We’ve all seen pictures and movies of the Wild West in America, so you know that there are places on places to explore. The wild west is filled with state parks, national parks, overlooks and so much more! But to anyone planning this trip for the first time, it can be daunting.
How long do I need at this National Park? Is it worth going here? What are the best spots? Etc. Etc.
Fret not. I’ve compiled a comprehensive guide to sort through the madness and point you in the direction of some of the most beautiful places in America. So beautiful, that I can’t believe it took me 30 years to come out west (30 years exactly–I spent my birthday here!).
How much time do I need?
This depends of course, but to get your feet wet, you need at least 2 weeks. My husband and I traveled for 2 weeks and were able to see 7 National Parks, 2 state parks and a few other must-see stops. Now, that’s a lot in 2 weeks–some people spend 2 weeks exploring just the Grand Canyon. But if you want to see as much as possible, 2 weeks gives you plenty of time to hit the highlights, go on some fantastic hikes and take in some breathtaking scenery!
Where should I stay?
Now, this is coming from a non-camping person…but it just didn’t feel right to travel through the wild west and NOT camp. So, we camped. And it was amazing. There was no better way to take it all in, than to be surrounded by the scenery while camping. The campgrounds are ideally located (many of them being in the National Parks themselves) and offer great views, sometimes a shower and sometimes a hot tub! Camping can be a challenge but it makes the experience.
If you are absolutely not into camping, then there are plenty of lodges or hotels in the nearby towns.
What should I bring?
Water. More water. A camel pack to put water in. Water bottle. Sunscreen. Flashlight. Camera. Sunglasses. Salty snacks. Good hiking shoes. Clothes for different kinds of weather. First Aid Kit. Park maps. National Park pass.
*The America the Beautiful Pass is $80 and will save you a LOT of money if you plan on going to more than 2 National Parks in a year. One pass is good for one car (up to 5 passengers) and can be bought at any entrance gate.
Where should I go in the Wild West?
Now that we have some of the basics out of the way, here is my ultimate guide for where to go in the wild west:
Zion National Park
(2 days. Strenuous hiking)
Must do Hikes: Angel’s Landing and The Narrows
We decided to start out clockwise and Zion was our first stop, which is about a 3 hour drive from Las Vegas. Zion is a hiking place. There are 9 stops along the shuttle route and if you want to go to all 9, you will definitely need several days at Zion. The two most popular hikes are Angel’s Landing and The Narrows. Both hikes are considered to be ‘strenuous’ and are several miles long. Angel’s Landing has spectacular views of Jurassic Park-like landscape and The Narrows is a hike through a water-filled canyon. Zion is beautiful and definitely a must-see park.
Bryce Canyon National Park
(1 day. Moderate Hiking)
Must do: Hike around the hoodoos!
Bryce Canyon is unlike any other with its rock formations called hoodoos. The great thing about this national park is that you can hike around the formations. The most popular trail, The Queen’s Trail, is a moderate hike that takes you down into the hoodoos, giving you a different perspective of the landforms. It took just under 2 hours and you can walk around for the remainder of the day or choose another hike.
From Bryce Canyon, take the:
Million Dollar Highway
(6 hour Scenic Drive)
Instead of going up and over from Bryce Canyon, you can opt to take the ‘Million Dollar Highway’, also known as the Scenic Byway 12. The nickname comes from the views you get while driving through. I was pretty excited to take this drive and had high expectations for it. However, I was a little let down.
The drive is a little boring until you get to Escalante. From Escalante to Boulder, you will get some great views and landscape. Then from Boulder to Capital Reef, you drive through Dixie National Forest, which is just….trees. I’m from the midwest, so trees and forests aren’t too thrilling for me. Plus, the forest went on and on and seemed to never end. The route takes about 6 hours and is a little bit longer than the alternative. Worth it? I’m not sure. But, the good part about it, is that the road takes you right to:
Capital Reef National Park
(Drive through with stops)
Capital Reef is one of the least visited National Parks in the area probably because there isn’t even an entrance. Highway 24 runs right through the middle of the park and you can just drive on through. However, I actually wish we would have stopped more to take pictures because the landscape changes drastically as you drive through the park. It starts out with a really dry, red landscape that makes you feel as if you are somewhere in Australia.
