American Southwest road trip itinerary: how to go from Southern California to Las Vegas, Grand Canyon, Monument Valley and back in 5 days.
If you are planning a trip to the American Southwest but only have a handful of days, you may be wondering how much it is reasonable to include. I had this exact conundrum last spring.
We were set on having a road trip to see some of the American Southwest iconic sites such as National Parks and Monument Valley but time was not on our side. We only had 4 nights / 5 days to explore the area and part of this time had to be spent driving from and back to Southern California, where we were based.
When you are fighting with both time and budget the only way to go is to prioritize what you want to see and make compromises.
In our case, the compromise was significant. While we started with a very ambitious plan to see Zion, Bryce, Grand Canyon, Monument Valley and the area around Page, we soon realized it was out of the questions to even touch on all of these sites.
After long hours studying the map and travel forums, we made our mind up. We made Grand Canyon and Monument Valley the pivotal sites we wanted to see, arranged our trip around having decent time to visit those, and left the others for a different trip.
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5 day California to Monument Valley itinerary
In the end, our itinerary looked like this:
- Day 1: San Diego to Las Vegas (night in Las Vegas)
- Day 2: Hoover dam, Grand Canyon (night in Grand Canyon National Park)
- Our day 3: Grand Canyon to Monument Valley (night in Monument Valley)
- Day 4: Monument Valley, Flagstaff, Sedona, Phoenix (night in Phoenix)
- Day 5: Phoenix to San Diego (Carslbad, to be precise)
Tips from our American Southwest itinerary
This 4 night / 5 day itinerary requires a lot of driving, sometimes on tiring, double carriage roads. Make sure you divide up the driving duty among at least two people to minimize tiredness.
Avoid driving in darkness at all costs. The roads here are dangerous at night, even more than elsewhere, due to wildlife and darkness. Check sunset times in advance and make sure you have plenty of time to cover the planned distance.
Fill your tank when you can. We didn’t have problems finding gas stations but there were very long stretches of road without any visible facilities and we were glad we followed the advice of people who told us to always keep an eye on our gas.
Be prepared for weather hazards. This part of America sees some pretty intense weather phenomena and it is important to make time to stop and find shelter should you find yourself on the path of a storm or other event.
We arrived to our hotels minutes before a massive sand storm hit Phoenix and had we been outside, this would have been a majour driving hazard. Don’t overstretch your plans and factor in possible delays when deciding how much to drive each day.
Take into account slow roads. National parks for instance have specific speed limits that require to drive much more slowly than you would on a road that size. This means some distances may trick you into thinking you can drive them in a couple of hours while the actual time needed is double! If driving across National Parks, take this into account to avoid stress.
If driving with small kids, consider that long stretches on this itinerary are very boring in terms of landscapes and with few decent stops for food. Stock up on food and water before leaving and bring toys to keep them busy.
California to Grand Canyon to Monument Valley: our itinerary
Day 1: driving San Diego to Las Vegas
Our first day saw us leaving the gorgeous California coast and heading to the desert city of Las Vegas, Nevada.
This stop was a controversial one: we are not really Las Vegas types and we were traveling with the kids, so Philip in particular wasn’t overly keen in seeing the city.
However, I always had curiosity for Las Vegas and it was a good stop in the right direction, so we ended up booking one night there. It was indeed a sensible distance to cover in one day.
The drive between San Diego and Las Vegas is easy but boring.
The road is good and wide, directions are clear and overall you can expect to make it into Las Vegas in about 5 hours. The biggest problem you may have on this road is the traffic in the LA area, so if you need to drive anywhere near the city, time your departure carefully so you avoid rush hours.
We were leaving from Carslbad, which is North San Diego, and drove via Orange County which made for smooth driving. Just remember to pay for the toll roads here: information is well displayed on the road itself and you have a few days to take care of appropriate payment online.
The drive between San Diego and Las Vegas unfortunately is not very scenic or entertaining. The landscape is pretty much barren and while there are some roadside attractions not too far from the freeway, we felt we were better off taking this as just a driving day.
We stopped for lunch only and we made this a fun stop.
The place we chose is called Peggy Sue and it was the perfect place to start a road trips in this part of the country.
