If desert landscapes, clear night skies and open highways sound alluring, a southwest national parks road trip is something you need to experience at least once in your lifetime. From resilient Joshua trees to sprawling salt pans and views that will leave you breathless, the American Southwest is unlike anywhere else in the world. It’s also a region that’s perfect for exploring during the cooler months of the year. Winter brings unique magic to the desert – particularly in areas that receive snowfall such as the Grand Canyon.
This national parks road trip itinerary covers the very best of America’s southwest, hitting icons in California, Arizona, Nevada and Utah and including parks ranging from Zion to Death Valley. If you’re short on time, stick to the minimum timeframes provided for each destination; if you have a bit more squeeze room, add a night wherever you see fit.
Click on a link below to skip directly to a specific destination
- Joshua Tree National Park (2-3 nights) – 2 hour drive from LA
- Saguaro National Park (1-2 nights) – 4+ hour drive from Joshua Tree
- Petrified Forest National Park (1-2 nights) – 4+ hour drive from Saguaro
- Sedona, Arizona (2-3 nights) – 2+ hour drive from Petrified Forest
- Grand Canyon National Park – South Rim (2-3 nights) – 2+ hour drive from Sedona
- Page, Arizona (2-3 nights) – 2 hour drive from the Grand Canyon
- Zion National Park (2-3 nights) – 1.5 hour drive from Page
- Valley of Fire State Park (1-2 nights) – 2+ hour drive from Zion
- Death Valley National Park (2-3 nights) – 2+ hour drive from Valley of Fire
- Back to Los Angeles – 4.5 hour drive from Death Valley
SOUTHWEST NATIONAL PARKS MAP
Use our interactive map below to start planning your own American Southwest national parks road trip
SOUTHWEST NATIONAL PARKS ROUTE
1. JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK
(2-3 nights) – 2 hour drive from LA
Renowned for its rock formations, desert landscapes and namesake, Joshua Trees, this national park sits between the Colorado and Mojave Deserts. Popular amongst rock climbers and star gazers, Joshua Tree also offers hiking, bird watching and photogenic viewpoints.
BEST THINGS TO DO IN JOSHUA TREE
FortyNine Palms Oasis Trail
This three-mile round-trip hike is not for the weary, but the unique views at the end are well worth the effort. Although the length of the trail may not seem daunting, it can be strenuous, especially on a warm day (rescues are not uncommon due to the lack of shade). Be prepared for an uphill climb and bring lunch, plenty of water and a sunhat. This hike is located outside the park, so if you aren’t keen on paying the entrance fee, it’s the perfect option!
The view of all views in Joshua Tree National Park, this destination offers a perfect overlook of Coachella Valley. Although the park feels as if it’s at a low elevation, Keys View is a reminder of how high the high desert actually is! You’ll get a panoramic glimpse of the San Andreas fault, the Salton Sea, and (if you’re lucky), maybe even a bit of Mexico in the distance.
Cholla Cactus Garden
Located deep within the park boundaries in the lower Colorado Desert, you’ll find a seemingly endless sea of cholla cactus along with a few neighbors like Hedgehog Cactus, Brittlebrush, Desert Lavender and more! But the star of this destination is the Teddybear Cholla Cactus, which covers nearly four acres of the desert floor. As you walk along the trail, you’ll notice plenty of fallen stem-joints of cacti, which is how new plants start. Many believe this entire garden was actually created from just one Teddybear Cholla. Be careful walking through, as these spherical cacti easily detach and love to catch a ride on passerby, giving them the name “jumping Cholla.”
