This is Part 1 of a planned 10 part series on our U.S. National Park adventure across Utah, Northern Arizona, and Western Colorado. We will spend one whirlwind week traversing 1500 miles, exploring the natural wonders of each park and the surrounding cities. Our travels will take us on a zigzagged route across the southwest from Las Vegas airport to Salt Lake City. We'll encounter a plethora of unique sights along the way--several feeling as if they belong on another planet. Whether you're thinking about planning a similar adventure or just interested in reading about these natural wonders, I hope this series helps highlight the remarkable diversity of the American Southwest.
The multitude of unique national parks across the American southwest is simply mind boggling. This is one of my favorite trips we have ever undertaken--inside or outside of the United States. It features countless breathtaking sights, several unique experiences, and such an endless span of global geological history. The peaks of Zion are indescribable. Their red hue, soaring height, and the sheer mass of them towering overhead are enough to give you a neck cramp. Bryce Canyon's amphitheater feels as if it belongs on another planet with towering vermillion hoodoos spread out across the canyon like the audience of a stadium. Grand Staircase Escalante literally displays 200 million years of the Earth's geological history via its exposed rock formations. Page, Arizona features one of the most iconic, photographed sights of the southwest--the Colorado River encircling Horseshoe Bend. Monument Valley takes you back to a time when Westerns were a top movie genre--surrounded by its towering sandstone buttes, you feel like you're truly in the "old west." Mesa Verde takes you back significantly farther to 500-1300 A.D. when the Ancestral Puebloans inhabited the land and ultimately constructed the park's famous cliff dwellings. Moab, Utah features not one renowned National Park, but two--Arches and Canyonlands. Arches may have the most unique geology I've encountered in any National Park--the park's 2,000+ arches are simply spectacular--but Canyonlands boasts an equally spectacular panoramic view. I could go on and on, but suffice it to say that this was one heck of a trip for a photographer--we burned through a ton of memory cards!
That being said, parts of this trip are definitely not without their challenges. The altitude in some of these locations is rough on the body. It can cause sleep difficult, dry throat/eyes, and dizziness, (our main symptoms) to name a few. The locations that affect people the most tend to be Bryce Canyon and Mesa Verde, both topping 8,000 ft. above sea level. Salt Lake City, at close to half that height, is a welcome reprieve! The locations are also very spread out--the entire journey covers about 1500 miles, and at times, the drive can feel quite remote. Cottonwood Canyon Road, running through Grand Staircase Escalante, is mostly unpaved, fairly isolated, and lacks cell phone service. In fact, many of this trip's parks and even highways have little to no cell phone service.
Several of the itinerary's most famous hikes are also fairly challenging. The Narrows in Zion leads quite literally up the center of the Virgin River. The riverbed is extremely rocky, and it would be very easy to turn an ankle given the right current and the wrong misstep. [The river was running low during our visit, and we still hiked through areas that were waist deep.] Zion's Angel's Landing hike is not for the fainthearted--or the agoraphobic--as it traverses high, narrow rock ledges with no aid other than a chain for balance. [We skipped this one.] The hike to Horseshoe Bend is shadeless other than a few manmade shelters--it is not for anyone with a medical condition to attempt in the summer heat. [It was 107 (F) the day we went, and there was an ambulance stationed at the end of the trail waiting for potential heat stroke victims.] The hike to Delicate Arch in Arches National Park is straight up slick rock with no shade and a few precipitious spots along the trail. [Temperatures were nearing 100 (F) when we headed out.] Hiking in high altitude, extreme temperatures, and difficult conditions can be quite tough on the body and requires pre-planning, a personal health/safety assessment, and plenty of water!
These are just a few examples of the unique challenges we faced on this trip. As such, parts of this adventure may not be for everyone. However, you can choose what you tackle in each park depending on your comfort level, hike early or in the off season if you may be prone to heat related illness, and simply skip those sights that you don't feel are for you. If you're a little leery about taking on such a large itinerary, I encourage you to read about each stop, pick a few of your favorite parts, and patch them together to create your own custom adventure. If you are tackling this trip and have the time, slow down a bit and enjoy the locations you choose for two or more nights. There's plenty to see and do at each destination!
