Help Me Create My Southwest Road Trip Itinerary!
December 14, 2017 11:08 AM   Subscribe

I'm planning a road trip through the american southwest for the last week of March 2018. I would love some input in making my intinerary! Details inside.

My plan is to fly into Vegas, rent a car there, and hit:
(1) Zion
(2) Grand Staircase Escalante
(3) Monument Valley
(4) Antelope Canyon/Horseshoe Bend
(5) Grand Canyon

I have Saturday March 24th-Sunday April 1st off from work but was hoping to keep the trip closer to 6 days due to budget (I have $500 budgeted so far but I'm not sure if that will be doable - plane tickets will be bought with points).

The only thing I've officially booked/paid for is the Antelope Canyon tour on Thursday, March 29th at midday. I was planning on following the order above (starting with Zion and going around in a circle and finishing at the Grand Canyon), but would be open to reversing the order if I should.

My main questions revolve around how many days I should allow for each stop, and if there are any stops I can combine into the same day. I mostly want to just hike, take pictures and marvel at the views, but would also love to squeeze in a rafting trip in the Grand Canyon and/or a guided rock climbing trip in Zion if there's time. I also welcome feedback on my budget (am I way off?), lodging (I was planning on just using hotwire to find the cheapest hotels in the towns I'm staying over at), or making this trip in a rental car. Any other insider tips/tricks are welcome too!

I've never been to this part of the US so assume I'm pretty clueless! Thanks for any help/advice you can give.
posted by carlypennylane to Travel & Transportation around United States (19 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Oh my goodness, six days is not enough. I did a Bryce-Zion-North Rim-South Rim version of this and desperately wished I had spent longer in those places. If you can trim your location list at all, I would say spend AT LEAST two days in each place. I honestly think the South Rim of the Grand Canyon is overrated, and the North Rim will still be way snowed in and closed in March, so maybe take that off?

Zion was the most amazing place I'v ever been in my life and I could have stayed there longer. I would also suggest that unless you have your heart set on hiking Angel's Landing in Zion, hike the East Mesa Trail to Observation Point, which is where all those gorgeous postcard photos of the park are taken from. I loved it so much. You can also hike Observation Point the standard way (straight up the canyon wall from floor to rim), but I am kind of fat and lazy and preferred six relatively gently sloping miles to eight vertical miles. There are lots of gorgeous smaller hikes in Zion, too. It's got a ton to do.
posted by bowtiesarecool at 11:52 AM on December 14, 2017

Not counting any scenic driving, pullouts, or hikes, you're looking at a minimum of 16 hours of windshield time for that. You also have to account for tunnel traffic in Zion and entrance gate traffic at both Zion and the Grand Canyon, shuttle buses within both parks (which are frequent but time consuming), driving time within Grand Staircase (which is slow going), and the tour you'd also have to schedule at Monument Valley (it's sacred land and access is limited). Plus many of those are places where it's worth spending at least one night and a full uninterrupted 24 hour period so you can slow down and see and hear everything. It's also high altitude and it will get cold after dark, so you need to do all your hikes in daylight hours when you also need to get all your driving done. I think it's likely you'd really have 25-30 hours just in the car with that itinerary, which doesn't allow much daylight for anything else. If you want to keep your trip under a week, pick two or three spots out of your five.

We stayed two nights in Zion and that felt like a good number. If you want to hike the Narrows or try the hike to Angels Landing you pretty much need to allow a whole day and not try to arrive, hike, and then drive away. We did easier hikes because of rain and accumulated fatigue, and those are things you could squeeze into a short trip, so a short hike only itinerary miiiight work with one night, but why do that to yourself?

We were really happy to have three nights at the Grand Canyon when we ended up pulling through the park gates right around sunset. (Note: we were actually at the North Rim, but it won't be open until May). Our plan had been to get there like two hours earlier and watch the sunset from the porch of the lodge, but instead all we could do the first night was watch the very last bit of daylight go out and then turn around to check in. In the time it took us to check in and get keys, it was really, truly, pitch black. Which was amazing, but we were also like, "they weren't kidding about the flashlights." With careful planning and no wish to hike down two nights is probably reasonable (one night to just sort of be there, one night for trails along the rim). One night is just shortchanging the whole thing.

For Antelope Canyon and Monument Valley you at least might be able to stay in the same hotel, but coordinating tours at both might mean a whole day dedicated to each. We thought about including those in our trip but saved them for a future trip to the South Rim.

