In March 2017, we took a family road trip from Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon, Antelope Canyon, Zion National Park and back again. We saw a lot, hiked even more, and brought home some great memories of the American Southwest. Here’s how we did it.
Day 1 – Fly to Las Vegas
First things first… if you want to see the Grand Canyon, you’ve basically got two airport choices: Phoenix or Las Vegas. The drive is a little shorter from Phoenix, but we chose Vegas because we wanted to do a round-trip that included Hoover Dam and Zion National Park, and Vegas just made more sense.
Even if you’re not into gambling, crowds, and smoky casinos, it can be fun to take a stroll down the Las Vegas Strip. On the front-end of this trip, we stayed at Treasure Island, which is a little further north on the Strip and put us closer to things like the Mirage’s volcano show and the Bellagio’s musical fountains. We only had a few hours to walk around this first night, and that was enough to see both of those plus a few other kid-friendly highlights like the Venetian’s Grand Canal and the flamingo habitat at the Flamingo.
Day 2 – Drive to Grand Canyon National Park
Today, we set out in our little rental car on the 4-hour journey to the Grand Canyon. The drive is fairly unremarkable. Even Hoover Dam isn’t visible when you’re on the right hand side of the tall bridge that spans the Colorado River. We made good time, though, and managed to get ourselves to Grand Canyon Village by midafternoon. We checked into the Maswik Lodge, which is your basic, budget National Park offering of a motel-style room with two beds, a bathroom, a small fridge, and a coffee maker. It was a fine place to stay and close to the Maswik Food Court, which we patronized every night for dinner and lots of frozen yogurt.
We made our reservation here about 10 months in advance, since the Grand Canyon is a popular place and lodging fills up fast.
With daylight to burn, we threw on some hiking clothes, grabbed our water bottles, and headed down to the nearest shuttle bus stop for a ride up Hermits Road. The bus makes nine stops at various rim viewpoints along the road. We decided to get out at the Abyss overlook where the paths are unpaved and the crowds are thinner. From here, it took about 1.5 hours to hike to Hopi Point (about midway from our starting location), just in time for a dazzling sunset behind the canyon rim, made even better when we turned around to see an equally spectacular moonrise on the other side. It was, of course, dark at this point, so we hopped back on the bus to the Village Route Transfer and walked over to the Maswik Food Court for dinner.
Day 3 – Explore the South Rim of the Grand Canyon
First full day at the Grand Canyon, and we packed a picnic lunch and drove to the far eastern end of the South Rim to see the Desert View Watchtower, a beautiful “ancient” ruin of a building that’s really less than 100 years old. Made to look like an Anasazi lookout, it sits right on the edge and offers panoramic views of the canyon from inside and out. We spent a good hour here, wandering around and taking pictures.
Heading back toward Grand Canyon Village, signs for the Tusayan Ruin caught our attention, so we pulled in to take a look at the 800-year-old Pueblo Indian site. The wooded area contains the remains of a living area, storage rooms, and a kiva. There’s also a small museum. Both can be toured in about 30 minutes. Ranger-led tours are available seasonally.
From here, we retraced our route back toward the Visitor Center, stopping for lunch and snowballs at the Buggeln picnic area. (Yes, that’s spelled right. Don’t ask us how to pronounce it.)
While there is a general store in Grand Canyon Village, to save money and time, we loaded up on finger food at a Walmart in Kingman on our drive over the day before.
Intending to park at the Visitor Center – only to discover that it’s really full by early afternoon, even in March – we kept going and parked instead a little further west at Yavapai Point and Geology Museum. This is a nice overlook (as well as a great place to stay hydrated!), and the museum has a number of exhibits about rock formation and the history of the park.
After a midday sightseeing break, we walked from the Maswik Lodge down to the plaza area by the head of the Bright Angel Trail. Having visited the Grand Canyon before, we decided not to hike the trail this time around. It is, however, considered the park’s premier hiking trail since it’s well maintained and graded (for the mules), with regular water filling stations, covered rest houses, and a ranger station at the halfway point.
Instead, we meandered through The Lookout observation station and gift shop, and the nearby Kolb Studio which displays the early 20th Century photography and cinematography of the canyon by the Kolb Brothers.
In case you don’t already know, it is NOT possible to safely hike to the bottom of the canyon and back in one day. There are signs posted around the park discouraging people from even trying. They routinely have to airlift hikers from the canyon floor; incidentally, most of them are young, fit males. There just aren’t enough hours in the day (4-6 down; 6-10 up), and it’s often not possible to carry enough water with you, especially if you’re on a primitive trail. If you want to go to the bottom, you have to book a mule trek, a rafting trip, or go on foot, but only if you have prior reservations either at the Phantom Ranch at the bottom or a designated campground. It’s a two-day affair either way.
For tonight’s sunset, we tried Mather Point, a very popular spot near the Visitor Center that’s much easier to get to in the evenings when the parking lot has emptied and many of the day-trippers have gone home. There are two fenced-in lookout points that offer nice spots to see the sun light up the canyon walls before disappearing for the day.
Day 4 – Drive to Antelope Canyon and Zion National Park
Today, we left Grand Canyon Village around 9 a.m. so we could be in Page, Arizona by lunch time. We drove east, taking the same route we had the previous morning to the Watchtower. The drive to Page was about 2.5 hours, and we had plenty of time to eat lunch and check in with the folks at antelopecanyontours.com. They’re easy to locate on the corner of a strip center, right next to a Pizza Hut. We boarded the trucks around 1:30 p.m. and returned by 3:00 p.m. Walking through the amazing Antelope Canyon was the surprise highlight of our trip. To read more about the tour and the best way to get great photographs, see our post here.
