National Parks Road Trip in the Southwest

4 Day Road Trip Itinerary Through 4 National Parks: Joshua Tree, Death Valley, Grand Canyon, Saguaro

Make this National Parks Road Trip A Success

A national parks road trip success with three friends standing next to a king saguaro cactus on the East side of Saguaro National Park.

Find Your National Parks Road Trip People

Visiting 4 National Parks in 4 days is no easy thing so you will want to find the best people to road trip with. There will be a LOT of hours in the car and a lot of together time. You know your family and your friends best and who can handle miles upon miles on a road trip. This itinerary took 2000 miles to cover our destinations, including a last minute change of plans due to bad weather. The good news is you can always find National Park enthusiasts to travel and check off their bucket lists. Better yet, turn it into a National Parks family challenge.

Find Your Route to the National Parks

You have two choices for your route. Choose a large loop to start and end in Los Angeles for an incredible road trip experience. If you have more than 4 days and want to maximize your time inside the national parks and you can swing it, consider flying in and out of different airports. If it had been possible, we would have flown back home from Phoenix and cut down our drive time considerably. Keep in mind that if you rent a car you could have a significant “drop fee” if you return the car to a different location.

Know Your Why for a 4 Day National Parks Road Trip

For a road trip to be a success, you need to consider your why before you hit the gas pedal. Every trip looks a little different and this one was no exception. Our focus was to visit 4 parks in 4 days. It did not go as planned, but we still met our goal. If your goal is to dig deep into one or two parks, plan accordingly. The southwest is massive and covers a lot of area, so you will either need time or be willing to just scratch the surface of the southwest national parks.

Day 1: Joshua Tree National Park

Woman standing beneath a Joshua Tree in Joshua Tree National Park, the first stop of a 4 day National Parks Road Trip

You can visit Joshua Tree in about 5 hours including a hike and the highlight areas of the park. It’s pretty small and very manageable. Start the day off at the striking overlook at Keys View of the San Andreas fault and stunning panoramic views of the Coachella Valley. Learn all about the meeting of two types of desert ecosystems in one place. The diversity of the park is so interesting.

Next, head out for a hike. There are over a dozen to choose from at various levels. We suggest the Lost Mine Trail Loop, which is a moderate 6 mile hike or can be shortened to a 4 mile out and back trail. The views are absolutely incredible and you will miss them if you only do the out and back portion. I highly recommend doing the extra two miles for the full loop. We were there in March and temps were in the low 60’s with lots of wind. Wear sunscreen as this is a high exposure hike and take a lot of water with you. DO NOT attempt the difficult hikes in warm temperatures.

Landscape view of Joshua Tree National Park

After your hike find one of the easy loops through the boulder rock areas. Climb around a little, take some photos of the landscape and stretch your legs out. If your bent is toward rock climbing rather than hiking you won’t be disappointed. Make sure to use the visitor centers and website for accurate, detailed information about climbing and slack lining.

Woman standing atop a boulder grouping at Joshua Tree National Park

Don’t miss the Cholla cactus garden, just a quick walking loop amongst these densely growing prickly wonders. Stay on the trail and wear closed toed shoes for maximum enjoyment. The uniqueness of this area is amplified by the backdrop and the wide open skies. Ideally you will want to visit this area during golden hour to get the glow off the cacti, but if you are on a tight schedule just make sure you visit. Stop by the Joshua Tree visitor center on the way out, which is located outside the park toward town.

An up close of a cholla cactus in Joshua Tree National Park

Spend the late afternoon and evening driving to Death Valley National Park, but make sure to get gas before you leave the town of Joshua Tree. The drive between these two parks is vast and sparse. We actually went almost two hours at one point without seeing another car. It’s important to note that there are no convenient lodging options outside of the park on the California side coming from this direction so plan your timing strategically. We stayed at the closest spot inside the park, which was the Stovepipe Wells Inn. If possible, consider leaving a little extra time when you arrive because the dark night star gazing is spectacular.

Day 2: Death Valley National Park

Day two will be another long day, but it will be worth it. Death Valley is HUGE and vast so with only a chunk of hours to adventure you will need to choose your highlights. Definitely get up in time for sunrise at Zabriskie Point. You won’t be the only one there, but it will still be a glorious solitude moment not soon forgotten. The golden color badlands really show off during the early morning light. The sun did not want to cooperate for us, but we still enjoyed the beauty and got our day started early before any crowds arrived.

A sunrise landscape view of Zabriskie Point in Death Valley National Park on an epic 4 day southwest national parks road trip

Badwater Basin is a must purely for the iconic experience of visiting the lowest elevation in North America at 282 feet below sea level. Park your car and walk the 1/4 mile out to the hexagonal salt flat for an otherworldly scene. Again, we visited in March so the weather was bearable, but be very careful during summer months-there is no escaping the sun here.

Two photographers in the distance at Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park

Next take a hike through the golden canyon area. There are a variety of routes depending on how long you want to hike and how long you have inside the park. We enjoyed a few of the side trails while pursuing Red Cathedral. Our total hiking miles inside the canyon was around 4 miles and we saw several others making their way through the canyon to different spots. Take lots of water and wear your sunscreen. The desert can be punishing even in the cooler months.

A woman hiking in the canyon area of Death Valley National Park

One area we did not explore, but has a wow factor for those interested, is the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes. Sand dunes can be seen elsewhere in the U.S. and we favored a stop at the Hoover Dam as a part of our 4 day itinerary instead. However, if we were to go back this area would for sure be on our list of must do’s!

