A Southwestern road trip is an unforgettable experience, with diverse landscapes and endless adventures waiting around every bend. It’s also a great way to visit some of the coolest cities in the country, from the top-tier culture of Phoenix to the anything-goes excitement of Las Vegas, to the excellent dining in Salt Lake City.
Even cooler might be the string of small, historic towns that connect these glittering urban centers. In this itinerary we’ll make time to get off the main roads and explore quirky small towns as well. Like living time capsules Kingman and Oatman, Ariz., and access to nature and outdoor adventure in towns like St. George, Utah.
No matter what you’re looking for, your best bet is to start in Arizona, where you’ll cruise along historic Route 66, hit the open road, and create some lasting memories.
Phoenix features delicious Southwestern and Mexican food, excellent hiking and mountain biking, and thumping nightlife © Sean Pavone / Shutterstock
Phoenix is an ideal starting point, with its delicious Southwestern and Mexican food, excellent hiking and mountain biking, and thumping nightlife – a perfect blend of urban excitement and natural beauty. Culturally, it offers an opera, a symphony, several theaters and three of the state’s finest museums – the Heard, Phoenix Art and Musical Instrument Museums.
Take a stroll through the Desert Botanical Garden and marvel at the cacti and other desert plants or explore the many hiking and biking trails in nearby Papago Park. With more than 300 days of sunshine a year, exploring the ‘Valley of the Sun’ is a treat.
After a day of sightseeing, sample the vibrant culinary scene, featuring everything from traditional fare to contemporary fusion dishes.
The drive: Make your way to Lake Havasu City, Ariz., taking US60 through Wickenburg to 72 then 95. It’s about 200 miles so budget 4+ hours for stops.
Lake Havasu is a popular destination for outdoor enthusiasts, offering outdoor activities like water sports, fishing, off-roading and more © Caitlin O’Hara / Lonely Planet
Lake Havasu City, Ariz.
With its turquoise waters and stunning desert scenery, Lake Havasu is a popular destination for outdoor enthusiasts, offering outdoor activities like water sports, fishing, off-roading and more.
Take a stroll across the iconic London Bridge, which was relocated from England to Lake Havasu in the 1960s. For a little more excitement, go off-roading at nearby Sandbar Beach, or explore the surrounding desert landscape on an ATV or dirt bike.
While in Lake Havasu City, don’t miss dining at Cha-Bones or the Red Onion, and for local beer and amazing sunsets check out Mudshark Public House. For incredible views of the London Bridge and to be within the heart of the city, stay on the 3rd floor of the London Bridge Resort, with rooftop decks offering a view of the action.
The drive: Make your way to Oatman, located along historic Route 66. It’s just 65 miles from Lake Havasu City and will take about 1.5 hours. Travel north on 95, west on I-40, then take historic Route 66 (aka county road 10) right into the town.
With its old-fashioned charm, rich history, and exciting Wild West atmosphere, Oatman is a must-visit stop in Arizona © Caitlin O’Hara / Lonely Planet
Oatman is a charming, historic mining town that offers a glimpse into the Ol’ Wild West. Stroll the streets and interact with the roaming burros – descendants of the pack animals used by miners in the town’s boom days.
Visit the historic Oatman Hotel, which served as a stagecoach stop and hotel in the 1900s, or explore the Oatman Ghost Town Museum to learn about the town’s rich history. You can even see it re-enacted – join the crowds for the famous Oatman Gunfighter Show, where actors recreate the Wild West in a lively, interactive performance at 1:30 and 3:30pm daily.
With its old-fashioned charm, rich history, and exciting Wild West atmosphere, Oatman is a must-visit stop on any Arizona road trip from Lake Havasu City.
The Drive: Kingman is just a short 30 mile drive from Oatman — follow Route 66 for 29 miles right into Kingman. Along the way, be sure to take in the stunning desert scenery, with its towering cacti, rolling hills, and rugged canyons. Stop at Sitgreaves Pass for a great view.
Kingman, Arizona is the quintessential Route 66 stop © Caitlin O’Hara / Lonely Planet
Kingman is the quintessential Route 66 stop, offering the perfect blend of natural beauty and historic charm.
Upon arrival, visit the historic Route 66 Museum to learn about the famous highway and its impact on American culture. Or visit the Mohave Museum of History and Arts to learn about the local culture and history – when you’re done inside, a mural on the outside illustrates the timeline of Route 66 and is the perfect selfie spot.
While in town, take a stroll through Locomotive Park, which showcases a collection of vintage trains. If you’re looking for outdoor adventures, escape the heat with a hike in the nearby Hualapai Mountain Park, or in the cooler months, be sure to check out the Monolith Garden Trail.
Of course, you can’t “get your kicks” without filling up on malts and burgers. Kingman’s the spot for both.
The drive: Next stop, Grand Canyon West. 70 miles northeast of Kingman, you’ll take Stockton Hill Road. Stay to the right at 25/261. Don’t miss stopping at the Joshua Tree Forest, nearly as dense and grand as the National Park in California.
The Skywalk at Eagle Point at Grand Canyon West is one of the best places to see the famous Canyon from a unique perspective © Caitlin O’Hara / Lonely Planet
Grand Canyon West, Ariz.
Grand Canyon West is not located within the National Park, but rather on Hualapai Tribal Lands.
