If you’ve had a hankering to visit some of the incredible national parks and monuments in the western United States, this article is for you!
Dave and I spent close to three weeks on the ultimate road trip starting in Denver, Colorado and ending in Sedona, Arizona, logging over 2,700 miles in our rental car. On our journey we visited roughly eleven locations (some considered parks, some monuments, others we’re not sure about) and saw a lot of really fascinating landscape between each. I’ll share what we experienced at each park, where we stayed, what worked and what we should have done differently.
Our trip started in Denver on April 10, and the weather forecast promised spring-like conditions. In fact, the day before our departure, the temps in Denver were in the 80s (F) so things were looking good. However, Denver is somewhat infamous for its unpredictable weather, and as it happened, we experienced a white-knuckle landing in a bomb-cyclone blizzard. Safely on the ground, we made haste to the airport restroom to change from t-shirts and flipflops to sweaters and boots, and dig our heavier outerwear from our suitcase. We dragged our gear to the rental car shuttle and waited for what felt like an eternity in freezing temps and blowing snow.
We learned a good lesson on this trip about budget car rental companies. We may have saved a couple bucks here and there, but the inconvenience of using budget rental cars was not worth it. We watched Enterprise, Avis, and Hertz shuttle buses come every 5 to 10 minutes while waiting for the Fox shuttle, which took over 30-minutes. Did I mention we were standing outside in 20-degree temps in a blizzard? The other negative about budget rentals is their lots are almost always off-airport and you probably shouldn’t expect 24-hour availability which can be a problem when picking up or dropping off early in the morning or late at night.
But I digress… back to the trip!
If you plan to visit three or more parks, be sure to invest $80 in an America the Beautiful park pass, which is good for a full year and grants free entry to hundreds of parks across the US. The pass can be purchased online in advance (be sure to order at least two weeks before you depart) or at the first park you visit. Many of the parks are fee based, with fees starting at $20 per car. We saved $125 with our park pass and we still have 11-months to use it. Below is our impression of the parks we visited, followed by our itinerary. I’ve indicated the entry fee, but if you have the park pass, those fees are waived (except Antelope Canyon which is not a US Park). We didn’t do much hiking, but stopped at every viewpoint where possible and were able to see each park in about 3 hours. Depending on your level of immersion, you could spend a few days in each park, but if you have limited time, you can easily hit the highlights in a couple hours.
In case you don’t have three weeks, I’ve shared what I would skip for another visit. Lastly, thinking we would want to have a “base camp” in a few places, we stayed longer in a couple spots and drove to the parks as a day trip. Although it was nice to have a couple nights in one spot, it caused us to spend a lot more time in the car. In hindsight we would have just spent one night in each location and reduced some of our windshield time and shortening our trip a few days.
Garden of the Gods (Colorado Springs, CO): FREE
This was our first glimpse of some of the rock formations we would see over the course of three weeks, and it’s a good, easy, walkable park. Its proximity to Colorado Springs gives visitors plenty of options for overnight accommodations and dining. You may drive your vehicle around the park’s perimeter where there are numerous areas to park and hike. Trail maps indicate the difficulty and length of the hike, but you don’t have to ever leave your car to see a lot of the scenery. If you are in Colorado Springs, Garden of the Gods is a must, but if you’re planning to visit Arches, you can probably skip Garden of the Gods if you’re short on time.
Hanging Lake (Glenwood Springs, CO): $12 per person
This is a must-visit but requires some hiking ability and endurance. We were there in April and more than half of the trail was covered in ice and snow, making the hike even more difficult. The trail is steep and uneven, and at times we had to climb over fallen trees through the creek. If you decide to brave the hike to Hanging Lake, wear hiking boots, or better yet, crampons, and bring (or find) a walking stick. The reward at the top is well worth the climb but I assure you, you will work for it. I don’t want to discourage anyone from this adventure; it was a highlight of our trip. But I do want people to be prepared so they have a safe trip. Starting May 2019, visitors must have a reservation to take a shuttle to the base of the trail as they will begin prohibiting private vehicles.
If you decide to stay in Glenwood Springs and want to hike a bit more, be sure to visit the grave of Doc Holliday. The trailhead is located on Bennet Ave between 11th and 13th Streets. There is no dedicated parking so we parked on the street. It’s a 30-minute uphill climb on a dirt path; when you reach the cemetery there are markers to Doc Holliday’s grave.
