Early planning for a Grand Canyon/Utah hiking trip
November 5, 2015 8:22 AM   Subscribe

I am planning a two-week hiking trip primarily to Utah, with a stop at the Grand Canyon, in (likely) mid-April next year. I have library books galore, but it's all a bit overwhelming in these early stages of planning, and I'd love some insight from those who have been before.

I've read every AskMe that I can get my hands on, and they've helped to narrow down a bit, but I could definitely use more help!

My partner and I (two women, 30s) will be flying from Ottawa. We're thinking of flying either into Las Vegas, or Phoenix. Car rental seems considerably cheaper in Phoenix (and oddly flight connections are a bit better, too), so we're leaning towards that, but are open to other options.

Our usual preference is to have one or two (or more) places that we use as a base, usually AirBnB or VRBO rentals because we're vegan and it's much easier to cook for ourselves. We then do day hikes from there (driving to trailheads, of course).

Our initial plan is to do a day or two at the Grand Canyon (North Rim?), and then drive into Utah from there. Everything we've looked at looks amazing, and we could really use help narrowing down which parks/areas to focus on, and where to stay for each. I gather that Zion is worth multiple days, Bryce may be a shorter visit, not sure about Canyonlands and Capitol Reef, Arches very worthwhile but busy...as you can see, I am not at all clear on any of this!

Our priorities:
-amazing scenery (doesn't seem like it will be a problem)
-great hiking: we are experienced day hikers, happy to hike for 6 or 8 hours in a day, not great with maps though so at least slightly established trails are best
-ideally not super crazy busy/touristy (I'm hoping being there in April will help a bit with this, but we're very happy to do less popular trails)
-ideally not hours and hours of driving every single day - we'd rather spend the time on our feet than in the car
-places where we can rent something self-catering (I know this will involve some driving)

Can you help us to narrow down how we should organize this trip? Every bit of that area looks so incredible, but I know that two weeks is not a whole lot of time to work with and we want to prioritize well! I'm sure I'll be back with more questions as we plan further but I appreciate help at least starting to establish an itinerary.
posted by sabotagerabbit to Travel & Transportation (18 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I highly, highly suggest getting a permit to hike to the Wave in Paria Canyon. The permit process is tough and you'll need to be a bit flexible, but it really is worth it. The hike is nice and because so few permits are given it's not crowded at all. I would try for an advance permit rather than day-of so you don't need to waste any vacation time waiting.

Moab is a great place for a base camp in Utah and you'll be able to find rentals there. Southern Utah really only has a few options for towns to stay in, but Moab is a reasonable drive to hiking options in Arches and Canyonlands.
posted by shornco at 8:41 AM on November 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

I can tell you all kinds of things about the south rim - I've spent a ton of time there, but the thing I can tell you about the north rim is that it is closed until May 15th.
posted by Sophie1 at 8:46 AM on November 5, 2015 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Oh, good to know, Sophie1! I would love to hear what you know about the South Rim, in that case!
posted by sabotagerabbit at 8:50 AM on November 5, 2015

Just a comment on the Grand Canyon leg, as I used to work there - if you have any flexibility in your dates, absolutely go a month later so you can stay at the North rather than South Rim! Much more beautiful, cooler, and SO much less touristy (90% of Grand Canyon visitors go to the South Rim, and a lot of that is people hopping out of cars or tour buses for ten minutes to take a picture - not my idea of a relaxing ambiance). But keep in mind that it takes 6-7 hours to drive to the North Rim from Phoenix. If I were you I would fly into Phoenix, drive to Flagstaff (2-2.5 hours) and spend the night there your first night, then drive from Flagstaff to the North Rim the following day and spend at least two nights there.

