Many thanks to the contributors on these forums for helping me plan our vacation. I have included our trip report of many parks in the Grand Circle Tour. Sorry for the long length! I just hope it helps others coming to the area.
Our non-stop Southwest flight from Philly to Vegas arrived 35 minutes early, so our trip got off to a great start. The last time we were in Vegas was 1996, so we were surprised how much busier and built up it was. The airport employees seemed very harried, particularly those at the National Car Rental. This was too much like the northeast! The city is quite fast paced! We were happy to arrive in Springdale, UT at around 3 p.m. Once we got out of Vegas, the driving was quick and easy due to wide open space! We knew we were facing some warm temperatures (over 100 degrees), but we were ready! Our home for the next two nights was the Best Western Zion Park Inn. We had a nice room with some gorgeous views. The room was average size, but quite clean (a review will follow). After a brief rest, we headed out to Zion Pizza and Noodle for dinner, where we had a barbeque chicken pizza. It was good, but we felt it was a bit pricey for what you got. Pizzas back our way are much larger than there. We headed to Zion National Park to purchase our $80 annual pass, as we would be visiting many parks, and the pass would pay for itself. The weather forecast for the following day was a high of 103, so we planned on getting an early start at Zion and not overdoing anything. After buying our pass, we stopped at Sol Foods to pick up some supplies. We found it quite pricey there and regretted not stopping in St. George for supplies. We just bought some water and breakfast and lunch supplies, and got quite a laugh over plastic bags costing 5 cents.
As planned, we arrived inside Zion by 7:30 a.m. and headed right to the Emerald Pools. We just did the lower one and came back the Grotto Trail as a loop. I’m not a fan of rocky trails, and the middle trail seemed a little more “boulder filled” than I like. We really enjoyed our walk, as it provided beautiful canyon views, and there were very few people. The temperatures were quite comfortable. We also enjoyed seeing the lizards, very tame squirrels, and mule deer. We saw two very young fawns with spots in front of Zion Lodge. After the hike, we got took the shuttle bus to Weeping Rock. We took the short steep trail to the rock and were rewarded with coolness and water dripping on our heads. As it was warming up, this was welcomed! The trail was as we remembered from 1996. After Weeping Rock, we got back on the shuttle and got off at Riverside Walk. Although it was still pretty, I think we preferred this trail when we did it in the fall months during our last visit in ’96. The changing color of the leaves just made the walk so breathtaking. I wasn’t sure if my memory was failing me, but it seemed that the walk ended in a different spot when we took it those 14 years ago. Maybe those experts might know if the trail changed in any way. This time, I actually found the Lower Emerald Pool/Grotto Hike much more breathtaking with its canyon views. It was getting quite warm by this time, so we took the shuttle to the Visitor’s Center and enjoyed our picnic lunch before returning to the hotel. Our daughter enjoyed a swim in the hotel pool, and later, we enjoyed an early dinner at Oscar’s Café. Here we found excellent burgers and Mexican food. After dinner, we explored the artsy shops in Springdale, and then decided to return to Zion for one last time since the temps had cooled off. We took the shuttle to the Big Bend stop and took some amazing pictures, and then rode it back to the Court of the Patriarchs. A storm was looming, so we made our stop relatively short. The gray sky provided an amazing backdrop for pictures.
All in all, I was once again very impressed with the scenery of Zion. The shuttle system was not in place during our last visit, and I found it a welcome change, as you have no parking worries. The park service has implemented an excellent idea.
Today, we left Springdale early and headed to Page, AZ. The early start was largely due to the construction on Mt. Carmel Hwy. As planned, we entered the road as soon as it opened at 8:00 a.m. We knew we would gain an hour due to non-observance of daylight savings time in AZ, so that would help out also. Mt. Carmel Hwy was not bad at all, very little traffic. We had planned on doing the Canyon Overlook Hike, but somehow, we missed the parking lot for it. We saw no sign, which I was a bit surprised at. We are usually more observant. We did, however, stop at Checkerboard Mesa for pictures, which was most impressive. The tunnels, too, were amazing engineering feats!
