Advice for a trip to Zion and Grand Canyon
October 1, 2007 8:02 PM   Subscribe

Travel Suggestion Filter: I need some advice about preferences, weather conditions and practical stuff relating to a trip i'm planning in Zion National Park and Grand Canyon

Hi all,

My wife and I are leaving the big city in search of wide open spaces, quiet and serenity. Our plan is to fly into Las Vegas and head out immediately. We don't have much time (5 full days) and it will be between October 25 and 30, I've rented a 4wd SUV and am considering 2 options:

1. Northern Mojave Preserve and Death Valley - driving through dunes, canyons, old ghost towns, 4wd tracks. Sounds like fun but I hear the weather can still be brutally hot in the valley even in October. This is a safer option.

2. Zion National Park or Bryce Canyon and then driving down to the grand canyon at Tuweep / Toroweap. Both these options look amazing but can anyone tell me what kind of weather I can expect in late october in these places? Has anyone ever driven the small roads to Tuweep / Toroweap from southern Utah? How long would it take to drive those roads? Looks like I will head south via St. George on I-15 then Route 5. If I take the drive down there I would spend 2-3 days there to make it worth the trip.

I really really want to do option 2 but want to hear your opinions. If its going to be really cold and take all day to drive these roads then I may be dissuaded.

Thanks everyone!
posted by postergeist to Travel & Transportation (25 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Southern Utah is gorgeous and remote beyond belief. I don't recall much about specific routes from the six months I spent kicking around there in my youth, but specific routes don't matter when it is all so lovely. The nights will be chilly that time of year and a rainstorm can turn those back roads into brick red impassable muck. Go for it.

Oh--here are some pictures, courtesy of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. Which reminds me, don't be a jerk with that 4x4! Keep it on the road.
posted by LarryC at 8:19 PM on October 1, 2007

I don't know about the weather or anything, but what about Zion & Bryce, no Grand Canyon. They're closer and awesome enough for a 3 day trip themselves.

Protips: Stay at the Bryce campground, and hike out to the canyon under full darkness. Shine your flashlights into the canyon, then turn them off and look at the stars and the glimmers of the canyon you can see. I ridiculously wanted to go down into the canyon floor but we only had an afternoon and a night.

At Zion, go up Angel's Landing. It looked to me not being a mountain climber like HOLY SHIT I'M GONNA GO UP THE SIDE OF THAT THING? but you can do it.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 8:37 PM on October 1, 2007

Response by poster: toroweap looks so amazing though! I have never seen the grand canyon before and would regret it terribly if i missed the opportunity to see it.

Any advice about being able to pitch a tent in more remote backcountry? will i get caught if i dont have a permit?
posted by postergeist at 8:55 PM on October 1, 2007

Yeah, I'd say option 2 will be the richer experience.

I've done both, and the Grand Canyon, while indeed Grand, felt like a let-down. All you do is go to the rim and say, "wow, yep, that's a big canyon." You know, unless you spring for a heli ride or something.

Bryce and Zion have lots of petroglyphs, for one thing, and they're surrounded by small, old-timey towns with fun little diners. Maybe it's just me.

Oh, also, Cedar Breaks. Right that way, and pretty awesome. Look into it.
posted by SlyBevel at 8:59 PM on October 1, 2007

Hey, I just ran the Grand Canyon rim to rim last week! I hadn't been since I was young, and it was amazing. Gorgeous and unbelievable and humbling. You should definitely consider making it part of your trip, but here are some things to think about:

If you're coming from Utah, you'll be heading to the north rim, and the website warns that the roads are sometimes closed in late October due to snow. My friends were there at the end of October last year and got pounded with rain, and just a bit of snow.

Also, it's unlikely that you'll be able to find hotel reservations this late (although there are lots of cancellations, maybe if you call you'll get lucky) so consider making it a day trip from Utah.
posted by Bella Sebastian at 9:00 PM on October 1, 2007

D'oh, didn't preview. In response to SlyBevel's comment: you don't have to just LOOK at the canyon, of course. Spend a few hours and hike around, if you're sportily inclined. Descending into the belly of the beast is a pretty incredible feeling.
posted by Bella Sebastian at 9:02 PM on October 1, 2007

I have never seen the grand canyon before and would regret it terribly if i missed the opportunity to see it.

I've never seen the Grand Canyon before either, but on our trip we basically skipped it for Bryce & Zion - it was sort of a pain in the ass for our itinerary. This 3 week trip was only vaguely planned for more than the next 2 days ahead. So going into that I was expecting to be most upset if we missed the Grand Canyon. But by the time it came to that, I realized that while the Grand Canyon would definitely be awesome, I wouldn't have felt it more awesome if we had done Bryce and the Grand Canyon instead of Bryce and Zion.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 9:18 PM on October 1, 2007

Don't know much about Utah but this might be helpful in forming reasonable expectations about a Death Valley trip:

Do as I say, not as I do: Most rental SUVs (as in, those you'd get from the major rental agencies at the LV airport) come with street tires and sometimes with the 4WD disabled. And going off paved roads can invalidate your rental contract and lead to very, very expensive towing bills if you get stuck (AAA won't come out to Jeep roads.)

