Growing up, my family loaded up in the family van and cross crossed the country. These trips with my parents, grandparents, and brother created some of my fondest memories and allowed me to see much of the beauty of America. We somehow never made it to Zion National Park. It remained one of my last “big” National Parks to see. When friends invited us to join them for a few days in Phoenix, my planning juices started flowing. Could I plan a trip to show my husband a real American road trip AND check a few things off my bucket list? You betcha!
EWR -> PHX
3 nights in Scottsdale, AZ
- Camelback Mountain
- Apache Trail, Goldfield Ghost Town, and the Dolly Steamboat dinner
- Montezuma Castle and Sedona
1 night in Grand Canyon Village, AZ
- Grand Canyon Sunrise/Sunset
- Grand Canyon Helicopter Tour
- Antelope Canyon
- Horseshoe Bend
1 night in Springdale, UT
- Zion National Park
- Hidden Canyon hike
- The Narrows
3 nights in Orderville, UT
- Ponderosa Ranch
- Observation Point
- Bryce Canyon National Park
3 nights in Las Vegas, NV
- Britney Concert
- Cirque du Soleil’s LOVE
- Downtown Las Vegas
- Hoover Dam
LAV -> EWR
Total Miles Driven: 1,085
I plan to do a whole post on how to plan a road trip, so I won’t cover those details here. On my How To Save Money While Traveling post, I mentioned my husband bought a packable cooler for a trip. This was the trip. Having a cooler meant we could bring snacks and beer with us along our various stops, keeping it a little more affordable. I couldn’t imagine road tripping without a cooler! We also brought refillable water bottles as well as our Camelbacks because we were going to be hiking a lot. All national parks have places to refill your water, and some actually ban plastic bottles so make sure to BYO.
Even though we traveled in late October, the desert is hot! Bring plenty of sunscreen and wear a hat. We went through a variety of climates from 90 degree blazing sun, to chilly nights in the low 50s! Layers are key when packing for a trip like this.
To save money, we bought and America the Beautiful national park annual pass. Good for the year, it granted us free admission to all the parks we visited on this trip for $80!
I usually talk about currency, language, and electricity in these posts. I feel like this is self-explanatory but U.S. dollar, English, and 110 volts with American style plugs, if you didn’t know.
Here is a google map I created with our end to end route with hotels if you want to follow along!
Stop 1: Scottsdale, AZ
Miles driven – 143 (includes round trip on Apache Trail)
We started our trip with a few days of R&R at the Hilton Squaw Peak resort. This lovely hotel offers several quiet pools and a water park on site. It was nice hanging out in the desert sun, sipping cold beers, and going for a float in the lazy river. The slide was pretty fun too!
While in Scottsdale we checked out old town and hiked Camelback mountain. Old Town is adorable! We had amazing tacos and Margaritas at Cien Agaves. I loved the restaurant’s laid back vibe, patio seating, and awesome murals. I love spicy food, so I was in food heaven for this trip. My friend who does not was largely able to get less spicy versions of things. We grabbed drinks at a bar overlooking the main drag for some prime people watching.
From the resort you could see the nearby Squaw mountains. We heeded their call and spent a morning climbing Camelback Mountain. Parking was one of the biggest challenges of this hike! This site was extremely helpful in planning for the hike. We thought by arriving at 9am we would beat the crowds but we were wrong. After circling a few times we got lucky and grabbed a spot within a mile from the trailhead. The hike was nice, although we found it more challenging than some of our fellow hikers! I’ll say it again but the sun and heat are no joke here. We each put down 2 liters of water while hiking and had more waiting in the car. The trail is also pretty exposed so we made a point to rest when we spotted any shade. We also brought bug spray which turned out to be clutch because the summit was swarming with some kind of flying nuisance. The hazy view was a bit disappointing but the overall hike was enjoyable, even if we got pretty sweaty.
We also took advantage of having a car and checked out the Apache trail, a scenic drive through the Superstition Mountains to Canyon Lake. It also meant we could hit up In-and-Out Burger for lunch, a must do whenever visiting the left coast, even if I have to order a grilled cheese off the not so secret menu. We stopped by Goldfield Ghost Town en route. It was relatively small and touristy, but we enjoyed touring the bordello. We only had about an hour before the town shut down, but that was enough time to check it out. Probably we could have used one more hour, but no more. From there we headed to the harbor to board the Dolly steamboat for dinner.