We found the drive to Page quite scenic, particularly in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument section. We arrived in Page around 10:30 a.m. and headed right to the downtown area and booked a tour with Chief Tsosie for 1:00 p.m. at Antelope Canyon. This was our main purpose for coming to Page. Since we had time, we headed to our hotel, Days Inn & Suites, in hopes to at least complete our paperwork for check in, as it was quite early. We arrived and were greeted by Benjamin, a very pleasant front desk clerk, who allowed us to check in immediately at 11:00 a.m. Our room was gorgeous; this was not a typical Days Inn. Recent renovations were evident, as the room was minus the dated bedspreads you usually find. The beds and pillows were extremely comfortable. We ate our lunch right inside the room and headed across the road to the Walmart to stock up on supplies. We headed back to the meeting places for our tour and met Leonard, our Navajo guide. He immediately told everyone to set their cameras to ISO 400 to get the best shots for inside the canyon. Luckily, a woman from Switzerland knew more about my camera than I did, as she helped set my camera correctly. We then took the very bumpy ride to the canyon. It was fun, but pretty rough.
Once we arrived at the canyon, Leonard took the lead. Leonard was outstanding and truly enjoyed his job. He joked with us about taking pictures of rocks and explained there was a certain knack for it. He had the knack! He offered to take pictures for all of us, and thanks to him, my daughter and I got some fantastic pictures! He pointed out many of the “formations” in the canyon, including the coyote, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and more. He played his flute for us and took pictures of each individual family at the canyon. I think one of the guests on the tour was hesitant to let him use her camera, which was really silly, as he really could capture the images so much better than us.
After Antelope Canyon, we headed to Glen Canyon Dam, where we were able to get on the last tour of the day. We had seen Hoover Dam years ago, and frankly, I enjoyed this more. Glen Canyon Dam has enough concrete in it to make a road from Phoenix to Chicago. They poured concrete round the clock. As a result of the dam, the town of Page exists today. People came there for jobs with the dam project and never left. Eighteen people died during the construction of the dam, largely due to falls and welding accidents.
Later that evening, we had dinner at Bonkers Restaurant. Although not overly attractive from the outside, this Italian restaurant did have good food, and their early bird specials are quite reasonable.
We checked out of the Days Inn fairly early and headed for Kayenta, AZ and Monument Valley. I was sad to leave the Days Inn, as the entire staff treated their guests with one simple rule: “Treat guests as you would expect to be treated.” What a simple, effective philosophy! The road to Kayenta was lonely and desolate. We found Kayenta a small town that relied greatly on tourism. We stopped at the Hampton Inn as we had a 2 p.m. tour in Monument Valley. We weren’t able to check in, but we did provide our credit card information to ensure a speedier check-in later. We also requested a refrigerator for our room, which was to be provided free of charge. We then headed to the tribal park, which was only about a 20 minute drive from Kayenta.
We entered the park and had our picnic lunch outside the Visitor’s Center overlooking the Mittens. It was beautiful!! However, it is monsoon season, and clouds and thunder soon rolled in. I walked over to the Guided Tour Booth, where Blackwater Tours, our tour guide, was located. They assured me the tour would run rain or shine. We did, however, go on an earlier tour. One of the guides drove us to catch up with the earlier tour, and it was quite a hair raising ride! The road was extremely bumpy, and the rain splashed our faces. I was so glad we opted for a guide back country tour. I’d never want to drive that road in a rental car!
We caught up to our tour quickly, and Frank, our new guide, took us everywhere. We saw places you wouldn’t see on the regular road, including Eye of the Sun and Ear of the Wind. I got some interesting pictures of petroglyphs as well. At one point, we all went undercover and listened to the guides play their flutes. Then, the rain came once again and created a waterfall over the rocks. Despite the weather, the tour was well done, and we managed to get a lot of great pictures! The tour lasted almost 3 full hours, and I know we saw so much more this way. I would not recommend driving the road yourself.
