Small Loop Road Trip to the Grand Canyon and the Southwest Parks

small loop to the grand canyon and southwest parks cover photo

Are you planning a road trip for next summer? You should be! There’s a very important reason people plan road trips to the Southwest national parks well in advance that has everything to do with reservations! You need them!

So let’s get started with the planning for an eight day road trip to the Grand Canyon. You could squeeze it into one week, or extend for many more days. This itinerary covers the Small Loop road trip from Las Vegas and features Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, and of course the Grand Canyon!

Read on for all the detail on a small loop road trip itinerary, including where to stop on the way, and advice for planning your trip to the Southwest parks with kids!

As I promised, a good six months ago, and again a few weeks ago, I owe everyone a recap of our trip to the Southwest Parks: a road trip to the Grand Canyon from Las Vegas, via Zion and Bryce National Parks! For today, we’re going to get started with the Southwest itinerary you need to be planning right now!

Small Loop Road Trip Itinerary

The Small Loop Road Trip is a short version of the Grand Circle Road Trip Itinerary. The Grand Circle Tour, also called the Grand Loop includes: Canyonlands National Park, Arches National Park and Capitol Reef National Park near Moab, Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks and the Grand Canyon.

It can incorporate Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Kodachrome Basin, Escalante State Park, Dead Horse Point State Park, and Monument Valley.

The Small Loop focuses on Zion, Bryce Canyon and Grand Canyon National Parks!

This road trip to the Southwest National Parks was planned for 8 days and truly I think this is the bare minimum needed for this road trip. We easily would have stayed double the time to get in some extra hikes!

But for my fellow Americans, we know vacation time is at a premium and getting to see so many of the fabulous national parks in just over a week is a real feat!

An 8 Day Small Loop Grand Canyon Road Trip

Here’s a quick overview at this road trip itinerary. Scroll down for details on each day!

  1. Arrive Las Vegas (click for full guide of what to do there!)
  2. Drive Las Vegas to Springdale, Utah (Zion National Park)
  3. Zion National Park hiking day
  4. Zion National Park: short hike, drive through East region, to Bryce Canyon (Sunset Point)
  5. Bryce Canyon National Park hiking day
  6. Bryce Canyon Sunrise Point, drive to Grand Canyon via Paige, AZ, Grand Canyon watchtower, sleep in Tusayan, Arizona
  7. Grand Canyon South Rim Trail
  8. Drive to Las Vegas, via Hoover Dam
Road Trip through Zion National Park on the Small Loop
Driving from Zion NP to Bryce Canyon NP

The Small Loop is Perfect for Beginners

The Small Loop is the perfect itinerary for getting to know the Southwest Parks. Essentially you spend two nights at each of the National Parks: Zion, Bryce and Grand Canyon, starting and ending in Las Vegas.

This makes it a great road trip for those coming from overseas because you can fly into Las Vegas International Airport and rent a car there. After the small loop road trip you can return the car and fly out from the same place, making it simple and ideal.

The group we traveled with ranged in ages from one to 80! My kids were one, 4, and 6 at the time, and we traveled with my parents and sister. The small loop was great for all ages as it gave us time to explore a little bit of each park. We did the easier hikes and enjoyed the views from the Rim Trails.

For those with older kids, (or no kids) and more time, I have a bunch of suggestions for how I would change our itinerary to accommodate more hiking.

Where to Stop on the Small Loop Trip: Itinerary Breakdown

If you’re putting together your itinerary for driving the small loop, you may be wondering where you should stop along the way. Here are the major stops we made along the way.

Day 1: Las Vegas

So much has been written about Las Vegas that I will keep this short. Las Vegas is the best place to rent a car for a trip to the Southwest Parks.

Read: The Complete Guide to Las Vegas Strip on a Budget + Where to Stay as a Family!

Day 2: Las Vegas to Zion National Park

The first driving day had us driving 160 miles from Las Vegas to Springdale, Utah, the access point to Zion National Park. We stopped in St. George, Utah on the way.

St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site at Johnson Farm– A great little spot to see fossilized dinosaur footprints from the Early Jurassic period, that are in an enclosed space. We all enjoyed this as an activity to stretch our legs from the long drive.

Day 3: Zion National Park

Zion National Park is one of the best national parks for kids! There are so many great easy trails. Specifically, the Riverwalk and the Parus trails are wonderful!

Day 4: Zion National Park to Bryce Canyon National Park

After a full day at Zion, our second driving day, we drove through the Eastern side of Zion National Park on our way to Bryce Canyon.

The views in this stretch are spectacular but much of the road is small and windy making this 85 mile stretch take several hours.

We made in time to take in the sunset at the aptly named Sunset Point, a gorgeous introduction to Bryce Canyon.

Day 5: Bryce Canyon

The hiking at Bryce Canyon is mostly moderate to difficult. With our crew we chose to do the smaller Mossy Cave trail. The easy Mossy Cave trail is only 0.8 miles round trip and is perfect for little kids.

The other easy option is doing short parts of the Rim Trail, which you can access from the various viewpoints.

Day 6: Bryce Canyon to Grand Canyon National Park

After another full day at Bryce Canyon, we began a third driving day at Sunrise Point. After taking in the sunrise, we started the long drive to the Grand Canyon. This driving day entailed 286 miles and took pretty much all day.

