Your guide to the ultimate American Southwest road trip: An 8-day itinerary

An American Southwest road trip is on plenty of bucket lists for adventure travelers, and for good reason. The National Parks are abundant, with one of the biggest drivers being the Grand Canyon. Then, you have so many amazing options in Utah. From Zion and Bryce Canyon to Arches and Canyonlands and everywhere in between. 

In Arizona, it’s not just the Grand Canyon. You have the stunning colors of Antelope Canyon, the magnitude of Horseshoe Bend, and the glowing red rocks of Sedona. Not to mention places like Saguaro National Park and Monument Valley. And if you are flying into or out of Las Vegas, don’t sleep on the Valley of Fire!

American Southwest road trip logistics

Airport options

Each of these subregions within the American Southwest has its own charm and unique beauty. This is why an American Southwest road trip should literally be on every adventure travelers’ bucket list!

The other great part about the American Southwest is how many options you have for flying in and out of the region. Depending on your interests and which specific areas you want to explore, you can fly into or out of any one of the following airports:

  • Phoenix, AZ
  • Tucson, AZ
  • Salt Lake City, UT
  • Las Vegas, NV
  • Denver, CO

Transportation and lodging

There are a few ways to do an American Southwest road trip, depending on your style:

  • Lodges, ranches, and hotels – There are a number of amazing properties along the way. So for those who are more into the luxury side of luxury adventure travel, this is for you.
  • Campervan – Your transportation and sleeping accommodations in one! If you own one, great. If not, rent one from a company like Escape Campervans. They have convenient pickup and drop-off locations in places like Phoenix, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, and Denver.
  • Combination – If you want the flexibility to sleep wherever is most convenient along your route, the campervan is great. But if you’re not ready to spend every single night sleeping in a van, map out a few nice properties along the way to spend a few nights. This could provide the balance of adventure and luxury you are looking for.

For our recent American Southwest road trip, we flew into Tucson and out of Las Vegas. We had about 8 days in between, and we decided to tackle most of the trip in a campervan. There was a conscious decision to come in November, which really helped from a crowd avoidance perspective. The summer crowds in places like Zion and the Grand Canyon can be unbearable! There were some cold nights, especially in Bryce Canyon (due to its higher elevation), but the days were pretty comfortable. It was worth it, as we never found ourselves fighting a crowd the entire trip. There were people, but it was not unbearable by any means. 

Welcome to our American Southwest road trip… 

Our day by day itinerary

Friday, November 15th and Saturday, November 16th | Tucson (Arizona)

The majority of the first couple of days in Tucson were spent with family. Between family events, we were able to scope out a couple of properties in the area: Miraval Arizona and Canyon Ranch Tucson

Miraval Arizona

This was our first stop, and we were able to enjoy lunch and spend an afternoon here. Lunch was a combination of a gourmet buffet with a number of healthy options. It was well suited for pretty much any diet. There was also a made-to-order menu serving up unique combinations with locally sourced ingredients. Miraval is a wellness resort and spa in a really beautiful setting, located in the foothills of Arizona’s Santa Catalina Mountains. 

When you come here for a long weekend, you likely won’t leave the property because there is so much to do. Hiking, biking, climbing, yoga, fitness, spa treatments, culinary experiences, meditation, and other wellness activities to suit most people’s tastes. It’s great for couples, solo getaways, long weekends with friends, and group retreats.

I will say that the entry level room categories left a bit to be desired. The higher level rooms, suites, and villas were gorgeous and most had unobstructed views of the mountains with private outdoor living spaces. So when you come, keep this in mind and be willing to spend a bit more for a MUCH better accommodation. Beautiful!

Canyon Ranch

This property is also beautifully surrounded by the Santa Catalina Mountains. The property feels a bit larger and offers a more elevated experience compared to Miraval, but this comes at a higher cost. The service was on point! Every person we met was wonderful to talk to. You can tell they make it a point for all guests to feel comfortable and welcomed at the property.

They are in the middle of a much needed property-wide renovation of all of their casita style rooms, scheduled for 100% completion in Spring 2020. We had the chance to see one of the updated rooms, and they definitely did a great job on these. If you are staying in the next few months, let’s make sure you are in one of the updated rooms!

We had breakfast here and it was ok. Maybe we ordered the wrong thing, but when comparing this to our lunch at Miraval, there was something left to be desired. We are also comparing breakfast to lunch and some would argue there is only so much “WOW factor” you can add to breakfast. So, in some senses, we are comparing apples to oranges. I would not write off the Canyon Ranch culinary scene just yet.