We returned to the Hampton Inn and did our official check-in. The refrigerator was not in our room, but it arrived after we had eaten our dinner. The room was gorgeous...tastefully decorated in Navajo tapestries. We ate dinner on-site at the Reuben Heflin restaurant and found the food reasonable and good. We were served by pleasant Navajo ladies who could not have been more hospitable. We found the entire staff at the hotel quite friendly, including the night auditor who was sitting at the table next to us. We talked with him for quite a while before heading back to our room. It was quite rainy that night, and all the hotel employees were so happy, as it was only the second time it had rained there all summer!
We left Kayenta fairly early to head to Moab. The ride was a bit lonely once again, but quite an easy drive. Traffic is non-existent there compared to the northeast. We stopped once we arrived near Moab at the Hole N’ The Rock home made by the Christiansen family. This 5,000 square foot home was built in the side of the sandstone. At one time, it operated as a diner. Mr. Christiansen died at age 53, and Mrs. Christiansen kept it going after his death by making and selling jewelry. This attraction was a classic piece of roadside Americana and was a lot of fun to tour. It was interesting to see how the couple lived and how they created the various rooms in their home.
Shortly after, we arrived at our home for the next three nights: the LaQuinta Inn in Moab. We had a large room with 2 queen beds and a couch.
After resting a bit, we headed over to the Moab Brewery for dinner. The meal was quite good, and prices were very reasonable compared to most we had encountered on our trip. After dinner, we walked around Moab’s downtown shopping area and had some homemade ice cream at the Moab Creamery. We were planning on a very early start to our day, as once again, extremely warm temperatures were predicted, and we planned on doing the Delicate Arch hike in Arches National Park early in the a.m.
Fortunately, LaQuinta serves their continental breakfast starting at 6:30 a.m., which enabled us to arrive at the Delicate Arch trailhead by 7:30 a.m. I was so glad we got an early start. There were still plenty of people on the trail, even at that hour. I had been nervous about doing this three mile round-trip trail, as it’s rated strenuous and is a little longer than we normally do. However, it was so worth it! As long as you have no serious physical limitations, I’d highly recommend this hike. Most of it wasn’t that bad, including the ledge near the end. For some reason, this bothered me going back than going out; maybe it was because I was anxious to see the arch heading there. I actually found going down the slick rock a little more challenging than going up. Nothing prepared me for my first view of Delicate Arch. It was so much larger than I envisioned. My husband and daughter went down into the basin, but this seemed scary to me, so I stayed out of it. I took pictures of under the arch from where I was. Thanks to a good zoon lens, they came out fine. The entire hike took about 2.5 hours, so we were back before the temperatures got extremely hot. I can’t imagine doing that hike in the middle of the day in the summer. Even with water, it would be suicidal! We took plenty of water with us; yet, even so, we were still very tired, hot, and thirsty.
After our hike, we decided to head out of the park to come back later in the day in hopes of catching cooler temperatures. We did stop at the Visitor’s Center on the way out.
Rather than our usual picnic lunch, we decided to stop in Moab for an early lunch and chose Zax Watering Hole for their all you an eat pizza, soup, and salad bar. Everything was delicious and fresh. The pizza was excellent quality, and there were many selections to choose from, including a honey chicken, garlic, fajita, and Hawaiian, along with the usual pepperoni, cheese, and supreme. After lunch, we headed back to our hotel to rest up for more exploring of Arches later. Around 4 p.m., we went back into Arches. It was still quite hot, but we managed. We saw Balanced Rock and did the Windows sections, including the North and South Windows and Turret Arch. We did the short trial to Skyline Arch, and finally, we arrived at Devil’s Garden to take the trail to Landscape Arch. The beginning of the trail offered some shade, but it got quite hot as we continued. Landscape Arch was amazing, but I was a bit disappointed with my pictures, as the sun wasn’t quite right. We were back at our car heading out of the car by about 7 p.m., as we were pretty tired from the intense sun.
Arches was an amazing park that I would love to see again when the weather is a little cooler. I would imagine October would be a fabulous time to visit.
