Guest Blog: The Ultimate Southwest Road Trip
National Parks, Renter Guest Posts, Trip Ideas & Guides, Winter Road Trips
Our friends John and Jasmine (also known as The Cabin Camper) recently took a break from their own campervan home in Australia and explored the American Southwest in an Escape Campervan.
How would you feel if I told you that you could see 8 national parks, 3 national monuments and a whole lot of other landmarks in just under 2 weeks? And what if I told you you’d do all of this in a campervan, sleep under the stars in some epic locations, and not pay for a single night of camping?
Well, it’s true, we did it a few weeks ago and survived to tell the tale. And now we’re sharing that tale here so that you can do it too. Choose your own adventure, no pressure – see as many or as few of the sights as you like. Skip some landmarks and make the trip shorter, add some and make it longer – it’s up to you! We’ve put together a road trip essentials checklist and provided a map and rough itinerary for your ultimate southwest road trip below.
Ready, set, DRIVE!
Pick up your van from Escape Campervans in Denver
You’ll need to take inventory and stock up on what you need, e.g. food, drinking water, firewood etc. Look up the weather, make sure you’ve got appropriate clothing and gear for what you plan on doing. We stopped by Whole Foods and Target in Boulder for groceries and some other supplies.
When you’ve got everything, head straight for the Peak to Peak Highway via Nederland, a cute little mountain town. The Peak to Peak Highway goes all the way to the entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park. You’ll want to camp outside the park for the night and enter in the morning to get the most out of your day. Use Campendium to find yourself a good spot – we stayed here. Remember, always leave the site cleaner than when you found it.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Get up early, have some breakfast, and head straight into the National Park. This is where you’ll want to purchase your Annual Pass if you haven’t already. Trust us, it’s SO worth it – $80 for unlimited National Park entry. Most parks have a one-time entry fee of $20-30 so you’ll get your money’s worth for sure.
Spend the day exploring the park. Here is a list of hikes and things to do. We recommend stopping by the Alpine Visitor Center at some point. Here we sighted a herd of elk and experienced the feeling of being at 11796ft. There’s not a bad view anywhere in the park so keep your camera out and enjoy the drive!
When you’re done, start driving West on I70 towards Utah. This may be one of the longest drives of the trip, depending on what you want to see next. We drove just under four hours to the Black Ridge Canyons Wilderness area near the town of Mack, CO, which is only a few minutes from the border of Utah.
There are plenty of free camping areas off I70 so you can drive less if you wish. Our spot had INCREDIBLE views of the sunset – the perfect reward at the end of a big drive. Find the coordinates here.
Arches and Canyonlands National Parks
Wake up early and cross the border into Utah – don’t forget to take an obligatory picture with the welcome sign! Head to Arches National Park. There are heaps of different Arches to see in the park, (here’s a list) so take your pick! We hadn’t done much research on the different arches and ended up just reading the map/guide that we were given at the park entrance station.
We chose Delicate Arch because we liked the description of it and didn’t realize it was the most popular Arch. When we got there, there were at least 100-200 other people up there and a line to take a picture at the Arch. It was an amazing landscape but we prefer to avoid crowds so in hindsight probably would have chosen a different hike. Nevertheless, we took our picture and promptly headed towards another Arch before leaving.
If you also find yourself ready to leave Arches National Park around noon or early afternoon, head towards Canyonlands National Park. It’s a short drive South and offers some more incredible vistas and landscapes. The town of Moab is just down the road and the perfect place to stock up on anything you might need or get a bite to eat. Otherwise, head back out onto i70 and continue west. Head south at the junction on 89 towards Bryce Canyon National Park.
The park has some epic viewing points, including a Sunset Point and a Sunrise Point. If you arrive with enough time before sunset, head in and watch the Sunset. If not, we found a free camping spot just outside of Bryce Canyon in the Dixie National Forest and stayed there for the night before heading in to watch the sunrise at Sunrise Point.
DAY 4 + 5
Bryce Canyon National Park & Zion National Park
Take time to explore Bryce Canyon National Park. You can find information on the hikes available here. We did the Navajo/Queens Garden circuit and were shocked at just how many colors, landscapes, and vistas could be seen in such a short amount of time. The hike started by descending into a narrow slot style canyon, before opening up into a sparse pine forest area surrounded by Hoodoos. There were small arches, sand covered switchbacks, rattlesnakes, and squirrels. This hike was a definite highlight of our trip so far.
