A Great American Southwest Road Trip

by Janean Flowe
southwest road trip||Great American Road Trip|||

southwest road tripWhile it’s possible to drive straight from Phoenix to Las Vegas in less than five hours, you miss out on a southwest road trip that shows off this magnificent sweep of the American Southwest in all of its red-rock grandeur.

Take a circuitous route of at least several days through northern Arizona and southern Utah, stopping to meander through a slot canyon hardly wider than a sliver, visit a Hopi village perched on a desert mesa, kick back on a houseboat in a silver-blue lake and step into a real-life Wild West stage set straight out of a John Ford movie.

Sedona & Williams

Before departing Phoenix for your southwest road trip, take time to explore the excellent Heard Museum where exhibits and occasional artists’ demonstrations are an introduction to the Native American history and culture that lie ahead. Heading north through the Sonoran Desert, dry arroyos and saguaro-studded hillsides eventually give way to an arresting landscape of red sandstone buttes and formations. The nucleus of this wonderland is the enchanting small city of Sedona, a place to enjoy an eclectic mix of galleries with a New Age vibe, fine dining and wineries along the Verde Valley Wine Trail. Sedona’s Red Rock State Park offers easy viewing access to some of the region’s most spectacular formations and the greenery of Oak Creek.

Continue the southwest road trip in Williams, just over an hour north of Sedona. The town is a time warp with a main street lined with shops selling Route 66 memorabilia, Native American crafts and Western wear. Adding to the atmosphere is Mayor John Moore, often spotted dressed in his everyday attire as an Old West marshal. It’s easy to visit Grand Canyon National Park from Williams on a day trip, including taking a two-hour ride through pine forests to the South Rim on the Grand Canyon Railway, which offers daily round-trip train service with three hours at the canyon. The ways to absorb the breathtaking scope of the massive canyon carved a mile deep into the earth by the Colorado River which began over 17 million years ago are legion, including helicopter rides, guided day hikes and back-road Jeep tours to some of the less visited areas.

southwest road trip

Lake Powell, Utah

While the Grand Canyon is best viewed from on high, Lake Powell, roughly 140 miles to the northeast, is a kind of inverted canyon enjoyed from the water level. The man-made wonder straddling the Arizona-Utah border has some 2,000 miles of shoreline at the base of towering red cliffs. Great ways to fully experience Lake Powell include tours in sleek powerboats that traverse far up into its many arms and narrow canyons, stopping to explore petroglyphs, dinosaur tracks and sites like Rainbow Bridge, an arched rock formation sacred to Native. Another is to charter a houseboat — some even come equipped with rooftop hot tubs — docking at night in secluded coves under brilliant night skies.

Native American Treasures

At the southwestern edge of the lake, Antelope Canyon is accessible only through Navajo-operated tours by boat or land. The magical passageway winds past striated walls in vermillion shades that change during the day according to the narrow slit of sunlight overhead.

Southeast of Lake Powell, the neighboring Navajo and Hopi reservations offer some of the most spellbinding scenery and culturally significant sites in the West. While the much smaller Hopi Reservation is completely surrounded by Navajo lands, the vast Navajo Nation, roughly the size of West Virginia, sprawls across northeastern Arizona into Utah and New Mexico. The most immersive way to visit the Hopi Reservation is with a Hopi guide, exploring petroglyph sites and centuries-old villages and enjoying a traditional lunch of fry-bread tacos or green chili stew at the Hopi Cultural Center. The guided tours also offer the chance to visit homes and buy kachina carvings, pottery and other items from local artists.

On the Navajo Nation Reservation, the star attraction is Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, familiar to anyone who’s ever seen a Western movie directed by John Ford, who used the valley as a backdrop for The Searchers, Stagecoach, Fort Apache and others. Visitors can drive the 17-mile loop through the valley with its spectacular vistas of sandstone mesas, spires and buttes rising from the desert floor. Another option is a guided tour with Navajo-owned companies such as Simpson’s Trailhandler Tours, which offer such experiences as an overnight stay in a hogan, a traditional dome-shaped dwelling made of juniper logs and covered with dirt, along with a Navajo dinner, history presentation and entertainment.


southwest road trip

Las Vegas Springs Preserve


Parks & Preserves

Looping you southwest road trip back across southern Utah toward Las Vegas brings the opportunity to explore two more geological wonders, Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks. Bryce Canyon is distinctive for its towering hoodoos, pinkish-orange spires formed over the centuries by rainwater and ice. A hiker’s paradise, Zion, with its towering cliffs, winding canyons and forested plateaus, can also be enjoyed by car on the spectacular Zion Canyon Scenic Drive an engineering marvel carved out of the mountains in 1930.

From Zion, it’s a two-and-a-half drive southwest to Las Vegas where, perhaps surprisingly, more natural and cultural history await. Among stops in this vein is the Las Vegas Springs Preserve, a 180-acre attraction with a desert botanical garden, butterfly habitat and exhibits devoted to sustainability, artwork and local history. Another is the fascinating Mob Museum, where exhibits trace the city’s colorful past in a repurposed downtown courthouse where one of the Kefauver hearings on organized crime took place during the 1950s. The museum includes a recreated 1920s-era speakeasy, a good place to relax at the end of a memorable journey.

Your AAA Travel Agent can help you craft your perfect southwest road trip. Call 800-750-5386 or visit your local AAA Travel office today!

(Map illustration by Fian Arroyo)

(Winter 2019 Traveler)

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