Southwest National Parks Experience Multi-Day Itinerary
The following is a generalized itinerary for a full 14 day experience meant to simply give you an idea of the possibilities, and further customizable based on each guests’ priorities:
Day 1 (Las Vegas/Red Rocks):
Viva Las Vegas! Right? While this city in the desert has almost anything money can buy, the real gems are within a day’s drive and why this will serve as the starting point for our Southwest National Parks Experience. We’ll make sure we’re packed with everything we need, and start the trip with a drive through Red Rocks NCA, just outside of the city.
Red Rocks offers numerous hiking opportunities, and is a great introduction to the desert environments we’ll be encountering over the coming weeks. From Red Rocks, we’ll drive to Death Valley and camp in the backcountry. Depending on the cloud cover, this may be an ideal night for astrophotography.
Day 2 (Death Valley):
You may have never thought of Death Valley as a destination, but this is a simply incredible park encompassing over 3,000 square miles and a tremendous introduction to the Southwest national parks. Entering from the east, we will explore the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, Artist’s Drive, Zabriskie Point/Dante’s View, and numerous other sites throughout the day.
Death Valley will culminate with a visit to Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America and a giant salt flat. Looking out as the sun sets behind the Panamint Range/Telescope Peak, surrounded by hexagons of salt on the ground, we will have one of the most unique photo opportunities of the entire Southwest National Parks Experience.
Day 3 (Joshua Tree/Borrego Springs):
A very user-friendly park, Joshua Tree is one of the Southwest national parks known for expansive deserts, unique rock formations, and of course, Joshua Trees. Most hikes are well thought out 2-3 mile loops, and most areas of the park offer expansive views. The southern and less visited portion houses a field of baby Joshua Trees, Skull Rock, and unique plant life straight out of The Lion King. This day can be as intense as we want to make it, but offers a nice opportunity to begin to wind down the trip physically, while still enjoying more parks.
Further south, Borrego Springs is a unique little town on the backside of San Diego county. While not one of the Southwest national parks, what makes it worth stopping are the very random, very large, metal desert statues scattered around the town. Ranging from sand serpents, to fighting dinosaurs, to giant eagles, you can’t find this anywhere else. After a quick lunch at the Red Ocotillo, we will briefly explore Anza Borrego State Park and start the drive towards Saguaro in Tucson.
Day 4 (Saguaro):
Saguaro almost feels like two separate Southwest national parks, as it’s divided into an East and West unit on either side of Tucson. Starting early, the west side will allow us to watch the sunrise over a field of cacti leading into the city. Giant saguaros, and numerous other types, stretch as far as the eye can see.
After driving the scenic loop and a morning warm up hike, we’ll head to the East unit. While still containing cacti, the East unit’s primary feature is the Rincon Mountains, adding a bit of elevation in the middle of the desert. After exploring, we will leave in the late afternoon to head towards Big Bend. We will either stop in El Paso or push through to Big Bend, depending on the group’s decision.
Day 5-6 (Big Bend):
Big Bend is a diverse, large, unique stop on our Southwest National Parks Experience, located in the southwest corner of Texas. At just over 1250 square miles, we will start our trip in the Chisos Mountains, including The Lost Mine trail, giving expansive views of the mountains and surrounding deserts. This area is very much like a larger, wider Zion. Depending on cloud cover, Big Bend offers some of the best star gazing in the country.
From the Chisos Mountains, we will work west towards Santa Elena Canyon. At the canyon itself, we will be able to get in the Rio Grande River in front a sheer rock wall with a canyon cutting up the middle. We can hike back into the canyon, but don’t go too far, we can’t cross into Mexico! As we finish Big Bend, we will hear north and stay in a motel in Van Horn or camp outside at Guadalupe Mountain National Park (if the intention is to climb it).
Day 7 (Guadalupe Mountains/Carlsbad Caverns):
The next stop on the Southwest National Parks Experience will bring us as high as 8750’. Guadalupe Peak is the highest point in Texas, and a mere 8.5 mile, windy, 3000ft elevation gain/loss, 6 to 8 hour hike to the summit and back. If this is a desired hike for the group, we will camp in the national park and begin before sunrise, with the intention of summiting by 10-11am (before it gets too hot).