At least two nights, because the more serious/worthwhile North Rim hikes would take you about 6 hours roundtrip. For example the Kaibab Trail down to Roaring Springs is easily a full day, if you keep in mind that you will want to start out early in the day and then get back before the hot part of the afternoon. (Even in mid-May, don't underestimate how hot it can get!) Afterward, treat yourself to dinner at the Grand Canyon Lodge (reserve ahead), which has good food and phenomenal views.
posted by Owl of Athena at 8:51 AM on November 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

The trouble with one or two base camps is that all the interesting sights in Southern Utah are really spread out. It is 5+ hours between Moab and Zion for example. Zion and Bryce can be seen from one base camp but keep in mind that they are still ~2 hours apart although you can save time by staying East of Zion although the downside to that is that there is essentially very little of anything east of Zion. There is however rental houses East of Zion and I have stayed there although the accommodations were sized for 40 not 2 (it was a crazy place). The vast majority of tourist infrastructure is Southwest of Zion in Springdale, UT. The plus side of staying over there is essentially no driving needed at all as the shuttle will take you into the park and will take you to 99% of the places you'd likely want to go.

I can't speak to other national parks in Utah specifically but they are spread out across the bottom of Utah and as others have mentioned, there is very little in terms of towns.
posted by mmascolino at 9:50 AM on November 5, 2015

We did a similar trip a two years ago, but we were coming from New Mexico. We did two separate trips (just based on our personal schedules, not that they aren't do-able as one trip)- one for GC and the other for Canyonlands, Arches, Zion and Yosemite.

There are people more qualified to speak to the Grand Canyon portion of this trip, but we did the Bright Angel day hike and stayed at a Days Inn (?) in town.

We stayed at Inca Inn in Moab, UT for two nights. In Canyonlands, we did the Chesler Park Poop/Joint Trail (11 miles). This was an incredible hike and just mind-blowing landscape.
The next day, we went to Arches and did the Devil's Garden Primitive Loop (7 miles). Relatively close to Canyonlands but a totally different landscape. You also have to see Delicate Arch. It's iconic for a reason and the view on a clear day is breathtaking.

Next day, we headed to Zion and we camped at the Watchman campground for three nights. First day, we did Angel's Landing, but the second day we did the Narrows Hike, which is not to be missed. If you can swing it, it's worth hiking out, camping overnight and then hiking back in. They were expecting a rainstorm, so we just did a day hike (which was gorgeous and totally worth it), but we wish we had been able to do the full hike. Do the Narrows, for sure. You might want to rent water hiking boots from a place in town; IIRC, we just used our own water shoes. Here's some info on how to do the hike.

We were meeting some friends in Yosemite, so we swung through Las Vegas for a night in a hotel and then did the Cathedral Lakes Hike and camped there. We had a friend who was pregnant, so we stayed the next night in the Housekeeping camp. It was a great, great trip.

Also, if you have any interest in RV-ing, we saw a lot of Jucy mini-RVs on the road.
posted by Flamingo at 10:11 AM on November 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

As Owl of Athena says, the South rim is much more touristy, however, I have always done a brilliant job of avoiding that by going in the off season. If you go during Easter/Spring break, expect lots of tourists. If you avoid the break by going late in April, you could avoid the crowds and have a lovely time, especially if you hit some of the mildly difficult trails. It's mostly the rim trail that gets crowded. The GC is pretty desolate in terms of communities surrounding it, so there are likely not AirBnBs in the immediate area. That said, I've rented one of the Bright Angel Cabins a few times. They're pretty private and very quiet in the deep winter when I tend to go. I brought an electric kettle for water and oatmeal and soups to heat up. There's a market within the park and an electric bus that goes from Bright Angel to the market to buy some groceries. I've also stayed in an RV and done all of my own cooking in there which was also really fun.
posted by Sophie1 at 10:14 AM on November 5, 2015

I highly, highly suggest getting a permit to hike to the Wave in Paria Canyon.

