Our epic road trip to discover National Parks in Utah and Arizona
The National Parks of America. It is our ambition to visit them all… but with 58 to choose from, where should we start? After much deliberation, we chose to explore the National Parks around Utah & Arizona. Some of Americas top National Parks are located in this area and looked to be conveniently close to each other! We arrived in the States, following a transatlantic cruise from Barcelona. After 2 weeks at sea, then time in Las Vegas, we couldn’t wait to get off the beaten track. Choosing to do our National Parks in Utah road trip in November, offered us some definite advantages.
- We had all the parks to ourselves. They were really quiet, which meant no queues to get in, no issues with parking and people free photos!
- It was relatively cheap to stay in a good location, within close proximity to the park entrances. The rooms were up to a quarter of the price, compared to high season.
Of course, there were a couple of disadvantages to choosing November, but all in all, they didn’t outnumber the positives. If you want a suntan, don’t choose the winter… or if you want to do really long hikes, as daylight hours are limited. That said, for us British, the weather was great! Blue skies, sunny, with a little bit of snow thrown in. We did eat alfresco, on most days and felt it was ideal walking weather.
We thought this was the bargain of the century! Priced at $80, you get unlimited entry into all federal free areas, for 1 year. That’s for everyone in your car! What a brilliant deal! Individual park passes are up to $30, so if you are visiting more than 3, it is well worth it. Although our tour featured National Parks in Utah, we hope to use the pass again next year.
Where did we start?
We hired a car from Las Vegas and drove 165 miles to Zion National Park, taking around 2 hours 30 minutes. Aside from getting out of Vegas itself, which was somewhat hair-raising, the roads were perfect! I was delighted with our orange car, feeling it would blend in perfectly with the landscape!
Las Vegas to Zion National Park (165 miles)
Zion National Park
Prepare to be wowed! There is a reason why Zion National Park welcomes over 4 million visitors a year. It is simply breathtaking. Why is Zion one of the most scenic canyon lands in the USA? Maybe its got something to do with the high plateaus, deep canyons, the Virgin River, waterfalls, and Navajo sandstone cliffs! Spot a Zion Shooting Star in the hanging gardens, delight in over a 1000 species of plants. You might even witness the splendour of a Californian Condor or Mexican Spotted Owl. What will you discover within the 229 square miles of Utah’s first National Park?
Zion National Park is extremely well organised. Shuttle buses run from Springdale, to all the major trailheads on the SCENIC DRIVE. During busy periods the bus, for the scenic drive, is the only option, running every 15 minutes. You can drive in other areas of the park. The visitors’ centre is a great place to start and pick up a park map. The park website is really informative, check out the short video for invaluable advice.
If you are planning more than a scenic drive/photo stop opportunity, we would suggest downloading the maps before your visit. Plan your day around the viewpoints and trails you would like to incorporate. Take a picnic and refill your water bottle with free Zion Springwater. Oh, and if you want the park to yourself, visit in November! Zion is one of the most popular National Parks in Utah and it’s easy to see why. We were blown away with how spectacular the scenery is, the beauty, the splendour, what a great first stop!
Do you want a challenge?
If you want a challenge, a full days hike has to be Angels Landing. The 5.5-mile trail starting at The Grotto Trailhead is strenuous with narrow ridges and sheer drops, it’s not for the faint-hearted or those with a fear of heights. If you are planning on hiking this trail please ensure that you have the appropriate footwear, clothing and fluids.
The Narrows, starting at the Temple of Sinawara, the trail follows along the Virgin River and into the canyon. The easiest way is bottom up… firstly, walk into the canyon. Continue as the walls close in until they are 25 to 30 feet wide at “Wall Street,” a 2 mile stretch of towering cliffs. No canyoneering gear? No problem, you can rent it from the Zion Adventure Company in Springdale. Before you embark on this trail, check with the visitor centre, as there is always a risk of flash flooding.
