National Parks Road Trip: Southwest Canyons
Experience an unforgettable road trip through the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, and Zion National Park.
Gateway Airport: McCarran International, Las Vegas, Nevada
This circle drive links the Grand Canyon with two other grand canyons, Bryce and Zion, for a feast of dramatic red-rock scenery.
Zion National Park
Zion is a dazzling show of color and canyons—deep blue sky, lush green piñon and juniper forests, and bright crimson sandstone canyons carved by flowing streams and rivers. Some of the park’s most dramatic slot canyons are accessible to hikers, while others lie deep in the backcountry, yet still readily seen from high-country viewpoints.
The Route: Las Vegas > I-15 > Utah 9 > Zion
On the Way: In Springdale, on the southern tip of Zion, stop at Springdale Fruit Market for gourmet snacks and fresh fruit grown in orchards beside the banks of the Virgin River. Also in Springdale, Zion Canyon Theatre shows Zion Canyon Treasure of the Gods on a giant movie screen.
Stay: Though the original Zion Lodge burned down in 1966, its second successor (restored in 1990) has retained the lodge’s classic timber-and-stone construction in cabins and lodge rooms, which start at $186 a night.
Eat: Zion Lodge’s Red Rock Grill has the park’s best food. Grab a seat on the open-air terrace when the weather’s fine.
Don’t Miss: A walk into the Narrows of the Zion River beginning at the Temple of Sinawava showcases the essence of the park. You’re surrounded by canyon walls of fiery orange-red sandstone as high as 2,000 feet and as narrow as 20 feet as you slosh in the chilly Virgin River (warmest in summer or fall) and pick your way along its banks. Proceed as far as you wish—16 feet or 16 miles (permit required).
Jaw-Dropping Viewpoint: As you leave the park on the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway, walk the short Canyon Overlook Trail, carved out of slickrock, for a dramatic view of Pine Creek Canyon and lower Zion Canyon, as well as the highway switchbacks you just negotiated.
- Easy: Lovely trails lead from Zion Lodge to the storybook charm of the Emerald Pools, where gently flowing waterfalls tumble off red-rock cliffs into pools surrounded by evergreen trees. The trail to the lower pools is very easy; the middle and upper pools require a bit of climbing, but total distance to all three is only about two miles.
- Challenging: The classic five-mile round-trip hike to Angels Landing starts out easy on the West Rim Trail. Then precipitous switchbacks known as Walter’s Wiggles scale an exposed sandstone spine, culminating in a 360-degree view of canyon walls, piñon-juniper forests, the Virgin River, and distant mountain peaks.
- Strenuous: As dramatic as the hike to Angels Landing is, Observation Point looks down on it. The eight-mile round-trip hike starts at Weeping Rock and gains 2,150 feet en route to the grand viewpoint.
Side Drive: Kolob Canyons Scenic Drive in the far northwest part of the park—a 10-mile round-trip—looks over the edge of the Colorado Plateau into a wilderness landscape laced with deep box canyons.
Oddity: Crawford Arch, also known as Bridge Mountain Arch, is a long, thin, freestanding sandstone arch (156 feet long and 3 feet wide) high on Bridge Mountain. The hike up is long and technical, but you can see the arch from the patio of the Human History Museum, a thousand feet below.
Before You Come: Watch Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Jeremiah Johnson, and The Electric Horseman, all costarring Robert Redford and Zion National Park.
Park Website: nps.gov/zion
Seasonal Notes: The park, park roads, and Zion Lodge are open year-round. Some high trails close in winter due to snow and ice. The Virgin River is too cold to wade in winter and spring, and snowmelt in spring can cause high water levels in it and other park rivers. Late summer rains can bring flash floods, so always check with the visitor center before hiking in any park canyon.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Is it geology, fantasy, or fantastic geology? Bryce’s signature hoodoo formations shimmer in shades that Revlon would envy and in forms that that look like animation—sandstone spires carved into fairyland shapes, amid which you feel like the alien visitor. From above or in the thick of it, Bryce is literally fantastic.
The Route: Zion > US 89 > Utah 12 > Utah 63 > Bryce
On the Way: Just west of Bryce on Utah 12, Red Canyon in Dixie National Forest rivals Bryce for beauty and hoodoos, and was once a Butch Cassidy hideout. It’s a hotbed for mountain bikers, as riding is not permitted in Bryce.
Stay: Bryce Canyon Lodge maintains its original 1920s park-lodge atmosphere—timbered main lodge, stone cabins, and no television—with rooms starting at $140 a night.
Eat: Bryce Canyon Lodge is one of the only games in town for sit-down dining, but the food and atmosphere are fine. Try the elk chili.
Don’t Miss: The night sky at Bryce is one of the darkest in the country, making for astounding star shows. Rangers and docents provide telescopes and guided tours of the night sky on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday nights. A full moon may wash out some stars, but full-moon hikes into the canyon (no flashlights allowed) are one of the park’s most popular outings.
Jaw-Dropping Viewpoints: In a park rife with inspiring viewpoints, Paria View might be the best—particularly late in the day when towering hoodoos catch the day’s last long rays and glow in brilliant shades of red. Watch also for peregrine falcons and elk.
