Whenever I find myself in the Southwest, I always end up in awe. For being a relatively small region of the U.S., it’s chock-full of natural wonders. In addition to awe, I also feel gratitude that so much of this region has been preserved and protected for future generations through our national park system and other land management programs. It’s just not a place you can fly-over and appreciate! What better way to explore the southwest than through a road trip?
Planning a southwest road trip is hard, mostly because there’s just so much to try and see and do! If you only have five days, you’ll soon see it’s certainly possible to do a 5-day southwest road trip, but it’s going to be a sampling of the “greatest hits” and you’ll likely want to come back someday and see everything again!
Based on my experience exploring the southwest throughout various travels in my life, I’ve put together this five-day southwest road trip itinerary that packs in the best of everything I’ve seen and what I think is unmissable. From one of the most popular national parks in the country to expansive desert views, don’t be surprised if you repeatedly find yourself struck by that awe I mentioned earlier. Read on to start putting together your own itinerary for an unforgettable 5-day southwest road trip.
Through my site and especially in this national parks post, I promote travel to lands that are the traditional lands of Indigenous and First Nations peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
5 Days, 5+ National Parks & More in the SW
(I used Roadtrippers Plus to create this route; you can get $5 off Plus by clicking this link and using code BTR5QTP.)
I’ll be honest: when it comes to seeing the American Southwest, five days is just not enough. As you’ll see, this is a very ambitious five-day itinerary that includes early mornings and long drives – but it also gives you the chance to see some of the most amazing views in the southwest, from the Grand Canyon to several other stunning national parks, and plenty of epic views and roadside stops in between.
In planning this 5-day southwest road trip, I decided to do it as an open-ended route – rather than a loop that ends in the same city it starts. That’s in part because the cities in the Southwest are widely spread, with few smaller cities (and airports) in between. I’ve put this road trip itinerary together starting in Salt Lake City, Utah and ending in Las Vegas, Utah. You can certainly reverse the route, or try to adjust it for your own travel preferences.
You might also notice something: my attire changes dramatically between photos, from shorts and tees to hats and my favorite North Face jacket. That’s because I’ve actually done this trip in several parts, rather than exactly as I’ve laid it out below. I’m using what I learned on three different trips to help you plan the ultimate Southwest road trip in just one go.
Without further ado, let’s dig into the details of this speedy but stunning southwest road trip!
A 5-Day Southwest National Park Road Trip Itinerary
Now that you’ve had a peek at the itinerary, here’s a breakdown of each day on the itinerary.
Day 1: SLC to Moab
I chose to start this road trip in Salt Lake City because I think the drive from SLC to Moab is a beautiful introduction to the southwest. Within two hours of departing the city, you’ll enter the Colorado Plateau, which is home to the mountains, rock arches, canyons, and rivers that make the Southwest a stunning natural playground.
Drive to Moab
It takes 4.5 hours to drive from Salt Lake City to Moab, which is your final destination for the night. Ideally, you should set out in the morning and arrive in time for lunch. I recommend going into town for lunch – Sweet Cravings Bakery + Bistro is the place to go.
I’ve got a post all about how to spend three days in Moab, but really, you’re here for the national parks! I recommend checking out my guide to spending one day in Arches and Canyonlands; you can do the Canyonlands afternoon on this first day (and the morning in Arches tomorrow).
Visit Canyonlands National Park
In short, that means back-tracking a little bit north to enter Canyonlands National Park in the Islands in the Sky part of the park. You can stop by the Visitor Center, hike to Mesa Arch, admire the views from the Green River Overlook and White Rim Overlook, and watch the sunset at Grand View Point. It’ll feel like a busy afternoon, but give you a great sampling of what this part of the park has to offer.
Optional: Stargaze in Dead Horse Point State Park
If you have the energy, I recommend staying in the park after the sun goes down (depending on the timing and how hungry you are!). Nearby Dead Horse Point State Park (on the map above) is a fantastic spot for stargazing – and a certified dark sky park!
After all that, it’s time to get a good night’s sleep: tomorrow’s a long day of adventures and driving with some insanely epic views!