Sunday, November 17th | Phoenix and Sedona (Arizona)

Today was the official start of the American Southwest road trip. We decided to try out the campervan thing for the first time, and we heard great things about Escape Campervans. So we picked up our campervan from them in Phoenix. Let the road trip begin! 

We drove straight to Sedona and hiked to Devil’s Bridge. We got there as the sun started to set, which lit up the red rocks so nicely. We finished the hike and drove the Red Rock Scenic Byway as the sun finished setting. It was amazing to take one of the most scenic drives in America surrounded by ever changing scenery and lighting as the sun set!  

As light turned to dark, we continued to make our way north through Flagstaff towards the Grand Canyon. As the sky got darker, the stars continued to make their presence known. I geek out for epic night skies, so it was hard to keep my eyes on the road! 

The drive continued, and I noticed a golden hue coming from the horizon off our right hand side. Eventually the biggest and most golden moon I’ve ever seen made an appearance. It was RIDICULOUS! The pictures don’t do it justice at all. They came out terribly, so I can’t even share them. You’ll just have to trust me on this one… Or maybe you saw your own version of this moon from wherever you were that night!

We found a nice spot to camp just outside of Grand Canyon National Park. Until sunrise…!

Monday, November 18th | Grand Canyon South Rim, Horseshoe Bend, and Antelope Canyon (Arizona); Canyon Point (Utah)

Grand Canyon South Rim

It was an early wakeup today because we wanted to watch the sunrise over the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. It was worth it! This was our first time to the Grand Canyon, so it was pretty amazing to watch the canyon slowly reveal itself to us for the first time as the sun rose from the horizon.

We didn’t have time to hike into the canyon, but we will be back to do that for sure. So we spent some time around Mather Point, Yavapai Point, and Hopi Point to get a few different vantage points of the canyon and all of its glory. Mather Point proper (where the fenced off viewing area is) can get really crowded at sunrise. Just walk counter-clockwise along the rim of the canyon for a few hundred yards and find yourself a little nook or ledge to sit on. This will give you the peace and serenity most of us are looking for in a moment like this. 

Horseshoe Bend and Antelope Canyon

Then we were off to Horseshoe Bend on our way to Antelope Canyon! Horseshoe Bend was worth the stop and the $10 fee to park. I honestly thought we might be underwhelmed. You see all of the amazing pictures taken by professional photographers, and sometimes you doubt what it looks like in real life. It did not disappoint!

Because Antelope Canyon is protected by the Navajo Parks and Recreation, you have to book a guided tour. They offer group, small group, and private tours. Because social media has planted this slot canyon at the top of bucket lists for many travelers, the smaller the group, the better the experience. It can get narrow in there. So the smaller your group, the more opportunity you will have to enjoy and document your beautiful surroundings and the amazingly vibrant colors of the canyon.

Canyon Point

After crossing the border into southern Utah, we made our way to Amangiri for a visit and early dinner (it was delicious!). The property is hidden away amongst the canyons and mesas of Canyon Point, and it is absolutely stunning. I was completely satisfied before we even reached the property!

And WOW, it only got better from there! I wish we could have stayed longer. It started with the welcome we received and the service throughout. It was flawless. The property itself is so creatively built into the natural surroundings that you would think it’s been there from the beginning. 

We saw a number of accommodation types, including Camp Sarika, which I’m really excited to share with you! They are taking reservations now for its grand opening in April 2020. 

Every room type we saw (at the main property and at the Camp) was gorgeous. There was no cutting corners when it comes to the views, decor, and thoughtful touches of each accommodation. We look forward to returning and spending more time!

We made our way to Bryce Canyon National Park to spend the night before exploring the canyon the next day. I didn’t imagine that the stars could get any better than what we saw in Arizona, but holy crap! It was the most prevalent and “milky” Milky Way we’ve ever seen in person with the naked eye. No wonder Bryce Canyon is certified as an International Dark Sky Park! Absolutely mesmerizing…

Tuesday, November 19th | Bryce Canyon National Park (Utah)

There was a storm rolling in midweek, so we decided to take advantage of the weather and catch another early morning sunrise. This time, we were welcomed by the otherworldly hoodoos of Bryce Canyon National Park. Spectacular! 

After cooking a post-sunrise parking lot breakfast out of the back of our campervan (a “dinner leftovers” frittata with onions, peppers, chicken sausage, sweet potato, cheese, and guac), we hiked down into the canyon. This helped give a better perspective for how wild (and huge!) these rock formations really are. Don’t leave Bryce Canyon without hiking down into the canyon. There are plenty of trails varying in length and difficulty. You just don’t get the same perspective of the canyon and the hoodoos unless you get up close and put yourself on their level.

