Road Trip!!
January 7, 2014 3:43 PM   Subscribe

Need some advice on places to stay/eat/etc...

My friends and I are thinking of doing a road trip this summer--either in June or maybe early July--through some of the national parks. The tentative itinerary is here: (passing through vegas on the way back in case we want to relax spa style). One or two of the national parks might get cut if things change between now and then--our main goal is to go see the Grand Canyon. Also, we're thinking 8-10 days so if all this is unreasonable then we'll cut a stop.

We're just in the very early stages of planning so I have no idea where to start. Are there any cool must-eat, must-see places along that route? Also, places to stay? We were thinking about camping at first but decided that maybe hotels/motels would be better. Cheap is fine, and rooms will be split between several people.

Any other tips are welcome, as well! I'd also love to know if there are neat little areas within the parks that we shouldn't miss.
posted by sprezzy to Travel & Transportation around Tempe, AZ (19 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I stayed at this Best Western outside Zion, because I was camping and got snowed on and decided that was more camping than I wanted to do. It was very nice and it's not far from the park. I believe it was moderately priced - in the $100-150/night range. But, Zion also *does* have plenty of good camping, too.

One more thing about Zion: if at all possible, you should hike the Subway. You need permits to do so, they are available via lottery. See here for how to get them.

A family member of mine was chief of maintenance at Zion for many years and is now retired and living in Springdale, just outside the park, so I've been there many times and seen much (but not all) of the park and the area. The Subway is my favorite hike. Angel's landing is my second favorite. Floating down the river in inner tubes is fun if it's hot and/or you're feeling lazy. Also, you can bike up the canyon and that's beautiful, too.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 4:00 PM on January 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

Beautiful route, just for the driving. I'm sure others will provide recent insights on points along the way. I'll just hint that if you want to stay overnight within some of these National Parks, then you'd be prudent to prioritize and try to make reservations this month.
posted by gregoreo at 4:01 PM on January 7, 2014

On pain of...things, do not skip Capitol Reef. Don't skip Route 12, which is spectacular and breathtaking and all that good stuff.

It's going to be hot and you're going to be high (at elevation kind of high): wear a hat, and bring along a lightweight long-sleeved shirt for sun protection. It's also going to be high season, and places can book up fast, especially campgrounds in the parks. Kodachrome State Park is really beautiful and has camping spots, so maybe check that out - it's on the way from Bryce to Moab via Rte 12.
posted by rtha at 4:13 PM on January 7, 2014

Seconding tylerkaraszewski on hiking the Subway. So worth it.

No need to go all the way to Vegas for spas. St. George has some really nice spas, including the one where I got the Best. Pedicure. Ever. In. My. Life.

Also consider approaching the Grand Canyon from the North Rim- it is much, much less crowded than on the South Rim. Also a lot closer to your other parks, and you get the creepy bonus of driving through Colorado City, AZ.
posted by ambrosia at 4:18 PM on January 7, 2014

I did a road trip a few years ago that was: SF>Sequoia>[Bakersfield; Flagstaff]>Sedona>Grand Canyon>Zion/Bryce Canyon>Moab>Denver; I think it took 4 nights and 5 days. It was awesome!

For Zion/Bryce Canyon, we stayed at a cabin at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary (about $80/night), which is right nearby. I volunteered there for a day, but it's not necessary as part of rentng the cabin.

The National Park annual pass will likely be a good idea, plus you can get through any car lines a bit faster.

Getting into and out of the parks takes a long time. Don't judge your driving time by time it takes to get to the entrance or where google says the park is. Usually the parking lot is another 20-40 min drive into the park. Also, make sure you have a full tank of gas before leaving any major roads to go to the parks.

We stayed overnight in Flagstaff, then drove to the Grand Canyon, saw it for maybe an hour or so, then drove up to Kanab, UT to stay over at best friends for the night. This saved us so much money on what the internet ratings say are crappy hotels.

KOA has private cabins with beds that you can rent; the showers and stuff are in a main building, but there are 3-4 beds for the cabin, you bring your own sheets and pillows, and it's super cheap. We did that alternating with staying in proper lodgings to save money.

I assume you have your own car, but if you're renting a car, look at whether swapping it out at any time is advantageous. We rented one from SF>Flagstaff, which was expensive ($100+/day), and then swapped for the same exact model for Flagstaff>Denver for $5/day because Hertz had this one-way-originating in AZ deal that month.

