A road trip is a perfect way to see our favorite special spots in the Southwest — Nevada, Utah and Arizona — where you can see ghost towns, hoodoos, natural arches, sandstone spectacles, dark-sky stars and a really huge hole in the ground.
Before you begin, consider purchasing an annual national parks pass at the first park you enter. That $80 pass gets everyone in your car into every national park for a full year. You don’t have to be an American citizen to buy an annual pass, but if you are, and you’re age 62-plus, buy your lifetime pass for $80 and never again pay to enter a U.S. national park. (Considering that Zion National Park’s entry fee is $35 per car, getting the annual pass is something of a no-brainer.)
Nevada: Ghosts, gold and Red Rock
While the lure of Sin City in Nevada is strong, there’s more to the Vegas environs than casinos and outlet malls. So sleep in Las Vegas to start your adventure, if you’d like, perhaps in the comfortable beds at the all-suite Venetian Hotel, have a world-class meal at their Estiatorio Milos restaurant, take in a show and then let the real adventure begin as you exit that glitzy place.
Start with an easy ride to Red Rock Canyon Park, where you’ll need a timed reservation to enter between October and May. It’s just 15 minutes west of the Strip, but transports you to a completely different world of massive striated red rocks, where easy walking trails lead to ancient Native American petroglyphs.
Red Rock is lovely, but our favorite Nevada stop is Rhyolite, a gold-rush ghost town northwest of Vegas. Founded in 1904, it grew to a city of 5,000 residents – and was abandoned by 1916. Today it is a delightful mix of art installations (begun in 1981) known as the Goldwell Open Air Museum and the ghost town’s abandoned brick homes, banks, railroad depot and a house built of glass bottles. The combination is absolutely fascinating and well worth the drive into what seems to be the middle of nowhere.
Utah: Hoodoos, arches and more
Rolling north into southern Utah transports you into a world of contrasts, from vast arid deserts to densely wooded mountains, massive sandstone cliffs, amazing natural-stone arches and seriously wacky rock formations.
Begin in Zion, Utah’s first national park, where most months you’ll need to park your car and ride the free shuttle from the visitor center into the park. This park and its famous sites — Zion Canyon, Kolob Arch, the Narrows, Great White Throne and Angels Landing — are so popular that massive crowds form, especially during the spring, summer and fall seasons. Jump on and off the shuttle as often as you’d like, but don’t miss the last one, as you’ll be walking nine miles to get out of the park if you do!
Bryce Canyon National Park is probably the most eye-popping, mind-boggling place you will ever see, with its hoodoos (to call them irregular rock formations is just inadequate) of every shape and size. It’s the largest concentration of these magical forms anywhere in the world, and a true must-see. Stay in the small town of Bryce (where Best Western and Ruby’s Inn are the two no-frills main hotels) or try to snag a reservation for the rustic Lodge at Bryce Canyon. Make your way up the one-way road to see all of the incredible sights, hike down into the canyon for a closer look and don’t miss the Milky Way stargazing led by a park ranger. Much of the Southwest is toasty in summer, but you’ll need a warm coat for this park, where the night (and early morning) temps can be seriously chilly at any time of year.
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Moving on to the northwest, Capitol Reef National Park is the true undiscovered gem of Utah. You’ll be gobsmacked at the huge cliffs of bright, rainbow-colored sandstone looming high above you, with peculiarly shaped hoodoos hanging at perilous angles. Find hidden arches and petroglyphs, take a horseback ride or a hike and be sure to spot the iconic white sandstone dome, shaped like the U.S. Capitol building.
Approaching the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park on the Utah/Arizona border brings a strange sense of deja vu if you’re a film fan. Turns out those iconic landscapes are real, not cinematic sets. Monument Valley served as the spectacular setting of numerous famous movies. Think “Stagecoach,” “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” and “Fort Apache,” for this is the place that John Wayne and John Ford turned into the world’s ultimate vision of the Wild West; later, “Forrest Gump” cemented it as an Instagram hotspot.
Monument Valley is owned by the Navajo Nation, so book a hotel room at Goulding’s Resort just outside, a scenic hotel that has welcomed visitors since the 1920s, and then drive in, paying $8 per person to see the Mittens, Elephant Butte, John Ford’s Point, Artist’s Point and more on the loop drive within the park. Taking a Navajo-guided tour is an incredible way to learn more about this sacred place and the indigenous people who still call it home.
Arizona: Sunrise, sunset and a flyover at the Big Hole
The last stop on our Wild West road trip is Arizona’s big hole in the ground, also known as the Grand Canyon. One of the world’s truly astonishing natural wonders, the canyon is the longest on the planet, but not the deepest, despite being more than a mile down. The Colorado River began eroding away this sandstone and limestone eons ago to create this eye-popping place.
Book way ahead to stay at the iconic El Tovar Hotel inside the park, for it’s the best way to see the sun rise and set right out your front door, as the canyon changes hues. Hike down into the canyon as far as you can go to see it up close, but do remember that climbing back out is a lot harder to do. For a once-in-a-lifetime thrill, hop on a helicopter via Grand Canyon Helicopters at the airport just outside the south rim entrance, soar over the edge and swoop down into the canyon — a perfect ending to a Wild West journey filled with adventure.
If You Go
Red Rock Canyon: Timed reservations are required from October through May, which is the best time to go. Summer may be less crowded, but the heat can be dangerous. Carry one to two liters of water per person even in spring. Find details and travel safety tips at www.redrockcanyonlv.org/
National Parks: Find details, trail maps and day use information for Zion, Grand Canyon and all the other national parks at www.nps.gov.
Monument Valley: Find details about this and other Navajo Nation parks at https://navajonationparks.org.
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