How to Plan an American Southwest National Parks Road Trip
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How to Plan an American Southwest National Parks Road Trip

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A few summers back, a friend asked to go on a trip during our work break. Having just come back from Austria, I suggested something local to us in the United States, and that’s when the idea of planning an American Southwest National Parks road trip was born. With little time to plan and only a few weeks left before we were due to return to our prospective shows, a 1 week National Park roadtrip commenced.

Planning a 1 Week National Park Roadtrip

I began planning our American Southwest National Parks road trip by researching what beautiful locales were within reasonable driving distance of Los Angeles, CA. After considering multiple factors, I came up with the list below.

First, neither of us was extremely active, so we avoided National Parks with difficult trails. Second, we obviously wanted some lovely views, so we scoped out images of the parks. Third, some locations were selected for their historical or wow factor, such as Mesa Verde National Park or Petrified Forest, respectively.

Note that there are many lovely places to see in the Southwest USA area. One such place is Canyonlands. However, after laying out the locations I had gathered on a Google Map, we found it to be a little out of the way of the loop I had created with the other National Parks and destinations I’ve listed below, so we skipped it. And feel free to do the same with this 1 week National Park roadtrip itinerary. If one of the locales doesn’t jive with you, skip it or swap it!

How to Save at American Southwest National Parks

If you take nothing else away from this blog post, take this. You can save money visiting the American Southwest National Parks by either getting a pass that covers multiple parks for a year or checking with your local library.

When I did this trip, libraries in California were allowing you to borrow a National Parks pass. I looked this up, and it seems they have this for California parks now, but I can’t find it otherwise. However, check this by your particular state, as it may vary. It’s worth a shot to save some money!

Or, you can plan around the six days that the National Park Service sites offer free admission. Note these are the dates for 2024, so please check their calendar for the latest info:

My only concern with these dates is that they may make the park busy, so attendance may be limited. Please keep that in mind.

Reservations at National Parks

We didn’t have any issues when we visited in the Summer of 2018, but the National Parks Services site states that some highly visited parks use a seasonal or year-round timed entry system to manage vehicle traffic. So, if you’re planning to drive into one of these parks while the timed entry system is in effect, they recommend making a reservation in advance.

None of the American Southwest National Parks I’ve listed below apply to this system, but I wanted to note it nonetheless in case you add another park to your itinerary that it does apply to.

1 week national park roadtrip

An American Southwest National Parks Road Trip

We began our 1 week National Park roadtrip early in the morning from Los Angeles, CA, and drove out in my car towards Zion National Park, which is located in the Southwest corner of Utah. This was about a 6.5-hour drive, so by the time we got there, we were ready to stretch our legs on an afternoon hike!

Zion National Park

Parking is limited inside Zion National Park, and lots are commonly filled early in the day. Since we were arriving in the afternoon, we opted to avoid that headache. Instead, we parked in the nearby town of Springdale and rode the free Springdale Shuttle to the park’s Pedestrian Entrance.

We picked the trails we wanted to attempt while there based on our energy level and experience. Please check the official Zion Canyon trail descriptions for detailed descriptions and the latest information, such as closures that may affect some trails’ availability. I recall we did the Lower Emerald Pool trail, which takes you through a small creek, and the Weeping Rock Trail, both of which are listed as “easy.”

Lower Emerald Pool is listed as 1 hour, and Weeping Rock is listed as .5 hour, but I believe we were there for about 3 hours. Likely because of the shuttle in and out, shuttling between the two trails, and taking extra time for photos. As I’m not a huge nature girl, that amount of time was perfect for me. I could have added another hour or two, but I recall we were rushing a bit as we had to make the last shuttle in order to get back to my car.

Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon National Park was my favorite of the American Southwest National Parks we visited. It is simply stunning! It feels like a planet you’d see in Star Trek. I honestly have no other way to describe it except maybe hot.

As we visited in June, it was broiling. Make sure to bring water with you on trails, as there was nowhere to get any water, to my recollection, in these parks. I recall sticking to shade where I could get it, and that helped a bit.

