3 Road Trip Routes to Explore the American Southwest
Arizona is widely known as the Grand Canyon state, but there’s so much more to be discovered. Here you’ll find ancient ruins to modern cities, slot canyons, deserts, and wildflowers. Along with varied landscapes of reds, oranges, pinks, and purples contrasting against a bright blue sky.
Here’s the rundown on three American Southwest road trips that you won’t want to miss. Choose from our Phoenix campervan rental depot to LA via Route 66, Denver to Phoenix, and Phoenix round trip via southern Utah.
Arizona is prime road trip territory in the winter, especially in a fully-loaded campervan. You can expect highs in the upper 60s around Phoenix come January. That number rises as you head further south. Wherever you go, be sure to bring water, sunscreen, and a hat.
Buy an annual National Park Pass online, at the National Park entrance, or at our depot when you pick up your campervan. You’ll pay it off in no time on any one of these routes!
Los Angeles, CA
Phoenix to LA via Route 66
Distance: 800+ miles (1200+ km)
Time: 15+ hours
On this route, you’ll get to see some of the best of Arizona along with a good chunk of the historic Route 66 highway. Take it all the way to our LA depot to add Joshua Tree National Park to your itinerary. Or, cut up north to our Las Vegas depot for a shorter trip.
Phoenix is a sprawling metropolis in the middle of the Sonoran Desert. It’s the cultural center of the state, with scenic drives, hiking trails, and some of the most unique museums in the country. Make sure to stop by the Desert Botanical Garden, and be on the lookout for local mom ‘n’ pop Mexican restaurants. We’ll start at the Phoenix Escape Depot and head north.
On your way to Sedona:
- Before you leave Phoenix, check out Mel’s Diner. As you drive along NW Grand Avenue, you’ll see the original sign with the giant coffee cup spilling out an arrow that points to the retro American diner.
- On I-17, stop at the Montezuma Castle National Monument to learn more about the way early Puebloan people lived. This ancient multi-home dwelling is built into the rock and looks like part of the cliff.
- If you’re looking for a unique side trip, make your way to the town of Prescott. It’s a premier destination for mountain bikers, with more than 250 miles of trails of varying difficulties to explore. It’s also home to the world’s oldest rodeo, which has been lassoing since the 1880s. Finally, Whiskey Row is the contemporary center of Prescott’s nightlife, as it was 100 years ago.
About a two-hour drive north of Phoenix without stops, take exit 298 to AZ-179, the oldest scenic road into Sedona. Sedona offers more than just cooler temps, jeep tours, and hiking spots. It’s also a spiritual mecca, with thousands of people flocking to the area to feel the vortex energy. Once you’ve found your third eye, stop by these highlights:
- Red Rock State Park (286-acre nature preserve featuring some of Arizona’s most famous landmarks)
- Chapel of the Holy Cross (if you only have time for one cultural site, this should be it)
- Slide Rock State Park (great for swimming)
Flagstaff is high in the mountains and is surrounded by beautiful trees and fresh mountain air. The hippie-boho culture of Flagstaff brings in wanderers and travelers from all corners of the country. From hiking the national forest to touring the Flagstaff-Grand Canyon Ale Trail, there’s something for everyone here.
- Take the scenic ski-lift ride at Snowbowl for views of Humphreys Peak, the highest point in Arizona. It’s one of the few places to ski or snowboard in the state. As you may have guessed, this means there is indeed snow in Arizona, so bring a jacket!
- Hotel Monte Vista: What better way to start out your tour of Route 66 than to stop by this haunted, historic hotel? Located in downtown Flagstaff’s Heritage Square, the classic neon sign has been beckoning travelers off the highway since 1927. This was once where stars like Gary Cooper, Carole Lombard, John Wayne, Clark Gable, and Humphrey Bogart chose to stay when Hollywood started filming movies in the ’40s and ‘50s. Reports of the Phantom Bellboy announcing “room service” and a woman sitting in a rocking chair in Room 305 are well-documented.
