The Ultimate Southwest Road Trip

The Ultimate Southwest Road Trip

The American Southwest is chock full of amazing scenery, epic National Parks, and plenty of sites like nowhere else.  From sandstone arches at Arches National Park, to incredible slot canyons at Antelope Canyon in Page, Arizona, to the grandest canyon of all at Grand Canyon National Park, following this road trip guide will take you through some of the country’s most amazing places in the ultimate southwest road trip.

We have been to all of these places on two separate trips.  However, if you have a good 12-14 days to spare you can knock this all out on one trip making for an incredible journey!

Suggested Itinerary:

  • Day 1:  Arrive in Las Vegas, see the sights, spend the night here
  • Day 2:  Head out of Las Vegas to Springdale, Utah (approx. 160 miles away)
  • Day 3:  Explore Zion National Park
  • Day 4:  Explore Bryce Canyon National Park as a day trip from Springdale
  • Day 5:  Drive to Torrey, Utah (approx. 180 miles away)
  • Day 6:  Explore Capitol Reef National Park
  • Day 7:  Drive to Moab, Utah (approx. 160 miles away)
  • Day 8:  Explore Arches National Park
  • Day 9:  Explore Canyonlands National Park
  • Day 10: Drive to Page, Arizona (approx. 275 miles away).  Stop at Monument Valley along the way.
  • Day 11:  Explore the sights in Page
  • Day 12:  Drive to the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park, stopping at Horseshoe Bend on the way out of Page (approx. 135 miles away).  You can just stop at Grand Canyon NP to take in the views on your way back to Vegas or add on more time here to explore it further.

Below is a map of the itinerary:

Las Vegas, Nevada

This epic trip begins in Las Vegas, Nevada.  Las Vegas is a place like no other – bustling, bright, and over-stimulating.  Catch a show, view the famous Bellagio Water Fountains, and try your hand at gambling.  As soon as you’ve had enough, head to Utah to begin your national park trek.  We spent just one day in Vegas and have a list of some family-friendly things to see and do.

Family-Friendly Things to do in Las Vegas

  • New York, New York – The New York, New York Hotel has an arcade so it gives the kids a chance to play in Vegas, too.  We found the arcade area to be a little tired and just fine for quick stop.  The Big Apple Coaster, a hyper coaster, is also located at New York, New York.  Any roller coaster fiend will find it especially thrilling!
  • The Mob Museum – An interesting look at organized crime in America, located in downtown Las Vegas.
  • Cirque du Soleil show – Our family really enjoyed Mystère, Cirque’s longest running show!
  • Bellagio Fountains – A must see, it’s an impressive water show set to lights and music.
  • Visit hotels/walk the strip – We walked through a few of the hotels, most notably The Venetian, Caesar’s Palace, and Paris Paris.  One can even take a gondola ride at the Venetian.

Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas, Nevada!

Springdale, Utah

From Las Vegas, the first stop will be Springdale, Utah to visit Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park.  Springdale makes a great home base while exploring these two parks.

Where we stayed

Cable Mountain Lodge is where we stayed in Springdale.  We highly recommend staying here due to its proximity to the park without being in the park.  With staying just outside of the park we were able to avoid the heavy park traffic just to get to and from our lodging.  We also appreciated the space here for our family of five.  We had one bedroom with a king sized bed, a pull-out sofa and an additional rollaway bed, and a spacious kitchenette.  The lodge has an on-site brew pub, gear outfitter, laundry facilities, and swimming pool.

Zion National Park

Zion National Park is known for its soaring cliffs and famous trails, including Angel’s Landing and The Narrows.

What You Shouldn’t Miss:

  • Watchman Trail – Our favorite trail here, it’s often overlooked for the park’s bigger stars.  We caught the sunset at the top and had enough time to get down before dark, enjoying the magnificent views of Springdale below.
  • Angel’s Landing  – This is one of the world’s most famous hikes due to the steep, narrow hike on a spiny ridge that ends with incredibly majestic views of the park.  It’s a 4.4 mile out-and-back hike with a 1,600 foot elevation gain.  It is definitely not for the faint of heart!
  • The Narrows – Aptly named for the most narrow section of Zion Canyon, this 10-mile out-and-back trail can be done as the entire hike or you can simply turn around where desired.  The Narrows is another one of the hikes at Zion on many people’s bucket lists.  It’s unique in that you are essentially wading through water as you hike this trail.  You will need gear for this hike including waders and trekking poles, all of which you can rent from gear outfitters in the area. 
  • Canyon Overlook Trail – This is the shortest hike at just one mile, with great views at the end of the canyons below.
  • Weeping Rock Trail – A very easy trail and short at only 0.4 miles, this out-and-back takes you up a few steps to stand under a rock with water dripping, or “weeping”.  You also get great views from this viewpoint. 