You don't mention how fit you are and how much you plan to hike. The base elevation really wipes people out without even accounting for elevation change. At Angels Landing you go up 1400 feet and then come back down; at the Grand Canyon if you're not just staying on the rim you go down and then have to come back up, and that takes twice as long. The Narrows is a scramble where you're walking in a river bed, so you have to deal with water and slippery rocks and assume you're going to get wet and maybe banged up. So, do you already hike a lot? Have you hiked at 9000 feet?

I also think your budget is low too unless you plan on camping or staying in filthy motels, but figure out your time and priorities first.
posted by fedward at 12:05 PM on December 14, 2017

The weather at that time is pretty highly variable - could be sunny and nice, could be crappy. Also, snow/mud in high country will be a concern. Not that it should deter you - just be aware that you should plan accordingly.

Zion is paved and has a shuttle bus. You shouldn't have any difficulty there.

Zion and GS/E are basically next door to each other. The main roads in GS are graded dirt - but most of the best sights are will be on roads of variable quality. There's a really helpful BLM ranger station in the town of Cannonville just off of hwy 12 on Main st. (turns into cottonwood canyon dr). I'd plan to stop there and get up to date info on conditions.

Monument Valley is.... its a long ways away. 3-4 hours anyway, and that drive on 160 through Kayenta is the scariest road I have ever driven on - it's a long lonely stretch of 2lane across open desert, and people are aggressive about passing and tailgating. And your plan is to drive it twice.

If your heart is set on squeezing MV in, I kinda think you'd be happier going 12 up through Torrey (*amazing* drive!) and seeing Capitol Reef/Bryce if time allows. Then 24 to 95 in Hanksville and down through Mexican Hat. You'll see the Bears Ears and if you have time, Natural Bridges is right there, too. And you'll only have to roll 160 once - and the best part is working down through the rock formations and seeing the landscape change over just a few miles.

The south rim of the GC is paved, but a long lonely drive to get there from Antelope Canyon. It's amazing and you should definitely see it, but frankly, if you need the time, I'd sacrifice this to see and do the other stuff. The North Rim is much less crowded and vastly more scenic - but wont be open until mid-May.

As for lodging, motels and such are numerous and its the offseason. But if you don't mind camping - you'll have some great sites all to yourself, and I have a few favorites I can recommend - though they may not be accessible, depending on the weather.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 12:10 PM on December 14, 2017

The main roads in GS are graded dirt - but most of the best sights are will be on roads of variable quality.

We had a funny moment because based on multiple guide books and web sites we'd made a plan to drive on one of the paved roads only as far as the pavement went, and we got to the turnout where the pavement was supposed to end, and the pavement actually kept going. Then we had to figure out if we had enough padding in our itinerary to allow us to keep driving, or whether we were happy enough with what we'd seen to call it. We called it. It was a non-hiking detour for us on the day we were driving between two other parks, and we didn't feel like adding even more car time.
posted by fedward at 12:27 PM on December 14, 2017

Response by poster: Oof, ok; looks like I was a bit over enthusiastic, but everything down there just looks so amazing. What about cutting out Grand Escalante Staircase and Monument Valley? Would Zion-Antelope-Grand Canyon be reasonable for 6 days? I hear what people are saying about the Grand Canyon, but it's something I honestly just want to set my eyes on, at least.

(I'm not super fit but would probably be able to manage easy to moderate hikes of half a day's length. I was thinking half day hikes, half a day to relax/look/take pics, or to do tours or whatever. I'm guessing about a lot because this is all new to me, in case that's not already painfully obvious!)

Thanks for everyone's input so far, please keep the advice coming!
posted by carlypennylane at 12:29 PM on December 14, 2017

We drove through Monument Valley in a rented GMC with 4 wheel drive, and I was glad to have a rugged vehicle. It is not off-roading, but the roads are not paved and have lots of rocks, bumps and dips. Don't plan to drive a standard rental car through MV. You can park your car in the lot and take a tour, but that will add time and cost to your day. It is pretty, but I think you skip it this trip without regret.

We also did one day each at Zion, Bryce and Grand Canyon. They were long days, but worth it. We stayed two nights in Bryce and that allowed us to get an early start but also be there for sunset. I think the only change would be to cut out MV so you could stay the same place for the first two nights and another place the second two nights. Don't skip the Grand Canyon. Stop at Hoover Dam on the way back into Vegas. You don't have to take the tour, just drive over it, park and walk across and back.
posted by soelo at 12:33 PM on December 14, 2017

I've never been to this part of the US so assume I'm pretty clueless!
The first time I went, I was unprepared for how cold it can be at the Grand Canyon in March. Also, it was really windy this year in mid-April, like people losing baseball caps windy, so be prepared for that.
posted by soelo at 12:39 PM on December 14, 2017

Oof, ok; looks like I was a bit over enthusiastic, but everything down there just looks so amazing.