Peggy Sue is a diner that has been furnished by its owners in 1950s style. The place has a souvenir shop full of candy jars and Elvis memorabilia, served good old diner fare (burgers, onion rings etc), and stepping in felt like stepping into an episode of ‘Happy days’.
We could argue about America being a lot more than diners such as this one but for us it was a super fun stop.
The kids adored the dinosaur park outside (despite the scorching heat!), the food was genuinely very nice and since we were tourists and had our head full with images of Route 66 and movies shot in this area, it was exactly what we needed!
I had read about this place on the web and all my worries about being able to find it soon evaporated when we got close to its location. Peggy Sue diners is advertised everywhere and missing its exit is pretty much impossible.
If you have time for additional stops, on the way between San Diego and Las Vegas not to far from the main road you have:
Bottle Tree Ranch, a unique art installation / recycling effort along Route 66
Route 66 museum in Barstow, a roadside museum devoted to the history & artifacts of Route 66 & the Mojave Desert communities.
Calico Ghost town, an old West mining town, now part of the part of the San Bernardino County Regional Parks system
Seven Magic mountains, art installation that catches your eyes from the road as you approach Las Vegas
First night: Las Vegas
We spent our first night in Las Vegas and this turned out to be a good stop. We got there in the late afternoon and since we had a hotel on the strip we were able to immediately go out and have a first look around.
With the kids, you have several option in Las Vegas in terms of food but you want to be mindful of what they see in the crazy circus that is the strip and also of the absolutely mind boggling crowds.
I will probably write a whole article about what we felt about visiting Las Vegas with small kids but for the moment I feel like saying: if you are mindful of the crowds and know what to expect, you can have a nice family night here.
We started off with a walk to the Venetian and a stroll along the luscious Caesars’ Palace and Bellagio and then headed to the ferry wheel. This sits at the end of a pedestrian only road just off the strip and even if we didn’t take a ride, stayed as the highlight of our night.
We found a nice outdoor terrace for a drink first (the kids were welcome and had a soda) and then sat for dinner in a good Italian restaurant with kids menu and views over the wheel.
We spent the night with nice food, light shows we could enjoy form our table and Britney blaring out of street loudspeakers. Maybe not everyone’s cup of tea but the kids and I thought it was great fun!
Day 2: drive Las Vegas to Grand Canyon
The second day saw us driving from Las Vegas to Grand Canyon, via Hoover Dam. Once again, this was quite a long day in the car and in several moments I worried we may end up driving in Grand Canyon after dark which is something you should definitely avoid.
The main reason for the trip taking so long was that we stopped at Hoover dam.
This was not part of our original plan but our hope exchange host recommended it and since Philip is very interested in the environment and environmental impact and sustainability, we decided to spent some time here.
We ended up staying over 2 hours and it was really worth it.
Hoover Dam: visit and lunch
Hoover dam is impressive and very well organised. The dam has a visitor centre and can be visited with organised tours and it truly is worth paying for the entrance ticket as the exhibition inside is informative and fun.
We only saw the museum and the terrace on top but you can join tours of the workings of the dam that promise to be really interesting.
We didn’t go for a few reasons: some of the tours are not suitable for kids and there are signs everywhere to avoid the tour if you suffer at all from claustrophobia. I hate tight spaces so I knew I had to give that one a miss!
We really enjoyed the museum and we were surprised to see how captivating it was for both adults and kids.
Hoover Dam has a cafe / restaurant where you can get snacks, sandwiches and burgers. While not cheap nor healthy, it is a good option as there is not much else in the area.
Hoover dam to Grand Canyon
After Hoover dam we drove to the Grand Canyon and we only stopped en route once, for gas. The drive from Hoover dam to Gran Canyon was interesting as the landscape changes vastly the closer you get to the Canyon.
After many miles in the desert, vegetation starts again and, as we drove into the park, it even started to rain! We were surprised by such a change in weather but we shouldn’t have been: the Grand Canyon sees rain in summer and even thunderstorms and after the desert, you really appreciate how much water is needed for life.
I never thought i would say that but we welcomed the rain and the greenery and felt relief a the more welcoming landscape.
Arrival to Grand Canyon
We arrived to the Grand Canyon just before sunset and it is the most magical time to first get a glimpse of this natural wonder. We had accommodation inside the park, something I highly recommend, and we had the time to go to Mater Point before checking in.
