Southwest Road Trip Planner: The Best Campgrounds, National Parks and Hidden Gems

Spread the love

If a cactus is the only thing that comes to mind when you think of the southwest, it’s time to hop in the car and explore. Sure there’s plenty of these spiny succulents along the way, but there’s also a lot more to see and do than you might realize. Are you ready to hit the road?

Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area – Lake Mead National Recreation Area – Flagstaff Urban Trails System – Single Speed Coffee Café – Seven Sacred Pools and Devil’s Kitchen – Bell Rock – Watson Lake – Papago Park – Saguaro National Park (West) – Raijin Ramen – Saguaro National Park (East) – Bonita Canyon Campground – Massai Point at Chiricahua National Monument – Habanero’s Fresh Mex – Organ Mountains Desert Peaks National Monument – White Sands National Monument

Stop 1: Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, NV

There’s more to the Las Vegas area than slot machines and card tables. Just west of all the neon and flashing lights lies Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. Trade the gambling in for a sure bet on rock climbing, mountain biking, trail running, hiking and even horseback riding.

Photo: Authentic Asheville

Stop 2: Lake Mead National Recreation Area

Did you know there are nine different wilderness sections and roughly 1.5 million acres that make up the Lake Mead National Recreation Area? We recommend getting some perspective by checking out some of the turnouts before heading down to the water’s edge. Once there, you can rent paddle boards, take a cruise, or go scuba diving, fishing or even swimming. (Note: There are several loaner life jacket stations located around the park. Click here for more info.)

Photo: Authentic Asheville

Stop 3: FUTS, Flagstaff, AZ

We’ve got a crush on Flagstaff—a big one. There’s a lot to love: good food, great coffee (see below), elevation (it sits at about 7,000 feet) and, of course, trails—and lots of ’em. One of our favorites is the urban trail system called FUTS which makes getting around town fun and easy. It’s a mixture of pavement and gravel and is both hiker/biker friendly.

Photo: Authentic Asheville

Stop 4: Single Speed Coffee Café

Post-run or ride, this café tops our list for a great place to caffeinate in Flagstaff. It’s super chill, the coffees are roasted in-house, the baristas are friendly, there’s outdoor seating, free wi-fi and it’s bike-themed. What more could you ask for?

Photo: Authentic Asheville

Stop 5: Seven Sacred Pools and Devil’s Kitchen, Sedona, AZ

After leaving Flagstaff, head south to Sedona to visit these two spots. Just be sure to get there early. The parking is a bit tricky (there’s only 14 spots, the lot is only open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., it’s gated, and there’s very, very limited parking otherwise) but it’s worth the effort.

With any luck, you’ll be able to snag a spot and then hike to two of the coolest places we’ve found in the southwest: Seven Sacred Pools and Devil’s Kitchen. Note: Be sure to watch you footing around the sinkhole. The edge comes up on you quickly and one false step could be super dangerous.

Photo: Authentic Asheville

Stop 6: Bell Rock, Sedona
Haven’t gotten your fill of red rocks yet? No worries, Bell Rock is just a short drive (or bike ride) away. It’s one of the more popular tourist attractions in Sedona, so if you’re going, be prepared for crowds and go as early as you can.

Photo: Authentic Asheville

Stop 7: Watson Lake, Prescott, AZ
The $3 we spent to enter this park was probably the best $3 spent on our entire road trip. When we first arrived at Watson Lake we couldn’t stop thinking about how much it reminded of us of Joshua Tree – except it was on a lake…and in Prescott.

We stayed for sunset and then showed up at sunrise the next morning to log some miles on the Watson Lake Loop. (Note: Go clockwise around the lake for an easier, less-technical finish to your run or hike).
Photo: Authentic Asheville

Stop 8: Papago Park

In less than two hours (unless there’s traffic), you can be in Papago Park. It’s on the east side of Phoenix and is a great place to ride your bike, climb into Hole in the Rock, hike or just relax at a picnic shelter by several of the community fishing spots.

Photo: Authentic Asheville

Stop 9: Saguaro National Park (West)

Saguaro National Park is actually divided into two different sections—both worth visiting—with Tucson sitting right in the middle. A good jumping off point is the Red Hills Visitor Center. You can pick up a free map of some of the trails in the area (it’s a bit more detailed than the typical map that is given upon entry to most national parks.) You can also refill your water bottles and check out some of the small exhibits they have on display.

Photo: Authentic Asheville

Stop 10: Raijin Ramen, Tuscon, AZ

Because, carbs. And because refueling after logging miles in the desert makes us crave random things. The bowl seemed bottomless even though we finished it and the broth was full of flavor. When in Tucson …

Photo: Authentic Asheville

Stop 11: Saguaro National Park (East)

Don’t forget to save time for some adventuring on the eastern side of Saguaro National Park in the Rincon Mountain District.

There are tons of trails worth exploring Cactus Forest Trail) as well as an 8-mile paved road that winds you through a beautiful saguaro forest. Sunsets here are one of a kind.

Photo: Authentic Asheville

Stop 12: Bonita Canyon Campground

Just like the name suggests, this campground is located in Bonita Canyon inside Chiricahua National Monument. It serves as an excellent base camp for exploring in and around the park, and will only run you $20 a night.

The campgrounds have water, flush toilets, picnic tables and food storage lockers. If you arrive early enough in the day, look for the trailhead located near the camp host and get a few miles under your belt. The trail is sandy and soft with a few stream crossings and will take you past the old Stafford Cabin and Faraway Ranch.

Photo: Authentic Asheville

Stop 13: Massai Point at Chiricahua National Monument

This is one place you should make a point to visit if you are looking for a jaw-dropping sunrise. Get up in the dark, make some coffee and get to Massai Point early enough to watch the sun turn Sugarloaf Mountain a gorgeous orange-pink and then light up the valley and all of the rocks below it.

Then, if you’re feeling inspired, hike any one of the numerous trails within the park. There’s even a short .5 mile nature trail right near this sunrise spot.

Photo: Authentic Asheville

Stop 14: Habanero’s Fresh Mex, Las Cruces, NM

This spot has cold beer and big, delicious plates of food for decent prices. Go for the chicken fajitas (they come with rice and beans, a scoop of guac and sour cream) or the burrito. Both are guaranteed to fill you up. Our favorite part? The free bowl of welcome soup.

Photo: Authentic Asheville

Stop 15: Organ Mountains – Desert Peaks National Monument

You can see the Organ Mountains from Las Cruces, and they beckoned us. There’s 496,000 acres for you to roam and wander and they will not disappoint if you are looking to go off the grid and escape for a bit.

Photo: Authentic Asheville

Stop 16: White Sands National Monument

Just when it seems like the landscape can’t get any better (or more unique), suddenly everything turns a bright white and there are dunes as far as the eye can see. Here, you can go dune sledding, hike into the backcountry or just take a spin through the park in your vehicle. Whatever you choose, it’s not a bad place to bring your Southwest road trip to an end.

Photo: Authentic Asheville

The post Southwest Road Trip Planner: The Best Campgrounds, National Parks and Hidden Gems appeared first on Men’s Journal.