The scenery of the American Southwest is often otherworldly. Listed below are my favorite landscapes from a spring road trip through Arizona, Utah and Nevada. I’ve also included some advice on how to avoid the crowds. Editor’s tip: Purchase a U.S. Parks Pass; it easily pays for itself if you go to a few of these places.
It may be obvious and well on the tourist track, but the Grand Canyon is so spectacular that everyone should see it. It isn’t surprising that it is America’s second-most-visited national park, but at over 1 million acres, it’s big enough for anyone to escape the masses. Of course, crowds peak during the summer high season and in the hub of Grand Canyon Village. Taking a hike away from the main viewpoints will quickly thin out the tourists. The Shoshone Point trail is a good intermediate option along the rim, and guided hikes are available for more-adventurous hikers who want to descend a mile to the bottom of the canyon. Those looking for an off-the-beaten-path view should drive a few hours to the North Rim of the canyon, which is less developed.
It may be obvious and well on the tourist track, but the Grand Canyon is so spectacular that everyone should see it.
We arrived at the east entrance of the park to see the Desert View Watchtower, a historic stone structure designed by the trailblazing architect Mary Colter in 1932. The 70-foot-tall watchtower stands right along the edge of the South Rim. Its observation deck offers a dizzying view across the abyss. The massive scale defies description and plays a trick on your eyes as you look 8 miles across to the opposite edge of the canyon and a mile down to the bottom. We also stopped at nearby Lipan Point, which was relatively uncrowded. But it attracted a subset of tourists looking to hang precariously over the edge of the canyon with their selfie sticks in hand.
Driving through Oak Creek Canyon is the most scenic way to get to the Grand Canyon from Sedona. Highway 89A winds through the densely forested canyon floor, which has a Rocky Mountain feel to it. You can sometimes spot elk along the way. The Indian Gardens Cafe & Market closer to Sedona is a great place to stop for breakfast, lunch or picnic supplies. The overlook on the north end of the canyon has the best overall view. It also hosts a regular craft market in the parking lot run by Native Americans for Community Action, a local nonprofit.
Ever since a photo of it was chosen as a Microsoft Windows desktop background, Antelope Canyon has been the most well-known slot canyon in the world. What was once a little-known spot on private Navajo ranchland is now filled with thousands of visitors daily. During high season, you have to point your camera up or form a firing line with other photographers in order to get an uninterrupted view of the flowing sandstone walls.
Our private tour arranged through Amangiri was the ideal way to see Antelope Canyon. We visited during the off-season, and our guide paced our walk perfectly to avoid other tour groups. He also showed us Rattlesnake and Owl canyons, two private canyons nearby. They were smaller but just as enjoyable. It was extraordinarily peaceful to watch the early spring rain drift through shafts of light.
Snow Canyon was the most surprising scenic discovery of our trip. We stopped to hike here because it was raining in Zion National Park (see below), about an hour to the east. Located just northwest of St. George, Utah, the park preserves massive rolling petrified sand dunes and colorful marbled cliffs. There are also exposed petrified lava flows that remain from the area’s volcanic past. The variety of trail options and Snow Canyon’s proximity to town make it a great place to take the kids for a hike. Stop at Angelica’s Mexican Grill in St. George for some tacos if the family works up an appetite from the walking.
Zion Canyon is one of the crown jewels of the National Park Service, and it is the fourth-most-visited national park in the country. I find that taking a bike ride and exploring other areas of the park are the best ways to experience Zion’s grandeur. Read more about my day in Zion National Park.
Visitors to Bryce Canyon National Park can hike among the thousands of hoodoos (columns and pinnacles of rock) stacked along tall red canyon walls. I wasn’t able to visit on my most recent trip, but on a previous visit I enjoyed hiking the Peekaboo Loop Trail. The park is about a two-hour drive from both Zion National Park and Amangiri. Summer visitors looking for something different should consider trying Cedar Breaks National Monument instead. The similar but lesser-known park has almost as many hoodoos but cooler weather from the elevation.
In the Valley of Fire, deep-red petrified dunes bubble and explode dramatically out of the drab desert landscape an hour northeast of Las Vegas. It makes for a compelling drive if you are passing through the area or need to escape the city lights. There are also multiple short hikes to surreal viewpoints and ancient petroglyph sites. As the name suggests, hiking in summer is not advised. Temperatures regularly reach up to 120 degrees. Plan your visit for a weekday or early morning to avoid the rush of visitors from Vegas.
If you want to pair dramatic landscapes and ancient history, I recommend exploring a number of historic Ancestral Puebloan sites in Arizona.