The desert never would have been our first choice of a trip. But my goodness, I am glad things worked out the way they did. We were fantasizing about Portugal from our NYC apartment as the COVID-19 numbers continued to grow in the US. Summer was setting in and we had been hunkered down for months already when it dawned on us that our upcoming international travel plans would almost certainly not come to fruition.
We needed something to look forward to, so I started scanning National Parks. To my naïve surprise, they book WELL in advance. Fuck, I thought… There goes a pseudo-spontaneous lovely outdoorsy domestic trip. But my pessimism dissipated as I continued searching for campgrounds and realized we could create an awesome adventure by camping adjacent to, if not inside national parks.
This seemed to be a good test case for the possibility of traveling more while we both work remote, so we decided to only take a few days off on book ends of this trip and work in between. This worked out well for us, but since the average person asking us about our adventures is looking for a vacation and not a remote working adventure, I’ve decided to mostly ignore our time spent on Zoom calls and writing emails and tell you how I would plan this trip to maximize your time as a vacation.
When we booked this trip, NY was still mostly the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak. The region we ended up traveling to (which happened to be a hotspot while we were there) was not yet making headlines. In sum, know that we thoroughly examined the risks we were taking, took all the precautions we could, and are now responsibly hanging tight in our cozy post-travel quarantine.
Flights – We flew roundtrip to Las Vegas McCaren Airport and rented a car to travel (and basically live out of) for our trip. Other airports are also reasonable to reach this region, such as Salt Lake City and Phoenix.
Pro Tip – Rental Cars: Rental cars tend to be cheaper when you pick up and drop off from the same location, but this should be weighed with the cost and convenience of flying into and out of different airports. If you don’t want to make a full loop or find significantly cheaper flights by flying into one airport and home from another then go for it!
Pro Tip – Flights: Before booking flights I usually start with a general Google Flights search. But don’t go on with your life thinking you can maximize your budget with one simple search. I typically search and compare costs for roundtrip flights as well as multi-city and multiple one-way tickets in each direction, look for different airport options, and play with dates and arrival times to see what is most economical. In general, I am more likely to book separate tickets, to fly to/from different airports, or even pay slightly more, than to opt for a lay-over. Although sometimes they are indeed unavoidable. Then, once I think I have flights nailed down I check on the rental car prices and the cost of accommodations to get a general sense of the overall combined costs. When my gut says “go for it,” I hit purchase.
Pro Tip – Flights (again): If you’re one of those people that doesn’t have a TrueBlue/SkyMiles/AmericanAdvantage you name it airline system account for the big airlines because “it will never add up to anything” then guess what, you’re wrong. Now next time you book, create an account. They are FREE and they DO add up to rewards. Of course, this may take time, but sometimes there are sign-on bonuses and I’ve taken at least a half dozen FREE flights on points alone. Even if not for the points, it makes accessing your travel itineraries and check-in information much smoother.
The Ideal Itinerary
Day 1: Arrive in Vegas, Drive to Zion,
Zion is about 3 hours from Las Vegas. Once we were in our rental car, we grabbed a quick meal and hit the road. We stayed at Zion Ponderosa Ranch Resort on the East side of Zion. We knew going into the trip that the ranch is about a 45-minute drive to the Visitor Center, which is where you hop on the shuttle to start hiking each day. This is unfortunately not convenient but given we were making reservations relatively last-minute for a peak travel time AND were looking to travel on a budget this worked for us. It helps that the drive to the Visitor Center is through the park and is full of stunning views. The group campsite at Zion Ponderosa was a reasonable $30/night plus $12/person after the first 2 people and included a decent shower facility. However, due to the distance from the park and the proximity of the sites (we had extremely loud and inconsiderate neighbors basically on top of us) I’d recommend finding accommodations in Spingdale. For the budget traveler, we suggest camping. If you need a list of recommended supplies, check them out here. If your budget is more flexible, there are a number of hotels and B&Bs in Springdale, which is basically one road and at the entrance of the park. Springdale has restaurants, ice cream shops, a grocery store, camping supply stores as well – everything you could need.
A few potential options:
- Camping in Zion National Park, note that reservations book well in advance and are available on Recreation.gov
If you’re more of the hotel type there are tons of options, here are a few:
- Spring Hill Suites by Marriott
- Hampton Inn and Suites
- Quality Inn Springdale
- La Quinta
- Or try AirBnB -use this code to get $35 off your first trip
Pro-Tip – National Park Pass: If you follow this itinerary, or if you are outdoorsy in general, when you enter your first National Park opt for the Annual Pass. The week-long pass will cost you $35 per park, while the Annual Pass is good at ALL National Parks for 1 year is just $80. In this full itinerary you will hit 4 National Parks, making the extra cash up front worth it right away!