The next leg of the day was the afternoon drive to Zion National Park near Springdale, Utah. It took another 2.25 hours, with the added bonus of skirting the interesting rock plateaus along the western edge of Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument on Highway 89. Coming from this direction, we drove through the park’s east entrance, a road riddled with switchbacks, a 1.1 mile tunnel, and an unparalleled view of the canyon walls rising above us. Being early evening, we were even lucky to see some Bighorn Sheep foraging on the hillsides.
Eventually, the road curved left, taking us through the south entrance and into the charming little town of Springdale. There are many places to stay, eat, and shop here. We chose the Quality Inn and Suites Montclair, which was a really fantastic budget hotel.
Day 5 – Explore Zion National Park
This morning, we had a continental breakfast, stopped for lunch supplies, and found a parking spot at the Visitor Center, all before 10 a.m. when the masses usually start arriving. From here, we boarded a shuttle bus for the ride up to the last stop, the Temple of Sinawava and the Riverside Walk, an easy hike along a paved path by the Virgin River.
To manage traffic and preserve the tranquility of the park, Zion operates a fleet of shuttle buses that make the run from the northern end of the canyon down into Springdale from mid-March through late November. Cars aren’t allowed in the park past Canyon Junction, unless you’re staying at Zion Lodge. The buses are very efficient and come by every 7-10 minutes.
Back on the bus, and time to have lunch at the Grotto picnic area, followed by a short walk on the Grotto Trail that connects to Zion Lodge, a beautiful facility in the middle of a cottonwood grove, and the only place to stay in the park.
Next up, a shuttle to the Human History Museum (pictured above is the view out the back), which is only a half mile from the south entrance and displays permanent exhibits of American Indian culture, pioneer settlement, and how Zion National Park came to be. They also have a video and ranger programs.
It was now late afternoon, so we headed back to Springdale for an early dinner that would give us time to get on the Pa’rus Trail before sunset. This is a pretty, flat, paved trail on the southern end of the park that meanders over and beside the Virgin River. You can even drive to it and park in the pull-outs. There are several bridges that are particularly popular in the evening with photographers trying to get the best shot of the canyon.
Day 6 – Explore Zion National Park Some More
Today started early with a 6:30 a.m. wake up call, so we could get to the Canyon Overlook by sunrise. The trail to the overlook begins at the eastern mouth of the tunnel by a small parking lot. At 7:00 a.m. in the morning, it was empty, so this is clearly the time to go. This trail is sometimes called the “best bang for the buck in Zion” because it contains a little bit of everything the park has to offer. We didn’t find the hike too strenuous, although it is dusty and rocky, with a few sheer (and fenced) drop-offs. It took us about 20-30 minutes to hike to the overlook where it was windy and cold, but also quiet and serene as the sun’s rays slowly moved over the canyon’s Streaked Wall.
Since it was still morning and reasonably cool, we opted next for the hike to the Upper Emerald Pools. To get there, we had to ditch the car, once again, at the Visitor Center and get a bus to the Kayenta Trail, which begins across from the Grotto picnic area. The trail is mostly uphill, stopping first at a small, brackish pond before continuing on to the Upper Emerald Pools. The second part of the hike was definitely more strenuous (even more rocky and uphill – ugh!), but the payoff was big.
The Upper Emerald Pools are at the base of an imposing rock wall with a long, thin waterfall. The boulder-strewn area is a beautiful location to rest, picnic, climb, contemplate, or just dip your tired toes in the cold water.
Lots of downhill walking and an hour or so later found us back at our starting point… tired, thirsty, and hangry! Since we didn’t have any food with us, we decided to eat at the nearby Zion Lodge. The offerings are pretty basic, but the outdoor seating area looks onto a vast, grassy lawn surrounding a massive cottonwood tree. In nice weather, it’s a relaxing place to snooze and play Frisbee. We did both.
The last stop of our day turned out to be one of our favorites. Weeping Rock is an unusual formation where water seeps horizontally out of the stone. In places, the water sprays out as a mist; in others, it tumbles over you like a waterfall. It can even change while you’re standing there. The path is paved, but very steep.
Day 7 – Drive to Hoover Dam, Overnight in Las Vegas
Today, we were in no real hurry to leave Zion and get to Hoover Dam. The last tour of the day is at 3:30 p.m., however, we knew from their website that the elevator was broken, so there would be no tour for us today. We also would gain an hour crossing into Nevada, so that allowed us to pace ourselves getting back to Vegas. Which is why we took the scenic route through the Lake Mead Recreational Area, a much prettier drive than the highway. We recommend it! (Our National Parks Pass covered the $20 entrance fee.)
Arriving at Hoover Dam, we skipped the parking lot for the overlook (which is off to the right), instead continuing on to the parking garage which is much closer to the dam itself. We took the elevator down, stopped at the Hoover Dam Cafe for lunch, then walked over to the Visitor Center. There, they funnel you through security, into a theater for a short movie, and finally up to the observation deck for a wide angle view of the dam in person. Afterward, visitors have the option to walk out onto the dam for a lake view on one side, a wall of concrete on the other. Cars can still drive across the dam, although most traffic is now rerouted to the newer bridge on I-93.
After a few hours at the dam, it was one last push to the pyramid-shaped Luxor Hotel for the last night of our vacation. As on our first night, we only had the time and energy for a walk through the castle-themed Excaliber and a fast ride on the Big Apple Coaster at New York-New York.
Day 8 – Fly Home
The next morning came way too soon for our early flight home. The Luxor, however, was a good choice since it’s situated at the southern extreme of the Strip and very close to the airport.
And so ended our southwestern road trip. We packed a lot in like we always do, making the most of the short time we had.