I love a good road trip. Beautiful scenery out the window. No fixed schedule. The tunes cranked up on the radio.… okay on your smartphone. For gorgeous scenery in the United States, you can’t beat a visit to America’s National Parks.
To visit some of the best parks in the American Southwest I suggest spending about a week doing the following:
Fly to Las Vegas, which has cheap flights to many domestic and international destinations. After you have gotten your fill of gambling and shows, rent a car and head out into the vastness that is the American West. Our first stop is going to be the Grand Canyon, but from Vegas, we are going to go to the less-visited and much less crowded North Rim of the Grand Canyon. The drive will take about 4 and a half hours. You can also fly into St. George, Utah, for a shorter drive but probably more expensive flights.
Driving from St. George to the Grand Canyon, you are so far from the big city that you may not pick up a single radio station on your car radio. This is a great trip for people who have loaded up their iPhone with podcasts or audiobooks or who brought a travel companion that they’ve been meaning to catch up with.
Grand Canyon – North Rim
The North Rim of the Grand Canyon is at a higher elevation (8500 feet) than the South Rim (6,800 feet) and is usually closed in winter. I would suggest September or October for the best time of year for this trip. Not so cold that the Grand Canyon is snowed in or so hot that Las Vegas is above 100 degrees.
Nothing quite frustrates me as a travel photographer than standing at the rim of the Grand Canyon. There are vast panoramas everywhere you look from lookouts like Angels Landing, but no matter how far back I step I can’t possibly fit it all in my viewfinder. If you are in good shape, like to hike, and have an extra day or two you can hike from here down into the Canyon. More sedentary travelers can enjoy the stunning vistas out the windows of the National Park Lodge. Few lodging options exist at the North Rim. Like all the U.S. National Parks on this itinerary, you can save money by bringing your tent or stay in the Park Lodge for a little more comfort.
Our second stop is Page, Arizona which is 3 hours from the North Rim. Get up early to see the sunrise over the canyon and then head East to Page. The city of Page was largely created to build and run the Grand Coulee Dam. Tours of the dam are available during the late Spring, Summer, and early Fall.
You are visiting Page not for a U.S. National Park but for a Navajo National Park called Antelope Canyon. If you have seen pictures of a slot canyon in the American Southwest then you have probably seen pictures of Antelope Canyon. There are two different parts of the canyon and I’m going to recommend you visit both.
Visit Lower Antelope Canyon as soon as it opens during the day which is between 8 am and 9 am depending on the season. Lower Antelope Canyon is such a narrow canyon that as you descend into it your left and right shoulders may both touch the canyon sides. Both of the canyons are a spectacular display of light and rock.
Make a reservation to see Upper Antelope Canyon as close to noon as you can. It is the easier canyon to visit and the more popular. The parking lot for the Upper canyon is across the highway from the Lower canyon but you will need to get in a tour vehicle to drive out to the canyon. If you can’t take an interesting picture of Antelope Canyon, turn in your camera and buy postcards from now on.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Two and a half hours from Page is the spectacular scenery of Bryce Canyon National Park. While the Grand Canyon is much more… well… Grand, Bryce Canyon may be the most beautiful National Park. The park is best known for the hoodoos or towers of stone that have been carved by the constant freezing and thawing of water. Get up at down to see the play of the light over the hoodoos and then hike down into them on the very memorable Navajo Trail.
Zion National Park
Less than two hours from Bryce Canyon is Zion National Park. Zion has some great hikes up to dizzying heights like Angel’s Landing but for my money, the best hike in Zion and one of the best hikes in the U.S. Is up the Virgin River. Rent waterproof boots, a walking stick, and a dry bag the night before. Check the weather report for rain because you will be hiking up a narrow canyon and flash floods are dangerous so if rain is predicted make other plans. You can do a day hike up the river to the Narrows and back from the last stop on the park’s shuttle route. The Virgin River has rock walls rising thousands of feet on either side. You will get wet as this is not a trail along the river but at points a hike in the river. I took the first bus into the park on an October morning and did not see anyone for hours until I turned around and headed back.
From Zion, it is only a two and a half-hour drive back to Las Vegas.
If you have more time
If you have a couple of extra days there is a newer U.S. National Monument between the Grand Canyon and Page, Arizona called Vermilion Cliffs National Monument. This monument has few facilities but some spectacular scenery.
From Page, you could also drive 3 hours further East to Monument Valley and then make a larger, much longer loop north to include Moab and Arches National Parks but that will add a few more days to the trip.
For more information listen to these older episodes of the Amateur Traveler:
- Southwest USA Road Trip – Grand Canyon National Park – Episode 16
- Southwest USA Road Trip – Bryce Canyon National Park – Episode 17
- Southwest USA Road Trip – Zion National Park – Episode 18
What is your favorite national park?