This Southwest National Parks Road Trip is one of the very first road trips we took as a family back in 2015 when we thought RV living was just a temporary phase of our life and way before we started blogging (so I apologize for the lame pics). The joy we experienced on this trip certainly played a huge role in us turning our passion for the outdoors into a full blown lifestyle. I hope this road trip inspires you too to make some epic memories and go enjoy life to the fullest.
When we headed out on our first Southwest National Parks road trip, I pictured all of Arizona and Utah as one big desert, but I was so wrong. It surprised me how many mountains Arizona and Utah have and with the mountains come some incredibly beautiful valleys, canyons, and forests. This road trip itinerary through the Southwest provides a ton of adventure for as there are incredible hiking, rock climbing, and mountain biking opportunities all along this route.
While we like all the national parks, Zion has become one of our favorites and we try to return at least once a year to experience its magical qualities. Bring a good camera because you are going to want to capture all the variations of color and texture of the striated walls of the slot canyons and the lushness of the canyon floors that this trip will take you through. This is a great road trip for Spring or Fall because a few of these places will get very hot in the summer (although we have done some of this trip in June and still had a great time).
Stay in the parks!
With all the national parks in this guide, you want to try and get a hotel or campsite inside the park. First, it allows you to start your hike often from your campground or use the shuttle system. Second, you get to enjoy the beauty and stillness of the campground from a perspective that you don’t get when you just go into the park and only hike.
Typically the areas right outside the parks are busy, chaotic, and crowded while staying inside the park can give you solitude and quiet moments of reflection and connection.
Highlights of this road trip:
- feel the energy vortex of Sedona
- the wind and water-shaped land of Canyonlands
- the sandstone buttes of Monument Valley
It’s easy to start and end this trip in Phoenix. Although it’s not one of my favorite cities to visit, I do really enjoy McDowell Mountain Regional Park and Camelback Mountain. These parks are great for rock climbing, biking, and hiking. Like all big cities, there are plenty of restaurants and grocery stores to stock up at before you head off-grid. Our favorite restaurant when we are in the Phoenix Area is Pita Jungle.
Things to do in Sedona
- Go For A Hike
- Mountain Bike
- Take a Pink Jeep Tour
- Take a Helicopter Tour of Red Rocks
- Explore the magic and mysticism of natural vortexes
Try to spend a day or two exploring Sedona. There are a lot of hikes to chose from. Two of our favorites were scrambling up Bell Tower and hiking to Devil’s Bridge. On the way down to Sedona, you can also hike the popular Oak Creek Canyon, get there early on the weekends because parking can be difficult. Broken arrow and fay canyon are also nice hikes in Sedona.
Mountain biking is very popular here too, however, a lot of it is advanced riding.
Hotels + Campgrounds in Sedona
Sedona sets the bar high when it comes to luxury accommodations and if you are a couple on a romantic getaway, you can’t get any better than dining and massages by the creek at L’Auberge De Sedona. For luxury with a smaller price tag there’s Amara Resort and Spa or A Sunset Chateau. For a mid-range option check out Red Agave Resort and for a budget option there’s the Cozy Cactus Bed + Breakfast.
For camping there really is only one show in town, Camp at Rancho Sedona RV Park, but we’ve stayed here before and it is a really nice RV park.
Things to do in Flagstaff
- Hike or Climb at The Pit
- Camp at Canyon Vista Campground (trailhead for The Pit)
- Explore the Lava River Tube
- Star Gaze at the Observatory
- Eat at Beaver Street Brewery
Flagstaff has one of my favorite climbing areas, The Pit. It’s only a fifteen-minute hike from the Canyon Vista Campground and the climbing area is in a beautiful forest. One of our most memorable experiences in Flagstaff is to hike the Lava River Cave (it’s a little hard to get here with a motorhome or trailer). We haven’t made it here yet, but the Observatory is supposed to be great for kids.
Our favorite restaurant in Flagstaff is Beaver Street Brewery. They have great pizza and beer, but my favorite is the Brewer’s plate of sausage.
Grand Canyon NP
Things to do in The Grand Canyon
- Hike into the Canyon
- Fly above the Canyon
- Explore the Canyon from the bottom on a rafting trip
- Join a Ranger Program
- Take a picture of the Canyon at sunrise
This will be the first of many national parks on this trip and if you have never been to a national park, you too will be awed by how incredible the land our government has protected and preserved. National parks have great visitor centers and the rangers are very helpful in telling you which hikes are best for your ability. Click here for planning your trip to the Grand Canyon.
Make sure you get off the rim and hike into the Canyon. We loved both South Kaibab and Bright Angel but if you only have time for one, choose Bright Angel. Get an early start to avoid the crowds. You don’t have to go all the way to the bottom, but seeing the canyon walls from below the rim is wonderful and seeing life from new vantage points always adds perspective to your own life! Dress in layers, it gets cold.
