Wanderlust Wendy

U.S. Southwest Road Trip: 10-Day National Park Loop Across Arizona & Utah

After a tour of the East Coast, we head west to Las Vegas to begin a 10-day national park loop across the American Southwest. We enjoyed this journey with my parents to celebrate their retirement. The beauty of US national parks is the well-planned facilities and trail path. Regardless of your physical abilities, there is something to enjoy for everyone. Before departure, be sure to prepare a great playlist, and allow extra time on the journey to be spontaneous. In between these great wonders exist equally mesmerizing sites along the way. 

Pro Tip: If you are visiting quite a few parks within a year, buy an annual pass at any of the National Park visitor centers. For $80/year, you can have unlimited access. Well worth it!

Also, when visiting parks for the day, pack a lunch to avoid paying over-priced food within the park, and can enjoy your food over wherever you like. Just remember to pick up all the trash to keep the space clean for future visitors!

Day 1-2: Las Vegas 

With ample points from the Chase Saphire Reserve card, I cashed in for two nights at the Signature at MGM Grand to kick off this road trip. These suite-style rooms have a fold-out couch, which makes them cheaper than booking two separate rooms. 

Since it’s my first time, and likely the last time to visit Vegas, I made sure to hit up all the hot spots. We bought a 24-hour bus pass for Las Vegas Deuce that goes up and down the Vegas strip, and visited various hotels. After stuffing ourselves with the buffet at ARIA in the afternoon, we left the Strip and visited the Container Park downtown. That was a refreshing break from casino frenzy and neon-light overload. If you didn’t already fill-up on buffet, there are a few nice-looking restaurants for food and drinks in the park. 

Back to the Strip in the evening. I had booked tickets for Mystere, a Cirque du Soleil show. The entertainment absolutely lives up to the hype and its ticket price. I was never into the idea of Vegas, and people tell me the shows are good. I concur, the shows are pretty solid. After the main event are the hotel shows. The Volcano at Mirage has a show hourly at 8, 9, and 10pm, and the Bellagio Fountain goes off every 15 minutes in the evening. 

Et voilà, I experienced the Vegas strip. It’s over-the-top, borderline obnoxious with constant stimulation coming from all angles. Everything about the strip is rather excessive and wasteful. For better or worse, it’s a part of America, and I’m glad I witnessed it. 

Day 3: Hoover Dam & Arrival to Parks, Arizona

Picked up the rental car at the airport in the morning, and headed east on US-93 and I-40, heading for Parks, Arizona, where I found a gorgeous home on a remote plot of land on HomeAway. The location still a ways away from Grand Canyon, but the price was right. I had more luck with HomeAway than AirBnB for properties near the national parks. 

We stopped by Hoover Dam on the way. It was packed with people. We parked the car to walk along the bridge to marvel at the dam, though I must admit it’s slightly underwhelming than what it seems on TV. Though I suppose when considering this was built in the 1930s, the engineering feat from that time period is rather impressive. We opted to avoid the crowd and skipped the tour, but for engineering buffs, this may be a worthwhile activity!

For lunch, we stopped at Mr. D’z Route 66 Diner. I found it hilarious that there were so many foreign visitors in this random diner in the middle of nowhere. The tourists stood out against the local patrons. The diner was kitschy and the food was average, but one gets that typical vintage diner feel. I wouldn’t make a special trip to visit this diner, but if it’s on the way and you are hungry, why not! 

Day 4: Grand Canyon National Park

We had an early start to make the hour-long drive to Grand Canyon. The drive into the park is a treat in and of itself. This was the beginning of many National Geographic moments on our road trip. 

Our visit centered around the Southern Rim, which is popular for tourists; a great place to start for a first-time visit. Within the national park, the shuttle system is very efficient. Note that some popular viewpoints are only accessible by the shuttle. Since we only had one day in the park, we opted to drive ourselves in the morning around the park to have maximum flexibility. In the afternoon,  we took the shuttle and walked part of the Hermits Rest Route (red line).

We began the morning at Desert View Watch Tower and made our way slowly toward the visitor center. Each viewpoint offers a different perspective of this geological miracle. If you are lucky, you can catch Park Rangers on duty, explaining the canyon’s fascinating history. 

In the afternoon, we rode the shuttle to explore viewpoints on Hermits Rest Route. The viewpoints here are all fairly close together, with well-maintained walkways linking them. I highly recommend taking time to walk between viewpoints. You can take in far more of what the park has to offer, and potentially experience some wildlife!

Before leaving the park, we stopped in Mather Point for sunset. This is a popular viewing spot for sunset, but well worth seeing the canyon bask in majestic golden light. One final stop at the IMAX theatre outside of the park. I had read the IMAX film was worth it, but in the age of Netflix and hi-definition television, I don’t recommend this activity. 

Day 5: Wupakti National Monument  & Arrival to Lake Powell

Another early day, this time heading to Lake Powell. From Grand Canyon, head northeast via AZ-64 and US-89 for 110 miles (177km) to reach the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, where Glen Canyon Dam, another impressive structure, can be found. 

On the way, we stopped by Wupakti National Monument and Sunset Crater. The park rangers at Wupakti were extremely friendly and helpful. There is something serene to stand on the land where the Indian communities once resided. When walking along the trails, one can’t help to feel the spiritual powers that still linger on this land. 

