It's a fair assumption to say that many Canadians are familiar with Las Vegas. But the spectacular natural beauty that lies just a day's drive away? Less so.
Straddling the Utah-Arizona border are enough national parks, state parks, national monuments, slot canyons and recreational areas to dedicate a month of your time to.
So the next time you swing into Vegas for pool season, a conference, or a bachelor /bachelorette party, I wholeheartedly urge you to hit the open road and discover some of the best of America. Chances are, you'll start seeing Las Vegas less for its slots and more as I do: as the gateway for exploring the wonders of the American Southwest.
Day 1: Las Vegas - Monument Valley
Driving distance: 640 km (398 miles)
Driving time: 6 hours 20 minutes
This is your longest driving day. But don't worry, the reward is sunset at one of the most iconic viewpoints in the American Southwest.
Depart Las Vegas as early as you can stand to rise. We managed to depart the desert city by 9:30 a.m. and arrived at Monument Valley just in time for sunset.
It's easy driving: straight, open roads and scenic terrain. You'll leave Nevada, skirt through the northwest corner of Arizona, and then quickly enter Utah. Pass through St. George (perhaps making a pit stop for lunch), before nipping southeast into Arizona.
TRAVEL TIP: TIME ZONE CONFUSION
On this road trip route, you'll pass through some time zones. Here are some handy tips to make sense of what can feel like a time warp:
- Mountain time (Utah: St. George, Zion NP, Bryce NP) is one hour ahead of Pacific (Nevada/Las Vegas)
- Utah, Arizona and Monument Valley Tribal Park operate on Mountain Time.
- Caveat: Arizona does not participate in daylight savings. During daylight savings, the state of Utah and the Navajo Nation are one hour later than Arizona. In non-daylight savings months, Arizona, Utah and the Navajo Nation are on the same time. Double-check the time if you've made any time sensitive reservations.
Required stop: Horseshoe Bend, Page, AZ
Schedule a stop in Page, Arizona to refuel. It's also a very good idea to purchase any groceries, water, or other supplies you might want for the evening. There are limited provisions in Kayenta and even fewer within Monument Valley Tribal Park.
It would be criminal to depart Page without taking a peek at the awe-inspiring Horseshoe Bend. It's conveniently located just 4.8 miles south of the Glen Canyon Dam, which you'll pass on your way into Page.
The outlook at Horseshoe Bend is easily reached on a gently graded 2.4-km trail from a free parking lot. The path is mostly sand over hard-packed dirt. Bring water, as the route offers no relief from the sun.
In the warmer months, Horseshoe Bend can be overrun with visitors. However, the view is world-famous and does not disappoint in the least.
After you leave Page, you're just two hours from Monument Valley Tribal Park. You'll need $20 USD in cash to pay for park entry.
Sleep: In a one-of-a-kind Navajo hogan Airbnb
Monument Valley, Utah
Sleeps: 4 persons
Beds: 4 singles
Price: $184-$277 CAD + $11 CAD cleaning fee + Airbnb service fee + taxes, for a total of $353 CAD for one night.
There are very limited options for lodging near Monument Valley, but even more rare is the opportunity to sleep on the Valley floor, among those famous mittens. For that, one must turn to Airbnb hostess Verna Yazzie.
Some 5.2 miles down the rugged Valley Drive scenic loop, and tucked down a nondescript road, are a pair of Navajo hogans. A hogan is a dome-shaped, cedar-framed structure covered by tightly packed sand.
Not only is it special to be spending the night deep in the Park, but the hogan is culturally symbolic to the Navajo. Our hogan is a female hogan, its round shape representing the womb of Mother Earth. Verna tells us, "As Her children, this is where she protects us from outside forces. This is where we get our rest – spiritually, emotionally and physically."
Emotional indeed. The guest book brims with entries that describe quasi-spiritual experiences. This is sacred land and if you can't feel it, you'll miss the entire point.
Note: Guests should not expect hotel amenities. Staying at the hogan is something akin to glamping. There is no running water or electricity, and the washroom is a basic but clean outhouse.
Find it on Airbnb: airbnb.ca/rooms/11436203
Day 2: Monument Valley - Orderville, UT
Driving distance: 374 km (223 miles)
Driving time: 3 hours 55 minutes
Today, your route doubles back the way you came. You'll head to Page for a slot canyon excursion and from there, you'll head as far as Kanab before driving north to Orderville, your home base for exploring Zion National Park.
Required stop: sunrise in Monument Valley
You might be bleary-eyed, but rising to wake with the sun - a Navajo tradition - and watching the sun rise over Monument Valley's famous mittens is the stuff of legendary road trips.
Leave the hogan at least 30 minutes before sunrise and drive to The View Hotel. Bundle up, stake out a spot and ready your camera. You won't need to spend more than half an hour to absorb it all.
Optional stop: a blockbuster-famous film location
From here, you might want to drive north towards Mexican Hat, Utah, along US Route 163. Twenty minutes out, you'll look back to the mittens and recognize a very famous viewpoint. It's where Forrest Gump ended his three-year, two-month, 14-day and 16-hour run.
Optional stop: Goosenecks State Park
Bureau of Land Mangement (CCby2.0)
Detouring 20-minutes north of the Forrest Gump lookout, you'll find a well-kept secret: Goosenecks State Park.
What makes this park remarkable? Here, the San Juan River meanders a whopping six miles in just a one-mile distance. It's the work of 300 million years of geological activity and is considered to be one of the finest examples of entrenched river meander in the world. That, and it's fun to look at.
