5 Day Sample American Southwest Itinerary
I must have been so inspired by the last week’s travel inspiration—Thelma & Louis—that I was just itching to go on a road trip and explore Northern Arizona and Southern Utah. There are so many neat National Parks and I have been in love with the desert recently. So, I purchased an inflatable air mattress that fits the back seat of my car, packed a sleeping bag, couple sets of leggings and my hiking boots, and set out to explore. Unfortunately, some of my activities were rained out, but I had a blast none the less. I’m based out of the Denver area, so had a rough estimate of about 10 hours to drive to reach my destinations. Now I’m weird and can drive by myself for up to 15 hours in a single setting. Most people don’t like to do this. If you don’t, find some friends, or break up the trip! No biggie! The maximum amount of driving was about 10 hours for this trip.
Drive to Page, Arizona.
Leave the Denver area with the goal of Page, Arizona in mind. Normally I would try to set out early in the morning, but I had a final and didn’t leave until after 10 am. I took I25 South instead of utilizing the I70 and mountain passes, as it was snowing when I left (end of March, 2017). Southern Colorado is beautiful, and I wanted to be able to stop and see some different things along the way.
Explore Great Sand Dunes National Park.
About three hours into the drive, I stopped and explored Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. Sand Dunes was always a place I heard about growing up and wanted to explore, but never had the opportunity. So when I saw the sign, I pulled right over! For me, the spontaneity of finding something I wanted to do, and just doing it without planning was so fun! What I loved about this park was that these sand dunes are the tallest in North America, and they were sitting at the valley floor of 13,000 foot peaks from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The contrast between the mountain tops with snow and rocks, in comparison to the sand dunes was unlike anything I have seen. When I stopped at the visitor center to purchase a pass, they weren’t selling and told me to enjoy the park for free. Score!
From the Visitor Center, I drove North to the Dunes Parking Lot and allotted thirty minutes to explore. From the Dunes Parking Lot, there was a large creek to pass before reaching the sand dunes. Water was only inches high in spots leaving sand bars in other spots. At the bottom of the dunes, I enjoyed watching all the families ride cardboard down the hills and made a mental note to return and rent a buggy. After snapping some photos, I returned to the car and headed back on the road.
Gawk at the bright stars over Horseshoe Bend.
I didn’t stop the rest of the trip. Originally I had wanted to drive the Mesa Top Loop at Mesa Verde National Park as it only added about 45 minutes to my drive. Unfortunately, the park was closing when I got to the area. It just wasn’t meant to be! So I pushed on until I reached Four Corners (which I know is such a tourist trap but I couldn’t help myself) and it was also closed for the day. Based on my late start, this was no surprise to me. So I pushed on, enjoying the rugged scenery with visions of horses and cowboys and Indians roaming the Wild West. I stopped at Horseshoe Bend in Page, Arizona for the night. I was hoping to get a glimpse of the natural wonder, but it was about 9:30 pm and too dark. However, there were hordes of people in the parking lot, taking pictures and playing music. The stars were shining so bright it was easy to get lost looking at the constellations. Content with all that I had seen, I blew up my air mattress and crawled in the back seat.
Attempt the Wave Lottery.
If you’re familiar with Pinterest, Instagram, or any form of social media, you have probably seen pictures of the wave within the Coyote Buttes. It is a natural formation due to water erosion that has created a wave-like appearance. However, only 20 visitors are permitted to hike this natural phenomenon a day. In the month of January, you can submit a lottery form for a set of days that year, or you can show up the day before and attend a live lottery. My boyfriend and I felt that we might have some good chances in the lottery, and showed up to the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Visitor Center in Kanab, Utah. This was an hour and fifteen minute drive from Page, Arizona. The lottery registration starts at 8:30, where they run through the rules and describe the hike, and the lottery begins at 9:00 am. We were the first ones there, but unfortunately it’s not first-come, first-serve. Our lotto number was 15 and there were 32 numbers. We were feeling good, but then we realized it’s 10 spots, not 10 groups. The lottery was performed like BINGO, balls being spun in a cage and chosen at random. We did not win, which we were grateful for because it was supposed to snow the next day. So we left, feeling optimistic for the other days this weekend.
