Looking for interesting/fun cities & destinations for our Nat park trip
November 17, 2015 5:58 AM   Subscribe

Thanks to all the help I got on this question I've decided on a two week trip from Las Vegas to Glacier National park. Our destinations are various parks in Utah, Yellowstone/Tetons and Glacier NP. Our focus is nature and history. I haven't mapped out our route and would like help with 1) must see things and 2) one or two cities/town that are interesting and fun. Traveling -> one 9 year old boy and 4 adults.
posted by beccaj to Travel & Transportation (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
The boat tours at Glacier National Park are worthwhile. It's been a few years, but we signed up for a combination boat tour/ranger-led hike. The boat took us to a more remote location, we did a hike and saw some glaciers while the ranger told us all about them, and then we went back on the boat as well. The boats are old, historic wooden vessels.
posted by Ostara at 7:03 AM on November 17, 2015

Depending on your route through southern Utah, check out Coral Pink Sand Dunes and Goblin Valley, two cool state parks. Near the latter is a moderate hike down to spectacular set of pictographs in Horseshoe Canyon and a bunch of slot canyons in the San Rafael Swell.
posted by gottabefunky at 7:11 AM on November 17, 2015

What time of year are you planning on going?

In Zion National Park, you'll be shocked by how beautiful everything is. Plus the canyon is relatively narrow (more on this later) so the surrounding mountains are even more dramatic. Easy hikes for everyone include seeing the Emerald Pools and the riverwalk to the Narrows. Moderately difficult things would be the Canyon Overlook Trail (which would necessitate driving through an interesting tunnel carved into the mountain). Difficult trails would be Angel's Landing which is steep but not super long and has stunning vistas of the canyon. The last 5-10% may be too steep and scary for you or your 9 year old. Similiar vistas are available from the Observation Point trail but it is a longer slog (with some fascinating slot canyons in the middle of the hike). There is less threat of imminent death on this one.

Lastly about the narrowness, there is a place called The Narrows. It is at the end of the Zion Canyon. Something about the rock type in this area caused the river to carve a canyon that is essentially the width of the river. It makes for extremely dramatic viewing to be in a place with 1500+ foot sheer vertical walls where it is only 30-50 feet wide. You can walk on a path to the river to experience some of this beauty but the true experience is to hike in the river upstream to see more. You'll have to be the judge of if this is something your party and your child are up for. Assuming conditions are good, this is quite a fun and different adventure.

As for cities with history, don't forget that Salt Lake City has a rich and interesting history.
posted by mmascolino at 7:51 AM on November 17, 2015

Will you be going past Dinosaur National Monument? The visitor centre is great and although I'm not usually big on 'tours', we did a short Ranger-led tour here and got so much more out of the visit than we would have otherwise. Seeing fossils in the 'wild' is pretty cool for kids an adults alike!

Seconding everything said about Zion above.

In Yellowstone, there is a 'hidden' trail (not marked on park maps) behind the Grand Prismatic Spring which gives you a much better view down on the spring (up close it's cool but you don't really get to appreciate all the colors). It's where my brother-on-law proposed to his wife even! I think you need to park in the parking lot just south (Fairy Falls), hike up the big trail aways then take a sharp left up into some trees. There's a clearing a little way up with the view. (Similar description of how to find it half way down the first entry on this page).

Also we had a life-changing sour cream and raisin pie just north of Bryce Canyon at Bryce Canyon Pines. So good we drove out of our way the next day to go back for more, and even make our own version every Thanksgiving.
posted by atlantica at 8:05 AM on November 17, 2015

When you're by Glacier, visit Whitefish. The downtown is cute but Whitefish Mountain Resort (the locals still call it Big Mountain) has summer resort amenities like alpine slides, ropes courses, etc. Even our local gym, The Wave, has affordable guest passes and three pools inside - one is zero entry and has a slide. The 9 year old can have fun while some of you adults get in a workout or a massage. There is an mountain bike trail system called the Whitefish Trails that is very beginner friendly. If you're in town in the summer on a Tuesday, there will be a farmer's market that attracts a lot of people. If you're around for a full moon, do the full-moon bike ride along Going to the Sun. This is a good map for driving Going to the Sun (his other maps are good, too - he's a good resource for hikes). For hiking with the 9 year old, one option that is pretty easy but will keep you away from tons of tourists and you're likely to spot a moose is Redrock Falls out of Many Glacier. It's an out and back hike but nice. I love Many Glacier trails.
posted by adorap0621 at 8:45 AM on November 17, 2015

Following on to what mmascolino said about Zion, you can hike to Scout Lookout below Angel's Landing relatively easily. You are zig zagging up a cliff face, but the trail is never less than 4-5 feet wide, and it's paved a good part of the way.

