Epic soul-stirring Southwest road trip guide from Phoenix to Denver

This is a Southwest road trip guide from Phoenix to Denver, complete with route suggestions, hotel and restaurant recommendations and more.

There is something about a Southwest road trip that stirs the soul, evoking a free spirited adventure like none-other. The roads are wide open with modest traffic to encumber the dramatic sights unique to the Southwestern part of the United States.

Southwest road trip through Oak Creek Village in Sedona Arizona by MikesroadTrip.com

As a world traveler, I often ask those I meet abroad if they have ever visited the U.S. If they say yes, the answer is usually NYC or L.A., both are fine cities, but nothing truly remarkable or unique. The Southwestern states of Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado however, have a unique culture and spirit, coupled with dramatic landscapes that are something visitors will never forget. As a matter of fact, many of the sights on a Southwest road trip may look familiar as the area is a hotbed for film makers.

PREAMBLE

I had plans to attend a major travel conference in Denver, so too did a travel writer friend of mine from Ireland who was traveling to the Southwest on assignment. During a conversation with her I suggested that she fly to Phoenix and fly home out of Denver, that way I could take her on an epic Southwest road trip — an adventure I assured her she would never forget. With a few route options to consider, we soon put a plan in place. We spent two weeks doing this trip, and while I realize not everyone will have this much time, this Southwest road trip guide can be altered depending on your own flexibility and availability. Please contact me if you have any questions at all, I know the Southwest incredible well. By the way, you will notice links embedded throughout to help you get more information on areas of interest.

SOUTHWEST ROAD TRIP VEHICLE

This road trip was done in a 2018 Kia Sportage.

Kia Sportage in Utah by MikesRoadTrip.com

SOUTHWEST ROAD TRIP DAY 1 AND 2 IN PHOENIX/SCOTTSDALE

My Irish friend, Yvonne Gordon, arrived into Phoenix in early May, 2018. After picking her up at the airport, we drove to our first stop…the Mountain Shadows Resort. This iconic property first opened in 1959, but was completely rebuilt in 2017. They have done a remarkable job of creating a hip and modern hotel, while paying tribute to its mid-century roots. After getting settled and enjoying the views as the sunset cast an amber glow upon Camelback Mountain, we enjoyed dinner at the resort. 

Mountain Shadows by MikesRoadTrip.com

We only had a single day to spend in the Phoenix/Scottsdale area, but here are some of my recommendations when visiting the area (BTW, Phoenix is my home base so I know it well).

  • Things not to miss in Phoenix/Scottsdale
    • Desert Botanical Garden – A beautifully refined garden with plants and cacti that thrive in the Sonoran Desert. Check out a seasonal concert or dine at Gertrude’s.
    • Taliesin West – Frank Lloyd Wright was one of the most prolific architects in modern history. Taliesin West was his home, studio and school, which now doubles as is museum paying homage to Mr. Wright’s architectural philosophies.
    • Papago Buttes Park – A beautiful place for some light hiking, great city views or a picnic. Wonderful spot to watch the sunset too.
    • Musical Instrument Museum – Music fans will love this museum. Don’t miss a chance to see a show, a fantastic venue.
    • Arizona Cowboy Collage – If you have a few days and wanna learn how to become a true cowboy, don’t miss this experience where you will learn all about handling the equine.

 DBG Desert Botanical Garden with glass by MikesRoadTrip.com

  • Places to stay in Phoenix/Scottsdale (some of my favorite hotels in several classes)

    • Canyon Suites at the Phoenician (High-end elegant 5 star)
    • Andaz Scottsdale (Sophisticated 4.5 star)
    • Hotel Valley Ho (Historically hip 4 star)
    • FOUND:RE (industrial chic 3.5 star)

