North America Off the Grid

How to Plan a Southwest Road Trip + Itineraries | USA

View from above Capitol Reef National Park

A Southwest road trip is Americana at its best. Picture yourself driving along desert roads, sometimes for hours on end. Highways snake between burnt red canyons, beside acres of geological anomalies you can’t quite imagine until you’ve seen them for yourself. Your Southwest road trip itinerary may have you passing through tiny towns with names like “Tropic” and “Beaver” and diners slinging Navajo tacos alongside more classic greasy spoon fare.

Roadside motels promise grand views, but really they’re really just uncomplicated establishments in the middle of nowhere. They’re meant to be slept in but not stayed in. Motels that always seem to cost $79 (and they’ll tell you so on a giant sign outside) and you’ll get shampoo and lotion, but never conditioner.

There are truck stops and lonely strip clubs and billboards crowding the otherwise empty horizon. You’ll see tumbleweeds and roads that lead to nowhere and the iconic yellow signs warning of bighorn sheep crossings.

But, of course, the real reason to undertake a road trip through Utah, Arizona, and the rest of the American Southwest is the National Parks. Parcels of land so precious, that they’ve been blocked from developers that have been allowed to build housing complexes and middle-of-nowhere malls throughout the rest of the country. Legendary parks like Grand Canyon and Utah’s “The Big Five” (Zion. Bryce. Arches. Capitol Reef. Canyonlands.) The Southwest is a quintessential part of any US National Parks road trip.

Are you looking to plan your own Southwest road trip? I did the damn thing in 2019 and it was so worth it. Here’s everything you need to know to make it happen including suggested road trip itineraries, a road trip map, tips for planning your trip, plus other road trip planning advice.

BEFORE YOU GO

CHOOSE YOUR ROUTE

There are five national parks in Utah (Zion, Bryce, Arches, Capitol Reef, and Canyonlands). On top of that, there are tons of national monuments (Bears Ears, Dinosaur, Hovenweep, Natural Bridges, Rainbow Bridge, Cedar Breaks, and Grand Staircase-Escalante, to name a few) and plenty more state parks and federal lands worth checking out. You may also want to throw in some sights in northern Arizona like the Grand Canyon or Coyote Buttes or southern Colorado. It goes without saying that you might not see everything in the American Southwest in one sweep. While fully customizable, I’d recommend at least a two-week itinerary to get the most out of your Arizona and Utah road trip.

So, where should we begin? Grab a guidebook or check out some of our featured Outlandish National Park Guides. Destinations with buttons below link to a more detailed article.

An Outlandish Guide to the Grand Canyon

Recommended Time: 3-6 days

An Outlandish Guide to Capitol Reef National Park

Recommended Time: 2 days

Things to do in Mesa Verde - An Outlandish Guide

Recommended Time: 2 days

Goblin Valley State Park

GOBLIN VALLEY

Recommended Time: 1 day

An Outlandish Guide to Zion

Recommended Time: 3 – 6 Days

Morning in Canyonlands National Park

Recommended Time: 3-5 days

Arches National Park

ARCHES

Recommended Time: 1 day

Grand Staircase Escalante

GRAND STAIRCASE ESCALANTE

Recommended Time: 1-3 days

An Outlandish Guide to Bryce Canyon National Park

Recommended Time: 2 Days

Taking in the view at Coyote Buttes South

Recommended Time: 1 day

Dead Horse Point State Park

DEAD HORSE POINT

Recommended Time: 1 day

Focus on one park at a time and look at photos, watch videos, or check out things to do. Narrowing down your list of parks can be easy if you already know where you want to go, and very daunting if you don’t. If you fall into the second camp, ask yourself: how long do you have? What states are interesting to you? What season are you traveling in? What’s your overall budget for the trip?

SOUTHWEST ROAD TRIP MAP

To get you started, we made a Southwest Road Trip Map with some of our favorite points of interest, sample road trip itineraries, nearest airports, and driving directions. You’ll find more info on these suggested itineraries throughout this post.

