A loop around the best parks in the Arizona and Utah Southwest
Embarking on this incredible journey through the enchanting landscapes of the American Southwest was a decision that promised not just a road trip, but a soul-stirring adventure. Picture this: the towering red cliffs of Zion National Park, the sheer magnitude of the Grand Canyon, the otherworldly rock formations at Goblin Valley State Park, and the iconic arches of Arches National Park. And that’s just the beginning. From the cinematic landscapes of Monument Valley to the ethereal beauty of Antelope Canyon and the serene charm of Sedona, my road trip unfolded like a dream. Join me as I share the highlights of this epic adventure, the pitfalls, and where every twist and turn revealed the diverse and mesmerizing landscapes that define the true wonder of the American Southwest.
Planning the Roadtrip
After thorough research and careful planning, I’ve charted a comprehensive loop that efficiently connects the key national parks in the American Southwest (see the Southwest Loop above). This well considered route serves as the backbone of my journey, promising an organized and seamless exploration of the region’s diverse natural wonders. This approach allows for an in-depth experience of each park’s unique offerings, making the most of the time spent on the road with the least amount of switchbacks.
Day #1: Zion
Day #1: Embarking on the expansive loop through the Southwest, my journey kicked off in Las Vegas, yet the allure of the city lights would take a backseat to the true stars of the show: the national parks. The first stop on this grand tour was Zion National Park. (Be sure to get the America the Beautiful Pass to save some money) A masterpiece of nature, Zion greeted me with its towering red cliffs, intricate canyons, and the meandering Virgin River. This was merely the initial step in a larger-than-life loop, promising a cascade of awe-inspiring landscapes and the raw beauty of the national parks that lay ahead. It started becoming apparent that this place was a mecca for van life enthusiasts as I saw all kinds of Mercedes sprinters and Promaster conversions vans and countless class A behemoths as well. Rentals were quite popular as I consistently saw the same logos from rental companies such as Cruise America and Travellers Autobarn.
Day #2: The Wave and North Rim of Grand Canyon
On the second day of my Southwest adventure, the focus was on exploring two incredible destinations: The Wave and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. The day unfolded with anticipation as I set out to witness the mesmerizing geological wonders that awaited me at The Wave, a surreal and otherworldly sandstone formation.
A word of caution: in order to get to the wave, which is located in an area called Vermillion Cliffs, you must follow a red dirt trail for about an hour in and 2 hours to get out (unless your return the way you came in). The red dirt trail is doable in pretty much any vehicle with reasonable clearance but a SUV was totally not necessary. Once you hit the parking lot, its about 1 hour walk to hit the wave. Be sure to follow the tails, don’t do what I did and assume you are on a trail because it is quite easy to get lost as I unfortunately did. Be sure to bring plenty of water and a phone with GPS.
Following this unique and almost near death experience, the journey continued to the majestic North Rim of the Grand Canyon, where the rugged beauty of the canyon’s less-visited counterpart promised a day filled with awe-inspiring vistas and natural grandeur. The timing was perfect as I managed to catch the sunsets round the Grand Canyon which blew my mind. It was so Grand I decided then and there that another visit to the north rim would be necessary later on.
Day #3: Bryce Canyon and Petrified Forest
Day three of my Southwest expedition was dedicated to immersing myself in the captivating landscapes of Bryce Canyon and Escalante Petrified Forest State Park. The adventure kicked off with a visit to Bryce Canyon, renowned for its distinctive hoodoos and amphitheaters that painted a surreal panorama against the sky. The journey then led me to Escalante Petrified Forest State Park, where ancient petrified trees and vibrant scenery awaited exploration. This day was marked by the contrasting natural wonders of Bryce Canyon and the unique geological treasures preserved in Escalante Petrified Forest State Park.
Day #4: Capitol Reef and Goblin Valley
Day four turned out to be the most unexpectedly astonishing leg of my journey. Initially, my goal was to reach Goblin State Park while passing through Capitol Reef. However, what unfolded surpassed all expectations. Capitol Reef and its surrounding landscapes revealed an unparalleled diversity that left me awe-struck. It felt as though I had traversed several distinct planets in just one day due to the stark differences in terrain.
Goblin Valley State Park, in particular, emerged as a surreal world of its own. The whimsical formations, resembling goblins, transported me to another realm. If I had known in advance, I would have strategically planned to linger there, especially during sunset and nighttime, to witness the stars. It turns out that Goblin Valley is one of the darkest spots in the USA, and the unique goblin formations create an extraordinary backdrop for stargazing, making it an experience worth savoring.
Day #5: Arches and Canyonlands
Day five unfolded as another remarkable chapter of my journey, featuring two standout destinations on the itinerary: Arches National Park and Canyonlands. Arches, with its mesmerizing natural arches and breathtaking landscapes, claimed its spot as one of the most picturesque parks along the route. The sheer beauty of the arch formations against the expansive desert backdrop left an indelible impression.
Next up was Canyonlands, a landscape reminiscent of the Grand Canyon but with its own unique charm. The vast canyons and dramatic vistas added another layer of grandeur to the journey. The day concluded in Moab, a town that exuded a trendy and vibrant atmosphere, making it a standout night life destination on this adventure.
