From the mountain peaks of Colorado to rocky landscape of Utah and the deserts of Arizona, the American Southwest is home to endless sights and countless adventure opportunities. When it comes to exploring the region there’s really no way to experience it all quite like driving and the Southwest offers a truly epic road trip venue. Any time of year is fair game for a visit but if you’re up for a some real adventure, avoid the crowds by visiting in winter or early spring where you’ll get a real wilderness experience and find some killer deals on your travels as well.
The Route: 1,228 miles over 7-14 days
All said, a proper southwest trip needs requires at least a week on the road and even then expect to be driving daily to see even just a small slice of it all. Expand things out to two weeks to give yourself more time for hiking, climbing, skiing, four-wheeling, rafting and just about any other type of outdoor activity you can imagine along the way. The longer you have the explore, the better as this is one those trips where every bit of the road has another sight, stop or experience to check out!
Day One: Arrive in Denver, Head to Colorado Springs
By the time you make it to Denver chances are you’ll be well into your first day so grab your rental car, stop by a local store and pick up supplies before making the easy 70 mile / 70 minute drive south to Colorado Springs for the night. If you do manage to arrive earlier in the day, take the afternoon and explore Denver (about 20-30 minutes from the airport) or consider jump starting the drive with a trip down i70 making stops in Vail, Breckenridge and other mountain towns before spending the night around Glendwood Springs.
Day Two: Mountain Roads to Ouray
With travel out of the way, it’s time to hit the road early and take in the stunning 5-6 hour mountain drive into Ouray where you’ll find your first adventures. It’s best to leave around sunrise on this ride (and all the ones to come) as the views from start to finish are worth catching though if conditions on the road are good, getting a dark start will give you more time to play along the way. There are many quick viewpoints to scope out along the way though the first must make pit stop has to be Monarch Pass which marks the continental divide and also sits at a whopping 11,312′ (3,448 m); it’s a sweet sign post for sure.
As you near the turn off for Ouray about 4 hours into the day you’ll have the chance to properly stretch your legs making the short detour up to Black Canyon Of The Gunnison National Park. The park is often passed by which is an absolute shame as even the visitor center has a view worthy of a million photos. In winter access to the park is limited as the road stops just a few miles in but you can cross country ski or snowshoe to explore further while summer has a stunning view drive and endless hiking options.
After a few hours in the park (or just a few minutes if you’re only stopping at the view points), complete the last 90 minutes of the day’s drive heading South through Montrose and into the town of Ouray where you’ll find a small collection of fun shops, several dining options, a host of local motels and a couple campsites (skiers, consider heading to Telluride for the night instead.) After you’ve explored around a bit, perhaps taking an hour to make the short hike to Lower Box Canyon Falls, head back into town for dinner at one of the town’s great restaurants such as Brickhouse ($$$), Buen Tiempo ($$) or Maggie’s Kitchen ($).
Day Three: Adventures at Ouray
Ouray may seem small but it has plenty to offer both in its local sights / history and surrounding activities. In winter the town is home to the famous Ouray ice climbing park which makes for an epic adventure stop for any trip whether you’re new to ice or a seasoned climber. Guides are pretty much required to effectively climb as a novice and service are best booked in advance (here’s a list of permitted operators.) While it was a bit of a drive, we had a great time learning to climb with a last minute, half day course in the nearby (and larger) resort town of Telluride which is also worth exploring for its amazing sights and world class skiing.
In summer you can go big or small on adventures without leaving the city. From Jeep rentals (or tours) to white water rafting, rock climbing, fly fishing, hiking, mountain biking, the list of options is pretty much limitless. Inside the city limits you’ll also find a massive outdoor hot springs to soak in, waterfalls you can casually walk right over to, nearby ghost town buildings and plenty of touristy shops and stops to make during the day.
Day Four: Moab – Arches, Dead Horse Point & Canyonlands
Returning to the next day it’s only a few hours over to Moab, Utah though with the incredible parks found around town you’ll be lucky to make it to your hotel or campground before sunset. Even just driving through the mountain range as you exit Colorado is something else with numerous 14,000′, 13,000′ and 12,000′ peaks around as you descend down back towards lower ground.
