You either waste the entire week of spring school break or use it to make memories. We chose the latter and went on a 7-day road trip across the American Southwest, exploring some of the favorite destinations and hidden gems in California, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah.
7-Day American Southwest Road Trip Itinerary: Favorite Places and Hidden Gems in California, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah
Re-exploring your favorite places, discovering new destinations, stumbling upon hidden gems you’ve never known existed… A road trip showcases a region in a completely new light. Old places become one step closer while new locations inevitably sneak into your itinerary.
We’ve been road-tripping for quite a few years already. It all started with weekend getaways to nearby towns and national parks. Slowly but surely, longer road trips, including shorter versions of this road trip across the American Southwest, became one of our favorite and pretty affordable ways to explore the U.S.
Last spring, Roshan came up with an idea of going on an even bigger road adventure. This time, we spent one week exploring California, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah. A 7-day road trip across some of the most alluring states in the American Southwest? It sounded too good to let this idea go.
Why did We Choose California, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah for Our 7-Day Road Trip across the American Southwest?
After reading several blog posts about the American Southwest, I’ve noticed that people often start their adventures in Las Vegas, Nevada. It makes sense for those who fly into the region.
The City that Never Sleeps is an irresistible place on its own. Furthermore, it’s surrounded by a number of incredible road-trip destinations that unveil the true essence of the American Southwest.
If none of them entice you just yet, driving from Las Vegas to the wold-famous national parks in Arizona and Utah shortens the time you spend on the road. On top of that, those who love road trips but loathe driving, can succumb to convenience of guided tours through different regions of the American Southwest offered by Las Vegas-based companies.
We neither needed nor longed for any guided tours at that point. Driving, taking frequent breaks, and exploring places we ached to see was at the core of our 7-day American Southwest road trip. And since we started our week-long road adventures in Los Angeles, we couldn’t help but explore a few destinations in California along the way.
When to Go on a 7-Day Road Trip across the American Southwest
Considering that some parts of the area we covered on the wheels during this road trip stay relatively unchanged throughout the year (deserts surely like to keep things simple), you can visit a few favorite and hidden destinations in the American Southwest any time of the year. Think about getting tire chains and checking for potential road closures when venturing into Northern Arizona and Utah in winter.
- If you plan a road trip across the American Southwest with kids, utilize any school breaks. Spring school break (like we did), winter holidays, summer vacations… All works here. Keep in mind, though, the popular national parks and nearby cities are busy during these times.
- Solo travelers or families without kids can jump in a car and road-trip through the American Southwest at any time. These travelers are the luckiest, no doubt. Yet if possible, avoid any popular destinations during those times when the families with school children go on their American Southwest road trips. Furthermore, stick to weekdays while exploring the national parks. On the weekends, they are the busiest.
7-DAY AMERICAN SOUTHWEST ROAD TRIP ITINERARY: PLACES TO SEE IN CALIFORNIA, NEVADA, ARIZONA, AND UTAH
We’ve shared our exact American Southwest road trip itinerary here. A few alternative routes and destinations that may interest you are included at the end of each day/section. Use this itinerary as it is or adjust it to suit your needs. Feel free to add new places or skip the entire regions altogether.
Moreover, if you have just 2 or 3 days for the road trip across the American Southwest, choose the area that is closest to your heart and leave the rest for your next adventures on the road. Without further ado, here is your 7-day American Southwest road trip itinerary.
7-Day American Southwest Road Trip: Map
AMERICAN SOUTHWEST ROAD TRIP ITINERARY: DAY 1 – PIONEERTOWN AND JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK, CALIFORNIA
Approximate time on the road: 3 hours
Stop 1: Pioneertown
Drive time from Los Angeles: 2 hours
Located on the outskirts of Joshua Tree National Park, Pioneertown is a western-themed town. The area was created as a playground for Hollywood celebrities and their families. Striving to reconstruct the elusive past, 17 investors bought a parcel of land and turned it into a quintessential western town.
All structures from a mini museum to a general store and gift shops follow the old architectural style and traditions. Some buildings, however, are fake. Joining the Pioneertown family at a later time, they complete the themed-town ambiance.
For those who set off on the American Southwest road trip without a prior preparation, Pioneertown can look like a real, old settlement. So convincing it is.
Pioneertown is a quick stop. All it asks is about 15-30 minutes of your time. So don’t linger in the area for too long as the next stop on your American Southwest road trip itinerary needs at least a full day.
