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Many posts on the Utah forum concern road trips through the National and State Parks and other glorious natural wonders in the southern part of the state. These trips often also include the surrounding states so that the traveler can marvel at the Grand Canyon and Sedona in northern Arizona or the Native American history of Mesa Verde in southwest Colorado. As these are all very popular destinations, there is a lot of information in the forums already, but this “primer” should provide a starting point for any visitor to the area to help lay out a good course based on the time available and the specific interests.
There is a lot of information in this article; it covers a wide area and most of the pertinent topics. There were many experts who have contributed to the content of the article. Many of the regulars on the Utah and Arizona forums have posted about the time required for a tour through the Grand Circle and the benefits of slowing down and really appreciating the splendor of the area, but RedRox really nailed this aspect of trip planning in the following post which makes an excellent introduction to planning an excursion to the National Parks and other wondrous places in the desert southwest.
Southwest and Grand Circle Trip Planning
Everyone wants to visit the parks in the western USA. It's something that every family can and should do at some time. These vacations can be life changing and bonding experiences. Or they can be nightmares.
Most travelers equate being in the parks and outdoor environments with hiking. It's important to understand that hiking is not a requirement for enjoying the wilderness. Time is. This cannot be understated. One cannot begin to appreciate the beauty and magnificence of the national parks unless and until they spend time there. It can be as simple as sitting at a single view point for hours, or as elaborate as day long hikes or extended back country camping trips. But arriving at a view point, snapping a picture, and driving on (a la Clark Griswold) is simply not going to do it. At the very least, most of the national parks in the southwest need a day or longer, just to self-tour the many attractions and viewpoints therein. Sunset and sunrise are generally the most peaceful and stunning times of day in the sun's rapidly changing light. So overnight stays at, or as close as possible, will enhance a visit to any park.
Logistically, it takes about a half day or longer to travel between most of the parks in the 4 corners states. Often, the scenic drives are enticing enough to warrant additional stops and detours along the way. Regardless, it takes at least two nights at any park or destination to have just one full day there. Many trip planners fail to understand this.
When those trip planners are also expressing a specific desire to include hiking as a regular activity at the parks, and asking for advice on which trails to focus on, they need to realize that they will probably need multiple days and nights at the stop in order to do the hiking or whatever other activities, beyond quick snapshots, they have in mind.
Everyone wants to 'see as much as they can'. What they fail to realize is that by adding more places and activities to a list, without increasing available time, they wind up seeing less and reducing the quality of their vacation time. It's far better to plan more time at fewer parks and destinations, than to rush around and do little more than touch all the bases.
Everyone wants to stay 'off the beaten path' and avoid the places that are 'touristy'. The path that's well-worn is that way because it includes the best places already. If you're planning to tour the parks, you are by definition, a tourist. Don't try to reinvent the wheel. If you insist on avoiding the most popular sites and activities, you'll be planning a second tier, inferior, vacation. Do the top tier first, then come back to explore more in depth.
So when planning your family vacation in the 4 corners region keep a few points in mind.
1. Less is more. Fewer parks and destinations will mean more quality time at the places you choose. Odds are, if you do a proper vacation at just one or two places, you'll return again to focus on different parks in the future.
2. Advance planning and reservations will save you time and money. Park lodges book up as much as a year in advance. The most sought after accommodations go to those who plan and commit the earliest.
3. Traveling by RV is slower and usually more costly than using a car and traditional hotels and lodging. Even campsites book months in advance.
4. Information found on the Internet is helpful, but needs to be verified. Add 30% to most map app drive time estimates. Use park websites along with traveler review and forum sites like TripAdvisor. You aren't the first, and you won't be the last. But there is much you can learn from folks who have been there and done that.The Grand Circle
The area that encompasses southern Utah, northern Arizona, the southwest corner of Colorado, the northwest corner of New Mexico and the southern tip of Nevada is commonly known as the Grand Circle. The absolute definition of the region will vary based on who is telling the story, but a good general map that shows many of the region's highlights is found here:
The first thing that you should know is that this is a BIG area. The imaginary circle that surrounds the region is about 500 miles across! To tour this area will take weeks and even then you cannot see and do everything. Since most visitors do not have several weeks, planning and research are of great importance when considering a trip to the desert southwest. The real trick is to understand how how many places you can visit and how much you can experience in the time that you have. If you only have a week, you are not going to be able to realistically make meaningful visits to all five of the National Parks in southern Utah. You will have to make some choices to make sure that your time in this amazing region does not turn into a blur.
When starting to plan a trip to the southern Utah and the rest of the Grand Circle, there are several factors that you must consider including the time of year, the amount of time for the trip, what your primary interests are and your basic travel style. All of these items and others will influence how you spend your time. Each will be discussed in this article.
So what are the main attractions in the Grand Circle? Outdoor activities are at the top of the list when visiting southern Utah and the neighboring areas. And there are a variety, from hair-raising to sedate and all levels in between. There is truly something for everyone. The focal points are the National Parks, but there are other national public lands, State Parks and Native American Tribal Parks within the Grand Circle.
Let’s start in southern Utah with the National Parks. Of course a great resource for information on any of the parks, monuments or other public lands administered by the National Parks Service is their website:
The NPS website is a great planning tool and is of great value when researching a trip to any of the parks or other places under the NPS umbrella. Once you have arrived a park, one of your first stops should be at the Visitor Center. The Rangers and volunteer staff at the Visitor Centers can answer any remaining questions that you may have and can also provide the most up to date info on the current happenings in the parks. You can also pick up maps and guides at the Visitor Centers.
If you plan is to visit a number of National Parks, National Monuments and other public lands, then you should consider purchasing a National Parks Pass, called the America the Beautiful Pass. The cost of the pass is $80.00 and is good for a year from date of issue. Another option for those who qualify is the senior pass for folks age 62 and older; this is only $10.00 and is good for life. You can order your pass on-line, but it is really just as good to purchase the pass when you enter the first park on your route. For more information on the America the Beautiful Pass or the other annual pass options, check the following link:
The following are just brief introductions to the parks and some of the other NPS sites, but it will give you a starting point. There are five National Parks in southern Utah: Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef and Zion. The parks are listed alphabetically to avoid any misinterpretation of favoritism, as folks do have favorites, but each park is amazing in its own right.
