The National Parks of the Southwest: Zion, the Grand Canyon, and Bryce Canyon (with a bonus weekend at Hoover Dam and Las Vegas!)

In June of 2017, my husband and I traveled to the Southwest and met up with my parents, sister, and brother-in-law.  The six of us piled into a minivan and road-tripped  over a thousand miles, visiting three National Parks, the Hoover Dam, and Las Vegas.  Below is our itinerary, which can certainly be expanded upon and adjusted, and it should give you a good head start on planning a similar trip.  At the end of the itinerary, you’ll also find some additional information that we researched in advance of our trip.

Day 1:

Early morning – Fly to Las Vegas for an early afternoon arrival

1:00 pm – Pick up car rental at the airport

2:00 pm – Grab some lunch and pick up some supplies and snacks.

  • There is a Target in Vegas where you can buy a disposable cooler, water, ice, liquor, beer, and food for lunches. While in the parks, there are limited food options, so we packed lots of PB&J sandwiches, trail mix, cheese sticks, veggies and apples as picnic lunches. Don’t forget to buy paper plates, napkins, and bags, too.

3:30 pm – Head to Springdale, UT (158 miles, approximately 3 – 3.5 hours)

6:30 pm – Check into hotel

  • We stayed at the Driftwood Lodge. The front desk staff was amazing, the rooms were clean and spacious, and there was a pool, hot tub, and restaurant (with great burgers!) onsite. They did not offer free breakfast on site, but they did have very inexpensive brunch vouchers for a place in town, Oscar’s Cafe, which was great!

7:00 pm – Dinner at hotel or in town

Day 2:

8:30 am Breakfast at Oscar’s Cafe or another restaurant in town.

9:30 am Catch shuttle to Zion National Park. The town shuttle stops along the road to the park, as well as at several hotels in Springdale.

10:00 am Wait in line for mandatory park shuttle inside the park.

  • We waited about a half hour for a shuttle, which are hop on/hop off throughout the park so you can go where you want and see what you want. The shuttles are crowded and aren’t air conditioned, so it’s recommended that you come early in the day to avoid the afternoon heat.
  • Once inside the park, there are tons of trails with a variety of difficulty levels. We took the shuttle to the last stop at the Temple of Sinawava to do the easy 2-mile round trip Riverside Walk along the Virgin River. If you bring water shoes, you can continue hiking through the water once you reach the end of the trail.
  • Don’t forget to find a shady place to have a picnic and fuel up for your next hike.
  • Near the lodge inside the park, we did another hike up to the Emerald Pools. This has a little elevation climb, and you’ll feel it if you’re not used to exercising at higher altitudes!
Hiking to the Emerald Pools, June 2017. One of the few places in the parks with fencing or barriers!

4:00 pm – Head back to town to explore or to the hotel to cool off with a dip in the pool. (We went back to Oscar’s Cafe for some happy hour refreshments and appetizers before spending a couple of hours at the pool.)

7:30 pm – Dinner at the hotel or in town.

Day 3:

9:00 am – Breakfast at Oscar’s Cafe or another restaurant in town.

10:00 am – Start your drive to the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park (120 miles, approximately 2.5-3 hours)

  • If you’re given an option by your GPS to either go west towards I-15 or east on UT-9 back through Zion Park, go east! The drive will take you up a steep hill with multiple switchbacks, overlooks, and tunnels. I promise this will be a highlight of your trip because it’s fun to drive and the views are amazing! Be aware that the tunnels are one lane in some places and therefore traffic will be stalled periodically as they allow cars to take turns passing through.

1:00 pm – Check into the Grand Canyon Lodge (Book early! Rooms can sell out a year in advance. You’ll also likely need to pre-pay.)

  • Aside from camping, there really isn’t much else nearby, so the Lodge is the way to go if you’re visiting the North Rim. It’s a little rustic, the bathrooms are tiny, and there is no air conditioning, but it was clean and is situated right on the edge of the Canyon (that view alone is so worth it!) There is also a Visitor’s Center at the Lodge.

1:30 pm – Have lunch at the Lodge or pack up some sandwiches and snacks for your drive.

2:30 pm – Drive the 23 miles through the park to Cape Royal.

  • There are several overlooks and trails that you can access on your drive. We did the Cape Royal Trail, which takes you by the Angel’s Window, and we stopped at the Walhalla Overlook for breathtaking views of the Canyon.
The Angel’s Window, June 2017.

7:30 pm – Dinner at the Lodge.

  • If you plan to eat in the dining room, you must make reservations in advance. Otherwise, there are other options like pizza and sandwiches you can get from the other quick-serve restaurants on the property. We opted for pizza and adult beverages at the Roughrider Saloon ourselves.