Canyon Suites collage by MikesRoadTrip.com

Places to eat on southwest road trip

SOUTHWEST ROAD TRIP DAY 3 IN SEDONA

The drive from Phoenix to Sedona is a short and easy one. The elevation change goes from 1100′ in the Sonoran Desert of Phoenix/Scottsdale, to about 4500′ in Sedona. Along the way the landscape changes from desert, to scrub, to dramatic red sandstone. If time permits, there are three stops en route to Sedona that I recommend:

  • Arcosanti – An urban laboratory experiment located in the middle of the high desert just northeast of Cordes Junction off of I-17. This unique facility was the brain child of the famed architect, Paolo Soleri, the last remaining disciple to study under Frank Lloyd Wright. 
  • Camp Verde – Located on the banks of the Verde River, this is a cute little town worth a short stop. Fort Verde is the best preserved Indian war-era fort in all of Arizona. It’s not the flashiest State Park, nor the most well-known, but it is fascinating with its museum and original buildings intact.
  • Montezuma Castle – One of Arizona’s many historical treasures—it’s a cliff dwelling domicile that will captivate you with age old design that has stood the test of time.

Arizona's Montezuma Castle

Once you get to Sedona you will find that it is sort of broken up into four areas, Oak Creek Village to the south. The main or primary part of Sedona with most of the art galleries to the north. Oak Creek Canyon where you’ll find Slide Rock to the northeast. And then the western side of Sedona where the amphitheater for the annual jazz festival, along with most of the local stores and other commerce are located. There is wonderful lodging in each part of Sedona, from 5 star resorts, to intimate inns and creek-side retreats. While Yvonne and I only had a single day to explore Sedona on this trip, you could easily spend several here if you have the time. I have been to Sedona many times, so here are my recommendations:

  • Things not to miss in Sedona
    • Chapel of the Holy Cross – an architectural masterpiece built right into the red rocks.
    • Hiking – Endless hiking opportunities in and around Sedona. One of my favorites is the trail just past the bridge east of town. There is a small parking lot near the trail head (make sure to have a Red Rock pass when parking here). The trail leads down to Oak Creek where the crystal clear water flows year-round under a canopy of lush trees and vegetation.
    • Jeep Tour – Pink Jeep is the most well know tour company in town, but there are several to choose from, each are well worth the adventure. You’ll see parts of Sedona that you just can’t explore any other way.
    • Tlaquepaque Arts and Crafts – A bit of a tourist trap, but first-timers really love this place.
    • Slide Rock State Park – A wonderful place to explore, from the apple orchards to the famed spot where the water has carved out a natural slide out of the red rock. Great place for a picnic or just to take in the views.

Oak Creek in Sedona by MikesRoadTrip.com

  • Places to stay in Sedona
    • Red Agave Resort -An incredible setting with views of Bell Rock and Courthouse Butte (well known landmarks), with hiking and biking trails accessible from the artfully the courtyard which leads into the Coconino National Forest. They have newly renovated two-story chalets which are quite cute and comfortable. (Oak Creek Village)
    • Enchantment – Probably the best resort in town. (Northwest part of town)
    • Cozy Cactus – Not fancy, but really cozy and great innkeepers. (Oak Creek Village)
    • Briar Patch Inn – Historic property located on a fantastic stretch of Oak Creek. I recommend the creek-side lodging, the other accommodations are quite dated (unless they’ve been updated since my last visit)
    • Sedona Rouge Hotel & Spa – Located on the western side of Sedona, this hotel is near lots of restaurants and shopping and offers some luxurious accommodations with a Mediterranean flare.
  • Places to eat in Sedona
    • Chocolate Tree restaurant – Such a fantastic local restaurant. They serve vegan food, if that gives you pause, I can assure you, everything about this restaurant is amazing! This is a unique experience you should absolutely try when visiting the area. (western side of Sedona)
    • Wildflower Bread Company – Another local restaurant to Arizona. This is a wonderful casual restaurant serving affordable high-quality food with a view. (Central/main part of Sedona)
    • Tara Thai – If you like Thai food, this place is great! (Oak Creek Village/Bell Rock area)