Stop 2: Joshua Tree National Park
Drive time from Pioneertown: 25 minutes
Peculiar Joshua trees arouse your interest in Joshua Tree National Park in the first place. Spreading for miles on end, they adorn a vast desert, adding a strange charm you can’t resists.
They say first Mormon settlers named the trees when they saw them during their travels across the American Southwest. Stretching wide their branches-arms, these desert plants reminded the Mormons of Biblical Joshua who extended his arms to the sky in prayer.
At 1,253 square miles, Joshua Tree National Park is one of the biggest parks in California. The area sits on the territory of two deserts: the Colorado Desert and the Mojave Desert. Consequently, one part of the region looks different from the other.
The best way to explore and admire the two deserts is by taking the 101.6-mile point-to-point scenic drive. And since you’ve allocated only one day for Joshua Tree National Park during this American Southwest road trip, it’s the fasted way to see more in less time.
Hikes in Joshua Tree
If you ache for some hiking adventures, walk along a 1-mile loop trail to Barker Dam. Most of the year, the reservoir is dry as the rest of the desert. But it you happen to visit the first big destination on your American Southwest road trip after a rainy season, the dam turns into a splendid oasis, a place many desert inhabitants, including bighorn sheep, drink from.
A short drive from Barker Dam nestles another famous attraction. Resembling a skull, Skull Rock can be a quick stop or a short, 1.7-mile hike from the Jumbo Rocks Campground.
Similar situation is with Arch Rock. Sitting at the end of a 0.5-mile loop trail near the White Tank Campground, it’s a beautiful place to see the first sunset of your 7-day road trip across the American Southwest.
Alternative Hikes in Joshua Tree
Alternatively, you can venture into the area where the two deserts merge and admire the sunset at the Cholla Cactus Garden.
For those who are fixed on the idea of finding a real oasis in a desert, there is no better way to finish the first day of this week-long American Southwest road trip than hiking to the Oasis of Mara. It’s a short, 0.6-mile adventure near the small city of Twentynine Palms.
Where to Stay: The nearby city of Joshua Tree offers all sorts of accommodations, including budget and luxurious hotels, resorts, and glamping destinations. Airbnb’s, such as a camper van turned into a low-class glamping spot we stayed at in Camp Walpi, are another great option to find a home for the first night of your 7-day American Southwest road trip.
AMERICAN SOUTHWEST ROAD TRIP ITINERARY: DAY 2 – SEVEN MAGIC MOUNTAINS AND VALLEY OF FIRE STATE PARK, NEVADA
Approximate time on the road: 5 hours 40 minutes
Stop 1: Seven Magic Mountains
Drive time from Joshua Tree National Park: 2 hours 40 minutes
Located about 30 minutes from Las Vegas, Seven Magic Mountains is an art installation in the middle of a desert. Seven pillars consisting of 3 to 6 massive rocks allure the American Southwest roadtrippers from afar. Each boulder is pained in different neon colors. The vibrant shades, in their turn, add a remarkable contrast to the plain surroundings.
Stop 2: Valley of Fire State Park
Valley of Fire State Park sits approximately 1 hour from Las Vegas. Clearly overshadowed by the neon lights of the Entertainment Capital of the World, the area is still one of the best-kept secrets of Nevada.
Significantly smaller than the national park you visited on day 1 of your 7-day American Southwest road trip, Valley of Fire State Park has a lot to offer to fill your second day with jaw-dropping views and unforgettable desert adventures.
Some of the most popular places to hike here are the elusive Fire Cave Trail, the multi-colored Rainbow Vista area, and the historic White Domes Trail. The latter runs through a classic slot canyon, a movie set, and an open desert.
The highlight the state park is undoubtably the Fire Wave. A vibrant sandstone formation sits along a 1.5-mile, round-trip trail.
Those who are satisfied with the driving part of their American Southwest trip can stick to the road and admire the area through the window of their cars. The best places to do it are Mouse’s Tank Road and White Domes Road.
On top of that, some roadside natural landmarks, such as Elephant Rock and Seven Sisters, show a different side of the park. And they don’t require walking and hiking whatsoever.
Alternative Route: Las Vegas
If you wish to add some urban vibes into your 7-day road trip across the American Southwest, skip Valley of Fire State Park and spend the second day in Las Vegas. With its beautiful hotels, casinos, The Neon Museum, and night entertainment, you may need more than one day here.
And since you spend the second day of your road trip in an urban area, find a place to call home for the night in this Gambling Capital of the American Southwest.
TIP: Make sure to leave Las Vegas at dawn the following day, as the drive to Zion National Park is rather long from here.