Our room was at the Yavapay Lodge and we loved it. The lodge is is made of simple enough cabins (masonry, not wood nor canvas) and they are comfortable and clean, with private bathrooms.
The Yavapai restaurant and cafe just a short stroll away and you can move around the park with the park shuttle, which stops just in front. Mater Point and its incredible view over the Canyon is a short stroll up the road.
The restaurant has lovely food, nice kids options and a great fast order service with self serving terminals that make the line short even when very busy.
We spent the evening between Mater Point and the restaurant and then made the most of the clear sky to stargaze.
Day 3 Grand Canyon to Monument Valley
This day saw us exploring the Grand Canyon and then driving all the way to Monument Valley.
We spent the whole morning ant the Canyon and ended up leaving a lot later than we had planned, right after lunch. This meant that we got to Monument Valley at sundown.
It worked out really well as the sunset looks magical against the red rocks of monument Valley but it also meant that I spent over one hour worrying about potentially driving the dark.
The drive between Grand canyon and Monument Valley is not overly long but the landscape, once you leave the park, is barren and you need to make sure you are off the road as soon as darkness sets in.
I would imagine wildlife encounters here at night would be seriously dangerous (I was told mule deer inhabit this area).
We spent the night in Gouldings Lodge, just outside the tribal park and had a wonderful rest. The place has lovely lodges for rent, a good onsite restaurant with kids menu (they don’t sell alcohol, but that’s a good thing with all that driving involved) and is a short drive away from the park entrance.
Day 4: Monument Valley, Flagstaff, Sedona, Phoenix
Day 4 saw us waking up bright and early and I truly mean this: we got up at 4.30 am! We had booked a sunrise tour of the valley and it was the best thing we did in the whole trip.
The valley looks magical at any time but watching it when the sun comes out is an out of this world experience.
Also, having booked a tour we were allowed into a part of the valley closed to the general public and taught us about the Navajo population of this area a lot more than we would have been able to grasp on our own.
After the tour and breakfast we started driving south and our first stop was Flagstaff. The road to Flagstaff starts boring as you are retracing your steps for a good bit of the way but then turns into a truly beautiful one.
After the desert, you move into mountain territory and you have green, trees and even rain!
We stopped in Flagstaff for coffee and a snoop around its main street (gorgeous and full of Route 66 memorabilia) and soaeked up the hippy / hipster/ outdoorsy atmosphere of this town.
After Flagstaff we hopped back in the car and drove the stunning drive to Sedona. This road is a famous and scenic one and truly is special: you cross beautiful mountains with red rocks and luscious vegetation, striking against the earthy colour of the rocks.
While we didn’t have time to stop along the way, it left me with the feeling that it would be a fabulous place to set up base in for a while and hike.
Despite being under pressure to get to Phoenix for the night, we made some time to wander around Sedona and for lunch. the city has a nice albeit touristy feel and made for a good stop. You can find ideas on what to do in Sedona here.
Sedona to Phoenix
The drive to Phoenix was supposed to be boring and fast but ended up being pretty eventful for us!
First we got alerts about thunderstorms, then we got alerts for flash floods and eventually we hit a sand storm! The first two of these warnings didn’t materialise but the sand storm did it and it was quite a sight.
We had just checked into our hotel when the sandstorm hit and while we were safe, there was a real end-of-the-world feel to it.
An event such a sand storm is so alien to us and it made visibility outside so scarce (you could see absolutely nothing!) it made is realise how powerful nature can be and how lucky we were to be indoors just at the right time.
Day 5: Phoenix to Carslbad
our last day say us driving back to Carslbad and t be honest it as pretty much an all-day drive.
We followed highway 10 which we had already done last year and while it has some interesting stretched there is little to see here.
Places worth stopping by are Palm Springs and of course Joshua Tree National Park,but you don’t really have time to visit if trying to to get San Diego in one day.
We spent some time in downtown Phoenix in the morning and ended up getting home in the evening. If you are planning to cover this distance in one day, consider it is pretty much straight driving all the way.
I hope you enjoyed reading our 5 day road trip itinerary in the gorgeous American Southwest and helped answer some of your questions about driving this area. Safe travels!