One of the safest, easiest and family-friendliest ways to meet COVID-induced travel criteria of avoiding groups, seeking open spaces and finding flexible itineraries is to hit the road to our national parks.
Many of America’s 62 national parks are located in clusters, only hours apart and easily visited over several days. Whether loading up the RV or renting a vehicle after flying into Las Vegas, you can easily drive from the border of Nevada and California into Southern Utah (and back) over the course of a week. We spent a full day at Death Valley National Park, one and a half days at Zion National Park and a full day at Bryce Canyon National Park on this trip. Flying into Las Vegas is an efficient way to reach your starting point. A small SUV (all-wheel drive suggested) is ideal for traveling through higher elevation and sometimes rugged terrain.
Death Valley National Park
Fill your backpack with healthy snacks and a reusable water bottle (plastic is discouraged at National Parks and refill stations are widely available), and head west for the two-hour scenic drive to the wilderness of Death Valley. You could spend several days in the largest park (3,000 square miles) in the continental United States, but in just one day we hit several of the high points.
Also the hottest, driest park in the country, consider taking this trip outside the summer months, to avoid temperatures of 120+°. Early November proved ideal, with pleasant temperatures in the 80s, inching into the 90s at Badwater Basin. Sunscreen, hats, and plenty of fluids are still required year-round. Drive directly to the visitor center at Furnace Creek to obtain updated park information, from weather to maps, and to pay your park entrance fee. Travel Tip: Purchase an $80 annual parks pass, at least two weeks in advance of your trip. Visiting at least three parks typically covers the cost.
Badwater Basin in Death Valley is the lowest point in the entire nation, at 282 feet below sea level. You can walk directly onto the salt flats, composed of natural, geometric salt formations rising just inches off the ground, as far as your eyes can see. Telescope Peak borders this basin and features a sign marking sea level, to give you a jaw-dropping perspective. Imagine standing on the floor of an ancient sea that has been drained of all its contents, yet left behind this geological phenomenon for you to experience first hand.
From Badwater Basin, consider heading toward the scenic Artists Drive. This one-way paved loop leads through different geological formations, and to the Artists Palette formation. Natural processes of oxidation and erosion have created unique splashes of pastel colors in the sandstone. Be sure to stop for photos at the scenic overlook.
From Artists Drive, head to Zabriskie Point. The short hike is quickly rewarded with a panoramic view of Death Valley’s expansive sandstone formations, stretching from Manly Beacon to the Red Cathedral.
Other points of interest in this part of the park include driving the unpaved road of Twenty Mule Team Canyon, Furnace Creek (the main hub of the park), the largest dune field in the park, Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes (Fun Fact: Star Wars filming location) and Dante’s View, considered to be one of the great photographic spots in Death Valley.
Zion National Park
The second leg of this road trip takes you three hours east of Vegas, into southern Utah to Zion National Park. The closest city to the gates of Zion is Springdale, but we chose to stay in the town of Kanab, due to its proximity to Zion, Bryce and other destinations to be featured in this travel series.
Home to the Virgin River, famous rock formations (such as the Temple of Sinawava and Two Patriarchs), and deciduous trees that morph into vibrant fall colors, Zion boasts a wide variety of hikes, from easy to strenuous. Two of the park’s iconic hikes are Angel’s Landing and The Narrows. Both hikes are uniquely arduous. At 5,790 feet high with a narrow path offering a chain on one side and a cliff on the other, Angel’s Landing is recommended for the most fearless of hikers. The payoff is a 360° view of Zion that allegedly cannot be matched.
The Narrows begins where the Riverside Trail (favorite for fall foliage) ends, while presenting a different set of challenges for equally rewarding scenery. Instead of traversing a high ledge, you are in a canyon, treading upstream across the slippery rock bed of the Virgin River. Special river gear is recommended (although not required) to make the hike in waist-deep, 50℉ moving waters. Toxic algae can sometimes lurk in the deceivingly clear water, so the gear provides added protection. Just outside the park, you will find Zion Outfitter for rentals. They have all the gear you need, to not only keep you and your belongings dry on the hike.
Zion is also a great place for activities like canyoneering and biking.There are some very long day hikes, but each trail affords opportunities for capturing golden and red leaf shades found here from October to early November. We spent one morning on the three gorgeous Emerald Pools hikes and the same afternoon hiking the Narrows, going only a mile in and out (ample for the experience). Be sure to pack a sack lunch and plenty of water, while allocating an entire day to hike the full ten-mile round trip and make it back in time to catch the last bus to the visitor center. Ambitious hikers tackle Angel’s Landing and an abbreviated version of the Narrows in one day. You won’t feel like hiking your way out of the park after this adventure, so plan accordingly.
An easier hike near the visitor center is the Watchman’s Trail, perfect for watching the sun setting onto the red rocks, before you head out of the Park. Travel Tip: Book your daily shuttle bus ticket online in advance of your trip. Check the website for details about ticket release times and windows. Quantities (and parking) are limited, and you will want to shuttle between bus stops to maximize your time in the park. Shuttle buses are limited to partial capacity, for safe social distancing during the pandemic.
Bryce Canyon National Park
The final stop on this National Parks road trip is Bryce Canyon. Bryce is located in the Dixie National Forest, and covers three distinct climate zones: Fir forest, Ponderosa Pine forest and Pinyon Pine forest. Miles of trails take you down into the famous hoodoos (eroded sandstone formations, resembling castles) of the canyon, and into the middle of the expansive Bryce Amphitheater (Navajo Loop Trail).
Carving out time for a few hikes is recommended, to experience the picturesque views atop these canyons, distinctive rock formations (like Thor’s Hammer), ancient vegetation, and the sheer depth of this distinctive terrain. Don’t miss the thousand-plus year old Bristlecone pine trees located near the rim of the park at locations such as Rainbow and Yovimpa Points (Bristlecone Loop Trail), Peekaboo Trail, and near Inspiration Point along the Rim Trail.
And There’s More
While this national parks road trip may have concluded, you are far from the final frontier. Be sure to grab your annual parks pass to expand your journey into Utah’s Arches National Park (5.5 hours northeast of Zion), Capitol Reef National Park (2 hours north of Bryce Canyon), California’s Joshua Tree National Park (4 hours south of Death Valley), or Arizona’s Grand Canyon National Park (4.5 hours south of Las Vegas). Many impressive state parks and national monuments fill the landscape in between, along with plenty of sprawling distance, soul-renewing scenery, and lifetime memories.
Stay tuned for our next review: Charming Kanab, with more natural wonders in Southern Utah and northern Arizona.
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Cover photo courtesy Brian Maass
Brian and Dana Maass live with their dog Chester in Round Rock, Texas. When not working their day jobs, they can be found traveling, writing, capturing scenic photos, exploring the Hill Country, and serving the community. Follow them on Instagram at @Dana_Maass_Adventures and @Brian_Maass_Adventures.