Or a less hair-raising option…
For a less challenging walk take the trail to the lower or upper Emerald Pools, an easy trail on a waymarked path, climbing gently through the trees. Do you want a longer walk? If so, take the Magenta trail from Emerald Pools to the Grotto shuttle stop. You catch the bus back from there.
The Riverside walk, from The temple of Sinawara. A low level, accessible trail along the river amidst the rocks, which is ideal for families. On a hot day take a picnic, dip your toes in the river and absorb the scenery.
There are many other trails and viewpoints along the scenic trail. Pick up a map, take the shuttle and explore for yourself the splendour of this park. Zion National Park offers an opportunity for everyone to get out and about and enjoy nature. A dream come true for keen photographers and walkers alike, add this park to your list!
Where to stay
Springdale, located just 1 mile from the Zion Canyon Entrance, is the most convenient place to stay. Springdale is a small town, with several eateries, a laundrette and small, but expensive, supermarket. Alternatively, stay in St George, a 45-minute drive from the park entrance or Hurricane, just 30 minutes away by car. Both these towns offer cheaper accommodation than Springdale, especially in peak season.
Do you want to stay right in the heart of the park? Stay at the Zion Lodge. If you are visiting in peak season, book well in advance and remortgage your house… Additionally, you could camp, just within the entrance to the park.
Where to eat
Zion pizza and noodle company. Great slate stone-cooked pizzas, washed down with local handcrafted beers and microbrews. If you’re thirsty try the pitcher!
Porters, home of the Bumbleberry pie!
Also, try Zion Canyon Brew Pub. Located at the park entrance, grab a well-deserved beer and watch the sun go down.
We stayed at The Bumbleberry Inn, 1.2miles from Zion National Park entrance. Included is an amazing breakfast at Porters. You can justify indulging in a huge delicious breakfast because you’re going to be walking miles… right? Or perhaps you will need a lie-down…
Zion to Bryce Canyon (85 miles)
Next, we headed off to Bryce Canyon. The Canyon is 85 miles from Zion National Park and it took about 2 hours to make the journey.
Bryce Canyon, along with Zion National Park and The Grand Canyon are part of a geological wonder known as “The Grand Staircase.” This immense area of rock contains layered sedimentary formations which range from 600 million to 2,000 million years old! It was established as a National Park in 1928 but was actually a tourist destination in 1916. It’s easy to see why. This was one of our favourite National Parks in Utah. It is simply stunning… and for us, further enhanced by a sprinkling of snow!
Hoodoos and sandcastles
I was desperate to visit Bryce Canyon because I wanted to see the hoodoos. Bryce boasts the largest collection of these distinctive rock formations in the world. So what better place to see them! Nothing can prepare you for the sheer size and magnitude of the landscape. Stretching out as far as the eye can see, this “forest of stone” is ever changing due to erosion and rain. We watched the sun dance between the towers, catching the light then being plunged once again into the shadows. It was just magical. I loved how some hoodoos, with their neighbours, looked like giant sandcastles. It is only when you walk between them that the sheer scale hits you…
I was surprised to learn that Bryce Canyon, is not actually a canyon, but a series of amphitheatres. 3 climatic zones make up the park, Spruce or fir tree forest, Ponderosa pine forest and Pinyon pine or Juniper forest.
Do you want to horseback ride or rock climb in Bryce Canyon? Go for it! Bryce is definitely one of the most unique National Parks in Utah and probably the world!
Sunset point to Sunrise point trail offers you the opportunity to see the spectacular amphitheatre from the rim, the rock formations take you to another world. We watched the snow-capped hoodoos glow with the setting sun, spectacular.
Follow the Queens Garden trail and delve into the canyon. Descend 98m and see the hoodoos from a whole new perspective.
The Navajo trail can be combined with the Queens Garden trail for a longer more varied walk.
The Mossy Cave trail is an easy 1-mile round trip that allows visitors to experience the mighty hoodoos without having to descend into the amphitheatres. Instead, this walk follows the stream until it reaches a natural grotto.
