In December 2021, I traveled to America for the first time and this couldn’t have been a better opportunity for a USA Southwest road trip. With several states to explore, many unique landscapes, beautiful national parks, and fun-fuelled activities, I simply couldn’t pass up this adventure.
I spent 4 weeks traveling around the southwest USA in a campervan and visited the states of California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona.
While there are different ways to go interstate and explore the States, traveling by campervan is simply the most fun, enjoyable, and affordable option you can go for.
If you’re planning a month-long Southwest USA road trip or a bit shorter than that, this is the travel guide for you. We’ll go through where to rent a campervan, the best possible route, what to see and do in the different southwest states, and many more details you need to know.
Before starting this ultimate 4-week southwest road trip itinerary, make sure to pack your most useful travel accessories for a road trip to make the most of your time hassle-free.
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BEST TIME TO ROAD TRIP SOUTHWEST USA
First and foremost, let’s talk about the best months to do a Southwest USA road trip. The southwest states can be visited all year long but it’s best to travel during the summertime. That being said, you’ll find very crowded national parks and you’ll have to pre-book many attractions, hikes, and campsites in advance.
On the other hand, autumn and winter are less crowded but the weather is much colder and some roads and mountain passes may be closed due to snowfall. A plus side is you don’t have to prebook campsites as it’s possible to get same-day reservations.
All things considered, the best period of time to go on a southwestern road trip is the shoulder season – from April to May and September to October. You’ll have pleasant weather, crowds won’t be as big as in the summer, and you can go hiking on the way without pre-booking.
I personally rented my campervan with Travellers Autobarn as they are one of the most reputable, affordable, and top-rated campervan rental companies in the US. What I particularly liked about Travellers Autobarn is that they offer pick-up locations in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Denver, and Seattle so you can rent a van pretty much anywhere on the west coast.
Also, each of their campervan rentals is fully liveable meaning you won’t need to book any accommodation on your road trip. Needless to say, this is a massive cost-effective way to do road trips in the southwest.
The vans come fully equipped with a seating area and table that transforms into a double bed. There’s also a fridge/freezer that runs on solar, a gas stovetop, microwave, kitchen sink with running water, cooking utensils, bedding, a heater for the winter, USB power outlets, 24V power when hooked up to electricity, lots of storage, and many more great features.
Did I mention that they offer free unlimited miles when you rent any of their campervan RV or minivan?
Click here to check different vehicle options, rates, and availability with Travellers Autobarn.
CAMPING SPOTS IN SOUTHWEST USA
There are many paid and unpaid campsites throughout the southwest where you can park your campervan for a night or two during your southwest itinerary.
If you’re on a tight budget, you can free camp in many places such as BLM land and some gas stations that will allow you to use the parking lot for 24 hours or so. It’s worth noting that you can also spend the night in a Walmart parking lot but bear in mind that fewer and fewer stores allow nomads to park for the night.
If you happen to be in the middle of nowhere with no proper place to spend the night, make sure not to park on private properties or where you see the sign “No Trespassing”. I recommend checking the overnight parking spots across America on OvernightRVparking.
For those that would prefer to stay at private campgrounds with hook-ups to electricity and that also offer facilities like hot showers, toilets, and swimming pools, you can expect to pay anywhere between $30 USD – $70 USD per night.
To make a reservation at a campground inside a national park, you’ll first need to create a free account on the recreation.gov website and book online in advance before arriving.
I also recommend using the FreeRoam app on your mobile or laptop to find all the best paid and unpaid campsites on your southwest itinerary.
Explorest is also another great app tailored to photographers to find the best photo locations in the US and worldwide.