Driving back through the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, we headed straight to the White House Campground. The campground is located off of Highway 89 behind the Paria Contact Station, 2 miles down a dirt road. Currently, the campground is under construction and upgrades, so you can stay for free. After construction, it’s $5 a night. There are two pit toilets, but no water or trash services. We found a site that was past the parking lot, and hidden between some rocks. We loved the privacy of it and were excited to explore. We quickly threw the tent, cot and sleeping bags together before leaving the site on foot.
Explore Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
Surrounded by large rock formations, we were eager to climb. Feeling on top of the world, we had a great view of the surrounding campsites, the road, and the monument itself. There was no particular trail, so we just wandered through a washed creek bed on top of the monument. We saw a jackrabbit, but no other wildlife was in sight. Finally after about an hour and a half, the clouds were coming in and so we turned back.
Attempt the Wave Lottery.
Day 2 of attempting the lottery. This time, the drive was about forty minutes from our campsite, and it’s been raining all morning. The office was packed, but this was a Friday, where the hike would be Saturday. This time our number was 56 out of 62 groups. We weren’t feeling so lucky, and the vibe in the office was very cutthroat. Again, we did not win.
Coming back to camp, the weather reports stated it would rain until about 11 am. So we went back and napped until we had some sunshine. This wasn’t until about noon. As most of the trails would be muddy, we wanted to stick to an easier hike and avoid slot canyons based on the potential for flash floods and lots of cold standing water. The Toadstools hike was across the way along Highway 89. There were maybe ten cars in the lot, but most families were returning as we were starting. The hike itself was 1.6 miles roundtrip showcasing sandstone formations that are shaped like mushrooms often referred to as hoodoos. There isn’t much of a trail, so it’s easy to follow the wash north to reach the first group of red hoodoos. After this, you can continue to explore, getting a beautiful sight where you can look over the monument and the road beyond.
Attempt the Wave Lottery.
Third time’s the charm as we set off to attempt the lottery again. Our number was 46 out of 47 groups and at this point we weren’t feeling optimistic. The entire atmosphere in the room was filled with so much tension, where groups of three win but only are allowed two spots, and still accept. It’s pretty rough. We did not win.
Explore Zion National Park.
Stopping first for some coffee, we decided to head West to Zion National Park. I had never been before and I was so excited to explore, as Zion looked beautiful. Zion boasts steep cliffs, narrow canyons and lots of adventures. It was here that I was finally able to purchase my annual National Park Pass (so expect lots of National Parks out of me this year!). We took the Mount Carmel Highway, which is a 12 mile scenic road climbing steep switchbacks, to the Visitor Center and were lucky enough to find parking here. Once here, we were able to jump in line for the Zion Canyon Shuttle, which took us to the 6th stop—The Grotto. The Grotto Stop was where the trailhead for the Angel’s Landing hike and the Emerald Pools hike began.
Hike Angel’s Landing.
The Angel’s Landing is a strenuous 5.4 mile hike that lasts about 4 hours round-trip. There are 1,000 foot drop offs on either side and part of the hike relies on chains to help you through the narrow ridge to the summit. This is not recommended for those afraid of heights. I’m afraid of heights. However, I really wanted to get the amazing spectacle at the top. I was not alone in this, as thousands were hiking with us this day. Because of the lottery, we did not start the hike until noon-which is fairly late. We gained 1,500 in elevation, and we did so quickly at the first part of the hike. I’m 5’5” and this was like doing lunges up a mountain for me-so much so that I was sore for more than four days afterwards. You also reach a series of twenty switchbacks titled “Walter’s Wiggles” and listen to all the kids scream, ecstatic that they have reached “Walter’s Wiggles’. After the switchbacks is a point where many families and hikers enjoy the view and turn around before the chain work starts.