Grand Canyon National Park
What would an Arizona road trip be without a stop at the Grand Canyon? One of the 7 natural wonders of the world, the 277-mile-long canyon is a mile deep and 18 miles across at its widest point. If you’re just passing by, you can see the Grand Canyon in all of its glory from the road (time it so you can watch the sunset, if you can). If you have more time to spare, take a multi-day hike from rim-to-rim or to the bottom, or book a whitewater rafting trip on the Colorado River.
Head outside the South Entrance and camp in the Tusayan Ranger District. It’s in the Kaibab National Forest off of Fire Road 688. Not only is it free, but you also won’t have to contend with the crowds found within the national park itself. Once you’re there, it’s hard to believe that you have this place all to yourself when the campsites of GCNP have been booked for weeks.
For another great option, look out for Desert View Campground – first-come-first-served 25 miles east of Grand Canyon Village.
70 miles (110km) east of Kingman on I-40 is the throwback town of Seligman. If you want a feel of what Route 66 used to be back in the days of Kerouac, this is your place. Pull over, grab a chili dog and chocolate malt at the Snow Cap and wander around town.
Self-proclaimed as “Arizona’s Playground,” Lake Havasu City is known as a base for trails in the nearby desert and water sports on Lake Havasu State Park.
- London Bridge, relocated from England, links the mainland to marinas and a looped path in an area known as the Island.
- Lake Havasu is considered to be among the top spring break spots in the world. Every year, college students from the southwest flock here for 24/7 party time. If that interests you, then this is your place! However, if you prefer a more quiet, tranquil environment or have kids, plan your visit to the lake to avoid spring months.
Joshua Tree National Park
Less than 2 hours east of LA, this is a favorite stopover point for Escapees. Upon entering the 1250 sq mile park, your campervan will be dwarfed by the massive, oddly sculpted rocks that surround you. Whether it’s bouldering, grabbing a hike, watching the Milky Way spin above your head every night or just having a few cold ones in front of a roaring fire, nobody ever regrets their time in Joshua.
Disneyland, Venice Beach, Huntington Beach, Santa Monica Pier, Griffith Observatory, Hollywood… the sightseeing is endless! Make sure to have a look around before saying goodbye to your campervan at the Los Angeles Escape Depot.
Distance: 1000+ miles (1600+ km)
Time: 20+ hours
As opposed to the other two routes, this one will give you a healthy dose of winter mountains and summer deserts all in one trip. We’ll start at our Denver Escape Depot and head west.
The dynamic, sunny, mile-high city is a natural gateway to countless national parks, wilderness areas, and national forests, ready to be explored. This nearly year-round destination offers adventures for every season – from the Colorado River to the peaks of the San Juans, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison to the Mesa Verde ruins. The shoulder seasons of fall and spring might just be the best-kept secret of this place – so plan accordingly!
I-70 to Glenwood Springs
This gives you access to just about every ski resort in Colorado you could think of, including Breckenridge, Copper Mountain, Vail, and Beaver Creek. If snow sports aren’t your thing, it’s still a beautiful, scenic drive, and it’s fun to explore the many different mountain towns along the way. Be sure to check the traffic report before you leave Denver.
Depending on your route and how much time you have for this portion of your trip, we’ve got some great stops for food, drink, and scenic activities along the way.
- Idaho Springs: Best stops for food here are Smokin Yards BBQ (down-home barbeque to fuel the rest of your drive), Beaujo’s Pizza (a famous Colorado pizza chain), or the newest addition to this little mining town, Westbound & Down Brewery (great brews for the passenger, and comfort-style pub food).
- Georgetown: If your schedule allows for a more leisurely drive, check out Georgetown’s Railroad Loop. There are different routes and schedules throughout the year, even in the winter, so if you’re in the mood to go back in time, stop here for a fun (family friendly) ride!
- Silver Plume: On Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, this little gem, the Bread Bar, opens up for specialty cocktails in a repurposed bread bakery (hence the name). Hipster-meets-small-sleepy-town is the vibe here.
- Glenwood Springs will be your turn off point. Don’t miss Sweet Coloradough, a funky doughnut shop that occasionally serves free beer and tequila during business hours of 6am-2pm.
This scenic stretch of road to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is full of beautiful hikes, great campgrounds, towering peaks, and lots of hot springs.