9:00 pm – After dark, be sure to go out on the patio of the Lodge and take in the complete darkness of the Canyon. If you look waaayyy off in the distance, you’ll see the lights from the South Rim.

Day 4:

9:00 am – Breakfast buffet at the Lodge dining room

10:00 am – Walk the Bright Angel Point trail at the Lodge.

  • This short walk is a half mile round trip, but it’s rather terrifying. The pathway is narrow, it’s about 8000 feet in the air, and there are no fences or railings to keep you from falling. However, it’s worth it when you finally make it to the end and catch your breath!
View from the patio of the Grand Canyon Lodge North Rim, June 2017.

11:00 pm – Head to Bryce Canyon (160 miles, approximately 3 – 3.5 hours). Stop for lunch or pack a picnic to eat along the way.

3:00 pm – Check into your hotel.

  • We stayed at the Bryce View Lodge.  It was clean, reasonably priced, and close to restaurants and shops.  The town is fairly sleepy and the sit-down dining options were limited, but there is a grocery store if you need supplies, a rodeo, and some dinner-show options in walking distance of the hotel.  There isn’t a pool on site, but you are welcome to use the pool of another hotel across the highway.

4:00 pm – If you have the energy and want to make a quick visit to the park, you can take the town shuttle near the hotel into Bryce Canyon Park to Bryce Point, which offers incredible views of the large amphitheater.  The shuttle is free and it arrives every 12-15 minutes.  Do ask the driver if they’re going all the way to the park when you get on, as sometimes they head off for a break before proceeding to the park.

7:30 pm – Dinner in town.

Bryce Canyon Amphitheater, June 2017.

Day 5:

9:00 am – Breakfast in town.

  • We did the breakfast buffet at Ruby’s Inn for breakfast every morning.  It was a reasonably priced, pretty standard breakfast buffet that fueled us up for our day!

10:00 am – Drive into the park to Rainbow Point and Yovimpa Point, which share a parking lot.

  • Once inside the park, it’s about an 18-mile drive to Rainbow and Yovimpa Points.  From the parking lot, there are restroom facilities and a couple of short, easy hikes with connections to more difficult trails. We did the Bristlecone Loop.
  • As you drive back through the park, there are multiple overlooks where you can stop for photos and pick up more hiking trails.
The Natural Bridge, around mile 12 in Bryce Canyon, June 2017.

1:00 pm – Picnic lunch in the park.

  • We stopped at Sunset Point for lunch.  There is a nice-sized parking lot, and there are bathrooms, lots of picnic tables, and bottle refill stations.  It’s also fairly close to the Bryce Canyon Lodge, which you may want to consider for lunch as well.

2:30 pm – Refill water, sunscreen up, and hit the Rim Trail.

  • My parents didn’t want to join us on the Rim Trail hike, so we agreed to hike to Bryce Point, which is two stops away on the shuttle so that we could then take the shuttle back to the car and meet back up with them.
  • From Sunset Point it’s about .7 miles to Inspiration Point, and from there it’s another 1.5 miles to Bryce Point.  This trail runs along the rim of the canyon, with no barriers between you and the cliff’s edge.  It was slightly terrifying but also exhilarating!
  • The elevation gain under the hot sun made it an intense workout, but we took lots of breaks to hydrate and take photos.  This was truly one of the highlights of our trip, and I would encourage you to spend some time hiking at least part of the Rim Trail.
  • If you want a less strenuous journey on the Rim Trail, consider hiking downhill from Bryce Point to Sunset Point instead.  Just be careful not to stumble!

4:00 pm – Do some more hiking (if you have the energy!) or head back to town to relax.

7:00 pm – Dinner in town.

Day 6:

9:00 am – Breakfast in town.

10:00 am – Venture out east on Utah’s Scenic Highway 12 to Boulder, UT.

  • We had planned to use this day for hiking and exploring Bryce more, but one of the park shuttle drivers suggested that if we had free time, we should consider taking a trip out east on Highway 12.

10:30 am – Stop at Kodachrome Basin State Park

  • We drove in to the Basin Campground parking lot, which has restroom facilities, and then we set off on the Angel’s Palace trail.  This is noted as an easy/moderate trail, but it’s really more bouldering than hiking.  However, it offers some really stunning views and incredible photo opportunities.  In fact, a National Geographic expedition actually named the park for the film company, Kodak, due to the beauty and color of the park.
Kodachrome Basin State Park, June 2017.

11:30 am – Get back on the road towards Boulder.

