As the spring semester comes to a close and summer inches closer, my itch for outdoor adventure has steadily grown. With summer break comes endless opportunities to get outside and try something new, and I have finally decided to take a chance on a trip I have been dreaming about for years. In just a few weeks, I will be embarking on my very first cross-country road trip!
My boyfriend Will and I will be car camping across the American Southwest, visiting some of the most beautiful places on our bucket list. This will be our first extended camping trip and our first time exploring national parks together.
Read on to view our itinerary for our week-long trip and maybe even find some inspiration to plan your own.
Deciding On An American Road Trip
For several years, Will and I have shared a dream of wild camping. We did all the research to find the perfect gear, read through all the resources for aspiring campers, and anticipated the day of our first backpacking trip. Unfortunately, that day never came.
As our lives moved forward, our dream seemed to slip into the background. Last summer, when I moved back to my home state to start graduate school, it became challenging just to find time to meet during our busy semesters, let alone to start a new hobby together.
But as summer loomed nearer, our passion for adventure was reignited. We realized that our reservations about extended outdoor trips were simply excuses. There would always be reasons not to go, and if we waited for the perfect time to pursue our dream, we never would.
So, we decided to let go of our fears and take the risk. When the school year ended, we would travel to the places we had always wanted to see, to embark on the adventure we had long been waiting for.
With low funds and minimal experience, car camping seemed like the perfect way for us to travel. After investing in the necessary gear and making a solid plan, we felt invincible. Now the whole world was within our reach.
It was clear from the start that a trip to the Southwest was a must. Not only did we want to explore some of the country’s most famous national parks, but our new interest in visiting the world’s biggest cities (after visiting Paris in January) made the region a perfect place to experience both. In the Southwest, we could hike through the majestic trails of the Grand Staircase and tour the shimmering city of Las Vegas.
Car Camping Road Trip Itinerary
Leaving from my hometown in Northwest Arkansas, we will be starting our trip with an early morning, hitting the road by 5:00 A.M. Carrying everything we will need for the week in the back of my car, we will drive West for about seven hours to Palo Duro Canyon State Park in Canyon, Texas.
Also known as the Grand Canyon of Texas, Palo Duro Canyon is often ranked as one of the best parks in the state. With staggering views of the colorful canyon rock and over 15,000 acres of trails to explore, this was the perfect location to kickstart our trip and rest before another long day of driving.
After arriving at the park, we plan to take on Palo Duro’s most popular hike: The Lighthouse Trail. It is about six miles out and back and offers views of the infamous Lighthouse rock formation. If we’re feeling up to it after our long morning, we will complete the whole trail before setting up camp at Fortress Cliff. Then, after cooking up dinner by our tent, we will spend the evening gazing up at the night sky, as the park is known to have a spectacular view of the Milky Way.
We will lead off our second day of the trip with another early start, hoping to depart from the park before five. From there, commence on a full day of driving, heading westward until we reach Las Vegas, Nevada. After this whopping 12-hour drive, we will spend some time relaxing at my grandparents’ house just a few minutes from the Strip.
Once we’ve had time to decompress, the four of us will hit the casinos for an evening of gambling and fun. As locals, my grandparents know the very best spots in the area, so we will spend our first night enjoying their favorite locations while we bask in the glamor of Sin City. Afterwards, we will return to their house for a much-needed night of rest.
Our third day will be all about exploring Vegas! Since this will be Will’s first time there, we will leave our schedule open for sightseeing and spontaneous fun. To lead off our city adventure, we will stop by the Paris Casino to eat at my favorite restaurant on the Strip: Mon Ami Gabi. This French-themed bistro serves classic French dishes and offers an exclusive view of the most acclaimed buildings on the Strip.
The rest of the day will be filled with adventure, exploring the city’s most notorious casinos, sipping cocktails from lavish bars, and watching the dazzling Fountains of the Bellagio. If you couldn’t tell already, the bulk of our spending on this trip will be here. But you’re only young once!
Once we have toured the city to our hearts’ content, we will head back to my grandparents’ house to get some rest, our last time sleeping in a real bed for several days to come.
Our last morning in Las Vegas will be our chance to visit any final touristy destinations on our list, to say goodbye to my grandparents, and to ensure we have all the supplies for the days ahead. By the afternoon, we will be waving goodbye to Las Vegas and starting our drive towards the beautiful state of Utah.
After about four hours on the road, we will arrive in Bryce, Utah at Bryce Canyon National Park. After visiting the remarkable canyon with my mom last summer, this park was an obvious choice for our trip. Confident that I know the best trails and views in the park, I want to share this indescribable experience with Will.
We will be camping at the Bryce Canyon Pines Campground a few miles from the park, giving us space to rest and set up camp while staying close enough to the park for an easy drive before sunrise.