This is one of the best places to see the famous Canyon from a unique perspective. The most well-known attraction here is Skywalk, a heart-pumping horseshoe-shaped glass bridge extending 70 feet over the canyon, with its towering cliffs, deep gorges, and breathtaking vistas.
Another thrilling experience is to take a short helicopter ride for a bird’s-eye view of the Acanyon, with a stop at the bottom for a boat ride down the river – providers include Hualapai River Runners.
Stay the night to enjoy the stargazing, There are RV/Camping sites, glamping and cabins for rent.
The drive: Take County road 25 to Hwy 93 toward Las Vegas, Nevada. Boulder City is about 93 miles from Grand Canyon West, just past the Hoover Dam. A short road trip from Boulder City to the El Dorado ghost town of Nelson is a must – you can step back in time and explore the ruins of this once-thriving mining town. Just a few miles from El Dorado is Nelson’s Landing, providing views and access to the Colorado River.
Boulder City is one of only two cities in Nevada that prohibits gambling © photosounds / Shutterstock
Boulder City, Nevada
Boulder City is a charming and idyllic community perched above Lake Mead and the dam that created the town. It’s also one of the only places in the state that does not allow gambling.
While just 30 miles from Las Vegas, Boulder City is a world away from the city that never sleeps. The Hoover Dam, one of the most iconic landmarks in the southwest, is right in the heart of town. A visit to the on-site museum, with a tour of the dam, is highly recommended to really understand what an engineering marvel the dam was nearly a century ago, and the stories and history that go along with it.
The drive: Boulder City is just 26 miles from Las Vegas, but a world apart.
Las Vegas is a vibrant and bustling city, known for its bright lights, world-class entertainment, and endless dining and shopping options © Ivanova Ksenia / Shutterstock
Las Vegas is a vibrant and bustling city, known for its bright lights, world-class entertainment, and endless dining and shopping options. There are few places outside London, Tokyo and New York where you’re this spoiled for choice when it comes to A-list entertainers and big-budget stage shows. And The volume and concentration of the Strip’s celebrity chefs, lauded fine-dining restaurants and America’s favorite food franchises is hard to fathom.
But it’s not all gambling, entertainment and decadence: just a short drive from the city, there are a wealth of natural wonders to explore as well.
Valley of Fire State Park is a stunning landscape of red sandstone formations with incredible views and unique geological formations. Nearby is the ghost town of St Thomas. This former boomtown was abandoned when the Hoover Dam was built, creating Lake Mead. The lake covered the city until recently, when the water level has dropped to once again reveal the lost city.
Seven Magic Mountains is striking in its simplicity and vibrancy against the stark surroundings © Caitlin O’Hara / Lonely Planet
Another popular road trip from Las Vegas is Red Rock Canyon, a scenic drive that takes you through a landscape of towering sandstone cliffs, scenic hiking trails, and diverse wildlife. Nearby, Seven Magic Mountains is a large-scale outdoor art installation by Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone, beckoning Instagramers. This work features seven towers of colorful stacked boulders, striking in their simplicity and vibrancy against the stark surroundings.
With so much to see and do, Las Vegas is the perfect place for a respite while exploring the endless opportunities in the region.
The drive: From Las Vegas, St. George, Utah, is just 120 northeast on I-15 and will take just 2 hours. As you pass through Mesquite, Nevada, the towering wall of Mt. Banks looks to impede your progress. It’s not until the last moment, upon reaching the towering rock face that a crevice appears and the road continues. This little corner of northwest Arizona bids you farewell in the most dramatic fashion as I-15 winds through the magnificent Virgin River Gorge.
Zion National Park is home to some of the most iconic landscapes in the American Southwest © Stephen Moehle / Shutterstock
St. George, Utah, and Zion National park
St. George is a scenic and historic city that serves as the perfect home-base for exploring the surrounding natural wonders. One of these is Snow Canyon State Park, an awe-inspiring landscape full of fantastic hiking and biking trails, and rock climbing walls. Another popular place is Sand Hollow, a unique landscape of sand dunes and crystal-clear waters that offer endless outdoor recreation opportunities.
But St. George is perhaps best known as a gateway to the stupendous Zion National Park. Home to some of the most iconic landscapes in the American Southwest, Zion features colossal cliffs, dramatic canyons, and an array of plant and wildlife treasures.
Hike downriver through the Narrows, or peer beyond Angels Landing after a 1,500-foot ascent. Explore the lesser-known grottoes, weeping rocks and hanging garden tapestries within the crinkled walls. Race across the high desert mesas on a mountain bike, swim in pools of freezing water, and rappel down boulders and waterfalls. Zion’s treasures turn up in the most unexpected places.
Salt Lake City boasts friendly people, great food and outdoor adventure © Joe Guetzloff / Shutterstock
Extend your trip
After a road trip through small towns and glittering metropolises, you might be up for a place that’s a little of both. Look no further than Salt Lake City, a day trip away from St. George and Zion National Park. Here, a liberal spirit rules due to a thriving college scene and nature-loving locals. Foodies will find much to love among the multitude of international and organic dining options. And when the trail beckons, it’s a scant 45 minutes from the Wasatch Mountains’ brilliant hiking and skiing. Friendly people, great food and outdoor adventure – what could be better?