Chocolat Tree Sedona patio by MikesRoadTrip.com

SOUTHWEST ROAD TRIP DAY 4 – SEDONA TO SOUTHERN UTAH

This was the longest stretch of our road trip. We had to drive this long distance because Yvonne was writing about one of the most exclusive resorts in the world—this was the only day a room was available and we didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to stay there (Yvonne is a pretty well known travel writer with a bit of swag). We woke and hit the road quite early so that we could make a couple of stops along the way. Yvonne could not come all this way from Ireland not to see one of the most popular national parks in the world, the Grand Canyon. The Grand Canyon is a place you could easily drive through if you just have a few hours, or, you could stay at one of the lodges and spend several days scouring the park. We did but a cursory drive through, but it was enough time for Yvonne to appreciate the grandeur. It was really a glorious day, blue skies, perfect temperatures and little wind.

  • A few tips when visiting the Grand Canyon
    • DO NOT stand on ledges and take selfies. Many people die each year falling into the mile-deep canyon.
    • If you have the time, park your car and use the bus system to navigate the park.
    • Best views of the Grand Canyon is at the east entrance, known as the Watchtower

As we left the East Entrance of the Grand Canyon we soon headed north up highway 89. It wasn’t long before we hit an area that looks distinctly like the landscape from another planet—it’s the western edge of the Painted Desert. This stretch of road runs through Indian Reservation, so you’ll often see some roadside vendors. (Note: If you’re into turquoise jewelry and other Indian crafts, stop by one, you can often get some good deals).  As we continued north toward Page Lake Powell we drove by a few places we would explore a couple days later. We wanted to get to our next destinations as soon as possible in order to spend as much time there as we could.

 Road through the painted desert by MikesRoadTrip.com

scenes from the Painted Desert on Southwest Road Trip

About 18 miles north of Page in the middle of nowhere, on the tail end of the Escalante National Monument, is the luxuriously isolated Amangiri Resort. I have stayed at five star resorts all over the world, but Amangiri is in a unique class of its own. Nestled within an alcove of rock formations, the property blends into the stunning landscape, camouflaging itself by using on-site materials during the construction process. The architect of this property brilliantly designed the hotel to frame out the natural beauty. In other words, everywhere you wander you see what looks like giant paintings, but in fact the architecture creates illusions that just look like a framed painting. It’s quite remarkable!

Southwest road trip to Amangiri resort in Utah by MikesRoadTrip.com

SOUTHWEST ROAD TRIP DAY 5 & 6 IN PAGE LAKE POWELL

After a wonderful poolside breakfast at Amangiri, we left our posh setting. We headed back to the Page Lake Powell area for some fun-in-the-sun with a number of activities planned over the next couple of days. Here are some of my recommendations.

A Southwest Road Trip stop to Horseshoe bend sunset by MikesRoadTrip.com

  • Things not to miss in the Page/Lake Powell area
    • Antelope Canyon – This has become a very popular excursion. While it can be quite crowded during peak times, it’s still an amazing experience. I have done both upper and lower Antelope Canyon and while both are great, I think I tend to prefer the lower. The upper tours begin in Page where you take a 15 minute drive in a 4-wheel drive vehicle. The lower tours you can park at the entrance near Horseshoe bend.
    • Jeep Tour – The folks at Jeep Lake Powell provide unique off-road adventure tours through some of the most scenic and remote back country in the U.S, including Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument and the surrounding Lake Powell area.
    • Horseshoe Bend – This excursion requires about a 20 minute light hike to reach, but the views are stupendous. This is one of the most recognizable places in Arizona.
    • Kayaking – Renting a kayak and exploring some of the nearby slot canyons on Lake Powell is really a cool experience.
    • Rainbow Bridge – Access is by boat only…if you don’t have your own, there are a couple of tour companies offering excursions.
    • Tour the Lake – Again, if you don’t have your own boat, do yourself a favor and hop on a tour boat for the Antelope Canyon Cruise for a short introduction to the lake.
    • Wesley Powell Museum – Learn about the canyon before, and, after the damn was built. John Wesly Powell was the first person to traverse down the mighty Colorado River.
    • Glen Canyon Dam – Even if you don’t want to tour the dam, this is a great place to visit for history on this impressive man-made marvel. Some great photo ops too.
    • Lone Rock – Located at the north-end of the lake with great access for boats with sand dunes and cliff-jumping, this is a cool place to explore and/or camp.
    • Glen Canyon Dam Overlook – Located right off Hwy 89 near downtown Page is a great spot to look at this impressive man-made marvel and the Colorado River below.