This dinner cruise around Canyon lake was a fun way to take in the sights and spot wildlife. Since we cruised at sunset, we got to take in the light on the superstition mountains, making for beautiful views. We saw big horn sheep and various birds of prey. The food wasn’t anything to write home about, but it was decent. Definitely, it was the atmosphere and scenery more than the food that made this outing worth it.
That wrapped up our time in Scottsdale. We enjoyed the R&R and prepared to load up and start road tripping the next morning.
Stop 2: Montezuma Castle and Sedona, AZ
Miles driven – 120
We headed out from Phoenix towards the Grand Canyon. We didn’t have anything planned for the day and wanted to enjoy the journey. I wanted to check out Montezuma Castle National Monument en route, about an hour and a half outside Phoenix. Our pass gave us free admission, and it was cool to see. A native American cliff dwelling, the well-preserved site was built sometime between 1100-1350. It’s a great pit stop en route to the Grand Canyon. The paths to take in the sites were a nice opportunity to stretch out legs before loading back up and heading to our next stop.
We stopped for lunch in Sedona. The views of the red rocks were stunning, and the downtown area offered lots of shops and restaurants. We walked around for a bit and stopped off at several scenic overlooks. I’m glad we took the detour for the scenic route, and definitely want to spend more time here on a future trip.
Stop 3: Grand Canyon National Park
Miles driven – 114
We arrived mid afternoon and headed to Mather Point for our first views of the canyon. Unfortunately, wild fires in California were causing a lot of haze, which is evident in our photos. Since it was late in the day, we hustled to Yavapai Point to park for sunset. My husband brought his tripod and camped out to take some beautiful photos (side note: the photos on this blog are often his). After the sun sank below the horizon, we headed back to the car and to our hotel. We stayed inside the park, which was great for us since we wanted to be up early for sunrise. The hotel we stayed in–Maswik Lodge–was very simple and didn’t have air conditioning. That didn’t matter for us, since nights were cool in October. We cracked some beers in the room then walked over to Bright Angel Lodge’s Harvey House for dinner.
The next morning we woke early and walked to the end of the street to meet the shuttle. We choose Hopi Point to view the sunrise based on various photography blogs recommendations. I particularly enjoyed this post from Finding the Universe for overall tips on shooting in the canyon. Staying in the park meant we beat the crowds in and got a prime spot to watch. My husband set up the tripod and I settled in with a water bottle full of coffee. I’ll take a moment to plug insulated stainless steel bottles. Great for keeping ice water cold and coffee hot!
It’s cliche, but watching the light make it above the canyon rim made me feel so small. Looking out over the grandeur of a canyon formed over millions of years made me very aware of my brief existence here. Even with the smoky haze from California wildfires, the view as the sun slowly started its day was stunning. After we had our fill of photos and views, we walked the rim trail for a mile or so towards the Abyss, where we caught the bus back to the village and on to our next adventure.
Grand Canyon Helicopter Tour
I will admit I was skeptical of spending over $200 for a 30 minute helicopter ride but my mom kept raving about it and gave us our Christmas gift early to offset part of the cost. We opted to fly with Papillon Tours based on my mom’s recommendation.
We checked out of our hotel and loaded up in the car, exiting the park to head to the heliport. After a mandatory safety briefing, we were assigned to a group and a pilot and loaded up. For me, the coolest part of the trip was flying over the edge. Even the pilot admitted it never got old. She obliged us by reading out our altitude and distance to the ground, dropping to over 6,000 feet above ground level from around 1,000 as we glided over the edge. I hadn’t realized how big the Kaibab National Forest is until we flew over it.
The views of the canyon were truly stunning. From the air, the sheer size and scope of the canyon is easier to take in, and all the more magnificent as a result. The helicopter made a giant U over the canyon, offering views from both sides. All in all it was very cool and I’m glad we got to do it, but if money is tight, I didn’t think this was the most amazing thing ever. My mom and husband disagree and this it was the best thing ever, so to each his own.