I'm certainly not trying to discourage anyone from attempting this trip. It is absolutely worth the work as long as you are comfortable with the challenge each park, hike, or adventure you select presents. The scenery--and the experience--is simply SPECTACULAR:
For this ten part series, I will cover the itinerary we traversed (in that order). I have broken the series parts down by location. Each unique location has its own section. As we often spent portions of two different days in one park, breaking this particular trip down by day would have split the itinerary in a very messy way. By following this format, those who wish to obtain information on a particular park/location can more easily access it.
This Series will be comprised of:
Part 1: Planning and Preparing
Part 3: Bryce Canyon National Park
Part 4: Kodachrome & Grand Staircase Escalante
Part 5: Page, AZ (Glen Canyon & Horseshoe Bend + Antelope Canyon Tips)
Part 6: Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park
Part 7: Mesa Verde National Park
Part 8: Canyonlands National Park & Dead Horse State Park
Part 9: Arches National Park
Part 10: Salt Lake City, UT
Part 1 is designed to help you with your initial planning, provide some travel tips, and toss in a few (hopefully helpful) recommendations. Below, I've laid out the planning details on when it may be best to visit each location, the weather, air travel options, tips on getting lodging reservations, dining details, and pre-booking excursions. I've also provided some recommendations on what to pack, guidebooks, the National Park Pass, navigating without internet/cell reception, and wildfire safety. I hope you find it all useful!
Planning for Your Trip
When to Visit:
This trip covers a lot of ground (and elevation), but in general, if you want to hit all of the sights on this itinerary, I recommend June as the best time to visit the entire list, particularly if you wish to include Mesa Verde National Park on your itinerary. If you are not covering the entire itinerary, it depends a bit on where exactly you're headed. For the desert climates like Moab, Page and Monument Valley, spring and early fall boast more moderate and enjoyable temperatures. For elevated locations like Bryce, the park is comfortable from late spring through early fall, but traveling midsummer brings the potential threat of monsoons. By location:
Zion can be quite hot in summer with temperatures reaching over 100 (F), and summer monsoons (July through September) increases the risk of flash flooding. Fall temperatures are more moderate, and winters are cold and wet. If you plan to hike The Narrows on your trip, the flow of the river impacts the difficulty level of the hike (and the depth of the water). When the flow exceeds 150 CFS, The Narrows is shut down for hiking. This can occur fairly regularly during the spring snow melt. If you have your heart set on the narrows, early summer through fall are your best choice. However, The Narrows is a hike through a narrow canyon, so it does pose a flash flood risk. Given the summer monsoon season, June is an ideal time for a relatively comfortable temperature (air and water) and likely good flow conditions.
Bryce Canyon elevations reach as high as 9,100 ft. Winters can be extremely cold and average 96" of snow. While the snow offers a different perspective of the red canyon, contrasted with a blanket of white, I would recommend a warmer visit. Temperatures in summer are relatively moderate in comparison to places like Page, AZ, and even in Zion. However, June specifically boasts the lowest average precipitation and significantly decreases your risk of encountering a severe summer thunderstorm (common in July/August) or a late spring snowstorm.
Grand Staircase-Escalante - Cottonwood Canyon Road is a 46 mile long (mostly) dirt road. The drive can be done at any time of year, provided that precipitation has not recently fallen (though 4 wheel drive is highly recommended). If the roads are wet, they can be rendered impassible, even with a 4x4 vehicle. I highly recommend checking road conditions before attempting this drive as cell phone service was non-existent along the route, and we only passed three other cars on the road the entire time.
Page, AZ & Monument Valley have fairly similar desert climates, though Page gets a bit more rain. In June, both locations average 0 days of rainfall, highs around 90 (F) and lows in the mid-60s (F). Summer temperatures can be dangerously hot midday (bring lots of water). Spring and fall temperature are more moderate and enjoyable with a slightly higher chance of encountering rain. Winters can be chilly, particularly at night when temperatures drop below freezing.
Mesa Verde, which boasts elevations from 7,000-8,500 ft., has a more limited visitor window if you want to tour the park's famed cliff dwellings. Cliff dwelling tours are offered 2 May - 23 October (tickets must be purchased in advance). If you want to stay within the park, lodging is only open 1 May - 30 September (and dinner is only offered 27 May - 30 September). The Weatherill Mesa Road (the only way to access Long House and Step House) is also only open May - September (weather permitting). For this park in particular, I'd recommend planning your visit for between June and September only. The long drive out to the park's sights can feel rather precipitous on a good weather day; I wouldn't recommend a visit in the off season.
