They say it’s the journey, not the destination. And while my family’s ten-day trip to three amazing national parks in the Southwest was all about Zion Canyon, Bryce Canyon and ultimately Grand Canyon, our time driving from place to place included its own series of adventures.
My wife, 12-year-old son and I first flew to Las Vegas and spent a couple days there before heading out on our three-state road trip.
Okay… so a few words about Las Vegas. Why start there? It was originally just an airfare choice, but that location eventually enabled our decision to expand our road trip to include Zion and Bryce Canyon on the way over to Grand Canyon.
Of course Vegas could not be a less appropriate way to match the Zen of three great national parks. That said, we still enjoyed the Vegas spectacle. We stayed at The Mirage on the Vegas strip. And if you’re already there, how can you say no to a little pool time at The Mirage’s massive pool, complete with thunderous waterfall. We also took in a fantastic show – The Beatles LOVE by Cirque de Soleil.
We also had way too much fun consuming massive amounts of frozen yogurt complete with every imaginable topping. We walked down the Vegas strip to visit the fountains at the Bellagio. (We’d recently streamed “Ocean’s 11.”) And we endured the hottest temperatures of our trip. It almost hit 100 degrees. (And I know that’s not hot for Vegas.)
Yeah, it was time to get out of Dodge…
Here’s our complete itinerary and how we maximized our vacation time to enhance our total experience.
Our Southwest Vacation Itinerary
- Fly into Las Vegas. Settle in at The Mirage.
- Spend full day in Las Vegas.
- Enjoy pool time.
- Visit Siegfried and Roy’s Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat.
- Walk to the Bellagio’s fountains.
- Go to The Beatles LOVE by Cirque du Soleil (simply stunning).
- Get your lounge chair early for more Las Vegas pool time.
- Check out of The Mirage.
- Drive to Zion National Park in southern Utah. Check into the hotel in Springdale.
- Do late afternoon hike on Watchman Trail at Zion.
- Say hello to the rattlesnake that you gingerly walk by.
- Get up wicked early and do Zion sunrise hike to the Canyon Overlook.
- Don’t forget to bring a flashlight as you’ll be starting your 30-minute hike up to the overlook in darkness.
- Check out of the hotel. Then drive to Bryce Canyon City, Utah.
- Take quick afternoon trip to Bryce Canyon National Park and see first views of the Hoodoos.
(Then a thunderstorm chased us away.)
- Have dinner in Ruby’s Restaurant.
- Do morning hike among the amazing Hoodoos. Check out of the hotel.
- Have lunch at Bryce Canyon Pines Restaurant and order a slice of pie for dessert. (You will not be disappointed.)
- Drive to Page in northern Arizona.
- Visit overlook at the impressive Horseshoe Bend of the Colorado River.
(We were also going to do the Antelope Lower Slot Canyon tour the next morning, but our tour was cancelled due to flooding from the previous day’s storm. Thankfully, we were not otherwise affected.)
- Check out of the hotel.
- Before leaving Page, stop by the overlook at the Glen Canyon Dam and Colorado River.
- Drive to Grand Canyon National Park.
- On the way, stop in the middle of nowhere, get out of the car and take it all in.
- Jump for joy when you see Grand Canyon for the first time by the Desert View Watchtower!
- Check into Bright Angel Lodge at Grand Canyon National Park.
- Walk around the canyon’s rim for half an hour in astonishment.
- Greet the sunrise.
- Go on a morning mule ride by the rim.
- Don’t worry, your mule will not walk too close to the edge of the canyon. It was totally safe.
- Watch the sunset over the canyon and take photos.
- Now it’s time to get into Grand Canyon!
- Go on early morning hike down the Bright Angel Trail. (We started at 6:45am.)
- Explore different sections of Grand Canyon via free bus system.
- Visit Hermit’s Rest and hoof it to the next bus stop.
- Go on one last walk on the rim and check out of Bright Angel Lodge.
- Drive the southern route back to Las Vegas.
- Stop for lunch at the Roadkill Cafe on Route 66 in Seligman, Arizona.
- Continue on Route 66 (not the fastest way back).
- Stop at the eclectic Antares Point Gift Shop, home of Giganticus Headicus in Kingman, Arizona.
- Jump on highway 93 North and head to Hoover Dam to catch a late afternoon tour. The last tour leaves at 4:15pm. Believe me, I know. If you happen to hear about some silly guy from Connecticut sprinting down the tour center’s hallway to buy tickets two minutes before the deadline, yeah… that might have been me. (I really wanted our son to see the how the dam and its electricity production was engineered.)
- The tour was fantastic!
- Leave Hoover Dam museum at 5pm when it closes and then head over to Las Vegas.
- Check back into The Mirage. (We thought it would be easier/faster to go back to the same place on our last night.)
- Have dinner and watch The Mirage’s Volcano explode right in front our hotel room window.
- Pack and go to sleep.
- As our flight home wasn’t until 3:30pm, we had plenty opportunity for one last round of morning pool time and a final serving of frozen yogurt à la Mirage.
- Check out and head to airport.
How to Pack It All In
Yes, our itinerary was full and certainly requires a fair amount of driving from place to place in a rental car, but I’ve got to say our plan ended up being a really efficient strategy when structured family time is important.
Here’s another way to look at our daily routine on our way to Grand Canyon:
- Get up early. Have breakfast.
