One of the top questions I consistently get asked is recommendations for hikes, places to camp, and a sample itinerary for a weekend trip exploring the American Southwest. There are so many great parks and hikes in the across Arizona, Nevada, and Utah, and sometimes the best way to see them all is through a good old fashioned road trip!
The best season for a car camping road trip through the desert is going to be either Spring or Fall. I'd much rather take on cooler evenings than hike under a scorching hot sun. Plus you'll have an easier time getting a campsite and experiencing less crowds in the off season.
Where to Camp
Often times during a road trip, we'll need a place just to crash for the night. I often use freecampsites.net to find suggestions for legal places to just pitch a tent until the next day. There are tons of options on this site - we've camped on a dirt lot right next to the freeway before, but when you just need to get some shut eye in between long drives, nothing beats a free campsite!
If you are traveling through public lands, you could possibly camp in any designated public area (be sure to check BLM maps!). Just be sure to leave no trace and pack everything out :)
Below is a sample itinerary with links to more information about each stop that you can use as a starting guide to plan your own trip . When JQ and I did this trip, we did it in less than 72 hours, and our intention was to pack as much as possible into the short weekend. You could easily extend this trip by spending additional time to explore and relax at each stop, adding additional stops, or opting for some longer hikes at each destination.
Also, this itinerary was built around starting in Orange County, CA., so it was a relatively short drive over to Nevada. You may need to set aside additional time to get to your first stop if you come from anywhere further North or South.
You will find lots of scenic points and unique rock formations even just driving through the park. For a short 1.25 mile hike to stretch the legs from sitting in the car all day, the Fire Wave puts you at one of the most iconic rock formations in the park. There are campgrounds in the park if you'd like to stay the night here, but we headed another 3 hours to camp at the nicer Coral Pink Sand Dunes. Other hikes we considered in the area were White Domes and Elephant Rock.
Coral Pink Sand Dunes turned out to be one of my favorite campgrounds of all time! It is small, secluded, right next to a sea of colorful dunes, and has some of the best maintained facilities I've ever seen. You can reserve your campsite on ReserveAmerica up to 4 months in advance to save you the stress of uncertainty - there are only 16 sites in the entire campground, or you can attempt at a walk-in and get lucky like we did!
If you get there early enough, you can rent dune boards and sleds and catch a beautiful sunset over the pink sand. Sunset and sunrise are always my favorite time of day in the desert. I could easily see people spending an entire weekend camping here with dune buggies and ATVs.
One of the most photographed spots in the world, Antelope Canyon is one of the main reasons many even consider this road trip. Although it is extreeeemely crowded, it's one of those places that you should see once in your life, and there truly isn't a bad picture you can take while in the slot. You should book your tour in advance, and both Upper and Lower each have something special to offer.
We went through a morning tour to the lower canyon thanks to Ken's Tours because it was cheaper and they had availability as a walk in. We didn't get to see any of the famous beams of light, but the entire canyon still had great colors and formations.
Although there are several campgrounds in Page, we headed to Lone Rock Beach for the views and the cost. Lone Rock is primitive camping, so the only facilities provided are vault toilets, but nothing beats sleeping right on the beach in the soft sand. We spent the rest of the day lounging on the beach and swimming in the water, and ended the day with a bonfire and some stargazing. The sunrise the next day over the lake was totally worth getting sand everywhere and in everything we owned.
If you don't have 4WD, be careful of the soft sand - lots have been known to get stuck. You could also spend a weekend here camping, boating, kayaking, SUPing, beach bonfires, playing bocce, the list can go on.
The Lake Powell area has so much to offer. Many people also do the tour to the world's highest natural bridge - Rainbow Bridge. If you really want an adventure and have a rugged vehicle, another one of my favorite campsites of all time is Alstrom Point.
We headed to 110 miles to Zion National Park, the jewel of Southern Utah. Although there are so many hikes and lots to see in Zion, if you only have a couple hours, the two must-hikes are: Angel's Landing and the Virgin River Narrows. Camping in Zion is also a nice option, but be sure to reserve in advance, especially if you are going on a busy weekend. After hiking both, we had plenty of time to get home in time to return to work on Monday :)
Optional: St. George Little Narrows Slot Canyon
To break up the long drive either to or from, if you are passing through St. George you could stop by this hidden find in Pioneer Park, St. George. Commonly referred to as the Little Narrows or the Red Crack, this slot canyon is not much of a hike, but a fun area to explore for about 20 minutes. This will most likely be the narrowest slot canyon I'll ever pass through.
We headed straight home along the same highway, but you could easily turn this into a loop and return to California through Arizona. If you have the luxury of taking a longer trip, you could consider adding some of the additional stops below:
Feel free to also check out my map of all posts and see if there are any side trips you'd like to add to your trip.
Happy road tripping!
Favorite gear for this adventure: