Road trips are by far my favorite way to explore the USA. There is so much vast and remote beauty which is impossible to fully explore without really getting into nature. Given the sheer size of the country, this often involves driving for a few hours. For me the drive is just as much the fun as the destination! With endless roads disappearing over the horizon, roadside diners and classic motels, a road trip will transport you to all these places and more.
One of the most iconic road trip destinations is the Southwest of the US. You can find some of the most beautiful scenery and Instagram-worthy views here. If you’re ready to get out there on your great American road trip, here are our favorite Southwest USA road trip destinations from Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico. For each location, we’re sharing the best time to visit, our tips for visiting the location, and the most useful resources.
Note: At the time of publishing this article, national parks in these states are closed and many of these destinations are not accessible. Make sure you save this post for when it is safe to travel again!
Why You Need to Visit the Southwest USA
The Southwest has all these natural wonders you usually only see in high gloss travel magazines. Think Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Arches National Park, Route 66, and more! You probably already know all of these from popular movies and TV shows but there is nothing better than experiencing these destinations first-hand doing a Southwest USA road trip!
One note when driving through the Southwest, a lot of these places are very remote and require a fair amount of driving. You will get to see some incredible and untouched parts of nature but on the flipside, gas stations, restaurants, and hotels, are less frequent. It helps to bring a road trip planner with you so you are always prepared.
Make sure you fill up on gas before leaving a town if you don’t know where the next gas station will be. And the worst thing to happen on an iconic American road trip is to run out of gas!
Best Time to do your Southwest USA Road Trip
You will generally find the best weather in the Southwest between December and April. This area of the USA can get incredibly hot and dry and hiking to some of these places will become extremely strenuous in the heat.
Since some of the places in Utah are at relatively high elevation and could be covered in snow, I would recommend planning your Southwest USA road trip for March or April. During this time, temperatures are going to be around a comfortable 65 F (18 C) in the northern areas and 75 F (24 C) in the south.
As most of the US Southwest road trip destinations are in the desert, it may get very hot during the day, but cool down substantially during the night. Make sure you bring a warm sweater or hoodie and a scarf for when the temperatures drop at night.
Map for an Iconic Southwest USA Road Trip
There are so many different attractions throughout Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico that it is hard to decide where to go. The below map shows all of our favorite attractions and the order in which we recommend seeing them in on your Southwest USA road trip. You can use this map to plan out and to figure out the best order these road trip destinations fit with your travel plans.
Utah Road Trip Destinations
Utah is one of those states that I had incredible expectations for, and you may too. It was the last state I visited out of all 50, and easily became one of my top favorites. You can read about our story on how we crossed into Utah and saw our last state here. These Utah destinations will make your Southwest USA road trip unforgettable.
Reflections at Bonneville Salt Flats
The Bonneville Salt Flats are exactly what the name suggests; an area with densely packed salt. They are located on Interstate 80 just outside of Salt Lake City, close to the Nevada border, and the perfect start for any Utah road trip.
Given the huge flat area, the salt flats make the perfect background to take photos and be creative. Get out there and have fun! Think about working with different perspectives, play with the reflection off the water, and just enjoy the view.
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- Given that the ground is covered in salt, don’t wear your favorite leather shoes or anything else that could be easily damaged by the salt. Salt can be extremely difficult to remove from clothing and fabrics afterwards. I recommend wearing rubber shoes or boots.
- Keep in mind that the salt flats are covered in water which is also extremely salty, but more importantly there may be no dry place to set down a bag or anything you bring with you.
- Temperatures on the salt flats vary greatly. In Summer, they often reach over 100 F (38 C) degrees and can drop below freezing in winter. Make sure you wear protective clothing and sun screen.
Hours: Open 24 hours a day. The Bonneville Salt Flats are managed by the Bureau of Land Management and open to the public most of the time. During events and/or filming projects, there might be restrictions. You can check out the event calendar here.
Facilities: There are no washrooms at the Bonneville Salt Flats.
Cost: Visiting the salt flats is free!