If Time Permits
- Hidden Valley Trail – 1-mile loop that circles a valley surrounded by boulders
- Skull Rock – 1.7-mile loop that leads to a boulder that looks like the name suggests
- Barker Dam Trail – 1.5-mile loop to a small reservoir between large boulders
- Keys Ranch – A 90-minute ranger-led tour to a historic ranch
WHERE TO STAY IN JOSHUA TREE
JOSHUA LODGES AND HOTELS
- Sacred Sands – What desert honeymoon dreams are made of ($$$$)
- The Castle House Estate – Luxury tent to guard tower. Take your pick! ($$)
- Pioneertown Motel – Famous Old West movie set made motel ($$-$$$)
JOSHUA TREE HOME RENTALS AND AIRBNBS
- Eclectic Joshua Tree House – A top rated rental in the area; sleeps 6 ($-$$)
- The Habibi House – Minimalist Moroccan-style home; sleeps 6-7 ($-$$)
- The Joshua Tree House – A Joshua Tree icon; sleeps 4 ($$-$$$)
- Bungalow in the Boulders – A popular pet-friendly option; sleeps 4 ($$)
JOSHUA TREE CAMPGROUNDS
- Belle Campground: Tent & RV; Closed mid-June through August; Starting August 30, all sites are first-come, first-served; $15 p/n
- Black Rock Campground: Tent & RV; Sites 40–60 and 66–99 closed June 10 through August 29. All other sites are first-come, first served; Between end of August and early June, all sites available by reservation only; $20 p/n
- Cottonwood Campground: Tent & RV; Loop B is closed June 10 through August 29. Loop A sites first-come, first served during this time; From end of August through early June, all sites available by reservation only; $20 p/n
- Hidden Valley: Tent & RV; All sites first-come, first-served year-round; $15/night
- Indian Cove: Tent & RV; Sites 40–101 are closed June 10 through August 29; All other sites first-come, first served; From end of August through early June, all sites are available by reservation only; $20-$50 p/n
- Jumbo Rocks Campground: Tent & RV; All sites first-come, first-served mid-June through end of August; Starting August 30th, sites available by reservation; $15 p/n
- Ryan Campground: Tent & RV; Closed mid-June through end of August; Starting August 30th, all sites first-come, first-served; $15 p/n
- White Tank Campground: Tent & RV; Closed mid-June through end of August; Starting August 30th, all sites first-come, first-served; $15 p/n
For more detailed Joshua Tree lodging and accommodation options, check out our Where to Stay in Joshua Tree guide.
2. SAGUARO NATIONAL PARK
(1-2 nights) – 4+ hour drive from Joshua Tree
A lesser known national park, Saguaro sits in southern Arizona with two distinct sections straddling Tucson. Home to the country’s tallest cacti – the saguaro cactus – Saguaro also attracts visitors with its scenic drivable loops, hiking trails, petroglyphs and museum.
THINGS TO DO IN SAGUARO NATIONAL PARK
Bajada Loop Drive
Home to two scenic drives in the park’s eastern and western sections, we recommend Bajada Loop Drive in Saguaro West. Open from 7 AM to sunset, this paved eight-mile loop travels through some of the densest cacti forests in the park. Although the road is unpaved, it’s well maintained and suitable for most cars. Still, be sure to check local conditions in advance, as flash floods are very common in the area. Start the drive by turning right at N Kinney Road onto Hohokam Road, then turn left onto Golden Gate Road and drive until it the road ends at N Sandario Road.
Valley View Overlook Trail
This easy 0.8 mile round trip trail features stunning panoramic views of the mountains, Sonoran Desert and Saguaro forest. Located right off the Bajada Loop, you’ll cross Bajada Wash, trek through towering cacti and climb over a ridge to a picturesque view.
Wasson Peak Trail
This 7.9 mile round trip moderate trail is yet another one of the stunning hikes available within the park. Trek through beautiful wildflowers and stumble upon wildlife while hiking the loop. Known for its bird watching, the view at the top is what makes Wasson Peak one of the best trails in Saguaro.
