California – Arizona – Utah – Nevada
7 years ago we travelled through California in an old VW kombi. Long before we took photos for a living & dreamed up SALTY LUXE! But ever since this epic adventure, we’ve had a deep desire to explore USA’s South West much further. The regions red rock landscapes, canyon towns and cactus deserts are SO iconic, putting Arizona, Utah, Nevada & greater California at the top of our travel bucketlist! We started from the desert oasis towns of Joshua Tree & Palm Springs, making our way inland to explore some of America’s most famous National Parks & beautiful destinations.
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Joshua Tree, CALIFORNIA
Joshua Tree is an eclectic desert town known for its bohemian vibe, stunning National Park & incredible airbnb options. There is truly nothing else like it, making this a one of a kind, must visit destination in California!
Joshua Tree National Park offers the uniquely beautiful combination of moonscape boulders, rock formations and Joshua trees (as well as the most incredible sunsets I’ve ever seen!). The Park is hugely popular, attracting visitors from all over the world, so I’d strongly suggest visiting during sunrise, or arriving early for sunset to beat the crowds!
We stayed at Desert Wild, a stylish desert oasis layered with thoughtful vintage pieces, sprawling cacti gardens, indoor fire place & an outdoor hot tub perfect for stargazing in ultimate comfort. You could almost stay here and never leave your comfy abode, as you are quite literally bordering the National Park & surrounded by Joshua Trees. It’s all the little touches that make this accomodation a destination in its own & one of the best airbnbs we’ve ever stayed. 5 stars!
Book your stay at Desert Wild here.
Our second Joshua Tree stay was JTHAVN Bubble House. An absolute bucket list wilderness experience where you’ll sleep under the stars in a giant (air-conditioned) bubble. With nothing but desert surrounding you, it’s an extremely peaceful place to retreat after a day exploring.
Book your stay at The Bubble House here.
- Joshua Tree National Park hikes (they’re all amazing, just take plenty of water & set off early to beat the heat)
- Cholla Cactus Garden for sunrise
- Neighbouring towns of Twentynine Palms and Yucca Valley
- Pappy and Harriet’s for dinner in Pioneer town (check opening hours and days in advance)
Palm Springs, CALIFORNIA
Retro vibes, amazing food, ultra trendy hotels and friendly people, Palm Springs oozes a very cool energy. We love Palm Springs for its mid-century architecture, palm lined streets & incredible mountain backdrop. Grab your camera and cruise around for the day, it’s a photographers dream! Pro tips: Palm Springs is surrounded by mountains, so expect a slightly later sunrise & much earlier sunset than usual (especially important for photographers).
We stayed at L’Horizon which was in the perfect location right near the famous Indian Canyons neighbourhood and with unobstructed mountain views. It’s a small, retro boutique hotel that’s quiet and perfect for chilling poolside with a prickly pear Margarita or two!
Book your stay at L’Horizon here.
- Indian Canyons neighbourhood for house goals
- The Ace and Saguaro hotels for photographers
- Nature’s Health Food & Cafe (date espresso shakes!) and Palm Green’s Cafe for great vegan food!
- Salvation Mountain roadtrip (more info below)
Salvation Mountain, CALIFORNIA
If you are staying in Palm Springs, I recommend taking the 1.5 hour drive down to Salvation Mountain. This enormous hillside mural is the legacy left by Leonard Knight and his powerful message for LOVE is still very much alive. The place has laid back vibes and donations are optional (via online payments, cash or even in paint). And you can stop at the equally unusual Bombay Beach on the way home to see the remnants of a deserted 1950s water ski town!
We travelled to Tucson to visit Saguaro National Park and see the Saguaro cactus – the most aesthetic and iconic shape to grace any desert landscape. The National Park virtually surrounds Tucson where saguaros grow wild, spanning as far as the eye can see.
We stayed at The JTH Tucson a five suite Posada bordering Saguaro National Park. The creators Sara & Rich have curated the ultimate retreat, each room home to thoughtful treasures to invoke your inner wanderlust. At its heart is the desire to help you reconnect with nature, slow down & leave inspired! We loved lounging in the refreshing canyon pool, soaking in the hot spring & relaxing in the many common spaces (our fav was the rooftop terrace with 360 degree views of the National Park). Some of our best photos taken from Tucson were actually wandering around the grounds of JTH Tucson, it’s that beautiful. Early morning strolls with a local coffee was delightful and the colours at sunset are mind blowing!
Tip: The Posada is hugely popular & due to its boutique size you’ll want to book in advance to avoid disappointment.
Book your stay at JTH Tucson here.
While in Tucson we also stayed at Desert Vibrations, a retro themed hacienda on the other side of town. This stay has a cozy feel and refreshing pool, and the lovely owners even organised us a surprise sunset horse ride far us. We loved this experience, so don’t miss this!
Book your stay at Desert Vibrations here.