Hiking Watchman Trail

Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon National Park is located approximately 80 miles east of Zion.  It’s easy to do as a day trip while staying in Springdale, which is what we did.  Bryce Canyon’s unique hoodoo spires jut out of the landscape, creating an ethereal scene.

What You Shouldn’t Miss:

  • Navajo Loop & Queen’s Garden Trail – This is the most popular hike at Bryce Canyon.  It’s a 2.9 loop trail that will take you among the hoodoos.
  • Sunset Point – Great for views at all times of day, you’ll be able to see the famous Thor’s Hammer.

Vast views of Bryce Canyon, as seen from the rim

After spending a few days in Springdale, it’s time to head to Torrey, Utah, which will be your home base for visiting Capitol Reef National Park.

Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef National Park is Utah’s least visited park, so the lack of crowds compared to the state’s bigger stars is welcomed.  This park’s claim to fame is that it encompasses a Waterpocket Fold, essentially a wrinkle in the earth’s surface!  The result:  incredible rock formations and canyons.  

Where we stayed

We stayed at Capitol Reef Resort which is the best accommodation in the area.  You have a few options for your lodging at Capitol Reef Resort.  Take your pick from the motel, cabins, or even teepees or covered wagons in peak season.  We stayed in a two-bedroom cabin and were very happy with it.  It was new and had enough space for the five of us to spread out and sleep comfortably.  We had a kitchen as well as a deck overlooking the beautiful scenery.  The resort has a few fire pits, a laundry facility, and on-site activities, including horseback riding which the girls and I did one day while here.

What You Shouldn’t Miss:

  • Grand Wash Trail – We loved the bright blue skies next to the massive orange rock faces.  The trail is a 4-mile out and back with very little elevation change.
  • Capitol Reef Scenic Drive – A 7.9 mile drive winding through the park, this will allow you to see many of the park’s famous formations.
  • Fruita – This historic Mormon settlement area named for fruit orchards cultivated by pioneers in the 1800s.  Many historic artifacts still remain. 

Hiking the Grand Wash Trail

Moab, Utah

Onward to Moab, located approximately 155 miles east of Torrey.  Here you’ll get to visit both Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.  Moab is a great place to visit beyond the parks as well.  Rent bicycles to cycle the many trails or go on an ATV tour.  Moab is an outdoor adventure lovers paradise!

Where we stayed

Staying at Moab Under Canvas, a glamping resort, was a neat bridge between camping and a hotel stay.  We had a main tent with a king bed (one of the most comfortable beds we’ve ever had while traveling!) as well a cot.  We also had an adjacent teepee with two very comfortable twin beds.  The main tent also had a full bathroom with hot shower.  This place definitely brought the “glam” to camping!

Our setup at Moab Under Canvas

Arches National Park

At Arches National Park you’ll find numerous arches and other formations in this heavily visited park.  

What You Shouldn’t Miss:

  • Delicate Arch Trail – This is definitely the most popular hike and your reward at the end is worth it – the famous arch that graces Utah’s license plate.  We highly recommend doing this hike early.  We arrived at the park at 6:20 a.m. and were at the trailhead by 6:40.  We missed the crowd arriving for sunrise yet we had lovely morning light gracing our hike.  We felt this was the perfect time!  We had minimal crowds at Delicate Arch and on our way back we passed a lot of people now making their way to the arch.  We cannot stress this enough – get there early!
  • Sand Dune Arch – This was a fun arch to view because the entrance is hidden in between sheer rock faces.  The “trail” is done by walking through deep sand so it was work getting to the arch!  It is 0.3 miles out and back, so a nice quick, albeit sandy, stop.
  • Balanced Rock – Easy to see from the road while driving, you can stop and walk the 0.3 mile out and back to stand near the precarious rock.

Famous Delicate Arch

Canyonlands National Park

Arches’ neighbor, Canyonlands, feels more like a distant relative in how different it is.  The Colorado River carved much of this landscape and the result is deep gorges and mesas.  This park is divided into four districts – Islands in the Sky, The Needles, The Maze, and The Rivers.  We only visited Islands in the Sky so our recommendations pertain to that district only.

