The Ideal Southwest Road Trip Through U.S. National Parks

This route takes you through some of the most unforgettable national parks in the southwestern section of the United States.

The Ideal Southwest Road Trip Through U.S. National Parks

Utah’s Arches National Park is home to approximately 2,000 natural sandstone arches.

Photo by Anthony Heflin/Shutterstock

Road-trip season is rapidly approaching, which means it’s time to plan that national parks adventure you’ve always dreamed of. The country’s canyonlands, red-rock cliffs, and spires are ripe for exploring during spring, summer, and fall; here, we outline an otherworldly route that you can’t miss in the U.S. Southwest. Grab your best road-trip gear, download some riveting podcasts, and get ready to cross these treasures off your list with this national park road trip through the southwest.

Zion National Park is located at the intersection of the Colorado Plateau, the Great Basin, and the Mojave Desert.

Zion National Park is located at the intersection of the Colorado Plateau, the Great Basin, and the Mojave Desert.

Photo by Asif Islam/Shutterstock

Zion National Park, Utah

Recommended stay: Two days

Kick off your trip in the first Utah’s first national park with a stay at Zion National Park Lodge, where rocking chairs on porches and mission-style furniture in guest rooms evokes the ineffable summer-camp simplicity. (Bonus: Lodge guests get special permission to drive their cars into Zion Canyon, while all other visitors need to use park shuttles.)

From mid-March through October, you can rent a bicycle from the lodge (for $10 per hour, $25 for up to four hours, or $35 for up to eight hours) and pedal along a paved road alongside soaring sandstone walls. From the lodge, you can also access some of Zion’s best hikes, such as one to Angel’s Landing, a breath-snatching rock promontory offering bird’s-eye views down into Zion Canyon. After a day of exploring, retreat to the lodge’s Red Rock Grill for bison meatloaf and Navajo fry-bread tacos, or treat yourself to a beer at Zion Canyon Brewing Company in nearby Springdale, the gateway town to Zion.

It’s approximately 73 miles to your next stop.

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Recommended stay: One day

Continue your tour of Utah’s national parks in Bryce Canyon National Park. Hike the strenuous eight-mile Fairyland Loop Trail, which offers spectacular views of the park’s iconic rock pinnacles, called hoodoos. Next, check into the Lodge at Bryce Canyon (the only lodging within the national park), where rustic cabins feature stone fireplaces and Douglas fir flooring, TVs are verboten, and the canyon rim is just a five-minute walk from your doorstep. The following morning, consider taking a short detour to the Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument en route to your next stop—even a quick hike through a small section of the 1.9-million-acre area is memorable.

It’s approximately 112 miles to your next stop.

Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Recommended stay: Two days

Just as stunning as neighboring parks—but with fewer paved roads and maintained trails—Capitol Reef National Park is one of Utah’s many lesser-known playgrounds. On an off-trail day hike led by Redrock Adventure Guides, plumb golden slot canyons and slickrock domes. After, dine on Southwest fusion-style dishes such as watermelon-marinated pork at the outdoor patio of Cafe Diablo, then move on to The Saddlery Cowboy Bar and Steakhouse for boot-scootin’ to live western bands.

But don’t bed down just yet: Capitol Reef National Park is recognized as a gold-tier International Dark Sky Park, which means the area offers some of the world’s best stargazing. (Check at the visitor center for astronomy programs on offer.) Once you’ve done your share of star-spotting, sleep at the Lodge at Red River Ranch, a grand retreat styled after Teddy Roosevelt–era lodges (right down to the Navajo rugs, bronze cowboy sculptures, and resident bison herd). When the sun rises, buy freshly baked fruit pastries from the Gifford Homestead farm and snack on them during your drive ahead.

It’s approximately 133 miles to your next stop.

Arches National Park in Moab offers the world’s largest density of natural sandstone arches.

Arches National Park in Moab offers the world’s largest density of natural sandstone arches.

Photo by IrinaK/Shutterstock

Arches National Park, Utah

Recommended stay: One day

The best approach to exploring Arches National Park is to start early in the day before the sun is high in the sky. At the park entrance, secure a $16 ticket for a ranger-led hike around the Fiery Furnace loop, which takes you through a labyrinth of sandstone walls that, at times, require traversing on your hands and feet. After this strenuous adventure, relax on the scenic drive to Wolfe Ranch, which is the starting point for the hike to Delicate Arch (Utah’s state icon). Summon your strength to complete the three-mile round-trip walk to view the park’s most famous picturesque arch up close. Then close out your day under the stars as you sleep in a safari-style glamping tent at Moab Under Canvas.

It’s 331 miles to your next stop.

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Recommended stay: Four days

Once you’ve crossed the Utah-Arizona state border, head to Flagstaff and join the adventure outfitter OARS on its four-day “Rim to River” trip (from $1,749; explore ancient puebloan ruins, stop at lesser-known viewpoints along the Grand Canyon’s rim, and stay at Phantom Ranch, a riverside lodge that dates back to the 1930s at the bottom of the canyon in this popular Arizona national park. (Prefer to skip the nearly 5,000-foot climb down and back up? You can opt instead for a self-led stroll along the two-mile, flat Shoshone Point Trail.)

In Flagstaff, make your final Southwestern road-trip stop at The Museum Club, the massive, log-walled dance hall where Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings once practiced their riffs and new country artists continue to keep dancers swinging.

A version of this article originally appeared in the January/February 2016 issue of AFAR. It was updated on February 12, 2019, to include current information.

>>Next: 11 Crowd-Free National Parks You Should Visit Instead

Happiest when she’s outside, Kelly Bastone lives in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, but she chases outdoor adventure around the world. She covers gear and outdoors as a freelance writer.
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