Arches – Simply and appropriately named for the hundreds (actually well over 2000) of sandstone arch formations located in the relatively small park. The park is home to one of the iconic features of southern Utah (and of the National Parks in general), Delicate Arch (see the next photo). Some of the other key sights and popular hikes in Arches include:
Note that there is no lodging or food services inside Arches, but there are many lodging options in the gateway town of Moab, just outside the park entrance. There is a campground inside of Arches National Park.
Bryce Canyon – While Bryce Canyon is the smallest of the National Parks in terms of area, it has a huge visual impact with vistas that are simply breathtaking. Due to its size, it is tempting to spend only a short time in the park and simply take in the views from the overlooks and move on. While this is certainly an option, it is not the recommended way to enjoy Bryce Canyon. At a minimum, spend the night, either in the lodge in the park or one of the hotels just outside the entrance. This will allow you to witness Bryce Canyon at its finest times, sunrise and sunset when the light on the hoodoos is at its best and at night to see the amazing starry night skies. Check to see if there is a Ranger led night hike or an astronomy event (with telescopes setup near the Visitor Center for your viewing amazement) when you are visiting the park.
As mentioned there is a lodge with motel rooms and cabins, as well as camping inside the park. Just outside the main entrance there are nearby lodging options including Ruby’s and the Best Western Grand.
There are several good trails down into the main amphitheatre. The Navajo and Queens Garden Trails are the most popular. Another great way to view the hoodoos from below the rim is to ride a horse or mule. Here’s the link to the outfitter who runs these great excursions:
Canyonlands – The confluence of the Colorado River and the Green River define the four distinct areas or districts of the park: Island in the Sky, Needles, The Maze and the rivers themselves. Island in the Sky is the closest to Moab and the easiest to visit. The Needles District is about 90 minutes south of Moab. This makes for a long but worthwhile day trip. Make sure to check out Newspaper Rock on the drive into the Needles District. Finally, the Maze is backcountry adventure that often requires four-wheel and can provide a wild ride!. There is no in-park lodging, but camping is available throughout the park. Moab is the usual gateway city, particularly for Island in the Sky, but Monticello or even Blanding could also be used for the Needles District.
Hiking, backpacking, jeeping, biking and river trips highlight the activities of this diverse park. Check out the National Parks Service website for more details:
Capitol Reef – This is probably the most under rated of the parks, but it is truly a hidden gem. It is a hiker's paradise! Centered around the 100-mile-long Waterpocket Fold, this park has much to offer in terms of geology and local history. Explore areas that were used by nomadic hunters and gatherers and was then settled by the Fremont culture. Later Mormon settlers raised crops and created orchards in Fruita. And make sure to check out the Gifford Homestead to get a glimpse of farm life in the early 1900s…and to get some of the fresh baked pies! There is also a one-room school house and on weekends there is often a living historian docent portraying a school-marm to provide an interactive learning experience of the history of the area.
There is camping in the park and lodging is available in nearby Torrey, just west of the park on route 24. There are plenty of great hikes to cover the natural wonders of the park as well. The scenic drive is a great introduction to this fascinating and diverse area. For more details, go to the National Parks Service website:
Zion – This may be the most recognized of the southern Utah parks and is probably the most popular based on visitation records. Its proximity to Las Vegas makes it an easy get away from the hustle of Sin City. The main attractions are found in Zion Canyon, but there is also the Kolob Canyons section of the park which is northwest of the main entrance and accessed from I-15 south of Cedar City.
In addition to campgrounds and back country camping, there is also the Zion Lodge in the heart of the park. The lodge has both motel-style rooms and cabins. The location of the lodge is the primary draw. Just roll out of your bunk, walk outside and there you are in the midst of Nature at her finest. However, if you are looking for more amenities and perhaps better food options, there are plenty of choices in the gateway town of Springdale, just outside the main entrance of Zion. There is a shuttle service that will take you from most any point in Springdale to the park entrance, and then the park shuttle will take you on into the park (from spring through fall, private vehicles are not allowed into Zion Canyon, unless you are staying at the park lodge).
There are many great hiking opportunities in Zion, from the paved Pa’rus Trail to the hair-raising trek to Angel’s Landing (for those with a fear of height or steep drop-offs, stop at Scout’s Lookout…still a great hike). For something completely different, try the Narrows, a hike literally in the Virgin River.
National Monuments in southern Utah - In addition to the National Parks, there are several National Monuments scattered about the Grand Circle, including several in southern Utah.
Cedar Breaks – At 10,000 feet above sea level, this is one of the higher points in the National Parks Service within southern Utah. Cedar Breaks is a smaller version of Bryce Canyon. http://www.nps.gov/cebr/index.htm
Grand Staircase Escalante - This is a huge and sprawling monument largely undeveloped and accessed via dirt roads and hiking. The two paved roads surrounding it are hwy 12 on the north and hwy 89 on the south. There are four Visitor Centers, located at each of the main dirt roads through the monument: Cannonville at the head of the Cottonwood Wash road. Escalante at the head of the Hole in the Rock road. Kanab Interagency in Kanab near the south end of Johnson Canyon/ Skutumpah road. And the Big Water visitor center near the south end of the Smoky Mountain road. Each of these visitor centers has a focus on one aspect of the monument are each are worth visiting.