We were back by lunchtime, had some food and then started driving toward Zion National Park. We arrived in time to do one of the shorter hikes that afternoon and get a feel for how the park runs. Zion is a lot more organized than other parks and you will mostly have to use the parks shuttle system to get around. Depending on the day and time of year, waiting times for shuttles can be long and the park can be extremely crowded. We realized that afternoon that it would be best for us to return as early as possible the following morning as we were planning on hiking The Narrows, one of the parks most popular attractions. We used Campendium to find a spot to camp that was right outside the park – here are the coordinates.
The next morning we returned to the park early (along with a ton of other people) but managed to get a good parking spot in the RV section. Depending on the season, the parking lots sometimes fill up completely before 9 am, and you might have to park in the town of Springdale and get the shuttle in – information on traffic and seasonal parking can be found here. We waited in line for the shuttle for about 25 minutes, and then the actual shuttle ride out to the beginning of The Narrows takes at least 20 minutes – be sure to plan this into your day!
We spent the entire day, over six hours, in the incredible slot canyons and Virgin River that make up The Narrows. It was amazing! You can hike as far as ‘Big Spring’ without needing a permit, which is hours upstream, so we would advise packing a backpack with food and plenty of water just in case you decide to push yourself that little bit further.
We left the park with wobbly legs and super high spirits and started driving south towards the Grand Canyon. We crossed the border into Arizona and after another 20 minutes or so of driving arrived at the campsite we’d chosen for the night. It was a secluded spot nestled into rows of pine trees about one kilometer down a forest road, and much to our surprise, it started to snow!
Grand Canyon National Park – North Rim
Wake up and keep driving south on 67 to get to the North Rim entrance and visitor center. Here is the NPS website with all of the information on what you can see in the park.
We chose this day as a ‘rest day’ after yesterdays adventure in The Narrows. We were aching and had some housekeeping to take care of, so found a scenic parking spot and completely relaxed for a few hours upon arrival to the park. We made some food, tidied up the inside of the van, and utilized the parks shower and laundry facilities, before going for a short hike to get a look at the Grand Canyon. It was a much needed chill day.
After seeing that more snow was forecast for the North Rim area, we decided to head out that afternoon and make our way toward warmer weather in Page, Arizona. As the sun was slowly setting, the drive took us through Marble Canyon and the Vermillion Cliffs scenic drive, it was a beautiful way to end the day. We arrived in Page around 8 pm and agreed to stay in the Walmart parking lot – our first suburban camp spot for the trip! Not all Walmart stores allow overnight camping – check this website for a full list.
Horseshoe Bend, Antelope Canyon, and Lake Powell
As you can see, these landmarks are all really close together. You could easily see all three of them in one day, or choose to go slower. This will entirely depend on your road trip and what your interests are.
This attraction has become increasingly popular thanks to social media and the dramatic photographs that can be achieved there. Basically, it’s just a giant u-turn in the Colorado River with a spectacular overlook. Keep in mind that that the position of the sun can affect your photos, so if getting the perfect shot is important to you it might be better to plan your visit here for the middle of the day as the sun will be high and prevent shadows on the canyon walls.
Also important to note, is the sheer number of tourists that can be found here. We were gobsmacked, there were buses and coaches filling the makeshift parking lot and so many people at the actual cliff that we had to kind of wait our turn to even get a picture. Be careful! People have died from falling here.
Lake Powell is enormous. And that is an understatement. So obviously you will only be seeing a fraction of it here in Page, but regardless, it’s still beautiful! There are companies that you can rent kayaks/stand-up paddle boards etc from, you can go on boat tours, or you could simply just sit by the water’s edge and take in the grand view like we did.
There is an Upper and Lower section of Antelope Canyon and they each have their own entrances off the highway. Both require you to purchase a ‘tour’ with a guide but whether or not you are actually escorted through the canyon isn’t always clear. The lighting can differ dramatically here too, so be sure to read up on when is the best time of day to go – we found some good info on this website. Remember to be respectful of the local Navajo people when visiting these landmarks.
