6 Days to Drive from Denver to Las Vegas?
April 7, 2009 9:23 AM   Subscribe

We live in the East and have never visited the mountain states or the southwest. Our plan is to fly to Denver in mid-September and then drive to Las Vegas via southern Utah, where we hope to see some of the major sights like Bryce Canyon, Zion NP and Monument Valley.

We're going to have six or seven days for that part of our trip, plus another four days to spend in Las Vegas and the surrounding area before we fly home.

Does this sound like a reasonable plan? And, given the amount of time we have, what are the most important things that we should see and do?

We're middle-aged, we usually like to avoid crowds and tourist traps, and we're probably not going to want to hike for more than three or four hours at a time.
posted by 14580 to Travel & Transportation (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Why not just fly into Las Vegas? Distances are deceivingly huge between the national parks you mentioned and if you want any quality time at all at those 3 parks, you probably could eliminate driving from Denver to Las Vegas.
posted by HeyAllie at 9:49 AM on April 7, 2009

Response by poster: HeyAllie, we have considered dropping Denver and just operating from Vegas. It would probably save us about $500 on the air fares and rental car drop off fee. We don't have a problem spending the extra money if Denver and the country between there and Utah is worth seeing. But we don't know if it is. Although, some day we expect to fly into Denver and then drive to Yellowstone.
posted by 14580 at 10:08 AM on April 7, 2009

I grew up in Denver CO and as much as I love it I have to say this sounds a bit over-ambitious.

I think you need to prioritize a little bit more. If you want to see Bryce, Zion, and Monument, flying to Vegas will save you a significant amount of driving time. It would also give you time to swing down to see the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. (The North Rim is much less touristy than the South Rim; based on your description of wanting to avoid tourist traps, I think you would enjoy that.)

On the other hand, if there is a lot of stuff you want to see in Colorado (and there is a lot of beautiful stuff to see) then you might think about either scaling back your ambitions for Southern Utah or adding more time.

The distance from Denver to Vegas is considerable. And a lot of it is mountain driving that is slower going than you might expect. Also, mid-September is a time where you have to allow for the possibility of unexpected snow, and that will *really* slow you down.

If I were you, I'd fly to Vegas, do Southern Utah properly, and save Colorado for another trip. Or the other way around.
posted by ambrosia at 10:14 AM on April 7, 2009

I've driven most of those roads in southern Utah several times and I have one word of warning: when you stop at a gas station, do not let the station attendant check the pressure of your tires, check your fluids, or otherwise touch your vehicle. They will have it up on a pneumatic lift in no time and will tell you that you might not make Vegas with such bald tires, etc. This happened to me several times and I saw several tourists in rental cars buying new tires or expensive fuel additives or some other bullshit.

Are you saying you'll drive to Vegas and back and fly out of Denver round trip? Mid-September it's likely to be warm in the day and cold at night. Pack for both hot and cold. If you take I-70 west to Grand Junction and then 50/550 south to Durango, be advised that there are tons of switchbacks on that road and it's impossible to make "good time". Denver to Durango is easily an 8 hour drive. Not far from Durango is Mesa Verde. If it were me, I'd go I-70 to I-15 and take side trips to Arches and Canyonlands.
posted by mattbucher at 10:17 AM on April 7, 2009

This will be a great trip. If you drove straight on I-70 (and don't you dare) it's 750 miles, or about three days of comfortable driving with some touristing. But to see the pretty sites requires going out of your way, which is more like 1000 miles. You'll have 2-3 days where you don't have to travel at all and some light days of beautiful driving to enjoy the scenery. That's not bad. If that seems like too much driving you could fly in to Salt Lake City instead and have a more focussed trpi.

The big question you have to decide is where you're going to cross the Rocky Mountains. They're freaking big and even in May snow can be a problem. Figure that out first and the rest of the trip should follow. Also you should decide if you need to go to the Grand Canyon. I recommend skipping it: heavily touristed, and takes 2-3 days to really enjoy. If you must go, see if the North Rim will work for you.

I've driven in that area twice. My favourite national park spots are Mesa Verde, CO; Canyonlands, UT; Bryce Canyon, UT; and Zion, UT. I also wish I'd made it to Canyon de Chelles or Chaco Canyon in the Four Corners area, but never been there. The drive through southeastern Utah (Glen Canyon area) is also breathtakingly beautiful.

Here's one possible itinerary that totals 1050 miles and hits three national parks. If you start in Albuquerque instead it's 100 miles less and an easier time across the Rockies. That only makes sense if you go to something in Four Corners, though.
posted by Nelson at 10:19 AM on April 7, 2009

I think the stuff between Denver and southern Utah is worth seeing, especially Glenwood Canyon and the San Rafael Swell. It is a pretty long drive, though. But if you're not that into hiking and stuff, it might be worth the decreased time at the parks.

Honestly, I would cut the Vegas time before cutting the driving, especially if you don't like crowds and tourist traps. I think you can see all there is to see in Vegas in like a day, plus another half day for the Hoover Dam, which is awesome.
posted by equalpants at 10:22 AM on April 7, 2009

I think your plan is quite reasonable, I've done almost the same thing in the course of 2 days, just without seeing all the sights. I drove from Chicago to Los Angeles last year, passing through Denver, Bryce Canyon, and I would have hit Zion had I wanted to spend the NP fee for the short time I would have been there.