Or, you know, don't, if you're not good with maps and you rely on marked trails.
posted by fedward at 10:30 AM on November 5, 2015

I wasn't able to access the AZ Daily Sun article, but a little more color on the Wave hike from someone who's hiked it: your permit includes an exceptionally detailed hike description, including color photos of what the trail looks like at numerous points along the way. It's not a hike for people who are inexperienced or not in shape for a few hours on the trail, but do not let this scare you off. From your description of your hiking experience, you should have no issues provided you use common sense. If you are travelling all the way from Ottawa to hike in the southwest, this is a bucket list hike you don't want to miss. I hiked it as a solo female in late November and it is a trip I will always cherish.
posted by shornco at 11:06 AM on November 5, 2015

Out of (genuine) curiosity when did you hike the Wave? The three deaths that made so much news were all in summer 2013, and the news that came after that said that BLM was going to change its policies.

(Also I'm not saying nobody should ever do it, just that the recommendation struck me as particularly blithe.)
posted by fedward at 11:16 AM on November 5, 2015

I think you’re going to have to choose between having one or two base camps and seeing a lot more of the area. When I’ve done this trip, I’ve moved bases at every stop. You generally don’t have to go more than 2-3 hours to see really cool stuff in the Southwest and switch bases.

But to go 2-3 hours one way and then come back at the end of the day is extremely challenging. The towns are almost invariably really small. The Southwest is also not the best place to drive at night due to cattle and other wildlife on the roads. Moab is pretty easy to get a place that allows you to cook. Springdale is smaller, but I’d guess you could probably find something there with a stove, and it’s right outside the Zion gate. Other than that, it’s going to be a challenge to find anything anywhere that’s not a hotel room.

There are definitely decent restaurants available in some of the various areas and towns. Mrs. cnc has a food intolerance, and were able to make multiple long trips work with a combination of careful restaurant choices and bringing non-perishable food with us.

I can’t speak directly to vegan menus, but there are decent to good quality places to eat in the North Rim of the Grand Canyon (Park Lodge), Springdale (several here), Bryce (Park Lodge), Torrey (Capitol Reef NP – Café Diablo), and Moab, where you can probably find actual vegan food. Page, AZ doesn’t have anything nice, but there are a lot of restaurants.

Other than those, you’re likely either on your own, going to be forced to get a salad, and/or have to consider the risk of cross contamination.

On preview, an RV might be the way to go here. I priced it out when I went, and it didn’t save me any money over the cost of hotels. But if you have a need to cook, it may make a lot more sense for you.

That being said, I’d agree with the folks above that the North Rim is a good choice for geographic reasons.

If your time frame is set, I would fly into Las Vegas and not Phoenix. Vegas is only about a half hour further from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, and it’s three-plus hours closer to almost everything else you want to see.

Here’s my trip recommendation for two weeks:
* Fly into Las Vegas
* Vegas to Hoover Dam . Do tour (~2 hours).
* Hoover Dam to South Rim Grand Canyon (2 days)
* Page, AZ (See Antelope Canyon at noon (~2-3 hours), and Horseshoe Bend (~1 hour). The Wave that other folks are referring to is near Page, AZ.
* Zion National Park (2-3 days) (Stay in Springdale) – Several good restaurants here. I like Spotted Dog Café and Whiptail Grille. Do Scout Lookout and then Angel’s Landing if you’re adventurous. Do the Narrows if rain is cooperative. RENT WATER SHOES IN TOWN.
* Bryce Canyon NP (1 day) hike into the canyon and see viewpoints. Lots of hiking choices in the canyon here. They're all good. The drive between Bruce and Capitol Reef is spectacular!
* Capitol Reef NP (1-2 days) – Do Cassidy Arch and then the Capitol Gorge trail as an out and back. Get gas here.
* Natural Bridges National Monument (most of 1 day) Hike all three bridges as a loop.
* OPTIONAL – Monument Valley (90 minutes the wrong way via car or 2 hours via RV). If you go via car, stop at Muley Point. Some well-graded dirt roads on the car route. Go the long route if it has/might rain/snow. Stop at Goosenecks State Park. Between Capitol Reef and Moab via this route, there are few towns, and vegan food may be difficult.
* Moab (3-4 days) – Use Moab as a base. Arches, day trips to Canyonlands – do Grand View Point trail in Canyonlands, Viewpoints in Islands in the Sky District, Dead Horse point. Separate Canyonlands day – Stop at Newspaper Rock and do Chesler Park Loop. Do Corona Arch outside Arches NP, and drive up highway 128 to see the amazing views.
* It'll take you 8 hours to get back to Vegas from Moab.

