The USA is blessed with some amazing national parks that draw visitors from around the world. Some of the most impressive and best-known ones are in a cluster that’s relatively easy to get to, however. You can start in one of the country’s best travel value cities (Las Vegas) and make an inexpensive small town in Utah (Kanab) your base.
You can also take advantage of one of the best travel pass values in the world: the National Park Service Annual Pass. It’s only $80 for a full year. After you pay this you get into any one of 2,000+ parks, monuments, and recreation areas around the country. If you’re a senior citizen it’s only $10. Active military members and 4th graders can pick up one for free! Pick one up at the first park you visit.
The best place to start this budget road trip is Las Vegas. Flights to here are reasonable from most locations since it’s such a competitive convention and leisure destination. Plan to arrive midweek when hotel rates are a screaming bargain. This is still the cheapest city in the USA for nice hotel rooms if you don’t arrive on a weekend or during a major convention (like the Consumer Electronics Show).
It’s also an inexpensive place to rent a car for a week and take off for a road trip through the Great American West. If you’ve ever seen movies that take place among expanses of the wild west with canyon walls as high as a skyscraper, you’ve seen places you can drive to from this city.
First Stop: Zion National Park
(c) Tim Leffel
Head out of Vegas on I-15 Northeast to St. George, the best lunch stop and grocery shopping spot on the way. Eventually this interstate highway will take you almost all the way to Zion National Park, roughly three hours from the big city you left.
Zion is a huge park with a wide variety of landscapes. A network of hiking trails for different ability levels take you to towering cliffs, waterfalls, and meadows with wildlife. Many of the big cats only come out at night, but you’ve got a good chance of seeing bighorn sheep, deer, or foxes on the east side of the park. (Note: the bighorns reside on the east side and are frequently seen right off Hwy 9 as well as the deer and the occasional fox).
After an afternoon of exploration, go 30 more miles after the southern park exit to Kanab, Utah. That’s the best base for the region since hotels here tend to be 25% cheaper than in the towns right next to the national parks. Kanab is also within easy reach of Bryce and the Grand Canyon. There are also plenty of campgrounds and RV parks in this area to choose from.
Have breakfast in Kanab, grab some supplies, and return to Zion National Park to take a longer, full-day hiking excursion to get deeper into the wilderness.
To the Hoodoos of Bryce Canyon
(c) Tim Leffel
Take route 89 north and then follow the signs to one of the trippiest natural sites in the USA: Bryce Canyon. It will take about an hour and a half to get to the entrance parking lot. Part of the journey goes through Dixie National Forest and you’ll want to stop off for photos a few times along the way when pre-Bryce hoodoos pop up beside the highway.
Most of the hikes through Bryce are relatively flat and easy once you get down to the bottom. See the incredible rock formations from different angles as the light changes and head up the sides of the canyon to get a higher viewpoint. Return to Kanab after seeing the red rocks glow as sunset approaches.
The Awesome Grand Canyon From the North
No matter how many times you’ve seen photos of the Grand Canyon, it’s hard to imagine the immense size and wonder of this great natural geological site. With the rift running 225 miles, it would take a lifetime to explore it all. By coming from Utah, however, you’ll visit the less crowded North Rim. Some five million tourists a year visit the Grand Canyon, but the North Rim only gets about 10% of those visitors. You’ll run into very few tour buses in this area.
It will only take 90 minutes to reach it, so if you set out early enough from Kanab you could catch the sunrise over the canyon. If you can do a hike down inside or take a mule ride, you’ll get another perspective again. Just bring plenty of water. Then drive to another point for a sunset view before returning to your hotel or campground.
Southern Utah Side Trips
If you have time, there are a lot of other areas to explore in Southern Utah and you could continue the journey up to Arches, Canyonlands, or Capitol Reef National Parks. Much closer, however, are Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park—full of desert dunes to explore—and Lake Powell.
The Lake Powell National Recreation Area includes the second-largest man-made lake in the USA, so it’s a major watersports center. It has 2,000 miles of shoreline and 90 canyons in its vast space. It also contains the world’s largest natural bridge: Rainbow Bridge.
When it’s time to get home, drive back to Las Vegas and complete the loop. Drop off the rental car and use the airport time to sort through hundreds of photos from your great American road trip.
For more info, check out the Visit Southern Utah website where you can find hotel listings, photo galleries, and nice PDF trail maps to download.
This post was brought to you by the support of Visit Southern Utah-Kanab but all opinions are my own. Photos by Visit Southern Utah except where indicated.