In the months leading up to October 2018, I spent hours – days! – planning the road trip of my dreams. A trip to end all trips, including a handful of my bucket list destinations: the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Antelope Canyon, Death Valley, the Arizona desert, all in 7 days.
Now that the trip has been tried and tested and proved to be amazing, it seemed crazy just to keep my itinerary to myself – so I’ve published it here so that anyone can take advantage of all my planning, all the hotspots that I unearthed, all the incredible experiences I booked, all the beautiful sunsets we saw and all the cosy places we stayed…
You will need:
- 1 week minimum (preferably in the spring or autumn)
- Flights to Las Vegas
- A rental car (preferably a 4WD)
We stayed at the SLS Las Vegas, in one of the Grand Tower rooms (nicer decor!) and spent the day wandering between the hotels and casinos along the Strip – try to time your visit to the Bellagio to catch the fountains (at :00 and :30), and wander the canals in The Venetian. Las Vegas doesn’t need to break the bank, if you spend your time wandering and just looking at all the crazy sights, and leaving the Strip to eat and drink.
Top 3 restaurant recommendations:
- For breakfast: A short drive to Vesta Coffee for excellent third wave coffee and toasts.
- For lunch/dinner: A short drive to Flower Child for super healthy bowls and salads.
- For happy hour drinks and snacks: Katsuya, the Japanese restaurant within SLS, for a well-priced menu of sushi and small bites.
Grand Canyon, North Rim
The drive from Las Vegas to my next recommendation takes you quite close to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, and I’d recommend a detour down the winding, aspen-lined road for that first view. The North Rim is far less touristy and has some amazing viewpoints (e.g. Bright Angel Point – just a 15 min out-and-back walk to an incredible vista). You could also stay on the North Rim – the Grand Canyon Lodge looks amazing, with its rustic wood cabins and olde worlde lobby.
Note that you’ll need a National Park permit to access the North Rim – we bought an annual pass for $80 at the visitor centre (since a single day is $30, and the pass can be used at the South Rim and Death Valley too, plus most of the other national parks and monuments in the US, it works out cost-wise).
Shash Dine Eco Retreat
An awesome concept, Shash Dine is a sheep farm on Navajo land (Baya, one of the owners, has lived there all her life). There’s no wifi, you wake up with the sun, the only power is solar, and showering is done with a bucket of water heated by the sun. This is the ultimate place to stay to switch off, but it is by no means luxurious – it is minimalist and you are very much in nature. But it’s cosy and beautiful, and breakfast and coffee are provided every morning!
It’s conveniently located between a few key points of interest (just 20 mins from Antelope Canyon, and 2 hours from the Grand Canyon [North and South rims] and Monument Valley) so we made Shash Dine our base for 3 nights.
You have a few accommodation options – we tried 3 of the 4! See the list on Airbnb here.
- Cabin: Good for those who prefer sturdy walls between them and nature, a sturdy bed and a log fire. (1 double bed)
- Shepherd’s wagon: An authentic Navajo wagon – great for those who want something unusual or love a good photo opportunity! (1 double bed)
- Bell tent: A spacious tent with 2 double beds. We stargazed from the “veranda”. Good for groups. (2 double beds)
- Hogan: Hogans are the traditional Navajo dwelling, so this is good for those who fancy being a real Navajo for the night! Good for groups. (4 single beds)
This is the slot canyon that has graced computer backgrounds the world over – and yes it’s just as impressively beautiful in real life. Booking is essential – only Navajo-guided tours are allowed in the slot canyon. We used Ken’s Tours to visit Lower Antelope Canyon.
Yes, it is incredibly touristy (you enter in a group of about 50) but that doesn’t spoil the experience at all – your surroundings are amazing, you’ll still get great photos and, since you’re walking through the canyon for over an hour, the group spreads out and breaks up, giving you plenty of opportunity for that empty shot. It is incredibly impressive and even the most amateur photographer can get great photos.
There’s also Upper Antelope Canyon, which is popular with photographers (due to the light beams), and easier to navigate as the passage is wider with no stairs. However it is more expensive and darker, so hand-held photos are a challenge.
Only attempt to reach White Pocket if you have a high clearance, four-wheel drive vehicle – an all-wheel drive will not cut it (trust me, we tried) on the deep sand track. Also plan your route before you go as there’s no mobile signal out there, and the route is quite complex.
White Pocket looks amazing, and I have vowed to return in a 4×4 – but even though we were defeated by the sand, the drive through Vermilion Cliffs National Monument was very beautiful regardless (although very bumpy). You do not need a permit for White Pocket (unlike nearby Coyote Buttes & The Wave, where only 20 passes are available per day [10 online advance, 10 in-person on day], and in huge demand, so the chances of getting one are very slim).
This most be one of the most popular movie sets in the world – from Mission Impossible to Wild Wild West to Back To The Future to Forrest Gump – and that’s not even mentioning any of the actual Western movies.