Honestly, none of the food I had really blew my hair back. To save money, we had PBJs for lunch on the road.

Watch out for speed traps in Utah (yes, we got a ticket).
posted by melissasaurus at 4:33 PM on January 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Since you're going up to Page, AZ just to check out Antelope Canyon, you might as well visit the Glen Canyon Dam and also hike out to Horseshoe Bend. Stop in the Powell Museum in town and say hi to my Mom, who will most likely be at the info desk.
posted by spudsilo at 5:16 PM on January 7, 2014

*pulls up chair and sits down*

I've done a big chunk of this itinerary on a family road trip when I was 16, and bits and pieces of that itinerary in other years. Got a few observations.

* What Melissasaurus says about most parks is true, especially of Arches. You turn off the highway, and there's a visitors' center right there - but then the things you actually want to go see are another 15 minutes' drive further into the park, or more.

* Check out some state parks as well. They'll often have a lot of the same scenery, but they won't be as crowded because they're not The National Landmark or anything. You pass by two really amazing ones - Dead Horse Point is really near Arches, and Valley of Fire is just about 40 minutes outside of Vegas. I especially recommend Valley of Fire because it is way bizarre scenery - it's actually been used as a stand-in for "outer space" on a few different movies. (It's apparently where they shot the "James T. Kirk dies" scene in one of the Star Trek movies.)

* Back to Arches - you actually may wanna start thinking of booking a place now, and maybe even pick a spot to stay for a few days. The city of Moab in Utah is right bang in the middle of National Park country - Arches Park is about ten minutes' drive outside town, parts of Canyonlands Park are about a half hour outside, and there's a ton of other beauty spots nearby that aren't even part of the park system and are just "hey, here's another trail you can hike on". (Full disclosure - I have friends who have an Airbnb rental in Moab that sleeps 8 people, is well-located, has its own hot tub and is freakin' gorgeous.)

* There's a funky roadside cheeseball kitsch thing outside Moab - Hole N'' The Wall. It's the actual home made out of a cave that a retired miner carved out of the side of a mountain. The house itself is really cool, and the park around it is gloriously tacky in the best way.

* One safety advisory, since you're going to be there in summer - take the advice about heat exhaustion seriously, and make sure you bring a LOT of water with you if you go on hikes, because you can dehydrate way faster than you think. I went to Arches at high noon in July, and had only a quart-size water bottle with me - I figured I'd be okay because I was only going on really short hikes and driving in an air-conditioned car in between them. But then after an hour, I looked up at a cliff face and had a split-second hallucination that there were ten-story high flaming Hebrew letters on it.

One of the visitors' center signs said that hallucinations were a sign of dehydration. I'd thought I felt just fine up to that point - I would have told you I was pretty comfortable, in fact. (I took care of it fast enough and was fine once I'd driven myself to the nearest visitors' center, bought the biggest bottle of water they had and drank it down in one go.)

* I would do Vegas, if only for the contrast and the "so you can say you saw it" kitsch people-watching. A good thing to do for the goof of it if you do Vegas is - a month or two before you go, start saving all your pocket change in a piggybank or something. Then bring it with you - that change will then become your entire gambling money. Once the money in your gambling purse is empty, you are done gambling, period.

Stick to the doofy slot machines - just wander around looking at things, and then once in a while drop a couple nickles in one of the slots and just see what happens. If you win something, cash out right away, put all the money into your "gambling purse" and move on. If you lose, just move on right away. And if you win "big" - like say, ten bucks on a quarter bet - cash it all out and blow it on a big greasy meal or something. If you don't feel like you understand gambling enough to try that, most casinos have arcade-type areas one floor above the casinos, for kids. So you can blow all the change doing that instead.

But you don't have to gamble at all, either, there's plenty else to do - rides like roller coasters, even.

* Have a look at portions of the three road trip itineraries on this page. The Road Trip USA site is the online version of the book that I used as my bible when I drove from NYC to Vegas ten years ago. It had recommendations for attractions, hotels, diners, even radio stations. Another good couple sites are Road Trippers, which is sort of like Googlemaps with attractions you can add to it to customize your own ideal itinerary, and Roadside America, which has a huge database of kitsch landmarks. Roadtrippers has an app, but not as many listings; Roadside America is an old-school web page, but has a huge collection of weird things on it.

