This is (to date) the largest trip we’ve put together, both in terms of total miles covered and days required to visit each of the parks appropriately.
We begin the trip by flying into Phoenix. We then head north with stops at the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley and Arches, before turning east to hit two Colorado national parks. This is an ambitious itinerary, but should be a lot of fun for anyone willing to partake in it.
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.
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.
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 151 miles away (~2.5 hours).
After leaving the Grand Canyon, you will drive northeast to the border with Utah. The drive is only 2.5 hours long, and there isn’t much to stop and visit on the way, so we would suggest squeezing in one last hike at the Grand Canyon before leaving.
This may also be a great time to hit some of the more eastern parts of the South Rim. This includes the Desert Watch Tower, Tusayan Museum and Moran Point.
Monument Valley, UT
The Navajo Nation Parks & Recreation department and not the US Government owns and operates Monument Valley.
The Monument Valley 17- mile loop is accessible by vehicle, but the NNPR is currently only allowing 15 vehicles per hour to limit congestion and crowds due to COVID. After the pandemic subsides, this may be relaxed, so please check for current restrictions on their website.
The price to drive the loop is $8 per person. However, there are many tour operators that will give you guided tours of the grounds. All the tour operators are listed on the website above as well.
The next location is 150 miles away (~2.5 hours).
This drive takes you through deserts and what look to be mini canyons after what you’ve just experienced at the Grand Canyon. We’ve allotted a full day for this drive, so you can do one of two things:
- Head directly to Arches NP and begin exploring early.
- Take a 60-mile detour to drive through the Canyon of the Ancients National Monument
Arches National Park
Arches National Park has over 2,000 natural stone arches and hundreds of soaring pinnacles, massive rock fins, and giant balanced rocks. The park is very busy between March and October. To avoid traffic, we recommend entering the park before 8 am or after 3 pm.
There are no accommodations or food inside the park, however there is one campground near Devil’s Garden. Lucky for us, the town of Moab, UT has everything you’ll need and more. We just used Airbnb to find a place to stay, but there are plenty of other hotels and campsites there as well.
Anytime you see a picture of Arches National Park (including on this page), chances are you are looking at the Delicate Arch. This iconic geologic feature is reached via a strenuous trail beginning at Wolfe Ranch. The trail takes about 2 hours and is 3 miles round trip. You can see the Delicate Arch from other vantage points in the park without the difficult hiking. Park Avenue has a great view of the arch after a short walk off the road.
Other must-see features in the park include Balanced Rock, accessible via a short and easy trail just off Park Avenue and the North and South Windows. These can be seen up close via the trail at the Windows area. Also, a full tour of Devil’s Garden (7.2 miles round trip, moderate) leads to eight incredible arches.
Canyonlands National Park
Take a day out from your stay in Moab, and head south to check out Canyonlands National Park. About an hour away is the famous Mesa Arch, which is at the end of a half-mile easy hike. The arch is known for its picture-perfect framing of the park’s sunsets and sunrises.
The next location is 170 miles away (~2.75 hours).
It’s about 170 miles from Moab, UT to Montrose, CO, where we will be spending our next night. The drive will take you right past the McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area and then through Grand Junction, home to Colorado’s Wine Country.
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 (pictured) in Morrison park, the wild wild west town of Golden, CO 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 a lot of 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 epic 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.