We’d intended for some time to take our kids to the Grand Canyon as well as Mesa Verde, those iconic sites of the American Southwest. When we lived in California, we got close-ish many times, e.g. road trips to Las Vegas as well as sites like Death Valley, Joshua Tree, and Hoover Dam). But it was a little too far for a long weekend.
That said, we finally found a good chance to go, on the way home from a trip to Hawaii. Since Phoenix is about half-way back to Boston from Hawaii, we realized that it could be a good stopping point, and tagged on a 5 night road trip to see these sites. One could easily spend far more time on a road trip in the American Southwest – it was hard to figure out what to trim. But we thought we’d write up our experience planning a short trip through the area, to see these natural wonders.
Our Chosen Itinerary
For our 4 Day, 5 Night American Southwest road trip, our family chose to:
- Evening 0: Fly into the Phoenix airport and drive to Flagstaff.
- Day 1: Drive to the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park, hike, and see some of the most iconic overlooks.
- Day 2: Drive most of the way to Mesa Verde National Park, stopping at Horseshoe Bend and Monument Valley.
- Day 3: Spend most of the day in Mesa Verde National Park. Take both a morning and an afternoon cliff dwelling tour. Leave early enough to stop by the Four Corners Monument.
- Day 4: Spend the morning at the Navajo Nation Museum (fail due to unexpected closure). Spend the afternoon at the Petrified Forest National Park. Spend the early evening in Phoenix, then take a red-eye home.
Here is a map showing our itinerary:
Choosing a Starting Airport
If you choose to fly into Phoenix, simply follow our itinerary as written. For us, flying into Phoenix allowed us to see a college friend, which was a huge plus!
In addition to any personal reasons, the main advantage to flying into a major airport is that there are many flight connections. Major airports have many options for non-stop flights or rebooking in the case that you miss a connection. The downside to each of these airports is that they are at least 3.5 hours to the National Parks on the itinerary.
Alternative major airports could include Las Vegas or Albuquerque. If you fly into Las Vegas, you could easily add the Hoover Dam to your itinerary. If you fly into Albuquerque, you could attend the Balloon Fiesta or visit some of the Breaking Bad film locations. It is possible to fly to more minor airports like Flagstaff for the Grand Canyon.
Extending Your Road Trip
If you have extra time and want to extend this road trip, consider adding destinations like Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Canyonlands National Park, and the Hoover Dam.
If you have 2 week or longer, a more comprehensive American Southwest itinerary may include (see map):
- Zion National Park
- Bryce Canyon National Park
- Canyonlands National Park
- Mesa Verde National Park
- Four Corners Monument
- Monument Valley
- Navajo Nation Museum
- Petrified Forest National Park
- Grand Canyon National Park
- Hoover Dam
This itinerary features some of the best National Parks in the area and throws in a few other sites that may be on the way. Major airports that could support this itinerary include Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Albuquerque. There are smaller airports that could work as well: Durango, Grand Junction, Flagstaff, and Santa Fe are just a few.
No matter how much time you have, the American Southwest is a unique area of the world and is worth exploring. Pick a few of the major attractions and build a road trip customized to your particular interests!
Night 0: Phoenix to Flagstaff
We chose to extend our Hawaii Vacation by flying home to Boston through Phoenix. Arriving into Phoenix after 8:00pm meant that we didn’t have a lot of time to dawdle. Jeremy took one of the boys to pick up the rental car while I waited for the bags to arrive. This is a common strategy that we use to reduce wait time at the car rental location. In this case, the bags took a very long time to arrive, so it turned out to be a good choice.
As soon as Jeremy returned to the arrival’s terminal, we were off to Flagstaff. On our way out of Phoenix, we made sure to stop at a gas station to top off our tank and pick up some extra water. When heading into the desert with few services, it is particularly important to bring more water than you think you need. In addition to simply getting dehydrated, extra water can keep your car going if you have radiator problems. We have vivid memories of being in the middle of Death Valley and seeing radiator fluid in a puddle under our car!
Exhausted, we arrived at our hotel just before 11pm and crawled into bed as quickly as possible so that we would be fresh for a day of hiking in the Grand Canyon!
Day 1: Grand Canyon National Park
In the morning, we had a quick hotel breakfast and were on our way! From Flagstaff it is about a 1.5 hour drive to Grand Canyon National Park, an awe-inspiring natural wonder that was carved by the Colorado River.
Upon arrival, we stopped by the Visitor Center and took a short hike to Mather Point, which offers an amazing first look at the massiveness of the Grand Canyon.