If Time Permits
- Hugh Norris Trail – Arguably the best hike in the park – 9.8 miles out-and-back
- Cactus Forest Drive – An 8-mile scenic drive in the eastern section of the park
- Signal Hill Trail – An easy 0.3-mile out-and-back walk to the top of Signal Hill
WHERE TO STAY NEAR SAGUARO NATIONAL PARK
SAGUARO NATIONAL PARK HOTELS AND RENTALS
- Westward Look Resort & Spa – Upscale Tucson Resort 9 miles from the park ($$)
- La Posada Lodge & Casitas – At the foothills of the Catalina Mountains ($$)
- Hampton Inn & Suites – Well rated value just 4 miles from the park ($$)
- Tucson National #2428 – A top rated home rental in the area; sleeps 4 ($$)
CAMPING IN SAGUARO NATIONAL PARK
Camping is permitted at six designated backcountry campgrounds within the Saguaro Wilderness Area. None of the campgrounds are accessible by vehicle (including RV’s), and permits are required for all overnight stays.
- Manning Camp: Tent Only; 6 sites; 7.5 miles from Turkey Creek trailhead; $8 p/n
- Spud Rock Springs: Tent Only; 3 sites; 5.3 miles from Turkey Creek trailhead; $8 p/n
- Happy Valley Saddle: Tent Only; 3 sites; 4.1 miles from Miller Creek trailhead; $8 p/n
- Juniper Basin: Tent Only; 3 sites; 6.9 miles from Tanque Verde Ridge trailhead; $8 p/n
- Grass Shack: Tent Only; 3 sites; 10 miles from Loma Alta trailhead; $8 p/n
- Douglas Spring: Tent Only; 3 sites; 6.3 miles from Douglas Spring trailhead; $8 p/n
3. PETRIFIED FOREST NATIONAL PARK
(1-2 nights) – 4+ hour drive from Saguaro
From petrified wood to badlands, fossils, petroglyphs and backcountry hiking and camping, Petrified Forest National Park is one that offers accessibility perfect for a day trip, or off-the-beaten-path adventure that can stretch for weeks. Regardless of how long you stay, expect to be wowed by other-worldly formations, desert sunsets and scenic vistas that stretch hundreds of miles.
THINGS TO DO IN PETRIFIED FOREST NATIONAL PARK
Painted Desert Overlooks
Spanning from the Grand Canyon all the way to the Petrified Forest, these multihued mesas are best accessed via the northern section of the park. Made up of erodible siltstone, mudstone and shale, these rocks also contain abundant amounts of iron and manganese, which creates the colorful layers. Located 28 miles (or about 45 minutes) inside the park, Tiponi, Tawa and Kachina Points all feature the best overlooks for panoramic views of the Painted Desert.
Blue Mesa Trail
This is a one-mile long, moderately strenuous hike through bluish-bentonite clay badlands and petrified wood. Stroll through varying hues of blue, purple, white, green and grey – caused by layers of sediment and minerals drowning underwater with lack of oxygen exposure. If you’re looking to get up close and personal with the stunning colors beyond just the overlooks, we highly recommend this famous trail!
Featuring breathtaking views of the park’s most famous attraction, petrified wood, Jasper Forest is home to the highest concentration of the park’s namesake. The first petrified forest discovered by westerners, no trip to this National Park is complete without a visit here. Visitors can view this historical landmark either at the overlook or on the 2.5 mile out-and-back Jasper Forest Trail.
If Time Permits
- Giant Logs Loop – 0.4 mile loop trail to some of the largest logs in the park
- Devil’s Playground – Beautiful area within the Painted Desert
- Long Logs Loop – 1.6 mile loop trail past large groups of petrified wood
- Black Forest – An area in the northern section of the park with dark petrified wood
- Martha’s Butte – Off-the-beaten-path 2-mile out-and-back trail to petroglyphs
WHERE TO STAY NEAR PETRIFIED FOREST
HOTELS NEAR PETRIFIED FOREST NATIONAL PARK
- La Quinta Inn & Suites – Well located with breakfast included ($$)
- Brad’s Desert Inn – An eclectic motel 18 miles from the park ($)
PETRIFIED FOREST CAMPING
- Backcountry camping is permitted within the Petrified Forest National Wilderness Area, requiring, at minimum, a one mile hike from two designated parking spots. Permits are free and must be acquired in-person at either the Painted Desert Visitor Center or Rainbow Forest Museum on the first day of camping before the facility closes.
