The great American road trip is a long-cherished tradition here in the great US of A. However, with the rising price of travel, this traditionally cheap travel option looks less and less budget-friendly. As a desert road warrior, I’m here to help you get the most out of your ultimate Southwest road trip in the USA.
Travel During the Off Season
Many of Utah’s National and State parks get super crowded during the summer months. Not to mention, it’s hot as hell (can we say swamp boob?). However, for whatever reason, this is still the number one best time to go. Locals and outdoor enthusiasts know that winter is typically the best time of year to beat the crowds. Sure, the desert is pretty cold over winter (and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon is inaccessible), but if solitude is what you seek, the winter months are your best bet.
If you don’t want to endure the cold or crowds, opt to travel during the shoulder seasons. I particularly enjoy March, April, October, and even November. Temperatures are generally mild and the crowds are thin. I visited the North Rim of the Grand Canyon in early October and had the entire place to myself.
How to Choose Where to Go
The hardest part of this trip is deciding what to do. First, think about travel times. Trying to smash everything into just a few short weeks will leave you exhausted, disappointed, and broke. Gas costs money and it would be a better use of your time to pick a few areas to explore fully. Try to work out a balance between short stops and longer stays. For example, to truly experience Escalante or the San Rafael Swell, you’ll want at least three days. Places like Bryce Canyon can be done with an overnight since there isn’t as much available to explore.
Also, consider what kind of trip you want to have. Are you ok being on the trail with 200 or even 500 of your closest friends? Do you prefer solitude, even if it means a little extra effort? Or maybe you mix and match destination hot spots with your own exploring. The beautiful thing about the desert, and BLM land, in general, is that not all of the prettiest spots are found in National Parks. In fact, there is plenty of isolated wilderness to explore where the hoards of tourist don’t go. If that sounds like your thing, then you’re in luck, I happen to be an expert at avoiding crowds.
Check out these inspiring American Southwest trip hot spots. Chock-full of local secrets to beat the crowds at jaw-droppingly beautiful destinations
- 20+ Amazing Summer Vacay Hot Spots in the US
- Stunning views and hikes in the Grand Canyon
- Canyons and hikes of the San Rafael Swell
- The Best Hikes in Bryce Canyon National Park
- Spend the perfect weekend in Grand Junction, CO (coming soon, subscribe to be the first to hear about this post!)
- Your guide to Utah’s Mighty 5
Hotels in these areas are extremely expensive (expect to pay $100 and up per night). There are paid camping options in many of the towns surrounding popular destinations. However, the great part about a southwest road trip is the free camping virtually everywhere.
National Parks are typically surrounded by National Forests. This “buffer zone” not only helps to protect the park, but it also means you can score awesome, free camping right next to the park. If tent camping isn’t your thing, many of these free camp spots are accessible for smaller RVs and mini-campers. I took my teardrop for the journey and enjoyed the comforts of a cozy bed, insulated walls, and a little home on wheels.
What to Budget for a Southwest Road Trip
If you’re cooking your own meals every night and camping for free, you’ll certainly save tons of mulah. Your biggest wallet burner is fuel. For two weeks (starting from Denver), I spent around $450 on gasoline. Granted I was towing a trailer. Food costs hovered around $120, including eating out twice. Lodging was free with the exception of a night in a hotel (it felt good to feel human). Permits for backpacking in the Grand Canyon cost $18 and I bought an annual parks pass for $85. I spent around $45 on firewood (a premium in the desert). Overall, the trip cost around $1,000 after I included little extras such as snacks and broken trailer parts.
You could easily do this for cheaper if you’re rockin’ a fuel-efficient vehicle and living off of instant noodles. However, a cheaper car doesn’t necessarily help you get where you need to go, many desert roads require higher clearance in order to reach some of the best spots.
Hiking and Photo Stops are Cheap!
