Tips for planning the ultimate Road Trip USA through 7 national parks in Arizona and Utah:
— National Parks in the United States attract visitors both from across America and all over the world. Data released by the National Park Service show that in 2016 alone, a record-breaking 330 million people visited national parks. If you want to avoid the crowds like I do, the best time to plan your Road Trip USA is around September-October. While some national parks like the Grand Canyon remain popular throughout the year, your trip is still more enjoyable than traveling in peak season. You waste far less time in searching for parking spots, waiting for toilets, waiting on park shuttles, lining up for ranger programs, encountering traffic on hiking paths, etc.
— America is one of those countries where having a car is an absolute must if you desire the ideal Road Trip USA. And if you are traveling to 7 national parks, spread across the expansive landscapes of Arizona and Utah, you will definitely need a car rental.
— With regards to my car rental agreement, I did not avail of a GPS. My iPhone and Google Maps worked perfectly in locating the national park entrances, our hotels and places to eat.
— Please be aware that a national park ranger has the authority to ask for identification at the park entrance.
— Take advantage of the free maps offered by the National Park Service. These are available at park entrance gates or at the park visitor centers. They have amazing information about the park, including top points of interest and their location in the park.
— Being up-to-date on current conditions is important for Road Trip USA. I always check on the latest reports regarding hiking trails, road conditions and weather. This information is important if you plan to hike or go on a scenic drive. You can access these reports on the National Park Service’s website or at the park visitor center.
— While all national parks have maps and brochures of their own, I recommend doing a little homework beforehand. Being completely clueless about a park means that you waste time trying to figure out everything at the park itself.
— Arrive at the parks early, especially if you want to beat the tour buses. You are not the only one planning Road Trip USA! The national parks are open 24/7, though visitor centers, ranger programs and certain attractions have timings.
— Also recommended is buying the “America The Beautiful Annual Pass” which at $80, is much cheaper than paying the $25- $30 single vehicle entrance fee for each individual national park.
Covering 7 national parks in roughly a week’s time is a pretty ambitious plan for Road Trip USA. But it’s the best way to keep travel expenses low, while experiencing the majestic beauty of Mother Nature. Want to know more about the points of interest I saw in each national park? Click on the individual links to find out!
DAY 1: Flying into Las Vegas
The first leg of Road Trip USA was through air! Spirit Airlines is one of the cheapest low-cost carriers in the United States. The best way to explore the national parks of Arizona and Utah, is first to fly to Las Vegas. We landed around midnight at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, Nevada. By the time we rented a car and arrived at our hotel The Stratosphere, it was well past 2 in the morning and I was in dire need of some shut-eye.
Located in the Mojave Desert, Las Vegas is famous for its 24-hour casinos, entertainment venues, and nightlife. Late morning coming, I spent the whole day strolling down The Strip, a 4 mile long riot of bright lights and colors, courtesy attractions like the Eiffel Tower, Fountains of Bellagio, and the Egyptian Pyramid.
DAY 2: Hoover Dam, Historic Route 66, Grand Canyon Village
We embark on our Road Trip USA toward the national parks. Our first stop on the drive from Las Vegas was the Hoover Dam. This concrete arch-gravity dam is located on the state border between Arizona and Nevada, in the Black Canyon of the Colorado River. It was named after the 31st President of the United States, Herbert Clark Hoover, and is recognized as a National Historic Landmark.
There two dam tours, $11 and $30 respectively. However, visitors can see the Hoover Dam for free if they take US- 93 to NV- 172. While driving on NV- 172, you will see a walking path sign and public toilets clearly marked. Parking is free and there are plenty of lots up the canyon slope. You have excellent views of Lake Mead, the Hoover Dam and the Black Canyon. There are drinking water fountains and the public toilets are well maintained. Visitors can go from Nevada to Arizona by crossing the 1,900 foot long bridge.
Once we entered Arizona, we came onto Interstate 40, also known as Historic Route 66. This is where the history part of my Road Trip USA kicks in. The town of Williams is located on this route. Known as the “Gateway to the Grand Canyon”, this historic town is named after famous trapper, scout and mountain man, Old Bill Williams. The downtown is six blocks long, and is a healthy amalgamation of modern amenities for tourists as well as memories of the ’50s and ’60s.
Since we had to be up early the next day for our energy-intensive hike, we decided to drive up to the Grand Canyon Village. The village is located an hour away on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon National Park. I particularly loved the Geology Museum, and its fascinating study of Paleozoic rocks and fossils. This museum is a must for nature enthusiasts. And do not miss sunset at the Desert Watchtower. The setting rays of the sun bouncing off the canyon walls makes for a breathtaking experience. It’s just something you really don’t want to miss if you have traveled all the way to the Grand Canyon National Park.
