|Parks: 5||Miles: 1,005||Days: 12||Hours: 18|
This trip from the Grand Canyon to the Rockies, is very similar to another one we did, but this one visits Mesa Verde National Park instead of Arches.
We also make a quick stop in the Navajo Reservation to visit the unique spot where you can stand on the corner of four states at once. Four Corners Monument is managed by the Navajo Nation, and is only a few minutes off the route.
This trip, like most of ours, can be reversed with you flying into Denver, then out of Phoenix. Nothing really will change logistics-wise. In fact, it would make sense to do some research with your airlines to see if one direction might be cheaper. We have found this to be the case almost every time… one direction is slightly cheaper than the other – for no real apparent reason either.
Also, please schedule your rental vehicle ahead of time. Plan to pick it up at your arriving airport, then dropping it off right before your final departure. If you try to rent a car as soon as you land as opposed to ahead of time, you may be in for a surprise. Many times, rental car companies will either have no cars left, or very limited options. Save yourself the trouble, and schedule it when you book your flights.
Flying into Phoenix International Airport was an easy decision. We decided to grab a cheap hotel for the night after we landed, so we could get a full day of exploring on our way north the next day.
The next location is 225 miles away (~3.5 hours).
The next morning, head north through Flagstaff, AZ to the Grand Canyon’s South Rim. An optional stop in Sedona, AZ adds less than an hour to your trip, but will take you through what I consider as one of the most beautiful cities in the country.
Grand Canyon National Park, South Rim
Grand Canyon, AZ
There are two main visitation areas of the Grand Canyon National Park. The park is most commonly accessed via the South Rim, which is open year-round, and the North Rim shuts down in the winter months. The South Rim also has much more attractions and trails.
Unfortunately, you don’t get a great view of the Canyon on your way towards the South Rim, but you can tell something majestic is right in front of you as you pull into the parking lot.
We stayed in the Bright Angel Cabins, and would not have changed it if given the opportunity to do it again. While these cabins are a bit rustic – no TV or A/C – most of the cabins are right on the Canyon’s rim.
If you want a slightly more amenity-filled stay, consider the Bright Angel Lodge or the El Tovar Hotel. All the in-park lodging are managed by the same company and booking a night or two is extremely easy.
We would suggest not staying out of the park. With so much to do, having to drive from Williams (the closest “large” town, would suck up too much time.
Besides watching the sunrise, the sunset and gazing at the stars in the darkest sky you’ve ever seen, there are a lot of attractions you should visit during your time at the Grand Canyon.
You will always find yourself walking along the South Rim Trail, which is extremely easy and does not have any major elevation changes. It is paved, and acts more like a boardwalk in places than an actual trail. If you want to go into the canyon a bit, we recommend taking the well-traveled Bright Angel Trail. It is extremely important to be prepared on this trail! It’s steep, and hiking down is the easy part and will easily take twice the effort to turn around and hike back out. We only hiked down for about 20 minutes, and we were into the canyon quite a bit – you really don’t have to go far to get a sense for how deep this canyon is.
You must also visit the Yavapai Point Museum, Moran Point, and the Oh Aah Point at the start of the South Kaibab Trail. All of these spots offer incredible views, but will also have tons of traffic during the busy season.
The best thing about staying within the Park’s lodging is that once the crowds disperse for the day, you basically have the park to yourself. The early morning and late evening walks were our most favorite parts of our time here.
The next location is 245 miles away (~4 hours).
The drive from the Grand Canyon to Mesa Verde will take you through the Navajo reservation, and passed the Four Corners Monument. At this spot you can stand on corners of four different states, all at once. This drive spot will be the perfect place to get out and stretch your legs during the 4 hour drive.
Four Corners Monument
Teec Nos Pos, AZ
The Four Corners Monument is the only place where four states meet, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah. This unique spot is located on the Navajo Nation Reservation, and is managed by the Navajo Tribal Parks.
The cost is $5 per person, per day, and tickets can be made upon arrival. During the summer busy months, be prepared for long wait times, and scorching weather.
Mesa Verde National Park
The main draw of the Mesa Verde National Park is its over 600 multi-story cliff dwellings created by the Pueblo Indians some 600 years ago.
Pickup a vacation rental from VRBO or Airbnb in the nearby town of Cortez, CO. If you’d like to stay within the park, Far View Lodge is your only option.