I highly recommend staying inside the national park. It made the trip to the Grand Canyon so much more enjoyable because it takes a long time to get in and out of the park and the ambiance is totally different inside the park.
Hotels + Campgrounds near The Grand Canyon
For a fun tent glamping experience inside the park, check out Arizona Luxury Expeditions here, or all other hotels inside the Grand Canyon can be booked here. For luxury camping right outside the park stay at The Grand Hotel or for more affordable options stay at Grand Canyon Plaza, Holiday Inn Express, or Canyon Plaza Apartments. For a fun glamping experience check out this. If you do stay in the Tusayan area between March 1 and September 30, 2019, there is a free shuttle bus service between Tusayan Hotels and the South Rim Visitor Center.
We always try to camp inside the park and in the Grand Canyon South Rim you can choose between Mather Campground, which does accept RVs up to 30 feet but no hookups or Trailer Village with full hookups and can accommodate RV’s up to 50 feet. Even though we were in an RV, I still prefer camping at Mather. Book campgrounds here.
Things to do on Lake Powell
- Camp at Lone Rock
- Rent a boat and explore Lake Powell
- Kayak to Lone Rock
- Explore Antelope Canyon
- Take a picture of Horseshoe Bend
- See Lake Powell + Horseshoe Bend from the sky
I know most people visit Lake Powell and do the houseboat thing (which I’m sure can still be fun), but personally, I thought it was more enjoyable to rent a boat and cruise all day on the lake and then be able to get back on land at the end of the day and have a campfire at night.
There is a great campsite on the Page side of the lake called, Lone Rock. It’s a great spot to kayak or SUP too. There’s not much as far as amenities, but with that comes beautiful night skies and a lot of relaxation. There aren’t marked campsites here. Instead, you just pull up next to the water and park. Hint: The sand can be soft when you drive in so don’t slow down.
If you have a vehicle that can tow a boat, there are boat rental companies about 20 minutes away (in Big Water) that rent boats much cheaper than they do on the lake.
Be sure to save a day to drive and go explore Horseshoe Bend or sign up for a jeep tour of Antelope Canyon!
Things to do in Zion
- Ride the park shuttle all the way to Temple of Sinewava
- Hike to Angel’s Landing or Observation Point
- Hike the Narrows
- Get a Permit to hike The Subway
- Enjoy a Ranger Program
- Bike the Pa’rus Trail
- Eat at Zion Pizza & Noodle
- Take a tour of nearby slot canyons
Zion is one of my favorite national parks and I have an entire blog filled with great details on how to plan the perfect trip.
Zion has so much to offer in such a small space. There are many smaller hikes that are good for kids and are easily accessed from the shuttle bus. If you are adventurous, make sure to hike Angel’s Landing and to Observation Point. We haven’t done The Narrows yet, but we did hike The Subway and it was one of our all time favorite hikes.[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gf5GIxg3kWw[/embedyt]
Make sure to check what’s going on at the Visitor Center. They have great junior ranger programs and my younger kids love completing their junior ranger booklet and receiving a badge.
Zion national park is adjacent to the town of Springdale which has plenty of lodging and restaurant options. Note, if you like your beer strong, remember Utah can’t sell anything over 4% on draft so order it out of the bottle.
Related Blog: Why You Should Visit Zion in Winter
Hotels + Campgrounds near Zion
The absolute best place to stay in the heart of Zion NP at the Zion Lodge. However, this is one national park that I’d say is still nice to stay just outside the park because Springdale is so close to the entrance and the shuttle system makes it easy to get in and out of the park quickly. It’s also one of the few national parks where you still feel connected to the beauty of the area while in town. I’d still choose a hotel that is closest to the entrance like Cable Mountain Lodge or Flanigan’s Inn so you don’t waste too much time riding the shuttle.
Camping inside the park at Watchman Campground or South Campground are in a beautiful setting and easy to hop on the shuttle system. Reserve campgrounds here.
Related Blog: Ultimate Guide To Zion National Park
Bryce Canyon NP
Things to do in Bryce Canyon
- Hike Fairyland Loop + Thors Hammer
- Photograph sunrise at Sunrise Point
- Enjoy a Ranger Program
- Star Gaze
This is one of those national parks that you must see once in your life. I thought it was going to be just hot desert and boring canyon, but it is so much more.
It took me by surprise when I first drove into the park and realized that it is actually surrounded by forest (and very noisy insects, which start off being annoying but you eventually become quite attached to).
There are many hikes to do here but our two favorites were Fairyland Loop and Thor’s Hammer. The star gazing is amazing here and it’s so worth getting up early one morning to watch the sunrise. It’s quite an incredible experience and the best part is being on a trail before the crowds.
Hotels + Campgrounds near Bryce
There aren’t a lot of choices for places to stay near Bryce. Best Western PLUS Ruby’s Inn though has both a hotel and a campground and is as close to the entrance to Bryce as you can get. The campgrounds inside Bryce are wonderful and can be reserved here.