Road Trip USA Tip: We spent the night at Williams. I recommend staying at Williams, just because its a lot cheaper than the Grand Canyon Village. Williams is only an hour’s drive from the Grand Canyon National Park, and that’s pretty decent.
DAY 3: Hiking the Grand Canyon (South Rim)
After having an early and heavy breakfast, we drove from Williams to the Grand Canyon Village. From there we took the shuttle bus to the starting point of the Kaibab Trail. My very first hike in Road Trip USA! At an elevation of 7,260 feet, this 7.1 mile is considered strenuous owing to its steep descent and complete sun exposure. We hiked all the way down to the canyon floor, where we had lunch at the Phantom Ranch. Anyone wishing to spend the night at the Grand Canyon National Park can stay at the Phantom Ranch, but you would have to book many months in advance.
After a brief rest, we started the hike back up via the Bright Angel Trail. This 8 mile trail is longer than the Kaibab, but relatively easier to hike. We spent the night at the halfway point in Indian Garden campgrounds.
DAY 4: Petrified Forest National Park
We woke up around 3am, and completed the remainder of our hike on the Bright Angel Trail. While I do not recommend the Kaibab and Bright Angel Trail for everybody, even novice hikers should savor the natural wonder of the Grand Canyon National Park. Trails are a natural part of the national park experience, and the Grand Canyon is worth indulging your green senses.
Our adventure in the South Rim of the Grand Canyon National Park drawing to a close, we drove back to Williams. After a brief rest and freshening up, we checked out of our hotel and were on the road again.
Next stop on Road Trip USA was the Petrified Forest National Park. Located in the Navajo and Apache counties of northwestern Arizona, this national park is famous for its large deposits of petrified wood. From tiny shards and massive fossilized trunks, to amazing polished display pieces, petrified wood represents the remains of a prehistoric forest.
DAY 5: Canyonlands and Arches National Parks
Located amid the desert landscape of southeastern Utah, the Canyonlands National Park offers Road Trip USA more than 335,598 acres of natural beauty. The Colorado River and its tributaries have crafted the park’s geography into deep canyons, steep cliffs and gorgeous vistas. The national park is divided into four districts. I recommend visiting the two most popular districts: The Needles and The Island in the Sky.
The Arches National Park in eastern Utah is testimony to the power of erosion. Water, ice, temperature variations and underground salt movement have all played an important role over the course of 100 million years. There are more than 2,000 natural sandstone arch formations throughout the national park. But what draws tourists from distant lands is the world famous Delicate Arch. A must-see on Road Trip USA!
DAY 6: Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon
We took a 8 mile long scenic drive through the Capitol Reef National Park as part of Road Trip USA. The park surrounds a long crease in the earth known as the Waterpocket Fold. One of North America’s classic monocline or stairstep folds, the wrinkle extends for more than 90 miles. Don’t forget to stop en route for apple picking in the fruit orchards. You can munch on the fresh produce for free in the Capitol Reef National Park!
We explored rows upon rows of hoodoos at the Bryce Canyon. The national park in southern Utah is famous for its crimson colored spire rock formations. These ancient rocks are part of the Claron Formation, formed more than 22 million years ago when the Colorado Plateau rose from tectonic activity and the lakes dried up. You can obtain panoramic views of the hoodoos at the national park’s most popular vista point, Bryce Amphitheater.
DAY 7: Zion National Park
Day 7 was my favorite hands down in Road Trip USA. Standing out for its distinctive red cliffs, the Zion National Park was once home to the Ancestral Puebloans, the Southern Paiutes, and eventually the Mormon Pioneers. Situated near Springdale in southwest Utah, the national park is part of the Grand Staircase that forms the southwestern edge of the Colorado Plateau. The two main attractions here are The Narrows and the Angels Landing Trail.
The Narrows is an exciting, one-of-a-kind water hike. As long as the water level of the Virgin River is safe, you can wade through the canyon walls with relative ease. I recommend renting waterproof boots and a hiking stick from Zion Outfitters. You will need them to balance against the water current and slippery rocks. P.S. Wear shorts unless you really enjoy soggy pants.
The Angels Landing Trail begins with no issues. Then you arrive at a series of steep switchbacks, and there begins the huffing and puffing. I did not attempt the last portion of the trail, because unless you are pretty confident about body balance and heights, it can be pretty dangerous. The end of the Angels Landing Trail involves going single file holding onto a chain with sheer drop-offs on either side.
DAY 8: Grand Canyon (North Rim), Return Flight
Only open between May and October, the North Rim of the Grand Canyon National Park is more remote than its South Rim. Far few visitors come here as opposed to the South Rim. If you are pressed for time as I was, check out the Bright Angel overlook. It provides majestic views of the canyon and surrounding geography.
The end of our adventure, we headed back to Las Vegas to catch our flight from McCarran International Airport. And that concludes my Road Trip USA itinerary! 7 national parks in 8 days!