After buying the token souvenir photo, we returned to our car and headed back into the park.
Stop 4: Antelope Canyon
Miles driven – 136
We re-entered the park on Rt 64 to head towards Page, AZ for our next stop. Sadly, poor planning meant we ran out of time to tour the desert watchtower on the eastern edge of the park. We did stop for photos Navajo Point to at least see the watchtower. We also ran out of time for lunch, so it was a good thing I had granola bars with us to hold us over!
We were in a rush to make it to our 2:30 pm tour of Antelope Canyon. We had to check in by 1:45pm or risk losing our spot. Touring this slot canyon was a long time bucket list item for me and I wasn’t about to miss it! We made it with time to spare. We booked with Adventurous Antelope Canyon Tours based on this guide to booking a tour. It’s more complicated than you would think, and you can only access the canyon on a tour because the canyon is within Navajo land. Side note on that: Arizona does not participate in daylight savings time. However, Navajo Nation does. I was having a meltdown because our clocks kept jumping back and forth an hour as we crossed in and out of Navajo territory. I finally called our tour group to ask what time it was at their location (AZ time). Something to keep in mind if you are traveling in the summer hours.
Our tour began with a Navajo ring dance by one of our guides. It was nice to learn a little about the history of the dance and a little about the tribe’s culture. After that we loaded up into old military trucks to drive the couple of miles to the park entrance. After passing through the gate, we went off-road for about a mile to the canyon entrance.
Entering the canyon was like entering another world. The color on the walls swirls around you and you pass from dark to light as you round the bends. Our guide was very knowledgeable and gave great tips for taking the best photos in the canyon. The canyon (and slot canyons in general) are formed as rain waters erode through the soft sandstone in the area. This also means the canyons are closed when rain is in the forecast, as flash floods spell death as the canyons fill with water. After walking all the way through the canyon, we turned back to truck. Our guide made it very clear that the walk back was an express route, so we took all the photos we wanted on the walk through the first time.
Make sure to wear comfortable closed toed shoes. The canyon is very sandy. Also bring water since its dusty and hot on the drive.
Stop 5: Horseshoe Bend
Miles driven – 9
From our canyon tour, we loaded up in the car, hit up Jack In the Box for more regional fast food, then drove the short distance to Horseshoe Bend. I hadn’t done a lot of research on this, thinking we would park, walk over to the scenic viewpoint and call it a day. Little did I know it’s actually a semi-strenuous hike up a sandy hill then a good half mile walk to the rim. Luckily, we headed the warning on the signs in the parking lot, threw on our hiking shoes, and grabbed our water bottles. As it nearly always is, the trek was worth it. Horseshoe Bend is such a cool viewpoint of a near perfect U bend in the Colorado River. It’s tricky to capture the whole bend in a photo though, given the angle of the viewpoint. It’s also a bit scary, with no guard rails around the edges! When we were there, construction was ongoing to expand parking and put in a handicapped accessible trail to an improved viewing platform. It was supposed to open in 2018, but I can’t find any confirmation that it did.
After enjoying the view, we headed back to the car. The drive to Utah was spectacular. Sunset lit up the walls of the canyons surrounding Lake Powell as we headed northwest out of Arizona.
Stop 6: Zion National Park
Miles driven – 144
Somehow, in my years of road tripping with my family, we never made it to Zion National Park. So I was super pumped to check this one off the list, and was happy to have my favorite hiking buddy with me for the trip. While researching where to stay, I fell in love with Zion Ponderosa Ranch Resort. We booked three nights in the resort before I laid out all our driving directions. Upon doing this, I realized the ranch is on the opposite side of the park as the main entrance. So, we changed up our plan to spend the night in Page and opted to head straight to Springdale, just south of the park’s entrance so we could knock out the main canyon on day one, before heading to the ranch. I knew route 9 going to Springdale went through the park, but I didn’t realize how crazy the drive would be at night! Zion participates in the dark skies community initiative, meaning it was pitch black, and since we hadn’t gone through the park before, we didn’t realize how many turns and tunnels we would be facing to get down to the canyon floor. We made it though, and grabbed a nice late dinner at Oscar’s Cafe on the recommendation of our hotel staff.