BRIGHT ANGEL TRAIL
After stopping at the grocery store for some picnic items, Bright Angel Trail was our next destination. While it is possible to only hike on the rim, we wanted to descend into the canyon a bit. This trail has options to hike to the 1.5 mile rest house, the 3 mile rest house, or all the way to the bottom. If you hike all the way to the bottom, keep in mind that it will be an overnight trip and you will need to make arrangements for lodging at Phantom Ranch or some other alternative. We chose the 1.5 mile rest house.
One surprise that we encountered was the unseasonably cool August weather. On the way down, a ranger was warning people that a thunderstorm was coming and that we would want to take care. In retrospect, we should have taken this more seriously. On the way up, the thunder began! With nowhere to take shelter, we picked up the pace and prayed that we wouldn’t be hit in the head with falling rock or washed over the edge in a flash flood. Read the safety guide!
If hiking into the canyon isn’t your cup of tea, do try to walk a bit on the Rim Trail. It is pleasant, flat, and has great views! After our run up the canyon, we were ready for something a little easier.
Exhausted from hiking and with weather moving into the area, we decided to head towards Yavapai Lodge to check in. If you choose to stay in the park, anywhere in Grand Canyon Village is convenient, but the Grand Canyon website lists other options in addition to the ones in the park.
Read our full blog post about the Grand Canyon for more detailed information!
Day 2: Horseshoe Bend and Monument Valley
In the morning, we woke up and enjoyed views of the Grand Canyon as we drove out of the park and started our long drive towards Mesa Verde National Park.
Our first stop was Horseshoe Bend, which is about a 2.5 hour drive from the Grand Canyon. While not strictly on the way to Mesa Verde National Park, it only added a little over an hour to our drive and rewarded us with some amazing views!
Similar to the Grand Canyon, the natural beauty of Horseshoe Bend was carved by the Colorado River. Do note that the drop-offs are very steep. The main viewing area has some sturdy railing, but many people choose to go off train and explore further afield. Every couple of years, deaths happen, so don’t add to the number!
Read our full blog post about Horseshoe Bend for more information!
Leaving Horseshoe Bend, we drove about two hours to Monument Valley, an amazing group of natural rock formations located on Navajo tribal land. Again, this added a little bit of time to our drive, about 45 minutes, but it was definitely worth it! If you are a Forrest Gump fan, you will enjoy this iconic view:
Due to time constraints and fatigue, we chose to not officially enter the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, but simply enjoy the views from outside the park. If you enter, you will take a loop drive through the amazing rock formations shown in the picture above. It would have been really cool, but you need a minimum of an hour, and preferable 2-4 hours, to do it right.
For more information see our full blog post about Monument Valley.
From Monument Valley, we drove another 2.5 hours to Cortez, Colorado. Our goal was to get within an hour drive of Mesa Verde National Park, so from the direction of the Grand Canyon, Cortez is a great choice!
Tired and exhausted, we checked into our hotel, only to discover that a very disrespectful guest had left a “present” in the pool that required it to be closed for the rest of our stay. Fortunately, we were only to our knees in the hot tub, not the pool, when it was discovered. Gross! So sad!
Day 3: Mesa Verde National Park and Four Corners Monument
In the morning, we woke feeling refreshed, got a quick hotel breakfast and set out for Mesa Verde National Park, home to the cliff dwelling Pueblo people from 550AD to 1300AD. The best way to see the park is through ranger-led tours of the cliff dwellings. We chose one tour in the morning and one in the afternoon.
Mesa Verde National Park
The Cliff Palace Tour
Our first tour was of the Cliff Palace, the largest and best known cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde. Ahead of the tour, we tried visiting a few other locations on the Chapin Mesa, but were frustrated by closures. Fortunately, the tour made us forget all of our morning troubles.
The hike is only about 1/4 of a mile, but it is over steep terrain and requires climbing ladders. Our guide was quite good and we thoroughly enjoyed learning about the people who made this area their home.
The Far View Sites
On the way to lunch at the Far View Terrace Cafe, we stopped by the Far View Sites and took a fairly flat 3/4 mile hike around the homes that were built on top of the mesa. Inhabited before the cliff dwellings came into existence, this area will illuminate the differences between the people who descended into the cliffs and those who decided to stay on top.
The Step House
Before our next tour, we decided to head to the Wetherill Mesa and take a self-guided tour of the Step House. It was interesting, but not near as cool as the guided tours. That said, if you can’t get a guided tour or if you have extra time, the Step House is definitely worth a stop.
The Long House Tour
Our last activity in Mesa Verde National Park was the Long House tour. If you can’t get tickets to the Cliff Palace tour, the Long House makes a great alternative. It is almost as big as the Cliff Palace and has a lot of interesting history included in the tour. Note that this tour requires about 2.25 miles of hiking, including steep descents/ascents, natural stone steps, and ladders.
