American Southwest Road Trip of a Lifetime

28 days, about 3500 miles and some of the most amazing scenery on the planet. That is what makes an epic Southwest USA road trip.

I have driven in over a dozen countries and, as you probably know by now, Pauline and I consider a road trip the ultimate way to experience the world. And in my opinion at the top of the best road trips in the world has to be the American Southwest road trip of a lifetime.

Road tripping is part of the American culture and while an unfortunately large number of Americans have very little idea about the geography of the rest of the world and will probably never experience any of it, they are fortunate to have plenty of amazing things to do and see closer to home.

I’m sure very one of them will have their own part of the USA they consider the best for a road trip but for us a Southwest road trip has absolutely everything. So many incredible State and National Parks, a crazy range of spectacular scenery, unique wildlife and lots of cool little towns with interesting history and ridiculously over the top food.

Planning our Road Trip

After sitting down and discussing where we would most like to spend a month on the road it soon became apparent that the Southwest USA was topping both our lists. And while we had been to parts of the region before and loved every minute of it, it seemed that every Google search result that came up just added to the realisation that we had barely scratched the surface. Actually we had barely gotten within scratching distance of the surface.

A couple of weeks of research and the first draft itinerary was on the screen. A few weeks later and we had agreed on a plan and booked flights and cars. There would be some tweaking over the coming weeks, there would even be some tweaking while we were on the trip, but things were looking good.

The plan was based around a few multi day stays and lots of short (ish) driving days, with only a couple of days with long drives and potentially little of interest along the way.

Epic southwest USA road trip map

We would spend 4 weeks travelling about 3500 miles (5600 km) and visiting around a dozen National and State Parks. And if it ended up being half as good as our research suggested then it would be a pretty awesome month. We were even hopeful of seeing a little snow although our track record didn’t give us much real hope.

I am talking about our ill-fated European white Christmas trip from a couple of years earlier. I had done extensive research into the most likely places to find this elusive and iconic Christmas experience (we are from Australia so a white Christmas at home would mean a cataclysmic weather shift) and decided we would have the three days on and around Christmas Day in Salzburg.

Well, the Williamson curse came into play once more with Europe sweltering through the warmest Winter in over 100 years. Cold for Aussies but not cold enough for snow, not even in the Alps.

But I digress. Snow would be a bonus on this trip and we would still consider it a huge success if the landscapes we saw in pictures were even half as good in person.

Southwest USA Road Trip Itinerary

* This is an introduction to the full story of our epic road trip. The following detailed posts will be released weekly and you will be able to use the following links once they are active. If you would like to be notified when each new part is available please complete the form at the end of this post.

Part One – Starting in southern Arizona

  • Day 1 – Tucson to Tombstone and back
  • Day 2 – Tucson to Phoenix

Part Two – Heading north in Arizona

  • Day 3 – Phoenix to Sedona
  • Day 4 – Sedona sightseeing

Part Three – Getting our kicks

  • Day 5 – Sedona to the Grand Canyon
  • Day 6 – Grand Canyon to Holbrook

Part Four – Three states in three days

  • Day 7 – Holbrook to Cortez
  • Day 8 – Cortez sightseeing

Part Five – Utah takes our breath away

  • Day 9 – Cortez to Moab
  • Day 10 – Moab sightseeing

Part Six – Following Forrest Gump

  • Day 11 – Moab to Monument Valley
  • Day 12 – Monument Valley to Page

Part Seven – no Page left unturned

  • Day 13 – Page sightseeing
  • Day 14 – More Page sightseeing

Part Eight – Border hopping

  • Day 15 – Page to Kanab
  • Day 16 – Kanab to St George

Part Nine – What happens in Vegas

  • Day 17 – St George to Las Vegas
  • Day 18 – Las Vegas to Bakersfield

Part Ten – Back to nature

  • Day 19 – Bakersfield to Yosemite
  • Day 20 – Yosemite sightseeing

Part Eleven – City by the Bay

  • Day 21 – Yosemite to San Francisco
  • Day 22 – San Francisco Sightseeing

Part Twelve – Scenic Highway One!

  • Day 23 – San Francisco to Monterey
  • Day 24 – Monterey to San Simeon

Part Thirteen – The elephant in the room

  • Day 25 – San Simeon to San Luis Obispo
  • Day 26 – San Luis Obispo to Ventura

Part Fourteen – So long and thanks for the fish

  • Day 27 – Ventura to Los Angeles
  • Day 28 – The journey ends

The general overview

I find the toughest part of planning a road trip is fitting everything in to the time available without spending all of your time stuck behind a steering wheel, or behind the other side of the dashboard if you are like Pauline and politely decline the opportunity to drive on the wrong side of the road.

