Trip of a Lifetime: Western US National Parks

When our annual big international vacation was cancelled due to COVID in 2020, and things started to open up in June of that year, we seized the opportunity to do a four-week road trip covering 10 states. Previously, I had the national parks of the Western U.S. on my bucket list, but distant lands always pulled me away. This was the perfect time to take a domestic vacation focused on nature and open spaces. There are 63 National Parks in the United States, and the vast majority of these are west of the Mississippi, so we knew we’d have to narrow our focus even with a month-long vacation. We wanted a variety of landscapes and experiences and ended up visiting some of the most well-known national parks: Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Grand Teton, and Yellowstone.

National parks offer unrivaled beauty and an opportunity to experience nature in a way not many of us get to very often. Zion, our first stop, was unlike any landscape I had ever seen: multi-colored sandstone, but also plenty of greenery; it was truly breathtaking. One of the most famous (and unique) trails in Zion is the Narrows Trail, where we hiked up Virgin River Gorge with walls towering above us. I don’t know too many other places that you literally hike up a river! We next headed to Bryce Canyon for a day trip, where we marveled at the other-worldly hoodoos in the Bryce Canyon amphitheater from the Rim Trail. Compared to Bryce Canyon, Arches is massive. In order to get the complete experience here, we took a private four-wheel tour of the backcountry here to less-seen sandstone rock formations such as the Eye of the Whale Arch and the Marching Men. We took it a bit slower in Grand Teton, opting for shorter hikes and snatching the opportunity to observe wildlife like moose in their natural habitat. In Yellowstone, the wildlife continued, with herds of buffalo and even a wolf sighting! Of course, another highlight of Yellowstone was wandering the many geothermal features, including famous Old Faithful.

It’s important to keep in mind that you don’t have to be a super active, outdoor enthusiast to still enjoy and appreciate the parks. For example, we also enjoyed Scenic Drive Road in Arches, which offers visitors an opportunity to enjoy sights such as Balanced Rock and the Courthouse Towers from the car if needed. Also, most parks offer paved multi-use paths or short interpretive trails that are great for families with small children and visitors who may have limited physical mobility, such as The Rim Trail of Bryce Canyon. Visitor centers are a great place to find out current information about trails, programs, and to even get guidance for what options might be the best for you and your family.

Kids love visitor centers because they have interesting interactive displays and distribute the Junior Ranger Handbook specific to that park. We picked this up on the first day of our visit to each park because it offers information and activities to help young visitors learn about and appreciate the wildlife, landscape and conservation of the park. Once your junior ranger has completed the handbook activities, they earn a badge after swearing an oath to protect and preserve the natural parks. This was a big deal for our son, who was six at the time, and it’s a fun and meaningful souvenir.

A national park road trip shouldn’t be limited to just national parks, however. For good reason, many activities within the parks are restricted but can be enjoyed just outside their boundaries. One of our favorite experiences of this road trip was canyoneering near the Kolob Canyon area of Zion. We donned helmets and harnesses and a guide lead us on an adventure where we hiked, scrambled, squeezed, climbed, and rappelled our way through Lamb’s Knoll. Interestingly, our favorite arch in the Arches area wasn’t even in the national park. Corona Arch, about 30 minutes east of Moab along Highway 279 is an enormous arch we were able to have all to ourselves. An added bonus were the stopping points along the highway where we saw dinosaur tracks and petroglyphs! In Jackson, we took a scenic float down the Snake River to look for wildlife while enjoying the scenic backdrop of the Grand Tetons. And, we celebrated our son’s 7th birthday riding horses in a national forest just outside Yellowstone National Park.

Our national parks road trip highlighted for me what tremendous beauty lies right here in the United States. We are so fortunate to have the National Parks system and to be able to share it with our children.

If you are considering a national parks road trip, here are a few tips:

  • Aim for depth over breadth. It’s not a race to see how many parks you can hit during your family vacation. If you only have a week, visiting one or two parks in depth will likely give you a better experience than covering three or more.
  • Build in downtime. Especially if you have kids under the age of ten, one big activity for the day is usually adequate. We often plan a morning activity when possible and then hit the hotel pool or a local swim spot in the afternoon.
  • Book a tour (or two). While many of us enjoy discovering a place independently, there are experiences that visitors simply can’t (or shouldn’t) do on their own. Doing guided activities also changes the dynamics of the family group and often gives parents a chance to take a break from being 100% “on”.
  • Stop along the way and take detours. You might not have the luxury of a month of traveling, but identifying fun stops between the parks to break up a long drive is a great way to make the drive more manageable. Also, sometimes it’s worth adding some drive time to take a detour to something your family is particularly interested in.
  • Know your limits (and your kids’ limits). Consider how much physical activity you and your kids are accustomed to on a regular basis when planning your time in and near the parks. If the family has never hiked more than a flat 3-miler, planning multiple back-to-back days of challenging trails may not be the best idea.

If you are considering a national parks road trip, I would love to help you plan the best trip for your family. Here’s an example of a fully customizable itinerary for a week in Utah that I recently created. When working with a client, I help you select the park(s) that best fit your family’s interests, identify activities both inside and outside of the park, find lodging to fit your desired budget and service level, and plan the best route to maximize your vacation time. Contact me at kristin@familytravelsandadventures.com or (408)533-0080 to find out how I can provide individualized travel services for your next trip.

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