Southwest USA - 10 Day Winter Itinerary
The national parks of northern Arizona and southern Utah are traditionally thought of as summer destinations. When we were planning this trip my boyfriend expressed his disappointment that he wouldn't get those classic views. In reality though, the southwest in the winter is beautiful in its own right and should be on anyone's bucket list.
We completed this road trip in late December 2019. For us it was cheaper to fly into Las Vegas, but this route could be tweaked to fly into Phoenix instead. To fit everything into 10 days this itinerary requires some heavy driving days. So if you want a less packed schedule with a more leisurely pace, you might want to extend the trip to 2 weeks. You will be driving through high elevations so be prepared for snowy and icy conditions on the roads. Most of the roads are regularly plowed and deiced. The only place where this wasn't the case was some of the smaller roads leading into Monument Valley. Pack layers and a good pair of waterproof boots with tread.
Since you will be visiting several federally managed parks, I recommend the America the Beautiful annual pass, which was $80 when I went. You can buy this pass online in advance or at the ticket booth of the first national park you visit.
- 1090.5 mi
- 19.0 h
Day 1: Arrival in Las Vegas and Driving Day
Fly into Las Vegas McCarran and pick up your rental car. It doesn't matter what kind of car you get, just make sure it has all-season tires.
Today will mostly be a driving day as you head for Sedona, Arizona. If you have time, stop at Hoover Dam on the way. Keep in mind that depending on the time of day, there can be long lines snaking along the road waiting to park at the dam. Although Las Vegas and Sedona are both fairly low-lying and unlikely to have significant snow, the route between them goes through much higher elevation. We experienced some heavy snow and low visibility on the route (although we are from Florida so any snow is a lot of snow for us!).
Stay the night in Sedona.
Day 2: Sedona
Grab some breakfast then head to Cathedral Rock. If you have your America the Beautiful pass already, you can use it here to cover parking. The trail is only about 1 mile but is steep and involves some climbing. You will need to be especially careful this time of year where the trail might be icy. On our trip the trail was crowded but most people did not make it all the way to the top. If you make it all the way, you will be rewarded with fantastic views and fewer people.
In the afternoon, check out Chapel of the Holy Cross or Tlaquepaue Arts and Shopping Village.
Make your way to a good spot in time to watch the sunset. Airport Mesa is a popular spot, but the best views require you to get there early enough to get a parking spot in the small lot for the trail heads, then hike up. The overlook by the big parking lot at the top is spoiled by lots of trees. Another option would be to hike up Cathedral Rock at sunset.
The restaurants at dinner time are crowded, so consider making a reservation so that you don't have to wait.
Stay the night in Sedona.
Day 3: Sedona and Meteor Crater
Set out early to hike to Devil's Bridge. We recommend you start from Mescal Trailhead. If you go from the Devil's Bridge parking lot, the first part of the hike will be along the 4x4 track, which is not as scenic. If you have a 4x4, you can drive all the way to the Devil's Bridge Trailhead.
At the beginning of the Mescal trail there is a river crossing, so make sure you are wearing waterproof shoes. For the first half of the morning the ground will still be frozen, but by mid-morning the trail starts to thaw and becomes very muddy. The earlier you set out, the easier and quieter this trail will be. We arrived in the parking lot at 8:30 and were the only ones on the trail for most of the way to Devil's Bridge. On the way back, there were lots more people.
Get some lunch in Sedona then get back on the road. The road north out of Sedona is very scenic so you might want to stop at some of the view points along the way.
If you are interested in space or geology consider going to the Meteor Crater National Landmark. There is a museum and a viewing platform from which you can look into the impact crater. Admission is pricey and it will require about 1.5 hours extra driving, so if this is not something that you are interested in, I suggest you skip it. For my boyfriend this was something he had read about and wanted to go to since he was a kid, so we included it on our route.
Keep driving towards the south rim of the Grand Canyon. Stay the night in Grand Canyon Village or somewhere along route 64.
Day 4: Grand Canyon National Park
There are numerous viewpoints along the south rim. In the winter you can self-drive to all of them. It took us about 4-5 hours to do the full length from Hermit's Rest to Desert View Watchtower. We stopped at most viewpoints, but not all.
The rest of the day will be spent driving to Monument Valley. If you have time, stop at the Moenave Dinosaur Tracks. This spot is marked only by some cardboard signs and run down huts, but don't be put off, these are legitimate tracks. When you pull into the lot, a Navajo guide will greet you and take you on a tour of the tracks. They mean well and are very friendly but the information they provide is not entirely accurate. They will expect to be tipped.
