This trip is one of our favorites, and it offers a great first impression of America’s national parks. Nine iconic “desert parks” in California, Arizona, Utah, and Nevada, including Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce, and Arches, along with the famous Monument Valley, color the landscape of the American Southwest with beauty and are sure to leave you feeling amazed, inspired, and maybe even like the star of your own Western movie! We have even included several small Western towns we believe are worth seeing, and some large cities like San Francisco, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles, in order to help provide you with a complete picture of this region.
We recommend 3 weeks for this trip, in order to ensure you have plenty of time to visit every national park, Western town, and city on the itinerary. Though some days will require more than 5 hours of driving time, each one will present a spectacular opportunity to explore part of the American Southwest. If you have more time, we have included suggestions of where to stay an extra day.
Arrive at San Francisco International Airport, pick up your rental car and enjoy San Francisco, world famous for its skyline and the Golden Gate Bridge. We recommend choosing a hotel that is convenient to the airport location, given that you might be exhausted coming in.
But if you are not too tired to explore, discover Fisherman’s Wharf for an unforgettable waterfront dining experience, where you might even befriend some local sea lions!
You will probably wake up early, so take advantage of this and start your great American National Park trip! If you’re sad to leave San Francisco, don’t worry: you will return at the end of your trip, when you’ll have plenty of time to discover the city and do your shopping. You can drive from the airport toward downtown San Francisco, take Interstate 80 East over the Bay Bridge, then head further east on Interstate 580 through Oakland toward Stockton. Hwy 120 will then take you straight into Yosemite National Park. When you arrive at the park entrance, go first to Yosemite Valley to explore Yosemite Falls and the famous rock climbing mountain, El Capitan. If you want to camp, you’ll find the best campsites either in the valley or higher up on Hwy 120. You can also stay overnight in a hotel inside Yosemite or the nearby town of Mariposa.
A highlight of any visit to Yosemite is the glorious sunrise, so get up early and head toward Tioga Pass, which offers many view points where you can watch as the sun illuminates Yosemite Valley. After the sunrise, keep going east to see some small glacier lakes, among them Ellery Lake. Once you are over the pass and reach Highway 395, you will enter into a desert area where you’ll see Mono Lake. If you have extra time (approximately 2 hours), venture out to Bodie to see a very unique “Ghost Town”. After that, head south on Highway 395 and enjoy an incredible scenic drive along the east side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains as you pass the Mammoth Lakes Ski Resort.
Start your morning with nice views of Kings Canyon National Park. There is no access into the park from the east side, but the views are stunning! Then head out on Highway 395 further down along the Inyo Wilderness Mountains to Lone Pine, and go west on Hwy 136 and Hwy 190 into the famous Death Valley, home to the hottest point in the United States. Temperatures here can reach up to to 50 degrees Celsius! Given that it is very hot, there are not many activities we recommend, except perhaps a walk on the Sand Dunes and a stop at Zubriskie Point. Badwater, the lowest point in the United States at 85m below sea level, is also worth a visit. From here, follow Hwy 190 toward Pahrump and then enter Las Vegas. We recommend staying on the Las Vegas Strip to get the best glimpse of the city.
Las Vegas calls itself “The Entertainment Capital of the World,” and it’s easy to see why. You’ll be entertained simply by walking down the city’s main thoroughfare, the Strip, and witnessing countless local attractions and visitors from around the world! But to make the most of all this city has to offer, we recommend a few specifics. For a delicious American breakfast, we suggest the restaurant “Hash House A Go Go”, but be warned that portion sizes tend to be huge, so sharing with your travel partner is recommended! Lounging by the hotel pool during the day presents an ideal way to cool off from the intense heat, but you have plenty of sightseeing options to pursue in both Downtown Las Vegas and on the Strip if you prefer. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can pay a small fee to travel to the top of the Stratosphere and ride any of the three thrill rides perched high above the city. Farther afield, a short drive will take you to Hoover Dam, an attraction outside of the city that boasts great views of Lake Mead. When dinnertime rolls around, visit the buffet at your hotel for a dining experience unlike any other, where you’re welcome to eat all you can for a flat fee! Las Vegas is famous for its nightlife, so you won’t want to miss it. We recommend that you either attend one of the world famous Cirque Du Soleil shows, or a music concert. If you’d like to partake in some of the gaming Las Vegas is famous for, try Roulette or Black Jack to get a taste of the local culture.