Pro-Tip – Navigation: Many of the destinations on this journey are full of beauty and absent of cell phone service. Download offline maps on Google Maps of the ENTIRE area you’ll be traveling before you get there. You’ll be glad you have access to navigation!
Day 2: Zion hike – Angels Landing / West Rim Trail
Days 2 and 3 are interchangeable, though we started with the Angels Landing / West Rim Trail to ensure everyone had time to pick up their shoes for the Narrows, more on that below.
Pro Tips – Zion Shuttle: I cannot stress this enough, but you should absolutely book shuttle tickets in advance for each day you plan to hike in Zion. The tickets are only $1 a person, but only a limited number are released at a time. You can reserve the shuttle online but note they release the shuttle spots in blocks, and they go fast so figure out what day they will be released to correspond with your visit. I set a timer on my phone and had my account logged in the moment the August tickets went on sale so I could reserve them for our group. By the time I was done, some of the weekend slots were already taken.
Also, you should book the earliest shuttle tickets you think you can reasonably make. To be more explicit, I’d advise you book the very first shuttle ticket block of the day, which is between 6-7am MT. You can take any shuttle during this 1 hour window, and while in the moment waking up before the sun might sound terrible you will thank me when you are finishing your hike before the heat of the day and the crowds both set in. We did not regret our early start at all as we were able to secure parking in the Visitor Center without any trouble (something not possible later in the day) and spent the hottest part of the afternoon relaxing instead of battling other tourists for room on the return shuttles or trails.
The West Rim Trail is a rigorous hike with breathtaking views. You start with a climb and several switchbacks and after weaving through a few canyons you end up near Angels Landing. Given our trip was during COVID-19 the chained section of Angels Landing was closed because there is literally no space for social distancing on top of the narrow cliff. That said, you can still take in striking views of the mountain and continue up to the West Rim trail. This is a there and back hike which means you can turn around whenever you want. Our friends turned back about 3.5 hours in but Comly and I continued on to the Spring (which at the time was merely a puddle) and made it back in much less time given we took fewer photos. Our total trip was about 13 miles, 220 flights, and took 6 hours.
Pro Tip – Hiking in Zion: Zion, and really all the stops on this trip, are known for their blazing summer temperatures and minimal water sources. That means you need to pack water – a lot of it! Plan to carry 3 liters of water per person per hike. There are potable water stations at each shuttle stop (as well as convenient and clean bathrooms – thank you National Park Service!) where you can top off before you set out. In addition to water, pack snacks. Protein or snack bars, nuts, apples, and other durable fruit make great trail snacks. We also packed sandwiches – turkey, cheese, avocado and tomato for Comly and I and PB&J or avocado and salsa for our vegan friends.
After hiking the West Rim trail, you should take a much-deserved reprieve but first head to Zion Outfitters to pick up your shoes for the Narrows the next day. Zion Outfitters is located in Springdale and actually has a path that connects it with the Visitor Center. Online they state that you can pick up your boots after 4pm the day before your reservation, but they were very flexible with us when we showed up a bit early.
Pro-Tip: Reserve the water friendly hiking boots in advance, they come with a pole too which will come in handy.
After, we also got ice cream in Springdale and stocked up on groceries to cook dinner at our campsite and then went back to relax.
Day 3: Zion hike – The Narrows, Observation Point
The Narrows is basically a hike through the Virgin River. Yes, you are basically walking IN the river for most of the duration of the hike. There are large rocks along the way, and the sections vary in depth from ankle deep to above the hip. Dress accordingly, and see the Pro-Tip above to rent shoes that are suitable for this kind of terrain. While we saw people in water shoes, I appreciated the stability provided by our boots that were intended to be submerged.
Again, I would recommend starting early. We caught the 6am shuttle and had the river much to ourselves for most of the morning. We were able to get ahead of the crowds, catch the canyons in stunning lights, and enjoy being out of direct sunlight. We hiked in about 3 hours before deciding to turn around, and again made it back quicker than we made it out. We packed our usual water and lunches and either used waterproof bags or lined our packs with 2 trash bags.