  • There are several places you can stop on the way to Boulder, including the Escalante Visitor’s Center and multiple overlooks/turnouts.  We were pretty tired at this point in our trip, so we just kept driving.
  • As you get closer to Boulder, you will encounter a crazy stretch of road called the Hogback.  There are steep cliffs, no guard rails, and, at a particularly terrifying stretch, there is a narrow strip of road with no rails or shoulders and nothing but dropoffs on the side.  It was white-knuckle driving, but it was lots of fun, too!  This is a road-tripper’s dream and is not to be missed on your Utah-12 drive.

1:30 pm – Grab lunch in Boulder or bring a picnic.

  • There weren’t a ton of options on UT-12 itself, but before we set out in the morning, I looked up restaurants and found the Burr Trail Grill, which was great!  They have indoor and outdoor seating, great food, and delicious, homemade pies.  It was a fantastic spot to take a break before the journey back.

3:00 pm – Start the trip back to Bryce Canyon.  Stop at any overlooks you missed on your way to Boulder.

4: 15 pm – Stop at the Mossy Cave Trail.

  • About 10 minutes outside of the town of Bryce, shortly before you turn back off UT-12, you’ll find the Mossy Cave Trail.  This short, easy hike takes you along a little canal.  When you get to a fork in the trail, you can go to the left to hike up to the cave or you can go to the right to stand on top of a little waterfall.  We did both!
  • There were several forest fires burning to the west of us while we were in Bryce, and while we were hiking Mossy Cave, there was smoke and ash in the air.  The fires were quite a ways away, but the smoke effect made for some hazy photos.
The Mossy Cave Trail waterfall, June 2017.

5:30 pm – Head back to the hotel.

7:00 pm – Dinner in town.

Day 7:

9:00 am – Breakfast in town.

10:00 am – Choose your own adventure!

  • We had originally planned to visit Cedar Breaks and Kolob Canyon (part of Zion National Park) this day, but unfortunately, forest fires were burning very close to Cedar Breaks.
  • We were still able to visit Kolob Canyon, but because of the fire, we had to detour quite a ways to get there.  By the time we arrived, we were all a little tired from the week’s travels and really just kinda done being in the car. However, the park is beautiful, so if you have the time and energy for a visit, it’s certainly worthwhile, especially if you plan to do more hiking and if you can take a more direct route to get there.  We barely encountered anyone while there, so it should offer less-crowded and more peaceful hiking than Zion’s main park.
  • Or if you’re too tired and want to keep moving, you could just go straight to the next destination – Mesquite, NV – which is a good stopping point on your way to Hoover Dam the following day.

1:00 pm or later – Check into hotel.

  • We stayed at the Eureka Casino and Resort in Mesquite, which is a little mini-version of Las Vegas.  We paid $63/night for the rooms, which were all clean and spacious.  The hotel had a lovely little pool with nice cabanas, and there is a casino and a couple of restaurants on-site.

5:00 pm or later – Dinner onsite or in town.

  • We decided to eat on-site at Gregory’s Mesquite Grill for their early bird 3-course prix-fixe steak dinner, which was fantastic!  It was available from 4-6 pm, and we were all hungry and ready to eat at that time.

6:30 pm – Spend time in the casino, return to the pool, relax!

Day 8:

9:00 am – Breakfast at the hotel or in town.  The hotel offered a buffet breakfast, which is what we did.

10:00 am – Head to Lake Mead and Hoover Dam (115 miles, approximately 2-2.5 hours)

12:30 pm – Take the Dam tour and go to the Visitor’s Center.

  • This is an active dam and as such there is quite a bit of security you must go through before the tour.  Leave food and drinks behind, and ensure you don’t have any pocketknives or the like in your backpack or you’ll have to throw it away or take it back to your car.

2:00 pm – Have lunch at the Dam concession facilities.

3:00 pm – Explore Lake Mead and the surrounding areas or head to Las Vegas! (35 miles approximately 45 minutes – 1 hour)

  • We were definitely tired at this point, and it was 115 degrees when we were at the Hoover Dam, so we opted to head straight to Vegas.

4:00 pm – Check into your hotel.

  • We stayed at Treasure Island, which is a bit older but is one of the more affordable options on the Strip.  I’ve also stayed at Paris, which is newer and quite nice and has a lovely pool, but it’s also going to be pricier.
  • A lot of the hotels in Vegas have very strict check-in times and will not allow you to check in early.  Be sure to check your hotel’s policy so you’ll know what to expect.

5:00 pm – Wander the strip.

