Ah, the great Southwest. The perfect playground for outdoor enthusiasts, nature lovers, and chasers of high-octane adventures. Rugged landscapes, arid deserts, and majestic natural wonders are this region’s main draw, but the rocky Southwest is more than just a place for gunslingers and big green cacti. No matter what type of traveler you are, there are Southwestern vacation destinations perfect for you.
Need an adrenaline fix? Hike the Grand Canyon or zip through red dunes in Utah. Looking for spectacular sights?
There are jaw-dropping views from Glen Canyon Bridge, while the unbelievably cerulean waters at Arizona’s Havasu Falls are Instagram famous.
How about a cultural excursion? There’s much to learn from the Southwest’s traditional Indian community, and the Latino art and music scene in this side of the nation is thriving.
No matter where you go in the Southwest, there’s a destination worthy of a perfect vacation.
To help you plan the ideal escapade, I rounded up the 12 best Southwestern vacation destinations, cherry-picked based on popularity, sights to see, and the variety of experiences that may be had.
Ready to hit the road? Read on below!
Table of Contents
Getting around the Southwest
Without a vehicle, the Southwest can be tricky to traverse, but there are several options to consider. Before planning your trip to Southwestern vacation destinations, consider these methods of getting around.
Car. Most travelers will tell you that exploring the southwest area without four wheels is near impossible, and I’m inclined to agree. It’s possible to fly into major cities, but the distances between towns, neighborhoods, and sights can be so great that local buses and trains won’t be able to cover them.
Grab a vehicle if you’re looking to leave urban areas and explore national parks. For backcountry outings, consider a four-wheel drive.
Train. Taking the Amtrak is a viable option, but it can be slow and prone to delays. Consider traveling by train if you’re looking for scenic views when moving from Los Angeles and cities like New Mexico and Arizona. If you’re moving from Utah to Northern Nevada, the California Zephyr is a great option.
Buses and shuttles. Buses are more affordable options compared to trains, but they’re also slower, so adjust your schedule accordingly. They are good options when traveling between cities that Amtrak does not service.
Air travel. Distances between destinations are so great in the Southwest that flying into regions may sometimes be the best choice. Towns like Yuma, Carlsbad, Flagstaff, AZ, and Taos, NM have regional airports, though they may be expensive and impractical.
The 7 Best Southwestern Vacation Destinations
For the outdoor adventurer, a trip to Utah is one that’s for the books. You’ll need to grab a camera, because the sights here are splendid. Massive sandstone cliffs of pink, red, and cream will tower above you, juxtaposed by the brilliant blue sky.
Visit the Zion National Park. The slimmest section of Zion Canyon with thousand-foot walls is the park’s most famous hike. To get here, you’ll have to get your feet wet in the Virgin River (a welcome experience in the blazing heat). If you’ve never hiked The Narrows before, consider hiring an expert guide service with all the necessary equipment provided.”]
If you want to spend a night in the wilderness, there are plenty of choices here. Glamping Zion National Park is a popular activity for campers looking to enjoy an upscale camping experience. Zion National Park RV camping is a popular option as well.
Take the 57-mile Canyon Scenic Drive and take in the sights from the safety of your car. The route passes by the Virgin River and several of the park’s most famous landmarks. While roads are safe, skip the scenic drive at night or during rain showers as hairpin turns can be challenging to traverse.
Take a scenic drive at Arches National Park. A paradise of desert vistas, 2,000 arched rock formations, massive mesas, and picture-perfect hiking trails, there is no reason to skip Arches National Park if you’re heading to Utah.
The Arches Scenic drive is a 19-mile drive from Highway 191 to the Devils Garden trailhead located behind the park. You can also ditch the vehicle and take an Arches National Park Tour courtesy of GetYourGuide.
These are some other epic places to visit in Utah.
See Related: Best Things to do in Nephi, Utah
2. Grand Canyon, Arizona
No adventure to the Southwest will ever be complete without a visit to the Grand Canyon. This 10-mile geological wonder in Arizona is famous for its massive natural rock formations, revealing layers of red rock that tell of the region’s millions of years in history.
As one of the world’s seven natural wonders, the Grand Canyon is one of the most famous Southwestern vacation destinations, and although you’ve seen it in photographs, nothing really prepares you for the breathtaking sight of it in real life.
Hike the South Rim. If you only have one day to spend in Grand Canyon, spend it in the South Rim. Most people consider this region to be the ‘true’ Grand Canyon, with its breathtaking panoramic views that represent the Grand Canyon most are familiar with.
A majority of the attractions here are easily accessible – there’s a paved Rim Trail, shuttle buses, overlooks, bathrooms, and wheelchair-accessible walkways.
Explore the West Rim. The Grand Canyon West Rim is home to the famous Grand Canyon Skywalk, a 4,770 feet cantilever bridge with a transparent walkway located near the Colorado River.
If you’re looking for more adrenaline-pumping ways to explore the area, you can soar over the canyon on a zipline or a helicopter. Don’t mind a little splashing about? You can float down the Colorado River for some Grand Canyon kayaking via a river tour!
