The Southwest trip explores the great features of desert lands molded by wind and water. The featured destination is Grand Canyon National Park, a massive canyon shaped by millennia of erosion by the powerful Colorado River. From fragile sandstone arches to expansive valleys, this loop combines many of the most revered national parks into one manageable itinerary.
Along the Way
- Visit Hoover Dam
The Hoover Dam tour, despite it's depiction on National Lampoon's Vegas Vacation, is a tribute to the sheer determination of the worker's who built it. The exit to Hoover Dam is located 30 minutes south of Las Vegas on Hwy 93. Be aware of the new traffic pattern with the large expansion bridge which now traverses the canyon below. The adult tour rate is $11, but children under 17 are free. There is also a parking fee.
Continue on towards the Grand Canyon. Kingman, AZ is a fairly large town and an ideal location to stock up on food and drinks for the rest of the trip. There are great deal of accommodation options within the park, but many fill up quickly. More than any other stay on the trip, we highly recommend reserving your accommodations for the Grand Canyon far in advance. With this being the featured stop of the loop, you should make two nights accommodation. You will be arriving at an area called the South Rim, so be sure to book accommodations at the South Rim, such as Grand Canyon Village. There are no roads across the canyon, so it is over 4 hours between the two park entrances. Lodging in the park is handled by Xanterra >>.
Grand Canyon National Park South Rim
The variety of activities to do at the Grand Canyon is quite diverse. There is the option of burro rides into the canyon, hiking along the rim, or even hiking down a part of Bright Angel Trail. A word of warning, hiking to the bottom of the canyon and back in one day is highly discouraged. There are horror stories about visitors trying to attempt this hike. Our recommendation is to hike maybe one hour down into Bright Angel Trail knowing that it will take an additional 2 hours to return to the top. Pack a plentiful amount of water even for this 3 hour hike as temperatures spike as high at 120 degrees in the canyon. Be sure to be on the lookout for California condors. These giant birds were nearly extinct, but have taken up residence on the cliffs of the Grand Canyon and are beginning to expand in numbers. The park map >> is not very descriptive, but should give you an overview of the area.
Along the Way
- Drive through Monument Valley
- Visit Arches National Park
This is the longest driving day of the trip, so we recommend an early start. Much of the drive is through rural Arizona, meaning less options for food, fuel, and stops; so please plan accordingly. As you approach Kayenta, AZ turn left onto Hwy 113 to travel through Monument Valley. The hour drive shows some of the most dramatic tower formations in the country. Continue north towards Moab, UT. Off Hwy 191, there is a turn off for state route 211 to Canyonlands National Park. However, we don't recommend making this side trip. With the large amount of driving left, we recommend skipping this park to spend more time in Arches National Park.
Arches National Park is located just north of Moab. Many of the larger arches in the park are easily within reach of parking lots. The only one that isn't, is the popular Delicate Arch. However, it is a rather long hike, so ensure there is adequate time to see the rest of the park before embarking on this hike. Consult the park map >> for further details.
With the lack of accommodations in Arches, we recommend making a hotel or lodging accommodation in Moab. There are many options, but we preferred the River Canyon Lodge >>.
We recommend rafting the Colorado River or biking near Moab on Day 5. However, if you opt not to do either activity, then you may take that state route 211 mentioned above into the Needles area >> of Canyonlands National Park on Day 4 and save Arches National Park for Day 5. Please note, there is also a state route 313 north of Moab that says it will lead into the Island in the Sky area of Canyonlands National Park, however, it leads to a high elevation area that only allows an overview of the park, not any of the well know features, so we recommend avoiding the Hwy 313 entrance.
Outdoor Activity near Moab
Moab is popular for the many outdoor activities around the town, such as waterwater rafting the Colorado River or bike riding in the red hills. Our recommended activity is the Westwater Canyon full day rafting trip, called by some the best single day rafting trip in the country. We highly recommend Tag-A-Long Expeditions >>. Their expert guides will navigate the rapids comfortably even for the novice rafter. However, the rate is between $160 and $175 depending on time of year, so this does tend to be one of the pricier expeditions that we recommend on any of our loop trips.
There are also many other activities in the area from bike riding, 4x4ing, or kayaking. We recommend exploring the one of your choice.
As stated as part of Day 4, if you choose not to do any outdoor activity on Day 5, you should split Day 4 and Day 5 between the Needles section of Canyonlands National Park and Arches National Park.
Along the Way
- Visit Capitol Reef National Park
- Drive through Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
Leaving Moab to the north, you will turn onto I-70, but only for a short while. You will want to travel south on Hwy 24 toward Hanksville, UT. By entering Bryce Canyon into your GPS, most will have you stay on I-70 most of the way, but you will end up missing the two main features for today that way.
Capitol Reef National Park can be explored in just a few hours, due to the proximity of all of the attractions. The stops can be found on the park map >>. The petroglyphs, The Castle, and Chimney Rock are specifically noteworthy stops.
When you reach Torrey, UT, take a left going south on Hwy 12 towards Boulder, UT. In Boulder, we recommend stopping off at the Anasazi Indian State Park for a brief history about the Native Americans who called this area home. Many of the tribes went on to become the Pueblo Indians, the makers of the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park. The drive from Boulder to Tropic, UT will take you across the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The road sits tightly on a razorback formation with sheer cliffs on either side.
With the length of the drive on Day 6 and the visit of Bryce Canyon on Day 7, we recommend making two night's accommodation in Bryce Canyon National Park or Tropic, UT. With the lack of space in the accommodations within Bryce Canyon, we recommend the Ruby's Inn >> just outside the park.
Visit Bryce Canyon National Park
The Bryce Amphitheater area is the main attraction of the park. Many visitors start at Sunrise Point and make their way up to Rainbow Point. We recommend the opposite approach. You can see the details on the park map >>. Starting at Rainbow Point, walk down part of the Under-the-Rim Trail. The entire length of the trail is too much for one day, but a good hour into the canyon gives up close vistas of the hoodoo formations. Depending on the time of year, sometimes cars are permitted on the roads and sometimes you must take the park shuttle. Ask the rangers when you arrive in the park.
After visiting all of the higher elevation points (in the southern part of the park), make your way back and explore the Amphitheater region.
For a different aspect of the park, near sunset, drive back to Rainbow Point. After the sun sets, the stars come out in a clarity that you will rarely encounter anywhere else. The bright moon and glowing stars make for a serene experience.
The drive from Bryce Canyon to Zion National Park is a short 2 hours, allowing a decent amount of time within the park. The drive into the park from the east entrance has you passing through a narrow tunnel, a very neat experience. Unlike in Bryce, Zion has a restriction on cars at all time for the majority of the park. Park your vehicle in the main parking found on the park map >> and get on the shuttle. The Emerald Pools hike and the Weeping Rock are two recommended stops.
For accommodations, you can either stay in the park, or, depending on how early you complete your visit, you can drive the 3 hours back into Las Vegas.
Return to Las Vegas and take the evening to enjoy a show or a Las Vegas buffet.
Return flight home.
Day 10 is the final day of the loop. Return your rental vehicle and begin the trek home. We hope you truly enjoy the loop experience and have found that you were able to see much more in this one trip than you could have imagined.