Sometimes it feels as though you need the wisdom of Solomon to decide what to include and what doesn’t make the cut. FOMO is a big factor and the goal is to come back excited about what you were able to experience rather than wonder if something you left out may have been better.

Where it all begins

We decided to start with a place that occupied a lofty position on my bucket list, Saguaro National Park near Tucson, Arizona. I have a somewhat obsessive fascination with these giants but had never actually seen more than the occasional one or two during our previous travels.

Cacti as far as the eye can see in Saguaro National Park West

To be able to go to a place and walk through a literal forest of massive cacti meant that the trip would start on a huge high, so even if things went downhill from there I would still be happy.

There was another obvious reason for selecting this as our starting point, it was located well away from everything else we planned to do and really would not have fit in to our road trip plan at any other stage except maybe the end.

So the plan was to spend a couple of days with the Saguaros and take a side trip to the Wild West with a visit to the infamous town of Tombstone to see if it feels historical or more like a theme park.

Tombstone Arizona is a mix of history and theatre

From there we would start heading north, travel through Phoenix with our next stop at a place we had been before and loved, Sedona. Other than the Grand Canyon Sedona had probably given us the best glimpse into what the American landscape had to offer as far as rugged, natural beauty was concerned.

Heading further north

After a couple of days in Sedona the plan is to head further north and revisit what was once top of Pauline’s bucket list, the Grand Canyon.

The famous red rocks of Sedona

I have to admit that before we went to the Grand Canyon for the first time I was far less excited about the prospect than Pauline. To me it was a big hole in the ground and surely could not be as scenic as something protruding well above the ground.

If you feel the same way as I did about seeing the Grand Canyon I suggest you rethink your beliefs and give it a shot. I was speechless as I stood on the edge of this enormous landscape. There are no words I could find to express how gob-smackingly huge this is, and I now know I would have missed seeing something truly remarkable if I stuck to my preconceptions.

More of the Mother Road

We had driven sections of Route 66 on previous trips, Grand Canyon to Santa Monica, a bit around Albuquerque, but this time we would add most of the section in between. It was to be Route 66 from Flagstaff to Gallup with a quick stop to stand on some corner in Winslow, Arizona for some reason.

Standing on the corner in Winslow Arizona

Previously we had taken every opportunity to get off the Freeway and find the original sections of Route 66, Seligman was my personal favourite so far, and we intended to stop whenever something interesting showed up. Surely a must for anyone on a Southwest USA road trip.

Throw in a National Park or two, a massive crater and a Wigwam Motel and there seemed to be enough to make this stage interesting. Speaking of the famous Wigwam Hotel in Holbrook, photographers seem to have done extremely well making it look like a fun and unique place to stay along a lonely stretch of the old road.

Wigwam Village in Holbrook has seen better days

Reality is something very different and we were very happy not to chosen to stay there after having seen the actual location which is more in the industrial section of town right beside a busy, noisy and dirty railway line.

Winter is coming… again

Rather than continuing on to Albuquerque, which was something we did include on the original plan, we would head north into Colorado and further north into Utah to see what looked like not to be missed National Parks and Monuments.

This is what a Southwest USA road trip is all about

As I mentioned early on some things didn’t make the final cut due to time and distance constraints and Albuquerque and Santa Fe are the ones I was most disappointed to lose. We have been to them before but only had a day in Sante Fe, which is nowhere near enough time. We will be back one day for sure.

The temperatures had been quite cold for the past few days and we were seeing plenty of news reports about crazy snowfalls across much of the country. We had taken full advantage of the few times we found snow as we drove through some of the higher areas so far but nothing prepared us for what was to come over the next week or so.

We drove into Cortez and there were still piles of snow melting beside the roads from a few days earlier. No more was predicted for the coming days and it looked like we would narrowly miss being snowed on again.

An unexpected overnight snow storm in Cortez made our day

After sweating through one of the hottest Januarys on record in Australia (28 days over 85 degrees  or 30 Celcius) it was a bit of a shock to wake on our first morning in Colorado to a crisp minus five. That’s -21 degrees to you metric people. Oh, and 4 inches of snow!

The novelty of fresh snow made our day but did cost us the chance to see one of our planned potential highlights. The roads to Mesa Verde were closed 30 minutes before we arrived due to dangerous conditions and two cars sliding off the road. So we just played in the snow.

Stunning scenery and sensory overload

If I was to pick a section of this trip that I could relive over and over it is the time spent in Moab and then through to the time in Page. These two places have so much diverse scenery on offer than I don’ think I would ever feel like I had seen it all. Gazing across some of the landscapes I could not think of a way to describe the vastness of what I was seeing.

