If you're staying in Las Vegas but looking to explore some of the Southwestern United States' national parks, there are fortunately several great destinations within driving distance of the Vegas Strip. A few options are close enough to visit on a day trip, while others are better equipped for a longer excursion or as a pitstop on a road trip.
From California to Colorado, you can visit places unlike anywhere else you've ever seen. Las Vegas may seem like an otherworldy destination, but truly nothing compares to the majesty of U.S. national parks.
Be sure to pay attention to the weather at the destination and along the route. Many national parks are in remote locations with roads that close seasonally, and extreme temperatures—both high and low—mean you need to be prepared before you take off.
Many of these parks charge an entry fee to help maintain the natural environment. Admission is generally per vehicle, not per person, and the fee varies from park to park. If you plan to visit multiple spots, you can get a National Park Annual Pass which allows entry into every park in the country for just $80.
The closest U.S. National Park that you can reach from Las Vegas is Death Valley, just 120 miles away across the state border in California. To reach the Visitor Center in Furnace Creek, it's only a two-hour drive from Las Vegas and can be done in a day trip.
Death Valley is most famous for holding the record of the hottest recorded air temperature on Earth, and summer days are consistently over 120 degrees Fahrenheit (49 C). Winter and spring are—understandably—the most popular time to visit, when the temperatures are mild and wildflowers cover the landscape. However, there's something undeniably appealing about visiting in the dead of summer to experience the extreme heat (just be sure to pack extra water and don't travel far from your car).
If you want to stay longer than a day, it's a popular place to go camping. Staying overnight is also the best way to see all of the top sights around Death Valley, from Badwater Basin to the Salt Flat.
In the land where the Mojave and Colorado deserts converge, Joshua Tree National Park is home to the namesake tree. The thick branches of Joshua trees are gnarly, but their grotesque appearance has fascinated humans since Indigenous people in the area first arrived in the desert. These trees only exist in the Southwest, and the ecological conditions of the national park make it one of the best places to see these mighty beings.
It's 180 miles coming from Las Vegas by car, or about a three-hour drive. If either Los Angeles or San Diego is also on your road trip itinerary, then Joshua Tree National Park is an easy detour to make on your way to or from Vegas.
If you visit in the springtime after rain, not only is the ground covered with wildflowers, but you may be lucky enough to see the Joshua trees in bloom. Hikes through the park offer plenty of opportunities to gawk at the trees and snap photos and, if you have the time, the park is considered one of the best places for camping in the U.S.
Zion National Park in Utah is only 168 miles from Las Vegas, making it between a two and three-hour drive from the city. Along the way, you'll drive through a few canyons carved out by the Virgin River, so don't miss the opportunity to stop the car and snap some photos.
Once you arrive at Zion National Park, you can leave your vehicle on one of the lots provided by the National Parks Service and hop in a free shuttle around the park. This guided tour offers visitors information on points of interest as well as popular hiking trails and views. The Narrows is perhaps the most iconic hike in Zion, winding for 16 miles through a stream in a slotted canyon.
Popular activities at Zion National Park include biking, horseback riding, and tubing on the Virgin River. If you want to camp in the park, there are three overnight campgrounds. As with most national parks, campsites are often reserved months in advance, especially in the high season of summer. Be sure to book out your space as early as possible, or look into nearby accommodations.
Bryce Canyon National Park is about 210 miles away—or four hours—from Las Vegas and offers beautiful vistas of sandstone cliffs towering over the deep canyon ravines. Here, you can take guided or unguided hikes through the carved out landscape or, during ski season, you can stop off at Brian Head and make a few runs down the mountain.
With biking trails and numerous camping sites, Bryce Canyon National Park is a perfect weekend getaway from the hustle and bustle of Las Vegas, and bird lovers will enjoy the numerous species of native avians that can be seen from the rock formations that surround the canyons.
Believe it or not, Las Vegas is one of the closest big cities to the Grand Canyon. It might not feel close when you're driving four and a half hours to get there, but their relative closeness and the grandiosity of the Canyon make this one of the most popular excursions for people visiting Vegas. You can drive to either the North Rim or South Rim, both of which are about 270 miles away from Las Vegas (the South Rim is the most popular viewing spot, while the North Rim is quieter).