The town of Moab is pretty stunning on its own (even more so at night) with vintage themed stores all surrounded by towering, rock cliffs. The views however only gets better as you continue to explore the area with two national parks and a state park all within striking distance, even on a one day trip though you’ll want more time if you can swing it. Start by heading north to Arches National Park, stop to stretch your legs on the easy Park Avenue trail or get a moderate hike in visiting the famous Delicate Arch further into the park.
Once you’ve seen a bit of the park, head back south towards the towering rocks that lie outside Canyonlands National Park‘s NE entrance. Before you get there you’ll want to swing by Dead Horse State Park to peer into the canyons carved out by the Colorado River of course (photo below.) Walk around the paved view trail for a bit, grab a coffee at the little food hut and refill water bottles before you leave the park as Canyonlands has few facilities to offer.
Finish the day spending every moment of remaining sunlight at Canyonland’s Island in the Sky area (there are three parts to Canyonlands but they don’t connect up inside). Hikes and viewpoints can be found at every turn with iconic sunset views like Mesa Arch. On a clear evening you may even want to think about sticking around for the stars as the remote setting lets the sky truly light up. Heading back into Moab you’ll find plenty of food options including a solid burger at The Spoke on Center, breakfast for the next morning at Jailhouse Cafe and even some all late night Mexican eats at Fiesta Mexicana.
Heading all the way up to Moab does add a few hours to the overall drive (though it only has a few minutes of repeated roads) so if you’re pressed for time, you may want to think about skipping this or one of the next two stops to give yourself more time in the others.
Day Five: Four Corners to The Grand Canyon
Hopefully you’ve elected to extend your trip by this point and have another day to explore Moab’s parks before returning to the road but when you do get back on the pavement, it’s off to the Grand Canyon’s south rim with another action packed day! This is the second longest single drive of the trip but the road over is really a tour all on its own anyways. After an hour or so of Utah scenery, you’ll enter Arizona and the Navajo National Reservation where you’ll spend the next few hours trying your best to make progress as the endless views drive you to try and stop every few minutes.
Speaking of stops, be sure to swing a right off the road at Four Corners, a monument marking the shared intersection of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona. The monument is on Navajo lands and comes with an entrance fee of $5 a person which no pass will cover but it’s a fun photo op and a chance to chat with some of the Native American locals away from the big shops as they sell craft goods around a series of vendor booths.
Returning to the road the views just get better and better (Have another day to add to the trip? Take the long way through Monument Valley and start the Grand Canyon tomorrow instead.) until you reach the end of highway 160 and drop South via high 89 which connects over to the Grand Canyon’s highway 64 (aka Desert View Drive.) Be sure to take a stretch break at the giant, super touristy, and downright amusing Cameron Trading Shop where you’ll find literally every souvenir you can think of as well as a restaurant and mini-mart for food before you enter the national park.
While there’s still more than an hour of driving left for your day, almost all of it will be along the rim of The Grand Canyon now so clear out some space on your phone and plan to stop a lot! From the first viewpoint at the historic Desert View Watchtower to Mather Point out by the visitor center, every side of the road stop or turn off gives a different perspective at the magnificent spectacle that is the Grand Canyon.
Add a second day at the Grand Canyon and hike on down to Three Mile House on the Bright Angel Trail or Skeleton Point on the South Kaibab Trail. Entering the canyon just a few thousand feet gives a completely experience than you’ll have at the top, plus it justifies a hearty meal at one of the South Rim’s many restaurants. If you do decide to hike in, be sure to bring plenty of supplies including loads of water in summer and your microspikes in winter!
Day Six: Horseshoe Bend & Zion National Park
Your trip may be into its final days but the sights are far from over. Back tracking over highway 64 at sunrise will give you one final perspective on the Grand Canyon before you drop down into the heart of the Southwest’s desert. Things could not look more different from the views of Colorado you had a few days before as you continue north on highway 89 towards Zion and it’s not long before your first stop amazing at Horseshoe Bend.
Like Dead Horse Point and The Grand Canyon, Horseshoe Bend is a feature carved out by the mighty Colorado river over the ages. Here the water took a sharp shift creating a u-turn around the towering canyon walls and leaving a sight that’s something else, if you’re willing to make the easy (but scorching hot in summer) 1.5 mile roundtrip hike up to the edge (it’s over 1,000′ down so don’t get too close… the sandstone does not always stay put!)
