National Parks Road Trip: Exploring the Southwest Canyons

Canyons Tour

Las Vegas was the perfect launching point for a visit to the picturesque canyons in the US National Parks. We’ve also used Vegas as a home base to see Death Valley and helicopter over the Hoover dam to hit the Grand Canyon in the past. Strange as it is, the glitz and glamour of the “in your face” Vegas is just so different from the natural beauty and peaceful nature of the scenery just a short drive away. To each his own I guess. We must also say that even though many of the parks we visited are only an hour or two apart, it is amazing how different the scenery is from one to the other. Each spectacular in their own way as they revealed themselves to us. We will walk you through what we visited and some of the tips we would recommend should you also decide to visit this beautiful region.

General Tips
  • Buy a National Park Pass. For 80$, you get a year’s access (lifetime pass for the same price if over 62 years old) to ALL the US national parks including the Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce and more than 2000 Federal Recreation sites.
  • Bring lots of water. Think you have enough? Nope, bring more! Consider the odd chance of a breakdown, a flat tire, and a lack of water can literally mean life or death.
  • Do yourself a favor: plan ahead and book a hotel in or next to the parks. Ideally a lodge in the park to get the most out of your visit including seeing spectacular sunrises and sunsets.

Grand Canyon North Rim 

Grand Canyon North Rim & Colorado River

Approximately 4½ hours drive from Las Vegas, it’s a fairly long drive but the route is great, with much of it on the 80 MPH limit interstate 15 highway. The roads leading to and throughout the park (except for the marked off road trails for 4x4s only) are all easy to navigate, wide and nothing to worry about. Amazing as it sounds, only 10% of the visitors to the Grand Canyon make it to the North Rim. Those that have done both sides, had all recommended the North Rim to us as a less commercial, less crowded, and more spectacular set of vistas. It is also only open from May 15 – Oct 15 so note the shorter season.

The park is at an elevation of 8000 feet and most of the vistas throughout the scenic viewpoints are looking down into the canyon. There is only one lodge and one campground and both fill up well in advance. Consider booking a year in advance if you can. Start your trip at the visitor center and walk out along Bright Angel Point Trail. It is a short ½ mile trail but has spectacular views and sharp drop-offs for amazing photos. It is well paved and easy to navigate and we would consider it an easy trail for all, although it is not wheelchair accessible. Those with disabilities can get a lot of good views from other vantage points in the park.

Bright Angel Point Vista
Bright Angel Point Vista

Much of the park can be explored by car, and we did all of the viewpoints in a single afternoon. For sure, those with more time could stop and enjoy soaking in this majestic scenery for hours but we did our best to sit and gawk in awe at the wonder of the canyon where we could.

First, we headed up to the Point Imperial lookout. As we climbed through the tree lined forest we started to get glimpses of the canyon here and there, and then when we pulled up close to the parking lot on top we saw it. Vast, deep, and amazing it seemed to go on forever. It reminded us of clearing that last hill at Machu Picchu when the site first came into view. Exhilarating! We stood and gawked and took about 30 pictures despite our firm resolution to cut down on pictures this time. It’s like you can’t help it; it’s so beautiful. Like paying tribute!

Point Imperial Vista

A mile deep, up to 18 miles wide and almost 300 miles long, this is definitely the largest of the canyons. It became a national park in 1919 but first received federal protection as a forest reserve in 1893. There are plenty of activities including mule rides down to the Colorado River (½ day), and hiking trails down into the canyon or around the rim. In our case we drove along the scenic road towards Cape Royal stopping at all the picturesque overlooks along the way.

Cape Royal Vista
Angels Window

The parking areas were fairly small, often with only 10-20 spots per stop but we never once encountered one that was full. A well kept secret this North Rim! Each of the points provided different vistas, all uniquely spectacular and equally impressive. We read that the best time to take photos was 1 or 2 hours before sunset or after sunrise. The sunlight angled on the canyon walls seems to light the rocks up and make them look like they are on fire. If we had planned it earlier we would have tried to stay at the lodge. As it was, we stayed in Kanab, which was an hour or so out from the North Rim.