Another option that is much closer is the so-called West Rim, which isn't technically part of Grand Canyon National Park. If you're looking for the classic canyon you've seen in photos, you'll want to drive the extra distance to the North or South rims. However, the West Rim includes the towering SkyWalk. Plus, it's only a two-hour drive from Las Vegas and can be visited in a day.
Start at the visitor center in Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim to get oriented within the National Park and find lectures, videos, and rangers to assist you. If you want to climb down the canyon, the Bright Angel Trail goes directly to the bottom of the canyon.
A word of warning, though: It's at least nine miles along a steep path to get to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, so if you're not an avid hiker or have difficulty on rough terrain, you might want to consider taking a tour of the Canyon on a donkey, mule, or horse instead.
Monument Valley isn't technically a U.S. National Park, since the federal government doesn't have jurisdiction over this area of land. Monument Valley is wholly located inside the Navajo Nation Reservation, and the tribal government has designated the area a Navajo Tribal Park (which is the local equivalent of a U.S. national park). Monument Valley is 400 miles east of Las Vegas and takes about six hours to reach, straddling the border of Utah and Arizona.
Like Arches National Park, Monument Valley features some of the most epic geology of the region. Looking across the desert, you'll see towers of red rock jutting up against the clear, blue sky like monuments from an ancient time. Their use in movies and art has made them some of the most recognizable features of the American Southwest. Some of the most visited spots, such as Antelope Canyon, are only accessible via a guided tour.
The park also features a Navajo village where children and adults alike can immerse themselves in live reenactments of tribal customs and traditions. If you choose to join a guided tour, your group is led by a local Navajo guide to round out your nature trip with some cultural context.
While you're there, drive a little further southeast and stop by the Four Corners Monument, which marks the exact location where Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona meet. Although the monument itself won't take too long to look at, there are a number of small shops nearby offering Native American products and Americana souvenirs.
Yosemite National Park seems like a long way from Las Vegas, but California's most visited national park is well worth the drive, depending on the time of year that you visit. From late spring to fall, it's about 450 miles or seven hours by car to get from Vegas to Yosemite (admittedly a long drive, but it's one of California's most scenic routes). However, once the snow begins to fall, the most direct route along Tioga Pass is closed for the season and requires drivers to make some significant detours, turning the trip into a 12-hour ordeal.
Yosemite National Park offers camping, rafting, hiking, and a view of the highest waterfall in North America, Yosemite Falls. Other attractions include Half Dome, a large slab of granite cut in half by glaciers, and the famous Mariposa Grove that is home to over 200 sequoia trees, some of which are over 1,500 years old.
If you're coming from Las Vegas in the warmer months, you'll pass right by one of the park's hidden gems, Tuolomne Meadows. It's the perfect pitstop for some sightseeing and backcountry hiking before continuing down to Yosemite Valley, where you can have a picnic along the Merced River, feel the mist of a waterfall, or marvel at the climbers scaling El Capitan.
Arches National Park is about 450 miles from Las Vegas, right outside the town of Moab, Utah. It'll take you roughly seven hours to reach this breathtaking preserve, but Arches National Park is one of those natural wonders that make you stop and stare, mouth agape, at the geology of the American Southwest.
Named for the dozens of naturally formed arches strewn across the park, Arches is definitely worth exploring if you have an extra few days on your trip to Las Vegas (or as a pitstop en route to Colorado if you're on a road trip). Delicate Arch is the most famous landmark in the park, a 52-foot freestanding arch that may look familiar from all of the Utah license plates you drive by.
You can also get to Arches by going through Capitol Reef National Park or along Escalante Canyon, so even though the drive is long, there's plenty of sightseeing to enjoy along your route.
Mesa Verde National Park
Mesa Verde National Park features the ruins of the Anasazi's cliff dwellings, a series of abodes carved right into the side of a mountain that were mysteriously abandoned over 1,000 years ago. To look across the ravines upon the ruins or to step inside one of these ancient "pueblos" is simply remarkable.
Climb the ladder to Balcony House or crawl between rocks to get to Cliff Palace and you’ll begin to imagine how these ancient people lived. With over 4,000 known archeological sites and over 600 cliff dwellings in the park, you're sure to be entertained for hours, especially if you're a fan of Native American history and culture.
Mesa Verde is 500 miles east of Las Vegas, taking about eight hours of nonstop driving. It's the farthest park on this list, but the drive is peppered with beautiful scenery and plenty of attractions along the way, and you could easily break up the trip by spending a night in Zion National Park or Monument Valley.