Moab, UT (Arches, Canyonlands, & Dead Horse) is considered a high altitude desert climate. Summers are hot, and midday temperatures often reach over 100 (F). Similar to many of the other locations on this itinerary, late summer brings the potential for monsoons and flash flooding. Spring and fall are popular for their more moderate daily temperatures, and winters are cold. June boasts the least average rainfall, but also averages 6 days of highs over 100 (F). If you're planning for June, focus on early morning and evening hikes with afternoon breaks, driving tours, and plenty of water.
Based on your destination(s), the weather can vary quite a bit, but assume it will be HOT most of the summer months. Winter snow predictions can vary widely based on the sight's elevation/climate. My recommended month of the year to visit all of these sights in one trip is June. On average, it is slightly cooler and less crowded than mid-summer, boasts less chance of monsoons/wildfires (which typically worsen as the summer progresses), and tends to be drier than September. That being said, if you are prone to heat related illnesses or only selecting a handful of these destinations to visit, you may want to weigh your options for a shoulder season visit instead to take advantage of the cooler desert temperatures.
In Zion, per the National Park Service, "temperatures vary with changes in elevation and day/night temperatures may differ by over 30 (F)... In March/April, depending on the amount of snow over the winter, higher elevation areas may still be inaccessible without winter gear. Melting snow raises the level of the river so the Narrows may be closed for an extended period of time... Summer is hot with temperatures regularly over 100 (F)... summer monsoons in July - September may produce flash flooding.. [Fall boasts cooler temperatures with average rainfall similar to July and August with snow beginning by November.] Winters are cold and often wet. Temperatures can range from highs of 50 (F) to 60 (F) during the day to lows well below freezing at night." June is the driest month of the year. It is also slightly cooler than July and August and averages 1/3 the number of thunderstorms. For specific statistics, you can visit the Zion NPS website here.
In Bryce Canyon, per the National Park Service, "Due of its high elevation climate, weather through autumn, winter, and spring can be highly variable... Snowstorms in October are not unusual... From October to May temperatures fall below freezing nearly every night... the coldest and snowiest period [is] from December through February. Spring storms in March and April can still produce heavy snowfall that may impact travel... In summer the days tend to be pleasant, with daytime highs in June [and September] typically in the high 60s to low 70s (F) and high 70s to low 80s in July and August... The rainy season occurs in July and August with frequent, usually brief, afternoon thunderstorms which produce heavy rain and frequent lightning." June boasts the highest number of clear days and the lowest levels of precipitation (on average) with daily temperatures ranging from 45 (F) (average low) to 75 (F) (average high). For specific statistics, you can visit the Bryce Canyon NPS website here.
In Grand Staircase-Escalante, if you are sticking to Cottonwood Canyon Road, the temperature doesn't matter much as you will likely only be out of the car for a quick visit to Grovesnor Arch and to take a few photos of the scenery along the drive. Be sure to pack plenty of water in case of a potential vehicle mishap, particularly in the hot months (we only passed three other cars during our travels and cell service was nonexistent). Rainfall is more of a concern as heavy rain, ever a few days prior to your travel, can render the road impassible. On average, July and August boast the most days of rain, with the least number of days being June (1 day). All other months fall between 2-3 days, on average. [Source: NOAA]
In Page, AZ & Monument Valley, summers are hot with daytime temperatures capable of reaching over 100 (F) and nights dropping down to a more moderate high 60s (F). Winters see average highs in the 40s (F) and 50s (F) and average lows dipping below freezing. Both locations feature a dry climate with Monument Valley edging out Page with no average days of rainfall November - June and 1-2 days July - October. Page averages 1-3 days a month, with the exception of June (0 days on average). [Source: NOAA]
In Mesa Verde, per the National Park Service, "during the winter, the weather is usually mild, however, snowstorms can occur as late as May and as early as October. June through September are warm to hot, with cool evenings. Daytime summer temperatures can reach into the 90s (F)... Afternoon thunderstorms are common in July and August." On average, June boasts the highest number of clear days and the lowest levels of precipitation with daily temperatures ranging from 52 (F) (average low) to 83 (F) (average high). September boasts slightly cooler temperatures but with double the average precipitation and slightly less clear days (on average). For specific statistics, you can visit the Mesa Verde NPS website here.