We decided to get up a little later today and head for Dead Horse Point State Park and Canyonlands National Park Islands in the Sky District. We stopped at Dead Horse Point’s Visitor’s Center at around 9:30 and briefly admired the views. How sad that the horses were left to die of thirst at such a gorgeous place! The actual Dead Horse Point Overlook was striking; we even saw a boat out on the river. Overall, I was very surprised at how much greenery we found at Arches, Dead Horse Point, and eventually, Canyonlands. From Dead Horse Point, we took the short drive to Canyonlands. We stopped at all the overlooks and enjoyed the amazing scenery. This park reminded me of a miniature grand canyon. The highlight was this park was definitely our short hike out to Mesa Arch. Looking under the arch at the land below was some of the best scenery of the trip. The park photographed so well; I am just in awe of our parks!
Our daughter was ready for another swim, so we returned to LaQunita so she could get some time for this. Later in the evening, we headed to Zax Watering Hole once again for their pizza buffet. After our meal, we had fun browsing the shops of Moab and even purchased some souvenirs. We really enjoyed the town of Moab and found out stay very relaxing there.
Today, we left a rainy Moab to head for Capitol Reef National Park in Torrey. Once again, the ride was rather desolate, and the scenery seemed much less colorful than our other drives. En route, we stopped at Goblin Valley State Park based on the recommendations of TA! What a unique landscape!! We all had fun seeing our own characters in the formations. I seemed to find dogs, cats, and aliens! We went down to walk amongst “the goblins.” It was such a fabulous diversion! It was overcast, but we still managed to get some great pictures.
When we first arrived at Capitol Reef, I wasn’t overly impressed with the scenery. It seemed rather bland in color to what we had experienced in Moab. As we began to drive through the park, however, I began to change my mind. The colors changed from gray to brown to red, and back to brown. Once again, greenery dotted the landscape. By the time we arrived at the Visitor’s Center, I felt much better about choosing to see this park. The lack of any type of crowd was welcome!
We drove to the Fruita District and saw the Blacksmith Shop and Gillford House. The homestead had some of its original furnishings and also offered delicious foods including salsa, jams, pies, pastries, and ice cream. Everything was homemade, and the pies are made with many of the fruits grown right there in the orchards. Sadly, there was no harvest available for picking when we visited. We missed plums by only one day. The park even supplies ladders to assist in the fruit retrieval!!
We continued on the paved road of the scenic drive to Capitol Gorge. I didn’t find it overly scenic in comparison to other parks we’d seen. We then headed towards the other end of the park towards Torrey. Here, I discovered why this area has been deemed a national park. We drove up to Panorama Point, where I could not stop taking pictures. I was surrounded by a sprawling landscape of brown and red colored mountains, speckled with greenery. Amazing!
We headed to our hotel, just outside the park. Tonight, our home would be the Best Western Capitol Reef Resort. For the reasonable rate I got, I was not expecting much, but I was pleasantly surprised. The hotel, in the middle of nowhere, was extremely clean and even had a balcony! Once again, we were able to get a free refrigerator. The balcony provided lovely views of the red rocks.
At dinnertime, we headed to Slackers Burger Joint in Torrey. Torrey is a very small town with few options, but Slackers had delicious cheeseburgers and fries ($4.99!), and of course, we had to enjoy some ice cream for dessert. We drove a bit further down the road and looked in a few small shops in Torrey, and our daughter even purchased some souvenirs. The stores seemed to have very reasonably priced items.
Eventually, we returned to our room, where enjoyed a card game on the patio and watched an awesome sunset! Great day.
This morning, we had breakfast at Castle Rock Coffee and Candy in Torrey, which was certainly suitable for a quick bite. We slowly headed toward Bryce Canyon over scenic Rt. 12. What a ride!! I rate this as the best scenery of the trip. We finally had a tremendous contrast from red rocks!! Much of Rt. 12 is windy, but it is extremely green and mountainous...much closer to classic mountain scenery you would find maybe in the Rockies, but not as high of an elevation. I loved smelling the pine trees! A large part of Rt. 12 goes through Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument. The yellow, white and green hues in this segment were stunning.