Location: Bonneville Salt Flats
Explore Peek-A-Boo and Spooky Canyon
Have you ever heard of two slot canyons called Peek-A-Boo and Spooky? Me neither until I went there. These canyons completely live up to their names, are a lot of fun to explore, and definitely worth adding to your Southwest USA road trip. The canyons are closest to Escalante, Utah and are a 3-hour hike round-trip from the parking lot. The hike starts off on a flat sandy trail and continues to a climb down into the dry canyon area. The steep climb down is over smooth slick rock.
The best way to hike these two slot canyons is in a one-way loop, starting with Peek-A-Boo, traveling cross-country to reach Spooky, and then exiting Spooky in the original canyon area near the Peek-A-Boo entrance.
Once you reach Peek-A-Boo Slot Canyon, you need to climb up about a 12-foot (3.7 meters) rock face to enter the canyon. I am 5’5” (1.7 meters) and managed to get up there on the first try. Once you start walking through, you quickly understand where the name Peek-A-Boo comes from.
The canyon has some fun rock loops you can climb through and each corner is hidden – providing the best peek-a-boo game! As the slot canyon is not overly deep, you can also play peek-a-boo with people in the canyon, while walking along up top.
When you reach the end of Peek-A-Boo, there is an easy to follow trail that travels cross-country to the entrance of Spooky Slot Canyon. The canyon very much lives up to its name. It is incredibly narrow! In some places, we could only pass by taking off our backpacks, and shuffling sideways.
Spooky also has one technical section halfway through where you need to climb overtop some car-sized boulders, and then crawl back underneath them to continue through the slot canyon. These canyons will definitely make your Utah road trip more interesting!
- Please don’t visit these canyons if you’re claustrophobic! Both canyons have some very narrow spots and are dark at times.
- Bring enough water but carry a small backpack. A large backpack is much harder to squeeze through the tight corners of Spooky Slot Canyon.
- There is weak to no cell reception on the hike with T-Mobile.
Hours: Open 24 hours a day
Cost: Visiting Peek-A-Boo and Spooky Canyon is free.
Facilities: There are two outhouses at the trailhead.
Location: Peek-A-Boo and Spooky Slot Canyon. The slot canyons are located along Hole-In-The-Rock Road, and require driving about one hour on dusty gravel roads - the perfect adventure on your Southwest USA road trip. The roads are fine for a car when dry, but do not attempt to drive when the ground is wet as it instantly turns to slick mud.
Stunning Grosvenor Arch
If you love arches but don’t feel like battling the crowds at Arches National Park, Grosvenor Arch is your destination. It is a unique double arch about 150 feet (46 meters) tall and is located within the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah. The double arch is an easy 5-minute walk from the parking lot and is extremely impressive to look at! You can’t climb around or on top of the arch but the view you get from the bottom is definitely worth it!
- Grosvenor Arch is easily reachable by car but you will mostly drive on a gravel road. Make sure you fuel up before hitting the road as there are no gas stations anywhere close.
- There is weak to no cell reception at Grosvenor Arch with T-Mobile.
Hours: Open 24 hours a day
Cost: Visiting Grosvenor Arch is free.
Facilities: There are two outhouses at the trailhead.
Location: Grosvenor Arch
Running Around at Devil’s Garden Escalante
Devil’s Garden Escalante is very much like a playground for grownups and offers so many photo opportunities. It is a perfect addition to your Southwest USA road trip. It is located in the Staircase-Escalante National Monument and known for its countless hoodoos and two small arches. Its location provides for some amazing views and given that it’s possible to climb onto the base of the hoodoos, you can let your creativity run wild.
- Devil’s Garden is easily reachable when driving down the Hole in the Rock road. Make sure you fuel up before your trip and bring enough water and food for the day.
- Cell reception at Devil’s Garden is spotty with T-Mobile. I had the best reception at higher points.
Hours: Open 24 hours a day
Cost: Visiting Devil’s Garden Escalante is free.
Facilities: There are two outhouses at the trailhead.
Location: Devil’s Garden This is located on the same road as Peek-A-Boo and Spooky Slot Canyons and is great to combine into the same day.
Arizona Road Trip Destinations
Similar to Utah, Arizona is home to some incredible natural wonders and trying to figure out where to go can be a daunting task. These are our favorite Arizona road trip destinations, some of which you may never have heard of and which you cannot miss out on your Southwest USA road trip!