In Moab, UT (Arches, Canyonlands, & Dead Horse), per the National Park Service, "in spring (April through May) and fall (mid-September through October), daytime highs average 60 (F) to 80 (F) and lows average 30 (F) to 50 (F)... Summer temperatures often exceed 100ºF, making strenuous exercise difficult. Late summer monsoon season brings violent storm cells which often cause flash floods... Winters are cold, with highs averaging 30 (F) to 50 (F), and lows averaging 0 (F) to 20 (F)." For specific statistics, you can visit the Arches NPS website here.
Getting There (Air Travel):
The swath of land this itinerary covers is rather immense and for the most part requires a rental car to traverse. Keep in mind that often picking up your car at one airport and dropping it off at another will incur additional fees, but the typical time savings is worth it. (You also may want to consider upgrading to a 4 wheel drive vehicle depending upon your itinerary--we definitely made use of it on Cottonwood Canyon Road.) Despite the vast landscape, there are only a few major airports to consider depending on your itinerary, and they all require a bit of a drive to get to the parks (regional options may differ). For our trip, we began in Las Vegas and concluded in Salt Lake City. However, depending on what portion(s) of the itinerary you plan to traverse, you may want to select a different jumping off or concluding point. If you plan to hit Zion/Bryce, Las Vegas McCarran Airport is the logical choice to begin your journey. It is approximately a 2:40 drive from the airport to Zion. If you are focused on the Page/Monument Valley area, Arizona's Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport is an option (4 hours to Page, 5 hours to Monument Valley)--you may want to consider a night in Sedona and/or the Grand Canyon along the way if you choose this option. To get to Mesa Verde, your are probably best off flying into the Albuquerque International Sunport which is a 4 hour drive from the park (5 hours to Monument Valley). To visit the Moab sights, the Salt Lake City International Airport is your most logical choice (3:45 drive).
Side Trip Option: We didn't spend time in Las Vegas on this vacation, but you could easily tack on a visit to the Strip and even potentially make some day trips to the other sights Nevada has to offer. The Grand Canyon is within reach from several of this trip's locations, as well. There are literally endless possibilities!
In peak season, prices are higher and lodgings can book up quickly in popular locations. You can typically book park lodging reservations approximately 13 months in advance, and I'd strongly recommend it. I was able to secure my reservations in Bryce Canyon Lodge and Monument Valley's The View Hotel three months in advance, but I had to do a LOT of checking back for cancellations to finally get into Bryce (which was full), and I suspect the only reason I was able to obtain Monument Valley reservations this late was due to the Navajo Tribal Park still being closed. If you are traveling with a camper and looking for official sights/hookups, they fill up well in advance, as well (particularly post-Covid)--book ahead. Additionally, pretty much every campsite we encountered during our trip was sporting a "full" sign--even tent camping requires pre-planning to avoid disappointment.
Tip: Be sure to check the amenities available for your particular lodgings, especially when booking at a park lodge. Some amenities often assumed in U.S. accommodations--air condition, television, decent wifi--are not always available in the parks. For example, Bryce Canyon Lodge is lacking all three, and Zion Lodge is missing two out of three--it does boast air conditioning. When staying at your standard chain hotels in Moab or Springdale, you can typically expect the normal range of amenities found in any U.S. chain hotel.
If you plan to dine at a park's sit down restaurant during your stay, reservations may be required. As things are currently constantly in flux with Covid, I'd recommend checking on the individual park's website to review the open dining options and if reservations are required/how to book them. You can also typically review the individual menus, daily meals served, and opening/closing hours. Dining options in some of the parks is limited or non-existent, so research your plans ahead of time. Moab, Springdale, and the gateway airport cities (Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, etc.) boast a plethora of options for any range of palate. If you have your heart set on somewhere in particular, book in advance to avoid disappointment. Otherwise, simply take advantage of the many options available and choose somewhere as you get hungry.
Tip: When traversing the national parks, pack a lot of energy rich snacks in case you are delayed in finding a meal. Food options are a bit few and far between inside the parks, and some, like Arches and Canyonlands, do not offer any food at all. If you plan to eat a midday meal at a park facility, lay out approximately where you think you may be at that general time of day and research your options ahead of time to avoid disappointment--and hunger. Be sure to bring PLENTY OF WATER into the parks, as well. Some do not offer facilities for refills. Also, be aware that if you are on Navajo Tribal Lands (ex. the area surrounding Monument Valley), you will not be able to purchase alcohol anywhere within the boundaries, even at hotels and restaurants.
