by Jean Grant – Planning a family road trip to the Southwest? Try this epic USA road trip itinerary which hits the 10 best national parks in Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. Our family made a slight modification of the classic Grand Circle road trip for our April school break, soaking in 10 destinations, including US national parks and monuments, national forests, tribal lands, and national recreation areas in eight days and 1300 miles, starting and finishing in Grand Junction, Colorado.
Southwestern US National Parks Road Trip Itinerary
Stop #1 – Dinosaur National Monument, Utah and Colorado
In 1909, researchers from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History led an excavation in the Morrison Formation, a layer of rock deposited in the late Jurassic Period 150 million years ago. Their find: thousands of bones! Some were assembled and shipped to museums; the remainder were left in situ and enclosed in a hall. The massive quarry wall contains over 1,500 bones from 10 different dinosaur species.
Start at the new Visitor Center, check with rangers for activities and exhibit hall access and absorb information from the displays and bookstore in this quiet, remote national park. Drive or take the shuttle (seasonal) to the Exhibit Hall.
Don’t forget to pick up a $1 fossil guide or use the touchscreen displays to identify the bones. The Fossil Discovery Trail is an easy walk to more touchable fossils. In season (summer-fall), the winding Echo Park road takes visitors to a campground along the Green River across from iconic Steamboat Rock.
Six campgrounds in the national park; nearby Vernal offers hotels, grocery stores, gas and restaurants. Both Dinosaur Inn & Suites and Springhill Suites by Marriott Vernal offer affordable nightly rates that include breakfast.
The Cub Creek petroglyphs are a short walk up a cliffside along the auto Tour of Tilted Rocks route (stops #13 and 14). Don’t forget to take a photo at the intersection of Stegosaurus Freeway and Brontosaurus Boulevard in Dinosaur, Colorado!
Stop #2 – Arches National Park, Utah
Millenia of erosion of Entrada sandstone formed over 2,000 arches, pinnacles and balance rocks in this iconic national park (that used to be an inland sea millions of years ago). Time-crunched? Arches can be explored in a day. The national park brochure lists the best time to view specific arches. Bring your hiking boots as many arches are only accessible by walk or hike.
Well-paved roads meander through the national park. With limited services, bring in water and a picnic lunch. Trail difficulty varies, though many are easy. Be careful with children when climbing under arches due to steepness and drop-offs.
Double Arch, Turret Arch and The Windows are connected by a loop of easy, short trails. Landscape Arch, the longest arch in North America at 306-feet, as well as many others, are found off the 1.6-mile Devil’s Garden trail in the northern part of the national park.
Feeling adventurous? Hike up to Delicate Arch near sunset for the best show in the national park. If the kids are tired or the weather is not cooperating, Delicate Arch can also be viewed from a lower viewpoint and trail (bring a telephoto lens if you have one).
Devil’s Garden is the only campground in the national park, but Moab is packed with additional campgrounds, hotels, shops and restaurants to suit your tastes and budget. We opted for our first glamping experience at the Under Canvas locale outside the national park.
Despite the roaring high winds all night (and a very restless sleep), our deluxe tent and tipi did provide breathtaking views of distant arches and desert scenery. Red Cliffs Lodge also provides scenic and authentic, local accommodations with gorgeous creek or river views from every suite.
Pro Tip: Be prepared for any kind of weather!
The Moab Rock Shop and Mill Creek swimming hole.
Stop #3 – Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Island in the Sky district gifts visitors with colorful and dramatic canyons carved out by the Colorado and Green Rivers in this quiet giant of a national park. Other districts of the park include the more remote Needles and Maze.
The short Mesa Arch loop hike (be careful with young children at this precarious arch) at sunrise, and the Grand View Point and Green River overlooks. The kids had fun spotting collared lizards and identifying plant life.
Island in the Sky has one campground at Willow Flat. The Best Western Plus Canyonlands Inn is an affordable base camp to explore the area, or splurge on a stay at Moab Springs Ranch where you can relax in your own private bungalow on the oldest continuous settlement in Moab.
The steep, switch-backing drive down Shafer Trail Road to White Rim Road and Potash Road. Going off the beaten path in the Needles or Maze.
Stop #4 – Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
This less-frequented national park is home to the historical Fruita District and colorful rock formations, washes, narrows and hikes.
A trek through Grand Wash to The Narrows made for a great midday treat and respite on our drive to Bryce Canyon. Other options: Capitol Gorge or Cassidy Arch hikes. Grand Wash was filled with boulder climbing, blue skies and sunshine. Check with rangers before starting hikes in the washes.
Fruita Campground is great for families and there are a number of backcountry campgrounds, if you’re looking to rough it. Capitol Reef Resort in Torrey, Utah offers fun and quirky accommodations such as tipis and Conestoga wagons.
Dixie National Forest overlooks.
Stop #5 – Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Sitting at 9,000-feet in elevation, Bryce Canyon’s signature landmark is the hoodoos, sedimentary rocks wedged into unusual spires by erosion. The national park is home to the oldest species of tree, the 2,000-year-old Bristlecone Pine. It’s a popular, compact national park. Wear warmer layers if hiking in spring or fall.
Starting at Sunset Point drop down into the 3-mile Navajo Loop/Queen’s Garden Trail, which finishes at Sunrise Point. Take your time and drink plenty of water. Higher altitude exhaustion can sneak up on you. We also walked the Bristlecone Loop Trail. Our kids took part in the ranger program and received stickers.
Bryce Canyon Resort, North Campground, and Sunset Campground in the national park are great family lodging options in the area.
