Southwest Roadtrip

Southwest Roadtrip

Journey through the American Southwest

The American Southwest feels like the spiritual home of the roadtrip. Our culture is steeped in these landscapes from our movies to our very foundational myths, and your first visit will likely feel like a homecoming. Whether it's the vast sagebrush highlands of Nevada, the stunning sculpted red rocks of Utah, or the sprawling canyons of Arizona, the landscapes and sun-bleached colours evoke an awesome sense of desolation and possibility. It's a trip everyone should take at least once in their life, and with the great variety of sights and stops you can fully customize it to your time and interests. With just over a week, this is the trip we did.

Looking out over the Alabama Hills with the snow-capped Sierras towering above

VALLEY OF FIRE

With regular cheap flights, Las Vegas is an obvious point of entry. It's a world-famous destination with a ton of attractions, but we weren't very interested in the city itself so after brief forays to pick up a car and groceries we were on our way. Our first stop: the Valley of Fire. Less than an hour from the city centre, you'll find beautiful desert landscapes, great trails, fascinating formations of red rocks, caves and canyons, and 3,000-year-old Pueblo petroglyphs. There's enough to see and explore for a few days, and its definitely worth at least a day trip, bare minimum.

ZION NAT'L PARK

Continuing east, the highway follows the Virgin River across the desert plains into Utah and towards our next stop: Zion. Utah's first national park, Zion is a marvel. Encompassing some of the most scenic canyon country in the US, the lush green valley is surrounded by a maze of towering sandstone cliffs of startling pinks and creams and reds formed as 150 million-year-old sedimentation was slowly uplifted and eroded. At the junction of the Great Basin, Colorado Plateau, and Mojave Desert and spanning some 5,000 ft of elevation change from valley floor to canyon rim, the park hosts a range of biodiversity with hanging gardens, juniper and willow forests, prickly pear cactus and yucca and manzanita, and over 400 different animal species.

There's a variety of trails and viewpoints to explore, from multiday backcountry treks to canyoneering to easy riverside ambles. Among the park's most renowned day hikes is the perilous route to Angel's Landing, where you follow a switchbacking trail up the steep canyon wall and then out along a narrow finger of rock. The last stretch was definitely a little harrowing, with some sections just a few feet wide with thousand foot drop-offs on both sides, but the views and experience were absolutely worth it.

BRYCE CANYON NAT'L PARK

A vast amphitheatre full of brightly coloured hoodoos, Bryce Canyon isn't technically a canyon — but it was far more spectacular than I had dared to imagine, and infinitely more than our poor photos suggest. Standing on the lip of the viewpoint it looked like a vast stone forest of intricately carved chess pieces, it was hard not to feel dumbfounded and in awe of the infinite variety and possibilities of these desert landscapes.

ARCHES NAT'L PARK

At the far eastern edge of Utah waits Arches National Park. With over 2000 sandstone arches, it's home to the highest density of natural arches in the world and draws some 1.8m visitors annually. And there's far more to the park than just arches — you'll find canyons, balanced rocks, towers, petrified dunes, phantasmagoric sculpted stone structures, and more. It's like the the best of the Southwest all rolled up into a neat little package, and definitely among our favourite stops.

VALLEY OF THE GODS

The Valley of the Gods is a scenic loop off Route 163 near Mexican Hat, UT. Formerly part of the Bears Ears National Monument, the drive features sandstone mesas, towers, buttes, and pinnacles. Kinda like Monument Valley but on a smaller scale. Driving the loop it felt very much like an off-the-map BLM backcountry, and its unlikely you'll find crowds. High clearance vehicle recommended tho, depending on the season, probably not required.

MONUMENT VALLEY

Continuing south on the Highway of the Ancients you enter Monument Valley, a cluster of vast sandstone buttes rising out of the desert floor on the Arizona-Utah border. Among the most famous landscapes on the continent, for generations Monument Valley has defined what people think of when they imagine the American Southwest. Administered by the Navajo Nation, you can drive a slow 17 mile route through the valley to the superlative John Ford Point, tho other parts of Monument Valley, including the Mystery Valley and Hunts Mesa, are accessible only by guided tour.

NAVAJO NAT'L MONUMENT

There are Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings scattered throughout the Four Corners region of the American Southwest, usually hidden away in inaccessible locations. The Navajo National Monument protects three well-preserved sites beneath natural sandstone alcoves: Keet Seel, Betatakin, and the Inscription House. First occupied around the year 1250, Keet Seel is the largest of the dwellings, a tidy little village of masonry walls and wooden rafters and home to 150 people at its peak. Betatakin can be viewed via a short and scenic walk to a lookout on the opposite side of the Tsegi Canyon — just make sure to bring binoculars or a zoom lens as its still pretty far away! Guided tours are also available for a more personal experience from May thru September.

HORSESHOE BEND

Once a quiet pullout on the road to Grand Canyon National Park, Horseshoe Bend has seen a huge spike in popularity in recent years. It's a beautiful spot, close to the road, and instantly iconic. Visitors stroll up to the lip of the canyon, high above a scenic 180º horseshoe-shaped meander of the Colorado River.

HOOVER DAM

Looping back towards Las Vegas, the Hoover Dam is worth a quick stop. Built during the Great Depression, it helped transform the West, harnessing the mighty Colorado River to power the burgeoning cities of the desert, while also protecting downstream communities from seasonal flooding and helping secure year-round irrigation. At the time of construction it was the world's largest concrete structure, and to this day remains a symbol of America's ambitious public works.

RED ROCK CANYON

The Red Rock Canyon Conservation Area offers visitors a scenic drive, hiking trails, rock climbing, and stunning vistas of desert shrubs and rugged mountains. Located 15 miles west of Las Vegas, Red Rock Canyon is on the easternmost edge of the Mojave Desert with elevations spanning both the upper and lower Sonoran zones, so you'll find a few joshua trees, yucca, agave, wild burros, and desert tortoise amid the striking red rock and sandstone landscapes.

ALABAMA HILLS

After a brief layover in Death Valley, the last stop of our trip was the Alabama Hills. On the edge of the Great Basin Desert, the Alabama Hills are a fascinating collection of neat rounded rock formations with the rugged snow-capped Sierra Mountains towering in the distance. It's a striking and instantly recognizable location, and since our visit we've noticed the landscape popping everywhere, most especially in car commercials.

While the round weathered boulders are visually distinct from the sharp-looking Sierras, the rocks are actually part of the same geologic formation and the difference is just due to varied erosion patterns. The Alabama Hills are the tip of a massive escarpment rising out of over 10,000ft (3km!) of silt that piled up in the adjacent Owen Valley. Pretty neat.

And that's kinda the thing about travelling through the Southwest. Without trees or ground cover the history of the vast rock landscapes are plain to see, the ancient seabeds and slow uplift, the millions of years of erosion, the power of wind and water, the creation of a continent. You can't help but stand in awe of the processes here, the vast scales of time and space at work. It's an almost unimaginably harsh landscape, and yet it invites the imagination so.

Strolling the trails through the weathered rocks of the Alabama Hills, CA
Big round rocks in the Alabama Hills
The mobius arch at Alabama Hills near Lone Pine, CA
Ripping around the Alabama Hills on a dirt bike
Desert blooms in the Alabama Hills
The Alabama Hills
Camping in the Alabama Hills