That enthusiasm is great! I feel you. I've lived here for 5 years, and I haven't seen it all either. :-) A thing I see all the time is people come here and do the kid in a candy store thing, and try to see it all in a week. It's not wrong, but...

There are a thousand little nooks and crannies that hold some real treats - no book could index them all - and the real joy is in discovering these things and taking the time to enjoy them. Besides, these rocks have been here for millions of years - they'll wait for you to come back.

The dryness and the altitude are real ass kickers for most people. Also, the sun is much more intense - you'll need sunscreen and lipbalm, hat and sunglasses. It will feel cooler in the shade and warmer in the sun than it really is - so always pack an extra jacket and such. Always have extra water and food in the car and your pack.

Zion is amazing, otherwordly and surreal. You could legitimately spend a week there alone. You may want to set a timer on your phone so you remember to breathe. Antelope/The Wave and others are also stunning.

Zion/Antelope/GC should be doable in a week. 500 bucks for food and lodging is.. a tight budget. Its offseason so you might find some deals. There are lots of car camping options, too. You might be wise to get the 80 dollar park pass ahead of time.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 1:15 PM on December 14, 2017

I hear what people are saying about the Grand Canyon, but it's something I honestly just want to set my eyes on, at least.

I hear you, and agree. It's worth it to me to drive all that way and just hang out for an hour or two, and I've done that a few times.

Oof, ok; looks like I was a bit over enthusiastic, but everything down there just looks so amazing.

It is amazing, but it's also huge expanses of space. Lots of driving.
Depending on what your car rental would cost to drop off at a different location, I would think about flying into Vegas and leaving from Phoenix, or vice versa. There'd be a lot less backtracking, and very different scenery. Be aware that car rentals at PHX can be expensive though.
posted by bongo_x at 2:42 PM on December 14, 2017

I second the reminder that the North Rim is highly likely to be closed due to snow at that time of year. I missed the GC due to snow in mid-May my first time out in Zion/Arches territory. Assume you will have to attempt the South Rim, plan travel time, and consider not booking hotels in advance so you have the flexibility of staying where you end up based on snow and travel times in the mountains.
posted by cobaltnine at 3:44 PM on December 14, 2017

Monument valley is an amazing place, I don't recommend cutting it. It's truly other-worldly and I was just amazed and moved by the landscape.

Antelope Canyon, on the other hand, didn't do it for me despite it's natural beauty. It was so crowded when I was there, that I never got a feel for the place, I felt herded along and didn't get to enjoy it's beauty.

Of course it's completely subjective, ymmv.

Also nthing that north rim of the GC is likely closed, and South rim is pretty far from the rest of your spots.

Finally, when we were driving around we found some pretty cool roadside attractions, the most memorable being Moqui cave. It's like a 20 minute stop, but so awesomely weird and American.
http ://

You will have an amazing trip, enjoy!!
posted by askmehow at 8:17 PM on December 14, 2017

Your tolerance for grimy accommodations may be much greater than mine (most people's are!), but I also think that $500 is way too low, especially if you are including your car rental (and gas), food, etc. in that total. I made a similar trip in 2016 and I'd plan on spending an average of $130 a night for accommodations (a little less in more remote areas, a little more in bigger towns that serve as hubs for visitors to the parks) - more if you'd prefer to stay at a national chain. Lodging will be most expensive near Zion, so you could minimize your expenses a bit by planning around that as you figure out where you'd like to end each day.

I can't tell whether you plan to book your lodging in advance or do your searching when you're actually in the area, but I'd really recommend planning it out in advance as much as possible. The distance from town to town might leave you with a loooong drive at the end of the day if you're unable to find something in your price range.
posted by Anita Bath at 8:46 PM on December 14, 2017

We did a similar-ish trip last March: Sedona -> Grand Canyon -> Antelope Canyon -> Monument Valley -> Canyon de Chelly. A couple of things:

1) Expect it to be cold. I wore a sweatshirt + warm jacket for a few of our days at the Grand Canyon and it actually snowed a little our last day there. The other thing is that you're just outdoors more, so what would be ok for a quick walk to your car or even for public transit, won't necessarily work when you want to be outside for a couple of hours.