APPS TO DOWNLOAD FOR A SOUTHWEST ROAD TRIP
In such a digital world, it goes without saying that certain mobile apps will make your life easier, especially on a southwestern road trip. These are the apps that you can’t start your journey without:
- Flush (iOS and Android)
- GasBuddy (iOS and Android)
- Roadtrippers (iOS and Android)
- Spotify (iOS and Android) or Apple Music (iOS)
- Google Maps (iOS and Android) or Waze (iOS and Android)
- HotelTonight (iOS and Android) or Booking.com (iOS and Android)
These apps are well worth downloading. Find a clean restroom on the go, listen to your favorite tunes, discover the most affordable gas stations, and much more.
HOW MUCH DOES A SOUTHWEST USA ROAD TRIP COST?
It goes without saying that a south west USA road trip will likely cost you a fair bit of money. Of course, you’ll have the time of your life visiting some of the most beautiful places on Earth but you should get properly prepared budget-wise.
To give you an idea, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the San Francisco metro area is the most expensive place to live in the whole of the United States. But let’s dive deeper into the subject.
All things considered, your whole budget for a USA Southwest road trip should be between $175 and $250 per day including the campervan rental costs (or accommodation), gas, food, drinks, activities, and entrance fees to national parks.
Gas tends to be very expensive on the west coast and I recommend you download GasBuddy as mentioned above to save some precious dollars on the go.
Lastly, getting a National Parks Pass is a great tip that will potentially save you lots of money and I’ll explain more in-depth about this in the following paragraphs.
NATIONAL PARKS PASS
Whether you want to go hiking around the southwest coast or simply take a selfie at some great Instagrammable spots, the National Parks Pass is something you should consider. For only $80 per year, you’ll get to enter all National Parks in the United States.
This is a must-have simply because you won’t pay anything since all fees are included, including the parking fees for day use.
For instance, the entrance fee for the Zion National Park is $35 for a private vehicle and the same for Yosemite National Park. This sums up as $70 or almost the equivalent to the annual National Parks Pass.
Of course, if you only plan to visit one park on your road trip, it’s not convenient to purchase one. But for more than 1 national park, it’s definitely worth the investment and it’s overall a great way to discover the Southwest part of the USA.
SOUTHWEST US ROAD TRIP ROUTE
There is no wrong or right way to road trip southwest USA, though for the sake of this guide and to help you plan your southwest itinerary, this is the clockwise route that I took starting and ending in Los Angeles.
- Los Angeles (campervan pick-up)
- Pacific Coast Highway & Big Sur / 3 days
- San Francisco / 2 days
- Yosemite National Park / 2 days
- Sequoia National Park / 1 day
- Las Vegas & Valley of Fire / 3 days
- Zion National Park / 3 days
- Bryce Canyon National Park / 1 day
- Monument Valley / 1 day
- Horseshoe Bend & Antelope Canyon / 1 day
- Grand Canyon South Rim / 2 days
- Sedona / 3 days
- Joshua Tree National Park / 2 days
- SoCal (San Diego, Laguna Beach, Newport) / 2 days
- Los Angeles (Venice, Santa Monica, Hollywood) / 2 days
After getting to Los Angeles, I picked up the campervan from Travellers Autobarn in LA, went grocery shopping to stock up the fridge in the van, and immediately headed north along the PCH (Pacific Coast Highway).
The first few days of the road trip I spent visiting the most stunning spots on the Pacific Coast Highway including Big Sur and other coastal surf towns which I’ll go through in this guide.
Following a month-long trip, I spent the last 2 days of my road trip in Los Angeles, and I recommend doing the same, too. Be sure to visit Venice Beach, Santa Monica Pier, Hollywood, and Sunset Boulevard among other famous places.
Read on till the end of this post to know exactly how to enjoy your time in LA, but for now, let’s kick off this 4 week van life itinerary with the Pacific Coast Highway and Big Sur.
PACIFIC COAST HIGHWAY & BIG SUR
California is known for its warm weather, for world-famous coastal towns like Malibu, and for its scenic Pacific Coast Highway and Big Sur. The drive to Big Sur is around 6 hours from Los Angeles.