Southwest Road Trip to Lake Powell (near lone rock) by MikesRoadTrip.com

  • Places to Stay in Page Lake Powell (unfortunately it’s mostly budget chain hotels in Page)
    • Houseboat – I’ve never done this, but have always wanted to. This has to be one of the best ways to stay in Page Lake Powell.
    • Camping – I love camping in the Page Lake Powell area. Lone Rock right on the water is one popular area. If you’re looking for primitive and remote camping, there is a great area just west of the Glen Canyon dam (dirt road on the west side of Hwy 89). If you want to go very far in, I recommend a 4X4 and bring a shovel just in case, as there is areas with deep sand.
    • Lake Powell Resort – This is the only place to stay on the lake and it’s not that great. This place caters to huge bus tours. It’s over-priced and the service is terrible.
    • Lake Powell Motel – I have not stayed here, but did see the rooms after a Jeep tour they offer. It doesn’t look that impressive from the outside, but the rooms are quite nice and the reviews are very high.
  • Places to Eat in Page Lake Powell (Most everything I’ve had in Page is pretty mediocre, so your guess is as good as mine where to eat)

While staying in the Page area, a wonderful side excursion is to head south on Hwy 89 out of town and then turn onto Hwy 89a, which will take you through Marble Canyon, Vermilion Cliffs, and if you keep going, to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon (only open mid-May through September).  Here are my suggestions:

  • Navajo Bridge – This is a great overlook area of the Colorado River.
  • Lee’s Ferry – This road takes you all the way down to the Colorado River and is the put-in point for all the big rafting companies. Great camping, hiking, sightseeing and fishing area.
  • Cliff Dwellers – This is an extraordinary spot where a couple of small homes were built within unique rock formations that helped create a room and walls. It’s just one of the many incredible roadside attractions in Arizona.
  • Vermilion Cliffs – Nearly this entries stretch of road along Hwy 89a from Marble Canyon toward the North Rim of the Grand Canyon is part of the Vermilion Cliffs…a tremendously scenic area.

Vermilion Cliffs looking up is one of the things you'll see on a Southwest Road Trip by MikesRoadTrip.com

SOUTHWEST ROAD TRIP DAY 7 & 8 IN ZION NATIONAL PARK

The next day we headed to Zion National Park. We really took our time working our way through the canyon, stopping a lot for photos and little mini hikes before finally reaching our hotel in Springdale. We spent nearly the entire next day hiking the Narrows Canyon, which had been one of those bucket list hikes I had wanted to do for many years. It did not disappoint! As a matter of fact, Yvonne also agreed that this one one of the coolest hikes she too had ever been on. In early May when we did this hike the weather could not have been more perfect. I do however recommend renting dry pants and neoprene boots because you are in water a majority of the time, and it is cold! (Note: We rented from Zion Outfitters, they are located right at the entrance of the park, so very convenient) The scenery is so stunning that you just keep going and going, so if you do this hike, be sure to leave enough in the tank to return. You will be going with the flow of the water on the way back, so the pace is much faster. Be sure to bring plenty of snacks and water. I also highly recommend trekking poles. 

