Utah and Arizona Road Trip: How to Spend 4 Days in the Southwest
From deserts to rivers to canyons narrow and grand, the southwestern United States calls to adventurers and explorers. You could spend endless amounts of time uncovering the landscapes here, but a four-day Utah and Arizona road trip is the perfect introduction to the region along the border of the two states, where the Colorado River and its tributaries create breathtaking scenes preserved in national parks and recreation areas.
This itinerary in the southwest is perfect for first timers looking for famous landmarks, photo-worthy backdrops and epic hikes. It packs a lot into busy days, so slow things down if you have more time (scroll to the end for a few ideas to extend the trip).
Since there are lots of national parks in driving distance from Las Vegas and an international airport in the city, this is where the path begins. The road trip could also easily be incorporated into a longer vacation out west or added on to a Vegas holiday.
Read on for some of the best places to see in Arizona and Utah on a road trip.
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Utah and Arizona Road Trip
Day 1 — Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon
The road trip from Las Vegas begins in the morning, assuming you’ve arrived the evening before or by around 7 a.m. If you have less time, you can skip the morning tour at Hoover Dam and just pop by for photos instead. The rest of the day will involve some scenic drives in Arizona after you cross state lines.
Start your day with a visit to Hoover Dam, which is just 30 miles outside Las Vegas on the border of Nevada and Arizona. You can drive and walk along the top for free, but if you want to spend some time learning about the history of the engineering marvel and seeing how it works up close, book a spot on one of the tours here. Powerplant tour tickets can be purchased ahead of time online, but dam tours are first come, first served, so arrive at the visitor center promptly at opening (9 a.m.) or you might have to wait around for a later tour time.
The four-hour Arizona road trip from Hoover to the Grand Canyon might seem like a long, boring stretch of road, but luckily there is a bucket list experience built in. About 75 miles in at the town of Kingman, hop on historic Route 66 for a minor detour on your way east. It only adds about 20 minutes to the itinerary versus taking Interstate 40, unless you pull over along the way to check out some of the retro diners and abandoned gas stations that litter the Mother Road here.
Known as the “Gateway to the Grand Canyon,” the small town of Williams is a quirky blend of Route 66 memorabilia and cowboy culture with a strong emphasis on tourism. Route 66 serves as the main thoroughfare through the town, which was bypassed by the interstate in the 1980s, and is lined with gift shops, hotels and eateries, perfect for some Arizona sightseeing with classic Western vibes. Many tourists make Williams their base, since the Grand Canyon South Rim is 60 miles due north on state Route 64, and accommodations tend to get pricier as you move closer to the national park. From Williams, you can also hop on the Grand Canyon Railway for an entertaining and scenic train ride into the park.
Without any extensive detours, you should arrive in time to watch the sunset at the Grand Canyon (check the times), one of the most spectacular things to do in Arizona. If you arrive by mid-afternoon, you’ll have time to walk along some of the Rim Trail to scope out your ideal sunset spot. Hopi Point along Hermit Road is one of the most popular viewpoints, as it juts into the canyon for east-west vistas of the changing colors in the sky and canyon. You’ll have to ride one of the park’s free shuttle buses to get here (the road is closed to cars from March to November), so be sure to plan ahead and anticipate some crowds during busy times like summer, holidays and weekends.
Where to stay
Day 2 — Grand Canyon to Horseshoe Bend
This day is all about Grand Canyon National Park, and you’ll have lots of options for activities there before driving on to Page, Arizona, for another bucket list sunset at Horseshoe Bend.
Consider waking up to catch the sunrise at the Grand Canyon and get an early start to your day at the South Rim. Mather Point near the park’s main visitor center is a fantastic spot, and you’ll be able to leave snag a spot for your car before the lots fill up (often by 10 a.m. in summer).
The rest of the morning and afternoon is for Grand Canyon activities, and you’ll have plenty to choose from at the South Rim. If you enjoy hiking, you can tackle a couple of miles on paths that lead to the bottom of the canyon (like the South Kaibab or Bright Angel) or take in the views while walking along the Rim Trail, which spans 12.8 miles (the shuttle service can take you to different points along the way). Bike rentals and mule rides are other popular ways to explore the canyon.
Before leaving the Grand Canyon, take in the sights along Desert View Drive, a 25-mile path from Grand Canyon Village to the east entrance/exit of the park. A handful of developed viewpoints along the way have views of the Colorado River, and there are a few picnic areas as well. The Tusayan Museum and adjoining Ancestral Puebloan ruins are just before the exit, as is the Desert View Watchtower, which you can climb for panoramic vistas.
The final destination of the day is another 110-mile drive away, just outside of Page at Horseshoe Bend, an Arizona bucket list sight. You’ll want to arrive before sunset to take in the views of the Colorado River, which makes a stunning U-turn here against the deep, orange cliffs. Though not within the confines of Grand Canyon National Park, the ravine is part of the same canyon and a can’t-miss while you’re in the area. The hike from a parking area to the rim is about 1.5 miles round trip, and though it gets crowded as the sun dips below the horizon, there are plenty of viewpoints to settle in at as the site currently has no barriers.