The Narrows was an incredible experience, I’ve never done anything like it. The natural colors all seemed to be at their peak saturation and the water was a refreshing contrast to the dry air. Surrounded by millions of years of natural history, the entire walk was breathtaking and the view around each corner was different.
Pro Tip – Hiking in Zion: Also, while the temperature reaches scorching highs during peak heat (12-3ish) it can be quite cool in the morning as well as in the canyons. I started each day with a long sleeve on, and during the canyon sections (like most of the Narrows) I kept it on most of the day.
After hiking the Narrows enjoy your afternoon. But don’t relax too long as the most stunning sunset spot awaits! Drive through Zion just past “the tunnel” (side note: if you see that the tunnel closes from 8pm-8am don’t have a major panic like I did that you’ll be stuck on one side – it only closes to RVs and oversized loads during that time) and park. There is a tiny parking lot and a few spots along the street. If you’re exiting the tunnel then just before the small parking lot on the left there will be a staircase, this is the Observation Point trail head. It’s about .4 miles to the lookout point. Pack water and snacks, maybe something to sit on. Get there early and leave late to enjoy the full show of breathtaking colors.
Day 4: Bryce
Say goodbye to Zion in the morning and pack up and drive to Bryce Canyon (National Park #2). Spend the day in Bryce. We hiked the Queens Trail / Navajo Loop. Our legs were a bit fatigued after our hikes in Zion and this loop was about 3 miles with some inclines but stunning and ever-changing views. I would highly recommend it. Bryce also has viewpoints which can each be driven to. After our hike we spent the hottest part of the day hopping from viewpoint to viewpoint in the car. We ended the day at the last viewpoint and went for another walk along the Bristlecone Loop.
After hiking we got Pizza just outside of Bryce as the lodge had minimal options due to COVID. We skipped the mossy grove but if we had more time, we would have checked it out too. We also did not catch sunset in Bryce as we had to get to our cabin to starting working on East Coast time the next day, but we think it would be nice to stay and enjoy the views and spend the night.
Day 5: Free morning, Sunset Sand Dune ATV Excursion
Relax and enjoy your morning – maybe rent bikes or go horseback riding. Drive to Fredonia if you haven’t already. Head to Coral Pink Sand Dines State Park (remember this is in UT so time zone may be different from AZ) for sunset ATV rides and sand sledding / boarding. You will probably end up covered in sand, but it is such a blast. We both tried sand boarding but ultimately had a better time on the sleds. The company offers both ATVs that you straddle and dune-buggy esq ATVs, which we opted for because we had never tried this. Both would be a great time. This excursion was probably the single priciest thing of our trip, costing $287 but no regrets, it was such an awesome night.
Accommodations: We stayed here in the Tiny Cabin. It was absolutely lovely. We actually stayed here for 3 nights because we used this as our outpost to work from. We worked during the day and grilled outside and made s’mores in the evening. We were also delighted to have a bed (we had camped for our first 4 nights of the trip). The hosts, Cindy and Don, were so hospitable and gave us tons of local tips. If this isn’t your style, there are other AirBnBs in the area, use this code for a discount if you’ve never tried AirBnB.
Day 6: Paddle Boarding, Horseshoe Bend
Wake up and have breakfast, then drive to Page, AZ. Just under 2 hours. You can rent paddleboards or kayaks and explore Lake Powell (National Park #3), including Antelope Canyon. During our visit the Navajo Nation was closed due to COVID-19 which includes all Antelope Canyon tours. I was surprised to learn that we could reach the Canyon by water and explore on foot. While we didn’t get that far in before deciding to turn around, we were happy to explore this area.
Note: paddle boarding, especially on a windy afternoon, is no joke. Pack water and snacks and be prepared for physical exertion. Kayaking is also an option. We reserved our boards from Lake Powell Paddleboards and Kayaks which is about 15 minutes from the boat launch. The staff help secure the boards to your car and send you on your way. Our total paddle boarding adventure took about 4 hours.
After your water adventure, grab an early dinner (we ate at El Tapitio’s where the servers were so friendly and the portions were HUGE). Then make a pitstop at Horseshoe Bend, about 8 minutes away. There is a $10 entry fee for each car and the viewpoint is about .5 miles from the parking lot so pack some water. The views are best around sunset but given our limited time we wanted to make it to the Grand Canyon to check in that night we only stayed for a little to take in the views. If this is a must see for you, stay the night in Page.