Dinosaur National Monument (Dinosaur, CO): $25 per car
The main attraction of this park is the Dinosaur bone exhibit (which is indoors). The bones are exhibited in the actual position they were found, and it’s mind blowing how many are condensed in to such a small space. This park has a visitor’s center and some interactive displays, and visitors can opt to take a shuttle (seasonal) or self-drive through the park. In addition to the bone exhibit, there are petroglyphs, the remnants of the Josie Morris cabin, rafting and camping available. Due to the uniqueness of this park, we would recommend making this a stop on your park tour.
Arches National Park (Moab, UT): $30 per car
Arches is a sprawling park that you can drive at your own pace. At the visitor’s center, pick up a map and get acquainted with the park layout. There are lots of trails for those who want to hike, or, you can just pop out of your car at the viewpoints. As indicated in the name, this park features a lot of natural arches. This was one of my favorite parks and is a must-visit. Its proximity to the town of Moab makes it even more attractive. Canyonlands is very close by; I would recommend staying two nights in Moab and covering both parks. We didn’t have time to do Canyonlands but understand it has more “off trail” hiking.
Under Canvas has a glamp site close to Arches and Moab and we decided to give it a try. If you want to sleep in a tent without hauling a lot of gear around, this is a great option. The king size bed was top notch and having a woodstove in the tent kept us toasty and warm. The view of Canyonlands National Park was pretty special too! The cute town of Moab is close by and there are plenty of dining options. We enjoyed glamping with Under Canvas so much, we booked a stay at Zion, and if we decide to visit the Grand Canyon again, we will definitely stay in their Grand Canyon camp.
Valley of the Gods, formerly part of Bears Ears National Monument (Bluff, UT): FREE
Valley of the Gods was part of Bears Ears until the current US president reduced the size of the National Monument that subsequently excluded Valley of the Gods. This is a self-drive exploration, and there are no maps or indicators for the rock formations. Your best option is to download a map online and take your best guess at what you’re seeing. Although beautiful, this is a park we would skip unless we were planning to camp. There were a lot of beautiful, remote camp sites and it made us wish we had a camper or RV.
Should you decide to visit Bears Ears, consider hiring a guide as many of the main attractions require a FWD vehicle and knowledge of the area. Bears Ears is over 300 square miles which requires careful planning and research.
Antelope Canyon (Page, AZ): $60+ per person (not covered by Park Pass!)
The Upper and Lower canyons are owned by the Navajo Nation and they run the tours for both canyons. Note that it is not possible to visit the canyons without a Navajo guide; timed admissions can be booked online and visitors should definitely book a few days in advance. There are multiple tour operators to choose from. We only did the Upper canyon, which was like nothing I have ever seen, but it was impossibly overcrowded. The guides take groups of 14 in to the canyon and you are literally crammed in together like cattle. It’s hard to take pictures without other people cutting in, and we could barely hear our guide over the other guides. We have heard that the Lower Canyon is less crowded. Despite the high cost and crowds, this is a must-see.
While you’re in Page, be sure to visit Glen Canyon ($25 per car) which includes Lake Powell and Horseshoe Bend. Horseshoe Bend is a big attraction at sunset so get there early to avoid the long entrance line!
Grand Canyon (Grand Canyon, AZ): $30 per car
The Grand Canyon is a national treasure and although it was spectacular, I didn’t enjoy it as much as some of the other parks. It was touristy, crowded, and over commercialized. Still, the canyons are breathtaking and if you’re in that part of the country it would be a shame not to stop. The Grand Canyon has many touring options including guides, shuttles, a train or self-drive. It’s important to note that the North Rim is closed part of the year (winter) so check for park alerts before you go. If you are interested in glamping, Under Canvas operates a camp site here.
Bryce Canyon (Bryce, UT): $35 per car
Bryce Canyon was one of my favorite parks because it was less populated, and the hoodoo formations are unique and abundant. This is an easy self-driving park with lots of places to park for scenic overlooks or hiking, but they also run a seasonal shuttle for those interested. Some of the hiking trails were closed during our visit due to rock slides.