Where to stay
There are a number of small towns around Bryce Canyon, the further away from the entrance the better deal you will find for accommodation. Escalante about 1 hour away and Tropic about 15 minutes have a number of different places to stay to suit all budgets ranging from lodges and yurts to campgrounds and motels. Both of these towns have a number of restaurants and cafes. Choose your town depending on how far you want to travel each day. Also, you will find smaller towns dotted around the area. Alternatively, you could stay within the park itself at the Bryce Canyon Lodge.
We stayed at The Best Western Ruby’s Inn, conveniently situated minutes from the entrance to the park. We visited in November so wanted to make the most of the daylight hours in the park rather than travelling. This hotel has the monopoly in this area, motel style rooms, RV campground, restaurant, grocery store etc. It’s by far the best location unless you stay within the park itself, we got a room for a quarter of the price that it would have been in high season. We were there at Thanksgiving so had only one option…the cowboy buffet and steak room. We joined in heartily with the Thanksgiving dinner and even tried the marshmallow sweet potatoes!
Bryce to Arches and Canyonlands (270 miles)
Arches National Park
Wow… what a fabulous place and a definite highlight of the National Parks in Utah. The world’s largest concentration of over 2000 natural arches, as well as fins, giant balanced rocks, pinnacles and spires, can be found in this phenomenal park! Do you want to explore 76,518 hectares? With so much to discover, you won’t be disappointed. From 10 minute strolls to 4-hour hikes there are plenty of trails to choose from. The 36-mile scenic drive is breathtaking. We gazed in awe at the “Three Sisters” and marvelled at “Delicate Arch.”
The park looks like something from a film set and has in fact been the backdrop to some top movies. Double Arch, which looks almost Jurassic, was used in the Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Also filmed here, was Thelma and Louise. It is difficult to comprehend the sheer size and magnitude of the arches. To put things into perspective, Landscape Arch boasts the longest natural rock span, anywhere! The arch is 306 feet wide, more than that of a football field. Arches National Park is a paradise for photographers. The changing light, the vivid colours and diversity of landscape attracts visitors from around the globe. Lucky for us, hardly anyone visits in November! We relaxed within the arches and took our time to get “the shot.” We really enjoyed Arches National Park, it’s unique, diverse and special.
Arches National Park Trails
Pick up a guide map and drive from the visitor centre through the dramatic landscape, stopping to view the unique arches carved with nature. There are walks from most car parks ranging from 0.5 miles to 7 miles.
We visited in November so virtually had the park to ourselves. We spent the day stopping at the viewpoints, walking the trails and photographing the arches.
Arches National Park offers a comprehensive list of the trails.
Balanced Rock, the trail takes less than 15 minutes to see the precariously balanced boulder.
Landscape Arch is 1.6 miles from the car park. The trail takes you through stunning rock formations to emerge at the arch. The colours were beautiful, due to safety reasons you are unable to walk up to the arch but the view from the trail is spectacular.
The Windows, a 1-mile trail leads you gently up to a ‘window’ that looks out for miles. It almost feels like you are walking up to heaven if that’s what you believe.
Double Arch trail allows you to see up close this unique rock formation. (0.5 miles)
Delicate Arch, a more difficult trail, especially in the heat as there is no shade. The path climbs 146m and then continues along a ledge until you reach the arch. (3 miles)
Where to stay
Just a few minutes from Arches National Park and a short drive to Canyonlands, Moab is a great base to explore these two parks. From the mighty Colorado River and the immense red rock landscape, it is one of the best outdoor adventure areas around. If hiking, mountain biking, 4×4 driving or rafting is your thing, plan on staying a while!
The town of Moab is friendly, easy to navigate, packed with restaurants, cafes, shops, supermarkets and rental outlets. It is also extremely popular in peak season so book ahead. There is a great visitor centre on the corner of Centre and Main Street which has guides and maps of the area.
Where to eat
There are a number of good food options available in town, we ate at Zax, a relaxed busy restaurant serving delicious pizza, burgers, salads, sandwiches etc and great local beer.
