Is there anything more American than a road trip?
Last week, while my passport sat in a processing center somewhere in Virginia, as it was set to expire in August, I knew our Spring Break trip would have to be somewhere within the U.S. But I also knew that wouldn't be a problem; as a frequent traveler to far and distant places, I was actually enthralled with the idea of finally getting to explore a little of our own "backyard"!
Our trip covered three fascinating states in America's southwest: Nevada, Arizona, and Utah. We planned to fly into Las Vegas, rent a car, and head east.
One of the core philosophies of my blog is that we both work full-time and don't have weeks of travel at our disposal. We had six days, including flight time, to get as much travel in as we could. For us, this trip was perfect. We got to hike through jaw-dropping national parks, photograph incredible and unique rock formations, and partake in the sometimes kitschy, always friendly, culture of the region!
Both Old and New
As I slid into the driver's seat and adjusted the rear view mirror, I glanced at the neon blinking sign for Roadkill Cafe, just off Route 66 in Seligman, Arizona. Fastening my seat belt and pulling onto the highway, I asked Jet to change the radio station to something else, maybe some oldies, or even country: some pop station, Selena Gomez, just didn't fit in with the current scenery of soft hills speckled with desert shrubbery, and rust-colored mesas dotting the horizon.
Everything in the desert looks as though it will fall apart at any moment: a clump of dry and brittle desert bushes, a precarious rock balanced on the top of a hill, just waiting to fall, or a dune of sand ready to shift with a passing wind. And yet, you can also picture the ancestral Puebloans and Native Americans, hundreds and thousands of years ago, crossing this landscape and seeing the same shockingly red mesas and plateaus that have stood here for many years. The desolate but achingly beautiful landscape of the southwest seems to contradict itself as a place that is both old and new, harsh and soft.
Even if you've never been anywhere else in the U.S., the southwest is an excellent starting point. The crowning glory, the Grand Canyon, really is as impressive as it's built up to be. This is an excellent conclusion, considering the Instagram-everything world we live in, where we are able to see everything online before we see everything in person. Rest assured, that no matter how many pictures of the Grand Canyon you've seen, the real thing is so much more impressive and memorable than any picture. That stands true for the whole region, including the overly photographed and tourist-laden Antelope Canyon. Trust me: it was all worth it.
So here it is, my five day summary of the American southwest, which is by no means complete, but a beginner's itinerary for exploring this area.
Day 1 - Las Vegas and Route 66
We flew into and started our trip in Vegas, not because we had any interest in seeing sin city, but because it's a convenient starting point and plane tickets are relatively cheap. We flew into Vegas around 10pm and were on the highway out of the city by 8 am the next morning. If seeing Vegas in all its dazzling, neon-screen glory is your thing, then by all means stay an extra day or two here. For us, we were anxious to get out of the city and start exploring the countryside.
Driving out of Vegas, our first stop was at the iconic and historic Hoover Dam. Don't be fooled by the stairs that lead downstairs amid signs that advertise the "TOURS: $25". Even though you have to pay $10 for parking, you can walk on top of the dam for free. We took our time and spent about 1 hour here just enjoying the view from the dam and of the reservoir below. You could probably walk the whole thing in 15 minutes.
After about 2 more hours of driving and stopping to take photos of the desert, we arrived onto a patch of highway that converges with the historic Route 66. While there are many towns that advertise some kitschy Route 66 participation, one of the most famous little towns is the sleepy town of Seligman, Arizona. A stop here breaks up the four hour drive to the Grand Canyon South Rim with a drink, bite to eat, and souvenir shopping.
Day 1 & 2 - Grand Canyon South Rim
After some more slow driving and stopping, we arrived in Grand Canyon South Rim at about 3pm after leaving Vegas at 9am. This meant that we had plenty of time to check into our hotel in the National Park and still check out some of the views and trails. AND there were no long lines of cars at the entrance that late in the afternoon!
Arriving at Grand Canyon National Park, we immediately parked and headed to our first view of the canyon. You'll never forget that first glimpse of the canyon; it really blows you away...
We spent a few hours checking out Mather Point and walking north on the Rim Trail. After we had taken a million pictures, we checked into our room at Yavapai Lodge and stocked up on supplies at the Market across from the hotel for our hike the next day. While there is lodging outside the park, it's a good 15 minutes drive to Tusayan, and if nothing is available there, your only other options for lodging is an hour away in Flagstaff and beyond. While 75% of our trip accommodations were in AirBnB's, this was the one night we opted for a hotel in the park, and it was so worth it! It was worth the extra we paid to not have to worry about driving to stay outside the park. After settling into our room and resting a bit, we had just enough time to check out Hopi House Point for sunset and stroll a bit more of the trail, stopping at some souvenir shops and lodges along the way. We had an excellent dinner and reasonably-priced drinks at the Yavapai Tavern and we able to wake up early the next morning and just start hiking, no driving required.
Spend the morning hiking either the Bright Angel Trail or the South Kaibab Trail. We opted for the latter since we heard the South Kaibab Trail was more challenging, less crowded, and had better views. We weren't disappointed, and made it all the way to Cedar Ridge after 1 hour of hiking down. It took us another 1.5 hours to hike back up. Bring plenty of water and hit the trail early! I can't stress how glad we were that we hiked early and still had the whole day ahead of us to explore!
Spend the rest of the morning and afternoon exploring the many other areas of the park. We chose to check out the Visitor Center,Yavapai Museum and Point, and even a bit of Hermit Trail. Around 3pm we decided it was time to begin heading to our next destination, Page, Arizona. It was going to be a 2 hour drive and we wanted to be able to stop and explore along the way.
