The American Southwest has long been one of the most consistently beautiful places in not just America, but the world. This was still considered the frontier not more than a century ago, and the landscapes remain as wild and adventurous as ever. While I’ve focused all my travels on places outside of my home country, in no way have I forgotten or choose to neglect what America has to offer.
For someone that’s been to over 50 countries, the Southwest is as unique and stunning as any places I’ve seen. The National Parks here are simply wonderful and rival even the most alien landscapes. After the mainstays of American tourism like New York and LA, I always tell my foreign friends to take a road trip through the Southwest. Haven’t had any complaints as of yet!
I could easily spend a few weeks in this area of the country that includes Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and California, visiting the many many national parks. Sadly, I only had five days (Friday to Tuesday). Nevertheless, I managed to get a good taste of some of the most well known and stunning parks in the area.
Be sure to also read my Joshua Tree, Death Valley, and Red Rock Canyon Itinerary for those looking to drive westward from Las Vegas, or combine those amazing national parks with this itinerary!
If you have closer to two weeks or more to travel, then make sure to read my ultimate american road trip itinerary which combines this itinerary, Joshua Tree+Death valley, Arches national park, Canyonlands, and Monument Valley!
Update for COVID-19
If you’re planning your travels to the national parks in 2020, make sure to familiarize yourself with the latest news and restrictions while visiting these parks. I’m predicting a very muted international travel scene for 2020 so if you’re American, it’s likely you’re coming here to plan your domestic trip which I highly recommend!
Five day Itinerary for a Southwest trip
Full disclosure, we are a couple in our early 30s and would consider ourselves quite active/fit. We had hiked Machu Picchu right before this trip no problem and we are totally okay with a fast itinerary. If you have kids, or are not as keen for such an involved itinerary, this itinerary may seem rushed to you!
Best time to Visit The Southwest
The southwest is accessible year round. Some places are closed during the winter like the North Rim in the Grand Canyon. The summer season starting on Memorial Day to Labor day is the high season as kids are on summer vacation. We went in late October when the weather was still warm but the swathes of tourists were not present.
Some of these parks can see an extreme amount of tour groups in the summer high season between Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day (late May to Early Sep). I also think winter would be an amazing time to visit as well. Snow falling on Bryce Canyon would be a completely different experience.
|Start||End||Park visited||Where I Stayed|
|Day 1||Las Vegas Airport, NV||St. George||N/A||Holiday Inn St George|
|Day 2||St. George, Utah||Bryce, Utah||Zion National Park||Bryce Canyon Log Cabins|
|Day 3||Bryce, Utah||Page, AZ||Bryce National Park, Horseshoe Bend||Best Western Lake Powell|
|Day 4||Page, AZ||Tusayan, AZ||Antelope Canyon, Grand Canyon||The Grand Hotel|
|Day 5||Tusayan, AZ||Phoenix||Grand Canyon, Sedona||Sedona Rouge|
- Land in Las Vegas Airport at night
- Drive 2 hours to St George, Utah
- Drive early morning to Springdale
- Visit Zion National Park
- Hike Angels Landing
- Hike through the narrows
- Have dinner in Springdale
- Drive to Bryce Canyon City
- Early morning hike to Bryce Canyon
- Drive to various viewpoints in Bryce Canyon National Park
- Drive to Lake Powell in the mid afternoon
- Visit Glen Canyon dam before arriving in Lake Powell
- Visit Horseshoe bend for sunset
- Visit Antelope Canyonj in the morning
- Drive towards Grand Canyon in Arizona
- Arrive in Grand Canyon in the early afternoon
- Visit the numerous view points
- Dinner and the night in Grand Canyon
- Early morning views of the Grand Canyon
- Drive south towards Sedona
- Quick hike through Sedona
- Lunch and some wine tasting in Sedona
- Drive to Phoenix at night for a late night flight back home
Day 1-2: Zion National Park
Zion is one of the most famous national parks in the country. With over two million visitors a year, this was a great start for the trip
Las Vegas International Airport is the closest airport to Zion (2.5 hours). We spent our first night in St. George, as it was too late to drive the entire distance to Springdale, the nearest city to Zion. We did leave very early the next day so we could beat the crowds.
Like all the parks in this area, Zion is very organized and developed as far as the tourist infrastructure goes. There is a shuttle that runs through Springdale to pick up people to drop off at the entrance of the park. We parked our car near the entrance since we arrived so early. Within the park, there is another free shuttle that regularly runs to/from the 8 stops in the park.
Since we only had a day here, we wanted to hit up the most famous and iconic areas: Angel’s Landing, and the Narrows. For the shuttle, this was the Grotto and the Temple of Sinawava stops.
Angel’s Landing Hike
After getting off at the Grotto stop, we proceeded to hike straight up to the top of the mountain for the famous Angel’s Landing views. We read numerous blogs as well as heard from many people we met how difficult the hike was. We packed loads of water, and were expecting a strenuous hike. In reality? This hike was easy.