Have fun.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:17 PM on January 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

If you go a bit further east you can visit Mesa Verde. My family took a trip when I was a kid to the Grand Canyon, Bryce, Zion and Mesa Verde. Mesa Verde was the place that made the biggest impression on me and fired my love of history.
posted by cat_link at 5:57 PM on January 7, 2014

Google my username and "utah" and youll get a bunch of my previous advice.

-Don't backtrack from Bryce to get to Arches - go on Utah 12 to Capitol Reef.
-You might consider May instead of July. I've done Utah in July; we even car-camped, which for me means sleeping in a parking lot from sunset+2hrs to sunrise-2hrs. It gets fuckin' hot.
-Take a lot of water. Two 2.5gal jugs from the supermarket ought to be in your car. Keep them filled from whatever potable sources you come across.
posted by notsnot at 6:04 PM on January 7, 2014

One other thing that I've always done for group trips is to have a "pot" or "kitty". Ballpark the group expenses - parks pass, hotel rooms if accommodations are identical, gas, camp fees, etc. Divide that by the number of people, and round up to the nearest fifty. Everyone puts that into one envelope that is locked in the glove box (or some other safe place). All group expenses are paid out of this. All non-group expenses are paid for individually. If the kitty runs out, everyone throws in some more. Keep receipts in the envelope, and write what everything is for on the outside so no-one feels ripped off. When you're in the car with two or three other people for a week or more, the slightest misunderstanding can get blown out of proportion.

(if you hit a weird situation like the gas station is closed inside and will only take credit cards, someone can pay that on their own, and then the kitty pays them back when change is available.)
posted by notsnot at 7:26 PM on January 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Like others said. Take way more water than you think you will need.

If you aren't planning to camp, book rooms early - they can be hard to find. Indeed, even good campsites can be hard to find.

Buy an annual parks pass - it will save you a ton of money. It's good for the drivers and all passengers in a car for entrance into most National Parks and other recreation sites.

If you come up I70 towards Moab, don't take 191 south. Go a bit further and bring 128 down, if you have time. It follows the Colorado river valley and is extraordinarily scenic - and there are a bunch of campsites along that route. Watch for cyclists.

If you do decide to camp, much of the area is BLM. BLM allows dispersed camping, sometimes only in designated spots, sometimes wherever you like. The great thing about dispersed camping is that it is free.

National forests also allow dispersed camping. Near Moab is the Manti-La Sal NF. Most of it is at elevation - that means cooler nighttime temps (and some really awesome views if the weather is clear). There are a bunch of campgrounds and a NF MVUM will show you where you can camp at.

Personally, I feel that the North rim of the Grand Canyon is much more scenic than the south - and that drive along 89a is amazing. Plus Lee's ferry has a nice beach where you can swim in the Colorado. There is camping available at Jacob Lake - which is at 8000 feet, so will be cooler at night. There is also dispersed camping allowed in the North Kaibab NF all the way down to the park boundary.

Note about dispersed camping - pack it in, pack it out. Bring a Luggable Loo and some bags.

And always extra water.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 7:37 PM on January 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

I loved camping in Zion. We had a site right on the riverbank - awesome for cooling off after hiking. I hiked the Watchman trail, which was demanding and amazing. The high that day was 115 and it was bone dry. Make yourself drink water even if you don't feel thirsty.

Bryce is awesome, too. They make a lot of the Lodge, but don't have dinner there. It's very high-priced but not that mindblowing for what you get. Hike the hoodoo trails and do the park road. There's a nice short loop right at the end of the park road you can add, too.

Take some time to meander through the Vermilion Cliffs. It's an incredibly pretty drive and there are some cool places to get out and look around.

PLan in some time for stargazing at night. The stars are unbelievable out there.

I liked the North Rim of the Grand Canyon a lot. i can't tell if you're going to be passing by there. There are some great trails that run along the rim rather than going in, and it's high forest, not sweltering. A beautiful respite place, and their restaurant/bar at the main park area is nice.