If you map this out, you'll see I designed it as sort of a balloon route. (Get a big paper map). It's certainly possible to modify the route to be more of a loop. To do that, you'd go Vegas -> Grand Canyon -> Monument Valley -> Natural Bridges -> Moab -> Capitol Reef -> Bryce -> Zion -> Page (OPTIONAL) -> Vegas.

I don't always get MeMail right away, but please feel free to send a message if you'd like more info!

One more edit - you could do most of this from Grand Canyon and then Springdale/Zion and Moab, but you'd be doing 2 1/2 drives twice per day to see a lot of it. I think it's better to move bases.
posted by cnc at 11:19 AM on November 5, 2015 [3 favorites]

Some random thoughts..
  • This ought to go without saying, but I have observed firsthand the necessity for saying it (not to mention learned it the hard way myself, albeit in another place.) Though there are signs about this everywhere, on all of the major trailheads you will see tons of people descending into the canyon without proper preparation and an adequate supply of water. Do NOT be among them. If you are from an area where you don't hike a lot of canyons it's easy to over-commit yourself -- after all you almost always start out by going down from the canyon rim and it's not until you reach your turnaround point that the hard part begins. You'll be at an altitude to which you are unhabituated, in a climate which is much drier than you are used to, and exerting yourself significantly. You MUST take water and you SHOULD take more than you will think you will need.
  • In addition to its effects on your body, do not underestimate the effects of altitude on climate. The south rim is a bit above 7,000 feet above sea level. The north rim is higher (which is part of why it's closed until May.) Some of the other sights you're talking about (e.g. Bryce) are at higher elevations. You could have perfectly lovely spring weather or you could have a late season snowstorm. Be prepared for either.
  • The places that have been given the distinction of being named national parks are famous because of that. But there are many, many fantastic sites of significant scenic, recreational, and/or historic value which are not in the parks, so keep in mind that there are many lesser-known (and much less crowded) treasures in national monuments, national forest lands (a bit of a misnomer in that part of the country) and state parks and forests.
  • Your list of interests doesn't say anything about this, and you will find plenty to see that does match your list of interests, but just in case you are unaware, the region you will be visiting is also close to some fascinating archaeological and historic sites.
  • I think that you are wise to focus on finding one or two base camps and working from those. Constantly rushing from place to place via car will not give you a sense of the scale of this region the way that exploring on a human scale will.
  • Do NOT venture into any slot canyons without knowing the weather forecast.
  • Population is scarce and scattered in between the few settlements and tourist attractions. Cell phone coverage may be unreliable or intermittent because of terrain and distance. Stock your vehicle with emergency food and water. Take warm clothing with you in case you get stuck in a snowstorm somewhere (unlikely but possible.) Understand where the jack is on the car and how to replace a flat tire before you set out in an unfamiliar rental car. You're not totally on your own out there, but neither can you count on the kind of support that might be easy to obtain in a populous area. Take reasonable steps to prepare for the unexpected and then go have a fabulous trip.

posted by Nerd of the North at 11:23 AM on November 5, 2015 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: This is all fantastic. I just wanted to jump in to say that we are absolutely open to the idea of moving around a bit more than we have on past trips - that's fine with us. This is a different trip than any we've undertaken before and we'll be approaching it differently as a result!
And yes, thank you for the great safety/preparation tips - we will be sure to be very well-prepared and not blithe when approaching any of these hikes.
posted by sabotagerabbit at 11:44 AM on November 5, 2015

We just did a similar for a week and it was unseasonably rainy which made us change our plans at the last minute. They mentioned that it might be like this early next year too because of El Niño (I'm no expert). It was still great!

