Driving the Grand Circle can take up to three weeks, but a spectacular eight-to-10 day portion centers around the Grand Canyon and features bold colors, fascinating geological shapes and textures and living history of our indigenous culture at every turn. Amidst views, hikes and grandeur, it includes stops in town for local art, cuisine and culture and where to sleep at night. Here’s how to hit the road for the best of the Southwest. 

The Grand Circle consists of five Southwestern states – Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Nevada – and has America’s largest concentration of national parks and monuments. It’s perfect for a majestic road trip of scenic byways, sheer cliffs, and purple, orange and indigo mesas. 

White etchings mark a dark brown stone at Parowan, in Arizona
The petroglyphs in Parowan include clan signs (like signatures) and directional references (like maps) as well as references to ceremonies and songs © Zen Rial / Getty Images

Parowan & Cedar City, Utah

Parowan is home to the first pioneer settlement in Utah, heritage museums, as well as famous landmarks such as the geometric petroglyphs at Parowan Gap. These ancient symbols were carved into cliff faces along the same path that local people have used for centuries. 

Take a 23 minute drive “downtown” to Cedar City, Utah, and relax after hiking with a wine tasting at IG Winery & Tasting Room, featuring world-class signature blends. Be sure to try one of the famous cinnamon rolls in Parowan Cafe, which are made fresh every morning and can sell out by lunch.  

Kanab, Utah  

Both Parowan and Kanab, Utah, are ideal basecamps for the Grand Circle’s natural wonders. 

One of them, Peekaboo Slot Canyon is a 10-minute drive from Kanab and needs an arranged tour. It is less crowded than the more well-known slot canyon at Upper Antelope (your next stop), but requires some rock scrambling, including about a 12ft hike to enter. The narrow, swirled arches are carved out of sandstone created by centuries of water rushing and are every shade of orange, depending on the sunlight.

Head to “downtown” Kanab for dinner at Rocking V, an eclectic art gallery/cafe for creative dishes. Sleep at Red Canyon cabin, which is set in a quiet area on the edge of town, but close enough to walk to the visitor center. 

If you can afford it, splurge on a flightseeing trip in the morning to get to your next destination for an incredible air tour of Lake Powell and Horseshoe Bend and endless views of erosion-sculpted deep gorges weaving in and out of the shimmering blue lake.  

Upper Antelope Canyon, Arizona.Ann Nelson.jpg
The Upper Antelope portion of the canyon needs to be seen to be believed © Ann Nelson / Lonely Planet

Upper Antelope Canyon: Page, AZ 

Page is located directly on Lake Powell. Just four miles out of town is the most photographed slot canyon in the world, Upper Antelope Canyon (currently closed). Reservations are required here with a licensed guide, and tours are limited. The soft polished red sandstone has swirls of red, white, tan and pink and the walls glow as the dust particles drift in the shafts of sunlight. It’s highly Instagrammable and simply stunning.  

Grab dinner at Lake Powell Resort and Marina’s waterfront spot, Driftwood for views, high-end burgers, and sustainable seafood. Book a lakefront room for lodging, a small Native American inspired room loaded with upscale amenities and chairs on the patio to enjoy the lake’s breathtaking sunset views. 

View From Grand Canyon Rim.Ann Nelson.JPG
It would take months to fully explore the Grand Canyon , which is hundreds of miles long © Ann Nelson / Lonely Planet

Grand Canyon, AZ

At last, your centerpiece. The Grand Canyon is 277 miles long and over a mile deep from the river to the rim in some spots – the largest canyon in the world. If you like, you can bicycle around the edge, or simply hike the many trails. 

Highlights on the Southern Rim include Desert View Point and Watchtower, Moran, Lipan and Grandview Point. As you gaze at the scenery, make sure to take a look around at the viewpoint buildings too, such as the 70ft tall Desert View Watchtower (currently closed), designed by architect Mary Colter. Arrive before 11am for cooler temperatures, less traffic and fewer lines.