The spoke on Centre offers handcrafted burgers, salads and ice creams. The restaurant is on two levels with a subtle bike-themed style decor. The burgers are fantastic and a great option after a full day of adventure. I had the 2 pigs and a cow burger…delicious beef topped with pulled pork and bacon! They also serve great local brews on tap, my favourites are cutthroat and full suspension pale ale.
For a delicious coffee head to Moab Coffee Roasters on Main Street.
There are many choices in the centre of Moab and just outside to suit all budgets. Check out www.discovermoab.com for more detailed information. The accommodation books up months in advance and the campgrounds have no reservations and fill up early.
The area around Moab has miles of old mining tracks, these make fantastic 4X4 trails. Use your own vehicle, rent one or take a tour, the choice is yours. There are trails for all levels and you can pick up a guide at the visitor information centre. There are lots of rental companies in town that hire vehicles and trailers. Some companies will even deliver your vehicle to a trailhead within reason!
Horse riding, mountain biking, rafting and hiking are all on the doorstep. You can find family-friendly rafting and class 4 rapids on the Colorado River. The area is mountain bike heaven, with trails for everyone, rent a bike and see more of this stunning landscape. If you want the ultimate challenge, the Slickrock Bike Trail is considered to be the must-do biking experience. For more information on bike trails see www.discovermoab.com/biking
Canyonlands is the largest of the National Parks in Utah. At 337 598 hectares, this expansive, diverse desert landscape cannot be traversed in a day! Water and gravity have sculpted this spectacular landscape. The Colorado River and its tributaries are the artists. You can discover countless arches, mesas, fins and buttes. Take your time in this “high desert” and head to “The Maze” if you are feeling courageous. This part of the park is definitely wild! Backpackers usually plan to spend several days here, a well-planned expedition is advisable.
Different areas divide the park, roads do not link the districts. Although they look close on a map, getting from one part to another could take up to 6 hours! Island in the Sky, is the most easily accessible area to visit and affords panoramic, unrivalled views from a breathtaking vantage point. Also noteworthy are the Native American paintings at Horseshoe Canyon. In addition, take a look at “Upheaval Dome.” Is this the work of a meteor?
Will you choose to walk or cycle part of the 100 mile White Rim Trail at Island in the Sky? Do you want to camp in the backcountry? If so get a permit up to a year in advance! All in all, visiting Canyonlands, the largest National Park in Utah, is a truly unforgettable experience.
We only had time to visit one area of the vast Canyonlands. We chose Islands in the sky because of its close proximity to Moab. (Around a 30-40 minute drive) Stop at the visitor centre located at the entrance and pick up the visitor guide which has all of the viewpoints and trails clearly marked. There is a 34 mile scenic round trip drive that stops off at the viewpoints and trails. There are a variety of walks ranging from a 0.5-mile easy stroll to a 21-mile strenuous overnight hike.
We had only one day in Canyonlands so completed the scenic drive stopping off at the major overlooks and walking some of the trails.
We walked to Mesa Arch, an easy trail leading to a cliff edge and Mesa Arch. The view beyond the arch across to the snow capped La Sal mountains was stunning. As it was November there were around 10 other people sharing this experience, I’m not sure it would be quite the same in August! This is a great place to watch the sun come up too!
The Grand Viewpoint at sunset is beautiful, the overlook allows you to look down into the canyon and see the unique geological layers that makeup Canyonlands. The sun sets across the whole vista and the crevices glisten as the sun is setting. There is a 2-mile trail that follows the canyon’s edge.
Upheaval Dome is a short but steep trail that leads to a view into the dome. If you want to see the view from a different angle the trail extends to a further viewpoint on the left.
If you want to experience Canyonlands from the bottom up, follow the Gooseberry Trail as it descends over 400 metres into the canyon to the white rim bench. Remember to stop and look up…It’s a whole different experience.