  • If you’ve never been to Vegas, you should explore your own hotel and then just walk outside and start visiting the other hotels and casinos you encounter.  Each hotel tends to have a theme of sorts, and many of the hotels also have theaters for concerts, shows, artwork, etc.
  • Some hotels also have little shows that go with their theme that are free to the public.  The Bellagio has a water fountain show, the Mirage has an erupting volcano, Treasure Island used to have a pirate show, but it’s been discontinued.
  • Some hotels even have rides!  New York, New York has a roller coaster and the Stratosphere has several rides on its rooftop, a couple of which actually have you dangling off the side of the building!  If you do go to the Stratosphere, save your visit for nighttime when you can see all the lights.  I’m not terribly fond of heights and could only do the ride that shoots you straight up in the air, but the view was pretty spectacular.

7:00 pm – Have some dinner and drinks!

  • Unlike near the national parks, there are tons of options for food and drinks on the Vegas Strip.  It’s easy enough to just wander and stop when you see something that’s interesting and that suits your palate and wallet.

8:00 pm – Keep wandering the strip, see a show, do some gambling, or whatever else you like.

  • If you plan to see a show in Vegas, be prepared to spend some money and try to book well in advance if you can.
  • A lot of well-known performers do short residencies in Vegas.  We actually saw Ricky Martin while we were in Vegas, and it was such a fun show!
  • The Cirque du Soleil shows are also very entertaining (especially, “O”, which is the water-based Cirque du Soleil show), and there are several of them playing at various hotels on the Strip.
  • For last-minute and discounted tickets, you can check out, and your hotel can also offer you suggestions and assistance with booking tickets.

Day 9:

10:00 am – Have breakfast at the hotel or on the Strip.

  • A lot of the hotels have big buffets that are a bit on the pricey side but still pretty fabulous.  If you want treat yourself, use this day to load up on a giant breakfast!

11:00 am – Wander the strip, take a tour, spend some time relaxing by the pool, gamble in the casinos, etc.  There are plenty of options to keep you entertained!

3:00 pm – Have a snack or find a happy hour!

7:00 pm – Dinner at the hotel or on the strip.

8:00 pm – See a show, wander the strip, go dancing, or do whatever makes you happy!

Day 10:

10:00 am – Have breakfast at the hotel or on the Strip.

11:00 am – Take a taxi to Downtown Las Vegas / Freemont Street

  • Several blocks of Freemont Street are closed off to traffic and covered overhead.  There are smaller casinos, restaurants, shops, live music, and even ziplining!
  • There are also a few breweries downtown, and that’s what we chose to do with our last afternoon in Vegas after we wandered around Freemont Street a bit.

12:00 pm – Beer Tasting

  • All the breweries were in walking distance from each other, though the last stop was a bit further away than we anticipated.  There wasn’t really any on-street taxi service, so we ended up taking an Uber back to our hotel when we had our fill of beer.
  • I had researched the area to find Vegas breweries, but while we were hopping from one brewery to the next, we noticed that another large group was showing up at the same places as us as part of a tasting tour.  So, if you don’t want to do any planning, book a brewery tour!  Or you can check out the places we visited below:
    • Banger Brewing Co. – We enjoyed the beer here, but we felt the atmosphere was lacking.  Also, the aforementioned tour group was taking up a lot of space and it just felt a bit too crowded, so we didn’t linger here for long.
    • Triple 7 – More of a brewpub than a craft brewery.  The beer was okay, but we were definitely looking for more of a craft brewery vibe and didn’t linger here either.
    • Tenaya Creek – This was a little out of the way, but it was our favorite spot by far.  The beer was great, it wasn’t too crowded, there was a lot of natural light shining in, and the bartenders and crowd were very friendly.  We spent quite a bit of time here, so I’d say it’s definitely worth the walk from Freemont Street.

5:00 pm – Head back to the hotel and start packing up to leave in the morning.

7:00 pm – Enjoy one last dinner and night out on the town!

Day 11:

Depending on your flight times, make sure you wake up early enough to drop off your rental car and make it to your flight on time.  The car drop off area is a little ways away from the airport, so give yourself enough time so you don’t have to rush or worry about missing your flight!

Have a safe journey home!

Enjoy looking back through all your amazing photos.  🙂


* Denotes places we actually visited during our trip.

Zion/Springdale Info 

Grand Canyon Info

  • Grand Canyon Lodge*: Food and drink options in the North Rim are fairly limited to what’s available at the Lodge, which includes buffet and a la carte options in the dining room, an on-site deli, and a small pub/coffee house with pizza and light snacks

Bryce Canyon Info 

Mesquite Info 

  • Gregory’s Steakhouse*: Onsite at Eureka hotel, surf & turf, chicken, pricier but has a great early bird prix fixe special (only open until 8 pm)
  • Mason Street Courtyard*:  Onsite at Eureka hotel, casual; soups, salads, sandwiches, burgers; also serves breakfast (not included in hotel stay)

Las Vegas Info