READ MORE: Why Las Vegas is not for Everybody
Where to Stay: If you follow our American Southwest road trip itinerary to a T, drive to Washington, Utah. The place is located 1 hour 35 minutes from Valley of Fire State Park (45 minutes from Zion) and offers different accommodation options. We chose to spend a night at the budget-friendly Quality Inn (912 West Red Cliffs Drive).
AMERICAN SOUTHWEST ROAD TRIP ITINERARY: DAY 3 – ZION NATIONAL PARK, UTAH
Approximate time on the road: 2 hours 35 minutes
I’ll be the first to admit that you need at least 2 days to visit Zion National Park. Yet given that you’ve set aside only 1 day out of the 7-day road trip through the American Southwest for this region, make the most of your trip, one area at a time.
TIP: You may want to pack lunch and snacks before venturing into the Zion wilderness. Although you can stop in Springdale or Zion Lodge to grab a bite, save this time for more adventures in the park.
Stop 1: Zion Canyon Scenic Drive
If you road-trip across the American Southwest sometime between November and early March, drive along the road at your own pace. From mid-March through November, a park shuttle transports the visitors between 9 stops.
The scenic drive is a must when in Zion for the first time. The route begins at Canyon Junction and goes all the way to the Temple of Sinawava (9th shuttle stop). All the popular hikes and natural wonders nestle in this area.
Alternative Things to Do: Depending on your activity level, you can choose longer hikes, such as Angels Landing, Emerald Pool, the Narrows, and Observation Point. At the same time, Court of the Patriarchs and the Weeping Rock Trail allow you to enjoy the untamed beauty of Zion without strenuous hikes.
Stop 2: Riverside Walk Trail
If you road-trip with small kids, discover the natural wonders of the American Southwest along the Riverside Walk Trail. The trail is 1-mile long (one way). It runs along the Virgin River. At the end of the trail, you have an option to turn back or venture across the river to the famous Narrows.
Stop 3: Zion-Mount Carmel Highway
Unlike in the scenic drive area in the main canyon, no shuttle operates along Zion-Mount Carmel Highway. As a result, the place is open for self-guided tours aka drives any time of the year.
The highlight of the region is the 1.1-mile Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel. For some reasons, the area on the other side of this historic structures entices fewer visitors. Consequently, fewer crowds, more hidden gems and secret canyons sneak into your road trip across this overlooked region of the American Southwest.
Stop 4: Zion Canyon Overlook Trail
The first area to explore in the eastern section of Zion is the Canyon Overlook. The 1-mile, round-trip trail sits near the entrance to the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel. The path starts as a steep walk up the stairs. Soon it level out and continues on along a cliff edge with astounding view into Pine Creek Canyon.
As you reach the end of the trail, breathtaking vistas of the canyon with signature switchbacks on Route 9 open up. The Canyon Overlook Trail is a great alternative to the longer Observation Point hike.
Stop 5: Shelf Canyon
A hidden slot canyon, known as Shelf Canyon, sits about 500 feet from the Canyon Overlook Trailhead. Difficult to locate at first, the 0.5-mile hike bestows on you an unforgettable adventure through the almost untrodden realm of the American Southwest.
Where to Stay
For a place as popular as Zion, no shortage of lodging can ever occur. The nearest town, Springdale, is the first in line to accommodate all the visitors of the American Southwest region. Those who can afford to splurge a little bit, can stay inside the park, at Zion Lodge.
If you think about the next leg of your American Southwest road trip, try to get as closely as possible to your next destination, Bryce Canyon National Park. Panguitch Lake Resort is a beautiful option to see a different side of the Southwest and enjoy a homey vibe for the night.
The resort is located about 20 minutes from the town of Panguitch. Drive for 25 more minutes to reach Bryce Canyon National Park from here.
AMERICAN SOUTHWEST ROAD TRIP ITINERARY: DAY 4 – PANGUITCH AND BRYCE CANYON NATIONAL PARK, UTAH
Approximate time on the road: 1-3 hours
Stop 1: Panguitch
Stop in Panguitch for breakfast and a bit of history. This little town can’t wait to share with the occasional American Southwest road-trippers its survival story and passion for quilts.
Stop 2: Bryce Canyon National Park
Absolutely stunning year-round, Bryce Canyon National Park is one of the Utah’s Mighty Five. The park is nowhere as big as Zion. Thus, one day is sufficient to check out all the favorite overlooks and hike into the canyon. You can see quite a lot of the park along the Bryce Canyon Scenic Drive.