When you leave Bryce and head towards Capitol Reef, take Highway 12 through Escalante. There are tons of great canyons & hikes to explore off this road, as well as incredible views to stop and take photos of. I recommend stopping at a visitor center and getting a brochure with all the great detours available.
Things to do in Capitol Reef
- Take a Hike
- Star Gaze from the free BLM nearby
- Eat homemade pie and jams from the park store
- Camp at Fruita
You may not have ever heard of Capitol Reef because it is a small park and is a little off-the-beaten-path. The national park describes Capitol Reef as, “a hidden treasure filled with cliffs, canyons, domes and bridges in the Waterpocket Fold, a geologic monocline (a wrinkle on the earth) extending almost 100 miles.” It’s not as awe-inspiring as the bigger parks like Arches, Zion, and Bryce, but we still enjoyed exploring the area a lot. There are huge fruit orchards surrounding the campground and they’ve done a great job trying to preserve the history of the area.
There isn’t much in the way of accommodations or restaurants here, but there is a campground in the park. If the campground is full, there is a free BLM a few miles west of the park that is so remote that you feel like you can see every star in the sky at night.
Arches + Moab
Things to do at Arches + Moab
- Take a Hike in Arches NP
- Float the Colorado River
- Camp or Boulder at Big Bend Campground outside of Moab
- Climb Potash Road
- Camp in Arches NP at Devil’s Garden
This is another fantastic national park with lots of great hikes to explore. Delicate arch (shown below) was one of my favorites, but there’s an even better one that we missed out on called Fiery Furnace. To do this hike you must obtain a day-use permit at the visitor center, which requires watching a safety video.
Hotels + Campgrounds in Moab
When you visit Arches and the other national parks nearby you’ll have to stay in Moab, which is rad. There are a great hotels in the center of town like Homewood Suites by Hilton or the Best Western Canyonlands. If you have a big group with you, you might want to check out this affordable townhouse that’s just on the outskirts of town.
There are so many camping options in Moab and the surrounding national parks from luxury RV resorts to free BLM camping, but it fills up fast on busy weekends especially in spring and fall.
From Arches, you can go explore Moab, Dead Horse, or Canyonlands National Park which includes Island in the Sky, the Needles, and the Maze.
More Fun Things to do between Moab and Phoenix
- Drive the loop of Natural Bridges NP + take in the views from the lookouts
- Play more on Lake Powell by renting a boat at Bullfrog Marina
- Drive the rim of Canyon de Chelly National Monument
- Photograph Spider Rock in Canyon de Chelly NM
- Hike to White House Ruin in Canyon de Chelly NM
- Drive through Monument Valley (a high clearance vehicle is recommended or pay for a guided tour)
- Explore or camp at Mesa Verde NP
- Drive through the Petrified Forest
- Take a pic standing on the corner of Winslow, Arizona
- Rock Climb at Jack’s Canyon near Winslow. This is a great limestone sport routes and BLM camping but high clearance may be needed to get to the camping.
- Or head further east and explore Mesa Verde and then continue onto Durango, Ouray, or more of Colorado
South National Parks Itinerary Map
Best Time to Visit the Southwest National Parks
The best time for visiting the Southwest National Parks is spring or fall.
We did this road trip in May and it was perfect weather. I’ve been to Zion in March and it was a little too cold for my taste (it even snowed when we hiked Observation Lookout) but for many people it would be fine.
Suggested Southwest National Parks Road Trip Itinerary
Flagstaff + Sedona- 1 to 3 days: Rock Climb at the Pit, explore Flagstaff’s Lava Tube and hike to Devil’s Bridge in Sedona
Grand Canyon- 2 days: Hike Bright Angel + the rim trail
Lake Powell- 1 day: 135 miles
Rent a boat + enjoy a campfire and star gazing at Lone Rock Campground
Zion NP- 2 to 3 days: Hike Angel’s Landing (or get a permit to hike The Subway)
Bryce Canyon- 1 to 2 days: Watch the sunrise + Hike Fairyland Loop
Capitol Reef- 1 day: Go for explore the Buy a homemade pie from the store by the campground to eat after a hike. Find a slot canyon to explore off Highway 12
Arches NP + Moab- 1 – 3 days: Hike Delicate Arch, Fiery Furnace, and rent mountain bikes to explore Moab
Flex Days- 1 to 4 days: Explore Canyonlands, Natural Bridges, Monument Valley, Jack’s Canyon, or Canyon de Chelly
Our family loves to road trip! So much so that we sold everything and moved into our RV so that we could road trip full time. Learn how to downsize your life and travel more here.
If you are new to road tripping check out these related blogs:
- 14 Tips for Planning Your First Road Trip
- How To Road Trip On A Budget
- How To Plan A Successful Road Trip
- Things to Consider Before Buying An RV
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