- Named one of “National Geographic’s Top 10 Adventure Towns in the US,” Carbondale offers world-class kayaking, biking, fly fishing, and cross-country skiing.
- Take a jeep tour out of Marble up to Crystal Mill, one of the most-photographed places in Colorado.
- Visit Avalanche Ranch for natural hot springs open year-round.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
A deep, steep-walled gorge carved through Precambrian rock (think two-million-year-old rocks) by the Gunnison River. Roads and trails along the north and south rims have views of the Black Canyon’s dramatic drops and the striated Painted Wall cliff. The winding East Portal Road descends to the river, exposing you to some of the steepest cliffs and craggiest spires in North America.
San Juan National Forest
Covering 1.8 million acres in the southwestern corner of Colorado, beautiful scenery and outdoor adventure abound on this drive down to Durango.
- The small, intimate community of Ouray is nestled in some of the most rugged and towering peaks of the Rockies. Set at the narrow head of a valley at 7,792 feet and surrounded on three sides by 13,000-foot snowcapped peaks, it’s is home to historic Jeep roads, sulfur-free hot springs, and the world-famous Ouray Ice Park.
- The San Juan Skyway is one of the most scenic drives in America, spanning elevations from 6,200 feet near Cortez to 11,008 feet at Red Mountain Pass. Along the route, you’ll find fresh alpine forests, historic mining towns, expansive cattle ranges, and prehistoric Indian ruins.
- Next to the Maroon Bells, Mt. Sneffels is Colorado’s most recognizable mountain. It is often said to be Colorado’s best and most beautiful mountain, which is why you’ll find photos of Mount Sneffels in stores, calendars, postcards, and paraphernalia everywhere. Sneffels has also made appearances in a number of westerns, including “How the West was Won,” and, more notably, “True Grit,” where it is seen in flattering vistas from Dallas Divide.
- For the more adventurous, Silverton Mountain is the highest and steepest ski area in North America with a peak elevation of 13,487’ and no easy way down.
Mesa Verde National Park
One of the nation’s richest archeological zones, Mesa Verde is known for its well-preserved Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings–notably the huge Cliff Palace.
- The Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum has exhibits on the ancient Native American culture.
- Mesa Top Loop Road winds past archaeological sites and overlooks, including Sun Point Overlook with panoramic canyon views.
- Petroglyph Point Trail has several rock carvings.
Stand in four states–Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico–all at once at Four Corners on your way to Monument Valley.
You may not be in the middle of nowhere while visiting this place, but you can definitely see it from there. Located on Highway 163 between the towns of Kayenta and Mexican Hat, this is the land that time forgot. For a $5 fee—paid to the Navajo Nation —you can drive the 17-mile loop taking you on a meandering path around the Monuments. Make sure you stop over and get a Navajo Taco.
Under normal conditions, this 2-hour drive is possible in an Escape Campervan. That said, the route is on an unimproved dirt road and you are NOT covered with Escape Roadside Assistance if you get stuck out there, especially during the rainy season. CHECK THE WEATHER BEFORE UNDERTAKING THE LOOP. Alternatively, a private Navajo-guided backcountry tour for a half day is a great way to experience the valley. You can book one upon arrival.
It’s about 10 miles from the 160 turnoff to a little Navajo community called Tuba City. Halfway between the turnoff and the town, you’ll see a small sign on the side of the road stating, DINOSAUR TRACKS. Make sure you pull off here, pay a Navajo Guide $5, or so, and wander out on the plain behind the kiosks selling Navajo jewelry and blankets. The area is literally covered with ancient tracks left over from before the last ice age. If this wasn’t on Navajo Nation land, it’d be a national park for sure.
Located minutes from Page, Arizona, Antelope Canyon is easily the most photographed slot canyon in the world. The site actually comprises of two canyons: Upper Antelope, also known as The Crack, and Lower Antelope Canyon, known locally as The Corkscrew. Upper Antelope is by far more popular than Lower due to its accessibility but Lower Antelope is awe-inspiring in its own right. You’ll need a guide for this trip so try to sign up in advance. Contact: 1-866-645-9102 or email email@example.com.