That afternoon, as the sun started to set, we made our way to Zion National Park for the next three days. We arrived to a clear, dry night, so we were able to comfortably build a campfire and cook our dinner. Then came the rain…

Wednesday, November 20th | Zion National Park (Utah)

Rain in Zion

The rain we got in Zion was the first precipitation they had received in over 150 days. It was one of their longest droughts EVER. We were bumming over the forecast coming into this leg of the trip. But after speaking with the locals, we quickly learned that when it rains, Zion comes to life! There was a certain buzz around town knowing there was significant rain coming…

Waterfalls that you’d never otherwise see spout out of the canyon walls, rivers form in the dry canyon beds, and rock pools fill up that have been bone dry since the last rain. It’s a sight to see!

Personal vehicles cannot access the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive from March through November, so we rode the shuttle bus to get a taste of the action. The shuttle system is really well run and shuttles are on the move every 5-10 minutes. It’s super convenient. The wet weather and time of year also kept the crowds down from what they can be during peak season.

Angels Landing

We ended up hiking Angels Landing in the gloomy weather, which we somehow timed perfectly. Just as we reached the summit, the clouds cleared and the sun was shining through just enough to create some epic lighting on the canyon! WOW.

Please keep in mind, completing the entirety of this hike is not for the faint of heart. The first 2 miles or so is relatively mild, with a paved switchback trail leading up to Walter’s Wiggles. This portion of the trail is steeper, but it is still well maintained and short in distance. Once you get to Scout Lookout , where you’ll have your first spectacular view down the canyon, you have a half-mile left (each way). This last half-mile is the infamous ridge line leading up to Angels Landing itself. Yes, it gets super narrow in spots and yes the 1000-plus foot drop-offs on either side will make your stomach turn. This is why many people choose to stop at Scout Lookout. That, or they quickly turn around after encountering the first narrow section on the ridge.

On the day we hiked it, crowds were sparse. First of all is was November and second of all it wasn’t the greatest day, with gloomy rain on and off. The view at Angels Landing itself was absolutely rewarding, but I couldn’t imagine doing this hike with a hoard of people going both ways on that ridge line. YIKES! Stay safe…

Riverside Walk

After we made our way back down, we rode the shuttle the rest of the way to check out the Riverside Walk and the beginning of The Narrows. When the flow rate of the river exceeds 150 cubic feet per second (CFS), the park rangers close The Narrows. It exceeded 400 CFS (!!!) after this rain! Today was not the day to hike The Narrows, that’s for sure…

In the span of about 20 minutes, a MASSIVE waterfall sprouted from the canyon walls at the Temple of Sinawava shuttle stop. Literally, there was nothing when we started the Riverside Walk and it turned into a raging waterfall by the time we returned. Holy crap! Like I said, Zion comes to life when it rains… 

By the time we got to our campsite, the rain let up enough to build a fire and comfortably make dinner out of the back of the campervan. And of course, a s’mores cap-off to the evening!

Thursday, November 21st | Zion National Park (Utah)

We treated today primarily as a rest day. The wet weather was still lingering, so we continued our chase of finding the flowing water that makes Zion come alive when it rains. The Narrows was still pumping at almost 150 CFS, but Friday was forecasted to be sunny skies and moderate temperatures. So we figured the flow rate would drop even more and make for a spectacular hike up the river.

Route 9 scenic drive and Many Pools hike

After chatting with a few park rangers and some locals, they pointed us down Route 9. This was not only for the shockingly scenic drive, but also for a hiking trail that comes to life when it rains. It’s called Many Pools, and as you can imagine, there’s a reason for this name. The flow of the water over the years has created a number of rock pools on the bed of the canyon. When it’s raining or after a heavy rainfall, a small river forms and fills up the pools to transform the scenery. 

The scenery here was really unique. You’re literally hiking along this small river (it’s more of a stream/flow of water), crossing it many times as you gain a bit of elevation. You’re surrounded by sweeping views of the canyon walls and mesas, and it quickly looks like you’re on another planet. We loved it! 

After the hike, we continued driving along Route 9 until we exited the park. This drive is an absolute must during daylight, even if you don’t stop for any sights or hikes. The scenery changes at every turn!

Canyon Overlook

On our way back down Route 9 into the heart of the park, we stopped for another short, but rewarding hike to Canyon Overlook. We wanted to hike to Observation Point, which gives you an even higher perspective of the canyon. You look down on Angels Landing from this viewpoint, to give you an idea of how high it is. Unfortunately, the main trail used to access this hike (Weeping Rock) is closed indefinitely because of a major rockfall. There are two other trails to access it, but they are both on the east side of the park. To access these trails, there’s a long stretch of dirt road that becomes rutted, muddy, and pretty inaccessible after as much rain as we had. So, next time!