Returning to the road, you’ll pass by more amazing mountains and rock landscape as you close back in on Utah for the second time this trip. Major city stops are sparse along this stretch of the trip but you will find a few gas stations and sandwich spots in the towns of Kanab and Mt. Carmel Junction. If you’re spending more time in Zion, consider booking a cabin at the Zion Ponderosa Ranch Resort on the east side of the park where you’ll find a host of fun activities in summer and one heck of a view all year long.
Like with the Grand Canyon, your day ends driving through the main attraction as you enter Zion National Park on the east side and pass through what I consider to be some of the best of the entire trip. With its magnificent rock formations and towering views, Zion has become my second favorite park in the US (go Yosemite) and is worth many days of exploring on its own. To really experience the place without too much effort, stop off at the moderate Canyon Overlook Trail (just before the main tunnl), grab your pack and make the 2 mile (r/t) hike to the view point at the end of the way. More adventerous hikers may want to dart over to the sheer cliffs of Angel’s Landing or the towering views of Observation Point though you’ll want at least half a day for either of thsoe.
The Zion Lodge is an amazing spot to stay at though you’ll find a few more traditional hotels outside the park in the small town of Springdale and many more an hour further in Hurricane, UT. For on the road eats, consider stopping Sol Foods’ deli or the casual Zion Cafe across the street. More sophisticated dining options dot the town as well though I’ve yet to make it past camp food myself!
Day Seven: Valley of Fire to Vegas, Baby!
Ending a trip is always bittersweet as you return to reality and the urban world though not before taking in a few more views. The road from Utah to Arizona to Nevada ranges from barren to epic as you pass right through one mountain pass before spotting many more out in the distance.
It’s only a few hours from Zion to Vegas, less if you stayed the night in Springdale or Hurrican so if you’re not entirely ready for neon lights and cityscapes yet, zip on over to Valley of Fire State Park. This is yet another under appreciated gem of the Southwest complete with rock arches, painted hills, old buildings, petroglyphs and plenty of easy to challenging hikes to explore around on yourself.
After you’ve had your fill of the park zip on down the last hour of your drive and stop over at the Las Vegas welcome sign to mark your final destination and your return to urban life.
If you’ve never been to Vegas before, it’s well worth enduring the madness and driving the strip to take it all in of course. Stop for a drink (unless you’re the driver) at any casino you like; tour the Titanic Museum at the Luxor, see Marvel costumes at Treasure Island, water shows at the Bellagio, or put a few bucks on red 27 for me in the casino. If you have a night before your flight out, let Vegas reorient you to the world while also inspiring you to plan your next escape from civilization at the same time. Dining is world class, hotels on off season days are dirt cheap (just be sure to look up the resort fees), spas are plentiful and you can get just about anything you may need for souvenirs to take on home with you.
Travel Tips for a Southwest Road Trip
- Arrival: Denver (DEN) and Las Vegas (LAS) airports are major destinations and easy to get to and get back from worldwide. Look for alternative flights to Colorado Springs where you may save a few bucks and some city driving if you’re traveling in from the west coast.
- Rental Car: Summer in the Southwest is the perfect time to think about that convertible while winter and early spring really require an SUV with winter-friendly tires. Look into off airport rentals for better prices and take mass transit or Uber over to pick up.
- Key supplies: Before you head too far out of town be sure to stock up on plenty of water water, snacks and other road essentials. You’ll be passing through remote areas on mountain roads so stay well supplied and keep your fuel tank topped off regularly.
- Conditions: With lots of mountain driving, even a summer trip may mean some rather cold days or at least hours. In winter expect to be in some frigid temps pretty much all the way until Vegas while summer is the polar opposite and compete shorts + sunscreen weather.
- Lodging: In summer and fall there are many options for camping in public and private lands along the way but with heavy crowds, booking early is important. Winter options are more limited though with a little deal hunting, decent hotels & motels should run around $70 – $90 a night. Only a few hostels along the way.
- Permits: Most of the major stops on this trip are in US National Parks. Pick up an annual pass for $80 and you’ll save a few bucks versus paying at the gate each stop.