Off the Beaten Path in White Pocket, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument
White Pocket is an area within the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument in Arizona. It has some of the most amazing rock formations. Think orange lined rocks like the Wave, white pillow-like rock surfaces and sliver thin rock layers. You are free to walk around and explore as much as you like.
The area is a 10-minute walk on a sand trail from the parking lot. It is one of the best kept secrets but a great addition to your Southwest USA road trip.
Getting to White Pocket is a bit more difficult.. It is a 3-4 hour drive from Kanab, UT or Page, AZ. The first hour of the drive is on a paved highway, followed by a maintained gravel road. The last 5 miles are in deeply rutted sand. A high clearance vehicle with four-wheel drive is highly recommended. That being said, most rugged SUVs and pick-up trucks with four-wheel drive should be able to make it without issue.
- There are no facilities at White Pocket. It’s very remote so be sure to bring enough water, food, and sun protection.
- Don’t leave anything behind, not even personal waste. We recommend bringing bags designed to hold human waste.
- I had surprisingly good cell reception at White Pocket. I had 2 bars LTE with T-Mobile.
Hours: Open 24 hours a day
Cost: Visiting White Pocket is free.
Facilities: There are no facilities at White Pocket.
Location: White Pocket Vermillion Cliffs
Catching the Light at Antelope Canyon
There is nothing quite as magical as catching the sunrays as they shine through a slot canyon! Antelope Canyon is one of the most famous slot canyons in Arizona and a must see on your Southwest USA road trip. It is completely worth a visit. You will need to book a tour to access the canyon and I recommend booking far in advance as the slot canyon is incredibly busy, especially in Summer.
You may not know this but there is an Upper and Lower Antelope Canyon. Lower Antelope Canyon is slightly less busy and tours are cheaper. We visited Lower Antelope Canyon and loved the tour and the canyon itself.
- The tour moves quite fast and taking a lot of pictures can be difficult. If you’re planning to take photos, consider booking a tour first thing in the morning or late in the afternoon.
- The light in the canyon is best around midday, which is also the busiest time to visit.
- The descent into the canyon is a very steep staircase. Make sure you wear good shoes.
- It was incredibly windy when we were there and we found orange sand in our pockets days after we walked through the canyon. Expect to have sand blown everywhere.
Hours: You cannot access Antelope Canyon without a tour. Tour hours are 7:30am – 5:45pm.
Cost: Costs for a tour at lower Antelope Canyon starts at $40 for a 1-1.5 hours tour plus $8 Navajo Parks fee. Cost for a tour at upper Antelope Canyon starts at $54 for 1.5 hour tour plus $8 Navajo Parks fee. If you decide to take a tour of both Upper and Lower, you only pay the Navajo Parks fee once!
Facilities: There is a visitor center at the Antelope Canyon with washrooms.
Location: Antelope Canyon
Enjoying the View at Horseshoe Bend
Horseshoe Bend is one of the most iconic places to visit in Arizona and on your Southwest USA road trip and definitely worth a stop! We visited the Horseshoe Bend in 2017 and also just recently in March 2020. The river formation is just as stunning the second time we saw it as the first time. The area around it has completely changed though.
You can easily drive up to the parking lot and walk 5-10 minutes on a gravel trail to get to the bend. There are two covered areas where you can get some shade along the trail as it gets extremely hot here in Summer.
Once you get to the very tip of the cliff, there are some areas which are fenced off for safety reasons. However, you are still free to roam around in other areas and the iconic “rock” is not fenced in and you can get one of the most Instagram-worthy photos from here.
- Take a lot of water! Yes, the hike is short – only 5-10 minutes. However, it gets extremely hot and there is not a lot of shade. We visited in March and didn’t think we would need the extra water but we wish we had brought some.
- Apply plenty of sunscreen! Even if you’re not planning to stay very long, the sun reflects of the rock surfaces and is very intense.
- Horseshoe Bend is extremely popular and gets super busy. Consider visiting early in the morning or late in the evening for some amazing sunset photos.
Hours: Open daily from Dawn to Dusk according to the City of Page.