SUGGESTED SOUTHWEST TRIP ITINERARIES

5-Day Southwest Road Trip Itinerary

Hey, you speed demon. Sure you can’t spare a few more days? If you’re really on a tight timeline, plan your trip around parks that are close enough together that you don’t spend your whole trip driving from one place to the next.

Suggested Route (from Las Vegas): Grand Canyon National Park > Grand Canyon National Park > Zion National Park > Bryce Canyon National Park

One Week Southwest Road Trip Itinerary

One week is enough to see some of the highlights of the Arizona and Utah National Parks while also squeezing in a backpacking night or two. I recommend getting the long drive out of the way on your first day and working your way backward!

Suggested Route (from Las Vegas): Bryce Canyon National Park > Capitol Reef National Park > Grand Staircase Escalante National Park > Zion National Park > Zion National Park > Grand Canyon National Park

Two Week Southwest Road Trip Itinerary

Two weeks is plenty of time to take things slow. If you want to experience more backcountry or dither, this is the perfect amount of time! Below is a rough suggestion assuming you’ll be doing some backpacking trips. If you’re driving back to Las Vegas at the end, you might want to reconsider the order.

Suggested Route (from Las Vegas): Grand Canyon National Park > Grand Canyon National Park > Zion National Park > Zion National Park > Bryce National Park > Bryce Canyon National Park > Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument > Capitol Reef National Park > Dead Horse Point State Park > Arches National Park > Canyonlands National Park via Goblin Valley State Park > Canyonlands National Park > Canyonlands National Park

MAPPING IT OUT

Once you’ve made a long list of everything you’re interested in, start your map in Google My Maps. Drop a pin on all the parks and sites you want to visit to get a general sense of how far apart things are. Take a guess on how many days you want to spend in each park and estimate your drive-time between destinations.

From there, you can start booking your priority campsites and permits. Bookings are somewhat complicated, so be sure to stay organized! Start dropping dates into an Excel sheet or labeling reservations in your inbox. You’ll want to leave plenty of time between destinations so you can set your cruise control and enjoy the ride!

Depending on how your bookings play out, you might have to make some cuts. You might also get to add in some smaller parks or attractions between stops if you’ve got a particularly long driving day.

Please note: There will be long stretches of road where you don’t have service. Be sure to download your maps for offline use or have a paper map in the car in case you need it.

Jake sitting on his car at the Rodeway Inn on Southwest road trip (2019)

HOW TO START PLANNING

You should start looking into your Southwestern road trip about 6 months out, if possible. Reservations for NPS campsites and lodges almost all open 3-6 months in advance. If you’re planning backcountry travel, the permits are usually reservable 3-6 months out, too. Reservations for the most popular campsites and hikes sell out within seconds of going online (no exaggeration!). So, if you have your heart set on something specific, do your research early and set a calendar reminder so you don’t miss out.

Already late? Some parks have walk-up campsites and permits available for that very reason. There are also plenty of campgrounds and hotels outside of the park boundaries and hikes that don’t require backcountry permits. You should always be able to find a hike and a campsite, even if they’re not the exact ones you had in mind.

Read more: How to Plan a US National Park Road Trip

ROAD TRIP RESOURCES

Taylor Backpacking the Needles in Canyonlands National Park
Backpacking the Needles in Canyonlands

WHEN TO GO

The US National Parks are hugely popular during the summer months. Expect crowds and limited availability if you’re going between June and August. But don’t forget that Utah and Arizona are in the desert. The summer is when temperatures are hottest, and you’ll have to plan your days accordingly.

Locals will tell you best time to visit the national parks in Utah and Airzona are during the shoulder seasons. Spring and fall mean sunny days with moderate temperatures. There will also be fewer tourists! The only drawback traveling during the shoulder seasons is that some roads and trailheads will be closed while water levels are high.

Backpacking Trails in Bryce Canyon
Photos from Bryce Canyon National Park

BUDGETING & COSTS

Even if you’re planning to camp out, a Southwestern road trip will cost more than you think.

