stop by while you can!
It’s only a slight detour off of the 15 and it probably only cost me 20 minutes total to pull off and see them. If driving on the 15 from Los Angeles you’ll see the sign for the turnoff about 15 miles before reaching Las Vegas and can navigate there using Google maps as well.
2. Helicopter tour of the Grand Canyon
Since I only had about a week to get through my whole itinerary, I figured the best way to finally see the famed Grand Canyon would be to skip the crazy long drive and crowds and to fly right into it at sunset. Fast, easy, and in style! But if you’re starting in Arizona, don’t worry, we’ll talk about driving to it as well later in the post.
After the Magic Mountains I got a quick bite to eat and headed to Maverick Helicopters for their Wind Dancer sunset tour which departs from the strip during golden hour, lands in the Grand Canyon for champagne, and flies back to the strip at sunset, just as everything on the strip is lighting up.
I had always expected that the Grand Canyon would be quite grand (and it was) but what really surprised and impressed me was how beautiful the scenery we flew over to get there was. It’s an incredible way to get a glimpse of some remote and desolate areas that you wouldn’t otherwise see, plus it packs a lot of great experiences into just a few hours. It’s one of those splurge experiences that’s oh so worth it.
Here are some other helicopter tours available:
- Grand Canyon Dancer Helicopter Tour from South Rim
- From South Rim: Grand Canyon Spirit Helicopter Tour
3. Valley of Fire
Valley of Fire is a state park in Nevada and my first overnight of the trip. After the helicopter ride, I continued the additional hour to the first come, first serve campgrounds within the park boundary and settled in for the night, waking for sunrise the next morning.
The park entrance is regulated with an honesty box to collect the $10 park fees and $20+ camping fees if you arrive after dark like I did. It was also totally empty around sunrise, so it felt like I had the park more or less to myself in the early morning hours. That was pretty cool! That being said, you might prefer a guided hiking tour.
- Recommended sights: Seven Sisters, Elephant Rock, Beehives, and Fire Wave Trail (if you have more time).
- Camp: Check space at campsites within state park or alternatively camp on BLM land just outside of the east park entrance.
Southern Utah is simply one of the best areas in the American Southwest with its canyons, bright orange rock, and unique formations.
In Utah, you’ll see an overwhelming amount of options for camping, hiking, biking, canyoning, kayaking, etc. Unless you can spend months here, you’ll have to make some heart-breaking decisions between which parks to see and which to skip. Some, like Zion and Bryce are mega famous and will be packed with people, and others, like Grand Staircase-Escalante, you just might get all to yourself.
4. Zion National Park
Zion is one of the most popular national parks in the United States and a must-do on your southwestern road trip.
The main park is accessed by park shuttles that start running around sunrise and end around sunset. They change depending on time of year so check here before making plans. I stayed near Zion for two nights and hiked the Watchman Trail, Observation Point, and Upper Emerald Falls and enjoyed all of them. Sadly, The Narrows was closed due to too much water, but that is one of Zion’s most popular hikes and I was sad to miss it.
I had visited Zion 10 years prior and did the Angels Landing Hike. Even back then, with far fewer visitors, it was a hectic trail with the narrow drop-offs and hand chains, though the ending view is breathtaking. As an alternative, Observation Point instead is an 8-mile trail that looks down on Angels Landing and provides an epic view. More on that here.
- Recommended sights: Observation Point, Overlook Trail, Emerald Pools, The Narrows, Angels Landing
- Camp: Campgrounds book out months in advance around Zion, and first come, first serve spots are usually snatched up too. There is BLM camping in the eastern part, or you can camp at the Zion Canyon Campground and RV Resort owned by Ferber Resorts which is walking distance to the park, has some riverside spots, and costs $44/night (plus tax) with showers, Wi-Fi, and toilets.
5. Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce is known for its famous hoodoos, the natural amphitheater, and the sunrise and sunset viewpoints. It’s also quite a bit higher in elevation than Zion, so bundle up!
If you’re squeezed for time, you could do one hike in Zion and head out to Bryce the following day to do one hike and catch a sunset/sunrise. On the other hand, if you want to take it all in, consider this 3-hour sightseeing tour that includes stops at Thor’s Hammer, the Cathedral, and the Natural Bridge.
- Recommended sights: Sunrise Point, Sunset Point, Queen’s Garden, Bryce Amphitheater.
- Camp: There are several first come, first serve campgrounds in Bryce which you can get information on when entering the park.