Stop #6 – Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Arizona
Resting on 1.25 million acres in the Colorado Plateau, this ecologically and culturally unique area is home to protected wilderness, heritage sites and water resources including the man-made Lake Powell.
Stunning Horseshoe Bend stands on a 1000-foot sheer drop (watch kids) over the Colorado River. At 710-feet tall, the impressive Glen Canyon Dam created the country’s second largest reservoir, Lake Powell, and generates hydroelectricity. Tickets for this highly recommended tour of the dam must be purchased in person up to one day in advance. To look over the edge of the dam is heart-pounding.
Page, Arizona is a tourist-friendly city with plenty of lodgings, campgrounds, and restaurants. Shash Dine’ Eco-Retreat is one such glamping bed & breakfast that offers guests a unique stay on the Navajo Nation, atop pastoral lands overlooking beautiful, unobstructed views of Lake Powell, the Echo Peaks, and the Vermilion Cliffs.
Rent kayaks and paddle Lake Powell or take a boat tour.
Stop #7 – Lower Antelope Canyon, Arizona
This remarkable set of slot canyons (Upper and Lower) were formed by erosion of Navajo sandstone via rain and flash flooding. All tours are Navajo run and owned.
Choose between siblings Ken or Dixie’s tours. The esteemed Upper Antelope Canyon boasts larger chambers with photographic sunbeams, however, we enjoyed the beauty of the lower canyon. Be warned—over the past decade popularity of the canyons has risen—purchase tickets well in advance.
Page, Arizona is still a perfect jumping off point to explore Antelope Canyon. If Shash Dine’ Eco-Retreat isn’t your speed, try Dreamkatchers Bed & Breakfast or Lake Powell Resort for comfortable and affordable family-friendly lodging.
Visit nearby Rainbow Bridge (accessible by water or permit).
Stop #8 – Four Corners Monument (Arizona, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico)
Where else can you stand in four states at once? Bring cash or purchase tickets online. We arrived just before closing and were greeted with solitude…and sand-spitting wind.
Stand in four states at once! Native American guides can also take you on horseback trail rides, hikes, and Jeep excursions to other interesting areas.
Desert Rose Resort & Cabins is a luxury desert oasis that gives you easy access to Four Corners Monument. You’ll also find several campgrounds located nearby, some of which require reservations and/or daily permits.
Stop #9 – Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
The Ancestral Puebloans inhabited this lush region hovering between 6,000-8,000 feet elevation over a thousand years ago. The national park boasts thousands of archaeological sites and over 600 cliff dwellings. It’s a serene, historically-rich national park.
Balcony House ranger-led tour. Tickets must be purchased in person at the visitor center or museum up to two days in advance. Leaving my fear of heights at the car, ladders, a few tight squeezes and an informative ranger-led talk rounded out the tour of cliff dwellings. Spruce Tree House was closed except for the overlook and Cliff Palace, as well as Wetherill Mesa, weren’t open until May.
We stayed in Mesa Verde National Park’s only hotel, the Far View Lodge, however Morefield Campground is located near the national park’s entrance. Food is available at the Far View Terrace and restaurant. Nearby Cortez and Durango offer plenty of additional hotels and restaurants.
Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum housed interesting relics, a delight to peruse.
Stop #10 – San Juan Skyway (Route 145), Colorado
Given the mid-April snowfall, we ventured through the San Juan Mountains on Route 145 past Telluride, but if there is no snow, head up the adventurous “Million Dollar Highway” (Route 550). Both roads meet at Ridgway en route to Grand Junction.
Recreational activities aplenty, but many tours aren’t available until May.
Right on Route 145, The Angler Inn is a cozy, family-run hotel nestled right in the San Juan Mountains. You can find additional accommodations in Telluride, Dolores, Ouray, and Silverton, as well as ample camping in the National Forest.
Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. Abandoned mines.
6 Tips For A Southwestern National Park Road Trip
1. Research and Plan Ahead. Book lodgings and campgrounds in advance in highly-visited areas. Some national parks have additional fee areas (online ticketing or in-person). Be aware of limited features (campsites, tours, roads) or hours (museums/visitors centers, exhibits) during non-peak seasons.
For kids, most national parks also have Junior Ranger program; booklets can be printed in advance. Other activities such as the benchmark scavenger hunt at Bryce Canyon reward kids with special national park stickers. Remember to call ahead if arriving to your destination late.
2. Always have a Plan B…or C. Flight delays, road/trail closures, illnesses or weather happen. Have a Plan B or wing it!
3. Creature Comforts. For both road trip games and entertainment and lodging entertainment, think like a kid when packing. What would you want if you were in the backseat?
4. Safety and Food. Pack a safety kit: first aid supplies and medicines (be prepared for anything from scrapes to altitude sickness), including hand wipes, sanitizer, and tissues and flashlight. For food we bring a collapsible cooler and hit a grocery store for portable snacks/lunches. Grab an extra gallon or two of water; many national parks do not have accommodations beyond simple bathrooms. Pack water bottles.
5. Scenic Detours. Make a game of it. Keep your eyes open for intriguing areas to rest, explore, shop or eat. One of my favorite places was the Rock & Espresso shop. Bonus: they had ice cream! One of the kids’ favorite pit-stops was a picnic area in Canyon Pintado along the Dinosaur Diamond scenic byway.
6. Maps, Travel Guides. GPS and WiFi can be sketchy when traveling through remote canyons, deserts and mountains. Keep paper maps or guidebooks handy along with contact information for lodging and rental car providers.
Jean Grant is a scientist, author, and mom to two active, nature-loving sons. She currently resides in Massachusetts. She writes where her heart takes her…from castles to craters to crags of all kinds. Her website can be found at: jeanmgrant.com