2) I found Antelope Canyon to be underwhelming, although we were there towards the end of the day on a pretty grey day. At the same time, a grey day wouldn't be unusual that time of year. Unless you're a photographer or you want to break up the drive from Zion to GC, I would skip it.

3) $500 sounds tight even for hotels + food, and if it also includes a rental car that sounds almost impossible. Keep in mind that a lot of schools have spring break that week, so prices might be a bit higher. I would book now if you can, just to lock in availability. Don't forget about entrance fees and fees for tours, as well as gas.
posted by matildatakesovertheworld at 9:09 PM on December 14, 2017

I just went to the south rim of the Grand Canyon - the week after thanksgiving - and I loved it. It blew me away and also, it was really not crowded. I liked having the shuttle buses to take me from the campsite - camping right there is very affordable - to various points that I could then hike gently to and from. The rim trail is mostly paved, flat, miles long and gorgeous all the way. I did give up quickly on the idea of going to the bottom - the rafting thing will add at least a week to your trip if you can even do it that time of year. Basically, there’s no fast way to get down there.

It’s a long, hard full days drive from Vegas to Grand Canyon Village. I took 3 days to do it but I’m towing a trailer and moving intentionally slow. The West is large and very empty. It’s also very mountainous and the weather changes fast. I also think your budget is way too low, gas alone is going to eat up an alarming amount. I am driving through basically the same areas, camping with a trailer so my accommodation costs average around $25 a night and cooking my own food and i’m just barely squeaking in at about $350 a week. If I had to pay for motel rooms and restaurants? No way. I have no idea what motel rooms are going for, but food is not cheap.

Oh and another thing I didn’t think clearly through: there will be long stretches without data coverage: you may not be able to make last minute plans if you’re counting on the Internet being there. I try to plan at least a few days out and then when I get surprised - hello, Joshua Tree, there’s no cell coverage at all, like, none - I have at least a general idea where i’m going next. You will also want a paper map, no, seriously, it’s invaluable.
posted by mygothlaundry at 9:11 PM on December 14, 2017

Oh and I did two half days and one full day at the Grand Canyon - and wish I’d stayed another day. Six days is definitely not going to be enough for everything.
posted by mygothlaundry at 9:15 PM on December 14, 2017

It's not that the North Rim is likely to be closed, it is literally only open from May 15 to October 15. The North Rim will not be an option.

The sane thing is to highlight a couple places you really want to see on this trip and figure out how long you (personally) want to spend at them, based on your travel style and goals. Once you've got your highlights picked out and you've figured out how long you want to spend at those particular places, you can figure out how long it will really take you to drive between them and fill in the gaps (if you have them) with other stuff you'd like to see. The problem with Zion and the Grand Canyon as highlights is that it's a five hour drive between them if you're lucky. That's pretty much a "travel day" and not an "activity day" to me.

When my wife and I planned our trip, we made a Google Maps thing with all the waypoints we were considering (visitor centers or entrance gates, not just the default pin location which is sometimes … not where you actually want to drive) and a bunch of different layers for driving directions in various loop segments. Then we could say, "if we incorporate X it's kind of absurd not to incorporate Y." That actually made it weirdly easier to rule out Monument Valley (for us) because we could see that Natural Bridge, Monument Valley, Four Corners, and Mesa Verde had enough gravity on their own to be a separate trip than the one we were planning. We're assuming we're going back out there again.

Day hikes: at Zion a half day gives you time to hike a 2.5 mile loop connecting the Emerald Pools to the Kayenta Trail to the Grotto, then via the Grotto Trail back to the Lodge. We did it in the rain. I took the spur trail to Upper Emerald Pool by myself while my wife waited at the trailhead because she didn't feel like more climbing, especially in the rain, but I was happy I went. We also saw a tarantula (warned by people going the other way on the trail) and that was amazing, but I wasn't happy with my photos. A half day also gives you more than enough time for the Riverside Walk (which takes you to the start of the Narrows), which is flat and easy up until you'd have to step in the river to keep going. You could plan to go as far as the first bend just to say you've done it (but we didn't even do that, as Zion was our last park on a 17 day trip, and between rain and exhaustion it was just too much).

At the South Rim of the Grand Canyon a half day hike gives you as much of the Rim Trail as you care to walk. I think you'll run out of time before you run out of trail.

Also I sat in a window seat on the right side of the plane on both our flights, and approaching Vegas I had a great view of the Grand Canyon starting like an hour before landing. On the return flight I was on heightened alert but even so I was unprepared for Monument Valley (basically: "what the hell is tha- OH MY GOD").
posted by fedward at 10:36 PM on December 14, 2017

I hear what people are saying about the Grand Canyon, but it's something I honestly just want to set my eyes on, at least.

