Our adventure this time took place in the Southwestern United States. Our road trip started in San Diego, traveled through Nevada, Utah, Arizona, and finished in Vail, Colorado. It was winter break, so perhaps not the best time of the year to travel, but we were still willing to explore the natural beauty of some famous national parks and Antelope Canyon. We had never been in these areas and we were convinced that it would be a fantastic road trip.
We were inconvenienced at times with the weather, but overall, we had a great trip! Follow our steps on this wonderful itinerary, or use parts of it to plan your own adventure in those areas that truly have breathtaking views.
Day 1: Vegas baby!
We drove straight from San Diego to Las Vegas, Nevada (320 miles, or about 5 ½ hours).
I knew we would have several options for hotels in Vegas, so I waited until the last minute to book a room, hoping for a good deal. On our way there, I logged into the “Hotel Tonight” app and booked a night at Bellagio for a fair price. Staying at Bellagio was super convenient because we already had tickets to see the Cirque du Soleil show “O” that night.
After checking in and getting settled, we walked downstairs to check out the beautiful Christmas exhibit. It was stunning! The colors and fragrances of the season combined with perfect designs resulted in an extraordinary display that must be seen.
Around 6:30 pm we walked to the “O” theater. My husband and I have seen several shows from Cirque du Soleil, but “O” is now, by far, our favorite. The performers were extremely talented, and we were very impressed how quickly and smoothly the stage would change from water to dry stage, and vice-versa.
It was really cool!
For any Cirque du Soleil show, we like buying seats not very close to the stage or we’d have to be looking up most of the time. Just uncomfortable.
For dinner, we walked to the Gordon Ramsay Steak Restaurant, at the Paris Hotel. It was my daughter’s choice, who is a big fan, and watches every single episode of MasterChef Junior. We ordered the New York steak, which was delicious, and Beef Wellington, which we thought was lacking flavor.
Day 2: Hoover Dam, Saint George, and Springdale, UT.
From Las Vegas, we drove 40 miles (about an hour) towards Lake Mead. Our first stop of the day was Hoover Dam, the huge concrete structure on the Colorado River, connecting the Arizona-Nevada state line. We were able to see the Dam from different angles, and although the water was very low, it was still a very impressive site.
After leaving the Dam, we drove 150 miles (about 3 ½ hours) to Saint George, UT. We stopped for lunch/early dinner at Painted Pony, a cozy restaurant next to the historic town hall and jail in the city. We didn’t get to see very much of the city, but it is a charming city surrounded by red cliffs.
By the time we finished dinner, the sun had already set. We drove another 40 miles (about 1 hour) to Springdale and checked-in at Flanigan’s Hotel, just outside the main entrance to Zion National Park.
Day 3 – The Narrows at Zion National Park
We heard The Narrows is a must see and we were looking forward to it. Breakfast was at Café Soleil, where we bought water bottles and sandwiches to take on our trek. The lady at our hotel told us that there was no food or water available during the hike.
At 9 am, Zion Adventure Company opened their doors. We rented all the necessary gear to walk through The Narrows in freezing temperatures: dry suits, boots, neoprene socks, and hiking sticks, plus a backpack and water proof bag for cellphone and car key ($53 for the package). The special boots stabilized us on the river rocks, and the sturdy walking stick was helpful in determining the depth of the water.
Because it was low season, no buses were running, so we drove to the parking lot inside of the park, near the Temple of Sinawava. We suited up and were ready for the hike. The air was cold but we warmed up very quickly. The boots filled up with 40 degree water immediately, but amazingly our feet stayed warm.
The Narrows is the narrowest section of Zion Canyon. It is a gorge with walls a thousand feet tall, and the river sometimes just twenty to thirty feet wide. It blew our minds. What an incredible place! We hiked up the river for a couple hours before stopping to eat our sandwiches. We saw a few small groups of people, and actually saw only one couple during our lunch break.
Our daughter got tired after three hours of hiking, so we turned back. We probably wouldn’t have gone too much further, even if she weren’t with us. It was getting late and we had to walk all the way back to where we started. We had to keep in mind that the sun sets at about 5 pm in December.
My advice is to get all gear the day before and have a very early start. We felt we wasted precious daylight hours waiting for the store to open at 9 am.
We got back to the parking lot around 5 pm, perfect timing. It was a relief to take off the dry suits and after dropping them off, we headed to dinner at King’s Landing, a comfortable restaurant run by a young couple. Service was great and the food was yummy!
Day 4 – Zion and Bryce National Parks
We woke up around 8 am, checked out of the hotel, and after breakfast at Café Soleil, drove up to Canyon Overlook Trail.
In time, we spotted the small parking lot located just beyond the east entrance of a tunnel. We crossed the road and began the easy 1-mile hike on a well-marked trail that leads to an overlook. From there we had stunning views of lower Zion Canyon.
Next stop: Bryce National Park. We checked into the Best Western Plus, just outside of the Park, around 2 pm. The stretch this time was 83 miles, made in about two hours.
We stopped at the Visitor Center to get a map and headed to the Rim Trail. The view from the top was incredible. A huge area composed by colorful, odd-shaped, rock pillars (called “hoodoos”), sculpted by erosion, exposed a fascinating landscape. Bryce National Park is the largest collection of hoodoos in the world.