- Go for a morning hike in an unforgettable outdoor space from 9am-11am.
- Check out of our hotel at noon. (We asked for late check out if needed. That extra hour made a big difference.)
- Drive for 2-3 hours to the next destination.
- Check into the new hotel by 4:30pm.
- Throw our bags in our room.
- Then quickly turn it around and go on 5pm-7pm hike. (Still light out during the summer.)
- Come back and have dinner.
- Exhaustion sets in. Go to bed early.
- Shower and repeat.
Pack a Raincoat
Driving to the next destination was rarely boring. If we weren’t marveling at the amazing Southwest scenery, we were keeping tabs on some massive afternoon weather systems on the horizon that seemed to chase us. We learned along the way that it was actually ‘monsoon season’ in some of the parts we traveled through.
At times, it felt like we were in a movie, trying to escape the weather. (It was actually more of a fun fantasy to explore during our car chit chat.)
While we avoided most of the rain on our drives and only experienced one thunderstorm when we arrived at Bryce Canyon (forcing us to leave), we needed to be mindful of thunderstorm threats and flash-flood warnings on several afternoons.
Where to Gas up the Car
It goes without saying that our road trip carried high gas costs for our rental car. Filling up our Jeep Grand Cherokee was not cheap. That said, the price of gas was significantly cheaper in Arizona (almost a dollar less per gallon).
So try not to hit the gas stations in Nevada and Utah if you can plan accordingly.
Stop at a Roadside American Indian Jewelry Stand
As we got closer to Grand Canyon on Route 89 South, we passed through a part of the Navajo Nation and noticed several little road-side American Indian jewelry stands seemingly in the middle of nowhere. We stopped by one, purchased a beautiful dreamcatcher and really enjoyed our experience talking with the lovely woman behind the pop-up counter.
Why Visit Zion and Bryce Canyon First?
My wife’s addition of the two other national parks to our original itinerary was really the key to unlocking so many more moments on our road trip to Grand Canyon.
Spending time in these two other magnificent canyons would have been enough for any other trip. Both of those experiences would be their own peak vacation highlights. But the massive size of those canyons could not compete with the 277-mile-long Grand Canyon.
When we drove up to our first Grand Canyon overlook, we had our two-canyon-context to truly understand how massive this special place is.
Only then did I fully realize how important it was to package the three together into one trip to give context to the unbelievably large Grand Canyon.
Take the Road Less Traveled?
Of course, three national parks require more vacation time and more hotel stops. Plus, you need to drive the more indirect northern route through Utah and then into Arizona as opposed to the shorter southern route from Nevada into Arizona to Grand Canyon.
But the extra driving time ended up being an important part of our overall experience. As I’ve mentioned, the scenery was spectacular!
We drove the southern route back to Vegas, and while that trip was faster, the views were not as jaw dropping.
Part of our return path included a stretch of the famous Route 66 in Arizona between Seligman and Kingman. Beyond our pit stop to see Gianticus Headicus, those miles of Route 66 were remarkably barren. We could spot hints of former glory during ‘don’t blink’ moments as we drove by, but the desert dust and weeds have now obscured the closed-up attractions.
Taking Photos in Motion
That said, there are any number of photo-worthy moments when you’re on the road in the passenger seat. The speed complicates the framing, but if you snap away enough times, you’ll eventually find your framing.
Holding Back on our Hikes
We’re a family that likes to hike. We’ve done a few 4,000 footers in New Hampshire, we’ve hiked in Acadia National Park in Maine, and locally, we often join two other families on 5-7 mile hikes on weekends.
That said, none of our Southwest vacation hikes were especially ambitious. They lasted just a couple hours each. Sure, we could have gone longer, but these shorter hikes allowed us to maintain our otherwise aggressive schedule of driving to a new location each day until we reached Grand Canyon.
Stay Inside the Park
It was definitely the right move to stay inside the park at The Bright Angel Lodge right next to the rim of Grand Canyon. There are any number of hotels nearby, but being literally right by Grand Canyon was a truly special experience. (There are also a few other in-park hotels as options to consider.)
I cannot express the joy I felt waking up early each morning with my cup of Joe and sitting by the Canyon and watching the sunrise.
Plus, waking up early at Grand Canyon is critical if you want to hike into it during the summer months. It’s best to get started early during the cooler morning hours if you’re hiking down into the canyon as opposed to hiking by the rim. (Grand Canyon can get really hot as you hike down.)
Get Into the Canyon!
And even if you’re not a hiker, you really should walk a little distance in to truly begin to understand the incredible space. You don’t have to go down very far. We only went 1.5 miles down the 7.8 mile Bright Angel Trail (The harder part is hiking back up as the morning sun warms up the trail.)
Even our abbreviated hike was enough to experience enough of the inside spaces of Grand Canyon and feel like a part of it all.
If you don’t get yourself into Grand Canyon, then you may only perceive it as a distant scene, like a massive painting or a projected 180-degree cyclorama screen in front of you!
You just can’t look at it. You’ve got to be in it to feel it!
Work on your Bucket List
Visiting Grand Canyon has always been a bucket-list trip for me. I’m so happy I’ve finally checked this one off. Plus, adding in Zion and Bryce Canyons really made this vacation a home run for me and my family.
And if there’s one takeaway this trip has taught me (besides don’t bring too much camera gear), it’s remembering that there’s a whole lot of the good stuff to do in life.