There are endless places to visit along the Pacific Coast Highway but the most worthy ones I’ve listed below:
- Santa Barbara
- Morro Bay (surf beach)
- San Simeon (Elephant Seal Vista Point)
- Big Sur (Ragged Point, Slates Hotsprings, Mcway Falls, Bixby Creek Bridge)
- Santa Cruz Beach
- Redwoods State Park
When traveling to the West Coast, San Francisco is simply an unmissable city that is worth staying for a least a few days.
Here, there’s something for everyone from foodies to tech addicts and curious wanderers of all ages. Of course, you may know San Francisco for the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island, and the Fisherman’s Wharf.
But you’ll find more to explore – these are the best things to do and see in San Francisco:
- Witness the sunset at Golden Gate Bridge
- Spend some time on Lombardo Street
- Take a day tour to Alcatraz Island
- Enjoy the views on the Twin Peaks
- Test your taste buds at Ferry Building Marketplace
- Go swimming at Ocean Beach
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK
A Southwest USA road trip wouldn’t be complete without visiting the world-famous Yosemite National Park. Located just over 170 miles from San Francisco, it’s one of the most worthy places to include in your itinerary.
Yosemite is always open and you’ll have to pay a $35 entrance fee per vehicle and that is valid for 7 days unless you purchase the annual National Parks Pass ahead of time.
Once in Yosemite, there are a few things you can do and I recommend spending three days inside the park to see the most impressive sites, which are:
- Tunnel Viewpoint
- El Capitan Bridge
- Swinging Bridge
- Yosemite Falls
- Half Dome
- Glacier Point (for sunset)
- Taft Point (for sunset)
SEQUOIA NATIONAL PARK
The Sequoia National Park is another incredible place to visit on your Southwest USA road trip. Situated around 80 miles from Fresno, CA, Sequoia National Park is mostly famous for its humungous trees.
Among all of them, you’ll find the General Sherman Tree – the largest tree in the world standing at 275 feet and measuring 36 feet in diameter.
Naturally, there’s much more to do in the park and these are the activities you can’t miss:
- Visit the famous General Sherman Tree
- Sequoia National Park’s Tunnel Log
- Drive through Kings Canyon Scenic Byway
- Photograph the beautiful Tokopah Falls
- Hike up to Mount Whitney
- Unwind at Crescent Meadow
Image: Life With Elliott
LAS VEGAS & VALLEY OF FIRE
Las Vegas and Valley of Fire are two of the most unmissable places to visit on your southwestern road trip. Discover the most entertaining city in the world and then spend a day exploring the Valley of Fire.
The Entertainment Capital of the World, Las Vegas, boasts resorts all around, countless casinos, and shopping malls in every corner with lots happening during the night.
These are the best things to do in Las Vegas:
- Go Casino-hopping
- Get tickets to a broadway show
- See the famous Bellagio fountain display
- Helicopter flight over the Grand Canyon
- Take a photo at the Las Vegas sign
VALLEY OF FIRE
The Valley of Fire is known for its petroglyphs and petrified trees dating back over 2,000 years. The most worthy hikes are the White Domes, Atlatl Rock, and Mouse’s Tank Hike.
ZION NATIONAL PARK
One place you must see at all costs on your Southwest US road trip is Zion National Park. Zion is hands-down one of the most breathtaking destinations in the world, and I don’t say that lightly!
The entrance fee is $35 per vehicle and this is valid for 7 days. Of course, when planning a longer road trip around the United States, I recommend getting the annual National Parks Pass to save some money.
After getting here and taking in the stunning Zion Canyon Scenic Drive and the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway, the next best thing you can do is to go hiking.
The two best trails Angels Landing and The Narrows – both famous for the stunning views you see on the way. But that’s all…
These are the top things to do and see in Zion:
- Canyon Junction Bridge Viewpoint
- Court of the Patriarchs Viewpoint
- Angels Landing Hike
- Observation Point
- Big Bend Viewpoint
- Temple Of Sinawava
- The Narrows Hike
Bear in mind that some trails are closed during the winter such as the Kolob Terrace Road and The Narrows. This is worth noting if you’re willing to travel here during the winter months when there are fewer crowds.