Tip: Plan early and try to stay at the lodge to enjoy the mornings and evenings in the park and make the most of it.

Tip: Avoid night driving if you can, we were amazed at the number of deer on the road and it made for a few hair-raising encounters coming around bends.

Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park

Coral Pink Sand Dunes

This little gem is a state park found between canyons, so while our park pass didn’t work, it was well worth the small detour to visit and see these impressive sand dunes in the middle of nowhere. For us the visit was reminiscent of Merzouga in Morocco and just like the scarabs we saw in the sand there, we were fascinated by the story of a type of beetle that only lives here and is usually visible when coming out for mating in the middle of May-June. We actually saw one in the dunes, so his timing was off, but check out the microscope mode of our Olympus camera that gets so close it makes the  grains of sand look like little diamonds.

Coral Pink Tiger Beetle

This state park allows for dune buggies and all kinds of motorized sports but many like us come to have fun hiking up the sand dunes. Rough work, but an hour in and out with our shoes (and socks) filled with sand, we laughed and laughed playing king of the hill on the dunes. The park itself was established in 1963, is at 6,000 feet and the sand comes from the Navajo sandstone which has been eroded by high winds and carried though a mountain pass to this location for what is estimated to be 15,000 years. Another miracle of Mother Nature.

Red Canyon

Dixie National Forest & Red Canyon

Just a few miles before Bryce Canyon we came across the Dixie National Forest where we found the Red Canyon. It’s a small park with simply spectacular red rock formations that almost force you to pull over and take photos. According to the website it is the ‘most photographed place in Utah’, and its easy to see why. There are trails for mountain bikes, ATVs, horseback riding as well as hiking. If nothing else, it’s a wonderful spot to stop for a bit and take in the scenery. A sign of what was to come with the fascinating red rock formations we would also see at Bryce.

Bryce Canyon

Bryce Canyon

Named after the Mormon Pioneer Ebenezer Bryce, in 1928 this canyon became a national park. Erosion by frost, water, and wind has created a unique series of spires that form what are called “hoodoos”. Spires, often grouped together into what are labeled amphitheaters make for incredible viewing. I have to admit that these features made Bryce our favorite of all the canyons we visited. In particular, the chance to hike down into the hoodoos and see them up close along the paths and hiking trails was amazing. The trails to get down are steep but looking at the hoodoos from the top down is one thing, looking at them from bottom up gives you a new appreciation for their majesty. From above you can picture a choir of monks or wise men perhaps, let your imagination wander. From below, each one is a giant and you get to see them from a different perspective and truly admire their grandeur.

Bryce Canyon Trail

Bryce has a shuttle service that takes you around the park stopping at the 14 main viewing points, which are all a short hike up from the parking lots. We took our car, but found that in most of the lots we had to wait a little to get a spot, rarely more than 10 minutes, although we were there near the end of the popular season so I expect that in July or August one might have to wait longer. The park had rangers out to help direct the parking so visitors could get spots in an orderly fashion.

Some of the trails (between Sunset and Sunrise points) are wheelchair accessible but all trails are easily accessed and a pleasure to navigate. For those in good shape, you can do the whole rim along a “Rim Trail” and make a full day of hiking the park. You can also take the car as we did and do each point along the rim trail individually hiking for a little bit in each direction to admire the views below.

Rim Trail

Some of the most scenic views were from Sunrise Point and Sunset Point, which are both accessible from the lodge area. They both give you excellent views of the amphitheater below. This is also the spot where you can most easily hike down into the hoodoos. We strongly recommend you do. Other great hikes include Inspiration Point, and Bryce Point at 8100, and 8293 ft of altitude respectively.

Limber Pine clinging to the cliff side…
Hiking down for a closer look at the hoodoos…

Once again we would recommend planning way ahead and staying at the lodge if you can. There are also some small towns or villages just outside the park like Alton, Hatch, or Panguitch. In our case, we were in Cedar City, which we thought would be a good start for our trip to Zion the next day. We again had not thought of the danger of driving with all the deer on the roads at night and despite leaving with some daylight, we must have seen 20 or more on or beside the roads as we cut through the Dixie National Forest and Cedar Breaks.