We arrived in Bryce Canyon City around 1 p.m., and our home for the next two nights was the Best Western Bryce Canyon Grand. Despite things I had read on this site, we were allowed to check in early. This was an absolutely gorgeous hotel! Our room was huge, and the bathroom came complete with double sinks and granite counters. The sinks were outside the toilet/shower area, so space was maximized. The beds were very comfortable. We spent a bit of time exploring the hotel, which actually reminded me of a national park lodge with many more amenities. It had a sparkling clean outdoor pool, fitness room, and laundry area.
Unfortunately, we had our worst meal of the trip in Bryce Canyon City at Foster’s Steak House, which was one step above a truck stop. It was extremely poor. I could have cooked a better meal in our hotel room!
After dinner, we headed into the park for a sneak peak of what we had waited to see for years!! We went to the Visitor’s Center and headed straight for the lodge to access the overlooks. Bryce Canyon is just so impressive; pictures do not do it justice. We checked out Sunrise and Sunset Points, and then drove on to Inspiration and Bryce Points. The hoodoos were amazing. Tomorrow, we planned to return to hike the Queens Garden/Navajo Loop and visit more of the overlooks.
We returned to our beautiful hotel, and since my hubby wanted to rest, my daughter and I headed over to Ruby’s General Store across the street. We had already decided to eat at their restaurant for tomorrow night’s dinner.
Our hotel provided us with a delicious hot breakfast including hash browns, eggs, sausage, fruit, granola, and so much more. It was the best hotel breakfast of the trip by far.
We had decided the previous night to save some time/distance off the Queen’s Garden/Navajo Loop by parking our car at Sunset Point and riding the free shuttle to Sunrise Point so we could complete the trail in the clockwise direction the park service recommends. Doing this cut the 3 mile hike down to 2.5 miles, and we were very glad we did this at the end.
We entered the Queen’s Garden Trail and headed down a somewhat steep trail. I was careful with my footing, but all in all, it was a wonderful experience. We got to see the canyon from a completely different perspective and get up close to the hoodoos. I highly recommend this for anyone without physical limitations and for those with around 2-3 hours to spare. The Queens Garden included more interesting formations and scenery, and I found the tunnels cut into the rock very neat. Quite a bit of the trail was very flat once you get down into the canyon. We worked our way into the Navajo Loop. The scenery here was a little less interesting, until we headed towards the end. I admit that going up was tough, but we took our time and made it. I stopped quite a few times due to being out of breath, but I was so glad I’d experienced this. We really enjoyed seeing Thor’s Hammer and Two Bridges at the end of the loop.
Once we had finished the hike, we were ready for our picnic lunch at the park. We then decided to drive to the remainder of the overlooks. We headed out to the end (Rainbow Point) and worked our way back, seeing everything we had not seen the previous night. Once again, I found myself giving my camera a workout. We arrived back at our hotel at 2:30 p.m. and decided to rest a bit.
Tonight, we headed to dinner at Ruby’s Cowboy Steak and Buffet. We opted to eat early to get lunch prices at the buffet. Despite the negative reviews I have read, we found the food good and service fine. We should have done this the previous night!!
After we returned from dinner, we had a nasty thunderstorm, as it is monsoon season. We lost power at the hotel for around 4 hours. We found ourselves in the lobby where there was auxiliary power, and I found it entertaining to listen to the interactions between guests and the front desk personnel. The front desk employees claimed the power was out for 60 miles and were offering all guests flashlights ($20 if you didn’t return it, which was emphasized). I was a bit disappointed that the front desk seemed more focused on getting their flashlights back rather than being more apologetic about the situation. I realize it was beyond their control, however, and there are probably many that would try to keep a $5 flashlight. Fortunately, the power came back on right around our bedtime at 11:00 p.m. Unfortunately, we were not able to shower that evening, as there was no hot water until morning. This was one thing the hotel’s front desk seemed to leave out when checking in the guests who were arriving for their first night’s stay.