Resources for Day 1: While in Moab, I stayed at the Hyatt Place Moab (book on Booking.com or Hotels.com), but there are loads of other chain and independent accommodations to choose from. If you choose to eat dinner in town, both Antica Forma and Josie Wyatt’s (in the Hoodoo Moab; book on Booking.com or Hotels.com) were top-notch.
Day 2: Moab to Durango
I recommend starting today early, if you can. Arches National Park is worth a full day on its own, but you’ll also need to make your way down to Durango before days end, which is a three-hour drive.
Visit Arches National Park
Start out with a few hours in Arches National Park. As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve covered how to spend a morning in Arches as part of my one-day guide to Arches & Canyonlands. Here are the basics:
- Drive Arches Scenic Drive – the main road in Arches National Park that takes you to plenty of sites
- Watch the sunrise at Balanced Rock – This is a great spot to watch the sunrise and see the red rocks brighten as the sun hits them
- Visit the Windows and Double Arch – This is a great set of short hikes that you can easily do before it gets hot in the day
- Admire Delicate Arch from afar – Since you don’t have 2-3 hours to do the full Delicate Arch hike, visit Lower Delicate Arch Viewpoint to see it from afar
- Hike to Landscape Arch – At the end of Arches Scenic Drive, a short hike takes you to a
- Enjoy the view of Park Avenue – One of the most famous viewpoints in Arches
- Stop at the Visitor Center – A good spot to learn more about how the arches form and buy souvenirs
Drive to Durango
After you’ve left Arches and grabbed lunch in Moab, head southeast on the three-hour drive to Durango, Colorado. Along the way, you could stop at Canyon of the Ancients National Monument. Here you’ll find an astounding 6,000+ archaeological sites, preserved and some open to the public for a visit.
Durango is a fun town, so it’s great you’ll arrive with plenty of time to enjoy it before nightfall. For dinner, consider either James Ranch or Chimayo; the latter does incredible Southwestern cuisine and will get you in the mood for some amazing meals to follow for the rest of this trip.
Afterward, you can stroll the streets of historic Durango. If you have room, the ice cream at Cream Berry Bean; flavors include Colorado Cherry, Honey Lavender, and Raspberry Chèvre, which are the three flavors we tried while there. I’m not normally an ice cream person, but I was for them!
Day 3: Durango to Grand Canyon
After a brief morning to enjoy Durango as the day starts – pro-tip: There’s a food truck at 11th Street Station with bomb pork belly breakfast burritos –, it’s time to hit the road again! This is the longest day of driving during the road trip, so there’s no time to delay… or you’ll be arriving after dark at the Grand Canyon.
Auto-Touring Mesa Verde National Park
Mesa Verde might not seem like a large national park, but it takes quite a while to wind your way up onto the mesa and to stop and enjoy the many sights and ruins there. If you’re not familiar with it, Mesa Verde National Park is one of the most famous places to see cliff dwellings left by the Ancient Puebloan people that disappeared from the region roughly 700 years ago.
I think you need no less than three hours to see the basics, including Spruce House and Cliff Palace, so it’s best to do this in the morning, then enjoy lunch in the park before heading back on the road.
Stand on the Four Corners
It’s a bit of a detour from the main route, but Four Corners Monument is just six miles (each way) off the main route from Mesa Verde to Monument Valley… On a 1,200+ mile road trip, I think you can handle adding an extra 1% for this sight!
Here you’ll be able to stand in four states at once: Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. And it’ll actually be the only time this particular Southwest road trip itinerary goes into New Mexico.
Pass Through Monument Valley
From Four Corners Monument, it’s a two-hour drive to Monument Valley. By timing, this should mean you’ll drive through the Valley during the hot middle of the afternoon.
Be sure to stop at the Forrest Gump Spot along Highway 163 for a few photos, and spend the time and money to support the local Navajo Nation economy by paying to drive the 17-mile route in the Monument Valley Tribal Park.
(On a longer itinerary, I highly recommend visiting Monument Valley for longer, at least one night – but as this is meant to be just a 5-day Southwest road trip, we’ll limit it to roadside photo-stops.)