4. SEDONA, ARIZONA
(2-3 nights) – 2+ hour drive from Petrified Forest
Energy vortexes, red rock canyons, art galleries and wellness spas, Sedona truly offers something for everyone. This eclectic town known for its spiritual healing and proximity to Red Rock State Park offers equal parts charm, quirk and adventure. It’s not so much a question of what to do, but how to fit everything on offer into your stay.
BEST THINGS TO DO IN SEDONA, ARIZONA
Red Rock Crossing
Home of the famous Cathedral Rock, this area is known for its strong vortex and is sacred to local Native Americans. Revered by indigenous tribes as the birthplace of man and woman, the vortex feeling is said to be feminine here. Creating feelings of softness, receptiveness and compassion, whether here for spiritual reasons or just a nice stroll, this iconic destination is a must visit when in Sedona.
Bell Rock Trail
The most popular trail in Sedona, Bell Rock is short and sweet, but really packs a punch. The trail features the popular Bell Rock, whose shape resembles its name, as well as the adjacent Courthouse Butte and tons of other scenic red rock. This 3.5 mile round trip hike is hard-packed, making it easy for most hikers. Bell Rock is also home to one of the area’s vortexes.
Sedona Jeep Tour
If you’re looking to get your adrenaline pumping, you absolutely cannot miss reserving a spot on one of Sedona’s famous 4×4 jeep tours. Heading off-road with local guides, you’ll navigate over seemingly impassable rock obstacles while also taking in the backcountry beauty that Sedona is known and loved for.
Oak Creek Canyon Drive
This 16 mile gorge starts off among the towering red rocks in Sedona and winds through a stunning tree canopy, ponderosa pines in-between oak and juniper, and famous switchbacks featuring jagged cliffs and picturesque vistas. This National Scenic Byway provides ample time to gawk at the incredible views while on this relaxing drive through.
If Time Permits
- Chapel of the Holy Cross – A chapel built into rock formations with stunning views
- Devil’s Bridge Trail – 4-mile out-and-back trail leading to an iconic sandstone arch
- Red Rock Scenic Byway – Often described as the most scenic drive in Arizona
- Broken Arrow Trail – 3-mile out-and-back trail with fantastic views
WHERE TO STAY IN SEDONA
SEDONA VACATION RENTALS AND HOTELS
- Amara Resort & Spa – Located along Oak Creek with stunning Red Rock views ($$$$$)
- Casa Sedona Inn – Award winning boutique hotel near Red Rock State Park ($$$)
- Creekside Inn – Top-rated luxurious oasis just outside of Sedona ($$$$$)
- Red Agave Resort – Beautiful 2-story chalets perfect for groups and families ($$)
- Villas at Poco Diablo – Self-catering villas with fireplaces along a creek ($$$)
- That 70’s House – Home rental in Sedona with a fully equipped kitchen; sleeps 4 ($$$)
- Sedona Arizona RV Park: RV Only; Open year-round; Reservations available; $54+ p/n
- Manzanita Campground: Tent & RV; Open year-round; Reservations available; $22 p/n
- Cave Spring: Tent & RV; Open year-round; Reservations available; $22 p/n
5. GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK
(2-3 nights) – 2+ hour drive from Sedona
Attracting more than five million visitors each year, the Grand Canyon is an absolute icon when it comes to US national parks – and – it’s easy to see why. The canyon is awe inspiring to put it lightly – and photos truly don’t do it justice. Despite its popularity, it’s still easy to escape the crowds if you’re willing to hike more than a few miles down Bright Angel Trail. For those looking for a quieter experience, the Grand Canyon’s North Rim also attracts far less tourists and is just as scenic – some would even argue more-so.