As you drive further, the rocks become lighter until eventually you come to this completely gray area. There were large gray dunes and these strange gray and white rock formations. At the time, I thought about how strange this landscape looked but for some reason, we kept driving through. Later on, I discovered that that area is actually used as a NASA training ground for Mars because the terrain is the closest resemblance! I wish we would have stopped!
So, I’d recommend driving through WITH stops, because there are some very cool places in there that make you feel as if you are somewhere entirely different!
Goblin Valley State Park (and Little Wild Horse Canyon)
(A few hours, Easy Hiking)
People usually pair the two of these together because they are so close. Goblin Valley is a really cool park with lots of ‘goblins’, or unusual rock formations. This is another place that looks other worldly and is very fun to explore. There are not really paths to follow. Instead, you are free to roam around the formations. We enjoyed going here because it was unlike anything else we had seen. Little Wild Horse Canyon is off the beaten path and a nice slot canyon to explore. Would I recommend this canyon? Maybe, maybe not. If you have the time, it’s fun to explore, but it was not a must-do item.
Next, head to:
Arches National Park
(1 day, Easy viewpoints to walk up to)
Arches is a great, easy place to explore. You can drive around to the different viewpoints, get out and snap a few photos, and be on your way to the next one. It has fantastic landscape and really makes you feel like you are out west. This park can be covered in a half day if you don’t go to all the viewpoints.
Canyonlands National Park
(1-3 days, Easy viewpoints to walk up to)
Canyonlands has 3 districts: Island in the Sky, the Needles and the Maze. Island in the Sky is the most accessible and, like Arches, is very easy to explore. It has several viewpoints that you can drive to (and then walk out to) for incredible views. Canyonlands, in my opinion, has some of the most stunning landscape around. Island in the Sky can be covered in 1 day. If you wish to explore the others, which are a bit further, I would add on a day or 2.
For a complete guide to Canyonlands, click here!
Dead Horse Point State Park
(Less than 1 Hour, Overlook)
Dead Horse Point is right next to Canyonlands and is a large canyon overlook that you can walk up to. It’s a great canyon but a little underwhelming after visiting Canyonlands. We spent maybe 15 minutes here before deciding to continue on. It is also a State Park and not covered with your National Park Pass. Entrance fee is $15.
From here, drive South to:
(1-2 hours, Scenic drive)
Monument Valley is somewhat on the way down south and an iconic western landscape. This area is an Indian Reservation and there are many tours available. However, we were happy just driving through and getting a couple pictures. There are campsites and lodges if you wish to stay in the area.
Glen Canyon National Park/Lake Powell
(2 days, Recreation)
This is a great place to recuperate for a few days. The lake has lots of recreational activities to do and canyons in the area to explore. If you want to do something really cool, rent a paddle board and paddle through Antelope Canyon near Page. You could spend several days here out on the water and exploring the lake.
(1-2 hours, tour)
Antelope Canyon is one of the most gorgeous places out west. The canyons are so uniquely beautiful that you must try to get a tour here. You can choose the Upper or Lower Canyon and tours are roughly an hour long and right next to Page, AZ.
The Wave is a photographer lover’s dream and I would have LOVED to go here. However, access to it is VERY limited (we’re talking 20 people per day. 10 online permits and 10 in person) and you have to apply for a permit months in advance and win the lottery to go see it. I’m not joking…there is a lottery process.
Find out how you can win the lottery here —> The Wave
Horse Shoe Bend
(1 hour, Overlook)
Horse Shoe Bend is another famous location and must-see spot. It’s easy to get to from Lake Powell and you can take a quick walk up to it for pictures.
Grand Canyon National Park
(1 day-1 week, Viewpoints, Easy-Strenuous Hiking)
The Grand Canyon is…Grand. Your trip here can be whatever you want it to be because there are so many options. You can: stay in a lodge and ride the shuttle to the viewpoints, hike down into the canyon or get a permit to go backcountry hiking. The possibilities are endless.
And there you have it. My guide to the wild west. If you are heading back to Las Vegas from the Grand Canyon, your last stop should be the Hoover Dam.
Click here to find out which parks made the top of my list! —-> The Best of the West (Coming Soon!)