Our first stop was in Kanab, Utah, at the Little Hollywood Museum. It was a good place to stretch our legs looking at the old sets, but not particularly interesting unless you are a movie buff.

We stopped in Page, Arizona, approximately half-way through for lunch. Also popped into the Dollar Tree with the kids for a couple toys for the road. 🙂 (Even though we have traveled a lot, and don’t love this type of store, sometime you gotta do what you gotta do).

Tip: With adequate planning ahead of time, you could book a mid-day tour to Antelope Canyon here.

The next stop was in Cameron, Arizona at the tourist trap Cameron Trading Post. But, we were happy to stop there because there weren’t really any other options in the area, and the desert driving gets long.

Just in time for the late afternoon sunlight, we had a first look at Grand Canyon.

Day 7: Grand Canyon South Rim

So much has been written about Grand Canyon National Park. Without a doubt this is a bucket list destination and it is definitely worth braving the summer crowds to visit!

That said, I found the information for planning this part of our trip very unorganized and confusing. So here’s my attempt to rectify the situation for other families with toddlers planning a visit to the Grand Canyon.

Read my Complete Guide for Planning your Trip to the Grand Canyon with Kids!

Day 8: Grand Canyon National Park to Las Vegas

Another full day at the Grand Canyon, and for our final driving day we had an “easy” 280 mile drive to Las Vegas, with a final stop to tour the Hoover Dam just outside the city.

The highway driving in this part was easier as the road was wider. We stopped in the Kingman area for lunch, and then our main stop of the day was at the Hoover Dam.

Zion National Park Parus Trail
The gorgeous Parus Trail at Zion National Park

Changes I Would Make to Our Itinerary

Over and over again, throughout our trip we kept exclaiming that we wished we had more time! Here are some points we would consider changing to our itinerary if you have the flexibility to extend the road trip beyond a week.

  • We wanted an extra day at Zion National Park for more hiking: there are many trails that are accessible even with a stroller, and we just loved the scenery!
  • We wanted an extra day in Bryce Canyon…to go down into the canyon. Or rent bicycles to explore some more. We initially backed off the idea because with the make-up of our group, we thought it may be too strenuous. But we wished for some time to go down even just a little bit.
  • The drive from Bryce Canyon to the Grand Canyon was really, really long for us! At 286 miles, it was over 5 hours of driving time, not including stops. We made a lunch stop in Page, Arizona and wished we could have stayed a night there to break up the drive. Additionally, we would have loved to visit Antelope Canyon or Lake Powell in that area and an extra day would have afforded the time necessary.
  • The Grand Canyon was so completely impressive, it was just beyond words. We feel like we just got a small glimpse, so we would add more time here as well.

A Note About Reservations

The last point I should make, is that I really would have liked to stay at the Grand Canyon Village, inside the National Park rather than in Tusayan, AZ (a small “town” that is basically a strip of hotels). However, to make reservations for inside the park, you need to plan ahead, very far ahead.

Reservations open a year in advance. If you don’t initially get a booking, you can call periodically for cancellations.

Also, there are restaurants inside the lodges where you can dine without being a guest. But… you guessed it…you need a reservation! Learn from our mistakes and plan ahead!

If you are considering camping with kids at the national parks, read our guides:

Bryce Canyon view with tree on the small loop road trip
Bryce Canyon…just the tip of it

More Coming Soon…

Now to go into the details…I’ll be coming back with specific recaps of what we did, where we ate and stayed, things I recommend and things I would change.

We were on a strict Paleo / GAPS diet at the time of this road trip, so it wasn’t so straightforward to meet our dietary restrictions. But our lessons, are your gain:

Here’s how to find healthy food while traveling!

In the mean time, if you’re interested in an interactive map of the loop- you can find that in my freebie library! Get your password by filling out the form below.

7 thoughts on “Small Loop Road Trip to the Grand Canyon and the Southwest Parks”

  1. This sounds like such an incredible trip! Definitely on my bucket list. Hopefully next year this is something my husband and I will have time to do, so I’ll definitely be saving this post to reference!

  2. We did a similar road trip and loved it! There’s so much to explore in the Southwest! Zion and Arches were our favorites

  3. What is the mileage for the entire loop from Vegas? I am renting a car and want to make sure I get one with enough mileage.

    1. If you do the same loop we took, it will be between 800 to 900 miles driving, depending on how many detours you take. Good luck with your trip!

  4. Thanks for the really useful guide. For complicated reasons (to do with having to book the Grand Canyon mule ride over a year in advance) we have to do the loop in the reverse direction, i.e. anti clockwise. Is there a disadvantage to this? Why does everyone seem to do it clockwise? We’ll be in an RV so won’t be able to look backwards much. We’re also spending 2 weeks + so plan to stretch the loop to Meteor Crater in the south and up to Torrey in the north .

    1. Hi David, I can’t think of any reason not to do the circuit the other way around. The only advantage of saving the Grand Canyon for last is the “wow factor”. While all of the national parks are gorgeous there is something jaw dropping about the first view of the Grand Canyon! Best of luck on your trip! Enjoy!

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