My friend Jena M, from Kansas City, and I have created an annual National Parks road trip tradition. Our first year, we did the ultimate drive across 8 states in the Pacific Northwest. Last year, we drove to Banff National Park in Canada to Glacier and then Arches National Park. But this year we decided take it to the desert. We planned a 6 day road trip starting in Vegas and driving into Utah, Arizona, and Nevada!
Day 1 - Fly to Vegas, drive to St. George, Utah
My trek started with a 3.5 hour drive from Des Moines, Iowa to Kansas City, Missouri to meet up with Jena. From KC, we flew to Vegas. Our flight was delayed and we didn't arrive into Vegas until after 1 am, then still had to drive to St George, Utah.
It was stupid early (4am) when we finally arrived at Jena's grandma's house in St George. This was probably the hardest night of the trip, but everything was smooth sailing from there on out.
Day 2 - Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
I woke up in the morning to the smell of Jena’s grandma cooking us breakfast and the sound of the coffee maker and I knew it was going to be a great day. All of my grandparents have passed away, so it was nostalgic and heart warming to “visit Grandma!”
Grandma had us all fixed up for our first National Park. She had packed a cooler full of water, snacks, and even a highlighted map. Jena and I giggled at the thought of using an old school map to navigate, but we graciously packed it in the car and off we went to Bryce Canyon National Park.
Is it Mars or Utah? Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce Canyon is now one of my favorite parks, because the rock formations are OUT OF THIS WORLD. The little cone shaped rocks are called Hoodoos. Hoodoos are bulbous spires that delicately erode away from snow and rain, it feels like you're walking on Mars.
The inner lazy girl in me loved the fact that you can quickly drive through Bryce Canyon pull off and see different rocks and gorgeous views, extensive hiking is not required - just a cold ice tea and good tunes with the windows down.
Day 3 - Zion National Park, Utah & the Northern Rim of the Grand Canyon, Arizona
Zion has been on Jena and my travel list for a long time. On our road trip last year, we really wanted to go on a hike called “The Narrows,” but were tired and ready to make our way home. This year “The Narrows” was at the TOP of the list.
How to Hike The Narrows in Zion National Park
One of the most challenging and infamous hikes in Zion National Park is the The Narrows. Hiking 6 miles upstream and back through the Virgin River with thousand foot tall canyon walls on either side. This quintessential hike is a must, but to enjoy it you'll want to be prepared. Teva sandals and jean shorts won't cut it.
- Hike at least 2.5 miles upstream where the canyon splits for the most breathing views. We hiked 3 miles in before turning around. The trail goes up to 10 miles!
- Water shoes are essential. You are hiking in the water against the current on slippery and unstable rocks.
- Get there early! We got to Zion Friday at 6:30am to catch the shuttle. There were only a handful of people we ran into on the way in, on the way out the The Narrows was packed with inexperienced hikers.
- Dress warmly, you will get wet. It may be 104°F outside but deep inside the belly of the canyon it's mid to high 60s with gushing cold water.
- Bring a waterproof backpack. Jena was a water ninja hiking through the rocks, but I gracefully fell a couple times traversing the hike.
Another famous Zion hike is Angel's Landing, with thousand foot drops on either side - it's not for someone with a fear of heights. Jena's Grandma threatened we wouldn't have a place to sleep if did this hike. My mom was also greatly relieved!
The Next Rim, Grand Canyon
After conquering The Narrows, Jena and I grabbed lunch in a sunny spot to dry off and get warm. We decided we’d tackle another Zion site, then hit the road towards Arizona. Jena hadn’t seen the Grand Canyon yet, so we started driving towards the Northern Rim.
As we jammed out to one of our favorite bands, Rainbow Kitten Surprise, and drove through Utah into Arizona, we realized that neither of us had cell phone service! Luckily, Grandma had packed us the map and we were back in action just like Laverne and Shirley.
As we entered the Grand Canyon National Park, we saw a huge herd of buffalo in the meadow. Have you ever noticed that cows will lay down before it rains? I suppose buffalo do the same, because it rained as we were exiting the park. We stopped at a few sites and enjoyed the view from the restaurant patio and people watched.