To exit the park, we went out the East entrance instead of the way we came in, the South Entrance. This way we got to see a little bit more of the park and stop at a few more sights, the Watchtower and Tusayan Ruins and Museum, which are located about 10 miles east of Grand Canyon village.
Enjoy the 2-hour drive along the Grand Canyon East Rim to Page, and make frequent stops. I know we did, including this shot somewhere on a lonely road in Navajo Nation. The sunset provides an incredible red glow against the rocks in the desert.
Day 3 - Page, Arizona
Arriving in Page at night, we checked in, grabbed some dinner, and relaxed back at our B&B, since the next day would required another early morning.
This time, we got up early to see Horseshoe Bend. I know: it's no fun getting up early on your vacation. But the early bird beats the crowd! And after hearing about how chaotic it can get at the famous U-shaped curve in the Grand Canyon East Rim, we were once again really glad with our decision to get up and out.
After Horseshoe Bend, we had a few hours to kill before our scheduled tour at Antelope Canyon. Antelope Canyon is a notorious slot canyon near Page. It is the only one of 98 or so in the region that are open to tourists. The rest are owned privately. One thing we wish we did instead of driving aimlessly around Lake Powell was to take a boat tour of the Colorado River just below the Glen Canyon Dam, which actually takes your all the way to Horseshoe Bend! Or even a helicopter tour, while pricey, would have been a great experience. Alas, we did not plan accordingly. However, we did end up checking out the aforementioned dam, Lake Powell, and Wahweap Overlook above Lake Powell. It's a must-see when driving that way.
Finally after driving just about the whole region around Page, we made our way to Antelope Canyon to take part in our 1:15pm scheduled tour. It is recommended that you call and book ahead of time to make sure you make it into the canyon at a reasonable time or even at all. After reading about our two choices: upper & lower, we opted for the slightly less-crowded, lower canyon. However, as you'll soon find out, slightly crowded felt only a step below a subway train during rush hour in Tokyo.
Let's just get this out of the way: Antelope Canyon is insanely crowded and loaded with tourists. It's every travel blogger's worst nightmare: the tourist zoo. A crowded sea of cars at the entrance to the park, buses unloading a hundred tourists at a time. Children screaming, tour guides yelling at mobs, and groups of tourists calling to each other in foreign languages.
I have to dedicate a whole other post to our chaotic experience at Antelope Canyon. HOWEVER, that being said and reader being warned, IT WAS ALL TOTALLY WORTH IT. Once you're in the canyon, you leave all of that chaos behind. Even with the the hour-long wait in the hot sun, the tour guides rushing you along once inside the canyon, the world below is magical! It is an incredible experience and, fortunately, the walk through is also longer that you might expect. We took plenty of photos and had a great experience.
Day 4 & 5 - Kanab, Utah
To slow our trip down a bit after leaving Page, we decided to stay two nights in Kanab, our base for exploring Zion Canyon in Utah. So we left Arizona and headed west.
Somewhere along the 1.5 hour drive, we stopped at an entrance to Grand Staircase Escalante National Park. This 1.8 million acre park is huge, but the road to Kanab allows you to access one entrance that houses the famous Toadstool hoodoo near Paria, Utah. A 30 minute walk takes you to this unique rock formation and makes for a nice stop on your way west.
We arrived in Kanab around 6pm, checked into our AirBnb, grabbed some dinner, and walked around town, visiting some of the cute shops off the main street. Once again, we were anxious to get up early and start hiking the next day! This time, our focus was on Zion National Park.
We didn't get up as early as we liked, and ended up succumbing to the crowds in Zion. Entering the east entrance was way better than the line into the South Entrance, however, and allowed us access to the secret Canyon Overlook Trail in the eastern section on the park! An easy 30-minute hike will lead you to an overlook of the incredible Zion Canyon below, optimal photo opportunities, and an excellent first impression of the park! Definitely make this your first stop if entering in the east entrance!
View of Zion Canyon from Canyon Overlook Trail
After this first hike, we drove through the tunnels down to the main entrance, parked, and grabbed a shuttle to begin our major hike in Zion. Nope, not Angel's Landing, but Observation Point. Since we started late, around noon, we knew the Angel's Landing trail would be super crowded. Add to that the fact that we were excited to challenge ourselves with an even longer, steeper, and higher trail, we settled on Observation Point! (Observation Point is the highest viewpoint in the park!)
Well, we were definitely challenged. The hike, round trip, took us 5 hours! But the views at the top were incredible!
(Friendly tip: make sure you bring plenty of water and snacks for your 4-6 hour hike. There is no restroom or water station along the way. Also, don't do what we did and misplace the water you THOUGHT you packed in your backpack, only to realize halfway up the mountain that you actually only brought one bottle of water between the two of you... That was not a fun discovery, and hiking that mountain without water is no joke! Lucky for us, it was a bit cooler and we weren't as sweating as much. I can't imagine doing that hike in the summer!)
The hike took all of the day, and all of our energy. We would have to dedicate the next day to seeing more of Zion. On day 5, we spent some time on the Upper Emerald Pools trail, the Grotto Trail, the Temple of Sinawava trail, the visitor center, and the town of Springsdale.
The only thing left to do was to start heading back to Las Vegas. Just enjoying the drive back was the only item on the itinerary the rest of that day. Just thinking of all of the scenic drives we took makes me think of how, even though we logged 12 hours or so of driving in 5 days, it was never dull and I enjoyed every minute of it!
Good luck planning your trip to the American southwest! Be sure to leave a comment below on anything you've seen, will see, or that I might have missed!