Natural Bridges – This small monument is located along route 95 and makes a great two hour or more stop on the drive between Torrey and Monument Valley. The scenic drive through the monument provides access to the three namesake rock formations. http://www.nps.gov/nabr/index.htm
Rainbow Bridge – One of the largest known natural bridges this is also a sacred place to neighboring Native American tribes. While you can backpack to Rainbow Bridge, the usual access is by boat cruising across Lake Powell. http://www.nps.gov/rabr/index.htm
Glen Canyon National Recreation Area - Most folks just think of this as Lake Powell, but there is much more to the 1.2 million acre area. While Lake Powell and the water related activities of the lake are a focus you can also enjoy a scenic and sedate float trip down the Colorado River to Lee's Ferry or tour the engineering marvel of the Glen Canyon Dam (just as big as the Hoover Dam, but a lot less expensive and a lot less crowded). As metioned, Rainbow Bridge is accessed via the waterway of Lake Powell. Page, AZ, is the gateway city for GCNRA, but you don't have to stay in Page; rent a houseboat and explore the lake. Or you could rent a power boat for the day and still checkout the beauty of the rock formations in and surrounding the lake. http://www.nps.gov/glca/index.htm
Utah State Parks – While the National Parks and Monuments might be the reason for visiting the natural wonders in southern Utah, the State Park system has many hidden gems that should be included in a visit. The following website provides a listing of the parks, a map with their locations and details of the things to see and do within each park:
Each of the parks has its own character and specific attractions. For the most part the State Parks are just as amazing as the larger parks, however since they are smaller they will take less time to visit. There are also campsites available in most of the parks and unlike the national parks there are usually showers. State parks are not part of the National Park system and so are not included in the "America the Beautiful" entrance pass. Fees to enter the parks are usually under $10. The following is an alphabetical listing of the parks which would be easy to include in a grand circle trip through Southern Utah:Coral Pink Sand Dunes - Just north of Kanab and a quick detour off hwy 89 is a whole lot of sand the color of the red rocks. Some come with their sand buggys to ride the dunes, but there is an area set aside for foot traffic only. Visiting will most likely consist of a walk up the dunes for a look and some pictures. Bring a picnic, and plan about an hour for a visit.
Dead Horse Point – This has been called the best investment the state of Utah ever made. It was one of the earliest state parks and the views from the point have been on the cover of numerous travel magazines. A visit at sunrise or sunset will be better for photographers, but the view is good any time. There is a visitor's center, a short walk out to the point, and numerous opportunities to see the meander of the Colorado River far below. Located on the same plateau as Island in the Sky section of Canyonlands NP it is easy to combine a visit to both of them. Plan at least an hour for Dead Horse Point.
Edge of the Cedars - This small museum in Blanding is the repository of many the artifacts from the numerous ancient sites located in the area and left behind by the people known either as the Anasazi or the Ancient Puebloans. Most well known are the Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon ruins, but those were the huge population centers and there were thousands of other settlements scattered around the canyons of the 4 corners area. The museum is located next to a small pueblo. If Mesa Verde is of interest, but time doesn't allow a visit there, then Edge of the Cedars can provide a small glimpse into an era long gone and not well understood.
Escalante Petrified Forest - This is a combination park just south of the town of Escalante and one of the attractions seen from highway 12. The Wide Hollow Reservoir is one of many in the state park system which provides water for irrigation and recreation. Of greater interest to most visitors will be the walk along the top of the mesa to see the petrified wood left behind from the Cretaceous era. The walk starts with a stiff climb up, but then is level for the one mile loop. If one is spry and able the Sleeping Rainbow 1 mile loop add-on is well worth the effort.
Goblin Valley – Named for the scores of smaller rock formations that resemble, well, goblins, this small park makes a great stop on the trip between Moab and Torrey, or can be done as a day trip from Torrey. Great place for the kids as they will enjoy climbing about on the goblins. Photographers will have a lot of fun composing shots, plan anywhere from 1/2 hr to 2 hrs to visit. Located just west of rouet 24 north of Hanksville. You might also want to check out Little Wild Horse slot canyon which is right here as well.
Goosenecks - A huge "entrenched meader" of the San Juan River located just north of Mexican Hat. This view is well worth the short detour route 261. As there is nothing here but the view and an outhouse there is no entrance fee to this park which can be visited in less than half an hour. The view is facing west so late afternoon may not be the best time to see it.
Kodachrome Basin - This small park off hwy 12 not far from Bryce may be the biggest let down. Visit it only if you have lots of time and want to see it all. It is a fun little place with spires and hoodoos and can be very interesting in contrast to the other parks. It is also a great place to camp if you are exploring further down the Cottonwood Wash road.
Snow Canyon - Snow Canyon is hard to define. It has the colors of Zion, small slot canyons, desert tortoises, old lava flows, sand dunes, some great easy hikes and longer bike trails. It is best seen in the spring before the heat of the summer makes the hikes too hot to take.
This is hardly an exhaustive list of the Utah State Parks; for that refer to the link provided above. To get a better idea of the location of these parks within the Grand Circle, check the map at the link below:
Native American Tribal Parks - The Native American have been and still are an important part of the culture and history of the desert southwest. Some of the iconic landmarks of the region are within the boundaries of their lands but are open to all to enjoy as Tribal Parks. Please note that these areas hold special cultural and religious significance to the Native Americans, so when you visit, please treat these places with the utmost respect and follow all rules regarding decorum and access.
Two of the more popular parks are highlighted below. For more information on the Tribal Parks, see the following website:
Monument Valley - Situated in southwest Utah and straddling the boarder with Arizona, Monument Valley is home of some of the most iconic sandstone formations in the region. Made famous as the back drop to many early western movies as well as a landscape photographers playground, this Tribal Park is well worth adding to any tour of the desert southwest. Lodging is limited with The View Hotel being the only loding inside the park and Gouldings being the closest lodging outside the park boundaries. Additional lodging options are available in Keyenta and Mexican Hat, each about 30 minutes from the park.
While you can tour the park in your vehicle, the road is very rough in places and rental car agencies may not allow their vehicles on that road (check your rental agreement). The best way to see the park is via a guided backcountry tour, which allows access to a much larger area of the park. These 3-4 hour driving tours are lead by a Native American guide who not only does the driving so you can concerntrate on the amazing scenery, but will oftern provide narrative on the history and geology of the park.
