From national parks to breathtaking natural features, there is so much to see in the American southwest. The best way to explore a good chunk of the beautiful places in the area is a 5 day American southwest road trip. Five days is long enough to take an extended travel weekend and you’ll be able to pack in a lot in one trip.
I fell in love with the southwest when I hiked to Havasu Falls in Arizona, but road tripping to Zion, Bryce Canyon, Horseshoe Bend, Antelope Canyon, and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon showed me even more unique landscapes than I had ever imagined I’d see in this part of the US. This 5 day American southwest road trip guide is based on my trip and experience. There is more to see both on and off the map below that isn’t covered in this post, but this is a great place to hit the road and begin your southwestern adventure!
Zion National Park
Top hikes in Zion
You’ve already read it, but I’ll say it anyway – this hike is not for the faint of heart. Some parts are narrow and you do have a chain for support, but it’s not an impossible hike. I kept my focus on the trail and people ahead of me and was actually surprised at how much I wasn’t afraid. The most nerve-wracking part of the hike is really the number of other hikers heading up and down the trails. Slow down and be careful around opposing traffic and you’ll be just fine!
This 6.5-mile roundtrip hike requires a wilderness permit and can take about 8-9 hours. Wilderness permits are only allocated to about 80 people a day through a lottery system with a small fee. The hike isn’t difficult, but it is tiring as it’s mostly in the sun and you hike down into the canyon and in and out of the river to reach the Subway. Walking on uneven surfaces for hours is exhausting, but the Subway, little waterfalls, and jacuzzi-like pools are beautiful. Zion is very crowded everywhere, but this is one place where you can really feel some solitude…if you can secure a permit!
Unlike the Subway, the Narrows is super overcrowded. Hikers and tourists of all levels make their way in at the mouth of the Narrows, and if you can make it past the overwhelming congestion, the crowds begin to thin out. You can theoretically hike into the Narrows for miles as there isn’t a defined endpoint, but we stopped and turned around after hiking about 3.25 miles in past the “Floating Rock” landmark before the water levels were above our waists.
Important safety reminder: Check the chance of flash flooding before you hike into any canyons!
Catch a beautiful view of the sunset over the Watchman on the Pa’rus trail! It’s an easy hike from the visitor center or the main road in Zion!
Where to stay
Camp in Zion
There are two campsites in Zion – Watchman and South. Watchman is located right next to the Visitor Center, making it very convenient to catch early morning shuttles into the park so you can be one of the first on the trails. While it can get very hot, the campsites have pergolas that provide lots of shade. Campsites also offer bathrooms, drinking water, and a sink to wash out our dishes.
Hotel in Springdale
Springdale is a cute little tourist town with lots of restaurants and hotels. I stayed at the Springhill Suites in Springdale, just outside Zion, and the hotel was beautiful! Our standard room was larger than most hotel rooms I’ve stayed in. The common areas also had stunning views of the mountains! Though I love camping, I wish we had stayed here for two nights!
Where to eat
- Oscar’s: Great for burgers and Tex-Mex
- Juniper Pizza: After driving for over half the day, this pizza really hit the spot.
- Zion Pizza & Noodle Co.: Great pizza and pasta, especially after a long day of hiking. Try some of the craft beer, too! Fun fact: the alcohol law in Utah sets a limit of 3.2% alcohol by weight (4% by volume), which is probably lower than what you’re used to!
Bryce Canyon National Park
Top hikes and sights in Bryce Canyon
You don’t need to hike to see a panoramic view of the Bryce Amphitheater, just head to Sunset Point or Sunrise Point!
I didn’t think it would get better than seeing the Bryce Amphitheater from above, but it was really fun to walk in between the “hoodoo” rock figures on the short, 1.4-mile Navajo Loop. If you’re looking at a map, hike in a clockwise direction, ending with a walk through Wall Street. You’ll feel so tiny as you’re flanked by hoodoos all around.
Drive and stop at the viewpoints
There are a few other hiking trails in the amphitheater and around Bryce, but there are also some quick viewpoints you can stop at while driving like Bryce Point, Yovimpa Point, and the Natural Bridge.