What You Shouldn’t Miss:

  • Grand View Point Trail – This trail is at approximately 6,000 feet elevation.  You’ll see vast views of the canyons formed by the Green and Colorado Rivers as well as distant formations.
  • Shafer Canyon Overlook – Scenic views of the mesas and the distant La Sal Mountains on a 0.3 mile out and back trail.
  • Mesa Arch – This 0.7 mile out and back trail leads hikers to the beautiful Mesa Arch.

Can you spot me in the corner, taking in the views at Canyonlands?!

Page, Arizona

Heading south out of Utah, you’ll spend about 4 hours on the road on your way to your next destination, Page, Arizona. 

NOTE:  If you want to see Monument Valley, now is the time.  This total detour will add on an additional 30 minutes.  The map above includes this as a stop.

While Page doesn’t contain any national parks, it absolutely warrants a visit as it has plenty of incredible things to see.  We spent two nights here when we visited and felt that was a good amount of time to see the the highlights.

Where we stayed

We stayed at the Courtyard Page by Marriott at Lake Powell.  It was fine.  The pool area was fun but the rooms were really dated.  At the time we visited, we had limited options.  Page seemed to be a town that was growing fast in terms of tourism and the struggle to meet the demand was real.  

Glen Canyon Dam

Standing over 700 feet above Lake Powell and the Colorado River, the dam is a massive creation.  Erected to provide water and power to millions of people throughout the west, it acts as a reserve that can be drawn on in cases of severe drought.

When visiting the visitor’s center, you’ll get to view the dam from huge windows above.  There is information along the walls informing visitors as to how the dam works as well as it’s history.  One can also step outside to view the dam from another perspective.  We spent about 30 minutes here.

Massive Glen Canyon Dam

Antelope Canyon

One of the most astounding sites on this trip is the incredible Antelope Canyon, a slot canyon.  Located on Navajo land, one must have a guide to visit.  You’ll also have to pay an access fee to enter the land in addition to the tour, CASH ONLY!  Tours can be booked ahead of time on the website.  

You have the choice to visit either Upper Antelope Canyon or Lower Antelope Canyon.  We opted for Upper Antelope Canyon due to no stairs and it being an easy walk on flat ground, which we thought would be simpler with the kids. 

To start the tour, you check in at the outdoor reception area.  This is where you’ll pay your cash access fee.  You’ll wait in a covered area on benches and will soon board a truck, all seating is on benches in the truck bed.  Once you arrive at the entrance, your tour through the slot canyon begins!

There were several tours going through, staggered, but close to one another.  The guides give bits of information along the way and will even take photos for you as they know the best shots.  It’s really a photographer’s paradise!  No matter where you look the views are extraordinary.  Just take a look at the photos!

The kids in Antelope Canyon

Colorado River Float

While in Page, we took a 3 hour tour…of the Colorado River!  We chose the half-day Horseshoe Bend Float with Wilderness Adventures.

Now to enter this protected area of the Colorado River where the float takes place you must go through security at the off-site “entrance”, River Headquarters.  When booking, the website implied only clear bags were allowed on this trip.  I purchased a small clear backpack for this purpose and was the only one who did so on our tour – everyone else on the tour had regular old bags!  The security commented how easy I made their job with my clear backpack to which I replied, yes the website said it was required!  Well, everyone else’s bags were allowed on the tour so I would say this was not enforced!

We were shuttled through town on a bus and were brought to the mouth of the dam we had seen from above the day before.  We all had to wear hard hats to walk the short distance from the bus drop location to the boat due to the potential for falling rocks.

Once on the boat, our guide shared lots of facts on the area as well as history of the native Pueblo people.  We had a short stop at Petroglyph Beach to see the petroglyphs up close.  We also were able to eat our packed picnic lunch here and wade a bit in the very cold water.  Soon it was time to get back on the boat and continue the tour.  

One neat thing was seeing the famous Horseshoe Bend from below.  We could see the tiny people so high up above on the edge of the cliffs peering down at Horseshoe Bend.  (We would visit this the next day).

At the very end, we saw wild horses drinking at the river.  We were soon back on a bus heading back 15 miles to where we had began the tour in Page.