Staying in Springdale for one night worked out well, but also meant we had to rethink our hiking plans for the park since we would likely only have one day in the canyon. After much research, including great posts like this, we opted to focus on hiking the Narrows, since it is such a unique hike. That meant we gave up our plan to hike Angels Landing. As a consolation, we also did the Hidden Canyon trail, to get a taste of the crazy edge hiking Zion offers.
We started the day early to ensure a parking spot at the visitor’s center lot. We could have caught the town shuttle from our hotel and connected to the park shuttle, but we were driving out to the ranch at the end of the day, so it was easier to bring the car into the park. Zion no longer allows private cars into the canyon during peak season, requiring all visitor’s to use the free shuttle service. We were always able to get a seat, and never waited more than 15 minutes for a ride. It also made one-way hiking a breeze! Our first stop was shuttle stop 4 – the Court of the Patriarchs. A short paved path took us from the bus stop to the viewing platform, where we took in the stunning view and learned a little about the park. We jumped back on the bus and headed to the next stop – Zion Lodge. Since this is the only place selling food inside the park, we took the opportunity to grab sandwiches for later and use the bathrooms before heading to the trailhead for the Lower Emerald Pool trail. I loved the views on this easy hike, especially from behind the waterfall, and the fall colors were delightful. From there, we connected to the Kayenta trail, which took us to shuttle stop 6. I looked a little longingly at the folks heading off to climb Angel’s Landing, then boarded the bus to stop 7 – Weeping Rock. Since we were doing well on time, we decided to hike the Hidden Canyon trail.
The strenuous trail starts up the same path as Observation Point trail, splitting to the right to wrap around the canyon wall. With narrow edges and chains to hang on to, this hike isn’t for those with any fear of heights. That said, I hear it’s a little wider than the trail to Angel’s Landing, and it was definitely less crowded. We had to do a little bit of climbing to get up and over some rocks and trees across the trail, but persevered to find the natural stone arch. All in all, this was a pleasant hike, and was definitely different from anything we see back East!
After hiking down, we popped by the Weeping Rock then headed back to the bus for our final stop: the Narrows! We stopped to eat our sandwiches along the river, enjoying the views while resting up for what lay ahead. Since the trail is an out and back, we planned the day to do the narrows last, so we would know how much time we had left before we needed to head out. We had about 4 hours left before catching a bus, so that gave us 2 hours to see how far we could go. We stopped off at the last bench before the river trail to change our shoes and get on cold water gear. We sprang for neoprene socks, but didn’t get the waterproof pants because it wasn’t terribly cold in early October. I wore my hiking boots which are waterproof, my husband wore water shoes. He was probably smarter, since it took my boots two days to dry out!
The narrows is a trail that runs in and beside the Virgin river, going into the canyons carved by the river. It’s a unique experience, walking up the riverbed. Most of the time, you are in ankle-deep water, but we definitely hit knee-deep water here and there. The scenery is amazing, and it’s definitely worth it. But it’s certainly a hike you need to be prepared for. Hiking pools kept us upright in the current, and having the right equipment meant we weren’t freezing when we came out. After our time in the narrows, we changed out of wet shoes and socks, and put on sandals before catching the bus back to the visitors center to collect our car.
We stopped off at the Canyon Overlook trail for a sunset hike. We almost missed the parking lot for the trail head, it comes up fast! The hike is a fairly easy one, and the views are spectacular, especially for sunset. It also seems like a very popular spot for wedding photos. We saw several brides and grooms doing photoshoots (though it looked like a post wedding thing). After watching the sun sink beyond the canyon walls, we hiked down in the twilight light, and loaded back up to head to the ranch.
Finding the Zion Ponderosa Ranch Resort in the pitch black was a bit of an adventure. We carefully followed a combination of directions from the resort and google maps, and eventually found it, with only one or two u turns. We booked a cabin and were very satisfied with the accommodations, plus it came with free breakfast! The cabin had a private bedroom and small kitchen and living area. The bathroom was one of the more luxurious we had on this trip, which was a pleasant surprise! We were pretty exhausted from hiking all day, so we went for dinner at the on site restaurant, Ray’s Restaurant. This is where we learned about Utah’s odd liquor licensing rules. Depending on if you are licensed as a bar or not, you may only be able to order alcohol if you are eating. This meant we could get beers with dinner, but couldn’t just hang out at Ray’s. That was ok though because our cabin had a nice front porch and fire pit (although I don’t think we ever bothered to light it). The food was quite good at Ray’s and we ended up eating there a lot!