THINGS TO DO AT THE GRAND CANYON – SOUTH RIM
Bright Angel Trail
This 15.6 mile (7.4 miles each way) out-and-back trail is an icon of the Grand Canyon and forms part of the popular rim-to-rim route linking the South Rim to the North. Starting on the South Rim and ending at Phantom Ranch (smack dab in the middle of the canyon), it makes for an extremely memorable overnight backpacking trip, though permits are required and extremely competitive to secure. For day visitors, permits are not required and many choose to hike just a portion of the trail, turning back at one of the rest stops (which are equipped with shade and drinking water) or trekking all the way to the first campground, Indian Garden, to soak in the creek before turning around.
During summer be sure to start early and bring lots of water and sun protection, as the heat is oppressive (and can be downright dangerous). Alternatively, during winter, be aware of icy, slippery and steep conditions. Keep in mind that canyons are deceptive in that they are the opposite of mountains – the easy portion of the hike comes first when heading down – and the hard part awaits on the climb back out.
Featuring stunning views of the Grand Canyon, Hopi Viewpoint really puts on a show at sunset. Take the shuttle from the village or walk, though we definitely recommend the latter if time allows.
This trail stretches across the south rim for 13 miles between the South Kaibab Trailhead and Hermits Rest. With unparalleled views and viewpoints throughout, there’s no need to hike the entire route if you don’t have the time (or the desire). Just a mile or two will suffice and leave you with a camera roll full of photos. Much of the trail is paved, so the Rim Trail is also an excellent wheelchair-accessible option.
Grand Canyon Helicopter Tour
If you’re looking for a bird’s-eye experience with the added benefit of getting to land at the bottom of the Grand Canyon along the Colorado River, then a helicopter tour with a landing option is a must. This 4.5 hour option comes highly rated, is one of the more affordable choices and includes champagne and a snack.
If Time Permits
- Mather Point – A scenic viewpoint just steps from the South Rim Visitor Center
- South Kaibab Trail – A steeper and quieter alternative to Bright Angel Trail
- Mohave Point – A perfect canyon viewpoint for sunrise or sunset
- Grandview Point – The southernmost point on the south rim
- Grand Canyon Skywalk – Glass walkway extending 70-feet over the canyon
WHERE TO STAY NEAR THE GRAND CANYON
GRAND CANYON LODGING, HOTELS AND RENTALS
- El Tovar Hotel – A historic icon located directly on the South Rim ($$$ – $$$$)
- Bright Angel Lodge & Cabins – A national landmark at the top of Bright Angel Trail ($$)
- Maswik Lodge – Situated in a pine forest and just 0.25 miles from the rim ($$$)
- Yavapai Lodge – A pet-friendly option within the park near Mather Campground ($$$)
- The Grand Hotel – 3-diamond hotel one mile from the park entrance ($$$$)
- Under Canvas – Glamping just 25 minutes from the South Rim entrance ($$$$)
- Canyon Plaza Apartments – Self-catering 5 minutes from the park entrance ($$$)
GRAND CANYON CAMPGROUNDS
- Mather Campground: Tent & RV; Open year-round; Reservations required; $6+ p/n
- Trailer Village: RV Only; Open year-round, Reservations required, $45+ p/n
- Desert View: Tent & RV; Reservations required; $10 p/n (temporarily closed)
6. PAGE, ARIZONA
(2-3 nights) – 2 hour drive from the Grand Canyon
Long known as the gateway to Lake Powell and Antelope Canyon, the small town of Page, Arizona has gained added fame in recent years due to its close proximity to Horseshoe Bend (pictured above). Formerly located off a non-assuming turn-off with no formal parking lot, Horseshoe Bend has since turned into a formal attraction with charged entry – thanks in large part to Instagram and the power of its location-tagging feature. Still, it remains well worth a visit – even if you can expect to be far from alone.
THINGS TO DO IN PAGE
This Horseshoe shaped meander along the Colorado River, made famous by Instagram, is one of the highlights of the area due to its easy accessibility. Located just four miles Southwest of Page, park your car at a lot found off U.S. Route 89 and hike the quick 0.7 miles to the viewpoint (1.4 miles out-and-back). During summer, be sure to bring plenty of water and some form of sun protection, as there is no shade along the walkway.