With the exception of Mesa Verde cliff dwelling tickets (a must), we did not book any excursions ahead of time for this trip. For the most part, we were on our own. I had coordinated with a Navajo company to do a sunrise photography tour of Monument Valley, but unfortunately, due to the continued Covid closure of Monument Valley, they were unable to operate the tour. A few things to keep in mind for these destinations are:
1) Mesa Verde Cliff Dwelling Tours MUST be pre-booked. "Most cliff dwellings can be entered only on a ticketed tour with a ranger. The [only] cliff dwelling that can be visited without a tour is Step House, on Weatherill Mesa. Tour tickets can be purchased only on recreation.gov or by calling (877) 444-6777. Tickets are available 14 days in advance, 8:00 am MST, on a rolling daily window." (Official info can be found here.) In my experience, tickets sell out within minutes. In order to get your coveted ticket(s), set up your recreation.gov account ahead of time, understand how to find the particular cliff palace you are interested in visiting, and be on that page and ready to book at exactly 8am MST on the morning your ticket window opens. If you are trying to get more than one reservation, book them in priority of which you wish to see the most and start with that one to avoid disappointment. Also, if you don't get one you were hoping for, check back often as people do cancel and you may get lucky. I couldn't initially get the ticket time I wanted and was finally able to snag a cancellation two days before we visited.
2) Monument Valley Tours. Now that the valley is officially back open, tours are running once again. You can only visit certain portions of the valley with a Navajo guide. While you can find a guide once you get there, it would be best to choose a guide/itinerary you are interested in ahead of time to ensure you are making the most of your visit. Additionally, if you have a particular interest (say sunset or nighttime photography), you should book those tours well in advance to avoid disappointment as the best ones often book up.
3) Page, AZ. Antelope Canyon. While we did not get the opportunity to visit Antelope Canyon in Page (due to Covid, it was still closed at the time we visited), if you plan to add this unique sight to your itinerary, you should book well in advance to visit the Upper and/or Lower Canyons. These sights can sell out quickly! Also, if you are attempting to see the famed upper canyon light rays, you will need to plan your visit for between 11am-1:30pm in June, July or August for your best chances. (Keep in mind that rain can close the canyon as it is a flash flood risk location.) Lake Powell Boat Tours. A multitude of boat tours are offered at Lake Powell (Glen Canyon National Recreation Area). Depending on what you plan to see/do, you may wish to book your itinerary ahead of time (these excursions can sometimes also be combined with an Antelope Canyon booking).
4) The Zion area is an adventurer's paradise and does have many different options around it for excursions like rock climbing, canyoneering, and jeep tours. Additionally, photography tours are offered in both Zion and Bryce Canyon. If any of these interest you, plan to book ahead as the adventure tours can sell out, particularly during peak season. Zion Park Shuttle Note: The Zion Park Shuttle is the only way to traverse the park during much of the year, to include access to The Narrows (cars are not permitted beyond a certain point). Previously, at the height of covid, you were required to book timed tickets to ride the Zion Park Shuttle--they sold out very quickly. Currently, you are NOT required to have a ticket to utilize the park's shuttle system; however, I would recommend just confirming conditions remain the same on the park's website. As of this writing, a shuttle ticket is NOT required to utilize the Zion shuttle.
Preparing for Your Trip
What to Pack:
If visiting in summer, I recommend packing mainly lightweight, breathable clothing for hikes with a few items that can easily be layered for potentially cool mornings in higher elevations. Wick fabrics that can draw moisture away from your body are ideal. Breathable yoga pants for early morning hikes along with a light long-sleeved layer are not a bad idea--pack heavier on the warmer garment layers if traveling in spring or fall. For men, pants where the lower legs zip off to convert into shorts are a good choice for fluctuating temperatures.
Remember, the sun is strong-- it is a good idea to pack a protective brimmed hat, sunglasses, and plenty of sunscreen. You may also want bug spray for a few of these destinations.
