This week, Facebook has been reminding me about the amazing trip my family took last summer to some of the spectacular Southwest national parks: Zion, the Grand Canyon, and Bryce Canyon. Over the course of 10 days, six of us drove hundreds of miles in our rented minivan and stayed in five different hotels! It was exhausting, but it was an adventure we will never forget. The vastness and beauty of these parks are indescribable, and I highly recommend making it a point to visit.
Here are few tips to help you get the most out of your own visit to the Southwest parks:
- Get a National Parks Pass: We traveled with my parents who had already purchased a National Parks pass. As a senior, you can get a fantastic discount on a lifetime pass ($80!) They used to cost even less, but $80 is still a great bargain for a lifetime of park visits. The pass covers all passengers in the car, too! If you’re not a senior, an annual pass will cost you $80, which may be worth it depending on how many parks you plan to visit in a year.
- Drive through both entrances to Zion National Park: When we visited Zion, we stayed in Springdale, UT, which is a cute little town with lots of shops and restaurants and a shuttle that takes you to the entrance of the park if you don’t want to drive in and deal with parking (or the lack thereof). When we were leaving Springdale to head to the Grand Canyon, Google maps gave us two options. Since we had the Parks pass, we chose the route that took us back through Zion Park and sent us off on UT-9 East. This road consisted of a steep incline with hairpin turns and tunnels, but the views of Zion were absolutely breathtaking. Had we not followed Google’s suggestion, we would have never gotten to experience what turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip! (We even did the drive a second time on our way back from the Grand Canyon just to experience it again!)
- Consider staying at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon: My mother did most of our trip planning, and her friend suggested that we stay at the North Rim rather than the South Rim. There isn’t really much at the North Rim, other than the lodge and some campsites nearby, but that meant there also weren’t a lot of people on the roads and trails either. It was very quiet and peaceful! The lodge is built right onto the side of the Canyon and, at night, it’s darker than anything I’ve ever experienced. There are a couple places to eat at the lodge and a cute little bar onsite, so it’s certainly a fine place to stay for a night or two. The advantage of the North Rim, too, is that it’s a lot closer to Zion and Bryce if you’re trying to combine multiple parks in one visit.
- Book accommodations early: If you are planning a trip to any of these parks, note that there are surprisingly few hotels nearby. As such, some of the hotels will book up a year in advance! Book early to avoid disappointment.
- High altitude and low humidity: We spent much of our trip at elevations around 6000-8500 feet. When you normally live at sea level, this can be a bit of an adjustment. If you’re planning to do any hiking in the parks, realize that if you haven’t been training at elevation, every hike is going to take you much longer than expected (and make you feel like you’re dying). Also, they’re not kidding about the dry heat, and your nasal passages may not be happy. Bring a nasal rinse squeeze bottle or look for a saline nasal gel to keep your nose moisturized and comfy.
- Hike the Rim Trail at Bryce Canyon: Hiking the Rim Trail at Bryce Canyon was one of my favorite parts of our vacation. What makes the Rim Trail spectacular (and terrifying) is that you’re literally hiking along the rim of the canyon and there are no fences or walls to prevent you from plummeting to your death. The views are incredible, but if you’re afraid of heights, this may not be the best hike for you…
- Beware of forest fires: Related to that dry heat, there were several forest fires burning around us during our trip. Keep an eye on the news for evacuation notices and understand that routes you’ve planned may be impassable in the event of fires. Also, smoke and ash can drift for hundreds of miles, so don’t get your heart set on perfect, sunny, clear photos.
- Keep an eye on your children: One of the craziest things about this trip was the lack of fences or barriers within the parks. Some trails are right up next to a several thousand foot drop. I was almost afraid to sneeze while walking on some of these trails. If you have young kids, especially kids who like to run off, I’d advise you to keep a VERY close eye or consider the trip when they’re old enough to understand the need to be careful.
- Expect the unexpected: You can plan as much as you’d like, but there will always be unexpected issues that may arise. We had to replace our rental van on the second day of the trip due to bad tires, and we had to find a new hotel on the very first night of our trip after discovering upon check-in that our original hotel had bed bugs. Stuff like this will happen. But just think of all the stories you’ll have!
- Ask locals for recommendations: Finally, the travel tip that works anywhere you go is to ask locals what they would suggest you do. We had an unplanned day at Bryce Canyon, so we asked the park shuttle driver what he suggested. He recommended we take a drive east across UT-12 to Boulder, UT, and this route allowed us to discover Kodachrome Basin State Park and a terrifying stretch of road with no guard rails and nothing but cliffs on the sides called the Hogback. We even found a delightful spot for lunch at the end of our journey at the Burr Trail Grill. This scenic stretch of highway wasn’t even on our radar before arriving at Bryce, but we were in no way disappointed with the advice to do this drive. Locals know what makes their home great–don’t be afraid to ask for their advice!
Want to visit the Southwest parks? Check out our itinerary from last summer for ideas for planning your own trip.
Have you visited any of these parks already? Please share your tips in the comments below!