This magnificent slot canyon is truly one of Arizona’s natural wonders. A photographer’s dream, towering walls of sandstone rocks in varying hues twist and turn as leaks of light make their way into the canyon. A product of millions of years of erosion, a visit to this destination requires a reservation. Located on Navajo land, a tour guide is required in order to protect the area and ensure the safety of visitors.
If wanting beams of light dipping into the canyon, book an upper canyon tour between 11 am and 1 pm from March to October. Book a lower canyon tour if hiking and seclusion are what you are looking for. During the months of November to March, there are less tourists, though the site is highly popular year-round.
Located within Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Lake Powell offers unparalleled water-based backcountry recreation. With dramatic red rocks looming in the distance, this lake is a major tourist spot and attracts over two million visitors each year. Offering a variety of adventurous activities, you can find everything from kayaking to helicopter rides, float trips and boat tours.
If Time Permits
- Toadstool Hoodoos – 1.8 mile out-and-back trail to a group of rock formations
- Rainbow Bridge National Monument – The world’s highest natural bridge
- Vermilion Cliffs National Monument – A great alternative to The Wave
- Water Holes Canyon – A slot canyon that twists through beautiful sandstone rock
- Glen Canyon Dam Overlook – Views of the Colorado River and Lake Powell
WHERE TO STAY IN PAGE, ARIZONA
PAGE HOTELS AND RENTALS
- Best Western – Offers stunning panoramic views of Lake Powell ($$)
- Courtyard Page by Marriott – Less than a mile from Antelope Canyon ($$)
- Days Inn & Suites – Pet-friendly option 5 minutes from Lake Powell ($$)
- Shash Dine’ EcoRetreat – A unique Navajo cultural experience ($$-$$$)
- Lake Powell Apartment – 2 bed, 2 bath with a hot tub; sleeps 4 ($$$)
- Lee Ferry Campground: Tent & RV; Open year round; First-come, First-served; $20 p/n
- Lone Rock Beach Primitive Camping: Tent & RV; Permitted on a sandy beach or dune; Open year round; First-come, First-served; $14 p/n
- Beehive Campground: Tent & RV; Open year round; First-come, First-served; No Fee
- Stanton Creek, Hite, Dirty Devil, and Farley Primitive Camping Areas: Tent & RV; Open year round; First-come, First-served; $12 p/n
7. ZION NATIONAL PARK
(2-3 nights) – 1 hour 40 min drive from Page
Winding rivers framed by steep red cliffs make Zion National Park just about as scenic as desert national parks come. Located near the small town of Springdale, most visitors opt to sleep outside the park and take one of the free shuttles into Zion each day. After a day full of exploring, Springdale offers a nice variety of restaurants and is home to several outfitters that can help you arrange everything from guided Narrows’ hikes to offbeat photography tours.
THINGS TO DO IN ZION NATIONAL PARK
One of the most dangerous hikes in America, Angels Landing is a must do for thrill-seekers looking to get their adrenaline pumping in Zion National Park. This strenuous five-mile out-and-back hike starts with an elevation gain of 1,488 feet and is not for the faint of heart. After conquering 21 rigorous switchbacks (known as Walter’s Wiggles), hikers must navigate a narrow pathway to the landing, with only a single chain for security and over 1,000 foot drop-offs on either side.
Another famous hike located within Zion, the Narrows are ranked number five on National Geographic’s list of America’s top 100 adventures. Featuring three different options, hikers can choose an out-and-back six-mile day hike, a top-to-bottom 16-mile day hike or a top-to-bottom 16-mile overnight hike. Be sure to check conditions before attempting any of these options, as the Narrows are known for flash flooding and occasional strong currents (even when there are clear skies in Zion itself). The hike also requires water shoes – there is no formal trail and the route requires hiking in the Virgin River.