Antelope Slot Canyons - Located just outside Page, AZ, the Upper and Lower Antelope Slot Canyons have become another icon of the desert southwest and are probably the most photographed of all the slot canyons in the region. Since these slots are located on Tribal lands, guided tours are the only way to access the canyons. Tours are available out of Page, or can be picked up at the entrance station for either the upper or lower canyon. The walk through the upper slot is on a flat sandy trail through the bottom of the canyon and is very accessible, however, access to the lower canyon requires climbing ladders anchored to the canyon walls.
Existing TA Resources
There is a lot of great information already in place on Trip Advisor that will make planning your trip a lot easier. Here’s a list of some of the key resources:
Forums. Here’s where you can ask the detailed questions and get a lot of great information from local experts, and past travelers. A key tool in the forums is the search feature. Many times the question you have has been asked and answered many times over, so do a little searching and you will most likely find the information you want without starting a new thread. If you can’t find your answer, then go ahead and ask…you’ll get your answer shortly. Here’s the link to the Utah forum:
From here, you can navigate to more specific forums within Utah (each National Park and gateway town has a dedicated forum, for example).
Top Questions. In each forum there is a list of Top Questions. These are the topics that come up frequently and therefore have a lot of good answers available already. Check the Top Questions out to see if the answer to your question is there. In the Utah forum, there is one Top Question in particular that pertains to the Grand Circle trip planning: “How do I see all the parks in southern Utah?” This item was created specifically by the Utah Destination Experts to provide suggested routes and itineraries through southern Utah. There are several routes provided, each with links to maps that have driving times and distances and several follow-up posts discussing the places to stay, things to see and do and where to eat along each route. Do note that the routes and itineraries listed can be done in reverse direction as well. Here's a list of the routes provided (linked to the threads in the Utah forum):
The brief descriptions provided for each route focus on the National Parks with Monument Valley thrown in, but there are a LOT of other natural wonders to see along all of these routes (National Monuments, State Parks, etc.). Many of these are described later in this article.
Trip Report Archive. Many travelers who use the Trip Advisor forums will post trip reports once they return from their travels. These trip reports (TRs) often provide a wealth of information including the overall route, timing of the trip, what was done at each stop along the way and tips on where to stay and eat as well as activities. Rather that have folks search for the TRs, links to many of the best TRS have been collected at the top of the Utah forum. Here’s the link to the Utah Trip Report Archive:
There is a brief synopsis included with the link so that you can determine which TRs will be of most value for your trip (no sense looking at a TR on skiing in Park City, if you want to go hiking in Zion!).
There is a similar trip report archive in the Arizona forum:
Itineraries. These are similar to the trip reports in that there are a lot of details on the specific trip presented by the author/traveler. The Itineraries are located in the right-hand column, just under the Top Questions.
Reviews. Of course Trip Advisor is known for its reviews, particularly for lodging and restaurants. But there are also reviews for activities including some detailed reviews of specific hikes in the parks. Make sure to check out the reviews for each park you will be visiting during your Grand Circle tour if you need additional help in selecting a place to stay or if you are looking for more ideas on things to see and do. You can access the reviews on Trip Advisor from the hot buttons across the top of the website page or down the left-hand column of the forums page (Hotels, Restaurants, Things To Do).
Things to consider when planning your trip
This section contains some of the things that a traveler should consider when planning a Grand Circle tour, such as how much time is available for the trip, what time of year to visit, the weather, entry points and how much time is needed at each destination.
How much time. So how much time to you have for your trip? That is a key consideration when making your plans. All too often travelers will try to fit too much into the time available and end up spending most of their time driving and very little actually enjoying the destinations. Granted there is wonderful scenery along most of the routes, but still the best views are in the parks and monuments. While a trip to the desert southwest is often called a “once in a lifetime trip” try not to fall into the trap of “seeing it all” in a week. Do the research and plan your trip so that you have time to enjoy the places you visit without rushing through.
Time in each park. The time you spend in each park will depend on what you want to get out of each. Bryce Canyon is a good example. For some, a few hours is enough, as they just want to see the highlights from the rim of the main amphitheatre, perhaps a few views along the scenic drive and maybe a short tour through the Visitor Center. For folks wanting to do some hiking or a mule ride, then an overnight stay becomes the minimum. The photographers will want at least an overnight stay so that they can try to capture the beauty of sunrise and sunset on the multicolored hoodoos. Staying a few days is certainly an option as Bryce Canyon is a good base for exploring scenic route 12 and other natural wonders in the immediate area.
The following are typical guidelines for the number of days/nights in several of the primary destinations:
Zion - At least 2 nights so that you have one full day, but really this park deserves and requires more time. A 3 night stay is certainly better and if you are planning on more than a couple of the longer hikes, then more time might be needed.
Bryce Canyon - As mentioned above, you can see the highlights in a few hours, but an overnight stay is really the way to go for this fascinating smaller park. If you plan on a mule ride or a fair amount of hiking, then perhaps a 2-night stay.
Capitol Reef/Torrey - While many people just visit Capitol Reef as a drive through while traveling between Bryce Canyon and Moab, it really deserves more time. Figure at least an overnight stay in Torrey, but you could easily stay for several days to explore the park, and use this as a base for exploring Capital Reef, scenic route 12 ( http://www.scenicbyway12.com/ ) and perhaps as far as Goblin Valley.
Goblin Valley and Little Wild Horse Slot Canyon - These are usually done as part of the travel day between Moab and Torrey. But doing both will make for a long day. Goblin Valley can be toured in an hour or two. Plan at least a couple hours to half a day for hiking Little Wild Horse Canyon, more if you do the full loop around to Bell Canyon.
Moab/Arches/Canyonlands - There is a lot to see and do around Moab. Three days is really the minimum time. You can easily fill a day in Arches and two full days is better. Dead Horse Point State Park takes about a half day. Great for sunrise. Canyonlands Island in the Sky, well, that can take a few hours for the highlights or a few days if you really like to explore.
Monument Valley - This can be anything from a drive through just to see the view from Photographers Point at The View Hotel to an overnight stay so that you can enjoy sunset and a backcountry tour.