Where to stay
There are two campsites in Bryce Canyon – Sunset Campground and North Campground. Depending on what time it is and where you’re headed next, you can fit Bryce Canyon into one day and not stay overnight. We had a campsite at North Campground but ended up leaving to head to Page, Arizona, so that we could watch the sunrise at Horseshoe Bend. Planning ahead for driving distances and sunrises/sunsets is key for any road trip!
Horseshoe Bend is as beautiful in real life as it is in photos. It can get very crowded in the parking lot and at the horseshoe, make sure to get in early before sunrise. The area now requires payment for entry at $10 per vehicle and opens about 30 minutes before sunrise. The sun will rise behind you as you face the horseshoe which might not sound ideal for photos, but the views are breathtaking.
Choosing between Upper vs. Lower Antelope Canyon
There are many resources online for selecting an Antelope Canyon tour. Ultimately, your best option will be to select the tour time that will offer the best lighting for photos. I knew we’d have the best luck with light beams shining through the canyon if our tour was near noon when the sun is almost directly above. With limited time to book a tour, we reserved a Deluxe Tour of Lower Antelope Canyon with Ken’s Tours. Even though this was our last resort, I’m so glad we selected this tour. Our group was small – only four visitors – and our guide helped us adjust our camera settings and showed us the best photo angles. The regular tours were much bigger with less personal attention; the deluxe tour was really worth the money!
I can personally vouch for Lower Antelope Canyon. Alternatively, you can visit other slot canyons like Canyon X if you aren’t able to visit Upper or Lower Antelope Canyon.
Where to stay
Page is a small town with lots of hotels and we selected Hyatt Place at the edge of town near the highway and Glen Canyon Dam. The location was perfect for driving to all the popular sights outside of Page and it has free breakfast! There isn’t much to do in Page itself but staying here will allow the opportunity to visit Horseshoe Bend and Antelope Canyon in the same day. Plan to visit Horseshoe Bend for sunrise, and eat breakfast at your hotel afterward. Head to Antelope Canyon after you check out for your tour around noon. You may even have time for a nap in between breakfast and your Antelope Canyon tour! It’s the perfect way to see two beautiful sites in one day.
If you’re lucky enough to win the permit lottery for The Wave, plan to spend more time staying in Page as the 6.40-mile roundtrip hike will take over half a day and a lot of energy. The Wave is such a unique and special place. Plan to spend at least an hour or two exploring the Mini Wave and other formations in the area like the Boneyard, Alcove, and Melody Arch. Be sure to pack lots of water and some lunch to enjoy when you make it to The Wave!
You can fit in hiking The Wave and Monument Valley in one day, though it’s a lot of driving and Monument Valley is actually better to visit earlier in the day for photos. It’s a good idea to do both in one day if you have limited time in the area.
It’s a four-hour roundtrip drive to tackle Monument Valley from Page, but the view of the sandstone buttes are really magnificent as you approach an drive through the valley. Make sure to stop at the famous Forrest Gump Hill at mile marker 13 to see the iconic view of the road leading to Monument Valley.
Hot tip: arrive at Monument Valley earlier in the day so your photos aren’t backlit and you can actually see the buttes behind you at the Forrest Gump Hill. This photo was taken around 4PM and it was a bit disappointing not to have the buttes clearly visible in the background.
Grand Canyon National Park
The South Rim is one of the more popular parts of the Grand Canyon. Plan to watch the sunrise and/or sunset while at the South Rim — the view is spectacular and both the sunrise and sunset are worth watching. You can hike down into the actual canyon or explore the well-known vistas along the Rim Trail such as Hopi Point, Yaki Point, and Yavapai Point. Parking isn’t permitted in some areas but there are plenty of shuttles every 15 minutes so you won’t be waiting for long.
The North Rim of the Grand Canyon is a different vibe from the South Rim, and is less popular. The canyon looks a bit different from this angle – it’s still vast and beautiful but greener. Bright Angel Point is a quick and easy walk from the North Rim Lodge for a view of the wide canyon. Don’t be fooled; it is quite high up and the height definitely had me a little weak in the knees!
You might not be able to fit all of these destinations in a 5 day American southwest road trip, but even visiting a few will give you a newfound infatuation with this part of the US and world. You’ll most certainly return to check out all of these places one day.