The next day, get up early and leave Las Vegas behind, following Interstate 15 north toward St. George. Traveling through the spectacular Virgin Canyon will take you right into Utah, known for its national parks, top scenery and the Mormon culture. Take exit Hwy 9 to Hurricane and follow the directions toward Zion National Park, a true gem of America’s national parks that offers many scenic hikes. If you prefer a leisurely hike, you can try the Emerald Pools, but if you are not scared of heights, we recommend the iconic Angeles Landing hike, with incredible views into the canyon. After your hike, continue on Hwy 9 over the pass into Hwy 89. Go north on Hwy 89 until you reach the junction for Hwy 12, which will take you into Bryce Canyon National Park. Follow the signs and enjoy view points in the Dixie National Forest, then enter Bryce Canyon National Forest. We recommend staying overnight at Ruby’s Inn. After sunset, Bryce Canyon National Park offers some of the best views of the stars in the entire country, so go stargazing if you feel inclined; you won’t regret it!
Begin your day by enjoying the view points of Bryce Canyon. We recommend Sunrise or Sunset Point, wherever you can find parking. Take the Queen Victoria Trail that loops with the Navajo Trail, but be sure to bring water and snacks, as this is a long hike down- and uphill! If you have extra time and energy, you can also try the Peekaboo Loop Trail, which is much less crowded and offers incredible views of the Hoodoos. Once you have finished the hike, we recommend stopping at each of the view points on the way to Yovimpa Point. Continue on Hwy 12, passing the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument as you journey to Capitol Reef National Park. This is a smaller park, but what it lacks in size, it makes up for with incredible views of the Red Rocks and the Colorado Plateau. A 10-mile scenic drive will ensure you see the best of these. We recommend staying overnight in Capitol Reef, but you may choose to continue to Moab if you don’t have extra time, resulting in additional 4 hours of driving.
As you begin to Start your day early and head over to Moab, Utah experiencing the dramatic red colors of the Colorado Plateau. Known as Utah’s National Park Outdoor town, Moab is home to Arches National Park, featuring the iconic Delicate Arch, an astounding natural arch that emerged out of slick red rock! We definitely recommend taking a hike to see it. Then, try a mountain bike adventure on Moab’s famous Slick Rock Trail, or a boat tour on the Colorado River. Canyonlands National Park is one of the best places to mountain bike, so if you are interested in this, we recommend an extra day there. Another must-see in Moab is the Dead Horse Point State Park, an ideal place to stop and take some incredible pictures of the Colorado Plateau.
After breakfast, continue on Hwy 191 toward Blanding and Bluff, then take Hwy 163 toward Monument Valley. This valley is world famous for movie scenes, red rocks, and the endless highway that runs through the desert. The best viewpoints here come just before you enter Monument Valley from the north, looking toward the road and the horizon. When you enter the tribal park, enjoy the view points and connect with Native American history in a respectful way, as you are now in Navajo Nation. Buy local arts and crafts and join an interpretive tour. This is also a great place to go on a horseback ride; ask Goulding Tours for their schedules. When you’re ready to continue your tour, keep going on Hwy 163 entering Arizona toward Kayenta. Take Highway 160 West toward Tuba City, then head South on Highway 90 toward Cameron, Arizona.
You are now very close to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon! For early risers, we recommend experiencing the sunrise from one of the park’s view points (Mather Point is a fantastic one, though you really can’t go wrong if you choose another!), and taking as many pictures as you can! If you plan to be there an extra day, we recommend doing a couple of hiking trails, such as the Hermit Trail (6.5 miles) and the Grandview Trail (6.4 miles). The most iconic backpacking trip is the “Rim To Rim” trail, a full two-day backpacking trip that requires a tent and an overnight stay at the bottom of the Colorado River.
In the morning after breakfast, drive south on Hwy 64 to Williams, then take Interstate 40 West toward Kingman. You are now officially on the famous Route 66, which was one of America’s first significant long distance highways. As such, it is colored with relics of American history: you will find old gas stations, motels, and small towns like Seligman that might make you feel like you’ve traveled back in time to the 1950s! If you have extra time, we recommend taking Hwy 66 between Seligman and Kingman for the full experience of this historic route. This unique stretch of highway goes through another Indian Reservation worth seeing. Keep going west on Interstate 40, entering California, until you reach the junction for Hwy 95. Go South on Hwy 95 along the Turtle Mountains Wilderness until you reach Hwy 62. Go West on Hwy 62 until you enter Joshua Tree National Park, a pristine desert area filled with its namesake, Joshua Trees, which resemble a mix between a palm tree and a cactus. Stop at the view points and take pictures of the sunset in the west, then keep going toward Palm Springs and stay overnight there.