BRYCE CANYON NATIONAL PARK
Nestled in a remote area between Las Vegas and Denver, Bryce Canyon National Park is another destination you’ll want to add to your southwest itinerary.
The views around the park are breathtaking, to say the least, and you won’t regret spending some time here. To be more specific, these are the must-do and see in Bryce Canyon:
- Sunrise Point
- Sunset Point
- Navajo Loop Trail
- Queens Garden Trail
- Thors Hammer
- Wall Street
- Inspiration Point
Just like other National Parks, the entrance fee to Bryce Canyon National Park is $35 per vehicle – valid for 7 consecutive days.
While temperatures can be rough during the winter, it is probably the best time of year to come as the combination of red canyons and snow takes the whole experience to the next level. Also, it won’t be as crowded as in the summertime and that is definitely something to consider.
Monument Valley is a remote red-sand desert popular for being one of the most photographed places in the whole world and for its loop drive made of 11 stops.
It’s located on the Utah/Arizona border and it’s open from 8.00 am to 5.00 pm and 8.00 am to 2.00 pm during the winter.
National Parks Passes are not accepted at Monument Valley and you’ll have to pay a $20 entrance per vehicle or $10 per person. Children aged 9 and younger can enter for free.
If you park and sleep here for the night, make sure to wake up early to see the sunrise as it’s one of the most incredible experiences you can have on your USA Southwest road trip.
The valley doesn’t have hiking spots compared to the national parks above but it’s well worth the drive to get here and experience all the Monument Valley has to offer.
Some of the best things to do and see at Monument Valley include:
- Forrest Gump Point
- Monument Valley View (located at the visitor’s center)
- Monument Valley Scenic Drive Loop
HORSESHOE BEND & ANTELOPE CANYON
Horseshoe Bend and Antelope Canyon are two phenomenal landmarks that you’ve probably already seen in movies, on social media, or even on TV and they are not to be missed on your road trip in southwest USA.
Starting with Horseshoe Bend, you’ll need to pay $10 per vehicle at the entrance and then walk down a short trail to take in the breathtaking views from any angle.
It’s best visited for sunrise or sunset and you’ll get to photograph one of the most beautiful scenes you’ve ever witnessed.
On the same day, before or after Horseshoe Bend, you can also visit Antelope Canyon. The canyon is divided into 2 areas – the lower and the upper Antelope Canyons.
In order to visit this canyon, you’ll need to join a tour with a guide as you can’t go by yourself.
Tours start in Page, the nearest city, and you’ll be taken in a four-wheel-drive vehicle with a guide through the sand until you reach the canyon. Bear in mind that, during the ride, sand gets everywhere on your face, in your nose and mouth and I recommend covering up.
All in all, Horseshoe Bend and the Antelope Canyon are incredible locations and you should bring one of these best cameras for landscape photography to capture the entire experience.
GRAND CANYON SOUTH RIM
It goes without saying that the world-famous Grand Canyon should definitely be on your USA Southwest road trip itinerary.
The South Rim is open all year long and it’s easiest to visit this side of the canyon as opposed to the North Rim when coming from Horseshoe Bend.
There are so many great things to do and viewpoints to see in the Grand Canyon South Rim such as:
- Desert View Watchtower
- Navajo Point
- Moran Point
- Grandview Point
- Powell Point (for sunset)
- Walk or bike through Hermit Road
Sedona is a mecca for adventurous travelers looking to go hiking and enjoy the views of the famous red rocks.
You will find hundreds of hiking trails and jeep tours that lead up to some fantastic landscapes, while those who want an extra bit more immersion can head out on their own with Red Rock State Park as your destination.