The inspirational scenery carries us all the way to Lake Powell, where we checked in for two nights at Lake Powell Resorts & Marina.  The highlight of this hotel is the location, otherwise the hotel itself is rather old and not spectacular. The hotel ground is vast, and it’s lovely to take walks along the lake. For dinner, we headed into town for another American fare at Big John’s Texas BBQ, a solid, no-frills eatery that satisfies even the pickiest Asian parent.  

Wupakti, US Southwest Road Trip

Day 6: Boat Tour to Rainbow Bridge & Hike in Page, Arizona

Rainbow Bridge National Monument is situated near Lake Powell, and it’s the world’s highest natural bridge. Its rainbow-like formation was carved solely by natural elements.  This monument has long been considered sacred by Native American tribes. The scale of this natural wonder stands tall at 246 feet (75m), and spans 275 feet (84m); seeing the monument in person is truly breathtaking.

The only easy way to access the monument is by taking a two-hour boat ride on Lake Powell. The best part about staying at Lake Powell Resort is that the tour to Rainbow Bridge departs early from the marina, so we didn’t need to go far. They operate a daily boat tour with a detailed historical introduction; it makes for an educational way to reach Rainbow Bridge. Upon docking the boat, the Bridge could be reached after a mile-long hike. The hike isn’t too strenuous, and provides an opportunity to observe the geology up close. 

The tour took up most of the day. At sunset, we went for a hike at the Hanging Garden. The one-mile loop here is a beautiful way to take in surrounding scenery and see beautiful geology under the golden hour light. A bit off the beaten path, this hike is a lovely hidden gem in the region full of so much natural wonders. 

Day 7: Bryce Canyon National Park & Arrival to La Verkin, UT

After Lake Powell’s grandeur and Rainbow Bridge’s mystic, it’s time for another geological wonder. We headed north via US-89 for 150 miles (240km) to reach Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah. 

Of all the mesmerizing natural wonders, Bryce Canyon was my favorite in this region. The park is best known for its massive collection of natural amphitheaters, made up by a hoodoos, distinctive geological structure. I recommend stopping in the visitor center and watch the 15-minute introductory film about the park. The film is free; it gives new perspective and appreciation as you wander and explore the amphitheaters. 

There are various viewpoints to take in the view; our favorites were inspiration point, sunset point, and sunrise point. Don’t merely snap photos, walk down into the amphitheater, wander in the narrow passages, observe the incredible hoodoos up close. Remember to respect nature and don’t touch these magnificent structures. Let nature keep its beauty, and we keep our memories.

After our whirlwind tour of Bryce Canyon, we headed to La Verkin, Utah, where we booked another home via HomeAway as our base for Zion National Park.

Day 8: Zion National Park

If you are an avid rock climber, Zion National Park is the place for you. Situated at the southwestern part of Utah, this park is known for its large-scale sandstone cliffs. Not a climber? No problem. The park is equipped with great trails for both leisure strolls and strenuous hikes. Something for everyone. Due to the nature of these massive rock formations, the paths often have a narrow feel, further accentuating the cliffs’ grandeur.  

On the drive toward the visitor center, there are a plethora of hotels and restaurants. You can find parking along these establishments, or pass the visitor center and look for parking in the lots. From spring to fall, the viewpoints and hiking routes along the Scenic Drive can only be accessed by the shuttle system. Worry not, the system is again very efficient, and a bus comes every 10-15 minutes. 

The Zion Canyon Shuttle Map clearly outlines various hiking trails by difficulty, and informs corresponding shuttle stops. With my elder parents, we completed a few easy hikes and took in the scenery. My experience with national parks, however, is that the more difficult the hike, the less the crowd. If you want to be alone with nature, challenge yourself and go for some of the more challenging hikes!

Day 9: En Route to Vegas: Redstone Dune Trail & Echo Bay

We chanced upon this Redstone Dune Trail on our drive back to Las Vegas. After our visit to nearby Echo Bay, we were on Route 167 when we came upon these magnificent volcanic rocks. I had never heard of this trail before, but we saw the rock formation from afar, we simply had to stop to explore. Sites like this are why flexibility is so important on a road trip across American Southwest. 

The trail is a half mile (805m) loop, and the rocks are solid for climbing around to your heart’s content. While there isn’t an ounce of shade in the nearby desert, the enclaves within these rocks offer a shaded reprieve. The parks services has designated a picnic spot outfitted with table and benches at this site. 

Hidden gems like Redstone Dune Trail are scattered across the American Southwest. When you plug directions into GPS, allow yourself 50% more extra time to stop for photos, and explore incredible sights along the way. 

Day 10: Departure

After a night at the Tru by Hilton, we headed for the airport and concluded our road trip around the American Southwest. There are still so much more to see, but this was a great introduction. True to Vegas form, gates at the airport are lined with slot machines. In case you didn’t have enough and want to try your luck, you have one more chance to give away your money!

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3 thoughts on “U.S. Southwest Road Trip: 10-Day National Park Loop Across Arizona & Utah”

  1. Hey Wendy, thank you so much for linking to our site! Cool find with the Redstone Dune Trail — moments like these are the best parts of a vacation IMO. You hit the nail on the head when you said “sites like this are why flexibility is so important on a road trip across American Southwest.” Hope you get a chance to return to the area and maybe try our 14-Day Grand Circle Itinerary on our companion site, http://www.HorseshoeBend.com!

  2. Thank you for including a link to our site! What an incredible trip, you sure packed a lot in! Love your recommendations, I am pinning this for later and would love to try some of them out!

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