We enjoyed a great breakfast before checking out of the hotel and leaving for Las Vegas. We had already decided to stop at Cedar Breaks National Monument, which turned out to be a fun short break. Cedar Breaks is like a smaller version of Bryce Canyon and scenic in its own right. The colors in Cedar Breaks were more yellowish than red, which is unlike Bryce. A volunteer park employee had binoculars set up so we could see an arch at the bottom of the canyon. The arch looked very fragile, like it could fall at any time. Another volunteer had a telescope set up so we could view the sun. The employees were very enthusiastic about their park, and I have the utmost respect for these paid and non/paid workers.
We arrived at the Holiday Inn Express & Suites in Henderson around 2 p.m. The front desk clerk, Stephanie, professionally checked us in and much to our surprise, our rate dropped significantly to what was quoted on the phone. We had a large suite with 2 TV’s, 2 queen beds, and a sleeper sofa.
For dinner that night, we stopped at Sam’s Town’s Firelight Buffet. My husband and I had enjoyed it a lot in 1996. It was still good, but not quite as great as we had remembered. They did have a lot of variety.
After dinner, we all went to watch the Mystic Falls show at Sam’s Town. This used to be called the Sunset Stampede, but it’s still a fun experience with animated animals and fountains, all set to music. It’s a beautiful park-like setting.
Our daughter was so anxious to see the “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign, so we took her to the end of the strip to see and take her picture in front of it. She was so excited!
We returned to our hotel after a brief stop at the Las Vegas Outlets.
We had reserved this day to explore the Vegas strip, but we had to take care of a few things first.
We headed over to Ethel M’s Chocolate Factory for the free tour and to buy some chocolates for those back home. We also walked around the cactus garden and took a few pictures. We dropped the chocolate back in our hotels’ refrigerator and headed to the strip.
We parked at MGM and began to walk. Although it was not humid, it was still quite warm. We saw the Lion Habitat at MGM (free but very crowded...really not worth it), the Flamingos at the Flamingo casino, the Gondolas at the Venetian, and the best attraction, the Eiffel Tower at Paris Casino. The tower was wonderful, and we were rewarded with gorgeous views of the city. By the time we had walked everywhere, it was close to 5 p.m., and I felt hot, tired, and exhausted. The high that day was 106, and quite honestly, it was quite uncomfortable. We took the monorail back to MGM and got back to our car. We seemed to find ourselves walking a lot of needless steps, as we didn’t know our way around that well. We went back to Sam’s Town to eat by 6 p.m. Traffic was really tough in Vegas at 5. I felt sick from the heat and was not able to eat much. I think I just needed fluids. Once hubby and daughter ate, we returned to our hotel, and I kept drinking and just relaxed. Slowly, I began to feel better. I had underestimated the heat of Vegas by not drinking and eating enough. I had hoped to see a bit more of the strip, like the Bellagio fountains, but summer is a tough time to visit this area. We found ourselves missing Utah, as Vegas was not only hot, but just too busy for us.
We got up leisurely to prepare for our 3 p.m. flight home. We killed a bit of time at the local stores, had lunch and then headed to the airport. Our flight wound up being delayed by a ½ hour, but the pilot made up the time in the air, so we managed to arrive home on time.
Southern Utah has a fascinatingly diverse landscape with plenty of activities to keep one busy. The parks are in relatively close proximity of each other and can be easily seen in a 2 week trip. As the regulars on this forum frequently point out, keep moving. Don’t try to see these parks as daytrips. You will waste a lot of time driving back and forth.
If you travel in the summer, know your limitations and drink plenty of water. This area has no humidity, but it is still warm!
Overall, I feel we planned well, as my hubby and daughter said how much they enjoyed the trip. I owe the success of this trip to those regular posters on here who tirelessly answer questions and provide sound advice. The only part of the trip that I should have planned better was Las Vegas, but I took for granted that I had been there 14 years prior. What I didn’t consider is how much the city has grown! Also, Vegas really wasn’t the main reason for taking the trip. We were more focused on the national parks.
All in all, we had an awesome time and created some wonderful memories. I know we didn’t see anywhere close to everything, but we accomplished our goals. We are giving ourselves a huge gift each year by making an effort to support our national parks, which are, in the words of Ken Burns, “America’s Best Idea.”