Wild Wild Southwest, Part 1: The Preparation

Did you know that when a child is in 4th grade they can get themselves and their families into our national parks for free? It is called the Every Kid in a Park Program, and it starts when your child starts 4th grade, through the following summer. My oldest was in 4th grade this year so about a year ago we started planning our big summer road trip to visit some of our National Parks. We decided to focus on the Southwest “Grand Circle” in Utah and Arizona this time and maybe do some more northern ones in three years when our youngest is in 4th grade. I have been to this area before, once when I was about 14 with my Dad and brother, and once right after I graduated college. My husband has never been and I have been excited for years to show him this incredible part of our country.

This first blog post is going to outline some of the prep work that went into planning our three week adventure.

How to get there

I’ll admit, there is nothing like taking a westward road trip across the US in a car. I’ve done it twice, and it’s truly amazing to watch the landscape change before your eyes. My husband and I discussed the possibility of taking our Toyota Highlander and just driving out there. We love the car and it’s big and comfortable, but in the end we decided we didn’t want to use the extra week or so it would take to drive out there and back for driving. We also thought about flying and renting an RV or campervan when we arrived, but they are really expensive! They are an average of $300 a night plus gas! After lots more discussion we decided to fly using miles, rent an SUV when we arrive, and do a combination of camping and hotels on the road. We are going to try to pack as much camping gear as we can in checked luggage and then buy a few inexpensive things, such as camping chairs when we get there.

We booked 4 one-way tickets from Syracuse to Las Vegas for 70,000 Delta skymiles, and then 4 one-way tickets from Phoenix to Syracuse for 50,000 Delta skymiles. I used autoslash to find the best price on an SUV for 3 weeks. Next, to plan the itinerary.

The itinerary

I know it seems romantic to just hop in the car and drive, figuring it all out along the way, and maybe in decades past you could do so (in fact I did in the 90’s), but in case you haven’t heard, our National Parks are experiencing a surge of tourism the likes of which they’ve never seen before. This is causing serious overcrowding problems. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand I’m glad more and more people are getting out there to visit and see our country’s incredible natural beauty, on the other hand, in some places it seems that this rise in popularity is overtaxing our park system’s infrastructure. That said, advance planning is essential, especially in the summer months for popular campgrounds and tours, which can be booked 6 months in advance.

Since I was booking these things in February for a July trip, I had to create a detailed itinerary for the three weeks. Here is what I came up with:

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July 10:Fly to Las Vegas, stay at Mandalay Bay. Originally I booked this room using Chase Ultimate Rewards points, but then Amex was doing a promotion where you received an extra 6,000 Membership Rewards points for booking an MGM property, plus you get their Fine Hotels and Resorts perks, which includes breakfast for two and $100 food and beverage credit at the resort.

July 11: Pick up rental car, buy camping supplies in Vegas, drive to Zion, set up camp. When we get some of our camping food, we will likely hit up the local Target or Walmart to fill out our camping gear supply with cheap air mattresses or camping chairs.
Zion is one of the most popular national parks, and so camping reservations book 6 months in advance. Luckily, they just opened a new, tent-only loop at Watchman campground, and we were able to reserve a site that looks pretty nice with shade and a fire pit (they don’t all have this).

July 12: Hiking and exploring Zion, stay at campsite. Hopefully we will get to hike the Narrows or do some tubing on the Virgin river!

July 13: More hiking and exploring Zion, drive to Bryce Canyon, check into hotel. Our original plan was to camp at Bryce too, however they are doing major construction to their campgrounds this summer. We didn’t want to get into that mess, so I booked a hotel/B&B that got good reviews on my hotels.com account. This way we can also arrive later if we want to spend more time at Zion, and we won’t need to worry about setting up camp.

July 14: Explore Bryce Canyon, stay at hotel.

July 15: Leave hotel, re-stock food, drive to Capitol Reef, camp at Fruita campground. Apparently this campground used to be first come, first served, but they are now reservable so we got a site for 2 nights.

July 16: Explore Capitol Reef, stay at Fruita.

July 17: Drive to Vernal, Utah, stay at Springhill Suites. A while ago I listened to an episode of one of my favorite travel podcasts, Amateur Traveler, on rafting on the Colorado River through Grand Canyon (which my Dad was lucky enough to do a couple years ago). It wouldn’t be an appropriate trip for kids, but the guest highly recommended rafting trips in Dinosaur National Monument with kids. Combine that with a geology and fossil loving husband and I decided to book this. It takes us a little out of the “Grand Circle,” but not too far. In Vernal I booked a SpringHill Suites using 15,000 Marriott points for 2 nights!

July 18: White water rafting on the Green River! I chose to go with Don Hatch Expeditions.

July 19: Drive to Moab, UT, stay in Expedition Lodge. I found this cool, retro inspired hotel on hotels.com and booked 2 nights so we can check out Moab as well as Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.

July 20: Explore Arches, stay at Expedition Lodge.

July 21: Stay in Willow Flats campground, Canyonlands. This is a first come, first serve campsite which is supposed to be beautiful in the “Island in the Sky” section of Canyonlands.

July 22: Drive to Telluride, CO, stay at an Airbnb. I wanted to do one Colorado ski/mountain town on this trip, and have heard great things about Telluride.

July 23: Explore Telluride, stay at Airbnb.

July 24: Drive to Mesa Verde, NP. I reserved a cliff dwelling twilight tour for this evening in the NP, and we booked a campsite at Morefield campground.

July 25: Four corners, Monument Valley, stay in Page, AZ at Hampton Inn. The kids really wanted to do Four corners, and I would like to do the driving tour of Monument Valley. Lodging in Page, AZ this time of year is ridiculously expensive! I dropped 50,000 Hilton Honors points per night at the Hampton Inn, but the cash price was $300!

July 26: Antelope Canyon tour, hopefully see Horseshoe Bend, stay at Hampton Inn.

July 27: Drive to South Rim, Grand Canyon, stay at Desert View Campground. This is also first come, first serve, so hopefully if we get there early enough we will get a site!

July 28: Explore Grand Canyon, Stay at Desert View Campground.

July 29: Drive to Sedona, AZ, stay at Kimpton. I booked this really nice Kimpton resort using Chase Ultimate Rewards, 40,744 for two nights. I’ve always wanted to check out Sedona, and I think staying at a “luxury” resort will be a nice way to end the trip.

July 30: Explore Sedona, stay at Kimpton.

July 31: Explore Sedona, hang out at Kimpton, drive to Phoenix after dinner to catch 11:30pm flight! Since it’s only a 2 hour drive to PHX airport, we should be able to have most of the day to hang out in Sedona and the resort, eat an early dinner, and still make it to the airport in time to return the rental car and catch our red-eye flight back home!

Well there it is, all laid out! You know what they say, “The best laid plans…” We will see how the whole itinerary works out in real time. In the meantime I plan on printing out all of our reservations and the itinerary itself and putting them in a binder to take with us, especially since cell service will be spotty out west. Next up, the packing!

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