- Easy: A 0.9-mile section of the Rim Trail between Sunset and Sunrise Points is gentle and paved and offers fine views of the Queens Garden hoodoos from above.
- Moderate: Connect parts of two trails, Queens Garden and Navajo, on a 3.1-mile round-trip that descends into the weirdest of Bryce’s hoodoo geology. The hike back up the Navajo Trail passes through Wall Street, a canyon surrounded by skyscraper spires, from which you can see the park’s iconic formation, top-heavy Thor’s Hammer.
Side Drive: Bryce’s 18-mile Scenic Drive between the visitor center and Rainbow Point links a dozen viewpoints, each with a slightly different perspective on the canyon, its whimsical formations, and its slot canyons, as well as distant canyons, cliffs, and plateaus extending all the way to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. The best way to do the drive is to proceed directly south, see Rainbow and Yovimpa Points from the highest part of the park, and then stop at the other viewpoints as you return north.
Oddities: The park teems with strange rock formations that invite anthropomorphizing. One hoodoo in the Queen’s Garden is said to look like Queen Victoria, while others resemble the three wise men, a rabbit, and ET.
Before You Come: Read Shadows of Time by Frank Decourten, about Bryce Canyon geology.
Park Website: nps.gov/brca
Seasonal Notes: Bryce Canyon Lodge is closed from mid-November to late March. The park remains open. Cross-country skiers can ski above the rim only, while canyon trails are open to snowshoers or hikers who use traction devices (available at the park store) on their boots. The park provides snowshoes for ranger-led snowshoe hikes and full-moon hikes throughout the winter.
Grand Canyon National Park
The Grand Canyon needs no introduction, but it does require a suggestion, if not an admonition: If you make the trip, pay the ditch its due beyond a tailgate picnic at a scenic viewpoint. Walk along the rim at sunrise or sunset, or descend at least partially into the canyon’s depths. That’s when your attention can shift from macro panoramas to the astonishing details.
The Route: Bryce Canyon > Utah 12 West > US 89 > Arizona 67 > Grand Canyon North Rim (closed in winter) > Arizona 67 > US 89 Alt > US 89 South > Arizona 64 > Grand Canyon South Rim
- Nat Geo Expeditions
On the Way: Cameron Trading Post, on US 89 just north of the Arizona 64 turnoff to the park, has been a traditional stop for travelers for almost a century. The outpost features a fine gallery of Native American art, including Navajo rugs and blankets.
Stay: El Tovar Hotel is the park’s signature lodge. Built in 1905 and renovated in 2005, the hotel has classic national park ambience—the main lodge has a swarthy, log-cabin feel—and a perch near the canyon’s south rim. Rooms start at $183.
Eat: The El Tovar Dining Room is as much about ambience as chops, steaks, and chicken. It’s built from native stone and Oregon pine and offers canyon views from several tables.
Don’t Miss: See the canyon aflame with color at sunrise and sunset. Hopi and Mohave Points on Hermit Road (accessible by park shuttle, by bicycle, and on foot) are fine spots to catch either event.
Jaw-Dropping Viewpoints: Every view of the canyon has its own distinct light, shading, and perspective on the canyon’s intricate geology. Take the park shuttle to see any or all of the lookouts from Hermit’s Road. And don’t miss the obvious: Mather Point near the main visitor center, a sweeping viewpoint that is among the park’s most popular. At the North Rim, don’t miss Cape Royal for an immense panorama that frames a view of the Colorado River through Angels Window, a natural arch.
- Easy: Any section of the mostly paved, nearly 13-mile Rim Trail serves up inspiring looks into the Grand Canyon, but the unpaved section between Maricopa Point and Hermits Rest feels more like a genuine hike. You’ll see canyons within canyons and cauldrons of rapids far below. Do it late in the day and watch sunset do a supernova number on the scene.
- Moderate: The Widforss Trail at the North Rim skirts the rim of a side canyon called the Transept before entering a fragrant forest of aspen, ponderosa, and spruce. Then, at Widforss Point, you’re at the awesome precipice of the Grand Canyon.
- Challenging: An out-and-back hike on the South Rim’s Hermit Trail delivers the impact of a rim-to-rim epic with far fewer fellow pilgrims. Start at Hermits Rest and follow the Hermit Trail to the Boucher Trail to Dripping Springs, hiking beneath sheer cliffs to a lovely spring nestled within an alcove of Coconino sandstone. The seven-mile round-trip drops “only” 1,600 feet, and represents a grand cross section of canyon formations.
Side Drive: Desert View Drive, the east-west approach to the Grand Canyon, traces the South Rim and has numerous drive-to views. From Moran Point, you can see the Vishnu Basement Rocks, oldest in the canyon, and a formation called Sinking Ship.
Oddity: As you gawk at the canyon, observe its many rock layers, for these are the canyon features that most excite geologists. They have identified nearly 40 distinct layers that display a two-billion-year time line of Earth history.
Before You Come: Read The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons by John Wesley Powell—an account of Powell’s astounding 1869 river exploration of the canyon.
Park Website: nps.gov/grca
Seasonal Notes: The South Rim is open year-round, though some trails can get icy in winter. North Rim lodging and camping are available from mid-May through mid-October. Access to the North Rim is closed in winter due to snow.