Great Basin to Zion National Park
Parks: 3 • Miles: 643 • Days: 7 • Hours: 10
In this trip we visit one of the least visited National Parks along with one of the busiest. Great Basin National Park is not really near anything – it’s out in the middle of nowhere, Nevada.
Even though Great Basin NP is not visited as much as others, it does not mean it is lacking anything. Spectacular views of mountains, canyons, and the oldest living trees on earth. The park’s bristlecone pines date back almost 5,000 years!
We begin the trip in Salt Lake City, and end in Vegas. This trip can easily be reversed to start in Vegas instead.
Don’t forget to schedule your rental car! I always schedule it the same day I book my flights. Schedule your rental vehicle – we get the extended full-size SUV for our family of five – to pick up when you land, and to drop it off right before you depart. All major airports have their own rental fleets, and SLC and Vegas have exceptionally large ones.
Salt Lake City, Utah
We begin this trip flying into the beautiful Salt Lake International Airport. If you were lucky enough to arrive at the airport before 2pm or so local time, you should have plenty of time to head straight to the next destination.
However, if you’d like to take it slow or your arriving flight is later in the day, there are worse cities than Salt Lake City to have to spend the night in.
The next location is 236 miles away (~3.5 hours).
Head west to Ely, NV. This is where we are going to spend the night before we explore the Great Basin National Park tomorrow.
Great Basin National Park
Great Basin National Park is the only national park in Nevada. Located in the Humboldt National Forest, its mountainous terrain contain the planet’s oldest living trees, the bristlecone pines. Underground are the Lehman Caves, while up on the ground is Nevada’s only permanent glacier.
If the numerous campgrounds inside the park aren’t your thing, then you’ll have to find accommodations outside the park. The small town of Baker is the closest (5 miles), but has limited options. Ely, NV is about 70 miles northwest, and has plenty. We actually found a couple great Airbnbs that had the address of Ely, but were about 30 miles closer to the park than the city center.
Touring the underground Lehman Caves is a must when visiting Great Basin. There are two cave tours available. The Lodge Room Tour is the easiest and great for kids, while the Grand Palace Tour takes 1.5 hours and stretches just under a mile long.
Take a scenic drive down Wheeler Peak Drive. This road has switchbacks and curves that will leave you in awe. This 13-mile road will take you from the base to summit, culminating near Mather Overlook.
The best hike in the park is the Bristlecone and Glacier Trail at Wheeler Peak. This trail is about 4.5 miles round trip and can get steep and rocky in places. In this one trail you’ll see two of the parks defining features.
The next location is 248 miles away (~4 hours).
This leg of the trip takes you down Great Basin Highway until you reach Ponaca, NV and have to veer east towards Zion.
The Great Basin Highway features eight start parks along a gorgeous stretch of road. One of the best spots to visit along this highway is the Cathedral Gorge State Park in Ponaca. Hike the Miller Point Trail to see unbelievable views of slot canyons and hoodoos.
Zion National Park
The Virgin River flows through 2,000 foot high monolith canyons, and you are right in the middle of it at Zion National Park. This park has everything Southwest parks are known for, all squeezed into one magnificent park. Canyons, arches, desert-like habitats, and more litter this have-to-see-it-to-believe-it park.
We stayed at the Zion Lodge, which was located within walking distance to the entrance of the Park. This place was more like a resort, and made for a very enjoyable couple of days. It had a number of public pools, spacious bedrooms and even a grill on the patio, so we could have cooked some of our own meals.
There were also a lot of regular Hotels and other accommodations within Springdale, UT (the city that the entrance of the park is in). No matter where you stay in Springdale, getting to the park is easy with the park’s shuttle bus system.
Get into the park early. By early, I mean really early. This allows you to beat the majority of the crowds and the midday heat. We got to the shuttle pickup area about 20 minutes before the first bus was to arrive, and there were already plenty of people waiting. Going early into this park will make your trip much more enjoyable.
The two most popular trails at Zion are also the hardest.
The Narrows trail is a hike through the Virgin River (provided you have water hiking boots) and gets you some of the most beautiful scenery the park has to offer. This trail is located and at the very end of the park, and is preceded by the Riverside Walk trail, which is long, but fairly easy. We decided to skip the Narrows and instead just do the Riverside Walk, and we all really enjoyed it.
Angel’s Landing is a 4 hour, 5.5 mile trip to the top of an overlook, and is not for the faint of heart or small children. Being one of the most iconic trails in the park, it does get busy, and it has steep drop-offs, a combination that has proven fatal in the past.
There are many other easier and less-traveled trails in this park as well – all accessible by the shuttle that runs the span of the park (cars aren’t allowed in).
Take a short hike up to see the Court of the Patriarchs, or a 1-1.5 mile trip to see the Emerald Pools or the Watchmen. All of these trails require moderate effort, and are much less busy than Angel’s Landing or The Narrows.
The next location is 159 miles away (~2.5 hours).
This leg of the trip is almost exclusively on Interstate 15, and at times will look like you’re on a deserted planet. You’ll pass the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, which would be a good spot to stretch the legs or use a restroom.
Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area
Las Vegas, NV
Right before you reach Vegas, you will also pass by Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. Inside the park is a 13-mile one-way paved scenic road that snakes throughout and offers numerous hiking and picturesque areas. While the park costs $15 per vehicle to enter, the sights are simply amazing and cannot be skipped.
The scenic drive is open every day of the year, with hours changing slightly according to the season. Check their website for current hours.
Las Vegas, Nevada
We spent the night in Las Vegas, and woke up the next morning for an early flight out of town. Spending the night in Sin City was fun, but we were exhausted from the trip, and didn’t really take in too much of the sights-and-sounds of the city.
The great thing about using Las Vegas to fly out of is that the flights are generally cheaper because the city wants to bring you in to gamble, and thus subsidize the costs a bit. It was still expensive for my family of five, but not prohibitively so.