If the cold weather has you thinking about summer and dreaming of summer vacation plans, this post is for you. The national parks are one of the least expensive and most extraordinary vacations you could plan. Here’s a breakdown of where we stayed and what we did at seven of the best national parks.
:: Zion National Park
Of all the national parks we’ve been to so far, Zion is my favorite. It contains my favorite hike of all: the Narrows. You could easily spend a full week soaking up all that Zion has to offer. Zion is well known for it’s red rock cliff and canyon terrain. If you like hiking and rock climbing — it is paradise.
The Desert Pearl Inn comes highly recommended but we opted for the Cable Mountain Lodge instead. I thought it was fabulous and couldn’t have been happier with the choice. For one, the location is literally right next to the park entrance where you can pick up the shuttle to take you into Springdale (the little town just outside Zion National Park that houses restaurants, grocery stores, and a couple of retail outlets) and into the park where you can get dropped off at the trailheads. For another, the balcony of our hotel room looked out on one of the iconic Zion mountains. There’s also a very nice pool and grassy area that runs along the Virgin River where kids can unwind and play at the end of the day.
Zion National Park is one of the premier destinations in the U.S. for canyoneering. Canyoneering basically involves hiking, scrambling, and repelling down gorges or sliding through slot canyons. We did a half day canyoneering excursion with Zion Adventure Company. It did not disappoint. Our guide led us on a path through a slot canyon and gave us the basics on how to safely rappel down a rock wall. They can tailor the adventure to your family’s ages and skill level.
Zion is a hiker’s paradise. The Narrows is the most popular hike and one of the world’s best slot canyon hikes. It is a challenging trail through the Virgin River. At the time of our hike the water level was at ankle level or dry and sandy in some spots. In other areas the water was waist deep. At other times of the year you might have to swim to get through it. The narrows is accessed from the last shuttle stop in the park: the Temple of Sinawava. From there you walk a mile along the paved Riverside Walk. At the trail’s end you enter the Virgin River and the adventure begins! The Virgin River has a strong current that a hiker has to fight while traversing across large stones on the river bottom. I highly recommend renting neoprene socks and boots and a walking stick to help you navigate the river bottom and current as you make your way through. We got ours from Zion Adventure Company for $25/person. Angel’s Landing is another popular hike not to be missed. It is a challenging trail with over twenty switchbacks. The last quarter mile of the trail is extremely steep with chains that you can use to pull yourself up. There’s also only room for one hiker to pass along the steep verticals.
:: Bryce Canyon National Park
Hoodoos, the bright orange-colored pinnacles of Bryce Canyon National Park, are a fascinating sight. It’s also just a short drive from Zion so it is worth a stop on your national park tour.
:: Grand Canyon National Park
You could spend a week or a day within Grand Canyon National Park. On our visit we spent a day in the park to just take it all in. We visited the North Rim which is drivable from Zion National Park. On a future visit I’d like to spend a week in the park rafting on the Colorado river and camping.
:: Smoky Mountain National Park
Smoky Mountain National Park is the most visited park in the national parks system. The park stretches across North Carolina and Tennessee. The name comes from the fog that hangs over the park. We glamped at Under Canvas but you could easily rent a cabin in Gatlinburg and drive into the park daily. The highlight of our trip was Whitewater Rafting on the Pigeon River. There are numerous rafting companies — we used Raft Outdoor Adventures for our trip. The upper section of the Pigeon River has Class III and IV rapids. Hike Grotto Falls — Grotto Falls is a great family hike in the park. It is paved and at the end of the hike you can walk behind a waterfall. We were fortunate to see a black bear on our hike. Cades Cove Loop — Cades Cove Loop is a scenic drive within the park. On Wednesdays the loop is closed to cars so you can ride through it by bicycle.
:: Yellowstone National Park
Four days was enough for us to touch the major attractions and drive the full figure 8 around the park. I would recommend staying longer to do more hikes and in-depth viewing of the attractions. We booked a year in advance to get our choice of properties within the park because it is so popular. We had our heart set on staying at the Old Faithful Inn and we were able to get a room by planning a year ahead. Dining reservations in the park are tricky so make your reservations when you book your accommodations. If you are not staying in the park you can book 60 days in advance.
Of all the parks we’ve visited Yellowstone had the most to see and do. Rafting, horseback riding, and wagon train cookouts are fun experiences beyond seeing the spectacular attractions in the park. Animal sightings and observing the many differing natural features of this area’s geologic activity are the highlights. Old Faithful is obviously a well known attraction. The Geyser Basin nearby is a spectacular sight to behold. Go to the Canyon and tour Artist Point. There is a hike over the falls (best to go early or late in the day for it). There are lots of animals: elk, big horn sheep, moose, and deer between Mammoth and Roosevelt and the Lamar Valley. Seeing the animals before the crowds roll in is a must! Mammoth is unusual and another not-to-be-missed sight. Don’t forget to visit the Boiling River for a soak — it’s fun to feel the merging of the icy river with the boiling spring.
:: Grand Teton National Park
Yellowstone and the Grand Teton National Parks are adjacent to each other. On our trip we flew to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. I recommend staying closer to Jackson Hole. We stayed within the park at Jackson Lake Lodge. It was a one hour drive into town. There is also a Four Seasons at the base of Jackson Hole Mountain.
The highlights of our visit were hiking around Jenny Lake and rafting on the Snake River. Jenny Lake — To visit Jenny Lake you can hop on a ferry and then do a hike around the lake. For our rafting trip we used the Sands Rafting Company — it leaves south of Jackson Hole.
:: Arches National Park
The town of Moab sits in the valley near Arches National Park, an outdoor adventure hub for exploring the gorgeous landscape. We parked ourselves in Moab for three days to explore Arches and the surrounding area. We stayed at the Hyatt Place in Moab. It’s a very clean, modern, and family and pet-friendly hotel. There are not many hotel options in Moab. There are a lot of wonderful restaurants in Moab. We were there for the outdoor adventure so we didn’t bother with them. I have heard great things about Eklecticafe or Desert Bistro (make reservations in advance).
Arches is not big — it’s totally reasonable to allocate one day to seeing the whole park. The arches and rock formations are impressive but more than one day would be overkill in my opinion. The most important thing to do in Arches is hike to Delicate Arch (the one you see on the Utah license plate). Of course, this is the most popular hike in the park and it’s extremely crowded — even if you go early. The trail is rated difficult; there are some steep sections that require rock scrambling. It’s a three mile loop so the hike isn’t long, but there’s no shade and with the sun beating down on you, it feels longer. We packed a lunch, brought water, sunscreen, and wore hats. We were fortunate the weather was overcast for first half of our hike. The arch is so impressive you’ll want to spend a bit of time enjoying the view. Plus, there will be a long line to get a picture beneath it so plan to spend a few hours on this hike.
After we returned from Delicate Arch we drove the scenic road in Arches to admire the magnificent sandstone rock formations. They really capture your imagination. We soon found ourselves creating our own names for the sights on the park map: Balanced Rock, Double Arch, Windows, and Park Avenue.
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