Thee of the largest houses: Balcony House, Cliff Palace and Long House are structures that can only be viewed with a ranger-guided tour. Tour season runs from May to September, and can be purchased on Recreation.gov.
Hiking is most commonly done on either the Petroglyph Point Trail, or the Spruce Canyon Trail, both about 2.5 miles round trip, and located in the southern part of the park.
The curvy North Rim Road is an 11-mile one way scenic drive through the park, and passes numerous canyon overlooks. You’ll drive most of this road accessing the points we listed above as well.
Outside the park, Canyons of the Ancients National Monument is located about 10 miles (ca. 16 km) north of Cortez. This monument contains the highest known archaeological site density in the United States, with rich, well-preserved evidence of native architecture and culture.
The next location is 145 miles away (~3 hours).
About halfway through this 3-hour drive, you’ll pass the resort town of Telluride, CO. This small Colorado ski town is usually teeming with visitors in the winter, but if you are passing by in the summer, you’ll get to enjoy a much more laid back atmosphere.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is known for its narrow, sheer walls of volcanic rock, carved by the powerful Gunnison River. This park is also one of the least visited, meaning you’ll have no trouble social distancing here!
There are no lodging options inside the park. We chose to stay in Montrose, but Gunnison and Grand Junction have plenty of options as well, albeit a bit further away from the park.
The park has two sections: the north and south rims. The South Rim has the most to offer, leading it to being the most popular section of the park. In fact, if you wanted to drive from one side of the canyon to the other, it would take about three hours to complete.
The scenic South Rim Road follows the canyon’s edge for 14 miles (23 km) and has dozens of overlooks and hiking trails. The other frequently-driven road in the park is the East Portal Road, which descends to the river at the bottom of the canyon until it reaches the Crystal Dam National Recreation Area.
The gravel-only North Rim Road is only open during the summer, and snakes 14 miles round trip, and has a number of beautiful lookout points along the way.
If you’d like to do some hiking, the Rim Rock Trail is an easy paved 1-mile loop with views of the canyon. The Oak Flat Loop is a slightly harder trail that descends into the canyon for about a 2 mile round trip hike.
The next location is 314 miles away (~6 hours).
This is the longest driving leg of the trip. The drive is absolutely breathtaking, but it takes about 6 hours to complete. There are a lot of places to stop and explore along the way, including the Red Rocks Amphitheater in Morrison park, the wild wild west town of Golden, CO, St. Mary’s Glacier in Idaho Springs, and the stellar food & beer scene in Boulder.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Estes Park, CO
The Rocky Mountain National Park has everything from meadows to forests, lakes to soaring peaks. This park also has some of the highest paved roads in the United States.
Airbnb is my preferred service to use when visiting a national park. There are simply so many options, and most offer a full house to rent – which is essential for my 5-person family. Estes Park, CO is where we decided to stay for this visit, and it also has the main driving access point to the park.
The best driving attraction at the Rocky Mountain National Park is the Trail Ridge Road. This paved 48-mile road connects Estes Park with Grand Lake, CO. This road is only open from Memorial Day until mid-October, and is the only road that crosses the park. Trail Ridge Road tops out at an impressive 12,183 feet, which allows it to offer some of the most breathtaking views of the mountains and the valleys below.
There are numerous well-known hikes within the Rockies.
The best easy-moderate hike is the Lumpy Ridge Trail. This 3.2 mile round trip hike climbs about 1,000 feet and offers fantastic views of Longs Peak (the highest peak in the park), Mount Meeker and Estes Park.
The most popular (and most difficult) hike is Keyhole Route up to Longs Peak. This path is about 15 miles round trip, takes anywhere from 10-15 hours and climbs 5,000 feet in elevation. If this hike seems a bit much for you, then consider a hike up to the Twin Sisters Peaks. While it is also a strenuous hike, it is much shorter at only 4 miles round trip.
The next location is 76 miles away (~1.5 hours).
Either the morning of your flight, or the day before (if your flight is early), head down to Denver. I-70 getting to the airport can be a bit congested, so either avoid it, or spend the night down there instead.
Fly home via Denver International Airport, and bring this very long road trip to an end.
We started out in southern Arizona, drove through canyons, deserts, forests, and everything in-between. It was a trip for the ages, but now it’s time to go home and back to the real world.