The entrance fee to the Red Rock State Park will cost you $5 for the day, $15 for seven days, or $20 for an annual pass and there’s just a lot to do here including:
- Slide Rock
- Schnebly Hill Vista Overlook
- Devil’s Bridge Hike (for sunrise)
- Birthing Cave
- Boynton Canyon Trail
- Tlaquepaque Arts & Shopping Village
- Scenic Helicopter Tour
- Twin Buttes Trail
- Chapel of the Holy Cross
- Bell Rock & Courthouse Trails
- Yavapai Vista Point (for sunset)
- Cathedral Rock Hike (for sunrise)
- Airport Mesa Viewpoint (for sunset)
But Sedonians have much more than just geology going on, in fact, the city is also known for its world-class wines and you should make sure to do the Verde Valley Wine Trail.
You’ll find lots of wineries on the way and some will even be the perfect spot to have a picnic or catch a sunset.
JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK
Joshua Tree National Park is a place where you can feel the magic in every inch. It’s like something straight out of a movie with its Joshua trees and almost lunar landscape made up of giant granite boulders and rolling mountains.
Whether you’re looking for a serene escape from the hustle and bustles of city life or are seeking out new adventures in nature, there is no shortage when it comes to activities that can be enjoyed at Joshua Tree National Park.
As a whole, these are the nicest activities at the park:
- Arch Rock
- Skull Rock
- Keys View (for sunset)
- Hidden Valley Nature Trail
- Barker Dam Nature Trail
- Cholla Cactus Garden Trail
The entrance fee will set you back $30 per vehicle and $15 per person on bike or foot.
If you previously purchased a National Parks Pass, this is the moment to use it and you’ll get to enter for free.
SOCAL (SAN DIEGO, LAGUNA BEACH, NEWPORT)
If there was only one spot to choose in the whole of the southwest, this is a must. SoCal, or South California, should definitely be on your itinerary and you can go visit the famous San Diego, Laguna Beach, and Newport.
The distance between the most southern point, San Diego, to Newport Beach is less than 2 hours (or 90 miles) and you can spend some time in each location for one day only. Of course, a full day only allows you to scratch the surface but, if you want to discover more of SoCal, here are the best things to do in each place.
THINGS TO DO IN SAN DIEGO:
- Balboa Park
- Belmont Park
- Coronado Beach
- Sunset Cliffs Natural Park
- San Diego Zoo and Safari Park
- Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve
THINGS TO DO IN LAGUNA BEACH:
- Heisler Park
- Laguna Beach Walks
- Crystal Cove State Park
- Crescent Bay Point Park
- Pacific Marine Mammal Center
THINGS TO DO IN NEWPORT:
- Witness the whales on a cruise
- Go shopping at Lido Marina Village
- Spend some time in Newport Beach
- Visit the amusement park on Balboa Island
- Unwind at Upper Newport Bay Nature Preserve
LOS ANGELES (VENICE, SANTA MONICA, HOLLYWOOD)
Los Angeles has something for everyone, whether you’re looking to explore the city’s culture or take in some outdoor activities. There are plenty of places to visit in Hollywood but you should certainly not miss Venice and Santa Monica.
Apart from that, you’ll find endless activities and tours from the stunning beaches, delicious cuisine, great nightlife, and the entertainment scene in general.
To fully embrace what Los Angeles has to offer, I recommend you stay at least three full days at the end of your Southwest USA road trip to end the journey on a great note.
These are the best places and attractions you’ll find in Los Angeles:
- Venice Beach
- Santa Monica Pier
- Hollywood Boulevard
- The Hollywood sign
- Hike at the Runyon Canyon Park
- Rent a bike and head to Echo Park Lake
- Enjoy local delicacies at Grand Central Market
- See the views from the Mount Wilson Observatory
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I hope you enjoyed reading this article and if you have any questions at all about road trips in the southwest, please leave a comment below this post and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.