Valley Drive is a 17 mile route that gets you up close to the monuments. Be warned that the road is pretty bad though, so you’ll probably want a 4WD/AWD – or you can book a tour (we used Majestic), which comes with the added bonus of taking you into private Navajo land, and having all the different buttes and movie sets pointed out to you.
Don’t miss the view from John Ford Point, and also drive out towards Mexican Hat to Forrest Gump Point to get the famous highway shot when Forrest stops running, with the monuments in the background.
Take a hike (3.2 miles) along the Wildcat Trail, which runs between the world-famous Mitten Buttes and Merrick Butte.
Alternative accommodation recommendation: The View Hotel which, as the name suggests, has an incredible view across Monument Valley. Architecturally, it blends into the landscape, and the view of the buttes from the rooms and dining room is very impressive. There’s also a restaurant and campground here.
Grand Canyon: South Rim
The South Rim is wildly different from the North – it is far more populated, with lots of hotels and restaurants, and even its own bus system. There are loads of view points just off the road – they all give pretty much the same view, and are very accessible (and have toilets!) – but this does mean they can get very busy (even at sunrise). To escape the tourists you need to get hiking!
Top 3 hiking trails:
- Rim Trail: Easy. Goes along the edge of the canyon, but not down into it.
- South Kaibab Trail to Cedar Ridge: Intermediate. Zigzags down into the canyon, with a couple of good lookout points. Remember that the deeper you go, the further back up you’ve got to climb – and the return journey takes 2-3x as long as the descent! It took us 2-3 hours in total.
- Bright Angel to Indian Garden: Advanced. A zigzag start, down onto the plateau, where it suddenly gets much greener. Indian Garden Campground is here, plus toilets and a ranger station. I’d estimate the out-and-back route would take around 8 hours; advice is to start very early (i.e. sunrise).
(The ultimate route is obviously Bright Angel / South Kaibab all the way to the bottom, with an overnight stay at Phantom Ranch, but the lottery and 15-month advance notice reduces the chances of that happening somewhat!)
Viewpoint for sunset: Mohave Point or Hopi Point (only accessible via the canyon shuttle bus service)
Viewpoint for sunrise: Mather Point
We stayed at Yavapai Lodge – unfussy rooms that are surprisingly affordable given the location inside the park.
Stagecoach Trails Guest Ranch
Once off the highway, it takes 45 minutes of driving along sandy roads – with names like Butch Cassidy Road and Bronco Drive – till you find yourself at Stagecoach Trails Guest Ranch, an authentic dude ranch in the Arizona desert (a dude is a cowboy-in-training, FYI), where we had the most incredible 24 hours.
The nightly rate is around $250 per person which sounds expensive – but it includes your stay, delicious homemade meals and two 2-hour horse rides. We thought it was brilliant, and worth the price. The setting is idyllic – a Wild West feel, in the middle of nowhere, cacti everywhere, all staff in jeans and cowboy hats. There’s a lounge room with billiards and an honesty bar (or you can BYOB), plus a pool and jacuzzi.
The twice-daily rides are led by experienced wranglers and suitable for complete beginners or those with some horseriding experience. You head out into the desert to spot wildlife and watch the sun set, and at night it’s so dark you can stargaze from the hot tub.
There’s a reason why this place gets a perfect 5* rating on Google, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. A 2-3 night stay would be ideal.
From the ranch (after we’d had breakfast and been for our morning desert ride!), we headed further west, to Death Valley. I was prepared to be underwhelmed, wondering how anything could live up to all the previous stops on our trip – but actually I was blown away. The scenery here is so unique and colourful, thanks to the unusual climate conditions, and I loved how you could walk straight into it. It’s on a much smaller scale than the Grand Canyon, of course, but no less impressive.
Top 4 must-sees:
- Zabriskie Point – for sunrise, sunset, stargazing or hiking. I loved this spot so much.
- Artist’s Drive – drive the one-way loop through the impressive scenery. The best bit is colourful Artist’s Palette.
- Badwater Basin – at 85m below sea level, the salt flats are very hot and dry, but very impressive. Walk out into the middle, and take a water bottle and a camera.
- The night sky! As they say, in Death Valley, “half of the park begins after dark”. The park has the highest dark-sky rating, so the stargazing is second to none – the Milky Way, shooting stars and satellites are all on show.
We stayed at The Ranch at Death Valley which is an unfussy, affordable resort within the national park. If you want something more upmarket, stay at The Ranch’s sister hotel: The Inn at Death Valley. (My suggestion would be to stay at the cheaper Ranch, and take advantage of the complementary shuttle bus – we popped across to The Inn for pre-stargazing cocktails, and post-sunrise breakfast with a view.)
And from Death Valley, you’re sadly not far from Las Vegas and a flight home 🙁