- Click here to find it on the map.
6. Scenic Highways 12 and 25
From Zion, take the road through the tunnel and out of the park onto scenic Highway 12 for one of the best drives of your life – seriously! Leave some time to stop at the scenic overlooks and parks like Bryce and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument because they are more than worth stopping off at.
If national park crowds are not your thing, hiking and camping around this area is a great alternative, and it’s one of my favorites of the whole trip.
7. Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
I can’t say enough good things about the Grand Staircase-Escalante. It’s an area of over 1 million acres of protected land that has so many adventures inside of it that it would take a lifetime to scratch the surface.
The biggest differences between this area and the national parks is most of the trails in the Grand Staircase-Escalante will be accessed via dirt roads, some of which will be 4×4 only. There will rarely be services, like running water, paved trails, bathrooms, and electric hookups. The benefit is almost no crowds, free camping in the wilderness, and natural areas that are no less impressive.
I did the Coyote Gulch trail in one day via the sneaker route, which does involve using a rope to climb down a 250-foot vertical rock and navigating by GPS, but it was also one of the best camping and hiking experiences of my life. More on that here.
- Recommended sights: Zebra Slot Canyon, Peek-a-boo Canyon, Spooky Slot Canyon, Coyote Gulch, Devil’s Garden. Here’s a guided Slot Canyon tour if you are interested!
- Camp: Find BLM camping off of dirt road offshoots and drive for long enough that you’re not visible from the road. This is what I always did in Grand Staircase-Escalante as it’s free and legal.
- Click here to find it on the map.
8. Capitol Reef National Park
After Coyote Gulch, Capitol Reef is a fantastic stop. There’s a popular scenic drive, but to head off the beaten path, I highly suggest going out to the Temples of the Sun and the Moon. If you have a 4×4 high clearance vehicle then the Caineville Wash Road should be no problem for you as long as it hasn’t rained recently. If in a sedan, ask at the National Park office to see what the road conditions are.
- Recommended sights: Temples of the Sun and the Moon, Queen Bee rock formation, Upper Cathedral Valley Overlook.
- Camp: There’s first come, first serve camping at Cathedral Valley Campground which, at least when I visited, was free.
9. Goblin Valley State Park
This will be a detour off of Highway 24 though it needn’t be a super long one. Once you enter the state park ($15 fee) you’ll see it’s not particularly large, though giving yourself time to walk among the goblins from the overlook would be wise. There’s also camping available in the state park and it’s worth noting they have nice bathrooms!
10. Sunset at Dead Horse Point State Park
Just outside of Moab, Utah, Dead Horse was one of the most impressive views I saw on this trip and I can’t believe it’s not more popular. The cost to get in is $15 and it’s a pretty small park, but the views at sunset are incredible!
While the main viewpoint at Dead Horse Point will have a few people around in the summer months, in the winter as pictured above, you could get it all to yourself. The majority of the view was totally open and there are plenty of spots where one could enjoy it in privacy. In the photo above, I’m perched on a rock above the cliffs over the viewpoint. Wowzers!
To see more of the last three places mentioned, check out my Utah’s Hidden Places video:
- Recommended sights: Dead Horse Point and if you have time, walk to it from the Visitor Center.
- Camp: Find BLM camping off of dirt road offshoots and make sure you’re not visible from the road. You’ll have to find a spot outside of the state park. Since I was already in the area, I decided to camp on BLM land between Dead Horse and Canyonlands National Park. You will see some ‘no camping’ signs, but most of them will say ‘no camping for the next 1/3 mile.’ After that, you’re free to camp. Just watch out for potholes in the dirt tracks.
11. Sunrise at Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park
Mesa Arch is easily the most famous feature of Canyonlands National Park, particularly at sunrise. Everyone wants to get a shot of that sun lighting up the arch and the sweeping view of the canyon below. I recommend getting there an hour or more before the sunrise if you want an optimal spot for photos. This one was taken from the right side of the arch.
12. Arches National Park
After my Mesa Arch sunrise, I drove to Arches National Park to check out some arches quickly before continuing on. This park is crazy popular. It’s also home to the Delicate Arch which you see on the Utah state license plate.
The photo above is of The Windows, which is an easy offshoot within the park where you can see several arches at once.
- Recommended sights: The Windows, Delicate Arch, Fiery Furnace (must register for this the day prior at the visitor center), Devil’s Garden. You can read more about the best hikes in Arches here.