Hoover Dam (afternoon Day 2): Iconic Road Trip Stop

After we left Death Valley we made hot pursuit of the Hoover Dam, which straddles the border between Nevada and Arizona. Although the visitor center was closed and no tours were being offered, we wanted to take an hour to observe this engineering feat. The sheer magnitude of this place is overwhelming and fascinating. The views weren’t half bad either. We will definitely be back to grab a tour and spend a little more time in this classic U.S. road trip destination.

View from Hoover Dam looking out over the Colorado River and the bridge that traverses over it.
Must stop road trip destination the Hoover Dam view from the visitor's center on the Arizona side.

Keep on truckin’ toward the Grand Canyon and find easy and super convenient lodging options in Tusayan, AZ located just 15 minutes outside the south entrance gate to Grand Canyon National Park. The weather turned nasty for a bit on our desolate drive so we arrived late. We picked up a take out pizza and other necessities from a local gas station and boy am I glad we did. Day 3 was an unexpected situation, but we were ready to adapt.

Grand Canyon National Park (adapted version)

Weather. It’s a thing that can’t be controlled, which can be frustrating when you make plans and only have limited time. The key is to be flexible and safe a the same time. When we woke up for sunrise the morning of day 3, the forecast had changed for the worse. We realized the temperatures in the Grand Canyon were not expected to reach above freezing at all that day. We decided to head into the park for sunrise and were delighted at the stunning views of the canyon covered with areas of snow and ice. It was magnificent. However, it also meant we could not hike down in to the canyon as we had hoped. It was still worth the stop for the views and we were able to walk the rim trail for a few miles, but it wasn’t enough time to truly soak it all in.

Grand Canyon National Park at sunrise in March from Mather's Point.
Woman standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon in March with snow and ice on the ground.

If we had more time and better conditions we would have hiked more of the rim trail for continual views of the canyon looking down on to the Colorado River and just taking it all in. Our plan had been to hike South Kaibab Trail down in to the canyon for the experience, but the trailhead was covered in ice and treacherous. Bright Angel trail is the other option, but it too was covered in ice. If you decided to do either of these trails, accept that the route back up will be steep and difficult, have little shade, and you will need lots of water with you. The shuttle bus system inside the park will help you navigate the trailheads with ease and allow you to leave you car parked in the visitor center lot for the day.

We made the difficult but necessary decision to leave the park after just 3 hours in order to get on the road, knowing we were heading in to bad weather. Our original plan was to visit Petrified Forest National Park and enjoy the old Route 66 areas of Northern Arizona. Unfortunately we had to change our national parks road trip plans on a dime and head south. We made the right decision.

Day 3, afternoon: Saguaro National Park

After a grueling drive through blowing snow and icy roads we made our way south to Tucson, AZ and the warmer, drier desert. Saguaro National Park is separated into two parts, East and West with the city of Tucson tucked between. We decided to spend the afternoon until sunset on the West side of the park. Go straight to the visitor center to ask the rangers questions about great hikes and the perfect sunset location.

We chose the King Canyon/Gould Mine Loop with just a little elevation gain and about 2.5 miles long. It felt so good to stretch our legs and breathe a deep sigh of relief for the dry desert. Enjoy the impeccable views with cactus dotting the landscape. We had perfect temperatures in the low 60’s, but I can imagine this hike would be miserable in summer with no shade to be found. After you get your wiggles out, be sure to walk the nature trail loop to learn all about the flora & fauna of the park. They do an exceptional job of explaining the life cycle of the desert-perfect for kids.

There are two fabulous spots to view sunset, one inside the park and the other just outside. If you want to add a hike we suggest Valley View Trail inside the park. There is a small parking area on the winding one way road that closes after dusk. Take a leisurely hike up the lookout spot where benches await for optimal sunset views. Then hurry back down as the light fades. The trail is only about .6 miles roundtrip. In Tucson Mountain Park on the West side is Gates Pass where the locals can also be found. There is a parking lot at the top of the winding road there, but closes just after sunset.

Sunset photo of saguaro cacti from Saguaro National Park at the end of a long road trip
Woman sitting next to a giant Saguaro cactus at a sunset overlook at Valley view inside Saguaro National Park

Day 4: Saguaro National Park, East side

Start your morning early so you can catch sunrise as you enter the park and hit the Cactus Forest Loop Drive. This one way drive will give you fabulous morning views. Watch for local walkers/runners/cyclists who frequent this loop in the early hours. We stopped off at the Desert Ecology Trailhead for easy access to a mesh of easy, but beautiful hiking trails. This area also hosts picnic tables and restrooms making it a great area for families with kids. If you are into serious hiking and have the time, explore the Douglas Spring Trail or the Tanque Verde Ridge Trail, both boasting elevation gains and impressive distances. Look for backcountry camping permits at a ranger station or the visitor center for more in-depth hiking.

Because our time was limited and we had a flight to catch in Los Angeles the next day, we took off for the interstate and left the desert behind. In an ideal world you could stay the night in Anaheim, CA and do Downtown Disney as your last hurrah. Sadly, Downtown Disney was not open for us to enjoy.

Embrace the Adventure of a National Parks Road Trip

This southwest national parks road trip was definitely more adventure than vacation. Hopefully this gives you a starting place for planning your next road trip as well. This itinerary shows off a taste of several parks and helps you find ones you may want to spend more time exploring. One things we’ve learned over the past year is how great our protected lands are and how much fun they are to visit. Make sure to tag us on Instagram if you take on adventure like this one. We love to follow along with others as they use our suggestions. Happy travels, friends!

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