Thick socks, good hiking shoes or boots (preferably waterproof), and a backup pair of shoes (for if they do get wet) are all strongly recommended. If you plan to hike the Narrows, wool socks are great (they repel water significantly better than cotton and keep in the warmth). Water shoes designed for hiking with a good grip for slippery rocks are also a must (I wore my wool socks with these--the water is chilly, even in summer and they helped to prevent blisters). I actually preferred the wool socks for hiking in general after trying them out; they were significantly more comfortable. A pair of flip-flops also isn't a bad idea if you plan to cool off in a hotel pool or just give your feet a break after a long day of hiking. As an example, these are the water shoes my husband wore (he loved them and actually ended up using them quite a bit on the trip for regular hiking, as well).
A hiking stick is an extremely useful tool. I bought a set of cheap, adjustable metal ones (with changeable tips) that my husband and I shared (one each). They folded up and fit in the front of our backpacks when not in use. Utilizing a pair allows for even more balance, but I found one to be best in order to leave my other hand free for the camera, water, etc. I used this not only in the Narrows (a must), but also on all of our other steep hikes. [Note: If you don't want to invest in hiking items just for The Narrows, you can rent special socks/shoes, and a walking stick from various outfitters in Springdale right outside of Zion. However, I heard several people complaining about the feel of the shoes (understand a lot of previous feet have shaped the way they feel on your own feet) and the cumbersome wooden sticks. For a day, though, I'm sure they work just fine.] As an example, this is the set of hiking sticks I personally purchased, but there are a ton of options out there.
If traveling at a rainier time of year, a thin, waterproof jacket is recommended. If traveling in winter, early spring or late fall, I also recommend a warm jacket--I typically prefer to use my jacket that has a fleece lining that zips in and out of a waterproof shell so I can just pack one to serve several purposes (and possibly a warm hat and gloves depending how early or late you plan to be outdoors).
You may want to pack a bathing suit depending on your recreational plans, the time of year, and/or if your hotel has a swimming pool.
If you plan to hike the Narrows, a dry bag (waterproof) for any valuables you are concerned could get damaged if wet is a very good idea.
A hydration pack is key to hiking in the heat. I purchased us each a hydration backpack with a 2L water bladder. The backpacks were comfortable, adjustable, lightweight, and had just enough space in the compartments for what we needed throughout the day (snacks, headlamps, walking sticks, money, extra memory cards, etc.) [Note: we carried the cameras separately over the backpack straps utilizing the cross-body strap.] The 2L size worked well for us, but keep in mind that you should calculate for roughly 1/2 of a liter of water per hour for normal hiking conditions. HOWEVER, when hiking in extreme heat and/or high altitude, you should increase that amount to as much as double the recommendation. For our purposes, where we took breaks between our various hikes to refill and rest, this was perfect (we also kept some backup water gallons in the car as sometimes it is difficult to find water in the parks depending on your location). [Note: Under no circumstances should you drink the water in The Narrows (or submerge your head), it is often contaminated with toxic cyanobacteria.] As an example, this is the backpack I personally purchased, but there are a ton of options out there.
If you plan to do sunrise or sunset hikes, purchasing a cheap headlamp is a good investment (I got a set of them off of Amazon to share for around $15). Ours were essentially a small light on an adjustable headband, taking up very minimal space in our luggage or backpacks. Hiking out or back in the dark without a light source is not a good idea. As an example, this is the set of headlamps I personally purchased, but there are a ton of options out there.
If you enjoy photography, I strongly recommend a good camera with a wide angle lens (and sturdy lens cap), a good cross-body shoulder strap, a charger, extra batteries, extra memory cards (preferably with a backup in your camera if it allows for one), a lightweight tripod, lens hood, and lens filters--polarizer, UV, and/or neutral density depending on the type of photography you plan to be doing. For our longer hikes, I mostly left the tripod in the car (and regretted it several times). It was just a lot to lug around, but for our "driving tour" stops and quick hikes, it was great. Several of these parks have been designated an International Dark Sky Park, making them ideal for starry night photography, as well.
Definitely pack high energy snacks, and be sure to take a few with you each morning as food options within the parks can be few and far between.
If you are staying within the National Parks, television is not a provided amenity, so you may wish to bring something to read at night.
Be sure to bring good park maps with the major sights overlaid on them, roadway maps (or a real GPS--non-cellular, as cell service can be nonexistent between many of these locations), and a guide book.