After Horseshoe Bend drive to the Grand Canyon, about 3 hours (be sure to fill up on gas and pack water before you go as there are long stretches of road without ANY services). Check in and get some sleep.
Grand Canyon Accommodations: Again, we booked our trip too late and on too small a budget to find a place to stay in the Grand Canyon. If one or both of these items doesn’t apply to your trip then I would definitely recommend trying to find a place closer. If not, you can go with the same camping route as us. We stayed at Ten X Campground in the Kaibab National Forest. This was only an 18-minute drive to the Visitor Center and the sites were spaced decently far apart. Note, though, that this is fairly primitive camping and there are no showers or electricity.
Day 7 (or more): Explore the Grand Canyon
NOTE: If you have more time, you could certainly stay longer in the Grand Canyon (National Park #4). Below is what we managed to accomplish in 1 BIG day. If you can, spread this out over a few days and maybe venture a little further on each hike, or take a famous mule ride into the Canyon instead.
Start the morning early (yes, there is very little sleeping in on this itinerary, but you can sleep in the afternoons, or when you’re dead), we were in our car by 5:30. Head to the Bright Angel Lodge and park. Take in your first breathtaking views of the Canyon and then walk left along the rim until you reach the Bright Angel Trailhead. Hike down. The same tips for Zion apply here, pack water, snacks, and wear a layer in the morning.
The hottest part of the day is 10am-3pm and the further down in the Grand Canyon you are the hotter it is. Every trail has information about where to turnaround in the summer months to avoid exhaustion – take note of these. We hiked Bright Angel to the 3-mile house and turned around. We could have gone further but it was starting to warm up and we knew we wanted to get in an evening hike too so we turned around. Since this was a shorter morning, we packed snacks but not a full meal. After our hike we went to El Tovar, a restaurant in the lodge overlooking the Canyon, and treated ourselves to a carb heavy breakfast of waffles and quiche. It was delicious.
After our morning indulgence we went to Mather Point. This is right by the Visitor Center and is where all the tourists go. It was just as good a view as the points all along the rim trail but with more people – so not our favorite. After a bit more exploring, we went back to our campsite. We relaxed for the afternoon and then headed back to the Grand Canyon around 4. We made pitstops along the way at the market to grab a picnic dinner for our next hike and then to Bright Angel Lodge for some pre-hike ice cream.
Then we headed to the South Kaibab Trail. Due to COVID-19, the shuttle service in the Grand Canyon is not running, which is how you would typically get to this trail head. Instead, we drove as close as we could get, turned around at the “do not enter” sign, and then found the next closest parking spot along the road. It was about a 15-minute walk to the trailhead. With this slight obstacle, though, the trail was nearly empty.
We hiked down the South Kaibab Trail starting around 6pm. I enjoyed this trail far more than Bright Angel due to the combo of fewer tourists and a greater variety of views and would say if you could only pick one trail this should be it. We hiked down to Cedar Ridge where we had our picnic dinner, and then back to Ohh-ahh Point to watch the sunset. We packed a headlamp for our walk back to the car, which came in handy.
Day 8: Head home
Unfortunately due to COVID-19 our 11pm red eye home was bumped up to a 12pm flight (don’t worry – we had plenty of notice but couldn’t find a better flight so we kept it) so we headed to the airport first thing in the morning. If you have more time, stay and enjoy the scenery or plan to make a pit stop at the Hoover Dam.
Again, we flew roundtrip from Vegas so we had a 4 hour drive back to the airport, but if you fly our from Phoenix then you may have a slightly shorter drive.
This is the rough cost for our itinerary. Remember, we opted to camp on the weekend sections of our trip (6 nights in total) and needed to stay 2 extra nights in Fredonia to work remote Tues-Thurs, but this will hopefully give you a sense.
- Flights $150/person = $300
- 4 nights of camping in Zion Ponderosa = $120
- National Park Pass = $80
- Zion Outfitters Rentals $25/person = $50
- Gas = $120
- Rental Car (we had ours for 10 days due to working during the trip) = $500
- 3 nights at AirBnB in Fredonia = $274
- ATV excursion = $284
- Paddleboard Rental $45/person = $90
- 2 nights of camping at Ten X = $40
- Groceries = $150
- Meals out = $150
- Total $1,874 or $937/person
We absolutely loved our time in the South West. Each National Park was extremely different and magical in its own way. I would highly recommend each and every part of this itinerary and would be happy to advise on how to personalize it! Thanks for following along.