Having covered the best national parks road trips in California and Utah, as well as Washington, the Dakotas and the region of Appalachia, I’d like to finish this short series with the absolute ultimate epic US Southwest national parks road trips.
This will be a super-long post, covering almost all national parks in the southwestern United States. These parks are spread out across California, Arizona and Utah, three of the most spectacular states in the entire country. Below, you’ll find an overview (with pictures!) of all national parks on the way, as well as a suggested itinerary. Note that this trip takes significantly longer than the average two-week vacation. Therefore, it’s only suitable for those of you who have plenty of time at their hands. A minimum of five weeks is what you should aim for.
Buckle your seat belts and prepare for the drive of a lifetime. This US Southwest national parks road trips will bring you to iconic—legendary even—places such as Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Zion and Death Valley, and many, many others.
Epic US Southwest National Parks Road Trips – The Parks
This once-in-a-lifetime road trip takes in no fewer than fourteen (!) national parks. It also offers the opportunity for a few superb side trips to some of America’s most iconic natural attractions.
Here’s a detailed overview of all destinations on this US Southwest national parks road trips. I truly believe that this is one of those things that you should do once in your life. It’s a drive of a scale, through world-class parks and past unforgettable landscapes, unparalleled anywhere else in the world.
Yosemite National Park
Let’s start with Yosemite National Park, arguably the crown jewel of the National Park Service system. This iconic national park is chock-full of attractions. Yosemite Valley boasts one of the world’s greatest landscapes, including landmarks like Bridalveil and Yosemite Falls, El Capitan, Half Dome, Sentinel Rock and Cathedral Rocks. It’s easy to see why Ansel Adams spent lots of time in this majestic place.
Death Valley National Park
A truly vast expanse of sand dunes, scorching hot plains and barren mountain ranges, Death Valley National Park is the largest national park in the continental United States. If you’re looking for extremes, there’s no other place on earth you should go. The park’s highest peak is more than 3,300 meters tall; its lowest point lies 86 meters below sea level. Death Valley couldn’t have been named more appropriately, being the hottest and the driest place in America.
Kings Canyon & Sequoia National Parks
Two adjacent parks located to the west of Death Valley and to the south of Yosemite, Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks are connected by the wonderful Generals Highway. Together, the two parks protect a landscape dominated by towering sequoia trees, rocky hills and imposing canyons. From the world’s tallest trees to one of its deepest canyons, you’re sure to be impressed by the natural features in King Canyon and Sequoia National Parks.
Pinnacles National Park
The youngest of California’s national parks, Pinnacles National Park is rather small. However, it does makes for a nice one-day stop in the Big Sur area. The park is characterized by caves, canyons, rock formations and mountains. Its claim to fame is the Californian condor, North America’s largest species of bird, that lives in the park.
Joshua Tree National Park
Bordering on the Mojave and Colorado Deserts, Joshua Tree National Park is the southernmost national park in California. Although it’s perhaps less iconic than some other parks on these US Southwest national parks road trips, it’s absolutely stunning. Its landscapes are made up of rock formations and deserts, piles of boulders and unique vegetation. It’s named after the Joshua tree, a bristled type of yucca that’s typical of the region.
Channel Islands National Park
Comprising five biodiverse islands of the coasts of Santa Barbara, southern California, Channel Islands National Park is only accessible by boat. Few people know about the existence of this park. It does, however, offer a great alternative to the desert and mountain parks of inland California. Offering beautiful ocean views, hiking trails, sea kayaking opportunities and plenty of marine life, Channel Islands National Park is definitely worth a visit.
Side Trip: Big Sur
An almost mandatory extension of your national parks road trip in the US Southwest is a drive along the Big Sur coast. This undeveloped area features rugged coastal mountains, deserted beaches, hidden inlets and spectacular weather. It’s one of the world’s most beautiful coastlines—not to be missed if you’re in the area. It lies conveniently between Pinnacles National Park and Channel Islands National Park.
Petrified Forest National Park
It’ll take a detour to reach Petrified Forest National Park, but you’re in the region anyway, so you may as well. This unique park is known for its geological and archaeological features. Particularly its fossils make it such an extraordinary place. When visiting the park, you can see fossilized trees dating back 225 million years. You’ll also see formidable color-banded rock formations.