Capitol Reef National Monument (Torrey, UT): $20 per car
Unexpectedly, this turned out to be my favorite park (and to think we almost skipped it). Visitors can walk and drive through the canyon, getting up close and personal. We were in awe of the canyon formations as we drove through Canyon Gorge (which is a bumpy dirt road), but it was the most authentic experience of the trip. There were very few visitors and we felt we were really in nature. I would definitely make this park a stop on your visit.
Zion National Park (Zion, UT): $40 per car
Zion is a beautiful park but visitors are required to use the shuttle while exploring (which can be hot and crowded at times) and the park is best for hikers versus those who prefer the scenic overlooks. We hiked along the Virgin river and took a trail up to the Emerald Pools to see the pools and waterfalls. It was really pretty but after seeing Hanging Lake, it paled in comparison. It was also very crowded. We spent the night in Under Canvas Zion and had another memorable stay (if you go, don’t stay in tent 18. It’s close to the bathrooms and lobby tent, but doesn’t offer a lot of privacy).
Sedona has a bit of everything and was a great last stop on our trip. To get a good layout of the canyons and famous red rock formations, stop at the Visitor’s Center and a helpful volunteer will happily answer all your questions. There are dozens of tour options as well (the Pink Jeep tours are popular but we prefer to go it alone), and it’s also possible to rent ATVs. We drove to explore the canyons and Red Rocks, ate at some great restaurants (The Hudson and Hideaway House are favorites), did some wine tasting, went horseback riding (Horsin’ Around Adventures – they have English saddles!!), visited the “ghost town” of Jerome, and enjoyed a long massage at Uptown Massage. We stayed in a cute casita we found on Airbnb that was comfortable and well equipped and I was able to cook a couple meals (eating restaurant food for every meal for three weeks gets old and expensive). Ending in Sedona allowed us to rest and recharge and was the perfect ending of a wonderful road trip.
If you’re looking for an exhilarating, awe-inspiring vacation (and are OK spending many hours in the car with your companions), the national parks and monuments of the western United States are guaranteed to deliver and then some. Ready to hit the road?
Day 1: Arrive in Denver, overnight at the Warwick Hotel
Day 2-3: Two nights in Cripple Creek, CO with a daytrip to Colorado Springs & Garden of the Gods. We selected Cripple Creek as a base because the town looked charming online and was central to Pikes Peak, Garden of the Gods and Colorado Springs, but in hindsight would have stayed in Colorado Springs. It is a cute town, but every hotel and nearly every restaurant is a casino. We aren’t gamblers so this didn’t appeal to us at all. If you have a strong interest in seeing Garden of the Gods, stay in Colorado Springs for one night and skip Cripple Creek.
Day 4: Drove north to Glenwood Springs, stopping in Vail, CO for lunch at the Alpenrose restaurant for a delish meal of German beer, fondue and schnitzel. I highly recommend this restaurant for its hearty fare and charming dining room, but they operate on a seasonal schedule so check before you go. This was also my first visit to Vail and I loved the ambience and look of the town. It’s quaint and beautiful – I can see why it’s a haven for the rich and famous.
Day 5: Hike to Hanging Lake then drive to Vernal, UT to spend the night. There are not a lot of densely populated towns close to Dinosaur; we chose Vernal because it had more hotel and restaurant options.
Day 6: Dinosaur National Monument then drive to Moab, UT to spend the night.
Day 7: Arches National Park then drive to Bluff, UT. We stayed in a lovely restored motel called the Desert Rose Inn which was close to Valley of the Gods.
Day 8: Valley of the Gods then drive to Page, AZ.
Day 9-11: We made Page, AZ our home base and visited Antelope Canyon, Lake Powell, and the Grand Canyon on day trips. The drive to Grand Canyon was 2.5 hours each way – if we were to do the trip differently, we would have stayed one night in Page and done Lake Powell and Antelope in a single day, and spent a night at Under Canvas Grand Canyon. For hotels, Grand Canyon Village or Cameron are good options.
Day 12-13: Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef National Park, overnight in Bryce, UT (two nights).
Day 14: Drive to Zion, overnight at Under Canvas Zion.
Day 15: Zion National Park then drive back to Page, AZ overnight. Our initial plan was to drive to Sedona from Zion, but decided we didn’t want to deal with a 4.5-hour drive. We backtracked to Page (2 hours) and spent the night, then drove 2.5 hours to Sedona the next morning.
Day 15-19: Sedona, AZ