Deer grazing along the road.

Tips:  Definitely make the effort to go down into the hoodoos to see them from a close up perspective. Also, if you can, plan ahead and try to stay at the lodge in the park and avoid night driving.

Zion National Park

Zion

A national park since 1919, most of this park resides on the inside of the canyon, unlike the Grand Canyon and Bryce which have you visit mostly from the top looking down. Our first reaction was that the park was similar to our experience visiting Yosemite and driving in between these huge mountains or the canyon rim.

The Narrows

As we explored the park we found Zion to be unique in many ways and especially for those adventurous (in excellent health and not afraid of heights) Zion offers some very challenging hikes like Angels Landing (on top of a steep cliff with dramatic drops on either side, named after a spot where only angels could land) and the Subway (in The Narrows where water has carved out a rounded tunnel like ravine, which is prone to flash flooding.

In essence we classify Zion into four distinct itineraries, each of which we did and have expanded below.

Kolob Canyon Road
Kolob Canyon Road

This is the northern part of the park, which was our first stop from Cedar City as we made our approach. It has it’s own visitor center and gate, but is part of Zion. A spectacular view of the canyon from this 5-mile scenic drive and climb can be had. There were numerous hiking trails but we were anxious to get to the main park so we only stopped to take some pictures from the various overlooks along the drive up to the top. We went in the morning and the sun was not cooperating with our photos so for the best shots we would recommend you go in the afternoon or around sunset. Parking is limited, so if you plan to hike make sure you get there early to get a spot.

Tip: Best pictures in the afternoon due to sun position.

Kolob Terrace Road
Kolob Terrace Road Vista

This road winds in and out of the park and is to the west of the main park area. It is touted as less busy and less commercial than the park, but we would say that if you had more time, you’d be better off spending it at the other parks where the scenery is much more spectacular. It was worth an hour’s drive to see some different vantage points climbing up to the vistas but somewhat monotonous near the end and we would recommend you don’t bother going all the way up to the reservoir.

Tip: Turn around at Wild Cat trail, not worth the climb to the reservoir.

Drive the Mount Carmel Highway to the East Gate

The main scenic road in the park is only accessible with the mandatory shuttle, but you can take your car and drive across the park to the East entrance. It’s an amazing drive that takes you through the 1-mile man-made tunnel dug out in 1930 through solid rock which has a number of windows carved into it. The whole road has unbelievable views along the way, some unique to other areas of the park including the famous Checkerboard Mountain among other distinct features and impressive views.

Checkerboard Mountain

Tip: Turn around near the Checkerboard Mountain to come back through the park and avoid exiting and having to wait in line again to enter with the people paying the entrance fees.

Zion Scenic Trail
Pa’rus Trail

This is the most built up and commercial part of Zion and as such can only be accessed by a park shuttle during the busy season. In theory it is possible to drive into some areas but parking is so limited that it basically fills up in the first 10 minutes after opening. While we were at first concerned about this inconvenience, in reality we barely waited for the shuttle and it was excellently run. Some of the trails went from one stop to the next so in many ways grabbing the shuttle made life easier without having to look for parking and hike back to your starting point. Don’t let the idea of a shuttle discourage you. In addition, if like us you stay in Springdale (the adjacent town to the park’s main entrance) they also run a free shuttle from all the hotels to the park.

Tips: Take the shuttle, bring a refillable water bottle to save the weight (plenty of filling stations in the park) and wear good shoes!

Virgin River, Zion

The park has easy, intermediate, and advanced trails. There is also cliff climbing up the sheer cliffs for the real adrenaline junkies (we did actually see climbers). To put things in perspective, the easy trails are paved, generally wheelchair accessible and we saw many in their 70s and 80s hitting these with ease. In fact, while we first thought we would also restrict ourselves to easy trails, we found these unsatisfying (don’t get me wrong the views are amazing but it just didn’t feel like a “hike”!) we ended up doing intermediate trails which were not too challenging and let us get a little closer to the mountain and push ourselves a little harder.