Drive downtown to Grand Canyon Village and dine at the internationally recognized 117-year-old El Tovar located in the historic hotel. Many a president and celebrity has dined here. Sleep at Yavapai Lodge in the national park, which lets you walk or bus about a mile to the South Rim. 

Tourists explore the red orange Wukoki Pueblo Ruins of Wupatki National Monument.
The ruins within Wupatki National Monument were inhabited by The Sinaqua Indians from about 1100 to 1250 CE © wholden / Getty Images

Flagstaff, AZ

Drive 30 miles on historic Route 66 to get to the Wupatki National Monument, an old Indian cliff dwelling between the Painted Desert and Ponderosa highlands, outcropped on red rock across miles of prairie. 

Only a mile out of town is where dwarf planet Pluto was discovered, the 125-year-old Lowell Observatory (open only to private groups). This is the world’s first International Dark Sky City. Gaze at the sea of stars, moon and planets for night or day tours.

Just off Route 66,  grab dinner at Tourist Home All Day Cafe, a renovated 1926 house, for an upscale Hash Bowl and drive less than a mile to sleep at Hotel Monte Vista another 20’s era landmark replete with live music, all day happy hour, two swanky lounges, lots of ghost stories and a room as charming as the historic lobby.  

Sedona, Arizona.Ann Nelson.jpg
Sedona is known for its stunning scenery © Ann Nelson / Lonely Planet

Sedona, AZ

Sedona is a well-known crystal and art lover’s New Age healing paradise, but it’s also an outdoor haven surrounded by 1.8 million acres of national forest. Amidst red-rock buttes, steep canyon walls and pine forests are numerous trailheads in the city to access Sedona’s stunning red rocks.

Drive seven miles south of uptown Sedona and start at Bell Rock for its bell-shaped striped earth-toned mesas. There is a vortex, said to be a zone of spiritual healing energy, near the breathtaking Chapel of the Holy Cross built by owner and rancher Marguerite Brunswig Staude which sits high atop the red rocks.

Sleep at Sky Ranch Lodge for the best views of the city and walk to Mesa Grill for southwestern inspired cuisine and stellar skyline views. Don’t leave without crystals and jewelry from the outdoor mall, Tlaquepaque.  

Artwork In Jerome, Arizona.Ann Nelson.jpg
Jerome attracts a lot of tourists, and plays host to many galleries, bars and restaurants © Ann Nelson / Lonely Planet

Jerome, AZ

Driving into this small town you will see some of the most spectacular views in Arizona. Then, downtown is art gallery hopping, or a juicy ghost tour as Jerome was once the “wickedest town in the West” with brothels, opium dens and saloon gun fights replete with potential paranormal phenomenon.

Founded in 1876 and once a copper mining boom town of 15,000 it turned into virtual ghost town (population: 50 people) after the mines closed in 1953. Artists moved in and now the winding switchback streets are now filled with painters, writers, musicians and historians.

Eat at the Haunted Hamburger, for local draft beers, cocktails and supposedly hammer-yielding ghosts. Stay at the perhaps spirit-filled former hospital Jerome Grand Hotel with gorgeous views, gilded artwork, burgundy walls, fine dining and captivating views. Get up in the morning for your last stop. 

Hiker at Watson Lake Prescott Arizona USA
Watson Lake is a beautiful natural area only a short distance from downtown Prescott, Arizona © benedek / Getty Images

Prescott, AZ

This mile-high city lies in the middle of pinon pine-covered Prescott National Forest, and has more than 15 distinctive hiking and biking trails where you can stretch your legs. Definitely hike Thumb Butte which is only a three and a half mile drive from downtown, but can get crowded. Parts are steep, but there are panoramic views of the city and neighboring mountains.

For a waterfront oasis, you can fish and boat at Watson Lake, which is only a four miles from downtown. Head back downtown for art, performances and dining – we recommend Murphy’s Prescott for elegant but moderately priced seafood. Sleep at the historic Grand Highland Hotel as it sits on Whiskey Row, which is just as famous as the town. 

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The Grand Canyon: how to get the most from a short trip
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This article was first published Jan 30, 2020 and updated Sep 14, 2020.

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