Now look, over several trips, I've spent somewhere between 30-45 days touring Death Valley in a rental 4WD, and maybe 3 days in the Mojave Preserve and another 3 in Joshua Tree, disregarding the above and having a blast. No major problems save a rock with my tire's name on it 35 miles from the nearest paved road -- but this was a serious ass-puckerer, and thankfully the rental truck's spare and jack worked well enough to get me to the nearest service station (65 miles away.) I could see a situation like this getting especially stressful if I'd been there with a significant other.

So, especially if this would be your first visit to DV, stick to the main roads (including the few main unpaved roads,) and resist the temptation to venture on onto roads marked "high-clearance" or "4WD only" unless you really, really know your ride. Know all the getting-stuck-in-the-desert rules and follow them (I'll elaborate if you want.) Carry extra gas unless you trust the car's gauge. Of course, carry extra water as you should any time you go out in the desert. Also several cans of fix-a-flat, a portable compressor and a tire plug kit wouldn't hurt (there's a Wal-Mart or two in Vegas, and you can always return this stuff if you don't use it.)

Sticking to the above shouldn't rule out most of the major sights, except maybe the Racetrack (25+ miles out and back on a washboarded road,) Saline Valley, and, depending on whether the road's open and what kind of shape it's in (ask at the Visitor's Center, explaining what kind of ride you've got,) Titus Canyon. I'd say definitely don't even consider the more remote, tougher rides like Goler Wash/Striped Butte, the trails up into the Panamints, or pretty much any remote trail that crosses an alluvial fan. And the really, really big dunes -- the Eureka Dunes -- will likely be more safely approached from the mostly-paved western side of the Big Pine Road.

Yeah, I know I'm not selling the DV thing too hard -- it can be extremely rewarding, but you have to be prepared for a scene if things go bad. So if your marriage can survive adventure, I say go for DV, but don't go for it too, too hard this trip in a rental. Wait 'til you get to know the place and what you're comfortable with.

And be prepared for winter weather in the higher elevations that time of year, whichever trip you choose.

Have a blast!
posted by Opposite George at 9:20 PM on October 1, 2007

Like I said, it could just be me. I won't be at all surprised if I get soundly shouted down. I'm at peace with that.

One more thing...Don't waste time at Four Corners Monument. It's on a Res, they charge you to get in, and then it's a flea market environment, but more run-down, if that's possible. I was really disappointed.
posted by SlyBevel at 9:20 PM on October 1, 2007

Zion and Bryce are unspeakably awesome and there is plenty there for you to do. I was there last August and was blown away. Yes absolutely do Angel's Landing and if it is warm enough, hike the Zion Narrows...That is incredible.
posted by mmascolino at 9:31 PM on October 1, 2007

I hit snow in Bryce on Nov 2, a few years ago, the day before I'd spent in shorts at Zion. My advice is go prepared for moderate heat and cold. Bryce in snow was pretty and it wasn't a blizzard, just an hour of light snow fall, but it was pretty cold.
posted by doctor_negative at 9:48 PM on October 1, 2007

It's about 90 miles to Toroweap from St. George, and there are other routes. Also, the North Rim is open until snow closes the road around late October.
posted by Brian B. at 9:52 PM on October 1, 2007

Response by poster: maybe i should go with a convertible instead?
posted by postergeist at 10:03 PM on October 1, 2007

Just south and west of Vegas:Kelso Dunes there are wild camping spots in the Granite Mountains.There is a road from St.George that ends on top of a fin on the North rim, very remote no one would mind you pitching a tent. Oct. is the only sensible time to be out there. The Inyo County road crew just finished grading the Saline Valley Rd,so it is as good as it gets.
posted by hortense at 10:09 PM on October 1, 2007

Has anyone ever driven the small roads to Tuweep / Toroweap from southern Utah? How long would it take to drive those roads?

My recollection (from Feb 2004) is that it took us about 2 to 3 hours when we took a route that had more paved road going out to Toroweap through Colorado City (roughly this route, I think). On the way back into St. George we took the dirt roads west of Toroweap & south of St. George (roughly this route), and it took us considerably longer, not the least because it's just longer/windier, but also because it warmed up that day, melted a little bit of snow, and turned the roads muddy.

You can expect good weather in October -- lows in the 40s, highs in the 70s. It's still good policy to be prepared for it to get hot or colder (maybe down to freezing), but the milder range I mentioned is probably going to be the rule. February was even pretty pleasant, if cold at night. Toroweap is that much warmer than the "official" north rim (which closes mid-october) because it's a couple thousand feet lower elevation.

I'll also add that I found Toroweap, literally, awesome, and if you're looking for wide open spaces, quiet, and serenity, it's a very good spot.

Zion will probably have similar weather, maybe slightly colder. Bryce's higher elevation mean that it can be a good deal chillier though -- I'll bet the nightly lows are probably below freezing already, and highs are probably 50s, maybe low 60s. Certainly endurable, but definitely colder. Bryce is also more out of your way from Vegas, and Zion itself could easily absorb 2-3 days, so you might consider skipping Bryce this time (inspiring as it is!), and keeping to Zion and Toroweap.

maybe i should go with a convertible instead?