Kayenta Trail

The intermediate trails had us climbing up some of the rock faces on uneven stone stairs, zigzagging up switchbacks, and cutting across rocks and gravel over some spectacular drop-offs. More of a sense of climbing the mountain instead of strolling on the sidewalk!   This is by no means intended as a criticism of the park and quite the contrary. Everyone should set a pace and level they are comfortable with, and Zion is able to cater to just about any level with the variety of trails they offer. For example, one of the more famous advanced trails is the Angels Landing which climbs up 2300 feet with sheer drops on both sides and is definitely not for the feint of heart or those that have any vertigo or a fear of heights.

Riverside Walk

Another comment about this area of Zion is that to make the most of the park, unlike the North Rim or Bryce you can’t just walk from the shuttle at each stop to a viewpoint to have a quick look. You must get on the trails, which take you to the sites often with a ½ mile or mile long hike. Whether on a paved beginner trail walkway or a more advanced trek, you really must get on the trails to see the highlights of the park and appreciate it’s beauty.

Red Cliffs and Quail Creek 

Just off Highway 15 near Hurricane we ran into a couple of parks and recreation areas that are worth a mention and a couple of pictures. Both worthy of a picnic lunch, a few hikes, or even a campground if exploring the area.

Quail Creek State Park is more of a boat launch area with what looks like a man-made lake (reservoir) between cliffs of red rocks. The water was amazingly blue with the red rocks and white sand shores giving a wonderful contrast for pictures. We didn’t see many facilities here but given more time it could have been a great place to stop and enjoy a lunch or a swim.

Quail Creek Reservoir

Red Cliffs Recreation Area, accessible through driving under Highway 15 in what looks almost like a storm drain is a great spot for camping with a backdrop of red rock cliffs that is just spectacular. What amazed us is the tranquility here, compared to the hustle and bustle of the tourist buses and shuttles at Zion. The park has what look like well equipped campsites with shade covered picnic tables and hookups. There were only a small number of these (perhaps ½ dozen) visible from the road and only two looked occupied. Hiking here would certainly be more peaceful than the busy more popular parks.

Red Cliff Recreation Area Campground

Valley of Fire

Valley of Fire

On the way back to Vegas in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area lies what is called the Valley of Fire. This wonderful drive through a series of rock formation offers numerous hiking trails and turnoffs. The rock formations are stunning and with the sun-nearing sunset we found they were lit up like they were on fire. The park is made up of 40,000 acres of Aztec sandstone outcrops. You can find 2,000 year old petrified trees and many of the formations look like melted wax or chocolate. It’s hard to describe these in words, so best to show a few pictures. Definitely worth a drive from Las Vegas as this was barely an hour away from Sin City and a short detour off the highway 15.

Close by was the Lost City Museum which gives some history of the area before it was flooded by Lake Mead with the creation of the Hoover Dam. In particular you can find artifacts and simulations of the daily life of the Pueblo Indians.

The museum is located on a prehistoric site where many artifacts were unearthed.  It closes at 4:30 pm.

Epilogue

As usual, we packed in a lot in a short time and in retrospect may have enjoyed a more peaceful visit of a few days to really get to know any one of these parks. The funny thing was that originally we even planned to drive to the Arches and Monument Valley parks also but this would have been next to impossible in the short time we had. These will likely be the topic of another trip and another post. Perhaps with a road trip out of Denver. There is so much to see that you could easily spend two weeks and include Mt Rushmore and do the traditional circle tour like many of the bus tours offer. That is also one way to avoid the driving if you don’t mind the organized tour route. For us, it was a wonderful distraction, a good way to use up some of those expiring points, and we are grateful to have had the opportunity to spend some time soaking in the grandeur and beauty of these beautiful canyons and surrounding areas.


Check out more of our photos in our photo gallery

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