I recommend you spend the next two nights in the View Hotel. Besides a few properties on Airbnb, there aren't very many options, but that's ok because the View Hotel is definitely where you want to be. The rooms have amazing views of the Mittens.
(Tip: the gas is cheaper inside the Navajo nation)
Day 5: Monument Valley
Spend the day exploring Monument Valley. Tourists are not allowed to go off the road into the valley unless they are with a Navajo guide. So the best way to experience Monument Valley is to book a tour with a local company.
We booked a horseback riding tour for the morning. The first thing our Navajo guide said to use when we arrived was 'you guys are crazy.' I am not going to lie, it was very cold and the ground was covered in a layer of fresh snow. We were originally planning to go out for two hours but we ended up only going out for one. If you choose to do this, wear extra layers to protect your fingers and toes. Besides the cold, it was an amazing experience.
In the afternoon we did a Jeep tour through the valley, which I would highly recommend. Your Navajo guide will give you lots of information and point out all the rocks shaped like recognizable things.
Another tour I really wanted to do was Hunt's Mesa. The views look stunning, but these tours are pricey and take the whole day.
Stay another night in The View Hotel.
Day 6: Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend
Get up early and head to Page, AZ. Book a tour to visit the upper or lower Antelope Canyon. You must book ahead of time or you risk them all being sold out. The canyon is on reservation land so only a handful of operators are permitted to run tours and each are given very tight timeslots to get in an out. No company offers both the upper and lower canyon, but some work in partnership with each other. The upper canyon is the most popular and this time of year the light is best around late morning to mid-day. You will not see light shafts in the winter because the sun is too low.
After the tour, check out Horseshoe Bend.
For the rest of the day, keep driving on to Bryce Canyon National Park. Stay the night near the park entrance.
Day 7: Bryce Canyon National Park
Spend the morning visiting the four main viewpoints in Bryce Canyon National Park: Sunrise point, Sunset point, Inspiration point, and Bryce point. I recommend you drive between the viewpoints because the rim trail might be closed in places. The park is snowy and icy this time of year so if you are going to hike into the canyon, make sure you are prepared with the right gear.
Stay the night somewhere on the road to Zion National Park.
Day 8: Zion National Park
Spend the day exploring Zion National Park. You could easily spend two or three days here exploring all the trails, but to get a good feel for the park in just one day, I recommend you:
- Drive the full length of the scenic drive.
- Drive the stretch of Zion- Mount Carmel Highway between Canyon Junction Bridge and the east entrance.
- Pick one or two trails to hike.
During holidays, the only way to access the scenic drive is using the park’s shuttle system. See the national park website for specific dates and ticket information. Otherwise, the scenic drive is open to private cars, so you can drive it yourself. The number of visitors to the park has increased dramatically during the pandemic, and so the park has been forced to restrict the number of cars on the scenic drive for safety reasons. When capacity is reached the scenic drive (not Zion-Mount Carmel Highway) is closed until enough cars have exited. To avoid disappointment, get to the park as early as possible, especially on weekends. Check out the Zion National Park twitter account for an idea of what time they have been closing the road (if at all) in previous days.
Information boards and park rangers at the visitor center are great resources if you need help figuring out what to do or what trails to hike. Here are some of my recommendations for hiking in the winter, but please check the park website or the visitor center for trail conditions before heading out.
- Canyon Overlook - relatively easy trail with fantastic canyon views. Accessed from Zion-Mount Carmel Highway.
- Angels Landing - an iconic trail but difficult and dangerous. Trailhead located on the scenic drive. See this hiking guide for details.
- Observation Point - the highest point that overlooks the whole valley. Not accessible from the scenic road any more because of rockfall, but can still be accessed from a trail on the east side of the park. This trail is likely to be snow covered.
- The Watchman - a moderate trail with views at the top. This hike can get very muddy when the ground thaws. Trail begins at the visitor center.
Spend the night near Zion National Park.
Day 9: Las Vegas Strip
In the morning drive back to Las Vegas and spend the day exploring the strip. The options are limitless if you traveling with a partner or a group of friends: you could gamble, go to a show, go shopping, or just explore all the different themed hotels. If the Vegas scene doesn't appeal to you or if you want something more family-friendly, you could spend another day in Zion National Park.
Stay the night in Las Vegas.
Day 10: Fly Home
Head back to McCarran airport to drop off the rental car and catch a flight back home.
About the Author
Lauren K. www.wayscaped.com
Lauren works a regular 9-5 day job, but traveling and sharing her experiences is her passion. She prefers nature to the cities and her favorite vacations are ones that involve hiking in the mountains.