While at Bryce Canyon National Park, we did an easy trail, Queens Garden, and a moderate trail, Navajo Trail. They make a combination loop that gives you a great opportunity to see Bryce from many different areas. The Queen’s/Navajo Combination Loop is the most popular hike in the park and a top recommendation for first-time visitors. It combines the open views and unique hoodoos of the Queen’s Garden Trail with the switchbacks and towering canyon walls of the Navajo Loop Trail.

It took us about 3-4 hours to complete the 2.9-mile loop. We got lost towards the end and went a bit farther than needed, but we quickly figured it out and corrected ourselves. Note the entrance fee to Bryce Canyon National Park includes unlimited use of the park’s shuttle during its operating season.

Horseshoe Bend

Not one of the official American Southwest National Parks, however, Horseshoe Bend has gotten popular over the years as an Instagram spot for its unique and gorgeous view of the Colorado River. The Horseshoe Bend overlook faces West, so please note that before sunrise and after sunset, the view of the Colorado River below tends to be in shadow, but at other times of the day, it is fully visible. 

Upon arriving, you’ll see a sign for Horseshoe Bend overlook and a large parking area. From there, you walk out to the overlook. There are signs as you leave the parking lot to take water with you. Since it was such a short walk to the overlook, I ignored this. BIG mistake! Please, oh please, do not do what I did, as I wound up nearly passing out on our walk back to the car. I actually had to stop and take a rest in the one shaded area nearby that was packed with people.

It’s approximately a 1.25-mile, 30-minute roundtrip walk from the parking lot to the overlook. It’s also flat, but none of this stopped me from feeling like I may faint. I didn’t even think that it was that hot out or that I was that dehydrated, but apparently, I was. All in all, it’s beautiful, but please take precautions, water, and keep away from the edge for safety.

Monument Valley

Monument Valley, even though it’s not one of the American Southwest National Parks, was on the top of my 1 week National Park roadtrip list as it’s been the filming location of many films and TV shows, such as Thelma & Louise, Forrest Gump, The Lone Ranger, A Million Ways to Die in the West, Westworld, and many more. And it’s no wonder—it’s spectacular.

We chose to get a guided tour of Monument Valley as the loop you do involves very rough terrain and deep sand dunes. I have a coupe, so it’s not a rugged terrain vehicle, which made me concerned. Rather than chance it, getting a guide with a Jeep seemed a far better idea and allowed me to concern myself with the experience rather than possible car trouble. It also gave us a chance to learn about this Navajo Tribal Park from someone who grew up in the Navajo Nation.

Our guide took us on the 17-mile loop drive, showing us the scenic beauty and magnificent formations while telling us about Navajo culture and history and, of course, what films have captured the natural wonder of Monument Valley. He also stopped at certain locations so that we could get out and take photos. I highly recommend a guide, not only for car concerns but in order to learn while experiencing this breathtaking valley. We took an 1.5-hour tour, but you can find tours of varying lengths that fit your schedule.

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Mesa Verde National Park

If you’re looking for a low-key addition to your 1 week National Park roadtrip, Mesa Verde is it! I loved Mesa Verde not only for its cliff dwellings—the ancient homes and villages of the Ancestral Pueblo people who lived here for more than 700 years—but because this was a tour I could take in my car.

Remember, it was mid-summer when I went, so it was HOT! We had also been hiking the last few places, so any excuse to sit in the air conditioning was perfectly fine with me. One note, though: I recall the Mesa Top Loop Road, which is a 6-mile (10 km) drive, being a bit windy in case you get car sick.

Along the road are short, paved trails to view twelve ancestral sites, including surface sites and overlooks of cliff dwellings. The first stop of the tour is Pithouse, where you can get a printed guide to the Mesa Top Loop. You can also download their audio tour, Mesa Top Loop Drive: A Pueblo Perspective, and listen along in your car or on your phone, which takes about an hour.

Petrified Forest National Park

Another more leisurely addition to your 1 week National Park roadtrip is the Petrified Forest. As it’s mostly flat, it’s easy enough to get around this area, so much so that I recall seeing strollers on the paved trails. I don’t recall which trail we did. I know we were only there a couple hours, but there are several trails for you to choose from depending on how long you’d like to spend.

