The Southwest USA is a great place for a road trip. The landscapes are unique and so photogenic! I did this trip a few years ago, in early September, with 3 of my best friends and it was a blast. Later this year, I’ll be spending much more time in the SouthWest, and I’ll have longer itinerary ideas, but given that the typical American vacation is 1 week, here is my recommendation for a quick 1-week Southwest road trip itinerary.
Phoenix and Las Vegas are good starting points for your southwest road trip itinerary. Flight and rental cars seem to be more affordable and plentiful in Vegas, and it’s a bit closer to the parks of Utah, so we chose round-trip flights from Las Vegas.
TIP: Time zones here can be funky. Arizona doesn’t observe Daylight Savings, so you can drive East but gain an hour, or vice versa…just be aware and don’t lock yourself in to a tight schedule!
Day 1 – Las Vegas to Grand Canyon
Try to get an early flight so that you still have plenty of daytime left for driving to the Grand Canyon. We’d all been to Vegas many times so we didn’t spend any time there at all. If you haven’t been, you might consider spending your first night in Vegas, just for the experience. (We did an overnight hike at the Grand Canyon, so if that’s not your thing, it’s easy to swap that out for a night in Sin City.)
After stocking up on road trip snacks and supplies, a good first stop is at Hoover Dam. You can take tours here, but we just did a brief photo stop and kept moving, as it was already late afternoon.
If you are staying at the Canyon, you’ll need to make reservations way in advance. I had a room at the Maswick Lodge for 3 nights ($90/night) We arrived after dark and got ready for the next day’s backpacking adventure into the canyon!
Drive time ~ 5 hours / 280 miles
Day 2 – Grand Canyon Backpacking
I planned this trip as a solo trip, and planned an overnight backpack into the Grand Canyon. Backpacking is a “love it or hate it” activity – carrying all your belongings on your back and camping isn’t really everyone’s cup of tea, so I was pleasantly surprised when my friends all wanted to try it. We had a campsite (reserved months in advance) at Indian Gardens, which is 5 miles from the South Rim, and only halfway to the Colorado River. We followed the Bright Angel Trail, which also happens to be the trail used by the mule trains.
TIP: Bring a bandana or something to cover your face when the mules pass – they kick up a lot of dust!
This turned out to be just the right distance for our inexperienced group! We reached the campground in late afternoon as temps were climbing near 100.
A great side-hike from Indian Gardens campground is 1.5 miles out to Plateau Point. After resting up, we carried our camp stoves and dinner to watch sunset at the point and then hiked back to our camp after dark.
Day 3 – Grand Canyon Backpacking
Everything is opposite in canyon country: what goes down, must come up! We had a long uphill slog and got a very early start in order to beat the heat. Watching the sun come up over the canyon walls as we hiked out was one of my most memorable travel experiences to date! Our group ended up splitting up on the hike out and we had walkie-talkies to keep in touch through the day. Our hike varied from 3 hours, 5 hours and 7 hours for the 5-mile climb. In hindsight, we all should have done lots of stretching and walking around, but mostly we passed out in bed and eventually rallied for dinner later that night and a short trip around the lookout points of the South Rim.
TIP: Always carry twice as much water as you think you’ll need in the desert, and something to help replace the electrolytes you’ll sweat out!
Day 4 – Sedona
The next stop on our trip is Sedona. This town deserves way more than the 1 night we spent here, but I saw enough to know that I want to return, hopefully later this year! We had a beautiful room (with a balcony!) at the Orchards Inn right in town.
Two of us went for a jeep tour with Pink Jeep Tours up on the Mogollan Rim. We didn’t do the tour with the crazy tricks, just a nice scenic drive.
Drive time ~ 2.5 hours / 115 miles
Day 5 – Springdale, Utah
Our next destination is Zion National Park and the town of Springdale, Utah. We stopped at Sunset Crater, Wupatki National Monument, and Lee’s Ferry on the Colorado River (starting point of Grand Canyon rafting trips) After many stops along the way, we lost an hour when driving West into Utah (super confusing!) and ended up arriving super late. We had no idea of the amazing scenery in Zion until we woke up the next morning.
Drive time ~ 5 hours / 280 miles
Day 6 – Zion National Park
After our late arrival at Flanigan’s Inn the prior evening, we woke up and set out for Zion National Park with a goal of hiking Angel’s Landing. We now had a 5th friend with us as our friend Lisa flew in the night before to join us.
Jennifer and I were the only ones to attempt the final ascent of Angel’s Landing, but the other 3 hiked to the base and waited for us. It was a gorgeous hike but so, so crowded. We got to the part where there are chains to grab to keep from falling to your death and it was just too crowded for me. We turned around in defeat, and I vowed to come back another time. (I did come back 8 years later!)
That night, we celebrated my birthday at the restaurant at Flanigan’s Inn, and turned in early so we could drive to Bryce Canyon the next morning.
Day 7 – Bryce Canyon National Park
On the last day of our trip, we packed a lot in. We started with an early morning drive to Bryce Canyon National Park, where we rode the shuttle bus and did a few short hikes. The scenery here is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before or since!
Drive time ~ 2 hours / 85 miles (each way)
After a few hours at Bryce Canyon, we decided to race back to Zion National Park and hike some of the Narrows. Unless you are doing an overnight trip through the slot canyon, you can hike up the river and then just turn around and come back the same way. We arrived very late afternoon, so the crowds were dissipating, and we all loved this hike through water that was sometimes knee-deep! Don’t worry if you don’t have walking sticks, there are usually a bunch lined up at the trailhead!
The next morning, it was time to head back to Vegas for our flights back home. While this was a whirlwind trip, it was a good intro to the region. I’ve been back to both Zion and the Grand Canyon, and look forward to spending a few weeks in this area later this year!
Note that National Parks lodges accept reservations up to 13 months in advance, and properties on the South Rim frequently sell out, so you need to plan ahead if you want to stay in the park!
Have you been to this area? What would you add to this Southwest road trip itinerary?
This post is part of the Weekly Postcard blog roundup. Click the photo below to check out other travel blogs this week!