Zion National Park Sunset

September 14, 2022

Southwest USA National Parks

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We absolutely LOVE the National Parks in Southwest USA. We hired a van and travelled for 3 weeks across California, Utah, Arizona and Nevada. There is such natural beauty and so much diversity of unique landscapes that we left wanting more.

In this blog we share our favourite National Parks in the Southwest. If you want to see more from our complete travel itinerary, check out the full South West USA Road Trip blog.

Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

Sarah running along road at the Valley of Fire Park

OK technically not a National Park but I mean, wow! Valley of Fire was probably our favourite Park. There’s so many landscapes in such a small place. There’s the swirling patterns of the famous wave rock, and vistas of 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. Expect coral coloured sands and fiery red boulders that you can see from the winding road!

Don’t Miss / Tips:

  • 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 (again, only one other couple there to enjoy it)
  • 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

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

View of Bryce Canyon, 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).

Don’t Miss / Tips:

  • Sunset was amazing for shooting but we thought the hoodoos looked incredible in the mid afternoon too, with the sun illuminating them from behind.

Navajo Tribal Park, Monument Valley, Utah

View of the 3 'Mittens' (rock structures) in Monument Valley Lookout

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 a 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!

Don’t Miss:

  • 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!

Saguaro National Park, Tucson, Arizona

Tucson Saguaro National Park, view of endless cactus

We travelled to Tucson to visit Saguaro National Park and see the Saguaro cactus – the most aesthetic and iconic shape to grace the desert landscape. The National Park virtually surrounds Tucson where saguaros grow wild, spanning as far as the eye can see. 

The pastel colours of the rocky, cactus-filled landscape at sunrise and sunset are stunning. We got lost on hiking trails and roadside wanders, mesmerised by the Saguaros. There’s plenty of amazing places to eat Mexican food and hacienda/ranch-style places to stay around Tucson – check out more in our full South West USA Road Trip blog.

Don’t Miss / Tips:

  • 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 
  • Sunset horse riding
  • We found the Western side of the National Park best for saguaro viewing, so definitely head here first!

Zion National Park, Utah

Zion National Park Sunset - Canyon Overlook

This place had been on our bucket list for 10+ years. The massive canyons are breathtaking, and you feel so small as you meander the roads along the valley floor. We generally found Zion to be very busy, so be prepared for line ups on the major hiking trails.

We had specifically come here to hike The Narrows. All of our gear was prepped to go, but we changed our mind at the last minute after reconsidering the reports of 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). And 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!

Don’t Miss / Tips:

  • Angels Landing hike – hire e-bikes to go early & miss the crowds
  • Canyon Overlook was incredible for sunset and relatively easy to reach (15min hike)
  • Feel Love Coffee Shop for a post-hike brew and vego roll

Joshua Tree National Park, California

Sarah and Chesh kissing in the Cholla Garden, Joshua Tree

Joshua Tree is an eclectic desert town known for its bohemian vibe and stunning National Park. 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 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. I’d strongly suggest visiting during sunrise, or arriving early for sunset to beat the crowds! There’s plenty of amazing places to eat and stay while in the Joshua Tree area – check out more in our blogs on where to stay and what to do in Joshua Tree.

Don’t Miss / Tips:

  • 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 – trust me, its incredible!

Arches National Park, Utah

Arches National Park Vista lookout

Arches National Park is full of unbelievable rock shapes. It’s a very busy park, so I suggest arriving early or late 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. It’s worth allowing some time to explore the main street if you can.

Don’t Miss / Tips:

  • Double Arch
  • Sunset in the park is generally gorgeous

You can check out our other blogs here including our full Southwest USA road trip itinerary and our guide to the best things to do in Joshua Tree National Park and the best places to stay near Joshua Tree National Park.

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