The rocks were slippery, but the most dangerous part of this hike was all the other hikers. The trail was way too busy, and there were hikers who were not experienced enough and families who brought young toddlers along the way. If you are not an experienced hiker, I do not recommend this hike. If you have young children, I do not recommend this hike. It is labeled strenuous for a reason. Rangers repeatedly tell you that people have died for a reason. However, if you can handle the hike, definitely find a time earlier in the morning before the crowds, or later in the afternoon. Be prepared to wait for other hikers, as there is only one way to the top, and that same way back down to the bottom. The ascent didn’t appear too difficult at the time, but once you stopped and looked at your progress, you were amazed with what you had accomplished. Our ascent totaled about an hour and forty-five minutes.
At the top, the views were beautiful. You were nestled within all the different canyons, and could look down at the narrow path that you took on the way up. We devoured our lunches and took a couple pictures before making our way back down. Our descent was not too bad, definitely helped without fighting as many people. Our total hike time was about three and a half hours. At the bottom we had contemplated Emerald Pool’s, but saw the crowds on the trail, and decided we were tired and ready to head back to camp.
Pack up camp.
Decided against the lottery this morning. It was a tough decision, but we drove about forty minutes every day, and we weren’t sure if we wanted to hike the Wave and then attempt a long road trip that afternoon. So instead, we decided we would hit some slot canyons. After breakfast, we packed up camp, eager to spend our last night in a hotel and take a shower. Then, with our cars packed, we drove West on 98, turning onto House Rock Valley Road. We followed this South for 8.3 miles to the Wire Pass Trailhead.
Hike Buckskin Gulch.
The Wire Pass Trail follows a wash flanked by red sandstone buttes before narrowing into slot canyons. About 1.7 miles from the trailhead, Wire Pass reaches the confluence of Buckskin Gulch, leading you into Buckskin Narrows. This is a hike to be mindful about if there is rain in the forecast as it is prone to flash-flooding. This was my first slot canyon and Buckskin Gulch is the world’s largest slot canyon! The hike was easy, and there were about thirty or so cars in the parking lot. The cost for a day permit is $6 per person, and the fee envelopes were available at the trailhead register box.
After hiking the wash for about a mile, you reach your first slot canyon. The further you follow the slots, the further you get from crowds. There were also Pueblo Indian Petroglyphs on one of the large sandstone rocks outside the first couple canyons. We brought our Chaco’s as it had been rainy the last couple days and slot canyons are known for having muddy river crossings and cold standing water. Pools of water may be neck-deep, but the deepest we encountered was halfway up our shins. I couldn’t believe how neat the canyons were, and took about 239720 pictures, that basically all look the same. I was so grateful we were able to explore this canyon!
Visit Horseshoe Bend while it’s light out.
Finishing up our hike we drove back to Page, Arizona for the night. We stopped off back where we began, Horseshoe Bend off of Highway 89 (like everything else). It was about 4:00 pm and the most popular time to visit is when the sun sets. However, we still were parked among 150 cars, RVS and tour busses. Nonetheless, we trekked the ¾ mile trail down to the mysterious bend in the Colorado River, surrounded by languages we could not even discern. There were so many people, and it honestly didn’t look as cool as it does in professional photographs. We spent maybe five minutes, before heading back, eager to eat dinner, take a shower, and watch the season finale of The Walking Dead.
We had discussed paying for the lower Antelope Canyon tour this morning before driving home, which is the most famous slot canyon, but unfortunately it was raining again, and as slot canyons are prone to flood, decided to skip out this time. Instead we enjoyed breakfast, reviewed photos, and parted our ways.
Drive back home!
What was something I missed out on? What do you feel that you missed out on? What did I do that gets you excited for your trip? Let me know in the comments below!