Page, Arizona - Page is another destination that deserves several days. Page is the gateway to the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, which includes Lake Powell and Glen Canyon. Over natural wonders in the area include Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend. There are also engineering feats and historical sites as well: Glen Canyon Dam, Navajo Bridge and Lee's Ferry.
Grand Canyon (north or south rim) - Minimum overnight to take in the sunset and sunrise, but more time needed if planning hiking below the rim.Travel time between parks. There are many different ways to get from point A to point B, or point C….or point Q. And in the desert southwest, most all of the routes are through stunning landscapes. However, the distances and travel times between these points is often not trivial. Even the drive time between two relatively close destinations like Zion and Bryce Canyon will take close to three hours (and that is without stops along the way). Therefore, it is highly recommended that you refer to a map or use one of the on-line mapping sites, like Google Maps or Mapquest, to plot your entire route and get a good idea of the distances you will be covering during your trip. The Auto Club AAA Indian Country Guide is one of the best maps of the area.
As a starting point, the following link shows a map of the region and provides information on driving times and distances between destinations:
Getting to the Region. There are several convenient airports for accessing southern Utah and the rest of the Grand Circle. The decision of which to use will be based on several factors, the key being what specific destinations you are planning on visiting for your trip. You should also look at the cost of the airfare as well as rental car cost at the entry airports, as costs can vary significantly depending on time of year.
Listed here are airports that provide the best and closest access to the Grand Circle:
Las Vegas – As a popular destination itself, there are often good deals on flights to Las Vegas from a variety of cities and countries. Las Vegas is also great choice when visiting the parks on the west side of Utah (Zion and Bryce Canyon) or for northern Arizona (Grand Canyon). It is also a great starting point for making a looping route through northern Arizona and southern Utah. The drive time from Las Vegas to Zion is about 3 hours; it is around 5 hours to get to the either rim of the Grand Canyon from Las Vegas.
Salt Lake City – This is probably the destination airport that provides the most options for short stays in Utah. Salt Lake City provides good access to the western parks (Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon and Zion), Moab (Arches, Canyonlands), and even is a good starting point for heading north into Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park. ….From SLC it is only 4-5 hrs to any of the parks in Utah. Plus it is about 5 hrs north to Jackson or West Yellowstone.
Phoenix – Phoenix is almost too far south to reach too far into southern Utah, but it is a great gateway for Sedona, the south rim of the Grand Canyon, Page, Monument Valley and even Zion and Bryce Canyon.
Grand Junction, Colorado – Located on Interstate-70 in western Colorado, Grand Junction is a good entry point for visiting Moab (drive time is less than 2 hours). While this is a good location for entering the Grand Circle, direct flights into Grand Junction from many cities are not available.
Denver – This is the longest drive from any of the entry airports (about 6 hours to Moab), but it is an option for accessing the region. Some flights from the east coast to Grand Junction will connect through Denver, so it becomes a compromise on airfare and rental car cost compared to time in an airport or on the road. Denver is also a great entry point for those folks looking at a loop through Colorado that could include eastern Utah.
Smaller airports in St. George, Moab and Page can provide some closer access if desired, however commercial flights are extremely limited into these destinations.
When to visit? Consider the weather. When you are deciding on the time of year to visit southern Utah, pay attention to the weather. While you can visit the region basically year-round, there are pluses and minuses. Prime time for southern Utah is the spring and fall to avoid the heat of summer and the cold and snow of the winter. The downside is that most folks know this so the crowds could be worse.
If you do visit in the summer, try to schedule your major activities early or later in the day to avoid the heat of the day.
A note on the heat; this is not the oppressive, high-humidity heat that visitors from the eastern states are used to. While the temperature can reach 100 degrees F, the humidity is low, so many people find the conditions much more bearable. Of course there are standard precautions that you will need to follow: drink a LOT of water (as sweat often evaporates before you feel it you may not know how much you are losing, hydration is key), slather on the SPF 100, wear a hat and sunglasses. Basically engage common sense.Elevation. Some of the parks in the Grand Circle are at considerable elevation (Bryce Canyon is at 8000 feet above sea level (2440 meters), Cedar Breaks is 10,000 feet (3050 meters) and the Grand Canyon is about 8000 feet at the south rim and 9000 feet (2740 meters) at the north rim. The elevation is a factor for a couple of reasons.
First is the effect on the weather, particularly the temperature. It is going to be cooler at the higher elevations. Even in the middle of summer, the overnight low temperatures can dip near freezing and it is sure to be cool in the mornings and as the sun goes down. Because of this, dress accordingly, preferably in layers so that you can adjust as the temperature changes throughout the day.
The second factor is the possibility of altitude sickness which can occur at elevations of 8000 feet (2400 meters) and higher. Acclimation to the higher altitude (ascend slowly, take it easy for the first 24 hours) and staying hydrated are keys to avoiding altitude sickness. Symptoms for altitude sickness include headache, lack of appetite, nausea, or vomiting, fatigue, lightheadedness and insomnia.
What to wear. Proper dress is a key for comfort when visiting the Grand Circle and the weather and elevation are factors when choosing what to pack. Dressing in layers is important throughout the year due to the variation in temperature throughout the day (although in summer, it will most likely start fairly warm and then get hot). For example during the fall layers with long sleeves for cool mornings and evenings, possible short sleeves during day, and jackets. Might be a chance for shorts during day but have pants. Key in west, even in the desert, is being prepared for cooler temperatures (40s F) in evening with warmer temps (70s F) during daytime. A hat is important any time of year.
Footwear is a critical part of your attire and will depend greatly on what you plan to do while visiting the southern Utah. If you are planning on hiking or just wlaking to enjoy the natural wonders, make sure that you have the appropriate protection for your feet. Hiking boots or hiking shoes make a lot of sense, but you can get by with a sturdy pair of athletic or walking shoes. Just make sure that your shoes are comfortable and broken in before you get to the Grand Circle.