Day #6: Monument Valley
Continuing the journey, the next stop was Monument Valley—a breathtaking landscape immortalized in countless Western films. The vastness of the scenery was truly staggering, and having a 4×4 vehicle proved invaluable as some parts of the park demanded the capabilities of four-wheel drive for smooth exploration. The walking paths allowed for up-close encounters with some of the most stunning buttes and spires I’ve ever laid eyes on. The sheer scale of Monument Valley, with its iconic formations and cinematic history, added a unique and memorable dimension to the Southwest adventure.
Day #7: Antelope Canyon and Lake Powell
The following day, I set my sights on Page, a destination boasting two stunning attractions. The first, Antelope Canyon, proved to be an enchanting experience. Note that touring Antelope requires an organized guide, and planning in advance is crucial. Opting for the northern canyon, reputedly longer and involving more stairs, came at a cost of about 65 USD. The initial crowded sections, though a bit overwhelming, gradually gave way to a more serene experience as I navigated the seemingly endless canyon. The colors within are unparalleled; the rock takes on a purple hue under the influence of the blue sky. It’s a remarkable setting for selfies, with tour guides, well-versed in optimal photo spots, ensuring you capture the best effects.
Following Antelope Canyon, I ventured to Deadhorse Point, a cool destination in its own right. Page, besides its slot canyons and scenic viewpoints, also stands as a gateway to some of the finest lake adventures in the Southwest, courtesy of its proximity to Lake Powell. The region’s diverse offerings continue to unfold, adding another layer of richness to this extraordinary journey. Page seemed like a good post to unwind for a few days if you so desire as it had lots of good food options and the Lake offered endless relaxation and aquatic adventures.
On the drive down to Flagstaff and Sedona, its worth also stopping at the Grand Canyon’s south rim. It’s not a big detour and I found a I couldn’t get enough of the landscape.
Day #8: Sedona and Meteor Crater
Approaching the final stretch of the national parks adventure, Sedona emerged as an absolute gem. The natural beauty of the surroundings was simply breathtaking, and the town itself proved to be an ideal place for unwinding, with its excellent dining options and a myriad of gemstone stores. These stores showcased some of the most impressive fossil, rock, and mineral specimens I’ve ever come across, and what’s more, they were available at surprisingly reasonable prices. Sedona, with its stunning landscapes and vibrant town life, felt like the perfect spot to linger and soak in the local charm.
A notable destination deserving mention is Flagstaff. This town boasts a historic center that, particularly at night, is intentionally kept exceptionally dark to safeguard the visibility for the nearby telescope renowned for discovering Pluto. The subdued lighting contributes to a distinctive ambiance when juxtaposed with the town’s rich historical center.
A mere hour east of Sedona lies Meteor Crater, a unique park that deserves a visit simply for the rarity of its visible impact crater caused by a falling space rock made of nickel and iron. On a planet where such features are exceptionally scarce, this spot stands out as the first confirmed meteor impact site on Earth. It holds a special place on the journey, as it represents the only location crafted by an extraterrestrial body, adding a cosmic touch to the incredible roster of natural wonders encountered on this Southwest odyssey
Day #9: Return to Vegas
As the journey drew to a close, I retraced my steps back to Las Vegas, a fitting finale to an odyssey through the diverse and awe-inspiring landscapes of the American Southwest. The return to the vibrant city marked a moment to reflect and reminisce on the countless natural wonders, unique experiences, and the incredible beauty that unfolded at every turn. From the towering cliffs of Zion to the surreal formations in Goblin Valley, the iconic arches of Arches National Park, and the cosmic touch of Meteor Crater, the memories created during this Southwest adventure lingered, creating a tapestry of moments that will forever be etched in my travel story. Back in Las Vegas, I found myself surrounded by the vivid memories of the journey, a perfect ending to a road trip filled with exploration, discovery, and the undeniable magic of the American Southwest.
The biggest lessons I learned on this trip:
- Avoid straying off the well-trodden paths in these formidable parks – the stakes are high, and their vastness makes getting lost a real danger. Carry a backup battery for your phone, familiarize yourself with the trails, and always bring water and snacks.
- While it’s debatable, pre-booking hotels might limit your flexibility to explore unexpected park treasures. Yet, the small towns around these parks have limited hotel inventory, so last-minute bookings could lead to disappointment. Consider the peak season extends well info Fall. While this trip is broken down into only a few days, you may want to think ahead of which places you might want to spend multiple days at and plan accordingly.
- Maximize your road trip enjoyment by pre-downloading music or audiobooks, especially in areas with poor or no cell reception. Audiobooks proved enlightening, letting me learn while driving. Prepare for the road with your audio needs at the ready – it’s two birds with one stone.
- If road-tripping with a friend, ensure they have a camera ready for unexpected vistas; sometimes, the most breathtaking sights come when you least expect them. Anticipate capturing more photos than ever before, given the abundance of stunning landscapes. Don’t forget those extra SD cards!