Bryce Canyon is known for its stunning sunrise over the ampitheater, and we plan to be there for our first look at the park. Standing at Sunset Point, we will watch as the morning sun peaks over the canyon and showers the hoodoos with its rays, painting the walls pink and orange until the full light of day displays the full glory of these iconic red rocks.
From there, we will walk to the nearby Navajo Loop trailhead and start our hike. There are several routes you can take through the ampitheater, but we plan to take the full loop from Navajo to Queen’s Garden. Last time I visited the park, the famous Wall Street section of the trail was closed, so hopefully we will be able to hike through this unique walkway this time.
Clocking in at about three miles, this is by no means a rigorous trail. However, I’m confident we’ll spend the majority of our time taking pictures and videos of the impeccable scenery, extending our hike into the afternoon.
Before we leave for the day, we will make a quick stop at Inspiration Point, my favorite lookout in the park. This extraordinary view provides a more distant perspective of the park, making the hoodoos appear limitless. It’s a must-see spot for everyone, whether you’re spending several days in the park or just driving through.
We will take a break from our car camping meals on our fifth night. Driving to the nearby town of Tropic, we will eat dinner at IDK BBQ, a tiny restaurant serving some of the most delicious barbecue you’ve ever had. After enjoying our feast of smoked meat and peach cobbler, we will head back to our campsite and settle into our tent for the night.
Although most people choose to spend less than 24 hours at Bryce Canyon, I believe this park is highly underrated. We chose to stay almost two full days here to experience all that Bryce has to offer.
We will take it slow our second morning, allowing ourselves to enjoy a hearty breakfast in the pines before heading back to the park. This time, we will be taking on the Peekaboo Loop Trail. About five miles long, this trail is often overlooked since it circles majorly outside the ampitheater, but it is magnificent nonetheless. Circling around the backside of the park, we will look up at the Wall of Windows, an incredible miracle of wind erosion leaving gaping holes in the towering rocks.
When we finish the trail, we will say a bitter-sweet goodbye to Bryce Canyon and start our four-and-a-half-hour drive to Grand Canyon National Park. If we arrive before sunset, we plan on experiencing our first look at the canyon with a quick ride through Desert View Drive. A 23-mile path along the canyon rim, this road will grant us a fantastic view of this majestic landmark, the perfect way to boost our excitement for the days to come.
We are really looking forward to our camping reservations at this park. For both nights of our visit, we will be staying at Mather Campground, a campsite looking out over the canyon located right by the park’s most famous lookout: Mather Point.
Our days are filled with activities at Grand Canyon National Park. We will be starting off strong with the Bright Angel Trail, the most popular trail in the park. Because of the intense Arizona heat and the large crowds, we plan to start our hike as early as possible.
We will look around in awe at the wide views from within the canyon, staring out at the unique rock formations in the distance. In total, this out-and-back trail can span about 12 miles. But several landmarks along the path make it easier to know when to turn around depending on how long you want to hike. If we’re feeling up to it, Will and I will take the 9-mile roundtrip hike to Indian Garden and back.
Likely exhausted after our strenuous hike, we will spend the rest of the day off our feet, exploring the canyon by bus. The Grand Canyon shuttle runs beside the Rim Trail, known for some of the best views in the park. Fortunately, the shuttle offers several stops at the most popular lookouts where we will spend our afternoon observing the expansive landscape and taking photos.
Before calling it a night, we will walk from our campsite to Mather Point to watch the sunset. The perfect ending to our perfect day in this majestic canyon will be spent watching the sun fall below the towering cliffs and the rock walls shine in a kaleidoscope of colors.
Similar to our first day in the park, our second one will consist of an early morning to beat the crowds to the trails. This time, we’ll be taking the first shuttle to the South Kaibab Trailhead. This is where we will find the most panoramic views in the park as we descend straight into the heart of the canyon.
Similar to the Bright Angel Trail, this hike gives you the freedom to choose how far you want to go. Currently, we plan on making it to Skeleton Point before turning back, making for an approximately six-mile hike.
Once we arrive back at our campsite, we will pack all of our belongings and take one last look at the boundless valley before starting our drive back East towards home. We will travel through Arizona and New Mexico and stop at Bluewater Lake State Park in Prewitt, New Mexico, about a five-hour drive from the national park. We will spend our last night under the stars at this quaint park, enjoying our final hours in the outdoors.
Like all good things, our trip must eventually come to an end. After getting in a good breakfast and packing all of our belongings into the car, we will start on the final segment of our drive: a 13-hour trek East back to Arkansas.
Be sure to follow along with us on our big American road trip! Stay up-to-date on our whereabouts on Instagram at @taylor_untamed. And be sure to stick around for the full report of our trip, including recommendations and reviews, here at tayloruntamed.com. The adventure is just beginning!