Directions: All trips to Antelope Canyon are via guided tours. Park in Page, load up with water and snacks, make sure you’ve got charged batteries in your camera, and hop on the bus.
This is one of the most iconic roadside stops in all of Arizona—a “must-see-to-believe” sort of geologic formation at Lake Powell. There are plenty of excellent places to camp, including Kaibab Lake Campground where you can picnic, swim, or simply catch some Z’s surrounded by the forest’s glory.
Grand Canyon Back to Phoenix
See above descriptions.
Phoenix Round Trip via Utah
Distance: 1600+ miles (2500+ km)
Time: 28+ hours
There’s so much to see in Phoenix alone–but you’re so close to 5 of Utah’s best National Parks in Arizona, that we couldn’t help but add them, too.
Saguaro National Park
The giant saguaro is the symbol of the American Southwest and the state flower–and you’ll find plenty of them here. Stop at the visitor center for facts about saguaro (like how they can grow to be 60 feet tall!), then drive the Cactus Desert Scenic Loop Drive. Hike some of the trails along the drive and stop to check out the views.
- The Scenic Bajada Loop Drive within the Park is unpaved — and spectacular.
- Signal Hill Trail leads to petroglyphs of the ancient Hohokam people.
Kartchner Caverns State Park
This cave system features 2.4 miles of passages, including:
- One of the world’s longest soda straw stalactites: 21 feet 3 inches (Throne Room)
- The tallest and most massive column in Arizona, Kubla Khan: 58 feet tall (Throne Room)
- The world’s most extensive formation of brushite moonmilk (Big Room)
- The first reported occurrence of “turnip” shields (Big Room)
- The first cave occurrence of “birdsnest” needle quartz formations
- Many other unusual formations such as shields, totems, helictites, and rimstone dams.
Schedule a tour here: https://azstateparks.com/kartchner/cave-tours/cave-information
Petrified Forest National Park
The best location in the US to see petrified wood is found here in a particularly beautiful range of bright colors. A scenic drive runs through the park, passing a section of the Painted Desert, several trailheads, and many overlooks along the way. You can see plenty just from your car, but the best way to experience the park is to hike some of the trails. There are fossils, badlands, buttes and mesas, ancient petroglyphs, wildlife and wildflowers, and vast vistas for more than a hundred miles.
Canyon de Chelly National Monument
Canyon de Chelly lies near the town of Chinle and has been inhabited continuously for about 5,000 years. Ruins of the ancient Puebloan civilizations are visible on the canyon walls, with the hogans of today’s Navajos on the bottom. Stop by the Visitor Center, hike down to White House Ruins, and stop at the overlooks on the South and North Rim Drive. You can also take a ranger-led hike or a Navajo guided tour into the canyon.
Note: Navajos still live inside the canyon, so be considerate when meeting locals.
See above description.
Goosenecks State Park
The San Juan River begins in the San Juan mountains of Colorado. At Goosenecks State Park in Utah, you’ll see it and twist and turn through what’s called a “meander” 1,000 feet below, flowing a distance of over six miles while advancing 1.5 miles (as the crow flies) west on its way to Lake Powell. Geologists say this erosion has uncovered a rock record exposing some 300 million years of time.
Goosenecks State Park offers picnic areas, primitive camping, vault toilets, and an observation shelter. The views are outstanding and the night sky is expansive–great for photographers and stargazers! Note: No drinking water is available. There are no maintained trails. The park does not offer access to the river.
Moab is the Mecca for all things mountain biking. With some of the best trails in the world (plus skydiving, hiking, canyoneering, rafting, and more), park it for a day or two and dive, literally, into the scene.
- Edward Abbey, travel writer and all around eco-renegade, described Canyonlands National Park as, “the most weird, wonderful, magical place on earth—there is nothing else like it anywhere.” We couldn’t agree more. Countless millennia of erosion have turned this area into a maze of canyons, mesas, buttes, and other dramatic geologic formations. The park is divided into four districts: the Island in the Sky, the Needles, the Maze, and the rivers themselves. Many Escapees think they’re going to do a day trip here and end up spending several days exploring the numerous hikes and mountain bike trails within the park. Bring a saw just in case you get trapped and need to cut your arm off.