Even though the view was beautiful from the Rim, we were up for a hike. We started at Sunrise Point, down to Queens Garden Trail, up Navajo Loop Trail, ending at Sunset Point. It was a lovely hike. The challenge was that the trail went down about 400 feet and then back up fairly quickly. To make matters more difficult, we took a trail called Wall Street that turned out to be closed. We had to turn around after 1/4 mile. It was intense hiking back up. Our daughter did very well despite the distance and snow on the ground.
I loved the contrast between the snow and the red-orange sand-stone pillars. Weather was gorgeous, and although we were cold at the beginning, we ended up warming up along the hike.
We had dinner at Ruby’s Inn across the street from our hotel. It was just okay, standard comfort food. We were starving, so it was nice though to be fed after the long hike.
Day 5 – Bryce Canyon, Lower Antelope Canyon Tour and Horseshoe Bend
We woke up at 6:30 am the next morning, had a mediocre hotel breakfast, and left. We drove the south scenic drive in Bryce Canyon Park, which opens at 8 am, and stopped to photograph some viewpoints along the 17-mile drive: Natural Bridge, Aqua Canyon, Rainbow Point among others. At Rainbow Point we turned around and came back.
We drove 150 miles (about 2 ½ hours) from Bryce to Page, Arizona. Page could be a contender for two of the most stunning natural creations in North America: Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend.
We had booked a tour with Ken’s Tours Lower Antelope Canyon a month in advance (it does sell out), so we drove straight there. They request that folks arrive 30 minutes prior to the selected tour. Dozens of people showed up for the tour, but they divided visitors into smaller guided groups. The Antelope Canyon is not a National Park. It’s in a Navajo tribal reservation and the entrance fee is $25, plus $8 per person to enter the Navajo Reserve. The payment is made at check-in (in cash), even though the reservation was done in advance.
Note: To visit Antelope Canyon, you must book a tour.
It is hard to find words to report the beauty of this canyon. Descriptions fail. It is as stunning as the photos you’ve probably seen. The views from inside the Canyon when the sunlight makes its way through the rock formations are absolutely amazing. Our guide did a great job explaining how the canyon was sculpted by the erosion and how the height of the sand floor changes after each flood. Because it is below ground level, there are some steps to get down to the canyon, as well, some steps to climb out.
Horseshoe Bend was seven miles from Antelope Canyon. We parked in a big, open, free parking area, and from there, we hiked 3/4 mile to the rim to view the bend, which doesn’t reveal itself until the last moment. In December it is neither crowded nor hot. It was a very pleasant hike. Another picturesque landmark. I still recommend bringing water and be careful (especially with kids) because there is no protection at the edge of the 1,000 foot cliff. Terrific scenery, but scary!
We awoke around 8 am with the plan to spend the day at Lake Powell. To our disappointment, about 3-5 inches of snow had fallen overnight. It was beautiful, but we were frustrated because our plans were suddenly canceled. Thankfully we hadn’t booked the boat tour in advance.
That night we checked in at Courtyard Page and had dinner at Chill ‘n Grill.
Day 6 – Lake Powell: axed
Due to the weather, we left the hotel early and drove east in the snow for 176 miles (about 3 ½ hours) to Four Corners Monument, the only place where four states meet (Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah). Luckily, we managed to get in front of the storm by heading north towards Arches National Park. We drove for about three hours, 155 miles, to Moab. Along the way we booked our hotel, the Aarchway Inn, just outside of Arches National Park. It was a great deal: $60 for three “comfortable” queen beds! This was the largest room we got during the whole trip.
We had dinner at Arches Authentic Thai. The Tom Kha soup, dumplings and drunken noodles were tasty. The portions were huge and we ended up having too much food on our table.
Day 7 – More Snow in Arches National Park
The next morning, the storm caught up with us. There was snow on the ground and our car was covered, but we were naively hoping we could see Arches National Park. The breakfast at Aarchway Inn was bad. We checked out and drove into Arches. It was very cloudy and foggy, and we got stuck on some ice and snow. We had to literally reverse out, turn around and leave. You won this one Arches, but we’ll be back!
Immediately, we got on I-70 East and drove to Vail, Colorado, for about 4 ½ hours, 260 miles. We checked-in at The Lodge at Vail around 5 pm. We didn’t want snow in Lake Powell and Arches National Park, but in Vail it was just perfect, as expected. After checking in we walked around to rent snowboard gear for my daughter and hubby, but not for me. I tried skiing and snowboarding a few times, but I was so afraid of falling that I gave up.
Day 8 – Beautiful Vail
Vail is a small, charming town at the base of Vail Mountain and there is always something to do besides skiing or snowboarding. It offers world-class winter activities, the five S’s: snowmobiling, snowshoeing, snow tubing, sleigh rides, and shopping!
The village hosts many shops, restaurants, and bars, and I found it easy to find options beyond snow related activities. While my husband and daughter had a blast snowboarding on the mountains for three days, I enjoyed relaxing, shopping, reading my book and sipping wine. Just perfect!
We spent Christmas in Vail and it was very different for us! Although it was a magical white Christmas in such a fabulous place, we missed being at home with family.
It was our first road trip and we loved it. Even though we hit some bad weather along the way, we had the advantage of discounted accommodations, fewer tourists around, and the lack of heat in areas well known to hit highs into the 100s during the summer. On top of that, we saw exceptional natural beauty.
More to come!