Southwest Road Trip to Zion National park and Narrows Canyon by MikesRoadTrip.com

  • Places to stay in Zion
    • Majestic View Lodge – This place is located on the outskirts of Springdale, but offers really nice lodging, and some, well, majestic views as the name implies.
    • Desert Thistle – Years earlier I stayed at this B&B and it was quite lovely.
  • Places to eat in Zion (Springdale)
    • Oscar’s Cafe – This is a staple in town and quite good. I’ve eaten here a couple of times, for both breakfast and dinner. The service is just so-so, but the food is good.
    • Whiptail Grill – This is a quirky little restaurant in a converted old gas station with a hell of a view. The food is good…a bit overpriced for what you get. Drinks are expensive, but that might be a Utah thing.
    • Thai Sapa – Medicare Thai food.

SOUTHWEST ROAD TRIP DAY 9 AT BRYCE CANYON

The next day we left early to beat the crowds heading into the entrance of Zion. To get out of Springdale you have to drive through the park, which during peak hours can be backed up for miles. On the other side of the park, on the S.W. corner of Hwy 9 and 89, is a place I’ve passed by many times and never stopped. Both of us were really hungry since we left Zion before breakfast, so we stopped by what looked a bit like an old greasy spoon, but it was actually a really decent restaurant called the Thunderbird (can’t miss the sign out front).

After breakfast we headed toward Bryce Canyon down Hwy 89 north, then turned right heading west on Scenic Byway 12, an utterly fantastic road. Everywhere on this trip is incredibly scenic, but this road stands out just a bit ahead of the rest. When we arrived at Bryce Canyon National Park, Yvonne was again awe-struck at the landscape, completely different from Zion, but equally beautiful. We stopped by most of the scenic overlooks and even hiked down a ways at one. We were running a bit short on time, so we could not hike to the bottom, but both of us were a bit disappointed by this…it’s just a different feeling to be immersed within the hoodoos, arches and unique rock formations.  If you have the time, I highly recommend hiking to the bottom of Bryce. 

 

SOUTHWEST ROAD TRIP DAY 10, 11 & 12 IN MOAB

After Bryce we drove to Moab where we would spend the next few days. Because of where we had reservations, we entered the area from the north off Interstate 70 and went down Scenic Hwy 128. This was the first time I had driven down this road, at least from north to south—I have to say, it is now on my top-10 list of most scenic roads in the U.S. No question! Moab looks like a movie set, and that’s because, it is! So many movies, T.V. shows and commercials have been filmed in this area. This was my fourth time to Moab and I was just as enamored as the first.

Moab Dirt Road.jpeg copy

We arrived at Sorrel River Ranch Resort, a place I had heard about before, but never been to. Some places you visit, you just feel good when you arrive, and that’s what it’s like staying at Sorrel. It’s a magical place filled with peace and serenity. Moab is a recreational haven, from extreme to beginners, there is something for everyone. The nice thing about staying at Sorrel is that they can take care of everything for you, if you want to go mountain biking, off-roading, or just relax in the spa, they can take care of your every desire. If you just want to sit on your porch with a cocktail in hand watching the river flow by while taking in the views, this is the place to do nothing too.

Soreal Ranch aerial by MikesRoadTrip.com

  • Things not to miss in Moab
    • Arches National Park – Located right in Moab, this is a very popular park, and for good reason, the naturally formed sandstone arches are an incredible sight.
    • Canyonlands National Park – That’s right, there are two parks in Moab, this one is a bit farther a way and not nearly as crowded at Arches, but equally beautiful. The drive there, like most of Moab, is just spectacular. It’s tough to keep your eyes on the road with so much beauty.