I took I-70 through Denver into Utah, Utah 24 to Utah 12 to Bryce Canyon, then weaved my way over to I-15 to continue on my journey.

I left Denver at 3pm, spent that night in Green River, UT, spent the next day driving, 2 hours at Bryce Canyon, and was in Vegas while the sun was still up. Very, very, very highly recommended. The Utah backroads were the highlight of my trip. If you get squimish about being on a road with literally nobody around for 50-60 miles, though, you might not like it.

If you have 6 days to do it, you'll have a blast.
posted by hwyengr at 10:25 AM on April 7, 2009

If you want to avoid crowds and tourist traps, then for God's sake cut out those four days of Vegas and spend them on the road. Vegas gets old after about a day unless you're really into the partying and the gambling and such.

Oh, but the drive from Colarado through Utah IS worth doing. There's a scenic highway that goes south at Cisco, UT and follows the Colorado River through Moab, then south through Monument Valley on towards Tuba City which is on the way to the Grand Canyon. We did this drive on a road trip and it was just spectacular. We spent one day driving from Denver to Grand Junction, then stayed the night so we would have enough daylight the next day, then drove all the way to the south rim of the Grand Canyon and got there just as the sun was setting. I highly highly recommend this route, because the desert will be revealed to you gradually as you cross Colorado and Utah. It seemed to get more spectacular with each passing hour.

You could easily spend a day or two on this route -- I would have loved more time in Monument Valley -- and then go back North towards Bryce and Zion and catch the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, before heading to Vegas to end your trip. See this map here.
posted by PercussivePaul at 10:34 AM on April 7, 2009

On your first day on the road, I recommend a stop at Colorado National Monument near Fruita in far western Colorado. Complete your drive that evening to a home base of Moab, Utah.

On day two, check out Dead Horse Point State Park and the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands National Park. Return to your lodging in Moab.

Day three will take you through Arches National Park, and then a drive thru Capitol Reef National Park and your base for the night in Torrey, Utah.

On day four you will head to Bryce Canyon National Park. When you have completed your visit to Bryce, I recommend staying at the Thunderbird Best Western in Mount Carmel Junction, UT for your next two days. I've had good experiences there and it is within a few miles of the Zion NP entrance.

Day five offers some choices. If you aren't tired of driving, you can make a trip down to the Grand Canyon in northern Arizona, and back on the same day. Or you can spend a day and a half in Zion National Park. I once spent three full days in Zion and still didn't get enough, so it's a tough call. Return to your lodging in Mount Carmel Junction.

On day six, you can spend some more time in Zion because Vegas isn't that far. When you've had your fill of sight seeing, it's on to Las Vegas for the next part of your adventure. I did this same trip in 1998 when I was 45 years old, except I returned to Denver. It would be a lot easier for you because Vegas is so much closer to Zion and Bryce. I was pretty tired after the whirlwind tour of Utah's national parks, but it was well worth it. I have been back to these areas again many times for longer stays in each of the parks.

Whether you start in Vegas, or start in Denver, you can't go wrong. It is a fabulous part of the United States. Enjoy!
posted by netbros at 10:47 AM on April 7, 2009 [2 favorites]

By the way, September is a great time of year to be going through the Utah desert. It is after the dreadful summer heat, but still early enough that the nights aren't too cold. You're also not likely to run into any snow yet as you cross the mountain passes.
posted by netbros at 10:56 AM on April 7, 2009

Don't forget Escalante and the Grand Staircase Natl. Monument. Combine it with the San Rafael Swell and it's more scenic than the rest of the Colorado Plateau put together, especially if you don't like crowds.
posted by phliar at 11:23 AM on April 7, 2009

Totally feasible. netbros's plan sounds good. Here's how I laid it out before realizing he'd done the same (and I skipped Bryce, which he included).

Day 1: Denver to Mesa Verde, walk around Mesa Verde, drive to Moab (check that distance! depending on when you arrive, you might want to stay the night in Telluride or Durango)
Day 2: Moab -- Arches and/or Canyonlands
[if you have another day, you could easily do two days' worth of sightseeing from a base in Moab]
Day 3: Drive through Monument Valley to the north rim of the Grand Canyon (this is actually a pretty great drive)
Day 4: Grand Canyon, then drive up to Zion
Day 5: spend time in Zion
Day 6: drive to Vegas
posted by salvia at 11:48 AM on April 7, 2009

"Denver and the country between there and Utah is worth seeing"
Yes, it is. Driving by the Colorado river is a nice experiance.

This is a question I asked sometime back. You might be able to gather some info from that.
posted by WizKid at 11:53 AM on April 7, 2009

I live in Denver, grew up in the west and have driven all over the place out here. Another 2nd to netbros. The only thing I'd think hard about is working in the 4 corners area. Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon and Canyon de Chelly are REALLY great. It's a day drive to Durango from Denver via 285. You can have a great hot springs soak in Pagosa Springs on the way. It's a great base for four corners touring. I'd vote a serious no on Las Vegas. It's really a waste of time considering what there is to see out here. Consider getting a handheld GPS if you feel like doing any adventuring at all. It's surprisingly easy to lost, even on easy hikes. The desert southwest is one of the great places on the planet. Have fun!
posted by Carmody'sPrize at 1:40 PM on April 7, 2009

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