Cost: Entrance fee to Horseshoe Bend is $10 per car. You pay upon entering the parking lot.
Facilities: There are washrooms available at the parking lot.
Location: Horseshoe Bend
Grand Canyon Road Trip
Any Southwest USA road trip would not be complete without a stop at the Grand Canyon! I’m sure you have seen countless photos of the Grand Canyon and might be wondering if it’s worth going there given that you have already seen it in photos. It is absolutely worth it! Standing on the edge of the canyon and overlooking the entire area is an incredible feeling and very much worth a trip.
The Grand Canyon has a North and a South Rim. The South Rim includes all of the popular viewpoints and it is what people usually think of when you mention Grand Canyon. It is much easier to get to and unlike the North Rim, it is open all year round.
Getting to the North Rim is for those who like to take the road less traveled. It is generally closed in Winter and lodging is only open from May to October due to the snow. Make sure you make a reservation at the North Rim lodge or campground if you’re planning to visit the North Rim, as lodging options are very limited.
A Grand Canyon road trip can be as long or short as you like. The South Rim is a 4.5-hour drive from Las Vegas and you can easily see some of it in a day. If you’re short on time and only have one day to spend here, I recommend visiting the South Rim as it is much easier to access. Start your day at Mather Point which is a great place to view the sunrise or sunset.
Continue to Yavapai Point which is very close and make your way West. You can easily drive to all the viewpoints and if you have time, doing the South Rim Trail is an easy way to take in all the epic views. The hike is relatively easy with minimal elevation gain.
Other viewpoints which are easy to get to by car and have an amazing view are Maricopa Point, Powell Point, Hopi Point, and Mohave Point where you can see the Colorado River. If you’re looking for wide views of the canyon, Lipan Point is another great viewpoint.
If you have more than one day here and are planning a longer Southwest USA road trip, I highly recommend waking up early and enjoying a sunrise over the canyon and seeing the sun set behind this majestic landscape. It truly is an experience like no other.
- There is a lot to see at the Grand Canyon, make sure you plan out your time here and know what you want to see.
- The South Rim viewpoints can get very busy. Being here early in the morning and later in the evening helps avoid the crowds.
- If you want to make the most out of your Grand Canyon road trip, bring water and food with you so that you don’t have to stop in the village but can chase the amazing views instead.
Hours: The South Rim is open 24 hours daily. The North Rim is closed to all vehicles from December 1 to May 15.
Cost: Entrance to Grand Canyon National Park is $35 per vehicle. Your pass will be valid for 7 days and includes both the North and South Rim.
Facilities: The South Rim has multiple visitor centers and is fully outfitted with facilities, restaurants, and lodging. The North Rim has one visitor center which is open from May 15 to October 15 and limited lodging.
Nevada and New Mexico Road Trip Destinations
You may not think of Nevada and New Mexico when planning your iconic American road trip. Trust me when I say that both states have some beautiful road trip destinations you absolutely need to add to your Southwest USA road trip!
Loneliest Road in America in Nevada
The Loneliest Road in America, also known as U.S. Route 50, goes straight across Nevada. It very much deserves the name of being the loneliest road as there is little to no civilization along the way, other than the odd ghost town. This is exactly why it’s the perfect Southwest USA road trip destination!
Fueled up and with plenty of water and food, you can hit the road and explore the vast countryside of Nevada which ranges from salty flat areas to mountains, and grass lands full of hidden hot springs. The road itself goes straight for a large portion and offers incredible photo opportunities, sharing the vastness of the state.
Stopping in a ghost town is a must if you like the idea of traveling back in time and seeing America as it used to be. I can particularly recommend Austin, Nevada which is full of old-school houses, store fronts, and signs.
Other fun activities along the way include enjoying a sunset on Sand Mountain, horseback riding through the wide grass lands, and searching for hot springs. Because of its remote location, the Loneliest Road in America offers the perfect opportunity for some stargazing.
- The Loneliest Road in America used to be only travelable by people with survival skills. While it’s definitely easier to drive these days, make sure you fuel up before you leave and get gas every opportunity you get. Gas stations are few and far in-between.