Stay another night in Page if you’re exhausted from a big day of sightseeing, or start driving east towards Monument Valley. We stopped after about 90 minutes of driving east and stayed at a free campsite inside the Navajo National Monument. It was a beautiful location and we would highly recommend it! Here are the coordinates. There is a short hike that overlooks the ancient cliff dwellings of the Ancestral Pueblo people, known as Betatakin. Or if you are interested in a closer look, you can go on a guided hike all the way into the dwellings and get an in-depth understanding of their history and how they lived.
Monument Valley, Four Corners & Mesa Verda National Park
Get an early start, get comfortable in the van with plenty of water and snacks, and prepare for a long drive through the endless desert, cliffs, and bluffs of the Navajo Reservations of north-eastern Arizona. There are plenty of photo opportunities, including:
Made famous by Forrest Gump and social media. I think everyone has seen at least one artistic Instagram post featuring this landmark. It’s an impressive section of the Colorado Plateau on the border of Utah and Arizona, decorated with interestingly shaped sandstone buttes.
A sombrero-shaped rock atop a sandstone outcrop. You can view it from the road or drive up to it for a closer look. Apparently, it even has two rock climbing routes available if you are interested!
The only place in the US where you can officially stand in four different states at once. A very cheesy tourist attraction, but you’ll be passing through anyway so…why not?
Continue on 160 into Colorado and drive through the town of Cortez. About fifteen minutes past Cortez, you will find Mesa Verde National Park, known for its Ancestral Pueblo cliff dwellings – similar to Betatakin but much larger. There are many hikes and other things to do in the park and you could easily spend just the afternoon here and leave, or stay and continue to explore tomorrow. We camped nearby at this free spot.
DAY 9 – 11
Durango, Silverton, Ouray, and the San Juan National Forest
From our campsite near Mancos, we headed towards the town of Durango, Colorado. It’s an old mining town with a lot of character, and plenty of stores, restaurants, and amenities. You can easily spend a few hours here. Continuing north, you will enter the San Juan National Forest. We spent the next couple of days exploring different campsites, hiking trails, and the mountain towns of Silverton and Ouray.
I’d recommend researching the area a little bit and deciding how you want to spend your time best. There is so much to do between shopping, eating and the outdoors – there really is something for everyone. Whatever you choose, you won’t be disappointed!
Here are some of the things we enjoyed.
Million Dollar Highway
The name given to the road that connects Silverton and Ouray. It’s about twelve miles of steep cliffs, narrow lanes, and no guardrails – all cut out of the side of the mountain. A scenic and nerve-wracking drive that will keep you on the edge of your seat!
Ouray Hot Springs
Springs that have been diverted into multiple large pools of different temperatures. The facility is complete with some slides for the kids and modern locker rooms and shower facilities for dirty road-trippers like us!
Chattanooga Hot Springs
Small, secluded and scenic. We spent two hours here, staring at the epic mountain views in blissfully warm water whilst it lightly snowed. It was heaven.
We stayed at Sultan Creek Campground, a free site next to a rushing creek that seems more like a river. There are a couple of trailheads around here – look out for black bears, moose, and deer!
Uncompahgre Forest Trails
There are so many to choose from, we did the Weehawken Trail as the trailhead was right across the road from our campground.
Day 12, etc.
Head back to Denver at your own pace.
From Ouray, the Escape Campervans headquarters is just under five hours drive away.
However, there are still plenty of awesome sights to see between here and returning your campervan to Denver. Depending on your time frame, why not check out:
If you just can’t get enough of Colorado’s picturesque old mining towns, then you might want to head about an hour west of Ouray to check out Telluride. Known for its ski resort and numerous music festivals throughout the year, there is always something going on.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Only 1-hour drive from Ouray, this canyon is a sight to behold. Read more about the park and things to do here.
If you’re travelling in Winter and love winter sports, these popular ski towns/resorts are some of the most noteworthy in the entire United States.
Pike and San Isabel National Forests
Covering nearly three million acres, there are endless opportunities for outdoor recreation here. This might be some of your last quality outdoor time of the road trip so why not make it a good one!
As this itinerary is intended to be a flexible one, we thought we’d mention a few places that weren’t included in this road trip but that easily could be – just in case you had extra time or wanted to be more thorough.
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
The southwest region of the USA is a bounty of natural wonders and breathtaking landscapes. Whether you travel for a few days or a few weeks, you’re bound to be inspired by the freedom and opportunity that road-tripping in a campervan can provide.