Some costs you’ll want to factor in for your own trip are park entrance or your America the Beautiful Pass, vehicle costs, gas, food & drink, entertainment, gear, campsites & accommodation, and permits. For the sake of example, our three week Southwestern road trip cost $1,500 in 2019. This was mostly camping and self-prepared food with a few motel nights and 3-4 meals out each week. We also had the benefit of traveling with our own vehicle and splitting many of our costs in half.

Read More: How Much Does a US National Parks Road Trip Actually Cost?

ROAD TRIP PLANNING

Own vs Rental Car

If you own a car…

There’s no doubt you’ll be putting a lot of miles on it. Before leaving on your trip, schedule to have it serviced. Get the tires rotated, the oil changed, the fluids topped, the brake pads tested, and everything else you can think of. You’re guaranteed to be in remote areas on parts of your trip, and you’ll want your car to be in the best possible shape to survive it.  Just to be on the safe side, you might want to upgrade your insurance policy, get a AAA membership, and gear up your car with a roof box and emergency supplies.

Gas Stations and Signage on our Utah National Parks Road Trip
Be sure to fill up with gas whenever you get a chance.

If you’re renting a car

There are lots of reasons to go with a more-beastly-than-usual rental car for this trip. You’ll do best with a high-clearance, 4WD vehicle since some of the trailheads are off sandy or rocky roads. You’ll also want trunk space if you’re traveling with a lot of gear. It’s wise to expect rain and even snow (as late as May, in Bryce!) so you’ll want tires with extra grip. Here are a couple of rental car or campervan companies I can recommend:

Hertz has 27 pickup locations in Utah and their car rentals are competitively priced (starting from about $50 per day including tax). They also have a program for drivers aged 20-25 who are unable to rent a car from other major agencies. Check prices and availability on hertz.com.

Escape Campervans offer fully equipped campervans which can be a really fun way to travel! While they don’t have 4WD or get as good of gas mileage, you might be able to save by having an indoor spot to sleep on the nights you may have splurged on a hotel.

Before booking your rental car, be sure to ask about total cost (incl. airport fees, additional drivers, mileage, etc.) and insurance coverage. Give it a scan to check for any existing damages and be sure to return the car with a tank of gas to avoid the surcharge.

ROAD RULES

Utahns have a reputation to be some of the worst drivers in the US. And hey! No offense. This is based on accident and violation reports, rather than personal experience.

Generally speaking, the law says to stick to the right lane except when passing. Keep an eye on the speed limit and don’t go too far over the limit. But road etiquette? That’s a whole separate issue. If someone is riding your bumper, pull over to let them pass (though a passive-aggressive wave is recommended). Don’t be a looky-loo! Be sure to pull over if you want to look at something, and use your turn signal long before dipping into a pull off.

Be sure to travel with a full tank of gas, gallons of water, and emergency supplies. There will be long stretches of road without much development or passing cars, so it’s good to be as self-sufficient as possible.

Jake driving through Grand Canyon on our Southwest Road Trip
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Another important note is that you must have a valid driver’s license to drive in the US. This can be a state drivers license, or if you’re a foreign driver, your valid driver’s license and passport are sufficient. You’ll only need an International Drivers Permit (IDP) if you plan to drive for more than 3 months.

HITTING THE ROAD

The best part about mapping out your Southwest road trip itinerary ahead of time is that all the hard parts are over by the time you finally go. The adventure of this kind of trip then changes with the weather. The detours. The wildlife sightings and road closures. You do your best to prepare, then whatever the hell happens will happen.

Got questions about your Southwest road trip itinerary? Ask me in the comments below! And if you’re traveling in Utah…

2 Comments

  • Reply
    Alex Howell
    September 19, 2019 at 11:54 pm

    It really was a great way to travel these desert lands, I imagine the great experience it was, I hope to live it soon, by the way, I think it’s silly what Trump did to reduce the park.

    • Reply
      Taylor Record
      October 15, 2019 at 11:03 pm

      Hey Alex. Silly is definitely one word for it! Thanks for reading and hope you get the chance to experience it for yourself.

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