Bring $5 USD cash to pay the day-use entry fee.
Optional stop: Artist's Point,
Monument Valley Tribal Park
Before or after you check out of the hogan, you might wish to drive the rest of the Valley Drive. Its terminus is Artist's Point, which gives visitors an alternate view of the mitten-punctured landscape.
Required stop: Antelope Canyon, Page, AZ
This road trip would not be complete without touring Antelope Canyon. It's also located just off the highway as you enter Page.
Antelope Canyon is divided into two sections: Lower and Upper. Tours are offered by a limited number of licensed operators, and you'll have to book a departure time in advance.
Upper Antelope Canyon boasts more even terrain and accessibility. Lower Antelope Canyon is narrower and involves climbing steel ladders. Both are extremely popular and wait times vary from 20 minutes to three hours, despite scheduled departure times.
Tours cost $25 USD for adults. Time spent in the canyon runs 45-60 minutes. You'll also need to pay $8 USD for a Navajo Park permit fee.
Despite being filled to the brim with tourists, a walk through Antelope Canyon is a quintessential Arizona experience.
Optional stop: Kanab
Making your way to Orderville, you might decide to stop in Kanab. This small town is cloaked in western charm.
Optional stop: Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park
Detouring to Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park only takes 20 minutes (12 miles) each way. Access it from the Hancock Road turnoff while traveling north of Kanab along U.S. 89.
Sleep: In an adorable Airbnb tiny home
Beds: One queen and two singles
Price: $207 CAD + $104 CAD cleaning fee + Airbnb service fee + taxes, for a total of $386 CAD
This immaculate tiny home is located in Orderville, just 20 minutes east of Zion National Park. That means it's close enough to make a sunset run to Canyon Overlook Trail - if you're up for it. Otherwise, take a load off. This might be a tiny home, but it's fully equipped. I'm talking air-con, washer-dryer, kitchen complete with dishwasher and coffee maker, a grill, living room and covered deck. An electronic lock means you can check-in at your own convenience.
Note: Whether you want to stay in and cook or dine out, your options are more plentiful in Kanab than quaint Orderville.
Find it on Airbnb: airbnb.ca/rooms/13027086
Day 3: Zion National Park - Las Vegas
Driving distance: 304 km (189 miles)
Driving time: 3 hours 21 minutes
The first leg of today's road trip is arguably the most scenic. From Orderville, drive west along Zion – Mount Carmel Highway. After some premier hiking in Zion National Park, you might take a hearty meal in Springdale. From here, it's 2.5 hours to your road trip finish line in Las Vegas.
Required stop: Zion National Park
Welcome to one of America's favourite national parks.
If you have a full day, two of the park's premier trails include Angel's Landing and The Narrows, Bottom-Up. An ambitious hiker could fit both in.
TIP: PARKING IN ZION NATIONAL PARK
From March to November, visitors can not drive themselves through Zion National Park. Park at the visitor's center and board the Zion Shuttle (free). You can also park within Springdale city limits, which is serviced by a second shuttle line (also free).
Suggested hike: Angel's Landing
This 8-kilometre (5-mile) trail elevates you 1,500 feet above the Virgin River. It starts out gently enough, before turning into a series of switchbacks that lead to Scout Lookout. Until this point, the trail is maintained and paved in parts, making it more of a grunt than a technical hike.
The next section crosses a short, albeit narrow ridge: 28 inches at its narrowest, with drops of 800-ft and 1,200-ft on either side. Once you're across, the final ascent up the humped peak begins. The outlook at Angels Landing affords sweeping views of Zion Canyon that are simply breathtaking.
The hardest part - if you're not already winded and suffering vertigo - is sharing the barely there trail with oncoming foot traffic. If you're afraid of heights, you might want to cut your hike short at Scout Lookout.
Tip: Hike Angels Landing as early as possible in the morning. It's that much more strenuous under a hot Utah sun.
Suggested hike: The Narrows, Bottom-Up
Have you ever hiked up a river?
Bottom-Up follows the Virgin River through a canyon that has towering walls up to 1,500-feet tall. The canyon narrows the farther one goes, measuring just 22 feet wide at its narrowest. Orange Navajo sandstone reflects the golden sunlight and the water is milky opaque blue.
This hike is an out-and-back, in which hikers retrace their steps; hike only as far in as you'd like. I suggest allocating at least 3-4 hours.
Tip: Wear water socks or sport sandals. A trekking pole is invaluable. (All can be rented or inexpensively purchased in nearby Springdale.)
Optional stop: Valley of Fire State Park, NV
If your legs can manage it, you might want to detour to Valley of Fire State Park. It lies just 50 miles from Las Vegas and depending on how long you stay, you'll add just 60-90 minutes to your day.
Road trip budget:
How much does this road trip cost?
- 3-day mid-size car rental, inc taxes $79.99 CAD x 3 = $239.97 CAD
- Airbnb accommodations: $729 CAD
- 3 tanks of gas: $120 USD
- Zion National Park entry: $20 USD
- Navajo Nation entry fee: $20 USD
- Antelope Canyon Tour: $33 USD per person
Per person*: $329.16 CAD + food
*Based on 4 paying adults + subject to currency fluctuations
Our accommodations were partially comped by Airbnb, but all opinions are my own.
Have you road-tripped this route?
Did you love it as much as we did?
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