Lodging. Securing the lodging that best fits your travel style and is at the choice locations is a key to a great trip. To ensure that you get the hotels and lodges that you want can mean making reservations up to a year in advance. This is particularly true when making reservations in the lodges inside the National Parks. Lodging at both the north and south rims of the Grand Canyon are probably the most critical. Another location that books well in advance is around Monument Valley, particularly the only lodging inside the boundaries of the Tribal Park, The View Hotel.
If you start the planning for your trip well in advance you will have a much better chance of success in getting the lodging that you want. However, if you are going on a trip with a short lead time, then it will be more difficult to get those prime locations. In fact, the order of your trip could be dictated by the lodging availability.
There has been a lot of discussion on the Trip Advisor forums about the pros and cons of staying inside the parks versus lodging outside. The biggest advantage to lodging in the parks is location. In southern Utah, there are lodges inside Zion and Bryce Canyon which allow you the easiest access to the parks. At Bryce Canyon, the lodge is just a short walk from the rim of the main amphitheatre, so you can just roll out of your bed and stroll down to the rim to enjoy the sunrise…hard to beat. At Zion, the lodge allows for accessing the serenity of the park early and late in the day, when there are very few other visitors in the canyon. Note that the lodging in the parks, is rustic and older; these lodges are part of the park history, which is really part of their draw and charm.
There are other very good options for both Zion and Bryce Canyon just outside the park entrance. For Zion, there are several quality lodging choices in the gateway town of Springdale. Check the reviews for more details ( http://www.tripadvisor.com/Hotels-g61...). Similarly for Bryce Canyon, there are very good lodging options minutes from the main gate in Bryce Canyon City, such as Ruby’s and the Best Western Grand.
For the Grand Canyon, staying in the park not only provides the closest access to the natural wonders but they are also much closer in terms of drive time. While the lodging outside the parks at Bryce Canyon and Zion are just minutes away, the travel time from off-park lodging to the rim at the Grand Canyon can be up to an hour, making it much more difficult to see sunrise and sunset.
For the other National Parks and natural wonders in southern Utah, lodging is most often found in the gateway cities: Moab for Arches and Canyonlands, and Torrey for Capitol Reef and scenic route 12. Again, there are several very good lodging options in each of these towns and the Trip Advisor reviews and forums can help to guide you on the location most suitable to your needs.
Central Base or Stay at Each Destination. Another dilemma facing travelers in the Grand Circle is the idea of staying at fewer (or one) central location or moving from point-to-point throughout the trip. This answer depends in part on the travel style and the perceived amount of hassle to the individual traveler.
In general, staying at a central location is not a viable option if the plan is to cover a large area. A central location can work if you are only exploring over a limited portion of the region. And of course there are some portions of the region that just beg for a central base of exploration, such as Moab.
As an example, consider a trip that includes Zion and Bryce Canyon. It is tempting to just take a day trip to Bryce Canyon from your base at Zion. This is certainly doable, however, there are some limitations. First, it is a 2 hour drive from Zion to Bryce Canyon, so you will be spending 4 hours of your day in the car. Second, you will likely miss the best times at Bryce Canyon, namely sunrise, sunset and the starry night sky. You would have to get up early and stay late to witness these magical times if doing a day trip. However, if you just want to see the hoodoos and are not worried about the best lighting, then a day trip may work.
There are points within the Grand Circle that are logical choices for a base for three or more days. As mentioned, Moab is an obvious base for Arches, Canyonlands, Dead Horse Point and a myriad of other natural wonders in the area. Page is another place that you can set as a base and have plenty of things to see and do to easily fill 4 or 5 days. Kanab can also be used as a gateway location for Zion, Bryce Canyon, the north rim of the Grand Canyon and Lake Powell (Page). It is just a matter of compromising in terms of not having to move as often and spending more time in transit to get to the natural wonders of the desert southwest.
Still, the advice given most often on the Trip Advisor forums is to move from point-to-point in order to be close to each destination.
Driving versus Touring. When it comes to a guided, bus tour or getting behind the wheel yourself and touring around the Grand Circle, the absolute best option is to get in the driver’s seat and hit the open road. First of all, there just are not that many options for guided tours through southern Utah or elsewhere within the Grand Circle. There are some short excursions from Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon or the southwest corner of Utah. However, the itineraries for these tours seem to be long on driving and not nearly enough time in the parks. And some of the day trip tours advertised as heading to the Grand Canyon from Las Vegas do not actually go to the National Park, but rather go to the “West Rim” which is not nearly as breathtaking as the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.
Tours do have some advantages, such as having someone else do the driving, so that you can enjoy the scenery. The tours usually also have all of the accommodations reserved and generally have meals planned. However, the downside of the tour itinerary is that there is usually not a lot of time at any one destination, so you usually only get a taste for one park and then it is time to move to the next. The tours are missing one of the key points when visiting southern Utah: having some flexibility in your schedule.
Southern Utah is actually a fairly easy area to navigate, provided you do a little research on where you are headed. As described above, the specific destinations are usually at least a couple hours drive apart and there are always diversions to be considered as you travel from point A to point B. Having the flexibility to add a stop along the way or to pause longer at a planned stop are the keys advantages of driving yourself.
Time Zones. Interestingly, the simple question “what time is it?” does not have a simple answer when you are traveling in the Grand Circle. It is easy enough when you are in southern Utah, as Utah is in the Mountain time zone and does observe daylight savings time, so that is pretty straightforward. The same is true for Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico for that matter. Nevada is in the Pacific time zone, so there is an hour difference with Mountain time (so, if you fly into Las Vegas and head into Utah, you will lose an hour; you get that hour back when you return from Utah to Las Vegas for the flight home).
What complicates the question of time is the state of Arizona. Arizona is in the Mountain Time zone, but does NOT observe daylight savings time. The Native American Reservations further complicate the issue as the Navajo Nation does observe daylight saving time (so it matches Utah) but the Hopi Nation does not (so it keeps time with the rest of Arizona). Got it? Maybe the map linked here will help.