The first place you must see while road-tripping through this part of the American Southwest is Sunrise-Sunset Point area. Both overlooks introduce you to incredible hoodoos that rise almost to the rim level. A 0.5-mile trail connects the two viewing platforms.
The Sunrise-Sunset area delights also those who plan to hike into the canyon. Each overlook has a trail that swirls into the stunning abyss.
- Take the 1.8-mile, round-trip Queen’s Garden Trail if you start your Bryce Canyon’s exploration at Sunrise Point. The path snakes among the towering hoodoos, taking the hikers to a rock formation that resembles Queen Victoria.
- The 1.3-mile Navajo Loop Trail, famous for its Wall Street, starts at Sunset Point.
For inspiration from the rim, visit Inspiration Point, Bryce Point, and Natural Bridge. The Bryce Canyon scenic drive ends at Rainbow Point, the highest point in the park. Yovimpa Point, another epic overlook, sits nearby and offers different views of the canyon.
Hidden Gems in Bryce Canyon
The greatest advantage of any road trip is an opportunity to discover some of the hidden gems in the great American Southwest region. In Bryce Canyon National Park, such a secreted landmark is the Mossy Cave Trail.
The hike starts in the northern corner of the park, at the hoodoos’ foot level. The cave entices with its long icicles handing from the ceiling in winter. In summer, the tiny cavern is filled with moss.
Hike in the opposite direction of the cave, and you’ll find a Bryce Canyon’s waterfall. This natural wonder is a seasonal attraction, though. It fills the area with the sound of cascading water from May through October. The rest of the year, only a hardly-noticeable trickle reminds of the roaring waterfall.
Where to Stay: Head back to Panguitch or stay in Bryce. One of the most affordable places here is Bryce UpTop Lodge. Its services, however, are not so great. But it’s something you can work with for one night.
AMERICAN SOUTHWEST ROAD TRIP ITINERARY: DAY 5 – GLEN CANYON NATIONAL RECREATION AREA AND MONUMENT VALLEY, ARIZONA
Approximate time on the road: 5 hours 40 minutes
Stop 1: Cathedral Wash Trail
Drive time from Bryce Canyon National Park: 2 hours 40 minutes
Another hidden gem to add to your American Southwest road trip is the Cathedral Wash Trail. This 1.5-mile path nestles near the Lees Ferry Entrance to Glen Canyon. A great alternative to popular Antelope Canyon, this hidden slot passage ends at the bank of the Colorado River in Grand Canyon National Park.
Stop 2: Paria Beach, Glen Canyon
Before heading farther east, spend a few minutes at Paria Beach where the Paria River meets the Colorado River.
Stop 3: Monument Valley
Monument Valley is the epitome of the classic road trip across the American Southwest. Endless roads run through the desert, emphasizing the vastness and magnitude of the region. Sandstone structures of different sizes and shapes tower over the winding, narrow roads.
Nothing, not even sound of the passing by cars can disturb this sacred tranquility. To add Monument Valley to your road-trip adventures in the American Southwest or not to add is never a question. It’s a must.
The easiest way to explore Monument Valley is via the Monument Valley Loop Drive. This 17-mile scenic route has 11 numbered stops. It takes approximately 2-4 hours to see all of them. If you up to a more detail-filled trip, join a guided day tour.
Where to Stay: Goulding’s Apartments in Oljato-Monument Valley, Utah offer a beautiful home away from home for all Monument Valley’s guests.
AMERICAN SOUTHWEST ROAD TRIP ITINERARY: DAY 6 – THE FLAGSTAFF AND WILLIAMS AREAS, ARIZONA
Approximate time on the road: 5 hours 30 minutes
As you slowly narrowing the distance between you and the California’s border, don’t forget to explore some of the popular destinations and hidden gems near smaller cities in Arizona.
Stop 1: Wupatki National Monument
Drive time from Oljato-Monument Valley: 2 hours 30 minutes
The Arizona’s deserted area wasn’t always unwelcoming. Nearly 900 years ago, the present-day Wupatki National Monument region hosted a bustling ancient town. Only ancient ruins along a few short trails in this part of the Southwest remind of the Arizona’s heyday. You haven’t seen anything like this during this 7-day road trip across the American Southwest yet. So give the area a quick stop.
Stop 2: Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument
A 34-mile scenic loop connects Wupatki National Monument with Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument. The area is located mere 19 miles from Flagstaff and offers a few hiking trails through a hardened lava field.
Stop 3: Walnut Canyon National Monument
Drive time from Sunset Crater Volcano: 25 minutes
More ancient dwellings adorn a cliff in Walnut Canyon National Monument. The best way to approach these centuries-old abodes is by hiking the 1-mile Island Trail. Walking into the ancient cliff rooms is prohibited. Please follow the rules so many other American Southwest roadtrippers can see this historic place in person.
