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 80 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. Having traveled the world for a year after reaching financial independence, I think the Southwest of America is still one of my favorite places in the world. 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 in 2021/2022
If you’re planning your travels to the national parks in 2021/2022, make sure to familiarize yourself with the latest news and restrictions while visiting these parks. The demand for travel in 2021 and beyond to these national parks is through the roof. In fact, they predicted travel in 2021 would eclipse that of 2019 before the pandemic. As international travel is still a bit touch and go, most Americans will choose to travel domestic this year.
Update 2022 for US National Parks
If you’re traveling in 2022, then you will be braving the parks with the swarms of other American tourists. Be prepared for heightened numbers of visitors to the parks and be prepared for much higher costs. Inflation has really impacted the cost of travel and you’ll feel it in everything from rental cars, to cost of fuel, to restaurant costs, to hotels. The parks will also be much more packed so you’ll want to consider visiting at the opening hours before everyone else gets there. Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park are particularly busy in these times.
Most Americans are not venturing out of the country in 2021 even though Europe and other amazing places are now open like Greece or the Amalfi Coast. Last minute trips are hard to book but I think visiting places in Europe this year will be optimal as the tourism numbers remain very low.
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.
Rent a car for the southwest, this is a road trip!
Nothing says travel through the USA more than a proper road trip. This trip is best done (perhaps only done) via renting a car. Las Vegas or Phoenix airports have plenty of rental companies to give you options.
The roads in the southwest are in great condition so driving is of no issue. The views through some of the roads are incredibly picturesque. You’ll want to pull your car over and stop to soak in the views.
Update 2021: Due to the Pandemic and supply constraints, rental cars have skyrocketed in price. It’s not uncommon to see daily car rental prices north of $100 for an economy car! Make sure to book your car rentals well in advance!
Itinerary Map of the Zion, Bryce, Grand Canyon itinerary
[mk_table title=”” style=”style1″]
|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
*Park Entrance Prices updated for 2022
[mk_table title=”Parks Visited” style=”style1″]
|Page, Arizona||$90 for Upper Antelope Canyon, $40 for lower canyon|
Day 1-2: Zion National Park
Zion National Park 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 National Park (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 National Park. We did leave very early the next day so we could beat the crowds.
Like all the parks in this area, Zion National Park 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.
Update 2022: Lottery system for Angel’s Landing
Starting in 2022, the Angel’s landing hike will only be open for those that have permits. The new permit system will ensure that the hike does not get overcrowded as that has been a big issue as of late.
It’s not a complicated process to get the permits, but it will require you to plan ahead which can be annoying if you’re trying to make it a spontaneous trip. Given how high in demand Angel’s Landing is, you’ll need to apply for your permits at least 1-2 months ahead of time. For example, the permits for June-Aug open in April. First come first serve.
Visit the NPS website for Angel’s Landing permits to book your slot.
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 National Park. 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 from Zion to Bryce Canyon
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.
The best way to get from Zion National Park to Bryce Canyon is to drive south on State Route 21. From Springdale, travel south for about 45 miles and turn right onto State Route 12. The road will lead you west toward Kodachrome Basin State Park and then southward again toward Bryce Canyon National Park. It’s more than 200 miles from Springdale to Bryce Canyon, so make sure you have enough gas and food before hitting the road.
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.
Bryce sits at a much higher elevation than nearby Grand Canyon, and as such, winters are milder than Grand Canyon’s due to its more southern latitude.
The weather in Bryce Canyon is generally very mild, with temperatures ranging from an average low of 15 °F (−9 °C) in January to an average high of 85 °F (29 °C) in July. The highest recorded temperature was 99 °F (37 °C) in 1990. Due to its proximity to the Great Basin Desert, nights can be uncomfortably cold during any season; however, snowfall is rare and occurs only on occasion when atmospheric conditions are just right.
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.
Where to hike in bryce Canyon National Park?
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, amphitheater, Thor’s hammer, and numerous lookout points with amazing views of the hoodoos.
I’ve never seen anything like Bryce Canyon National Park 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 Canyon National Park than Zion National Park, and many times where there were no people around us.
Bryce Canyon Amphitheater
Bryce Canyon Amphitheater is a natural amphitheater located in Bryce Canyon National Park in southern Utah, United States. The amphitheater is one of the park’s most popular attractions and has been featured in many National Geographic articles.
The amphitheater features hundreds of rock pinnacles called hoodoos that are formed by wind, water and frost erosion. The rocks are made up of limestone, dolomite and siltstone. The tallest hoodoo is Thor’s Hammer at 857 feet (262 m). Smaller hoodoos surround the main amphitheater area.
All in all, I think Bryce was our favorite park on the trip.
Zion and Bryce Canyon as its own trip
Many people opt to do just Zion and Bryce Canyon as its own trip. If you don’t want to rush through this trip like we did in 5 days, I think it is very honorable and advisable to spend 2-3 days each in Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park and call it a day. This involves far less driving than visiting the other areas on this list and you’ll be able to explore a lot more than I did.
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. The Vikos Gorge Canyon in northern Greece is the deepest canyon in relation to its width.
South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park
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.
Lipon Point in Grand Canyon National Park
Lipon Point is a scenic viewpoint along the South Kaibab Trail in Grand Canyon National Park, located on the North Rim of the canyon. This point offers a breathtaking view of the Colorado River as it winds through the canyon and over red rock cliffs.
Lipon Point is also known as Lipan Point. The name “Lipan” comes from the local Native American tribe that used to inhabit this area.
The Lipon Point Overlook can be accessed from either Grandview Point or Cape Royal Road, but it’s best to park at Grandview Point and walk down to Lipon Point (approximately 1/4 mile hike).
You can also do a hike down to the valley from Lipon Point. This trail leads to an overlook at the top of the canyon that can only be reached by foot.
The trailhead is about 8 miles from the North Rim entrance station and takes about 3 hours to hike round-trip. The elevation gain is 1,000 feet, and there are some steep sections along the way. Be prepared for changing conditions on this hike, as it can snow even in July and August. If you want to avoid crowds, start early in the day.
The views from Lipon Point are spectacular: You’ll see many waterfalls as well as Mount Sheridan and Mount Holmes in the distance. You might even see bighorn sheep or elk grazing on the hillsides below you.
Where to eat and stay in the Grand Canyon
There are a handful of accommodation 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. Sedona is a beautiful city in Arizona that is known for its stunning red rocks. There are many things to do in Sedona, from hiking and biking to exploring the local shops and restaurants. Whether you’re looking for a relaxing vacation or an adventurous getaway, Sedona has something for everyone.
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.
I’ve since been back to Sedona a few more times and have composed my ultimate list of the top things to do in Sedona, AZ!
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!
- The Perfect Las Vegas To Zion National Park Itinerary
- Ultimate Guide To Visiting Isalo National Park, Madagascar
- The Perfect Las Vegas To Death Valley Itinerary: Visit America’s Most Stunning Park
- The Ultimate American Southwest Road Trip Itinerary
- Top 16 Most Amazing Things To Do In Sedona, Arizona
- Best Hikes in Southern Africa
- Lake Komani Ferry: Guide To The World’s Most Beautiful Ferry Ride
- The Perfect Travel Itinerary For Madagascar
- The Perfect 5 Day Itinerary For Joshua Tree, Death Valley, and Red Rock Canyon
- Things To Do In Vegas When You Don’t Want To Gamble
- Guide To Visiting Fish River Canyon And Sossusvlei, Namibia
- Guide To Visiting Ranomafana National Park, Madagascar