For dinner, I recommend getting dinner to-go from Monument Valley; there are a few restaurants at the two main hotels (The View and Goulding’s Lodge), but I also had a great chicken sandwich from the Goulding’s gas station restaurant!
Haul it to Grand Canyon
From Monument Valley, you’ll be racing the sunset to Grand Canyon; depending on the time of year you do this road trip, you may have more hours to work with than during short winter days. It’s a 3.5-hour drive from Monument Valley to Grand Canyon, so keep that in mind too.
If you arrive in time for sunset, I suggest Yavapai Point to watch the sun go down. This spot is popular, so you need to arrive at least 15 minutes before sunset.
Resources for Day 3: We stayed at Under Canvas Grand Canyon (book on Booking.com or Hotels.com), but that’s a little out of the way for this itinerary. There are loads of chain hotels in Tusayan to choose from instead.
Day 4: Grand Canyon to Zion
Rise and shine early – again! – if you want to make the most of the short time you have in Grand Canyon National Park… and beat the heat and crowds that honestly make the experience way less pleasant!
Explore Grand Canyon
In Grand Canyon, I recommend taking advantage of the Rim Trail and Desert View Drive which wind along the South Rim. Depending on where you stay, you can follow Desert View Drive out toward Grandview Point and Desert View Watchtower; the Rim Trail near Grand Canyon Village also has great viewpoints every 200-500 yards! If you need more suggestions, I have a post all about how to make the most of a half-day at the Grand Canyon.
Whatever you choose to do, I would end with lunch in Tuyasan, the nearest town to the national park entrance. Mr. V and I had a delicious meal at Plaza Bonita, and their mole enchilada is fab.
Hit the Road for Zion
After yesterday’s long day of driving, today is another long day – and you want to make sure you decide now which spots you’d want to make small detours and plan a picnic lunch. Along the route, here are four great options for those 1-2 additional stops (depending on how good of time you’re making):
- Horseshoe Bend, also on the Navajo Nation, is along today’s route – and a primo photo stop
- It’s along the way, but you need to plan for more time (and book a tour!) if you want to stop at Antelope Canyon
- Given the day is long, it might just be worth stopping to stretch your legs at Lake Powell – but don’t be surprised if you end up wanting to make a trip back
- Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is right along today’s route too; there are some insanely beautiful photo spots
After five hours on the road, I recommend stopping to enjoy the east side of Zion National Park; this isn’t part of my one-day guide to the park, but there’s so much to see before you go through the Zion-Mt. Carmel tunnel, including Checkerboard Mesa, Canyon Overlook (a short hike), and Crawford Arch.
Day 5: Zion to Vegas
Okay, one last day of squeezing in as much as possible! Today, you’re starting in Zion National Park… and if you haven’t yet gotten tired of me saying it: there’s just not enough time to do it all, so let’s start early and do as much as possible.
I have a guide to spending one day in Zion; I recommend starting at sunrise and catching the very first shuttle into the Zion Canyon then working your way back out for lunch. The shuttle makes nine stops in between the Visitor Center and the Temple of Sinawava at the far end of the canyon; if you’re looking for an easy hike, hop off the shuttle at Zion Lodge (Stop #5) and do the Emerald Pools hike.
For lunch, Zion Canyon Brew Pub is right on the park boundary and has great outdoor seating while you can enjoy last views of the towering sandstone cliffs before making the final drive to end this 5-day Southwest road trip.
Final Drive, Final Detour
It’s just a three-hour drive from Zion to Las Vegas, which is where I’ve written this road trip to end… But I have one last great detour if you have the time. Valley of Fire State Park has become a recognized southwestern vista thanks to TV and movies like Total Recall and Star Trek Generations. It’s a short detour off the route and worth it if you haven’t yet seen enough man-made stone structures, rock formations, and canyons – including a cool slot canyon unlike anything else along this route!
Resources for Day 5: If you’re staying a night in Las Vegas, enjoy! Otherwise, safe travels home!
Do you have any questions about this 5-day Southwest road trip itinerary, the national parks I included, or anything else? Let me know in the comments!