Perhaps, it’s because I had just hiked up Montana Picchu in Peru, which at 8000m was much more difficult. The hike up Angel’s landing offered some amazing views make no mistake, but we were up in less than 1 hour.
Near the top, there is a hike along a very narrow ridge with nothing but air on each side. This can be quite scary because you are literally semi-tight roping across the ledge of the mountain with only chains to hold on to. For those scared of heights, I would not recommend this! Walking along the ridge itself wasn’t that difficult, but there’s no reason to speed through this part of the hike as a misstep will almost surely result in falling towards where Angel’s don’t live.
Once we got to the top, the views were absolutely stunning! There’s a reason this is one of the most famous hikes in the country. The views of Zion Canyon are hard to beat. There were a ton of people at the top but we managed to find a somewhat isolated spot to eat lunch and just soak in the views. After 1 hour or so, we hiked back as we still had the Narrows hike afterwards. Most people thought we were crazy to hike both Angel’s landing and the Narrows in one day but I’ve done far worse in my travels.
The Narrows Hike
We took the shuttle two more stops to the Temple of Sinawava stop at the very end of the shuttle route. This is the beginning of the Narrows hike which is basically walking in between the canyons of Zion. There’s a flowing stream throughout the entire hike and you’re basically walking in knee to waist deep water the entire time. Our lack of planning really festered here as we did not have the right shoes or pants.
The park actually rents waterproof shoes for this specific hike but we decided we were too cool for that (for whatever reason), and we ended up hiking in our sneakers. We saw other people that were doing this too, but after that first dip in the somewhat freezing water, I knew it was going to be a rough hike. The water is not warm in October but eventually, my feet either lost feeling or got used to the cold water and I wasn’t as bothered.
The current was strong however, and there were times I almost slipped on the rocks which would have resulted in me swimming.
The entire hike reminded me of the Canyons in Isalo National Park in Madagascar. In fact, all of Zion National Park and much of the American southwest reminded me of Isalo. The rock formations, colors, and even some of the foliage were all similar in nature. However, Isalo does have numerous species of lemurs to look at which of course, Zion does not!
This is an out-and-back hike. We hiked for 2-3 miles through the cold water until we couldn’t handle it anymore. I heard there were a few great stops if we went further into the Narrows but that will have to be for a better prepared day!
Driving to Bryce
We took the shuttle back to the entrance. It was 5pm at this point, so we proceeded to the nearest bar to have a few happy hour beers. There aren’t many good options for food in Springdale. Utah has strange alcohol laws where they can only serve beers up to 3.2%. I only saw beers on the menu with low alcohol levels or absurdly high levels (double IPA at 9%). Naturally, I had one of the strong ones which in hindsight is not a smart idea as the driving limit is 0.05% which is essentially a single sip of beer. Nevertheless, we drove the 2.5 hours through Zion Canyon to Bryce Canyon under a perfectly clear night sky with an endless sea of stars.
Day 3: Bryce National Park
Bryce and Zion are so close, that they are very commonly done together. Bryce Canyon is the perfect example of how erosion affects landscapes. It’s famous for its phantom-like rock spires, also known as “hoodoos” that dot the landscape for miles. There are many hiking trails throughout the park with varying degrees of difficulty. It’s a big park, and like Zion, there is a free shuttle that drops people off at the main points of attraction.
We started driving early in the morning to various lookout points on the map that were deeper into the park before driving back and starting our hike. There were so many hiking options that all sounded amazing. It was tough to decide on what to do as we only had the day.
We settled on starting the hike at Bryce Point, and ending it at Sunset Point. We stopped through the wall of windows, the peekaboo loop trail, amphitheatre, Thor’s hammer, and numerous lookout points with amazing views of the hoodoos.
I’ve never seen anything like Bryce Canyon before. The hoodoos are amazing. They kind of remind me of the chimney rock formations in Cappadocia, Turkey, with a more orange, and dramatic feel. There were far less people in Bryce than Zion, and many times where there were no people around us. All in all, I think Bryce was our favorite park on the trip.
Day 3: Horseshoe Bend
Horseshoe bend is an incredibly dramatic section of the Colorado river. It’s one of those wonders that was carved out over millenia by the waters of the Colorado River as it made its way down through Grand Canyon. It’s located a few minutes outside of Lake Powell and is just 15 minute walk from the parking lot to the view points. I wouldn’t classify this as a hike of any sort. It’s just a park the car, and check out the views. What a view it is!
I’ve seen numerous photos of this place but it is SO much bigger and more stunning in person. It’s cheesy to say pictures do it no justice, but it’s never been more true than here as I stood at the edge of the canyon in awe. We were recommended to visit during sunset as the sun lights up the canyon’s rock with a orange/yellowish hue and really bringing out the colors of the rocks.