Look for budget-friendly activities that don’t cost a dime, such as hiking and scenic drives with plenty of pit stops. Make the most of your southwest road trip by taking advantage of roadside photo opportunities, such as the famous Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. You’ll get to stretch your legs, explore something new, and take all the Insta-worthy photos!
Hiking is another great way to save some cash. The American Southwest has some incredible hiking opportunities and there’s nothing more exciting (or budget-friendly) than exploring the best hikes in USA.
Find Free Camping
The desert is all about free camping. If you can live without a toilet, you’ll be pleased with the array of world-class campsites scattered around the desert. Here are a few quick hacks for finding free camping in the desert on your American Southwest road trip.
- Use Google Earth. You can spot free campsites virtually everywhere with Google Earth. Start with a trailhead and park entrance and travel down dirt roads in the surrounding areas.
- Almost all National Parks offer free campsites just beyond the park borders. We stayed for free in Grand Canyon National Park, Bryce Canyon and more. Check down the dirt near park entrances for free spots. This land is typically part of the National Forest system.
- If you can sleep in your car and you’re looking for a quick spot to set up camp, pull out at a trailhead parking lot. Look out for “no camping” signs.
Just remember, when you utilized free BLM camp spots, you’ll need to pick up after yourself. Be sure to leave it better than you found it and only camp in designated camp spots (typically these are previously established sites with fire rings).
Here’s more posts about camping in the desert:
Keep Cookin’ Simple and Tasty
Simple meals don’t only taste good, but they also don’t cost much. Snag some tortillas and pre-packaged Indian-spiced lentils. Pasta and jarred sauce provide ample energy. Keep meals simple and cook, even if you’re staying in a hotel. Purchase a camping stove and save by cooking your own meals.
The average meal out in the US costs $15-$20 per person on a budget, that much mulah can buy you two days worth of food if spent right.
Do Laundry the Old Fashion Way
I am creative with my laundry. In Nepal, I purchased soap and used a stone to wash my sweaty clothes. While campervaning in New Zealand, I washed my underwear in a campground sink and let it dry on our van curtains. There’s no need to pay for laundry on a road trip (unless something catastrophic happens). Simply warm up some water on the stove, dunk your laundry in a small wash bin (you’ll likely have one for your dishes) and hang to dry. The beauty of the desert is the lack of humidity, use that to your advantage and lay out your wet clothing. You can roll up the windows of your vehicle if you want a quick-and-easy hang dry. Just be sure to remove them before hitting the road so your panties don’t fly all over the road (oops!).
Snag a Park’s Pass for Your American Southwest Road Trip
Visiting National Parks and paying at the gate is an expensive business. The Grand Canyon costs $80 per car! You can pick up an annual parks pass and get access to all of America’s National Parks, Recreation Areas and more for just $85. Sure, there’s a cost involved and yes there are ways to visit National Parks for free, but with our public lands under threat, the park’s system needs your dime now more than ever so snag a pass before you hit the road.
Shower on the Cheap on the Road
There are a few ways to freshen up on the road. First, you can bring a dromedary bag, heat up water on the stove and take a sponge bath. I love this method. It’s freeing and new. However, sometimes you need a real shower and jets of hot water, I get it.
Truck stop showers are super-affordable and quite clean. Scope out a truck stop shower before committing. You can usually freshen up for about $5 or less. Try to stick to daytime showers if you want to feel a bit safer. Always go with your gut, if something feels weird, don’t do it.
Bring Your Own Water
Bottled water not only costs an arm and a leg, but it’s also harmful to the environment. Not to mention, most of it is glorified tap water anyway. This water jug holds 5 gallons and costs next to nothing. Fill ‘er up before you hit the road and refill at gas stations. Always ask before you fill, but most stations (especially along major roadways) are happy to let you fill for a small fee ($2 to $5).
With a little innovation and a sense of adventure, you can have an excellent American Southwest road trip on a budget. Keep your costs low by letting go of the everyday luxuries and enjoying the beautiful scenery the desert has to offer.