Picture it: craggy, towering, red-rock formations in every direction. You’re hiking through narrow slot canyons, down verdant riverbeds, and along snow-capped mountains. You’re identifying a variety of cacti—from the giant saguaro to the miniature pincushion. Citrus-colored sunrises and sunsets define the days’ end. Inky night skies sparkling with stars are worth staying up through the night. The open road rambles on as far as the eye can see.
This is RVing in the American Southwest! It’s arguably wilder than anywhere else in the country and requires a bit more preparation and know-how than your average destination.
Feeling intimidated? Not to worry, you’re in the right place. Prepping starts right here, right now, so let’s dive in.
Planning your trip
Before we begin, be sure to prep your RV for travel; inspect your RV tires, belts, hoses, check for leaks, you name it. That’s done? Great—now we’re really ready.
Step one: Find your route
Map out your destinations prior to hitting the road. In the Southwest, national parks and monuments, state parks, and other must-see places can sit hundreds of miles apart across arid landscapes with limited services in between.
Step two: Find a camp
Once you’ve mapped out your route and your destinations, it’s time to plan where you’ll spend your nights. Make sure you know the maximum length of your RV, towed vehicle, and tow hitch combined. The last thing you want is to drive all day to a campsite that’s too short for your setup. In national parks, the average campsite length is 27 feet but you may find some that go up to 40. Be sure to make reservations especially in high seasons. Many campgrounds and RV parks are fully booked months in advance.
Step three: Take it slow
If you’re new to RVing, know that traveling in an RV takes longer. Don’t plot out your trips like you would in your car. You’ll rarely exceed 60 mph so plan to drive fewer miles in a day. Give yourself plenty of time to make stops for fuel, food, and rest breaks. Start long driving days early so you’ll arrive at the campground in time to set up and enjoy a desert sunset while toasting marshmallows around the campfire. Arriving early allows time to enjoy your surroundings and helps you avoid disturbing other campers after dark.
Water, lots of water
In the Southwest, this is rule number one: water for you, your pets, and your vehicle. The heat of the Southwest is unforgiving from giving you a dehydration headache to an overheated engine.
A good rule of thumb for gauging water needs: One gallon of water per person per day. Fill up the fresh water tank in your RV before hitting the road. If you’re boondocking, double the water you think you’ll need.
Pro tip: If your engine begins to overheat turn off the A/C especially on steep grades. If necessary find a safe place to pull over and inspect coolant levels, fans, and any possible obstructions. About a half-cup of clean, air-temperature water (not cold; that can crack a hot engine block) added to the coolant tank can help get you to an auto repair shop. This is not a fix, it’s a Band-Aid. Use extreme care when removing the cap as pressure and hot steam may be released.
First aid, for you and your pets and your RV
Know that heat can mess with tire pressure, too. And any responsible RVer will want to travel with a first-aid kit, tool kit, fire extinguisher, coolant, and oil.
A weatherproof wardrobe
Then there’s your clothes closet. When packing for your Southwest trip, bring layers—the temperatures in the desert can vary 30 to 40 degrees in a single day.
Cool, moisture-wicking clothes work well in the heat and then you can add layers at night or higher elevations. It’s not all low-lying desert in the Southwest (Arizona, for example, has an average elevation of 4,000 feet), and high-desert temperatures can plummet when the sun goes down. There can be snow flurries in Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon while the temperature in the Sonoran Desert reaches 75 to 80 degrees.
What to see in the Southwest
You likely know the big national parks of the Southwest. Bucket-list destinations like Arches, Zion, Joshua Tree, and the Grand Canyon attract millions of visitors a year. Although these spots shouldn’t be overlooked, lesser-known parks like Capitol Reef or Petrified Forest might get you closer to the quiet solitude you desire.
Don’t forget the many state parks, national monuments, and national forests, either! Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Cedar Breaks National Monument, Hovenweep National Monument, Natural Bridges National Monument, Dead Horse Point State Park, Escalante-Petrified Forest State Park, Coconino National Forest…the list goes on. These lesser-known locations offer less-crowded trails, incredible photo ops, and easier social distancing.
There are over 60 NPS sites in the Southwest and the NPS’ annual America the Beautiful Pass ($80) pays for itself after visiting just a few. But if you plan to spend an abundance of time in one state, consider purchasing that state’s parks pass. Utah, for example, has more than 40 state parks making the $150 pass a good value if they’re serving as your main playground. And, yes, Utah’s state parks have just about all the iconic Southwest landscapes you can imagine.
Where to camp in the Southwest
If your heart is set on staying at one of the crown jewels of the Southwest, book early. Reservations for most national parks can be made six months prior to your arrival date and you’ll need every day of that especially if your RV exceeds 27 feet as larger campsites are limited. Find more campgrounds in national forests or on Army Corps of Engineers land. Other camping options include private RV parks and resorts.
A huge advantage to RVing the Southwest is the availability of boondocking options. There are hundreds of millions of acres of public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in this region and much of it is open for dispersed camping. Arizona alone is 38 percent federal land. Never mind Nevada, which is 85 percent. To find dispersed campsites, stop at the local BLM office ask at just about any local visitor center.
Pro tip: If you’re interested in boondocking in the Southwest consider solar panels to maximize your RV’s off-grid range. Put all that desert sunshine to good use! Solar is an investment upfront but allows you to boondock off-grid at length, saving money on campsites over time.
Seasonal considerations in the Southwest
The American Southwest ranges from the lowest point in the US to some of the highest peaks in the lower 48. This diversity creates a variety of weather conditions with the changing of seasons. Here’s a brief rundown on what to expect:
Summer: Be prepared for temperatures well above 100 degrees in the low-lying desert regions of Southern California and Arizona. Expect temps into the 90s for most other regions of the Southwest.
Winter: Desert winters can be surprisingly chilly. As you reach higher elevations (Cedar Breaks National Monument, for example, sits at 10,000 feet), don’t be surprised to find snow and freezing temperatures. Be prepared with tools for snow removal and be ready to protect your RV pipes hoses from freezing.
Fall: Fall arrives late in the Southwest usually around early November. It brings with it stunning fall colors in places like Sedona, Flagstaff, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, and Carson National Forest.
Spring: Traveling in the Southwest in the spring—think March and April—provides an opportunity to experience fields of wildflowers especially when it follows a wet winter. Check out places like Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, and Picacho Peak State Park for desert blooms.
To boost your luck at nabbing a quiet campsite and a quiet everything else, travel in the shoulder seasons and avoid holidays and weekends when possible. That aside, any time of year will make for a memorable RV trip in the American Southwest. But it’s proper planning for that trip that will make it comfortable, too.
When I walk in the desert the birds sing very beautifully
When I walk in the desert the trees wave their branches in the breeze
When I walk in the desert the tall saguaro wave their arms way up high
When I walk in the desert the animals stop to look at me as if they were saying
“Welcome to our home.”
—Jeanette Chico, in When It Rains