Traveling with pets. Many folks like to bring their four-legged companions along on vacation (hey, they're part of the family). But you need to plan ahead as pets are not allowed in most areas of the National Parks (there are usually some areas in each park that are dog friendly). There are kennels and "doggie day care" options near most of the parks. Check the National Parks Service website for more information about pet access and local kennels. Also, this
Utah forum thread has some pointers as well.
What do you want to get out of this trip? What are your interests?
An important item to consider is what you want to do while you are touring the Grand Circle. There are a LOT of options and a variety of things to see and do in southern Utah. So thinking about these options and planning your time accordingly will make for a better trip overall. This section provides some ideas of the myriad of activities that are available to fill you time in the Grand Circle.
Hiking. There are countless hiking opportunities throughout southern Utah, not only in the National Parks and Monuments, but also on other public lands, such as the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) maintained areas and in the Native American lands. The options are way too numerous to list in this article, but there are good resources available on the internet to help you plan your adventures. In addition to the National Park Service websites listed above, here are some more on-line resources on hiking in southern Utah and the Grand Circle in general:
Bureau of Land Management: http://www.blm.gov/wo/st/en.html
National Parks Service: The hiking information is usually listed under “Things To Do” within each Park or Monument page: http://www.nps.gov/index.htm
Here’s a website with more details about the hiking opportunities in Zion: http://www.zionnational-park.com/hiki...
And another site about hiking in Zion, with trail descriptions and pictures: www.citrusmilo.com/joesguidetozion
United States Forest Service: http://www.fs.fed. us/
Utah.com: Here’s the link to the hiking page on Utah.com: http://www.utah.com/hike/
Every Trail: This is a website that is related to Trip Advisor, but really focused on hiking and walking tours. There are a lot of very detailed descriptions of hikes in the site, you just have to do a little searching. http://www.everytrail.com/
Ramblr: Similar to EveryTrail in that this is a site that allows hikers (and walkers, bikers, auto tours, etc.) to track their adventures with an app on their phone then post them to the website to share with the community. http://www.ramblr.com/web/main
Natural Born Hikers: This site was put together by a group of folks who just love to hike. They have covered a lot of ground in southern Utah and their trial descriptions and photos provide a great primer for folks coming into the area. http://www.naturalbornhikers.com/inde...
If you are seeking a guide to hike or backpack in southern Utah, fearful you might get turned around or not see all the amazing sites, there are handful to choose from - some of which provide all your gear, some that camp, others stay in lodging.
There are other on-line resources for hiking throughout the region. You should be able to find more through a simple web search using the key words hiking and including your destination of choice.
There are several items that you need to consider when hiking in the desert southwest (or anywhere else, for that matter). Many of those items have been mentioned already in this article, such as the weather and the elevation. In addition, there are the equipment requirements. First of all is a good pair of shoes. If you are just going to do short walks or hikes, you can get by with walking shoes or standard athletic shoes, just make sure they are comfortable. However, if you are going to be doing more serious hiking (longer trails with more elevation change or backcountry hiking) then a hiking shoe or boot is needed and you need some good quality socks. Whatever you decide to wear, make sure that they are broken in and comfortable. Do not just go buy a pair of boots and plan on taking a long hike in them straight out of the box. Wear you hiking footwear for a few weeks prior to your Utah adventures to make sure that you do not wreck your feet and therefore your vacation.
Other items to have with you with you are hiking:
Safety - Try to let someone know where you will be hiking and have a check-in… key is to be prepared; understand the trail, research the landmarks….
Permits – While most of the hiking trails are not restricted, there are some areas and trails that require a permit for access. Best bet is to check the website for the governing body for the area in which you plan to hike to see what is required, if anything, in terms of permits. Some of these permits are readily available and easy to obtain, but others, well, it is like winning the lottery, literally. One of the most sought after permits is for access to The Wave in North Coyote Buttes on the Utah-Arizona border between Kanab and Page. There are only 20 hikers per day allowed into this amazing, swirling set of sandstone formations. But it is one of the best day hikes in the Grand Circle. For more information, check the BLM website:
Biking. Opportunities for mountain biking in Southern Utah are plentiful. Although mountain biking is not allowed within the boundaries of the national parks except on roads and paved trails, a variety of trails can be found within close proximity to both Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park. And of course, Moab, Utah is a worldwide mecca for mountain biking, offering myriad trails ranging from beginner level to the most advanced levels of mountain biking.
Road cycling in Southern Utah is always possible due to the wide open highways, but the wide open highways also invite cars, RVs and tractor trailor rigs traveling at high speeds. Therefore, road cycling is only recommended for riders experienced in riding under these conditions.
Within Zion National Park, the main road into the canyon is a favorite for bike riders of all ages and skill levels. Riders will need to pull to the side of the road to let shuttle busses pass, but due to the mandatory use of the shuttle busses most months there are few cars to worry about. The round-trip distance from the visitor center to the Temple of Sinawava and back is 17 miles. But riders will want to take their time and stop at many of the points of interest. The shuttle buses have room for 2 bikes each, so if a rider gets tired it’s always possible to put the bike on a shuttle bus and ride the bus back to the visitor center.
Within 20 miles of Zion National Park, mountain biking favorites include:
Mountain biking favorites within 20 miles of Bryce Canyon National Park include:
Brian Head, Utah offers summertime mountain biking on numerous ski runs and other trails in the mountains. Choices include taking your bike on the ski lift up the mountain and riding downhill on trails that suit a variety of skill levels. Or, take a shuttle to Brian Head Peak and ride down the fun but sometimes technical trail called Bunker Creek. This is a one-way ride that ends up in Panguitch Lake and requires a pre-arranged shuttle to bring you back to Brianhead.
The mountain biking mecca of Moab, Utah offers so much in mountain biking, for detailed information on trails and bike shops, use the following links.