If you're going north in Utah, to Bryce and farther (Capitol Reef and others), I highly recommend taking highway 12

We stayed in Escalante UT (on highway 12) for a couple days. You can access Bryce from there (and Red Canyon). There are also great stuff off of a road called Hole-in-the-Rock Road right in Escalante. Make sure you stop at the visitor's center to inquire about the road conditions. Even with all the rain the road was fine (in a 2wd) to get to Devil's Garden. A couple miles farther down the road would have brought us to Peekaboo Gulch and Spooky Gulch. Several miles past that is Coyote Gulch.

The drive from Escalante, to Capitol Reef is great, stop at the Kiva Coffee House for some coffee, then do a relatively moderate ~6 mile hike at Lower Calf Creek Falls. Then continue on highway 12 on the ridge of a mountain (youtube).

Zion: the main visitor's center area was very crowded, even just two weeks ago. Hikes like the Narrows would probably be less so, but everything else was just a busload of people all going at once. (Including Angel's Landing). We had a much better time doing Zion hikes that weren't part of the main visitor's center (the Kolob Canyon Visitor's center and the East Rim Trailhead). La verkin creek trail can be done in a day.
posted by czytm at 1:14 PM on November 5, 2015

We did (leaving out Vegas and St. George nights):

Zion for 3 nights (CliffRose Inn was perfect)
Bryce for 2 nights (Only one big nearby option for staying near the park - Best Western / Ruby's - unless you are in the park. They have a rodeo, just sayin'.)
Moab via scenic route for 3 nights

Zion was amazing, the park, places to stay and the restaurants. I think you'll find food here.

Bryce was equally amazing but the hotel and restaurant options were less so I was happy we only stayed 2 nights here. No good food options here for anyone.

The 300 mile to Moab via Capitol Reef and Goblin State Park was awe-inspiring. You'd think by this point we'd be bored of seeing big rocks but arriving in Moab to completely different scenery and scenes was more awesome. Arches was lovely. Moab was different than the other places - adventures outside the parks, lots of rental condos available, ate in after lots of restaurant days - vegan-friendly restaurants. We did make a quick trip over to see Dead Horse Point and Canyonlands - yet more different scenery. A highlight of the trip was a private tour of the Fiery furnace at Arches.

We looped from Vegas and spent some time there. We crossed Grand Canyon off the list due to time and driving limits. Upon further thought, I would have had us continue east and fly out of Denver.

I was also in the overwhelm stage with planning and was absolutely thrilled with this portion of the trip - couldn't recommend more.
posted by RoadScholar at 1:36 PM on November 5, 2015

Vehicle entrance fees:
  • Arches: $25
  • Bryce Canyon: $30
  • Capitol Reef: $10
  • Canyonlands: $25
  • Grand Canyon: $30
  • Zion: $30
If you are going to be visiting Grand Canyon and at least two other parks, you are probably better off buying a pass which will cover admission for all national parks and most other federal recreational and historic facilities. Then you can visit other sites that you pass along the way without worrying about the cost of admission.

Oh, and if you don't get to Bryce, maybe you can make it to Cedar Breaks National Monument instead. It's another hoodoo-filled amphitheater, like Bryce, but it's at a higher elevation. Near Cedar City, UT, and much less visited than Bryce.

