A few years back a few friends and I drove from Colorado to California, traveling through what is sure to be some of the most epically beautiful parts of the country. Along the way we hit some of my favorite parks, from Arches to Joshua Tree. The hard thing about road trips like this is we could easily have spent the whole trip just in one of the places we stopped over the week or so we were on the road. The American Southwest is massive, magnificent and endless. There’s a million canyons, national monuments, points of interest we definitely missed. This was just a start.
Arches National Park is one of my favorite national parks. The magic starts when you’re driving from Colorado into Moab. Out of seemingly no where, the La Sals—a small alpine mountain range I have also come to know and love so much—rise straight out of the orange desert. That drive alone is a sight to see.
What to do: The first time you go to Arches will literally blow your mind. Its hard to believe formations exist like this any where on Earth, much less right in America’s backyard. The first time you go, you have to knock Delicate Arch off the list. It’s the a 46-foot tall arch that you’ll probably recognize from Utah license plates. It’s popular, for sure, but so, so worth it.
Where to camp: As of 2016, backcountry camping in Arches has been closed due to road maintenance (you park on the road before hiking in), but I seriously recommend looking into whatever permits they have available when you go. Backcountry camping in Arches is first-come, first-serve (make sure you get to the Visitors Center before 5), but totally free! I’ve spent some of the best nights away from any crowds in the Arches backcountry.
Thought Arches was cool? Prepare to have your mind blown ten times over by the beauty that surrounds Page, AZ.
Antelope Canyon, two ways: Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend. There are two parts of Antelope Canyon: Upper Antelope Canyon and Lower Antelope Canyon. Upper Antelope Canyon is wider, more trafficked and a little more expensive to enter ($32-40). If mobility is a concern—and if you want a guided tour—choose Upper Antelope Canyon. It’s also where you can see the famous “light beams” come through the canyon walls. If you call ahead, the tour company can let you know when the best time of day to see this is.
Lower Antelope Canyon is cool because with a $20 entrance fee you can explore it unguided. The walls are narrower and you may have to do some climbing and scrambling to get around.
Short stop at Horseshoe Canyon: Just down the road is Horseshoe Bend—the most photographed part of the Colorado River and for good reason!
Where to camp: We camped the night at Lake Powell, which was honestly way cooler than I imagined. Lake Powell is a reservoir on the Colorado River that straddles the border between Utah in Arizona. It’s a man-made reservoir so I was little hesitant to check it out, but it fit with the itinerary and is visited by 2 million people each year, also for good reason.
We spent the night at Lone Rock Beach Campground, which is way less Disney Land than some of the other RV parks near the water. We slept pretty much right on the beach and saw a beautiful sunset to boot.
Wanting to get to California, we only spent a few hours at the Grand Canyon (criminal, I know). Being almost 2,000 square miles of wilderness, we decided to save the real exploring of the Grand Canyon for another time…
Ah, Joshua Tree. Another place that is hard to describe, so you’ll have to take my word and just go there yourself.
Where to camp: We were lucky enough to pull right on up to Jumbo Rocks Campground, one of the coolest car camping spots I’ve slept at to date. We watched the sunset, made camp tacos, and talked about UFOs. What else do you do in the desert?
We had finally made it to California, with over 1,000 miles of some of the most beautiful stretches of country under our seat belts. Sunburnt and dusty, we knew this was just our introduction to the American Southwest.
This road trip was in 2014, before Hipcamp began partnering with private landowners. We went in the summer (not recommended…), so it was really easy to find places to camp each night. But, if you’re heading to the desert during normal desert camping months, chances are you won’t have such luck. What is lucky though is that there are some really special camps on private land thanks to Hipcamp. Here are some of my favorite I definitely will plan my next Southwest adventures around…
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