Grand Canyon National Park
The Grand Canyon hardly needs an introduction. It’s one of those places almost everyone knows about, a true natural wonder and among the world’s most spectacular sights. Grand Canyon National Park is certain to be one of the absolute highlights of your national parks road trip in the US Southwest. Dotted with scenic viewpoints, it’s easy for visitors to enjoy the immense beauty of the place.
Side Trip: Monument Valley
One of America’s most iconic landscapes is found on the Arizona/Utah border. Situated to the northeast of the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley is a part of the Colorado Plateau and dotted with enormous sandstone buttes. The epic landscape is featured in many famous movies, including several Westerns. It is a worthy side trip on your US Southwest national parks road trips.
Zion National Park
Zion National Parks finds itself on the same level as Yosemite and Grand Canyon National Parks in terms of sheer natural beauty. This park is famous for its red-colored cliffs and canyons. The Virgin River cuts across the landscape, drawing a line of vegetation through the heart of this arid park. Numerous hiking trails allow you to explore every corner of Zion National Park, including the fantastic Zion Narrows wading hike.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Known for its so-called hoodoos, rock formations shaped as spires, Bryce Canyon National Park boasts one of the US Southwest most remarkable landscapes. The best views are enjoyed from Bryce Amphitheater, overlooking a valley filled with thousands of hoodoos. The best times to admire this unearthly scene are sunrise and sunset.
Capitol Reef National Park
Surrounding the Waterpocket Fold, a long scar in the earth’s surface, Capitol Reef National Park lies in the central desert of Utah. It gets its name from its rock formations that resemble reefs and the U.S. Capitol dome—two very different things, yet both quite amazing. This large park has many attractions, among which are the Chimney Rock Pillar, Cathedral Valley and the Hickman Bridge Arch.
Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands National Park bears a more than appropriate name, encompassing an area characterized by a desert landscape carved by the mighty Colorado River. It consist of a few different canyons, all featuring their own specific highlights. There are towering rock pinnacles, plummeting gorges, rock arches and arid plateaus.
Arches National Park
Arches National Park is the last park in the line of national parks that extends across southern Utah. Arches National Park is renowned for its landscape with more than 2,000 rock arches—a couple of famous examples are Delicate Arch and Landscape Arch. Other formations such as Balanced Rock add to the exceptionality of this magnificent national park.
Side Trip: Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
Located to the south of all five above-mentioned national parks in Utah, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is a strongly recommended side trip, if you have the time. This huge expanse of deserts, mountains, canyons, valleys and rivers offers a plethora of outdoor activities. From rock climbing to hiking, camping and mountain biking, this is an outdoor lover’s paradise.
US Southwest National Parks Road Trips – Suggested Itinerary
Although you can kick off these US Southwest national parks road trips in various cities in the region, for the purpose of convenience, we will start in San Francisco. (You could also consider Los Angeles, Phoenix or Las Vegas.) We’ll drive the whole thing in a clockwise direction.
San Francisco: Pick up rental car at the airport
Yosemite National Park, California (3 days)
Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks, California (2 days)
Death Valley National Park, California (3 days)
Zion National Park, Utah (2 days)
Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah (1 day)
Capitol Reef National Park, Utah (1 day)
Canyonlands National Park, Utah (1 day)
Arches National Park, Utah (2 days)
Side Trip: Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
Side Trip: Monument Valley, Arizona
Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona (1 day)
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona (2 days)
Joshua Tree National Park, California (2 days)
Channel Islands National Park, California (1 day)
Side Trip: Big Sur, California
Pinnacles National Park (1 day)
San Francisco: Return rental car
Whether it this itinerary says one, two or three days in a park, it means full days—not arriving in mid-morning and/or leaving in the evening. So, for example, a one-day visit would mean a two-night stay. This allows you to get to know each park as well as possible.
Adding up the time in each national park, plus allowing for one driving day between every park, results in about 35 days. A five-week time frame is necessary to complete these epic US Southwest national parks road trips. If you’d like to enjoy the side trips mentioned above, allow for more time.