For more details on the hiking and back road trails see www.nps.gov
Moab to Monument Valley (150 miles)
Monument Valley is not a National Park in ah, or a National Monument. It is, as I see it, as American as it gets… This spectacular area of towering red buttes and mesas say John Wayne, Westerns and bareback horse riding. The region, located on the Utah/Arizona Border lies within the Navajo Nation Reserve.
We decided the best way to explore this formidable land, was with a Navajo guide. We were keen to find out more about life for the Navajo people, their traditions and culture. With only us on the tour, we spent an enlightening couple of hours with “George” He was able to tell us of the Navajo doctors and their intrinsic role in averting disasters, blessings and treating illness. He knew about the plants, able to survive in the harsh desert landscape and how they were used to make medicine. “George” was older and wise. Proud of his heritage and culture, which he articulately shared.
He took us to different areas and explained their significance. He pointed out animal shapes within the rock faces and tirelessly answered a multitude of questions. Although the Buttes are impressive, the landscape is beautiful and Monument Valley is, all in all, stunning, it was “George” who made the trip. He was a great guide, his expertise and knowledge allowed us to gain some valuable insight into the Navajo culture.
If you want to explore the area on your own, you can pay to drive the 17-mile dirt road. There are a variety of trails to choose from en route. As we were in a hire car, we didn’t feel this was an option for us. Additionally, some areas are off-limits without a Navajo guide. Oh, and you can also pay $5 for someone to ride a horse out to John Ford Point for that iconic photo!
Where to stay
If you want to stay right in the heart of Monument Valley, then the two main options are Gouldings Lodge and Campground or The View Hotel. Gouldings provides lodges, motel style rooms and a campground. We stayed here and the view from our room was simply stunning. They have an on-site restaurant which we ate at, as it was snowing when we visited and there weren’t really many other options. We had the Navajo frybread with green chilli stew as the restaurant and menu was uninspiring, overpriced and lacked any atmosphere. To be fair the frybread was delicious, so a good choice. There is a grocery store and a fast food place in the petrol station, but remember the Navajo reservation does not allow alcohol.
The View Hotel sits high above the entrance to the valley itself and provides rooms, cabins and a campground also.
If you want a more adventurous nights sleep, stay at the Firetree B&B in a traditional Hogan.
For cheaper alternatives, there are chain motels in both Kayenta and Mexican Hat around 25 miles away.
Monument Valley to Page (127 miles)
Again not on our list of National Parks in Utah, but most definitely a highlight of our trip. How is it that just a bit of rain can be responsible for creating such heavenly “caves?” Yes, they were formed over hundreds of years… but rain? We were astounded at the sheer beauty of this magnificent creation of nature. We wandered through this spectacular sandstone cavern, as rays of sunlight beamed down like a torch. The light highlighted the deeply layered swirls of vibrant colours and accentuated the smoothness of the walls. Antelope Canyon was a magical experience we will never forget. Notably, it is featured in the titles of David Attenborough’s Planet Earth 2 series, along with other wonders of the natural world… so it’s got to be experienced!
Antelope Canyon, Arizona includes 2 separate Canyons. The upper, called “The Crack” and lower, known as “The Corkscrew.” We visited the upper canyon, it is all on one level, easy to access and the most popular. The lower canyon is more challenging, involves staircases and confined spaces.
Both canyons are only accessible with a Navajo guide and are timed, affording you the opportunity to take plenty of photographs. Our guide was really helpful, directing the group in terms of photography, even taking the pictures for those less confident/competent. The canyon is prone to flash flooding, hence the necessity of a guide. The Navajo Tribe made Antelope Canyon a Navajo Tribe Park in 1997.
There is a reason why Antelope Canyon is most visited & photographed slot Canyon in the American South West! It is simply stunning and will take your breath away.
Where to stay
We stayed at the Best Western View of Lake Powell hotel. It was situated just on the edge of town but within easy walking distance. The hotel was modern, staff were really friendly, breakfast was provided as well as free 24-hour tea/coffee in reception. Page has a variety of shops, bars, restaurants and tour operators. There is a large supermarket in the centre of town too. We ate at Fiesta Mexicana, a really lovely restaurant serving huge portions of traditional Mexican dishes.
