There are so many USA national parks road trip options, it’s hard to choose where to go. Whether you’re road tripping in a rental car or your own vehicle, from the Dakotas and Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Northwest and California, you’ll find clusters of national parks in various regions.
Most of them, however, are in the American West, where you’ll still find vast expanses of wilderness, pristine forest and impenetrable mountain ranges. The biggest concentration of national parks in the USA is in the Southwest—made up by Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and southwestern Colorado.
In the heart of this huge region lies the Colorado Plateau, centered on the Four Corners area of the Southwest. This is where you’ll find the highest number of National Park Service units outside of Washington, D.C. There are no fewer than nine national parks here, including a few of the most famous ones, which makes this the ultimate destination for the USA national parks road trip of a lifetime.
Southwest USA National Parks Road Trip
On this USA national parks road trip itinerary, you’ll cruise through three different states in the Southwest. Specifically, they are Utah, Colorado and Arizona.
While you won’t pass a single major city on this driving route—which is part of its appeal—you can start it from three different hubs in the region. Whether you start from Las Vegas, Phoenix or Salt Lake City is totally up to you. Even Denver could be an option if you don’t mind spending some time to and fro’.
Let’s now look at the nine sensational national parks that make up this USA national parks route in the Southwest. This is canyon country, but you’ll also be able to enjoy fantastic historic sites and other remarkable natural landmarks.
For the sake of convenience, we’ll start with the northwesternmost park, Zion National Park, and work our way around in a clockwise way. This would be the first park you’d come across when starting in Las Vegas. If leaving from Salt Lake City or Phoenix, the route might start at Arches or Grand Canyon, respectively.
Zion National Park, Utah
One of the most visited USA national parks, Utah’s Zion National Park is nothing short of spectacular. Its centerpiece is Zion Canyon, a deep ravine of red sandstone walls carved by the Virgin River. Along the cliffs, hanging gardens and emerald pools create pockets of lushness, while ponderosa and aspen cover the high country above the rim.
There’s a human element here, too. Mormon pioneering homesteaders were so impressed by the rock formations and fertile lands along the Virgin River they called it Zion. The park is home to two campgrounds and several epic hiking trails, most notably Angels Landing, Observation Point and the Narrows.
Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
A short drive to the northeast brings you to the second national park in Utah. Bryce Canyon National Park is famous for its thousands of orange-colored hoodoos, a type of spired rock formations.
This is where the high-elevation Colorado Plateau starts crumbling due to wind, ice and rain. Bryce Canyon is the upper step of the “Colorado Plateau staircase”, a gigantic descending collection of canyons, ravines, cliffs and rock walls. Its lowest point is the Colorado River at the bottom of the Grand Canyon (see below).
The star attraction in Bryce Canyon, which is technically not a canyon, is Bryce Amphitheater, a semi-circular depression filled with photogenic hoodoos. The park’s main road passes by various viewpoints, as does the Rim Trail. A variety of trails lead down into this otherworldly natural amphitheater—popular among hikers and horseback riders alike.
Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
A scenic drive on Utah Route 12 and 24 takes you into Capitol Reef National Park. Because this public highway runs straight through the park, many people don’t bother spending a few days here. It’s more a “passing-through park” than a “let’s-spend-a-day-here park”. That’s an absolute shame. Capitol Reef is one of the most underrated national parks in America, a veritable hidden treasure in the national park system.
Protecting about 100 miles of the Waterpocket Fold, an enormous geological wrinkle, Capitol Reef is the heart of Utah’s red rock country. Here, you’ll find huge white rock domes and towering red sandstone cliffs—hence its name, “Capitol” and “Reef”. There are also numerous slot canyons and natural arches.
Additionally, Capitol Reef National Park also protect a few historic sites. The main one is the historic Mormon village of Fruita, which is now home to the visitor center, a souvenir shop and the photogenic Gifford Homestead Barn. Another visit-worthy historic site lies just up the road from Fruita: a collection of Native American petroglyphs, clearly visible on a red rock wall.
Don’t just drive through this gorgeous park on Route 24, though. You’re encouraged to pay the entrance fee and drive the Scenic Drive, which starts just beyond the visitor center.
Canyonlands National Park, Utah
After exploring Capitol Reef, it’s only a 2.5-hour drive to Canyonlands National Park. This vast and wild park consists of four distinct areas—the Island in the Sky, the Needles, the Maze and the Rivers (Green and Colorado).
On this extended USA national parks road trip, the Island in the Sky district is the most convenient one for you to visit. You can get there via Utah Route 313, which is a side road of US Highway 191 just north of Moab. Before you get to the Island in the Sky Visitor Center, make sure to make the short detour to Dead Horse Point State Park, home to one of the most classic views in the American West.