- Arches National Park is located on the Colorado River 4 miles (6.4 km) north of the town of Moab, making it a nice combo trip after touring Canyonlands. Known for containing over 2,000 sandstone arches (who counts this stuff anyway?) this place is not to be missed.
Capitol Reef National Park
In Utah’s south-central desert in the heart of red rock country, you’ll find a long “wrinkle” in the earth known as the “Waterpocket Fold”–a geologic monocline extending almost 100 miles. Capitol Reef may be one of the lesser-known National Parks in Utah, but it’s a hidden gem filled with colorful cliffs, deep canyons, massive domes, and towering arches. With far fewer crowds, you’ll truly get a feel for what the earth might have been like millions of years before life appeared when nothing existed but earth and sky.
- Chimney Rock pillar
- Hickman Bridge arch
- Cathedral Valley
- Capitol Reef is an International Dark Sky Park, with one of the darkest skies you’ll ever see (which means the most stars you might ever see). Click here to see the park’s clear sky chart.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Each year, over 1.5 million people visit Bryce Canyon, where wind, water, and time have eroded the National Park’s sandstone cliffs into spectacular geological formations and beautiful colors. Described correctly as a “Forest Of Stone,” this otherworldly landscape never fails to impress (even after what you’ve seen over the past few days of your trip!).
The parks’ main road leads past the Bryce Amphitheater, a hoodoo-filled depression lying below the Rim Trail hiking path. It has overlooks at Sunrise Point, Sunset Point, Inspiration Point, and Bryce Point, for viewing the many towering hoodoos, narrow fins, and natural bridges. Prime viewing times are around sunup and sundown. And, if you don’t want to park, hop on the shuttle and people-watch between viewpoints.
Be aware that Bryce is typically 18˚F cooler than Zion, so pack accordingly. That said, it’s a year-round national park: at an elevation of 8,000 to 9,000 feet, there are opportunities for hiking and biking as well as winter sports like snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.
Whether your idea of hiking is walking along a sidewalk-grade path, squeezing through a slot canyon, or clinging onto a chain on a ledge hundreds of feet above the valley floor, there’s something for everyone at Zion. Do the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, check out the waterfalls and hanging garden at Emerald Pools, maneuver up to Angel’s Landing, and explore the Narrows and the Subway.
Zion is both the oldest and the most visited national park in Utah. It was the state’s first federally designated park in 1919, and it shows off the oldest geologic layers that side of the Grand Canyon (around 150 million years old). November to April is the best time to dodge the heat and the crowds.
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
This remote and unspoiled 294,000-acre monument is a geologic treasure, containing Paria Plateau, Vermilion Cliffs, Coyote Buttes and Paria Canyon.
There are two developed campgrounds just outside the Monument: Stateline and White House. Dispersed camping is allowed outside the wilderness area in previously disturbed areas. There are no visitor centers on the Monument. Plan ahead and be aware of potential hazards such as rugged and unmarked roads, venomous reptiles and invertebrates, extreme heat, deep sand, and flash floods. Keep in mind that the most popular areas, like Coyote Butte, require hiking permits no matter what time of year you visit.
Horseshoe Bend, Antelope Canyon, & Grand Canyon, back to Phoenix
See above descriptions.
For the Extra Adventurous
- Hike the Havasu Canyon Trail. 3,000 feet beneath the rim of the Grand Canyon, this strenuous 8-mile hike takes you to five beautiful blue-green waterfalls. A dirt trail will take you over two small bridges to turquoise swimming holes and waterfalls that reach up to 200 feet high. Learn more about getting permits for this.
- Meteor Crater. The world’s best-preserved meteorite impact site lies just minutes from Interstate 40 in Northern Arizona.
- Wupatki National Monument. Wupatki features the ruins of the villages of the ancient Hisatsinom people (early Hopi). Walk through the ruins after a stop at the Visitor Center to get a printed guide, then visit Lomaki, Wukoki, and Citadel for a glimpse into the past of the original Arizona people.