Our main reason for staying in Page was to visit Upper Antelope Canyon, we used Antelope Canyon Tours. They were efficient, and the guide was really knowledgeable. There are lots of tour operators offering similar deals. You can only visit the canyon with a guide. Our upper canyon tour lasted about 90 minutes including transport. The tour costs around $85 and tickets must be reserved in advance.
Whilst in Page you could visit Horseshoe Bend, a few minutes drive from town, the walk down to the bend in the Colorado River is an easy path and is beautiful at sunset. Take plenty of water as there is no shade and its uphill coming back to the car park.
If you have more time, maybe rent a houseboat on Lake Powell, just minutes from Page or at least visit the Rainbow Bridge National Monument or the Glen Canyon Dam.
Page to The Grand Canyon (133 miles)
The Grand Canyon National Park
The Grand Canyon, world-renowned and highly photographed. Yes, we knew what it looked like but hadn’t quite prepared ourselves for the sheer size of this colossal canyon. It is beyond impressive, beautiful, awe-inspiring and an incredible feat of nature.
The Grand Canyon, in Arizona, is one of the top tourist destinations in the world. It gained UNESCO status in 1979 and is one of the 7 natural wonders of the world. 5 million people visit each year, to stop and take in the enormity and splendour of this Canyon. At 227 miles long and up to 18 miles wide, it is colossal. Formed by the Colorado River, the Grand Canyon took 3-6 million years to form. It is constantly changing, erosion continues to alter its contours.
The Grand Canyon National Park comprises of 2 areas accessible to the public. The North Rim and the South Rim. The South Rim is 7000 feet above sea level and easily accessible. The North Rim is 8000 feet above sea level and presents more of a challenge to visitors. By car, 220 miles separate the North and South Rim. You can walk the 21 miles across the canyon, via the Kaibab trail.
The South Rim
We visited the South Rim, the North Rim was closed for the season. The Grand Canyon was far more developed than any of the other parks that we had visited. At the centre of the South Rim area, you will find market plaza and Grand Canyon Village, both areas offering numerous facilities including restaurants, lodgings, campgrounds, ATM, laundry etc. If you want to stay outside the park Tusayan, located around 6 miles from the village is a good base. We stayed at the Holiday Inn and it was good value for money, with a free breakfast. The town had a number of restaurants and fast food places.
Whilst we were there, the park was relatively quiet, I am certain that the car parks would not be quite so empty in August… There is a fantastic free shuttle service, running 4 loops during the season. The buses run every 10-15 minutes and cover the whole South Rim stopping at trailheads and main points of interest.
We followed the rim trail from the visitor centre to Bright Angel Lodge, which was just a few miles. It was an easy paved trail although covered in ice when we were there which made for a few ‘near miss’ moments. We would have liked to have hiked a longer trail but the ice made it difficult. The views from along the trail were magnificent. There are numerous points along the route that you can pick up the shuttle.
You can find out more information about the trails at Grand Canyon
A wonderful road trip
All in all, we had an amazing trip visiting the National Parks in Utah and beyond. There were so many highlights but for me, it was Windows Arch in Arches National Park. I can remember scrambling up towards the arch. Kerry had asked me to run up there for a photo. As I climbed up, towards the arch the sky was so blue and it felt like I was making my way towards heaven. I’m not a religious person but felt quite overcome with emotion. It was so peaceful, serene and indescribably beautiful. Ultimately, at that moment, I decided there was no need to fear dying.
For us, the advantages of travelling in November outweighed the drawbacks. Although, we would have liked to have rafted in Moab, rented a houseboat on Lake Powell and gone to a rodeo. All excellent reasons to return! We do after all have a National Park Pass for another few months…
Thanks for taking the time to read our post, hopefully, you have found a National Park to put on your list.
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