 

  • Places to stay in Moab
    • Sorrel River Ranch Resort – Can’t recommend this place enough, but it is on the pricey side. The accommodations are amazing with plenty of space. The views from the room are memorizing. Dining on the patio at night with live music playing and then going to the fire-pit to make smores for dessert was quite memorable.
    • Red Cliffs Lodge – Located just a couple miles south of Sorrel, this place is a great alternative for the more budget minded. The river and surrounding views are equally beautiful and the riverside cabins provide plenty of room. The accommodations are not on par with Sorrel, but it’s also half the price.
    • In Town Lodging – Both of the places listed above are outside of town by nearly 20 miles, so if you want to stay closer to town there are a number of chain hotels available.
    • Camping – If you’re into camping there are a many RV campgrounds and plenty of primitive places to set up a tent.
  • Places to Eat
    • While on this trip we ate at both Sorrel and Red Cliffs. Sorrel is a bit more upscale as you might expect, but both were very good. Breakfast at Sorrel is al a cart, where at Red Cliffs it’s a buffet.
    • Village Market – Great place to get some sandwiches made while picking up some drinks and snacks for a picnic outing.

SOUTHWEST ROAD TRIP DAY 13 IN GATEWAY CANYONS, COLORADO

Another first for me on this Southwest road trip was driving from Moab across the La Sal Mountains into Gateway, Colorado. This was a really neat course that saves well over an hour of driving since this is a more direct route, verses driving all the way around the mountain range. Thankfully, I was driving an all-wheel drive version of the Kia Sportage, which handled quite well on the dirt roads.

Kia Sportage on Southwest road trip through the La Sal Mountains by MikesRoadTrip.com

We really wanted to stay at the Gateway Canyons Resort, but unfortunately they were booked up with a private function. I have stayed at this property before and highly recommend it. Even though we could not stay at the resort, we did take a tour of their incredible auto museum and walk around the grounds a bit.  We then picked up a couple of sandwiches at their restaurant and headed off up through the canyon for a picnic lunch along the river that runs parallel to the road. We then went to the Gateway Canyons Resort stables, which is quite a few miles north of the resort for a horseback ride into the mountains. It was a glorious day and another glorious landscape, albeit quite different from the red rocks on the western side of the La Sal Mountains.

Stopped by Gateway Canyons Resort on Southwest road trip by MikesRoadTrip.com

Gateway Canyons horseback riding by MikesRoadTrip.com

It had been a long day, so we just got a cheap hotel in Grand Junction and called it a night. This is yet another area that we would have liked to have spent more time, the Colorado National Monument for example is something not to miss. We did stroll downtown a bit and were quite pleasantly surprised at how cool it is. So many cute shops, lots of restaurants and some wonderful public art. In hindsight we would have gotten a hotel much closer to downtown rather than right off the highway.

Grand Junction courthouse by MikesRoadTrip.com

SOUTHWEST ROAD TRIP DAY 14 in VAIL

The next day we left Grand Junction en route to Vail, which is a pretty short drive along I-70. Since we only had a day to explore before having to be in Denver, we wanted to get to Vail as early as possible. Vail is one of those exclusive ski towns with high-end shopping, galleries and resorts. Vail was modeled after the fairytale ski resorts reminiscent of the ones in the European Alps—it’s a wonderful town, but certainty on the pricey side.

While in Vail we stayed at the Sebastian Hotel, a chic property with high mountain influences. The hotel and accommodations are so comfortable, that after two weeks of non-stop road tripping, Yvonne and I hardly felt like leaving the alpine oasis.

Sebastion Hotel in Vail by MikesRoadTrip.com

The following morning we made the short journey to Denver where we would stay for several days attending a travel conference.

I hope this Southwest road trip guide was helpful and inspiring. If you have any questions, please leave a comment below, I’m happy to help.

A guide to a Southwest Road Trip by MikesRoadTrip.comEpic Southwest Road Trip Guide by MikesRoadTrip.com

Mike Shubic

Mike Shubic is a seasoned road trip travel video blogger, traversing the byways of the world looking for those hidden gems of the road. From unique destinations, unexpected discoveries, creative cuisine, intriguing inns to exciting attractions…the road is his page. The experiences are his ink. And every 300 miles, a new chapter begins. Whether you live vicariously or by example, Mike will do the exploring so you can have an adventure.

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