Canyon Overlook still provided a great view, and like I said it’s good bang for your buck. It’s only about a mile round trip, and minimal elevation gain. Perfect for a rest day!

Before heading back to the campsite, we stopped by Zion Adventure Company to pick up our dry gear for the next day’s adventure: The Narrows! 

The rain was a bit of a pest for the rest of the night, so making dinner became a soggy effort. The food was great, but I did not come out of it dry! Next time, we’ll have to rent an EZ Up or other canopy to keep the “kitchen” dry under all conditions. 

And unfortunately no campfire or s’mores on this night 🙁

Friday, November 22nd | Zion National Park (Utah)

We knew this was going to be a long, exhausting day, so we made another “dinner leftovers” frittata for breakfast. This time, with black beans, corn, ground beef, bacon, sweet potato, cheese, and guac.

We caught one of the first shuttles from the visitors center and rode it to the Temple of Sinawava stop, where you start The Narrows hike. 

You have two options when hiking The Narrows:

  • Bottom-Up: You can start from the bottom and hike up, like we did, which does not require a permit. You can go as far up the river as you want, but you have to turn around at Big Springs, which is about 5 miles in. Then you have to go back to where you started. So if you do the whole thing, it’s a 10 mile hike. 
  • Top-Down: The other option, which requires reserving a permit, is from the top down. This is a much longer hike at 16 miles and requires a bit more technical ability from a hiking perspective. You can either do this as a day hike if you maintain a fast pace, or you can camp overnight in the canyon and split it between two days. There are two separate permits required, one for the day hike and one for the overnight hike. For more information on both permits, see the Zion NPS website.

What can I say, the bottom-up hike was a blast! It was one of the most unique hikes we’ve ever done. You’re hiking up a river against the water flow. You have canyon walls on either side towering hundreds of feet above you.

At times, the canyon walls are as narrow as 10 feet wide! And at other times, the water gets chest deep, or even so deep that you have to swim! The bonus of doing an out-and-back hike like this is that on the way back, you are going with the flow of the river. So you can float and ride the river in the deep sections. Super fun!

And yes, our dry suits worked really well. The hike would not have been fun without the right gear. The air temperature was probably in the 40s and the water temperature was in the low 30s. Zion Adventure Company hooked us up to keep us dry and warm!

This hike took most of the day, so by the time we hit the road to make our way to our last camping spot of the trip, the sun was setting. Valley of Fire in Nevada was our choice for our last overnight of the trip. We were flying home out of Las Vegas, so it made sense to post up about an hour from the city to make our drive the next morning more manageable. 

We got to the campsite after dark, and it was another spectacularly clear night with stars in abundance. It wasn’t quite as epic as Bryce Canyon or Grand Canyon, because of light pollution and our proximity to Vegas and the Strip. But, it was still great. 

Campfire and s’mores on the last night? You know it!

Saturday, November 23rd | Valley of Fire and Las Vegas (Nevada)

On our last morning, the red rocks that we couldn’t quite appreciate under the night sky revealed themselves. They became brighter and brighter as the sun rose from behind them. What a lovely scene to wake up to!

We cooked our last breakfast, basically throwing everything we had left into the ultimate “road trip leftovers frittata”. This may have been the best one all week!

We proceeded to spend a couple of hours driving through the Valley of Fire, which provided another unique landscape and some wildlife we hadn’t seen yet! 

And then it was on to our last stop, Las Vegas. A bit of a different vibe compared to what we were used to for the past 7 days roaming the wilderness!

We said goodbye to our cozy van and made our way to The Strip. Our destination was the Canyon Ranch Spa at the Venetian. What a beautiful spa! Kendra (my wife) was more than ready for an afternoon spent pampering ourselves… 

We took full advantage of all the things. Hot tub, steam room(s), rain experiences, salt grotto, sauna, etc. We also took the longest showers of our lives. We couldn’t have asked for a better ending to a week of sleeping in a van, limited showers, and lots of dirt and sweat! And that was it! An American Southwest road trip in 8 days…

Going on an American Southwest road trip requires plenty of planning ahead. There are lots of variables, and lots of things to think about. And usually, those variables are different depending on the time of year you go. Trail conditions, crowds, getting around, parking, required technical skills, safety, weather conditions, accommodations, the list goes on… Planning a trip like this is overwhelming and time consuming. Let us take care of the details for you. You’ll get a custom itinerary and take your best adventure trip yet.