Right after morning, before it gets too warm, continue west on Interstate 10 toward Interstate 215, then head south until you arrive in San Diego. If you are interested in touring a winery in southern California, you should stop in Temecula, the only known winery area in Southern California, and do one of the wine tastings there. Once you arrive in San Diego, we recommend staying overnight near the Gaslamp district or right by the Pacific Ocean.
Welcome to San Diego, a place where you can relax and the weather is always perfect! We recommend a full day in San Diego and a visit to SeaWorld. Be prepared to get wet at this amusement park dedicated to sea life, but don’t worry: the warm outside temperatures will dry you off in no time! During the evening, we recommend dining along the coastal towns outside of San Diego.
Welcome to San Diego, a place where you can relax and the weather is always perfect! We recommend a full day in SanToday’s priority? Just enjoy the beautiful southern California coast. With charming beach towns to visit like Laguna Beach, Newport Beach, Venice Beach, and Santa Monica, this won’t be difficult! After breakfast, take Interstate 5 north along the Pacific Coast from San Diego to Los Angeles. This scenic drive will give you the feeling and vibe of Southern California, with the lush vegetation along the coast and the crazy traffic on the freeways: two things that definitely characterize it! Stop in Oceanside for a quick walk along the coast, then take Hwy 1 past San Clemente, and continue to explore the other towns! Diego and a visit to SeaWorld. Be prepared to get wet at this amusement park dedicated to sea life, but don’t worry: the warm outside temperatures will dry you off in no time! During the evening, we recommend dining along the coastal towns outside of San Diego.
In the morning, you might consider a quick run along the coast before heading to Los Angeles to see the world famous Universal Studios, where classic films and television shows are brought to vivid life around you, and you might even run into some movie stars! In the evening, check out some iconic Hollywood locations, such as the Kodak Theater and the Walk of Fame, where celebrities have been honored for decades with their names imprinted on glossy stone stars embedded in the sidewalk. During the evening, take Sunset Drive into Beverly Hills, then follow Sunset Drive to head back to Santa Monica.
Start your day early to get the most out of your tour of the Pacific Coast Highway. It is one of the most scenic drives along the coast, but quite a long one, so be prepared! Your first stop should be Santa Barbara, to see the incredible flora and picturesque piers along the coast. Then continue north on Hwy 101, stopping by Gaviota State Park. You could plan to spend an extra night of camping there. Keep going on Hwy 101 toward San Luis Obispo, then take Hwy 1 toward Morro Bay. You can choose to stay overnight in Morro Bay before heading toward Big Sur on the most scenic part of the drive. Or, you can choose to skip Morro Bay and arrive near Big Sur right around sunset, which is the most spectacular time for taking pictures. Enjoy your evening; tomorrow you’ll journey to Monterey.
Monterey is world famous for its bay and a spectacular aquarium, worth spending a half- or full day visiting. After the aquarium, we recommend heading straight toward San Francisco, driving through the Silicon Valley where you can stop by and take a look at the headquarters of Apple, Facebook and Google. Once you arrive in San Francisco, we recommend watching the sunset at the West end of the Golden Gate Park to avoid the tourist crowds. Later on, we recommend eating fish at Fisherman’s Wharf.
Now that you’re back in San Francisco with more time to spare, we recommend exploring in several areas. Start with downtown San Francisco, which is also a famous shopping area, then head over the Golden Gate Bridge and stop on the north side for some view points. Head toward Fort Barry and take the scenic route to Bonita Lighthouse. You will have the best skyline views from there with San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge. After that, we recommend visiting the piers, especially Pier 39, which is quite famous for its little shops. Then take the cable car back downtown and head out to Ocean Beach. This is the local beach for San Francisco residents and therefore is not as overrun by visitors. Last but not least, we recommend shopping at the original Levi’s store on Union Square. There are plenty of other shops before you head back home.