Stop 7: Bryce Canyon National Park
Miles driven – 150 (round trip)
The next morning, we headed out to Bryce Canyon National Park. Another bucket list park for me, we took advantage of its close proximity to Zion and spent a day at the park. Since we only had a day, we didn’t get to do any real hiking, but enjoyed the scenic drive through the park. We did the full 18 miles, going all the way out to Yovimpa Point. The various viewpoints offered such diverse scenery I highly recommend doing the full scenic drive and not just the main amphitheater section. Another word of advice – there’s little food options inside the park. Poor planning meant we were once again eating granola bars for lunch! We spent about 5 hours in the park, and cut the end of the day a little short to get food. We stopped off at Ruby’s Inn to grab food. It was ok, and I wish we had planned better and brought a picnic lunch with us.
After eating, we headed back to the ranch for a low-key night. After beers at the cabin, we grabbed a light dinner at Ray’s then took the tripod over to the water tower to enjoy the stars. Since Zion is a dark stars community, you can see a myriad of stars, including the milky way. My husband experimented with his camera to figure out how to take pictures of the stars. I think the results were pretty good!
Stop 8: A Day At the Ranch
Miles drive – 0
The main reason we picked the ranch was for all of the activities offered. I found the ranch because it’s the starting point for the sneakiest way to hike to observation point. The East Mesa trail, which starts about at the edge of the ranch’s property, takes you a few miles across flat land, then down to observation point, saving the miles of switchbacks and 2,300 foot elevation change. Even staying at the ranch, the trailhead was a bit of a search. I relied on blog posts like this one to find it. The hike was an easy one, and absolutely worth it for the view. It was also kind of nice to walk through the woods and get sneaky peeks at the gorgeous scenery Zion offers. When we got to Observation Point, we felt a little guilty surrounded by folks that had just hiked up from the canyon floor, but it was an easy alternative for sure.
After returning to the ranch, we decided to partake in some activities, signing up to take out the 4-wheelers. While my family would probably be appalled I spent $65 to take out my dad’s old 4-wheeler for 2 hours, we had an absolute blast. Our guide was amazed at our ability to actually drive the 4-wheelers, so we got to cover a lot more terrain than normal. We were supposed to stay in 3rd gear, but I had a great time disobeying that guidance, even though I nearly rolled the bike on a surprise hairpin turn! Zion Ponderosa Ranch owns some 4,000 acres of land bordering Zion. We rode past some cool canyons and a haunted house. The ranch offers other activities we didn’t get to do like skeet shooting, rock climbing, canyoneering, and more. I’d love to go back and spend a week at the ranch! After turning our bikes in, we headed over to the pool for a swim. The great part of being at the ranch is you can use their bathhouse and all facilities after you checkout. Even in October, the pool was slightly heated and the hot tubs and slides were great. After grabbing showers and putting on clean clothes, we headed out with the sunset towards our final destination.
Stop 9: Las Vegas, NV
Miles driven – 189
The Las Vegas strip is slightly jarring after a week in the wild. But, the Vegas strip is unlike anything else in the world. We opted to stay at Bally’s, since it offered a nice compromise on location and price. We sprang for a premium room with a view of the Bellagio fountains across the street. To me, this was absolutely worth it, and I spent most of the time we were in the rooms watching the show across the street. It was my husband’s first time, and even though it was my 4th or 5th time, I couldn’t get over how much had changed since my last visit. I guess that’s just Vegas.
New to me was the area around the Linq. The promenade area is a few blocks of outdoor dining, bars, and entertainment venues include the High Roller observation wheel. I loved being out of the casinos and in the fresh air. Also, people watching in Vegas is top-notch, especially given it was Halloween weekend!