Hang around Grand Canyon Village. As the most popular entrance to the park, the Grand Canyon Village can become pretty hectic during peak seasons, and with good reason: Yavapai Point – one of the best places in the region to view the canyon. There are several lodging options here and a few sights to see.
The Grand Canyon Railway is a great place to learn about how the railroad expansion affected tourism, while the Hopi House is the best place to get Native American souvenirs.
3. Sedona, Arizona
Long the go-to destination for artists, spiritual seekers, and healers, Sedona’s gorgeous red sandstone formations and mystic vibes make it one of the best Southwestern vacation destinations for those looking to connect to their spiritual side.
Many people believe that this Southwestern region houses vortexes that help us connect with the earth’s energy, explaining the boom in alternative medicines and practices.
Even if you aren’t the spiritual type, there’s plenty of fun to be had here, especially for outdoorsy travelers. From hiking the Airport Loop Trail to splashing about in the Slide Rock State Park, there are plenty of activities to add to your itinerary.
Hike the Airport Loop Trail. This 3.2-mile trail that snakes around Sedona’s airport is one of the most popular Sedona hikes. It isn’t difficult to traverse while still offering breathtaking views.
Prickly pear cactuses and tiny wildflowers sprout in every corner, while summer rains bring out a resinous aroma which Native Americans breathe in to combat congestion.
This trail offers stunning views of Sedona and most of its natural landmarks, including Cathedral Rock, Oak Creek, and Airport Mesa. Run, hike, explore the area atop a mountain bike, or join a Sedona Jeep tour – the choice is yours.
Gawk over sites at the Crescent Moon Ranch. Several sites here made this location one of the most photographed in Southwestern US – a rustic historic ranch (which can be rented out), the majestic Cathedral Rock, and Oak Creek. There are areas for picnicking, fishing, and swimming in the crystal clear waters of Oak Creek.
Connect with your inner spirituality. Hike to any of Sedona’s vortex sites and roll out a yoga mat. The New Age community believes that these locations contain spiritual magic, allowing you to connect with the earth’s energies.
Bell Rock, Cathedral Rock, and Airport Mesa are just some of the most famous vortex sites among healers and mystics.
4. Las Vegas
A paradise of debauchery and indulgence, few can match Las Vegas when it comes to entertainment and accommodation options. Vegas is home to the world’s biggest and boldest.
Always in some corner of this city, there are big stage shows from A-list entertainers, a wide variety of fine-dining restaurants hosted by celebrity chefs, and an almost endless selection of some of the world’s most upscale hotels. A sidenote: hotels here can be costly. Make the most of your accommodations by booking through websites like Booking.com or Kayak Hotels.
Even if you aren’t a high roller or a party animal, Las Vegas is close to some of the best outdoor destinations (the trip from Las Vegas to Arches National Park is just a 6-hour ride).
Paint the town red. If you’re looking to spend most of your night in a drunken stupor, the Las Vegas Strip is the place to be. Often dubbed as the Disneyland for adults, the city’s most happening clubs and nightlife call the strip their home, along with a host of popular hotels and casinos (e.g., the Venetian, Paris, Caesar’s Palace, Treasure Island, MGM Grand).
Catch a Cirque du Soleil show, try your luck on a slot machine, or grab some grub at any of the area’s hippest restaurants.
Pro tip: Looking to get more out of your trip? Travel credit cards like American Express Platinum Card and Marriot Bonvoy cardmembers enjoy free nights, room upgrades, and hotel credits on spa and dining at some of the area’s world-class hotels, including The Venetian, Ceasar’s Palace, the Four Seasons, Las Vegas Marriot, and SpringHill Suites Las Vegas.
Explore Downtown. Downtown Las Vegas was once the most thriving gambling district of Las Vegas until an entrepreneur beckoned the crowds to head to the Strip. Still, there’s plenty to see and do here. Some of Vegas’ most historic casinos call this place their home, including the Moulin Rouge and the Fremont Street Experience.
Need an art fix? The Arts District houses several studios and museums, including the Smith Center, The Natural History Museum, and the Mob Museum. Looking for something that gets your heart racing? Go full speed at go-karts Las Vegas or test your wits with your friends at an escape room Las Vegas!
Hike the Red Rock Canyon. While Las Vegas is, first and foremost, a concrete jungle, there are outdoorsy options at the outskirts. The Red Rock Canyon, a massive network of rock formations and canyons located in the Red Rock National Conversation Area, is a great place to rock climb, hike, or bike.
Head to the Keystone Thrust for picture-perfect 3,000 feet sandstone peaks, or splash about Red Rock Canyon’s rocky Pine Creek.
See Related: 14 Fabulous Day Trips from Las Vegas Worth Exploring
5. Phoenix, Arizona
As the fifth-largest city in the United States, there are plenty of things to see and do in Arizona’s central capital. Situated in the sun-scorched Sonoran Desert in a large metropolitan area known as the Valley of the Sun, Phoenix’s warm weather and splendid scenery is the perfect setting for a host of outdoor activities like mountain biking, hiking, and rock climbing.