Stop 4: Grand Falls
Drive time from Walnut Canyon: 50 minutes
At more than 181 feet high, Grand Falls is higher than Niagara Falls. And it sits right on your way from Flagstaff to Williams, Arizona. The best time to admire this natural wonder and, for that sake, go on a road trip across the American Southwest is March and April.
Stop 5: Williams
Finish this sightseeing-packed day in Williams. Explore its Historic Route 66 area or look for company of local wildlife at Bearizona, a wildlife and safari drive-through park. You are almost done with this week-long American Southwest road trip, so take it slowly and enjoy a lazy evening at Cataract Lake or Kaibab Lake.
Where to Stay: Williams is a perfect place to find a shelter for the night. Our recommendation for the budget travelers is Rodeway Inn Williams Route 66 – Grand Canyon Area.
AMERICAN SOUTHWEST ROAD TRIP ITINERARY: DAY 7 – SYCAMORE FALLS AND LAKE HAVASU CITY, ARIZONA
Approximate time on the road: 4 hours
Stop 1: Sycamore Falls
Drive time from Williams: 25-30 minutes
Spice up your adventures in the Arizona’s part of your American Southwest road trip with a visit to Sycamore Falls. This seasonal waterfall is hidden in the Sycamore Canyon Wilderness, 15 miles from Williams.
Stop 2: Lake Havasu City, Arizona
Drive time from Sycamore Falls: 3 hours
Lake Havasu City is an optional stop on your American Southwest road trip itinerary. Home to the famous London Bridge, the city offers authentic gift shops and restaurants to explore.
Adventure and nature loving travelers also find enough places to finish their road adventures on a strong note. From ample hikes in SARA Park, outdoor activities in Lake Havasu State Park and Havasu National Wildlife Refuge to a quick trip to Parker Dam, the area needs a least a day of your time.
Alternative Route: Yet if you need to finish your American Southwest road trip on day 7, skip Lake Havasu City and head back home.
Where to Stay: For all those who decide to explore the area, Lake Havasu City offers as many lodging options as day activities. Luxury stay is guaranteed at London Beach Resort. Windsor Inn Motel Lake Havasu City works best for the budget roadtrippers.
AMERICAN SOUTHWEST ROAD TRIP ITINERARY: DAY 8 – DRIVE BACK TO LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA
Approximate time on the road: 5 hours
Tips for Successful and Enjoyable 7-Day Road Trip across the American Southwest
1. Pack Clothes for Different Seasons
Skip this step if you go on a road trip across the American Southwest in summer. All other seasons treat each and every part of this vast region differently. While you might still wear shorts and tops while hiking in Joshua Tree National Park in early April, the Bryce Canyon area feels like a real winter wonderland during this time.
2. Bring Plenty of Snacks and Water
The distances between the cities and communities in the American Southwest are normally long. Make sure you have enough snacks and water to sustain your energy before you reach the next destination.
3. Fill up a Gas Tank
Don’t leave any city in the American Southwest with a half-empty tank. You chances of finding a gas station in a desert are almost equal to zero. Don’t ruin your road trip by sitting by the side of the road with your car ran out of gas.
The national and state parks also don’t have gas stations. So prepare for the long day inside these secluded areas in advance.
4. Keep a Spare Tire Handy
Just in case. Anything can happen on the road. So it’s better to be prepared than sorry.
READ MORE: The 7 Biggest Road Trip Mistakes to Avoid
5. Download Offline Maps
Many secluded areas in the American Southwest don’t boast excellent service. Make sure to download all your maps before the trip. Bringing along a hardcopy map doesn’t hurt either.
6. Get America the Beautiful Pass
The America the Beautiful Pass opens the doors to all national parks and the majority of the national monuments and recreation areas in the U.S. You’ll have more than enough of these during your road trip across the American Southwest.
The pass costs $80 and is valid for one year. The annual national pass, however, doesn’t cover admission to state parks, such as Valley of Fire State Park.
7. Stay Flexible during Your American Southwest Road Trip
Let your American Southwest road trip be a fun experience. Allow some degree of spontaneity in it. Don’t be afraid to sway off the preplanned route and explore different sites and other best-kept secrets.
8. Slow down and Admire the Views
If a place looks interesting, stop and explore it. You may regret later on if you don’t do it. The best part of the road trip, especially the one through such a diverse region as the American Southwest, is that you can modify your itinerary as you go.