So here's the deal with the North Rim --while the roads are closed until May 15, the park is open for some things.

Hikers and cross country skiers will be able to enter the North Rim through the winter months with valid backcountry permits.

For campground use, backcountry reservations are required November 1 through May 15, as the North Rim Campground switches to primitive use with walk-in only sites and no running water

The rim of the canyon is about 14 miles from the entrance to the park, and I'm assuming you would need to park at the entrance because of the roads being closed.

I'm assuming you don't ski, so you'll be hiking to the rim. You should plan for snow, so the hiking has the potential to be very slow. I think you should hit the North Rim first and if you are back to your car before your six days is up (global warming might be your friend here) then you can check out something else on the way back to Las Vegas.

You'll be saving a lot of money on hotels, so buy some good backcountry winter camping gear. If you have never been winter camping in snow before, you have plenty of time before March to try it out -- recommendations are generally to camp within 100 yards of your car the first time out (packing up all your gear as if you were hiking in). This is so you don't die of hypothermia if you screw things up badly. You need to practice this in advance because you are going to be doing backcountry winter camping by yourself (or that's what it sounds like -- but if you are traveling with someone else they will also need to practice winter camping).

You should also learn to use snowshoes, as they might be needed if there is snow.

I've never been to this part of the US so assume I'm pretty clueless!

Well, I tend to assume this is obvious but I've been to the airport in December and seen tourists who assume that desert=warm and didn't even pack any sort of jacket at all. It's winter in March. Winter is cold. High elevations also tend to be cold at night. It's also more likely to snow at high elevations than low elevations. You might have noticed that the park is open to cross country skiers? This strongly implies that snow is expected for at least part of the winter.

I've camped several hundred miles south of where you will be going and had it snow in May --
more than once (while lower elevations were warm and sunny). You need to be prepared for this. Snow is tougher to deal with than just cold because it's really easy to lose small items in the snow, your gear will get snow stuck to it and become bulky and heavy, and of course it is harder to walk in. Be prepared.

I think you are going to have an amazing trip!

Addendum -- this map makes it look like the road is closed in winter starting at Jacob Lake, rather than the park entrance. Might want to check on that.
posted by yohko at 12:09 AM on December 15, 2017

It's not that the North Rim is likely to be closed, it is literally only open from May 15 to October 15. The North Rim will not be an option.

That's not strictly true. The National Park on the north rim is closed (open to walk/ski, but there are no services). The National Forest and BLM both have lots of area (Timp point or Toroweap for example) along the north rim that open year round but varying degrees of accessible depending on conditions.

There is a Forest Service office in Fredonia and a visitor center at Jacob Lake that will have up to date info on conditions. The asker is likely to pass through both of those places (its a far more interesting* drive on 89a than 89, IMO) on the cruise from Zion to Antelope/South Rim.

Anyway - I'd budget extra time so that if you can get to one of the points along the rim that are open, you can see that. It wouldn't be much out of your way, and hey, more Grand Canyon.

* coming out of Fredonia along 89a, you'll cross this high, barren desert. As you climb up onto the Kaibab, it will change to Juniper and finally give way to this enormous Ponderosa forest. That forest is one of my favorite camping spots in the world - and dispersed camping is allowed in much of it. After Jacob Lake, you'll descend from the Kaibab onto another desert with the Vermillion Cliffs on the left and the Grand Canyon yawning off to your right. Towards the east end of the canyon, you'll come across Lee's Ferry - where there is access to the Colorado at a nice picnic area with a sandy beach down inside the canyon. The bridge above Lee's Ferry has parking and often has these huge vultures flying around. It's an amazing area. Hwy 89 from Kanab to Page is vastly less interesting - though it is shorter and faster.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 1:24 AM on December 15, 2017

Fly into St. George, Utah, rent car. Get a hotel in Springdale, UT for 4 nights. Really do Zion. It has so many different angles (Narrows, Observation Point, Valley, and East side are 4 possible full days right htere). Then, drive to Page, Az and get a room for the rest of the time. Go to Antelope Canyon, Maybe get a permit for the Wave. Go to Horseshoe Bend and some of the other really cool areas around there. Drive to Flagstaff. Fly home.

Or, just fly into and out of St. George and do Zion and Bryce.

Or, fly into and out of Flagstaff (or Page), and do the stuff around Page, with a side trip with an overnight in Monument Valley.
posted by bluesky78987 at 2:14 PM on December 15, 2017

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