Randomly, my sister-in-law was in town for a work conference. We met up with her and a friend for dinner and a show. Living all my teenage dreams, we grabbed tickets for Britney. Dinner at Beauty and Essex in the Cosmopolitan was lovely. The food was great and the atmosphere better. I highly recommend it. Britney was everything I hoped it would be. She keeps crushing it, even if she probably lip sings the entire time. She looks fabulous, dances her butt off, and has a stunning set. Seriously, see Britney.
We also took in a Cirque show while in town. Since I’m a huge Beatles fan, I’ve wanted to see Love every time I had visited Vegas in the past but for various reasons had never been able to see it. My Husband is a hero, and let me pick this show in addition to Britney.
Love was absolutely incredible. The soundtrack, the acrobatics, and the audience involvement were amazing. I’ve seen three Cirque shows and this was by far my favorite. That said, you have to like the Beatles to like this one, since the entire show is built around Beatles’ songs.
Since it was our anniversary, we decided to do a nice dinner in old Vegas. I personally love downtown Las Vegas. It’s less hectic than the strip, and is far more low-key. If it hadn’t been my husband’s first time to Vegas, I would have stayed in downtown. After taking in the Freehold Street Experience light show, we headed up to the Top of Binion’s steakhouse for dinner. If you want an old school Vegas experience with an amazing view, you should go too. The service was top-notch and the entire experience was wonderful. The food wasn’t the greatest I’ve ever had, but it was certainly better than average. Overall though, it was a wonderful evening, and they even comped our dessert to celebrate our anniversary!
Bonus stop: the Hoover Dam
Miles driven – 80 (round trip)
Since we had a rental car, we decided to drive out to see the Hoover Dam. We were hoping we could do the Power Plant tour, but it wasn’t offered when we went so we did the Dam Tour. This was one of the cooler nerdy things I’ve toured for sure! The tour starts in the visitors with a video about the dams construction. From there, you descend 530 into the canyon and into the power plant. The guides talk about the construction and how the plant functions. This hydroelectric power plant produces 4-billion kilowatts of power each year, providing electricity for 1.3 million people in California, Nevada, and Arizona. The project paid for itself and continues to do so. There are several viewpoints on the tour including the spillways and main view-point of the dam. The tour ends in the visitors center that has various exhibits on the construction and operations, and some cool interactivity exhibits on how electricity works. Overall, we both thought this was a cool site to see and definitely worth the visit, if you are into such things.
On the way back, we stopped to take photos of the Welcome to Las Vegas sign. Sadly, the shooting at the Route 91 music festival took place a few weeks prior to our trip. 59 people died in a matter of minutes. Memorials surrounded the sign. Particularly moving was the line of crosses, representing every life lost. I don’t want to politicize this blog, but looking at those crosses, I struggled to understand those who fight against sensible gun control.
After paying our respects we headed back to our hotel for our last night in Vegas. And with that, our Southwest road trip ended. I loved the variety of scenery and activities, and I loved Zion. My husband enjoyed the slot canyons and the Hoover Dam, especially since he’s an engineer.
What I would have done differently:
I loved every part of this trip, but if we weren’t meeting friends in Scottsdale, I probably would have skipped it, or only stayed one night. That would have given us extra time at the Grand Canyon and/or Zion. I also would have liked to squeeze in a night at Bryce so we could have done some hiking there. Finally, I absolutely loved the Ponderosa Ranch, but I didn’t realize when I booked it that it’s on the opposite side of the park from the entrance and it’s a solid 30-40 minute drive to get to the main part of the park. If I’d know that, I probably would have stayed an extra night in Springdale and one night less at the ranch.
What I’ll check out next time:
There’s so much in the area we didn’t have time to do! In Arizona, I want to go to Monument valley, petrified forest, and Saguaro national park.
Both my husband and I want to go back to Sedona for a longer stay. I want to go back to the Grand Canyon and finally make it to the desert watchtower. In Page, Lake Powell looks awesome, especially since you can rent houseboats and spend time on the lake.
I would love to do the drive from Page to Zion again in the daylight, stopping to take in the Hoodoo Toadstool Trail. And Angels Landing is still waiting for me to climb it. Next time, there’s always a next time…