Last thought for now: Don't try to do everything, there's too much. Try instead to pick a reasonable subset of things to do and concentrate on really enjoying them.
posted by Nerd of the North at 1:48 PM on November 5, 2015

Lots of good advice upthread. Nerd of the North's final thought is a good one. Don't underestimate how much time you'll want to spend in any one given place. Plan on allocating a full day for each leg of driving between parks. The Southwest is a big place, and there's lots of cool stuff to experience between almost any Point A and Point B.

If you really want to enjoy the canyon on foot, I would recommend staying at least two nights in the area. I know that may sound like a lot if you just want to do a day hike ... but what it really means is that you get one full day at the canyon. You wake up (somewhat) close to the trailhead, and you don't have to hurry back just to drive another five hours before it gets dark.

Hiking at the canyon is different than many other places: You start out going downhill, and you return going uphill. If you're not mindful of how much elevation you've lost, it's easy to have a bad day. Whether you're excited or just operating on autopilot, there can be a tendency not to turn around until you begin to feel pooped out. You don't want to feel pooped out and then suddenly realize you need to ascend thousands and thousands of feet.

The National Weather Service is predicting a wet/snowy winter for Arizona. Grand Canyon just got our first snow yesterday. We only got a couple inches, and it's mostly melted. But within the canyon, there are some shady places where snow and ice can persist after it's melted off up above. I use Kahtoola Microspikes for traction. I needed to pick up an extra pair last February and not all sizes were in stock at all locations ... I had to call around before I found the right size. Not sure whether you will need them in April, but if you plan on purchasing them, get them before you start your vacation.

(As an aside: It's the shade that really causes the ice to stick around beneath the canyon rim. As a general rule, temperature increases as you descend into the canyon.)

At Zion: Depending on snowpack/snowmelt, the Narrows may or may not be closed. The park policy can be found here. A helpful flow gauge can be found here.

I live at the South Rim and work as a hiking guide. I love this place and I love talking about this place. Drop me a line a couple weeks before you arrive, and if my schedule allows for it I'd be happy to go hiking or show you around.
posted by compartment at 7:19 PM on November 5, 2015

Phoenix to Sedona, stay at a cabin in Oak Creek. Go up to the South Rim, look over. Drive to through Tuba City way, head to Kayenta, Az. If you can be on that road on a Wednesday there is a Navajo market south of hwy 163 right at the edge of town. It closes early afternoon. Go up to the crossroads of 163 and Monument Valley Tribal Park. Drive the loop under the Mittens. Head north to Mexican Hat, look for the road to The Goosenecks of the San Juan River, they are a once in a lifetime view. You can drive in the backdoor of Garden of the Gods. Back onto the road to Bluff, Utah. In Bluff there is the Twin Rocks Cafe, vegan food to be had. There should be at least one vegan dish at the View in Monument Valley. Bluff becomes the road to the sights in Moab. If you want to go west you can cross over.the Colorado west of Blanding. Monticello is north of Blanding, it has a nice little coffee place on the richt going north, the Peace Tree cafe, vegan stuff there too. Staying in Monticello is not expensive. If you want to cross southern Utah on "The Arizona Strip" and head toward Zions, there is a small place called Pipe Spring National Monument, very worth seeing. An amazing fort built over a spring, lots of history there. The dri e to Coyote Wash is 33 miles of dirt road, an eight mile hike through Hurricane wash, to enter Coyote. Then the walk through Coyote is in water. It is about 8 more kiles down to the Escalante. Then you walk back, drive back. You could be in the Panguitch area and more easily see Calf Creek Falls.

In Moab area besides Arches, there is The Island in the Sky. It has a neck 60 feet wide, and is a large arrowhead shaped mesa some 27 miles long which overlooks the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers. With two thousand foot cliffs overlooking the white rim, through which cuts the Green River another 1000 feet down, the views are mesmerizing and worth the drive. Watching the Green River scintillate through visible eons of geological time is an experience. There are a lot of dots to connect. The walk to Delicate Arch, in Arches is doable and worth it.
posted by Oyéah at 9:55 PM on November 5, 2015

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