Emerald Pools Trail to Kayenta Trail
Located right off shuttle stop five, you’ll find two separate hikes here – the lower and upper pools. This three-mile round trip easy to moderately strenuous trail features three pools, a stunning waterfall and incredible canyon views as you twist and turn uphill along the trail. After hiking to the top, take the Kayenta trail back, following the signs for the Grotto trailhead for shuttle stop six.
This strenuous 8-mile out-and-back hike is well worth the effort given the unparalleled views it offers over Zion National Park and Angels Landing. With a 2,100 foot elevation gain, it’s not for the faint hearted, so be sure to arrive with sufficient food, water and sun protection. Currently, the trail is closed due to a 2019 landslide.
If Time Permits
- Highway 9 – 6-mile scenic byway running running through Zion National Park
- Court of the Patriarchs – Set of stunning sandstone cliffs off the 4th shuttle stop
- Riverside Walk – 1.9-mile out-and-back trail with views of the Virgin River
PLACES TO STAY IN ZION NATIONAL PARK
ZION NATIONAL PARK HOTELS, LODGING AND RENTALS
- Zion National Park Lodge – Only “in-park” lodge in Zion National Park ($$$)
- Cliffrose Springdale – On the Virgin River 5 minutes from the park ($$$$)
- SpringHill Suites by Marriott – Located just 1 mile from Zion’s gate ($$$$)
- Cable Mountain Lodge – Rooms and suites near Zion Canyon Village ($$$)
- Watchman Villas – 1 and 2-bedroom apartments on the edge of the park ($$$)
- Zion Park Motel – Well rated budget option 1 mile from the park gate ($$)
- Flanigan’s Inn – Classic lodge atmosphere a 5 minute walk from the park ($$$)
ZION NATIONAL PARK CAMPING
- Watchman Campground: Tent & RV; Open year-round; Reservations required; $20+ p/n
- Lava Point Campground: Tent & RV; Temporarily Closed; First-come, First-served; No Fee
- South Campground: Tent & RV; Open March – October; reservations required; $20+ p/n
8. VALLEY OF FIRE STATE PARK
(1-2 nights) – 2+ hour drive from Zion National Park
Couldn’t score a permit to The Wave in Arizona? Head to Valley of Fire State Park instead! Located just a 45-minute drive from Las Vegas, this park has gained recent popularity for its bright red rock formations, petroglyphs and numerous hiking trails. Stop by the Visitor Center on your way in to join a guided hike or star-gazing excursion.
THINGS TO DO IN VALLEY OF FIRE STATE PARK
Fire Wave Trail
Fire Wave is a one and a half-mile out and back trail, featuring vibrant red sandstone structures. While walking, the trail will begin to split, but all forks end at the same destination, some involving a bit more sand than others. Pack a lunch and enjoy the stunning dancing red hues once you arrive at the end.
Mouse’s Tank Road
Rocks jut out from the ground, piled high, and lining this long, winding road. For the perfect photo and safest route, leave your car at the Elephant Rock trailhead and walk down the road to the giant rock pile on your right. Rangers are quite strict about parking on the side of the road, so always be mindful of only parking in designated lots.
White Domes Trail
White Domes Trail is a 1.1 mile loop featuring a variety of sights including slot canyons, sweeping vistas, historical western sets and more. Upon entering the parking lot, finding a spot may appear tricky. Still, hang tight as many hikers are constantly coming and going. Trust us, you’ll find one!
If Time Permits
- Beehives – Alien-like sandstone rock formations resembling beehives
- Elephant Rock Trail – 1.2 mile loop trail to an elephant shaped rock
- Rainbow Vista – A beautiful vista with hues of purple, pink, brown and beige
- Valley of Fire Cabins – Great Depression era cabins Built by the Civilian Corps
- Seven Sisters – 7 tall, eroded rocks that make for a perfect picnic stop
For a more in-depth itinerary, check out our detailed Valley of Fire State Park guide.
VALLEY OF FIRE CAMPING
- There are three campgrounds in Valley of Fire: Atlatl Rock, Arch Rock and one group campground. Atlatl Rock and Arch Rock are both first come, first served, and bookings are not accepted. All sites are $20 per vehicle, per night.