If you're just going to Zion, that could work and be pretty good fun in the warm of the day. If you do choose Toroweap, a capable offroad vehicle -- or at least something with high clearance -- is a good idea.
posted by weston at 10:39 PM on October 1, 2007

Any advice about being able to pitch a tent in more remote backcountry? will i get caught if i dont have a permit?

Maybe you know this, but in Utah at least, it appears to vary by ranger district. (Maybe the one you're in is permit-based; I didn't check. If you're not two steps ahead of me here--) ask about "dispersed camping" in your BLM district. In general, though, I doubt it and personally worry more about getting run over by other drivers. With a few places that are exceptions, like outside Moab are a couple places where they're trying to cut down on illicit camping. I've slept somewhere random that was pretty far from the main roads inside of Death Valley with no problem (ymmv). The only places I've gotten in trouble were National Parks, State Parks, and official campgrounds (of any sort) that happened to be closed for the season or when I (ahem) happened not to pay.
posted by salvia at 12:37 AM on October 2, 2007

(sorry garbled, didn't proofread)
posted by salvia at 12:38 AM on October 2, 2007

I hit snow in Bryce on Nov 2, a few years ago, the day before I'd spent in shorts at Zion.

Similar for me, in March(?) So so hot in Zion, the day after a sleet storm in Bryce.

I second the comments above, the Grand Canyon can be passed on in my opinion. It' touristy, and filled with people, and while the canyon itself is amazing, the canyons and sights at Bryce and Zion are also amazing.
posted by inigo2 at 6:37 AM on October 2, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks to all of you for the great info. Differing opinions here, I guess I will play it by ear once I get there to gauge the weather as I go. inigo2, is the GC still touristy and crowded at toroweap as well? my understanding is that tourists don't generally make it there because its a pain in the ass to get to and theres no donut and souvenir shops to buy stuff.
posted by postergeist at 6:52 AM on October 2, 2007

is the GC still touristy and crowded at toroweap as well?


my understanding is that tourists don't generally make it there because its a pain in the ass to get to and theres no donut and souvenir shops to buy stuff.

Yes. :)

There's pretty much nothing at Toroweap. I don't think there were more than 2 "campsites" in 2004 (campsite meaning picnic table and improvised firepits), and there's a bathroom with nicely enclosed pit toilets a short walk away. I think you need to bring your own water.

There's also no fee, however, and there's few other people to interfere with really taking in the unfenced, un-narrated, 3000-foot-deep sheer voluminous space of the canyon and the surrounding landscape over a desert sunrise Grofé might envy.

Any advice about being able to pitch a tent in more remote backcountry? will i get caught if i dont have a permit?

You'll need a permit if the canyonside campsites are full. This website says there's another campground a ways in from the edge of the canyon ("the point"), and gives some directions on where/when to pick up a permit if you need it.

It also has some good info on nearby hikes -- for which, by the way, make sure you're in good shape, and well-prepared with more than enough water and emergency gear, because it's really quite steep and strenuous and people often get in trouble fast. That happens more often in the touristy areas where easy access and traffic mean more people who don't know better rush in, but my friends and I were somewhat seasoned outdoor adventurers and we still only did part of the trail down into the Canyon because we were surprised by the difficulty and a bit underprepared for the hike.
posted by weston at 10:12 AM on October 2, 2007

Response by poster: thanks weston, I was told there is a 4wd track not too far from toroweap to whitmore canyon where you can drive roughly 1/3 of the way down and that there is a hiking trail at the end of the road which gets you down into the river in 1 mile. The person said it was the shortest trail to the canyon floor in the whole park. Ever heard of it?
posted by postergeist at 10:44 AM on October 2, 2007

Ooh- Weston mentioning fees reminded me of something. Whatever you decide to do, you should look up the resulting fees, and then determine if it's cheaper to pay per-park, or buy a national park pass (gets your car in free to any national park). If I remember correctly (and I definitely might not) it was $15 or $20 per car at Bryce (and if you need to leave Bryce to grab something at the biggish store outside the park, you have to pay again to get back in). I don't remember how much Zion was. Just something to keep in mind. (And remember, the park pass is good for a full year, if you have any other trips, even local, in mind.)
posted by inigo2 at 12:58 PM on October 2, 2007

postergeist, I think what you're describing was what we were trying to find, but we didn't have much information, the nearby ranger station was closed, and we ended up somewhere else on a longer (2 1/2 mile?) trail down, which we didn't complete. I'll bet that if you're able to contact someone at the ranger station (there's a number and rough location mentioned in that page I linked), they'd be able to give good directions, though.
posted by weston at 2:07 PM on October 2, 2007

I dug up a few photos from around the Toroweap point in case anyone's interested: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. And one that could serve as a warning about the nearby roads when they get muddy -- it's not just that you can get stuck, it's also that you can get your vehicle covered enough you can't see. :)
posted by weston at 11:17 PM on October 3, 2007

Beautiful thanks weston.
posted by hortense at 9:17 PM on October 4, 2007

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