Scout Lookout is the shoulder to Angel's Landing. From Scout Lookout up to Angel's Landing is really hairy. You're basically rock scrambling up a knife ridge with a 1,000-plus foot drop on either side. There are chains and cables on most of the route, but not all of it. Scout Lookout is no big deal. Angel's Landing is not for the faint of heart. Look up videos on YouTube to see what it's like.

If you do the Narrows in Zion, rent water shoes in town.

That being said, I can help a little with the Southern Utah section. You don't say when you're going, but if you're going in the summer, the most bang for your buck is:
LV -> Zion (2 days) -> North Rim Grand Canyon (1/2 day) -> Bryce (1 day) -> Capitol Reef (1/2 day) -> Moab/Arches/Canyonlands (2 days)

There are absolutely Ranger-led geology and history tours in these places. There are cliff dwellings along the way, that might also provide some interesting history, though you'd need to plan for them, because they're not generally something you see driving by.

You could see all that in about six days, leaving eight more for the rest of your trip. If you're going before May 15, the North Rim to the Grand Canyon will be closed, so cut that. You could build a South Rim trip, as it will be open, but it's relatively far from Zion and Bryce, taking up a lot of time backtracking South to North.

I don't know the Wyoming/Montana pieces, so I'll leave those to other folks.
posted by cnc at 12:21 PM on November 17, 2015

Response by poster: FYI- am planning for 2017. Was thinking very beginning of season. Leave the day my kid gets out of school (maybe June 23).

Because this is beginning stages I am not positive which places I am going to in Utah - I was thinking Zion, Canyonland, Arches, Bryce.
posted by beccaj at 2:12 PM on November 17, 2015

Consider visiting the North Rim of Grand Canyon. If you're departing from Vegas and heading to Zion, a trip to the North Rim will add about four hours of driving time to your vacation. (This is per Google Maps ... with children reality may vary.)

Lots of nature on display as you head to the North Rim. You'll drive through different life zones at different elevations. Elevation helps determine precipitation, which in turn determines what species will thrive. At lower elevations it's open desert. But as you ascend up to the Kaibab Plateau, you'll eventually see forests dominated by tree species that are commonly found in Canada.

For history, consider visiting Capitol Reef National Park. In Fruita, you can see rock art, rock inscriptions, and various historic buildings (including a one-room school house) all in close proximity. This is all set amidst some pretty amazing rock formations. Fruita also has some old orchards, and IIRC you can buy preserves made from the actual fruit harvested at these historic orchards.

Grand Canyon is of course splendid and awesome, and I recommend it wholeheartedly. My personal opinion is that Capitol Reef is a too-well-kept secret. It's not everyone's cup of tea, so definitely research it more thoroughly before making a decision. But depending on what you're interested in and what your expectations are, you may really enjoy it.
posted by compartment at 9:11 PM on November 17, 2015

I'm assuming you'll be doing this in the spring, summer, or fall. I know my kid occasionally gets tired of exploring holes in the earth, so, here are some other activities that your kid and adults will have fun with. Salt Lake has a really nice aquarium and natural history museum. Mountain bike in Park City. Go to the Utah Olympic Park and ride a bobsled, ski off the ramps into the pool, do the ropes course and zipline.

Take a raft trip on the Snake River on your way to Grand Teton. While there also soak in this hot spring. It is awesome. Go to the million dollar cowboy bar and drink a beer sitting in a saddle. Ride the tram at Jackson Hole.

While in Yellowstone swim in The Firehole River.
posted by trbrts at 9:44 AM on November 19, 2015

We just got back from a Utah parks trip. We did Zion & Bryce, then Kodachrome SP & down through Page & the Colorado River at Horseshoe Bend & Lee's Ferry to watch the rafters & kayakers put in for 2-3-week trips. Then down through Jacob Lake to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Absolutely recommend it all 100%. We decided against Arches & Canyonlands as much as we wanted to go there, simply because it would have added so much to the driving time. Gorgeous every mile but we wanted to be in it, not look through windows at it.
posted by headnsouth at 11:34 AM on October 5, 2016

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