Visiting National Parks in the Western United States
In the summer of 2011 I was stopping one phase of my career and starting another. During the in between period, I knew we had at least 3-4 weeks to take a trip somewhere. The question was where? My dad and his family took a trip back in the late 50s out west along Route 66. His fond memories of that vacation inspired me to look to do something similar. The first decision we had in planning this trip was in what sites and places to see. We knew at a minimum we wanted to visit my wife’s parents in the San Joaquin Valley of California and the rest of her family in Phoenix Arizona. We’d also decided we wanted to visit as many national parks in the Western U.S. as possible during this trip.
Tip: When taking a long road trip anywhere, I like using Google Maps to select the origin, first stop, then add as many stops as you plan to make (up to the limit of the app). This is a great way to plan where to stay the night if going a long way and may help point out neat places to swing by for a few hours on your way to your next or final destination. Using the feature also gives good estimates of the distance and time between stops on your trip to plan how many hours and days you’ll be driving.
Our origin and final destination (image courtesy of Google Maps 2018)
Sites to See and Places to Go
Given that we were thinking 2-3 weeks of being on the road and in the middle of changing jobs, we wanted to keep the costs down as well. Our itinerary began to materialize to include visits to Yosemite National Park, Lake Tahoe, Yellowstone National Park, Arches National Park, and of course the Grand Canyon.
Our Western National Park Trip – 2011 Route (image courtesy of Google Maps 2018)
How to Get Around
This would take us to or by cities and towns that included: South Lake Tahoe, Idaho Falls Idaho, Jackson Hole Wyoming, Salt Lake City Utah, Moab Utah and of course Phoenix Arizona. First up was figuring out transportation for our trip. We considered renting a car, renting an RV, or driving our own car out west. Luckily, Nova’s parents were so gracious to let us borrow their mini-van for our trip. This saved us both time (in not driving out west) and money (in not renting a car or RV). It was a little older and had 90,000 miles on it, but it worked perfectly for our trip.
Tip: When planning your trip, consider time and money costs of the choices you make. A good idea is to first look at what you can afford in terms of both time and money. Driving your own car (or borrowing one) is normally cheaper than renting but costs you in time to drive to your destination. Flying from place to place may save time but can quickly get very expensive. Renting an RV may help you save on lodging but be sure to check the per mile cost as that can become expensive when traveling lost distances.
Where to Stay
Next was figuring out where to stay. For this I looked for moderately priced brand name hotels and motels (preferably those that served breakfast to keep our meal costs down) including Best Westerns, Holiday Inn Express, Hilton Garden Inn, and a Motel 6 in Jackson Hole (which can be a very pricey town). In Yellowstone we ‘splurged’ and booked a room in one of the lodges so we wouldn’t have to travel from a nearby town to the park each day.
Tip: If you’re planning a trip to a popular national park and want to stay at/in the park, plan as far ahead as possible as many parks lodging accommodations will be booked as far as a year out.
Food and Drink
In another post I talk about feeding the kiddos while on vacation. This trip was fairly easy for everyone to get what they wanted. We spent many evenings eating at whatever local brew pub was in the town we stayed in. This allowed the kids to get the usual chicken tenders or noodles, Nova had a nice variety of sandwiches and salads to choose from, and I was able to try numerous locally crafted beers.
Tip: My dad described their daily breakfast when on the road in the 50s was stopping at roadside picnic areas and his mom cooking eggs, an entire package of bacon and sharing a quart of milk. While bacon every morning sounds awesome…we opted for a lower maintenance approach to meals that included either sandwiches for lunch or breakfast of individual cereals and almond milk from the cooler alongside the road with some spectacular views
–Highlights of Our Trip–
Yosemite is a nature lovers dream. This wasn’t our first time to Yosemite, but we hit the usual waterfalls and prime attractions like El Capitan and Half-Dome. They are all wonderful sights and picture opportunities. I would highly recommend spending 2-3 days at or in the park to get in some hiking, see all the attractions and for adventurers consider climbing half-dome.
Tip: If you decide to not stay in the park’s accommodations, I’d suggest considering making your home base in Mariposa. Mariposa is a quaint little hill town with several local and brand name lodging choices. It also contains several well-reviewed restaurants to recharge after your days in the park.
Lake Tahoe is not only a favorite because it is where Nova and I were first married but it is due to its charm as a nexus of mountains, an alpine lake, casinos, and restaurants. In the winter it is a skier’s / snowboarder’s paradise and in the summer enjoying the lakes and the surrounding mountains is wonderful.
Our visit in the summer allowed us to spend time and on the lake, visit great spots along the including Emerald Bay and Vikingsholm, and some hiking in the surrounding areas. I’d also recommend checking out the casinos in South Lake Tahoe. They’re not a polished nor glamorous as what you’ll find in Las Vegas, but still worth checking out and feeding a few quarters in the slots or video poker machines, or spending some time saying ‘hit me’ at one of the blackjack tables.
Yellowstone is an out of this world experience. This supervolcano is a wonderland of geothermal features, wildlife, unreal landscapes, hiking, and fishing, boating and camping. Lodging can fill up fast, so reserve early. You can easily stay 5-7 days in the park and still not do or see everything.
South of Yellowstone are two great stops. First, is the Grand Teton National Park. These majestic giants rise from the Wyoming plain like a beautiful wall trying to pierce the sky are not to be missed. Second is Jackson Hole Wyoming. It makes a great base for visiting Yellowstone if you choose to not stay in the park and is a beautiful place to visit all on its own.
Moab/Arches National Park
Out of all the National Parks I visited, I think Arches National Park is in the top 4 or 5. I absolutely love desert landscapes and the sandstone arches and natural features within Arches are otherworldly. Some of the spots we enjoyed most were the Delicate Arch and the Windows Areas
Moab is your best bet for lodging if you’re not camping in the park. There are many good lodging choices and the Moab brewery was one of my favorite pints on the whole trip. While we didn’t get to see it during our visit, Canyonlands National Park also receives great reviews for vacationers.
I think it goes without saying, but if you ever have the opportunity you must see the Grand Canyon at least once. No words or pictures can describe or do justice to the awe of the views from the rims. There are also so many things to do here. From riding a mule down into the canyon to rafting down the Colorado River, to hiking, camping, and biking there is something for everyone.
It is amazing to see the colors change in the rocks depending on the time of day as sun and shadows make their way across the rocks. If you’re not staying in the park, while there are some lodging choices closer, I would recommend consider staying in Flagstaff, AZ. It’s a great town and at around 5000 ft. in elevation is usually nice and cool in summer and has a decent selection of hotels and restaurants to choose from.
I hope this helps you to think about making your own memories in visiting our wonderful National Parks. Enjoy and Safe Travels!