Horseshoe Bend

On our way out of Page, heading south to Grand Canyon National Park’s south rim, we stopped at Horseshoe Bend.  At the time we visited, there was limited parking and no entrance fee.  During our visit, signs described the future of Horseshoe Bend.  This has been somewhat controversial – why erect fencing and make more parking only to invite even more tourists to trek through this landscape and create crowds on these already precarious cliffs?  But at the same time, the cliffs being open to tourists, sometimes not using their best judgement in exchange for a perfect photo, are putting themselves in harms way.  Cars are lining the road waiting for parking spots to open up.  And of course, the small parking lot is full, leaving a lot of people to choosing to park on the side of the road.  This is all changing.  Horseshoe Bend is part of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, although the parking lot is operated by the city of Page.  There is a fee for parking here, please see this website for up-to-date information regarding current fees.

As of June 2019, the parking lot is complete and the path to view Horseshoe Bend is now paved, making it accessible for all.  And note that parking along Hwy 89 is NOT permitted!  We recommend getting here early, like everywhere!

The view is pretty darned incredible.  It was really neat to see it from this famous perspective from the top looking down vs. our view from the day prior, from the river looking up.  It is beautiful and absolutely warrants a visit if nearby.

Horseshoe Bend in Page

Grand Canyon National Park

You’ll now be on to your last stop on this tour, the grandest canyon of all.

When we visited, it was early April, so only the South Rim was open.  That meant we would head southwest from Page and stop at Grand Canyon National Park’s South Rim on our way back to Las Vegas.

We stopped at the Grand Canyon’s Visitor’s Center to learn a little about what we would be viewing and to watch the film, Grand Canyon, a Journey of Wonder, and then set out to take in the views.

So it’s pretty grand.  The views seem to go on forever!  This park is an absolute must see, even if just for a quick stop on a road trip to take in the majestic views.

After taking in the views for quite some time, we headed to the on-site grocery store, which had a nice selection.  We assembled a picnic lunch and sat outside of the store on a picnic table to enjoy our lunch with one of the best views ever.

The grandest canyon of all

Back to Las Vegas

What a trip!  You’ve seen six national parks and many other amazing places such as Antelope Canyon and Horsehoe Bend.  You’re probably tired and might want to just stay in your room and order room service.  But if you have a little energy left, there are some more things to add to your Vegas list:

  • Hoover Dam – sure you’ve already seen Glen Canyon Dam, but this one is even bigger.
  • Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area or Valle of Fire – more beautiful scenery if you want to hike a bit more or just take in the beauty here.
  • Or just get that room service and spend the last day of vacation relaxing!

Read More!

This is a big trip that can be broken up into separate trips if you don’t have two weeks to do it.  We have several posts up on visiting this part of the country:  Family-Friendly Southwest Road Trip – a guide to visiting Zion, Bryce Canyon, and Grand Canyon National Parks and more great stops along the way.  Rounding Out Utah’s Mighty Five, takes you through the rest of Utah’s National Parks – Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Arches and a little more in depth than this post.  We also have an article on The Best Time to Visit Delicate Arch and Why Canyonlands Should Be Your Next National Park.  

And finally, if you want to visit all of Utah’s National Parks, be sure to read our Guide to Visiting Utah’s Mighty Five National Parks.

Dietary Notes

As always, everyone’s needs are different.  At press time my husband is grain-free and two of our kids are allergic to nuts and eggs.  Although we seem to encompass a large amount of dietary restrictions, we can only offer advice as to what pertains to our own family, as that is where our expertise lies!

In Las Vegas, we found chain restaurants that we knew were safe for our crew to eat at.  On the way out of town, Honey Salt is a fabulous restaurant that had great options for everyone.

In Springdale, at Cable Mountain Lodge, we had a kitchenette so a stop at Whole Foods in Las Vegas before heading out of town provided us with groceries for our time there.  We cooked in the kitchen, packed picnics for hiking, and had breakfast in daily.  The on-site brew pub, Zion Canyon Brew Pub, was also great for accommodating our dietary restrictions.

At our next stop, Capitol Reef Resort, we again had a kitchenette.  We stopped ahead of time to get groceries which I’m so glad we did – stores are very, very limited in this part of the state.  We had enough stuff to cook dinners and grill and again packed picnic lunches during our hikes.

Once in Moab, we were back in civilization and were frequent visitors to City Market.  They had a great selection of things we could grill at our glampground and some prepackaged foods to take on our hikes.  We also got pizza and subs while here.

Down in Page, AZ we had a great dinner at State 48 Tavern.  

Finally, in Grand Canyon National Park, grabbing provisions from the on-site grocery store made for a great picnic lunch.  And like always, we frequent Subway and Chipotle along the way.

For more on traveling with dietary restrictions, be sure to check out our guide:  On the Go with Allergies.

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