Where to stay
Day 3 — Antelope Canyon to Bryce Canyon
The southwestern adventures continue with a visit to a slot canyon, followed by a stone forest as we begin our Utah road trip. If you have extra time, add another day here to explore more of Bryce or one of the other Mighty 5 Utah national parks nearby.
If you want to experience Horseshoe Bend without the sunset crowds, consider a visit in the morning, when you’ll get to see the shadows moving down the rocks as the sun rises higher in the sky. Since the hike here isn’t too strenuous, stopping by twice doesn’t take much time from your agenda.
Join an Antelope Canyon tour this morning to experience the winding paths and soaring walls of a sandstone slot canyon. Erosion has carved passageways that you can walk through, smoothing the orange sides with a unique brushed pattern. Visiting the canyon requires a guided tour for safety reasons, and booking ahead is essential during busier times for Upper Antelope Canyon or Lower Antelope Canyon, the two most popular options. A third tour spot, Antelope Canyon X, is still relatively unknown and way less crowded, so walk-ups can sometimes be accommodated. To catch the famous sunbeams that shoot down into Upper Antelope Canyon, a tour around midday is recommended, otherwise choose something in the morning to make more time for the next destination.
For the second half of the day, you have two options: hang around near Page for a while longer to do things like kayaking and boating on Lake Powell and touring Glen Canyon Dam, or drive north through Utah for an afternoon at Bryce Canyon. The second option is out of the way a little (60 miles past where you’ll likely spend the night), but worth it for a few hours in the park and a scenic drive on the way.
Bryce Canyon National Park preserves the world’s largest collection of hoodoos, rocks weathered into towering columns that rise from a bowl-like canyon floor. With just a couple of hours here, you can drive to different viewpoints or walk a mile of the rim trail between Sunrise Point and Sunset Point. There are a couple of shorter paths that lead into the canyon, too, including the Queens Garden and Navajo trails, each less than 2 miles round-trip. If you have more time, longer treks take you to the canyon floor to walk amongst the stone forest.
Where to stay
Day 4 — Zion to Las Vegas
Today is reserved for Zion National Park, with time to drive back to Las Vegas for a late night or early morning flight.
Entering Zion from the east involves a 12-mile scenic drive along the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway, where you’ll be treated to stunning views of sandstone mountains, along with switchbacks and tunnels. Get an early start, as the parking lot at the visitor center tends to fill by mid-morning.
On your way into the park, you might want to stop to hike the Canyon Overlook Trail, which is located at the East Side Tunnel on the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway before the road descends to the canyon floor. The 1-mile, round-trip path leads to views of the Zion and Pine Creek canyons.
With the Virgin River running through and pink sandstone cliffs soaring into bright blue skies, Zion National Park was made for outdoor adventures. A free shuttle transports visitors along the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive to various trailheads, with hikes for every ability. For an easy path along the water, try the Riverside Walk, a paved, 2.2-mile option leading to The Narrows, a strenuous but bucket-list worthy traipse through the Virgin River. Thrill-seekers often head straight for Angels Landing, a 5.4-mile route that culminates in a daring crawl up a steep ridge.
If you need a shower after a day on the trails, head to Zion Outfitter in Springdale to use their public facilities for a fee. The shop also has equipment rentals for things you might need in the park, from bikes and river tubes to waterproof gear and hiking sticks for The Narrows.
The 160-mile drive back to Las Vegas is a final scenic treat, traversing incredible natural landscapes as you pass through Utah, Arizona and Nevada, like the Virgin River Gorge, where red rock faces line the highway. If you arrive in the city early enough or don’t leave until the following day, you might have time to take in the Las Vegas Strip or a show.
Where to stay
Tips for an Arizona and Utah Road Trip
1. If you plan to visit all three national parks in this itinerary, it will likely be more cost effective to purchase an America the Beautiful annual pass, which covers entrance fees at national parks, forests, wildlife refuges and more. The $80 price tag works out cheaper than paying the admittance for a car (around $30-35 and rising) at each park, and you can keep using it until it expires in a year.
2. This region gets extremely hot, so if you have to visit in summer, be prepared with sunscreen, hats and lots of drinking water. Summers also get very crowded at the big parks like Grand Canyon and Zion, so opt to travel in one of the shoulder seasons, if you can.
3. You’ll be crossing time zones (Pacific and Mountain) on this road trip, so pay attention if you have any tours booked ahead. Nevada is in the Pacific Time Zone and Utah in the Mountain Time Zone, while Arizona observes Mountain Standard Time, which means clocks here don’t move forward with daylight savings time. So, during standard time (roughly November through mid-March), Arizona and Utah are at the same time, but during daylight savings time, Arizona and Nevada are at the same time. To make matters even more confusing, the Navajo Nation, which includes the northeastern corner of Arizona, DOES observe daylight savings time. So, if you visit in summer, prepare to watch your clocks freaking out and switching back and forth.
4. If you have more time to extend your road trip, there are a number of other parks and sites not far from this route, including the Grand Canyon North Rim, Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, Coconino and Prescott national forests, Monument Valley, and the Big 5 Utah national parks (the two on this itinerary plus Arches, Canyonlands and Capitol Reef).
5. Within day trip distance of Las Vegas you’ll find some more scenic spots like Valley of Fire State Park, Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Sloan and Red Rock Canyon national conservation areas, and Death Valley National Park, home to the lowest point in North America.