- Alternatively, it’s a fun option to stay in Las Vegas and day-trip in.
9. DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK
(2-3 nights) – 2+ hour drive from Valley of Fire State Park
One of the most underrated national parks in California, Death Valley is so much more than its name alludes. From the expansive salt flats of Badwater Basin to the colorful hills along Artist’s Drive, it’s no wonder the Star Wars’ production crew chose it as the site for many of its other-worldly film locations.
THINGS TO DO IN DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK
Located near Furnace Creek, Zabriskie Point is one of the highlights of Death Valley, in our opinion. Formed over nine million years ago when the area was under water, saline mud, gravel from nearby mountains and ashfall from the previously Black Mountain volcanic field helped to create what we see today. Visit during sunrise, as the morning light creates a stunning purple and pink hue in the distance while snow capped mountains and endless salt flats loom on the horizon.
One of the world’s oddest phenomena, the Racetrack continues to baffle scientists. Their best hypothesis according to NPS.org is, “a rare combination of rain and wind conditions enable the rocks to move. A rain of about half an inch, will wet the surface of the playa, providing a firm but extremely slippery surface. Strong winds of 50 mph or more, may skid the large boulders along the slick mud.” A must see while visiting Death Valley, a 4×4 car with high clearance is recommended for the road to the Racetrack. Flats are common in the area and there is no cell phone service, so please remember to take all precautions before visiting.
Home to a deep canyon cut into the Black Mountains, as visitors round the bend along Artist’s Drive, a variety of colors pop out along the face of the mountain. Ranging from pink to blue, purple and more, these colors were caused by the oxidation of metals. Located not far from the park’s entrance, this destination is a must see!
If Time Permits
- Devil’s Golf Course – Largest salt pan in the park filled with crystal formations
- Badwater Basin – Lowest point in the United States at 282 feet below sea level
- Dante’s View – 5,476 foot viewpoint overlooking the valley floor
- Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes – Impressive sand dunes well worth the hike
- Twenty Mule Team Canyon – 2.5 mile unpaved road with colorful badlands
For even more Death Valley highlights, check out our in-depth What to See in Death Valley guide.
WHERE TO STAY IN DEATH VALLEY
DEATH VALLEY HOTELS AND LODGING
- The Inn at Death Valley – Right in the middle of Death Valley National Park ($$$)
- The Ranch at Death Valley – A more affordable lodging option in the park ($$)
- Amargosa Opera House & Hotel – A historical property 15 minutes from the park ($)
DEATH VALLEY CAMPING
- Furnace Creek: Tent & RV; Reservations accepted mid-Oct to mid-Apr; No reservation required in summer, Open year-round; $22+ p/n
- Texas Springs: Tent & RV; First come, First served; Open mid-Oct to mid-Apr; $16 p/n
- Stovepipe Wells: Tent & RV; First come, First served; Open mid-Oct to mid-Apr; $14 p/n
- Mesquite Spring: Tent & RV; First come, First served; Open year-round; $14 p/n
- Sunset: Tent & RV; First come, First served; Open mid-Oct to mid-April; ± $14 p/n
- Emigrant: Tent Only; First come, First served; Open year round; No Fee
- Wildrose: Tent & RV; First come, First served; Open year round; No Fee
- Thorndike: Tent Only; First come, First served; Open Mar to Nov; No Fee
- Mahogany Flat: Tent Only; First come, First served; Open Mar to Nov; No Fee
10. BACK TO LOS ANGELES
4.5 hour drive from Death Valley National Park
And this is where your Southwest national parks road trip adventure ends! In as little as two weeks (or closer to three or four if time permits), you can expect to stand on the rim of the Grand Canyon, soak in the views at Horseshoe Bend, feel a surge of adrenaline as you navigate Angels Landing, gaze at the stars in Joshua Tree and take in some of the very best desert landscapes that the world has to offer. Until next time, Adventurers…
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