- Camp: Find BLM camping off of the 313 towards Canyonlands.
- Click here to find it on the map.
13. Needles Overlook
Since you’ll be passing by, the Needles Overlook on the way to Valley of the Gods is vast and gorgeous. It’s an easy drive-up viewpoint that will take about an hour roundtrip. I would only do this if you have the time to and wouldn’t have to cut something else that’s important to you, since there are a lot of epic views on this trip!
14. Valley of the Gods
The Valley of the Gods was an impromptu discovery for me when I saw it off the side of the road and elected to check it out. I’m glad that I did, because this sparsely-visited valley has RED rock formations, in layers of color reaching up towards the sky.
This is a great spot to see the sunset and camp for the night, as it’s BLM land and there’s plenty of free, leave-no-trace campsites to choose from.
Take the Valley of the Gods road offshoot and connect with the 261 to come back to the 163.
Next you’ll make your way to Arizona, which is just as impressive as Utah with it’s deep canyons and impressive rock formations.
15. Canyon de Chelly
This national monument is a reasonably big detour if you’re short on time (check if it’s open first). However if you can spare an extra afternoon, I’d suggest taking a look because you won’t see as many people as you will in the other spots on this list, and it has some ancient cave drawings you can take a short hike to as well as several beautiful overlooks like this one, Spider Rock.
16. Lake Powell
Lake Powell is such a lovely lake and the perfect jumping off point for some of the most famous things to see in Arizona.
- Camp: There’s a BLM spot outside of Paige. Just be careful not to go into the deep sand, as I saw two cars get towed out of there!
17. Horseshoe Bend
I wondered if Horseshoe Bend could look as amazing in person as it does in photos – but it does!
It’s a quick walk from the parking lot to the overlook. I did it in flip flops.
Be sure to get there early if you want to stake out a good spot for the sunset. There are plenty of boulders on the cliff edge that you can perch on until the sun sets, and I can’t think of many better places to hang out, either!
18. Upper and Lower Antelope Canyon
Like Horseshoe Bend, the Antelope Canyon is worth it to see in person. Those swirling red rocks are so unique.
They are also popular. I still can’t decide if I loved or loathed the experience because it’s so crowded in there! You’ll have a hard time if you’re claustrophobic, which I am!
I did both the upper and lower and both are worth seeing (I have a comparison written here), as the lower tends to have more colors and the upper has those famous light beams, but only at certain times of day. Gear up and prepare for the crowds, do your breathing exercises, and don’t forget to look up.
Check here to see if the canyon is open or not at the moment.
19. The Wave or White Pocket
The next most famous stop in Arizona is usually The Wave, famous for the wave-like shape and color of the rock. Only 20 people get permits to see The Wave each day, and you’ll need to apply at 9am the day before in Kanab, Utah. Since I was in Page, I opted to see White Pocket instead which almost nobody else was visiting.
While the wave would be amazing to see one day, White Pocket will blow your mind, too. I suggest booking with Kanab Western Adventures to experience this hike, which is accessed via a sandy 4×4 road. More on the experience here.
20. Grand Canyon
You can’t say you saw the American Southwest without seeing the grandest canyon of them all. The southern entrance is even more impressive than the northern IMHO, with dozens of drive-up overlooks. I loved going for sunset!
On your way, you’ll see roadside stalls offering hand-made Navajo jewelry for sale. I highly recommend pulling off and checking one out!
21. Havasu Falls
If you’re up for an overnight backpacking trip and can secure the permits (which you must do in February, more on that here), this bucket list item is SO worth seeing. There are several waterfalls to hike to, along with canyon hikes, and more.
I love Sedona so dang much! If you’re into energy healing, the whole of Sedona is considered a vortex. There are hundreds of hiking trails, impressive rock formations, and healing modalities on offer.
You can read all you need to know about the best things to do in Sedona here.
Check out my recent solo trip there:
There’s so much more to Arizona than we’ve listed here, including the Petrified Forest, Phoenix, and more. Read our full Arizona Itinerary here.
Over one week, over two thousand miles, lots of sunrises and sunsets, nights full of stars, and sore legs, this was my American Southwest itinerary. It’s one of the greatest adventures I’ve had, and I’m sure it will be for you, too.
With some experiences you can get to yourself, and some you’ll have to share, this is the perfect mix of solitude while still experiencing the popular must-sees.
Happy road tripping!
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