Without climbing Guadalupe Peak, the remaining parts of the park move quickly, and we will focus our time on Carlsbad Caverns about 15 miles north. Carlsbad Caverns is a unique one of the Southwest national parks comprising a winding system of caves traveling over 700 feet under the surface, and displaying a series of unique rock formations.
Even moving quickly, we should budget at least 2 hours and likely more, as it’s well worth it to go all the way into the “Big Room” at the bottom. However, from there, it’s a hike back up. Carlsbad does have an elevator that, while it cannot be guaranteed in service, can save the hike out. Even underground we’ll be at a bit of elevation, so you may be huffing and puffing on the walk out.
Day 8 (White Sands/Spaceport America/Very Large Array):
Day 8 of the Southwest National Parks Experience is a unique day, with lots of options for the nerds. White Sands is an incredibly unique environment, with giant dunes surrounded by mountains (and a military missile test site). While the bright white sand is impressive in and of itself, you really have to take in a sunrise or sunset here to truly appreciate this park. If we get up early and get an “Early/Late Form”, we can add everything in the same day.
For the scientifically inclined, this part of the country houses Spaceport America (shared by SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’ company, and others) and Very Large Array (a field full of gigantic satellites). Spaceport offers tours, and Very Large Array is stunning during the day or at night. As this is not nature, and some may prefer to see the sunset at White Sands, these stops are optional for guests and should be based on time of day/clear skies.
Day 9 (Taos):
Back to civilization! Driving through Albuquerque and the Sandia Mountains, we will have options to stop off in Santa Fe and Los Alamos (home to the atomic bomb), before arriving in the ski town of Taos. Here we will be able to recharge phones, do a couple light hikes in the surrounding mountains, or simply take a ski lift to the top. A nice dinner and good night’s sleep will prepare us for the second leg of the Southwest National Parks Experience.
Day 10 (Petrified Forest):
Petrified Forest brings us back into the Southwest National Parks and like Saguaro, can be considered two areas: The Painted Desert of the north and the large hunks of petrified wood in the south. As of this time, there is road construction and we will have to do the north portion, drive around the park, and then do the south portion. It’s worth it.
Petrified Forest is a park where we absolutely must practice “Leave No Trace” principles, including not taking a piece of Petrified Wood, no matter how small. NPS staff stop and search vehicles on the way out. Also, there are numerous opportunities to purchase pieces from private land at gift shops on the way out.
At this point in the Southwest National Parks Experience, guests will have the choice of Option 1 or Option 2, or even both if the group is interested in extending their experience into 3 weeks:
Option 1 –
Monument Valley and Grand Canyon
Day 11 (Monument Valley/Canyon de Chelly):
Option 1 of the Southwest National Parks Experience will bring us into Navajo Nation, visiting two of my personal favorite places in the entire country. Navajo Nation is sovereign soil, under the jurisdiction of Navajo police. While we always practice “leave no trace” principles, this is not the time to do something stupid. Think of it as if you were visiting an international country.
The parks themselves are home to some of the largest, highest concentration of sandstone buttes in the world. Formed over thousands of years of a “flood/freeze/melt/dry/repeat” process, this unique landscape has served as a background for numerous westerns, HBO’s West World, and the famous “Forrest Gump Point” where Forrest Gump stops running.
Canyon de Chelly will serve as a continuation of Monument Valley, with fewer but often times more dramatic sandstone peaks. Both locations are on Navajo Nation, so in addition to the stunning sights, we will have tremendous cultural and historical learning opportunities.
(Horseshoe Bend/Antelope Canyon, Grand Canyon North Rim):
Today is all about the grandeur of mother nature, as shown by the Colorado River. Starting in Page, we will visit Horseshoe Bend (less than an hour) and take a tour of Antelope Canyon. Tours are mandatory, but do very much provide a great deal of additional detail regarding the formation of the slot canyons.
From Page, our Southwest National Parks Experience will take us on a short drive to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. The North Rim is typically less visited than the South Rim, though only due to simplicity of access, not quality of views. We will tour the highlights from “Roosevelt Point” to a lunch at the North Rim Lodge. That afternoon we can hike down into the canyon, but remember: “Down if Optional, Up is Mandatory”.