- Saguaro National Park at sunset (anywhere really)
- The Bajada Loop Road is a stunning drive which gives you great access to some of the parks best hikes, as well as offers a chill way to see a lot of the national park from your vehicle
- Penca for delicious and stylish Mexican dining or Seis Kitchen for cheaper but equally tasty Mexican
- Sunset horse riding
TIP: We found the Western side of the National Park best for saguaro viewing, so definitely head here first!
We are ready to hit the road in our purpose built home on wheels by Keen Campers. We know from experience that travelling in a van is one of the very best ways to experience an epic adventure & see as much as possible in a short amount of time. We were not wrong! We loved the freedom of easily moving between locations, no packing / unpacking necessary. RV park facilities are wonderful in the USA & you can always find at least a few right next to the best locations for easy access to National Parks & top locations.
We visited Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon, Arches National Park, Monument Valley & Valley of Fire State Park in 8 days. I would recommend more time if possible, to make the trip more relaxed.
Zion National Park, UTAH
This place has been on our bucket list for years. Chesh actually still has the name in his wallet from a random traveler we met 7 years ago. The massive canyons are breathtaking, though we generally found Zion to be very busy. Apparently the US has heavily marketed this destination in recent years so be prepared for line ups on the major hiking trails.
We had specifically come here to hike The Narrows. We prepped all our gear to go, but changed our mind at the last minute after reconsidering the reported chest high, icey waters and long queues. Instead, we did the Angels Landing hike. This hike is pretty sketchy at the top (be warned if afraid of heights). If you want to avoid the crowds I’d recommend doing what we did – we hired e-bikes to get to the trailhead and be the only ones hiking before the buses start at 7am. It means hiking in the dark but it was worth it!
- Angels Landing hike – hire e-bikes to go early miss the crowds
- Canyon overtook was incredible for sunset and relatively easy to reach (15min hike)
- Feel Love Coffee Shop for a post-hike brew and vego roll
Bryce Canyon National Park, UTAH
The hoodoo rock structures make this place truly amazing and unique. When we arrived we hit the Navajo trail through to Queens Garden Trail (Sunset Point to Sunrise Point}. This seemed to be the best way to see the main features down in the canyon. We then came back to Sunset Point at the end of the day and were treated to a rising moon and the craziest colours in the sky. It was also way colder here compared to the other parks so be prepared (it actually snowed one night making it very cosy in our van).
- Sunset was amazing for shooting but we thought the hoodoos looked incredible in the mid afternoon too, with the sun illuminating them from behind.
Arches National Park / Moab, UTAH
Arches National Park is full of unbelievable rock shapes. Its another busy park so I suggest arriving early or late (like we did) to miss the crowds and to get the best light. We loved Double Arch because it was easy to reach and relatively empty. So stunning! It’s also right next to The Windows.
Moab town itself is right nearby the park and has such a cool mountain/desert vibe. We only did one night here but would have loved to try more cafes and the brewery too. Worth allowing some time to explore the main street if you can.
- Double Arch
- Sunset in the park generally is gorgeous
Monument Valley, UTAH
Monument Valley gave us exactly the sights we had imagined when booking our trip to Utah. Wide open spaces, red dirt and the horizon dotted with huge rock monuments. We LOVED Monument Valley.
You can see all the monuments as you drive through the very small township, but the best way to see this place is the Scenic Drive in the Navajo Tribal Park. The park is on native lands (not US National Park} and is $20 to enter. We’d say to allow 3 hours to drive the whole park as there’s great places to stop, along with a slow speed limit. We had a large campervan (around 20ft long) and found it fairly fine to drive through, but any RV’s might not be allowed in depending on the state of the road (it’s a little bumpy and gravel).
And don’t forget to get up early for sunrise at the famous highway shot, taken from Forrest Gump hill. When the colours start to come out and before the sun breaks makes for an amazing shot against the silhouetted monuments!
- Scenic loop, especially John Ford Point where we spent most of our time (grab some fry bread and coffee in the kiosk).
- The lookout at the Mittens is amazing for sunset and you can drive in late to the Tribal Park parking area without needing the entry permit.
- Forest Gump Hill for sunrise (Pro tip: sunset is too backlit for great shots}
- If planning to drive back West after your visit here, try to book (in advance) for the Upper Canyon tour at Antelope Canyon and allow a night nearby to catch Horseshoe Bend at sunset. We wanted to fit in this stop but left our booking too late!
You can book your entry tickets to the Monument Valley Park here.
Valley of Fire State Park, NEVADA
Wow! Probably our favourite stop! There’s so many landscapes in such a small place. There’s the swirling patterns of the famous wave rock, and views out to pink and white pastel boulders. You’ve got to see the famous Mouse’s Tank Road for sunrise, plus the slot canyons at the top of the park, as well as coral coloured sands and fiery red boulders that you can see from the winding road!
- Wave rock (we did this at sunset and found it relatively empty – you just can’t stay after dark as it’s considered trespassing)
- Mouse’s Tank Road for sunrise
- We found a great RV park in the adjacent town of Overton, otherwise there’s camping in the park that we’d suggest booking in advance
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