- Make sure you bring plenty of water and food with you.
- Nevada has an incredible amount of hot springs and no road trip across the Loneliest Road would be complete without taking a dip. Make sure to stop at the popular Spencer Hot Springs or smaller heart-shaped Bartine Hot Springs.
- There is surprisingly good cell reception along the Loneliest Road in America. I had 2 bars LTE with T-Mobile.
Hours: Open 24 hours a day
Cost: Driving the Loneliest Road in America is free.
Facilities: There are only few facilities along the Loneliest Road in America, whenever you hit a ghost town.
Location: Loneliest Road in America
White Sands Monument in New Mexico
White Sands National Park is everything you think of when you hear the name. It’s in the Chihuahuan Desert in New Mexico and is covered in rare white sand. While you may have never heard of it, White Sands is extremely beautiful and definitely worth adding to your Southwest USA road trip.
The white gypsum sand is like nothing I have ever seen before. As you enter the park, you will notice how incredibly quiet it is. There is no sound other than the wind forming new sand dunes.
You can easily access the dunes on the Dunes Drive which is a looped road from the visitor center to the dune field. We were able to park almost anywhere we wanted and just get out of the car to explore the area. If you would like to spend more time in Mexico, you could visit the White Sand National Park in the morning and head to Albuquerque for a weekend.
- The White Sands National Park is a desert and as such extremely dry and hot. Make sure you bring plenty of water.
- You can easily get lost wandering around the dunes as there is not a lot a variety in landscape. Make sure you don’t visit alone and follow trail posts.
- The sun reflection off the white sand is very intense. Make sure you use sunscreen with high SPF and wear protective clothing. Visiting in the early morning is best to avoid the afternoon heat.
- There is poor to no cell reception at White Sands National Park.
Hours: The White Sands National Park opens at 7am daily. Closing hours vary depending on the time of the year and are generally between 6pm -7pm in winter and 8pm-9m in summer. Make sure you check the current operation hours on the official website as there might be closures for missile testing.
Cost: Entrance fee to the park is $25 per vehicle and $15 per person if there is only one person in the vehicle.
Facilities: There is a visitor center at the entrance of the park with full washrooms.
Location: White Sands National Park
The Next Trip Top 5 Tips for Your Southwest USA Road Trip
1) Prepare for the Heat
The weather in the Southwest US is very dry and hot. Especially during the Summer months, temperatures often rise over 100 F (38 C) and spending time outside can be unbearable. Make sure you are prepared for the heat during your Southwest USA road trip. Make sure your car has air conditioning and if you plan to visit in Summer, plan accommodation with air conditioning as well. I would recommend doing your Southwest USA road trip in March or April when temperatures are more pleasant.
2) Stay Hydrated
Staying hydrated is key during the heat for safety but also to stay energized. Many of these incredible destinations are very dry and windy and you will end up needing more water than you expect. Make sure you bring plenty of fluids. I add Hydralyte to my water for extra hydration on all of my hikes to make sure I don’t get de-hydrated.
3) Bring Good Hiking Shoes
A lot of these Utah and Arizona road trip destinations are in rocky and sandy terrain. Make sure you bring good hiking shoes with great grip on the sole to get around easier. I have done some hikes in normal sneakers which slowed me down a bit as I wasn’t able to climb down rocky sections as easily.
4) Bring a Good Camera
You will undoubtedly see some incredible landscapes on your Southwest USA road trip. Make sure you bring a good camera and have it fully charged. You will want to look back to this iconic road trip years down the road and will want photos to remember all the incredible places you have seen. On our trip, we took thousands of photos of the amazing rock formations and continue to enjoy looking back on them.
5) Plan Around Sunrises and Sunsets
Generally, the best time to explore these places is early in the morning or late in the afternoon. Temperatures are not as hot, there will be less people on the road, and the golden hour provides for amazing photos. Make sure you know your sunrise and sunset hours as traveling in the dark can quickly get very dangerous. I would especially recommend to not do any off-road driving or hiking in the dark.
Have you ever taken a Southwest USA road trip? Let us know if we missed any places we should be adding to our list! We love to explore more and hear from you! What have been your favorite road trips to date?
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