On our way home we drove through the town of Colorado City. At the time, we noted how it was weird that many of the buildings were unfinished or windows were broken, but kept cruising along. Later we discovered it was home to three Mormon fundamentalist sects including the infamous felon Warren Jeffs - so glad we didn’t stop for coffee in Colorado City!
We used our trusty map to get us back to St. George in time for margaritas and Mexican food with Grandma, who showed us all the hip spots in good ole St. G.
Day 4 - Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada
We waved goodbye to Grandma and set our Google Maps to Vegas, with a pit stop in the Valley of Fire. Valley of Fire State Park is only 55 miles from Vegas making it an easy day trip. The state park has 50,000 acres of pristine desert, stunning rock formations, and petroglyphs. We even got a close up of a large ram walking casually down the road - don’t worry we were in the safety of our ball-busting Toyota Camry.
I was in a weird funk and Jena, being the wonderful friend that she is, helped cheer me up with Starbucks, a photoshoot in Valley of Fire and a visit to the first dispensary drive through in Vegas. This girl would take a nerf bullet for me.
Day 5 - Old Vegas, Fremont Street, Nevada
We stayed in Vegas with Jena’s friends who lived close to the strip and had insights into all the local hot spots. Dev, Jena, and I started our Sunday with pre-brunch mimosas, then took an Uber to the Downtown Container Park for bottomless brunch at Downtown Terrace. The Container Park is an eclectic open-air shopping center made out of containers that have been turned into different shops, stores and restaurants.
After an amazing brunch, we zig zagged through a few of the stores and art exhibits before going to Old Vegas. Fremont Street is laid back and bit more gritty in comparison to Las Vegas Boulevard. We enjoyed the people watching, bar hopping, and getting into the general list of Vegas debauchery.
Day 6 - Nelson Ghost Town, Nevada & The Mob Museum
On our last day before flying home, our hosts recommended we check out the ghost town of Nelson, which is only an hour outside of Vegas. The town which used to be home to the Techatticup gold mine (built by Civil War deserters). This isolated town rich in gold, silver and lead became notorious for disputes ending in bloodshed or murder. Since abandoned, it's now littered with antique rusted out cars, old road signs, and the ominous lettering which says "Don't be here after dark." The store clerk warned us of sleeping rattlesnakes, hospital inducing run-ins with cacti, and the spirits that haunt the gold mines.
After a few photos ops and avoiding being melted by the sun - both our Apple and Android phones turned off due to the desert heat, we hopped into the Toyota for her final journey. We made a pit stop at the Mob Museum and enjoyed a cocktail in their underground Speakeasy and Distillery, before heading back to the airport.
Jena was our trip visionary, my role is purely for entertainment and backup navigation purposes (so I can’t take credit for the planning). One of my entertainment factors was pointing out every time I saw the word “rim.” We saw a lot of rims.
Questions from Instagram
Special thanks to those that participate in our Instagram stories and questions. Here are your questions ANSWERED!
1. How do you travel on a budget?
Here are some ways we saved this road trip:
Buying a National Park Pass - $80 gives you access to all the National Parks for a year. Most National Parks have a $30 entrance fee
Staying with friends and family instead of a hotel or Airbnb
Booking a flight with points (thank you Southwest!)
Renting a car - we got a little Toyota Camry from Avis, though it wasn’t fancy, we got great gas mileage!
Stocking up - save money by getting water, food, snacks at the grocery store instead of the gas station
2. What’s your go to road trip album?
This trip it was Tearing at the Seams by Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats
3. What did you pack for your road trip?
Good hiking clothes
1 pair of hiking boots, 1 pair of sandals, 1 pair of tennis shoes, 1 pair of flip flops
1 nice going out dress
Comfy car and plane clothes
A book I never opened
Starbucks gift cards
4. Which Park was your favorite?
The “out of this world” feel from Bryce Canyon.
5. How do you decide where to travel to?
Luckily, Jena planned most of the stops on this trip. I’m a very visual and historical traveler, so I gravitate towards gorgeous photos and places that have significance from the past. Some of my favorite places for inspiration are Instagram and Atlas Obscura.