If we have a particularly motivated group, I have completed a Rim 2 Rim hike (approximately 22 miles and 3000 feet down/up). I did it in one go, which was not pleasant. While hiking to the bottom of the canyon and seeing the Colorado River is well worth the experience, I would suggest that it is done over the course of, at a minimum, two days. It’s amazing what happens when you leave something alone for a couple millennia.
Day 14 (Valley of Fire State Park/Hoover Dam/Las Vegas):
Our final day of the Southwest National Parks Experience will be spent in and around the Las Vegas area. Coming back from the North Rim, we will stop at Valley of Fire State Park, an area that’s almost a mix of Red Rocks and The Wave. Valley of Fire offers numerous hiking and climbing opportunities.
I’m usually not one for man-made objects, but the Hoover Dam is one where you say, “Ok, that’s pretty impressive”. Just south east of Vegas, we will explore this dam holding back Lake Mead/the Colorado River, and providing water to most of Nevada/Southern California. Guided tours led by park staff can be purchased and added as an addition to the above ground portion.
Finally, we will wrap up our Southwest National Parks Experience with a hotel near the airport, a clean up, and a nice group dinner. While Vegas can provide any type of dining that groups could desire, specific requests must be discussed ahead of time due to 1) reservations and 2) dress code planning. After dinner, I will wish you the best and leave your group to travel to the airport the next day.
Option 2 – Utah’s Big 5
Day 11 (Arches):
Option 2 of the Southwest National Parks Experiences brings us to Utah’s “Big 5” parks, each with their own unique features. Driving north from Monument Valley, we will stop at the giant Wilson Arch (seen on Utah license plates) for a stretch of the legs. Arriving at Arches, we will be treated to thousands of sandstone arches scattered throughout the park. Starting at the back and working forward, we have all day to explore until the sun sets.
Day 12 (Canyonlands):
Canyonlands is my #1 “sneaky good” location in the Southwest national parks. What I mean by that is I think it’s incredible and doesn’t get the credit it deserves. Canyonlands is broken into two sections, Island in the Sky and The Maze. We will spend our time primarily in Island in the Sky, taking in vast buttes and deep canyons as far as the eye can see.
The maze section can be hiked upon request. This section, going into the actual canyons, is extremely dangerous due to 1) higher temperatures in the canyon/higher water needs and 2) how easy it is to get lost without any points of reference from the canyon floor. If attempted, this will be a highly planned portion of the trip.
Day 13 (Capitol Reef/Bryce Canyon):
Starting the day with a hike up Chimney Rock, we will finish this trip strong. Capitol Reef offers a northern mountainous section, and a southern “Grand Wash” section. After hiking the mountainous area, we will be able to visit the wash for most water in the area, so big we will be able to drive our car down it. Almost two weeks in, the Southwest national parks continue to deliver.
A short drive down the road is Bryce Canyon. Technically more of a valley than a canyon, Bryce looks like another planet, even compared to the rest of the Southwest National Parks. Filled with hoodoos, trees seemingly growing out of sandstone, and views stretching for miles, Bryce can be enjoyed in a number of ways.
If attempting to get permits for Angel’s Landing at Zion tomorrow, we will likely do the world-famous Wall Street hike and need to leave the park earlier. If we’re not planning on taking on Angel’s Landing the next day, Bryce can be explored in more depth including one of the most stunning southwest national parks sunsets around.
Day 14 (Zion/Las Vegas):
If you want a cherry on top of an incredible Southwest National Parks Experience, there’s nothing better than Zion. This park can tend to get crowded, and permits are needed if the group wants to climb Angel’s Landing. This is a legitimately dangerous hike and guest will need to be fit, sure footed, and comfortable with exposure if attempting.
Our goal will be to get there as early as possible for Angel’s Landing, then spend the rest of the day using the in-house tram to visit the 7 main sites on the valley floor. Depending on weather we will be able to hike a portion of The Narrows at the top of the valley.
If the group wants more time to explore Zion, we can stay through sunset and the group will be dropped off at the hotel near the airport. Otherwise, we can leave Zion in time to clean up, and cap the trip with a nice group dinner as a culmination of our Southwest National Parks Experience. At that point, I will wish you the best and leave your group to travel to the airport the next day.