Take a lot of snacks to keep in the back of the car. People get irritable when they're hungry, and there are places where it's a long time til the next stop. Have peanut butter and crackers, cookies, granola bars, fruit, cheese sticks, and lots and lots of drinks.
posted by Miko at 8:17 PM on January 7, 2014

I dropped in to second Mesa Verde. The cliff dwellings are amazing in and of themselves, but the setting of the Mesa is pretty incredible. There's some wild geology to look at, & viewpoints where you can see off the Mesa for 50-60 miles. We could see Shiprock & the mountains behind it to the south from a couple spots in the road. The canyons that the dwellings are in we're surprisingly deeper & more spectacular than I expected. We were only there for a day, as most of the park is closed in winter, but it seems like it would be good summer camping because the Mesa tops are at pretty high altitude-- 7-8000 feet or so. You can't do much backcountry hiking there because of the sensitive archeology, but there are several 2-3 mile trails and a decent museum, though Aramark provided me with the 2nd worst meal of my life up there by the headquarters. Take food.

Also, have you considered Havasu Falls?
posted by Devils Rancher at 8:41 PM on January 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

The China Date Ranch is worth the slight detour from Las Vegas on your return to California
the old spanish trail is scenic and the date shakes memorable.
posted by hortense at 9:13 PM on January 7, 2014

Mesa Verde is amazing.
posted by rtha at 9:54 PM on January 7, 2014

If you are planning on doing any type of hiking, carry a hydration pack. Its worth 20 bucks and worth the investment. Staying wise I would recommend going airbnb route, cheaper than hotels and living with people who know the area is better than any travel advice your going to get on books or websites.
posted by radsqd at 7:02 AM on January 8, 2014

Seconding Horseshoe Bend if you're going to be in Page, AZ. As far as the Antelope Canyon.. the Upper one is the more famous one (probably for good reason), but there were literally hundreds of people in there at a time, and it was hard to feel the magic of the place with the tour guides rushing people to walk through and pointing out all the things to take a picture of (instead of you exploring on your own). If I knew there would be hundreds of people in there, I would have preferred to go to the Lower Canyon. Maybe it wouldn't have been as amazing, but I prefer less people when I am trying to see nature. Also, I thought Canyonlands was more amazing than Arches (Island in the Sky and Needles were both other-wordly and breathtaking!!), so I would try to make it there as well, unless you plan on coming back to the area some other time.

I am concerned that you won't have time to do everything in 8-10 days. We did a slightly shorter road trip in 7 days, and since the distances between parks are ~3-5 hours of driving, we were constantly in a rush to leave a park to drive somewhere and arrive before ~9pm. I would have liked more time to do longer hikes (some of the amazing views are a bit further in) and also more time to just relax and take in all the amazing scenery instead of hiking-taking-a-picture-rushing back to the car to get to the next spot. But that depends on what you want to get out of this - fun road trip with friends and get a feel of what every park is like without killing yourself hiking? Or more time out and about in nature?

I keep a travel blog of places that I've been, so if you would like to see some of my pictures and read some notes I wrote down about each place, just send me a message on here and I'll give you the link.
posted by at 12:42 PM on January 8, 2014

I find it more relaxing to wake up early, travel in the morning, and then have the afternoon and evening for hiking/doing stuff. It's the hotter part of the day, but you know you're going back to a set-up camp in the evening and you won't have to get organized in the dark.
posted by Miko at 2:46 PM on January 8, 2014

We did this last year! I posted this question and at the bottom replied with our final itinerary. Definitely make your reservations for hotels early. We booked around the end of March and just barely got what worked for us. Just make sure you can always cancel the reservation later. We got up and did hikes and activities in the morning and let the hot afternoons be for relaxing or driving. We loved this trip. Great, great trip!
Stayed at Cliffrose in Zion - perfect!
In Bryce stayed at Ruby's Best Western - not perfect but no other choices!
In Moab - stayed in a VRBO condo.

So, um, all the adults on the trip had "seen" the Grand Canyon before and we all voted to skip it this time and were so glad we did as Bryce and Zion were much more hands-on (or rather feet-on as it actually was) though of course your goals may be different.

The national park websites are a treasure for each park

Our highlight of the trip was a private tour through the fiery furnace in Arches through Red River Adventures with Mike from Deep Desert. There are only so many people allowed through every day and the Arches' tours were booked so we paid and received considerably more with Mike.

Feel free to send me any questions!
posted by RoadScholar at 6:27 PM on January 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

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