Visiting one of the National Parks during the Centennial Year was on my 2016 bucket list. Not only did I achieve this goal, I checked off two parks from my list and added a lot of bonus stops along the way. There are so many ways to see the US National Parks, depending on what you want to see and how you want to travel. From a guided tour company that handles all the details and driving to a rail vacation that take you from city to city by train to a customized self-drive vacation. No matter how you personally prefer to travel, a visit to the National Parks is always a treat!
Not only are all the parks so different, but an added bonus is the low cost. If you wish to visit more than one park in a year, an annual pass is $80 and it gets a car into the park each time that you visit. It covers everyone in a standard vehicle and up to 4 people at “per person” charge sites.
I chose the custom route for my trip. My plan consisted of one round-trip flight, a rental car to take us around from there, four different hotels to stop along the way and an itinerary of sites (with room allotted for spontaneous stops). The beauty of a customized trip is that while I prefer to travel at a fast pace, my trip could have easily been modified to be more leisurely if I wanted.
My Personalized Itinerary:
I was joined on this trip by my friend Abby. We flew nonstop to Phoenix on Southwest, and from there we picked up our rental car and drove about 2 hours to our first hotel in Sedona. After a quick bite to eat, we headed to bed early to get a good night’s rest.
Thanks to the two hour time difference, I woke up to the sunrise to start my day. Because the hotel was just south of the main Sedona tourist area, it was a very scenic drive into town. We drove around to different lookouts in the area where we stopped for some light hiking. We had lunch at Oak Creek Brewery, a small restaurant and taproom where I enjoyed a flight of their beer and the best spinach salad I have ever had!
One of the coolest things about Sedona is that it’s full of vortex energy spaces (believed to be special spots where energy is either entering into the earth or projecting out of it). On our way up to the Boynton Canyon Vortex, a man stopped us and explained the energy of the masculine and feminine spires. The presence of both energies is said to create a balance. He gave us heart shaped pieces of Canyon and told us to take them home and they would continue to bring us peace and balance.
Sedona is a beautiful place to spend the day, and your time can be filled with lots of hiking, shopping, dining and relaxing while you take in the view!
Because I conveniently had accommodations in Flagstaff, we chose to spend the next two nights there. I enjoyed the change in scenery - the mountains, a small downtown area and cute local restaurants.
The main reason for our trip was to visit the Grand Canyon. When we arrived there, we headed straight to the visitor center to get maps and advice from park rangers. It’s a good idea to talk to them, as park rangers can help determine what sites or hikes you should do or avoid based on the time of year, weather, difficulty, and your personal needs. They have an awesome shuttle system at the Grand Canyon that takes you from the Visitor Center to your starting point.
That first day we chose to hike the Bright Angel Trail, which takes you straight down to see the different levels of rock and a closer view of the canyon.
We ended the hike with some extra time, which we spent exploring the Grand Canyon Village before watching the beautiful sunset.
TIPS FOR HIKING THE BRIGHT ANGEL TRAIL:
-Don’t forget that what goes down... must come up! It takes 2 or 3 times as long to hike back to the top as it took to reach the bottom.
-Bring plenty of water, and drink it! There's a place to refill at the rest stop 1.5 miles down.
-Pack a lunch. You can eat at the rest stop while you're enjoying the view (before it's time to hike back up).
-Be prepared to meet the champs who are hiking back up after an overnight at the bottom of the Canyon.
-Go at your own pace - there's no need to rush! Remember, your altitude changes over 1,000 feet so it's easy to run out of breath.
We got a late start on our second day at the Grand Canyon, since we snuck in a quick hike on the Lava Trail at Sunset Crater Volcano Park just outside of flagstaff before heading to the park. This was such a fun pit stop and I got to walk through cooled lava!
This excursion also brought us on a more scenic drive into the park through the Desert View entrance to the South Rim. Lining the road were little Native American jewelry shops, and I couldn’t help but stop along the way.
The Desert View entrance offers a stop at the Watchtower for a unique view and a self-drive through some vista points and Tusayan Ruins. The canyon shuttles don’t quite go out this far, so these stops were less crowded.
We headed back to the main visitor center and took the main rim walk to Yavapai Point and the Geology Museum. In the evening we took the yellow line to Yaki Point to watch the sunset. I could see why this was one of the most popular viewing spots!
Dinner in the park was the last stop on our agenda and it did not disappoint. The Arizona Room at Bright Angel Lodge offered a cozy and delicious dinner.
The next stop was the tiny town of Page, Arizona, where you can find Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend.
Antelope Canyon is a beautiful underground slot canyon, and because it’s a Navajo Tribal Park you must tour it with an approved group. Our guide, Jerome, told us all about the canyon geology and helped us get the most out of our photos. He also recommended our lunch spot and sent us to Patio 7 for some authentic Native American food.
We also stopped at Horseshoe Bend and took the trail up to see the incredible view.
Next, we left Arizona and headed to Bryce Canyon in Utah, where we checked into a hotel just north of the park. We went during the off-season so the shuttle system wasn’t running, but because Bryce Canyon National Park is much smaller than the Grand Canyon it was still very easy to get around.
Once again we started off at the Visitor Center to get a personalized recommendation for our hikes. We chose the Navajo Trail, which connects to Queens Garden Trail to take you from the iconic Sunrise to Sunset point. This hike is a moderate level and has just over 500 feet in elevation shift. I loved this hike because every turn seemed to bring a new view. The rock formations- called Hoodoos are an incredible sight to see up close.
At this same park we also hiked the short Mossy Trail to find a small waterfall and a cave. We also drove to all of the different vistas to see sights such as the canyon from the highest point (9100 feet), the Natural Bridge and Inspiration Point.
After a fun week of outdoor adventure, we drove about seven hours back to Phoenix for our return flight. We did manage to sneak in one last hike before we headed to the airport. The trail at Pinnacle Peak Park took us up, down, and all around to see Scottsdale from all sites. It was nice to soak in the sunshine after the windy Grand Canyon and chilly Bryce Canyon.
I can’t wait to visit my next National Park!
For more information about visiting US National Parks,
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