Hard to believe we’ve been home almost a month already from our week in Grand Canyon and Zion National Parks. As many of you predicted in your Facebook and blog post comments, our first trip to Arizona and Utah was spectacular. The scenery is unlike any of the other national parks we’ve visited and it was extra special to share it with our parents. A week before we left we shared our “road trip” route and picked up some nice tricks and tips from some readers. Today we’re sharing our favorite photos and a recap of our favorite stops along the way.
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Grand Canyon and Zion National Parks…In an RV
This trip was a learning experience in that we left our two-person tent at home and upgraded to a 25 foot RV rental for the week. Traveling with such a large vehicle definitely changed how we typically see national parks (longer drive time between destinations, less “hop out-take a picture-hop back in”, and some added stress about dump stations and fuel).
It meant we could camp in both Grand Canyon and Zion National Parks which has been an important part in all of our #parkchasing trips. We love coming back from a long day hiking to sit around the campsite. We also love not having to sit in traffic at entrance stations every morning waiting to get in the park. And at under $30 per night for the campsite it’s hard to complain.
Our Grand Canyon and Zion National Parks Itinerary
Arrived at Las Vegas International Airport from our base camp in St. Paul. We picked up the rental RV and drove about 30 minutes east to Lake Mead National Recreation Area. Checked into Boulder Beach Campground along the west shoreline of Lake Mead. The campsites are tight, but without many other options it’s a good place to stop for the night.
After checking out the shoreline of Lake Mead, we headed back up to Alan Bible Visitor’s Center to pick up the first passport stamps and unigrid of the trip. The Visitor’s Center has a small but diverse cactus garden that’s worth snapping some photos of.
We packed up camp early and drove to Hoover Dam Visitor’s Center before 9 AM. The Dam tours that take you inside the working areas of Hoover Dam fill first-come, first-serve so arriving early was important. There was a noticeable difference in congestion and the crowds before and after our tour. It’s worth it to be there right when it opens.
After the dam tour, continue driving east another 4 hours to Mather Campground in Grand Canyon Village. While there are other tent camping choices, Mather is the only campground on the South Rim with reservable campsites. It’s also open year-round. We checked in just before sunset and then hustled to the South Rim trail to watch our first Grand Canyon sunset.
The bus system around the South Rim allows visitors to see most of the park’s highlights without dealing with traffic. Watch the bus schedules and plan plenty of time to get to your destination as you may need to wait in line for multiple buses before you can board.
Board the bus early and take it all the way out to Hermit’s Rest, the farthest bus stop west on the South Rim. Hike along the trails here and then start walking the Rim Trail back towards Bright Angel Lodge and the main bus interchange. There are multiple stops along the way, including Powell Point, named for John Wesley Powell the first explorer to venture through the Grand Canyon on the Colorado River.
In the heat of the afternoon, head back to the main Visitor’s Center and bookstore or check out one of the many museums in the Village.
Once things cool off for the afternoon, head back out to the rim for another sunset. Arrive about 30-40 minutes before the posted sunset time to pick a good spot among the other travelers. Hopi Point was our choice for our second night in Grand Canyon.
The next morning, head out on the other direction of the South Rim towards the Desert View Watchtower area. We left early and found a spot in the parking area at one of the view points to have breakfast overlooking the rim. Watch for whitewater rafting rigs on the Colorado.
Climb Desert View Watchtower, being careful to watch the scenery inside and outside the structure. This was one of our favorite spots in Grand Canyon.
In the afternoon, hike the geological area of the Rim Trail called the “Trail of Time.” It has samples of all the different rocks found in Grand Canyon and their age.
Before heading down the Bright Angel trailhead, we stopped in the famous El Tovar Hotel and the Kolb Studio. Both buildings share history from the earliest pioneer days of the South Rim.
Spend one last evening photographing the sunset. This time we chose Mather Point near the Visitor’s center.
This was the longest day of driving of the trip. We departed early and drove northeast to Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, our next national park unit. Along the way we stopped at the well-photographed Horseshoe Bend which was under construction and not-so-visitor-friendly. Hopefully our next visit to this iconic spot on the Colorado River has fewer people (and some guard rails!)
After a lunch at the Carl Hayden Visitor’s Center it’s back in the car. We drove 91 miles west to Pipe Spring National Monument. Pipe Spring preserves Native American and early Mormon pioneer history of the Southwest. The grounds have restored buildings and gardens with heirloom trees and flowers. Be sure to stop when a ranger-led tour is available of the park. It greatly enhanced the experience and gave us a ‘behind closed doors’ look at the park.
In the late afternoon, we got back in the RV for another 42 mile drive to Zion National Park. We checked into the South Campground just in time for an evening walk along the Virgin River and the Pa’rus Trail.
Although they are close in distance, the hiking in Grand Canyon and Zion National Parks could not be more different. Our hikes in Grand Canyon were on relatively flat and sometimes paved trails. Zion’s hiking is rugged with much more challenging terrain.
On our first day we hiked the Upper and Lower Emerald Pools, Kayenta Trail, Weeping Rock and the Riverside Trail up to the Narrows. All were gorgeous and relatively free of crowds in the early part of the day. Toward the afternoon the heat picked up and so did the number of people on the trail. We took the opportunity to check out the Zion Human History Museum, The Zion Lodge and the Visitor’s Center exhibits.
We spent the last full day of our trip hiking in Zion. In the morning we set out for the Watchman Trail which has a stunning panoramic view up the entire lower canyon. It’s a short hike with a huge payoff.
In the afternoon we drove the Zion Mount Carmel Highway (including the tunnel) to see the eastern part of the park. The rock formations here look completely different from other parts of the canyon and are worth the drive. Be sure to stop at viewpoints for Checkerboard Mesa and the Canyon Overlook.
After having ice cream on the lawn of the Zion Lodge, we had our last hike of the trip along the Virgin River between the Lodge and the Court of the Patriarch’s area.
All good things must come to an end. Including the perfect Grand Canyon and Zion National Parks road trip. On our last day of the trip we departed Las Vegas airport with a little sunburn and plenty of plans to come back!