Again, no hikes are required but it’s just an amazing place to take some (many) photos. There are a lot of visitors to Horseshoe Bend, but it’s such a big area, it’s easy to find an are away from the crowds.
Dinner at Big John’s Texas BBQ
After soaking up the views at Horseshoe Bend, we had dinner at Big John’s BBQ. Not sure any meat loving person can hate good BBQ, and Big John’s was delicious. Their ribs and brisket were absolutely amazing. Definitely the best meal we had on our trip. They even had locals dressed in country gear, playing country music for the majority foreign clientele to reaffirm their ideas of the USA.
Day 4: Antelope Canyon
No trip is complete to Arizona without a trip to the famous Antelope Canyon. It’s become infinitely more popular in recent years as social media and high end photography have really been able to highlight the beauty of the slot canyons. Created by rushing and powerful water, Antelope Canyon was discovered many centuries ago by Najavo tribes and given the English name ‘Antelope’ due to the many antelope that grazed here during the winter season.
Because Antelope Canyon is located in Navajo territory, it is 100% mandatory to book a tour through the local operators in the area. The cost is around $30 per person. All tours essentially take the same route walking through the slot canyons. There are two areas, the upper Antelope canyon and the lower Antelope Canyon. I elected with the upper canyon but I’m told both will blow your mind (and I believe it).
The light beams in Antelope Canyon are, to me, what makes this place is so unforgettable. They only occur at certain times of the day and only last for a short while but when they shine through the openings up top it’s truly a sight to see.
Tours run regularly on the hour, and more often during busy seasons. Tours last over an hour and there’s minimal hiking involved. Just follow the path, and enjoy the incredible views. This place is a photographers heaven, and there are tours specifically for those looking to take the best photos.
Day 4 Afternoon: Grand Canyon
After our morning jaunt in the Antelope Canyon, we left Page and drove south to the Grand Canyon. The drive two hours through some very scenic terrain. The Grand Canyon is probably the most iconic of all the American National Parks. It’s almost like a right of passage to visit this park for all park enthusiasts. It is the largest canyon in the world at almost 2000 square miles. The next largest canyon is the Fish River Canyon in Namibia, which seemed huge at the time, until I came to the Grand Canyon.
There are two sides to the Grand Canyon, the North Rim and the South Rim. They are 4 hours away from each other so doing both in the same day is tough. The north rim is only open during the summer season which means I could only go to the South Rim.
The South Rim is the much more popular of the two and offers the most breathtaking views. Like most of the other parks in the area, sunrise/sunset is the best time to see the Canyon. As the sun comes closer to setting or rising the sun will illuminate off these canyon walls in an array of colors. The golden hours of the desert are truly golden, and the Grand Canyon is no exception. The Grand Canyon reminded me in some ways of my trip to Cappadocia in Turkey. The rock formations are similar in color and design (minus the rock chimneys of course!)
The Grand Canyon is highlighted by numerous viewpoints all around the park. They are all located within a few miles from each other and a car is perfect for this purpose. Like the other parks, there is a free shuttle bus that goes through the park. Each viewpoint is just exactly that, a viewpoint. They give different perspectives of the canyon but they’re all similar to each other so you don’t need much time at each place. There is no hiking involved at the viewpoints but some viewpoints have areas where you can go off trail. I ended up driving to most of the viewpoints but my favorites were Lipan Point, Grandview Point, and Mohave Point.
Where to eat and stay
There are a handful of acommodation options within the park itself. They are mostly expensive and are booked up well in advance. We stayed at a hotel just outside of the canyon in the town of Tusayan. We had dinner and brunch at the El Tovar hotel in the Grand Canyon. Excellent food with great views of the canyon (almost made me want to pay the $300 a night to stay at the place).
Day 5: Sedona
On our last day, we drove to the Grand Canyon early in the morning to catch the sunrise. We went to some of the viewpoints we did not go to the previous day. After breakfast at El Tovar (great brunch), we drove two hours south to the town of Sedona.
As if we hadn’t seen one amazing place after the other, Sedona was a great way to finish the trip. The town is holds some old school Western charm, and is surrounded by these big red mountains. We did a short hike at the Red Rock National Park just outside of Sedona which wasn’t difficult at all, but offered fantastic views of the giant rock formations.
We finished with lunch at Hideaway House which had great food and amazing views of the mountains. There’s lots of restaurants, wineries, and things to do in this town, we could have easily stayed a few nights. I can see why so many tourists and retirees flock to this part of the country.
After lunch, we made a quick visit to one of the nearby wineries before driving the two hours to Phoenix for our night flight out.
All in all, a great trip that we could have and should have been stretched over a week. If I could have chosen one place to spend more time in, it would definitely be in Sedona. Nevertheless, 4-5 days is enough to see an overview of the area!
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