Nothing prepares you for how enormous the landscapes are on a southwest usa road trip

I just kept staring in awe declaring to Pauline that all I could think of was “BIG”. The landscapes in this part of the world are BIG. They go on forever and every corner you turn graces you with something different but equally as indescribably beautiful.

When you pack places like Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Goosenecks State Park, Monument Valley, Lake Mead, Horseshoe Bend, Antelope Canyon and more into this small area it is easy to get overwhelmed, which I why we will undoubtedly be back here one day.

Horseshoe Bend is definitely impressive but maybe also overrated

Leaving the snow behind… maybe

The road trip continues from Lake Powell through Las Vegas and then, unfortunately, the less scenic route to Yosemite. We were forced to swing around the western side of Yosemite rather than what I imagine would be a far more spectacular drive on the east and then through the Park. Winter means road closures and so our options were limited. Once again we will come back at a different time of year to see things in a different light.

Two things did stick out on this stage of the trip. The subtitle says “maybe” for a reason. The snow made another short appearance during our night in Las Vegas. I assume it is a very rare occurrence as we came outside after dinner to find huge snowflakes pummeling the ground and heaps of casino staff outside filming this strange event on their phones.

Valley of Fire State Park has some of the most colourful landscapes you will ever see

The real highlight of this stage, and possible the winner of the hidden gem award goes to Valley of Fire State Park about an hour before Las Vegas. We only found out about this place the night before getting there and it has landscapes every bit as amazing as anything we had seen during the entire Southwest USA road trip.

California dreaming

Even though some of the trails were closed in Yosemite due to icy conditions we were able to see enough to be suitably impressed yet left wanting to see more. Watching people slipping, sliding and painfully falling was funny for a while but it did enough to warn us off early from trying any of these icy trails.

Yosemite was different to anything we had seen previously. While all the other Parks were equally as stunning this was the first time we were closed in, totally surrounded by imposing walls of rock. It seemed the American Southwest has no limit to its ability to overawe visitors.

Yosemite wraps in in a giant border of stone

From here it was time to head to the coast, first for our second visit to San Francisco and then to drive the famous Highway 1 which is widely considered to be one of the best road trips in the world.

Highway 1 and its stunning views (or so they say)

We had a week to drive this stretch and had been looking forward to it after years of reading how amazing it is as a road trip. Things started badly as we spent the first two hours just trying to exit San Francisco but stuck in traffic. Luckily, the further we got the better it became.

Monterey, and even more so Carmel by the Sea, took our minds off the dreaded US style gridlocked traffic and seemed like another world in comparison to the city we had just left.

I can honestly say that things are a little hazy for the next couple of days. It’s not that I have forgotten what we did or where we went but it was literally ridiculously hazy. The strangest cloud rolled in from the sea and sat just a few hundred feet above sea level. Clear weather on the ground and then nothing!

Above the clouds but only a few hundred feet high

What was even stranger was when the road climbed higher into the hills we discovered the cloud layer was only a few hundred feet thick meaning once you drove above that level there was blazing sunshine but the view below was like staring out of a plane window at a blanket of cloud below.

So for most of the day we spent our time flicking between beautiful views of the Pacific, shrouded in a weird fog, and shielding our eyes from the glaring sun. And as the afternoon wound down the fog lowered. So by the time we were approaching our daily destination visibility was down to about 20 yards max.

The fog meant no Vista at this point

It is ironic to barely be able to read a huge sign which is right beside the road announcing it’s time to stop for a Vista Point due to extreme fog. Luckily it was close to town and we returned the following morning to clear skies and beaches filled with massive elephant seals. Now that would have been a huge disappointment to find out later that we missed seeing those funky creatures due to weather.

The end of a Southwest road trip of a lifetime

The epic road trip ended in Los Angeles four weeks and about 3500 miles after it had begun. Crazy weather, mind blowing scenery, food you can only get in the USA served in portion sizes no normal human would consider taking on, and memories that would last a lifetime. But the memories will never be enough and we will most certainly be back to revisit parts of this trip.

So this is a very brief rundown, believe it or not, just to give you a glimpse into the adventure that is a Southwest USA road trip. For those of you who are eager to find out more I can let you know that this is just the introduction.

It’s time to put on your seat belt, get the travel snacks ready and set the radio to road trip tunes as we take you with us on our epic road trip.

Continue to Part 1 – Starting in Southern Arizona

Dean is the main creative force behind La Vida Global. A road trip veteran with over 30,000 miles of driving in more than a dozen countries. He has also worked in the Australian travel and tourism industry for the past 6 years.

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