Of all the American Southwest National Parks, the Petrified Forest is best known for its Triassic fossils and the landscape of the Painted Desert. Having turned to stone during the last 225 million years, these large petrified trees now contain a multitude of rainbow hues.

What’s nice about this park is that you can get super close to the trees. I don’t advise touching them and harming anything, but it’s incredible how close you can get to see the crystalized shapes of the rings within the trees. You almost feel like you’re in some Jurassic world while there. Even as recently as 2013, researchers unearthed a well-preserved, two-foot-long phytosaur skull, a distant ancestor of the modern crocodile.

Sedona

You probably didn’t expect to see McDonald’s on this 1 week National Park roadtrip! Right? Well, we got into Sedona late, and on our way to our hotel, I spotted these turquoise arches. I had read an article on the internet eons ago and recalled that it’s the only McDonald’s in the world that doesn’t feature the golden arches. Why?

Well when the Sedona McDonald’s was built in 1993, city officials believed that a bright yellow M would intrude on the surrounding natural scenery. Claiming that gold would clash with the surrounding red rocks, the city is famous for. So they settled on a soft blue to match the city’s (natural) decor.

Aside from McDonald’s, there is plenty to see in Sedona. However, we didn’t get a chance to as we were running out of time and running low on energy with the heat and amount of driving I was doing during this 1 week National Park roadtrip. If we had rotated drivers, that may have helped, but we didn’t wind up doing that. So, instead, I’ll post some Sedona suggestions for you to take advantage of.

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Grand Canyon National Park

The last stop on this 1 week National Park roadtrip was the Grand Canyon. I’ve heard about the Grand Canyon nearly my entire life, but I have to say, of all the American Southwest National Parks, this was the one I was least impressed by.

I’m not sure if it was because it was the end of the trip, I was tired of driving, or the heat, but I basically parked, walked near the edge, looked down, and that was it. My friend had to actually con me into walking around the South Rim some more.

We wound up hanging around the Village Historic District for an hour to two, which includes a Visitors Center, Hopi House, and the Grand Canyon Railway Depot. If I had had the energy to hike down, maybe I would have enjoyed it. Who knows? But of all the National Parks on this 1 week National Park roadtrip itinerary, this is the one I’d skip if I were to do this all over again.

Where to Stay Near American Southwest National Parks

On our 1 week National Park roadtrip, we didn’t book any accommodations ahead of time because we decided to go at our own pace. This is extremely unusual of me as I’m used to plan, plan, plan, but it was actually nice to just see where we were towards the end of daylight hours and pick hotels and motels along our route.

The first accommodation we stayed at was just outside the Zion area in Hurricane, UT. We chose Hurricane over Springdale, which is at Zion’s door, because it was far more affordable. Hurricane is a much larger town than Springdale, allowing more choices in places to stay affordably. There are other towns around Zion, however, so as long as you’re looking in the larger areas, you should be able to find something in your budget.

We then stayed in Hatch, UT which is near Bryce Canyon—followed by Mexican Hat, which is near Monument Valley. We then moved to Gallup, NM, located near the Petrified Forest. And finally, a hotel in Sedona before a stay in Kingman on our way back to Los Angeles.

Final Thoughts on Planning an American Southwest National Parks Roadtrip

I would highly recommend this 1 week National Park roadtrip as we were able to do a lot in a short amount of time. My suggestions for adjustments to what I did would be to rotate drivers and go in a month with a cooler climate, as I did feel the heat sapping my energy on a daily basis.

To conclude, here’s a quick outline of 1 week National Park roadtrip…

Day 1: Leave Los Angeles, hike at Zion National Park, stay in Hurricane
Day 2: Hike Bryce Canyon National Park, stay in Hatch
Day 3: Hike Horseshoe Bend, stay in Mexican Hat
Day 4: Take a tour of Monument Valley, drive around Mesa Verde National Park, stay in Gallup
Day 5: Hike Petrified Forest National Park, stay in Sedona
Day 6: Visit Grand Canyon National Park, stay in Kingman
Day 7: Drive back to Los Angeles

Want to remember this? Pin this How to Plan an American Southwest National Parks Road Trip article to your favorite Pinterest board!

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