Guide Book Recommendation:
There are countless guidebook and online resources to choose from when planning this trip. I personally love Lonely Planet's "Zion & Bryce Canyon National Parks." I've found Lonely Planet to be a cut above the rest when traveling the U.S. National Parks. The book contains useful tidbits and detailed site and trail maps to follow. It also lays out driving tours within the parks really well, which is ideal for hitting the highlights. The book covers not only Zion and Bryce, but also Grand Staircase-Escalante, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Arches, Moab, and pings on other cities and state parks in close proximity to these giants. For Monument Valley, Page, and Mesa Verde, I don't have one particular book recommendation. Instead, I recommend utilizing the internet and official park websites. The park websites are a treasure trove of information, and they contain the most up-to-date alerts, including potential trail closures; changes in services due to natural disaster, Covid, or unforeseen circumstances; and adjustments to entry procedures (ex. requirements for timed tickets).
Tip: When you arrive at a park, be sure to ask the gate attendant for a free map of and any other available literature, including the schedule for ranger led programs being offered during your visit.
U.S. National Park Pass:
As this trip hits so many different U.S. National Parks, the "America the Beautiful" National Park Annual Pass is a great value. The pass is $80 and valid for 12 months from the month of purchase (expiring the last day of that month). With the pass, you get access to more than 2,000 recreation areas. "Each Annual Pass can have up to two owners and admits pass owner(s) and passengers in a non-commercial vehicle at per-vehicle sites and a pass owner plus 3 adults (not to exceed 4 adults), where per-person fees are charged (children under 16 are always admitted free)." The following are entitled to FREE annual passes: Current U.S. Military members and their dependents, U.S. veterans, Gold Star Families, and U.S. 4th graders. U.S. citizens/permanent residents with permanent disabilities are entitled to free lifetime passes. Additionally, the parks offer discounted senior citizen passes, both annual ($20) and lifetime ($80). Passes can be bought at the entrance to any of the National Parks on this itinerary (we bought ours at Zion). More information on all of these pass options can be found here. For specifics/FAQs on the Annual Pass (or to purchase it ahead of time), you can find more information here.
Please Note: State Parks and Navajo Nation Parks are NOT covered by the U.S. National Park Pass--on this itinerary, that includes: Dead Horse State Park, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, and Parking at Horseshoe Bend (the Federal Government owns the sight, but the city owns the parking lot).
Navigating Without Internet and Cell Reception:
Cellular service is few and far between in the parks and outside of the small towns and cities spread out between them. Wifi is also not typically accessible within the parks--even in the Bryce Canyon Lodge, it was so spotty that I was barely able to use it to send texts, let alone attempt an internet search. Overall, cell data reception is spotty at best at park buildings and non-existent when out on the road/trails and between cities, even on many "major highways." Plan accordingly, and don't assume you will be able to just quickly "look something up" while out on the road or even just phone for help. When staying in cities like Moab or Springdale, plan ahead and take advantage of wifi while you have it. When driving, keep plenty of water in your car in case of a breakdown in hot weather. Keep this spotty service in mind, as well, when planning your trip's road navigation. We often lost cell reception for good chunks of time, leaving us to rely on paper maps and approximations of where the cell phone thought we were.
Tip: Investing in a true GPS (non-cellular) would be ideal for this trip. Your cell phone navigation may not be able to help you in areas on no/low service. Additionally, know the general route you plan to traverse to get to your next destination, and alway carry a paper map that covers your plan as a backup plan. Finally, ensure that someone else knows where you are headed/when you are expected to arrive. This is true not only for driving, but also for when hiking out on the trails.
A Note On Wildfire Safety:
Wildfires are a very real threat in this area, and conditions can change rapidly. Given the right conditions, one stray lightning strike can set off a new blaze in a matter of minutes. During our trip, we were keeping an eye on a number of named fires (fueled by droughts, it was a particularly rough year for wildfires). A great U.S./Canada joint effort resource is FIRMS (Fire Information for Resource Management System). It contains an active fire map with associated situation reports, as well as geographic area daily reports. By staying informed on these occurrences, we were able to understand where a fire was/wasn't contained and review the areas under threat/evacuation orders to ensure we steered clear.
Staying informed is key to staying safe--not only with wildfires but with all aspects of planning this trip. If you're considering a similar adventure, I hope Part 1 has helped generate some ideas for your initial planning, provide some beneficial tips, and contribute a few useful recommendations for your consideration. Good luck with your travel plans wherever they may take you!
Click Here To Read Part 2: Zion National Park
Credit for Some of the Featured Photos: Kyle Perkins