Fun on the water. Yes this is the desert southwest, but there are still options for water related activities. There are several rivers, including the mighty Colorado, that provide options for both smooth water and white water raft trips. And there is boating, kayaking, fishing, swimming and other activities available in the large, lake-based National Recreation Areas at Glen Canyon and Lake Mead. Again there are too many options to list them all, but here is a starting list:
The whole place is a scenic drive! In an area as large as the Grand Circle, you will be spending a fair amount of time in your car as you move from point-to-point. The good news is that around every turn and along just about every stretch of highway is something new and wonderful to see. So when it comes time to move from Point A to Point B, do not be in a rush; plan time into your trip to enjoy the journey as much as the destinations. Some of the scenic drives provide very special experiences, not only for the scenery, but sometimes for the road itself. Here are a few examples:
A guide book for scenic drives in the area is "Scenic Driving Utah" which is a Falcon Guide written by Joe Bensen.
Photography. There are so many beautiful vistas throughout southern Utah, many are in the parks, but just as many are just outside your car as you drive to your next destination. Sometime all you have to do to get a great shot is just get out of the car, close your eyes, spin around, point the camera and shoot…you’ll probably end up with an amazing image. Well, it might be a little blurry, but that’s what Photoshop is for. Ok, maybe it is not quite that simple, but close. The point is that there are wonderful photo opportunities throughout the desert southwest. And while you can get wonderful landscape shots just about any time of day, the best times at around sunrise and sunset, when the lighting is at its best and really brings out the amazing color in the fascinating rock formations.
A great guide of getting the iconic photos in southern Utah is “Photographing the Southwest: Volume 1 – Southern Utah” by Laurent Martres.
Horseback riding. There are many opportunities for horse or mule rides throughout the Grand Circle. The rides will range from an hour or two up to a full day. Many of the rides are focused in and around the National Parks, but there are possibilities for riding in many other places as well. Note that there are age restrictions and weight limits for most of these rides. The weight limit is usually 220 pounds for the half-day or shorter rides. Minimum age is 7 to 10 years old for these rides. Check with the outfitter for details. The list below is a sample of the places that offer equine adventures:
Bryce Canyon – The best option for a scenic ride in inside Bryce Canyon National Park, with either a 2-hour or a half-day ride down into the main amphitheatre. There is only one outfitter for the rides inside the park ( http://www.canyonrides.com/index.html). The rides into the main amphitheatre are a great way to see the hoodoos from below the rim.
There are also rides available near Bryce Canyon that cover the areas outside the Park. The Ruby’s complex just outside of Bryce Canyon offers trail rides in the surrounding countryside, including a ride through Willis Creek.
Zion - The same outfitter (Canyonrides) that manages the rides in Bryce Canyon also has rides inside Zion along the Sand Bench Trail.
Grand Canyon – There are mule riding opportunities along both the north and south rims of the Grand Canyon. Canyonrides (the same outfit that provides the rides inside Bryce Canyon and Zion) is the concessionaire for the north rim and offers a one-hour ride and two options for half-day rides.
Monument Valley -
There’s always something to learn. While the visual spectacle of the natural wonders is often the reason the people journey to the Grand Circle, there is still a lot that can be learned during a trip to the area. Obviously there is the geology of the region, but there is also the history of the people who called the area home during the past few thousand years. There are also some fascinating engineering marvels to explore. Here’s a list of some of the educational opportunities in southern Utah
Native American Ruins –These are scattered throughout the desertsouthwest. Remember to TREAT THEM WITH RESPECT! Do not disturb or deface the ruins, do not remove any artifacts and do not enter the ruins.
Early Settlers – Lee’s Ferry….Pipe Springs…
Engineering Marvels – There are some pretty amazing engineering feats on display within the Grand Circle. Both the Hoover Dam on the Nevada-Arizona border and the Glen Canyon Dam near Page, offer tours as well as amazing views. And both dams also have arch bridge spans used to bypass the dams. Both tours are worth taking.
Navajo Bridge: another piece of engineering history that also provides grand views into the Colorado River gorge.
Astronomy - And if you venture outside at night and look up you might get hooked on the celestial bodies. Bryce Canyon in particular is a great place for viewing the starry night sky, but just about any place with a clear field of vision will do. Check for the night hikes and astronomy programs at Bryce Canyon.
Junior Ranger program – Check at the Visitor Centers at each of the National Parks for details on the programs (or look at the National Parks Service website). These are wonderful ways to get the kids involved; fun and educational (parents: you can keep the education park a secret).
Shopping. There are souvenir shops scattered all around the Grand Circle. Along many of the main roads and scenic byways you will also see stands set up by the Native Americans to sell their handmade jewelry. You can often find some very nice pieces at these places as well as other Native American shops, such as those in Cameron, AZ.
Most of the National Parks (Zion, Bryce Canyon and Arches) have good size gift shops adjacent to or connecting the Visitor Center. These are fine places to pick of hats, sweatshirt, and assorted momentos of your excursion to each park. More importantly, these shops have books on the history of the area, the science of the parks and maps and guides for finding your away to the best parts of these national treasures.
For the “professional” shoppers, there are a few good areas to explore. Sedona, Moab and Springdale offer a variety of shops ranging from travel souveniers to fine art and jewelry, with all measure of places in between. Sedona in particular is worth spending some time just wondering through the art galleries. The photography galleries in Springdale, Moab, Sedona and elsewhere are especially noteworthy and are often the inspiration for tomorrow’s hike, so that you can try can capture that same image.
Fine Dining. Yes, that’s right, fine dining out here in the middle of nowhere. And not just in the entry cities of Las Vegas, Salt Lake or Phoenix; dining in the desert near the parks. The a good meal just adds to the overall experience of the region. There are many great places to eat throughout southern Utah and within the Grand Circle, ranging from good, quick eats to sit-down family dining and some outstanding upscale restaurants. The choices in cuisine are almost as varied as the landscapes, but many of the best have a southwest or western flare. There are way too many to list in this article (check the Trip Advisor reviews for the specific locations that you will be visiting), but here are a few to whet your appetite:
Café Diablo – Torrey
Hell’s Backbone- Boulder
Additional Reading and References. There is a ton of information about the Grand Circle and the things to see and do in southern Utah between guide books and the Internet. A separate traveler article has been created that lists many excellent references (mostly on the web but a few books as well). Check out the
Recommended Reading list.