We thought about extending our time at the Long House by taking the Badger House Trail to see the Badger Community dwellings, but the boys were done with archeology and were ready to call it a day. If your stay in Mesa Verde is longer than our, there are plenty of other options for hiking and exploring.
For more information see our full blog post for Mesa Verde National Park.
Four Corners Monument
We made sure to leave Mesa Verde National Park with enough time to drive 1.5 hours to the Four Corners Monument before closing. I’m not sure why this monument has always appealed to me, but it is kind of fun to stand on a landmark that marks the point where Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah meet. For $8/person, you too could end up with a beautiful family photo like the one below. When you are done, you can enjoy looking at t-shirts and Native crafts at the market stalls that surround the monument.
For more information see our full blog post for the Four Corners Monument.
Weather was moving in, so a lot of the shops at the Four Corners Monument were closing down early. We got in our car and made the slightly terrifying 2 hour drive to Gallup, NM. When you see signs warning about low visibility due to dust storms, take it seriously. As we drove, we encountered severe wind that included swirling pillars of dust – mini tornados! While cool to see, I would have preferred to be in a nice solid concrete building.
Gallup is nothing to write home about, but it is in the Navajo Nation and has quite a few choices for hotels and has a few museums that we did not have time to visit.
Day 4: Navajo Nation Museum, Petrified Forest National Park, and Phoenix
Navajo Nation Museum
In the morning, we started our 30 minute drive to the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock, Arizona. One of our teenage boys had taken the Duolingo Navajo course, and was VERY excited about this museum.
On arrival, we were greeted by an empty parking lot filled with feral dogs. Pretty sure that there was a problem, the dogs almost kept us from checking the door, but we decided to risk it. Of course, the doors were shut tight and the museum was closed for the day due to some special circumstance. Sigh. At least we didn’t end up with rabies.
Having failed our mission, we continued on to the Petrified Forest.
Petrified Forest National Park
From Window Rock, the Petrified Forest National Park is a 1.25 hour drive. On arrival, you will find that you can hike beside fallen logs and tree trunks that were present when the dinosaurs were wandering the earth. While you may be imagining upright trees that were petrified the way they look today, if you set your expectations correctly, you will enjoy the colorful badlands with bands of red, orange, yellow, and blue rock formations.
We enjoyed taking a drive from north to south, stopping at various landmarks on the way (see the full post for a description of each of these):
- Stop at various Painted Desert lookout points
- See the 1932 Studebaker parked along old Route 66
- Drive the Blue Mesa Scenic Road
- Hike the Blue Mesa Trail (best hike of the day)
- Stop at Newspaper Rock
- Walk the Crystal Forest (skip if you have limited time)
- Skipped the Jasper Forest, but should have stopped
- See the Rainbow Forest Museum
- Peek into the Giant Logs area (probably would have been better than the Crystal Forest)
1932 Studebaker on old Route 66
One of our boys thought the best exhibit in the park was the 1932 Studebaker parked along old Route 66.
Blue Mesa Trail
The rest of us really enjoyed the Blue Mesa Trail, which is a 1 mile path that takes you through vibrant badlands littered with small logs that have turned to stone. While there is less petrified wood than some of the other hiking trails, the beautiful rock formations more than make up for it.
The Crystal Forest
The 3/4 mile hike through the Crystal Forest was fine, but if you have limited time, you may want to consider the Giant Logs Trail instead. There were some long pieces of petrified wood, but there are better paths for both badlands and petrified wood.
Rainbow Forest Museum and The Giant Logs Area
On the way out of the park, we stopped at the Rainbow Forest Museum to learn a little more about the geology and reflect on the fact that these stone logs were living trees when dinosaurs roamed the earth. In addition, we took a peek at the Giant Logs area, but the boys had no interest in waling on the Giant Logs Trail , so we decided to skip it and start making our way to Phoenix.
It was a fun way to break up our drive to Phoenix, but I’m not sure we would go out of our way to go back.
For more information see our full blog post for the Petrified Forest National Park.
Our family vacation was coming to a close, so we started our 3.5 hour drive to Phoenix. With plans to meet a friend for dinner, we had time to take a driving tour of the Arizona State University, but no one wanted to leave the air conditioning, so we simply enjoyed the city from our comfy car.
After dinner, we made our way to the airport to take a red-eye flight back to Boston. Red eye flights are never particularly restful or ideal, though our kids’ summer break was winding down, and it was practical to get home.
In any case, this American Southwest road trip was a super fun vacation that we would highly recommend!
Keep reading our travel blog for more National Park ideas and road trip ideas!
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