In between your outdoorsy escapades, there is plenty to explore in the city’s thriving art and culinary scene to guarantee that you get no downtime. Looking for fun things to do around Phoenix AZ? Read on below.
Explore parks. Arizona houses some of the largest national parks in the world. South Mountain Park offers tantalizing trails you can hike or explore on horseback, while the Lost Dutchman State Park features splendid Sonoran Desert scenery, cozy cabins, and campsites that beckon families for a night out in the wilderness.
Head to Papago Park for the best golf courses near Phoenix, AZ, or the Japanese Friendship Garden, where you can mull over life by a charming koi pond.
Get your culture fix. The Wrigley Mansion (built by chewing-gum magnate William Wrigley Jr.) is particularly famous for its astounding architecture, so pay a visit when you have the time.
For incredible art, go art gallery jumping at the Roosevelt Row District, or learn about Native American history at the Heard Museum. The Musical Instrument Museum houses one of the most extensive collections of musical instruments globally (over 15,000 from over 200 countries and territories).
See Related: 7 Best Day Trips from Phoenix, Arizona
6. Palm Springs, California
Coachella made Palm Springs the epicenter of cool, but there’s more to this place than its major annual music festival. A popular resort destination since the early 20th century, Palm Springs boasts of gorgeous mid-century modern architecture, a trendy retro-chic vibe, snazzy botanical gardens, and top-notch hotels.
The city also has a splendid array of Airbnb vacation rentals that are great for families. If you’re looking for Southwestern vacation destinations to expand your itinerary, this desert resort city is a worthy inclusion.
Go on a hiking spree. There are plenty of options for hiking in Palm Springs. Tahquitz Canyon features a 50-foot waterfall that descends from the Riverside County San Jacinto Mountains.
This Canyon is considered sacred by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. Before your hike, drop by the visitor center for educational and cultural exhibits, access to the observation deck, and sightings of ancient artifacts.
Coachella Valley Preserve offers more than 20,000 acres of lush palm woodlands where rare wildlife and desert flora thrive.
A trip to the Joshua Tree National Park, an International Dark Sky Park, should also be included in your itinerary if you’re planning to go stargazing! Consider subscribing to booking services like Viator if you’re looking for a hassle-free way to hike through the best areas!
Take a trip to the summit. Palm Springs lies at the foot of the San Jacinto Mountains, Southern California’s second-highest mountain range. Most travelers recommend paying a visit to the summit via the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway for hiking, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing.
Learn about the King of Rock and Roll. The Elvis Honeymoon Hideaway is a midcentury modern home leased by Elvis and his bride for a year in his early 30s. For a small fee, you can tour the home with an Elvis or Priscilla look-alike and learn more about Elvis’ history (and even take a gander at Marilyn Monroe’s house, which lies in the back of the property).
Unwind in a hot spring. As California’s spa city, you’ll find plenty of hot springs here. Palm Springs hot springs are among the best in the country, from the upscale and massively popular El Morocco Inn & Spa to the more intimate resort of The Good House, which offers stunning views of the San Jacinto and San Gorgonio Mountains.
Go park hopping. On a family vacation in Southwest, USA? Just a two-hour drive from Palm Springs is San Diego, California’s second-largest city with 70 miles of gorgeous beaches and a dizzying array of family attractions.
Grab your tickets through online booking services like CityPass and get access to world-famous attractions like LEGOLAND California, San Diego Zoo, SeaWorld San Diego, and San Diego Zoo Safari Park.
If rides and live animals aren’t your thing, you can hit the green in over 92 golf courses or relax in luxury spas from several world-class beachfront resorts.
See Related: 16 Best Things to do in Palm Springs, California
7. Page, Arizona
Located on the border of Arizona and Utah, Page is a recommended inclusion to your Southwestern bucket list for so many reasons. Beyond Horseshoe bend and Antelope Canyon, there’s a host of things to do and sights to see, especially if you’re into hiking and water sports.
Best of all, the city’s convenient location makes it the perfect launching point for the Southwest’s most essential destinations (including the Grand Canyon, Arches National Park, Bryce Canyon, and Kanab) it one of the best Southwestern vacation destinations in this list. Here are the best Page, Arizona things to do.
Go Canyoning. Home to several of the nation’s most beautiful canyons, Page is the place to go if you’re itching to climb, hike, swim, or abseil amidst massive rock formations. Horseshoe Bend is the city’s most famous canyon, with some of the most photogenic hot spots in the Southwest.
Slot canyons like Upper Antelope, Water Holes, and Canyon X will take you through winding labyrinth paths flanked by multi-colored sandstones.
Explore Lake Powell. Situated on the border of Arizona and Utah, Lake Powel is a crystal blue reservoir lake surrounded by red rocks. It’s 190 miles long, making it the largest artificial lake in North America. Lake Powell is a popular place for renting houseboats, jet skis, and water sports enthusiasts.
Take a trip to Glen Canyon. Spreading 1.2 million acres, Glen Canyon is a backcountry area that serves the perfect spot for boating, fishing, hiking, and swimming. If you’re into water sports, there’s plenty to do here. The Glen Canyon Dam feeds Lake Powell and is a recreational playground for various family and water-based activities.