In Canyonlands’ Island in the Sky, as its name suggest a huge plateau surrounded by sheer cliffs, there are a few fun and easy hikes to epic viewpoints. The Grand View Point Overlook, White Rim Overlook and Green River Overlook are all breathtaking.
Arches National Park, Utah
A quick jaunt south of Canyonlands lies Arches National Park, the fifth national park on this national parks road trip in the Southwest. And you haven’t even left Utah yet!
If you like enormous and intriguing rock formations, you’ll absolutely love this park. Its name already gives it away, but this is where you’ll find countless natural rock arches—more than 2,000 of those, in fact. The stars of the show are Delicate Arch (displayed on Utah license plates) and Landscape Arch, one of the world’s longest rock arches.
Other fantastic formations abound to. Worth mentioning are Balanced Rock, the Windows, the Petrified Dunes and Park Avenue, which is flanked by massive rock walls and fins. All these popular attractions are accessible via the Arches Scenic Drive. The only public road through the park, it runs for 18 miles from the visitor center to Devils Garden and passes by trailheads, parking lots and viewing areas.
The night sky in Arches National Park is sensational—as it is in all other Colorado Plateau national parks, really. So, we recommend spending at least one night here. There’s a campground at Devils Garden, but the fun and adventure-spirited town of Moab is only a few miles away, too.
Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
Unlike most other USA national parks, Mesa Verde wasn’t created to protect a landscape, ecosystem or other natural resource. Instead, this park protects the archaeological heritage of the Ancestral Puebloans who lived in the Four Corners area between 600 and 1300.
The number of archaeological sites found at Mesa Verde is truly mindboggling. There are currently almost 5,000 known archaeological sites in this park, which include no fewer than 600 cliff dwellings. They’re easily one of the most famous and best preserved Native American sites in the USA.
Not-to-be-missed highlights in Mesa Verde National Park include the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum, the Far View Sites Complex, Spruce Tree House and driving the Mesa Top Loop Road and Cliff Palace Loop Road. The latter pass by various ancient ruins and sites, viewpoints and overlooks.
The one main thing to do at Mesa Verde, however, is going on a guided tour to one of the cliff dwellings. Currently three of the large cliff dwelling can be visited with a guide: Cliff Palace, Long House and Balcony House. Do it!
Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona
More archaeology occurs at Petrified Forest National Park in northeastern Arizona. This small park also features some Native American sites, most notably the petroglyphs at Newspaper Rock and the ruins of Puerco Pueblo.
However, this park is mainly about natural features, though. The southern part of this easy-to-visit park is absolutely littered with petrified wood, dating all the way back to the Late Triassic. The petrification of fallen trees in what once was a vast river delta resulted in fossils featuring all kinds of colors. From sparkling blues to shimmering yellows and twinkling reds, the petrified wood is extraordinary.
Various easy hiking trails lead through deposits of this ancient wood-turned-to-stone. The best trails are the Crystal Forest, Long Logs and Giant Logs trails.
Further north in Petrified Forest National Park, other remarkable landscapes await. The Blue Mesa is an area of badlands made up layers of blue and purple bentonite clay, while the Painted Desert is huge expanse of red badlands, rock formations and ravines.
Fun fact: Petrified Forest National Park is the only American national park that’s bisected by Historic Route 66. This will be a highlight on your Southwest USA national parks road trip!
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Finally, if you’re following this national park’s road trip itinerary in order, Grand Canyon National Park is one of America’s most famous parks. More than 6 million people make the journey to the Grand Canyon every year, making this the second-most visited of all USA national parks.
And this truly is the delicious cherry on the rich cake of national parks on a road trip of a lifetime. The Grand Canyon is just as spectacular as people say, the pictures show, the TV shows claim. No one won’t be blown away by their first view of this massive river gorge. And as you explore the park further, you’ll only get more impressed.
There’s an easy way to see the Grand Canyon and a hard way. The easy way is driving the amazing Desert View Drive, walking a section of the Rim Trail and/or exploring the South Rim with the free shuttle bus. All those things are recommended on your first day in this park.
You should spend at least one night here, since you’ll need more than one day to fully grasp the sheer size of this place. Additionally, the stargazing opportunities is phenomenal, too.
The hard way to see the Grand Canyon is hiking into the canyon and back out. While you can, of course, just walk a few steps down a canyon trail and turn around, if you’re an active traveler, a Grand Canyon hike is an experience you’ll remember forever.
There are a few trails that run down into the canyon, but the most convenient one is the Bright Angel Trail. This 12-mile roundtrip hike takes you deep into the belly of the Grand Canyon to the glorious views at Plateau Point.
To do the nine parks on this USA national parks road trip justice—meaning: spend at least a day in each of them—you’ll need two full weeks.