Road-tripping through California? Considering a jaunt out to the Grand Canyon from Las Vegas? If you’re like many travelers, you love the National Parks but you don’t have more than a day to devote to each one. Time is of the essence. So, without further ado, here’s how we recommend visiting five of the west coast’s top national parks—each in a single day.
Grand Canyon: South Rim
Start early, pack a picnic lunch, and take the shuttle to Canyon View Information Plaza just north of the south entrance, to pick up information and see your first incredible view at Mather Point. Continue east along Desert View Drive for about 2 mi to Yaki Point, your first stop. Next, hop back on the shuttle to head 7 mi east to Grandview Point, for a good view of the Krishna Shrine and Vishnu Temple buttes. Go 4 mi east and catch the view at Moran Point, then 3 mi to the Tusayan Ruin and Museum, where a small display is devoted to the history of the ancestral Puebloans. Continue another mile east to Lipan Point to view the Colorado River. The final stop along the shuttle route is Desert View and Watchtower, where you can use telescopes for even better views.
On the return shuttle, hop off at any of the picnic areas for lunch. Once back at Grand Canyon Village, walk the paved Rim Trail to Maricopa Point. Stop at the historic El Tovar Hotel for dinner (be sure to make reservations well in advance). If you have time, take the shuttle on Hermit Road to Hermits Rest, 7 mi away. It’s a good place to watch the sunset.
Grand Canyon: North Rim
For your day at the North Rim, we suggest a hike and a drive. The most popular trails on the North Rim are Transept Trail, which starts near the Grand Canyon Lodge and has little elevation change, making it good for children; and Cliff Springs Trail, which starts near Cape Royal and leads to good views of the canyon. For your drive, travel up the two-lane Cape Royal Road through the Kaibab National Forest to Point Imperial—at 8,803 feet, it’s the highest vista on either rim and has views of the Vermilion Cliffs, the Painted Desert, Navajo Mountain, and more. If you have more time, you can take a mule ride into the canyon. The trails for the mules are a bit easier on this side of the canyon. Riders must be at least age 7. Or listen to a ranger-led talk. Schedules are posted at the Grand Canyon Lodge near the North Rim Visitor Center.
Begin the day by packing a picnic lunch or picking one up at a Jackson eatery. Arrive at Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center in time for a 9 AM, two-hour, guided Snake River float trip (make reservations in advance with one of the dozen or so outfitters that offer the trip). When you’re back on dry ground, drive north on Teton Park Road, stopping at scenic turnouts—don’t miss Teton Glacier—until you reach Jenny Lake Road, which is one-way headed south.
After a brief stop at Cathedral Group Turnout, park at the Jenny Lake ranger station and take the 20-minute boat ride to Cascade Canyon trailhead for a short hike. Return to your car by mid-afternoon, drive back to Teton Park Road, and head north to Signal Mountain Road to catch a top-of-the-park view of the Tetons. In late afternoon descend the mountain and continue north on Teton Park Road.
At Jackson Lake Junction, you can go east to Oxbow Bend or north to Willow Flats, both excellent spots for wildlife viewing before you head to Jackson Lake Lodge for dinner and an evening watching the sun set over the Tetons. Or if you’d like to get back on the water, drive to Colter Bay Marina, where you can board a 1½-hour sunset cruise across Jackson Lake to Waterfalls Canyon. You can reverse this route if you’re heading south from Yellowstone: start the day with a 7:30 AM breakfast cruise from Colter Bay and end it with a sunset float down the Snake River.
If you plan to spend just one full day in the park, your best approach would be to concentrate on one or two of the park’s major areas, such as the two biggest attractions: the famous Old Faithful geyser and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.
En route between these attractions, you can see geothermal activity and most likely some wildlife. Plan on at least two hours for Old Faithful, one of the most iconic landmarks in America. Eruptions are approximately 90 minutes apart, though they can be as close as 60 minutes apart. Before and after an eruption you can explore the surrounding geyser basin and Old Faithful Inn. To the north of Old Faithful, make Grand Prismatic Spring your can’t-miss geothermal stop; farther north, near Madison, veer off the road to the west to do the short Firehole Canyon Drive to see the Firehole River cut a small canyon and waterfall (Firehole Falls).
If you’re arriving from the east, start with sunrise at Lake Butte, Fishing Bridge, and the wildliferich Hayden Valley as you cross the park counter-clockwise to Old Faithful. To try and see wolves or bears, call ahead and ask when/if rangers will be stationed at roadside turnouts with spotting scopes. Alternatively, hike any trail in the park at least 2 mi—and remember that you’re entering the domain of wild and sometimes dangerous animals, so be alert and don’t hike alone.
If you’re entering through the North or Northeast entrance, begin at dawn looking for wolves and other animals in Lamar Valley, then head to Tower-Roosevelt and take a horseback ride into the surrounding forest. After your ride, continue west to Mammoth Hot Springs, where you can hike the Lower Terrace Interpretive Trail past Liberty Cap and other strange, brightly colored limestone formations. If you drive 1½ mi south of the visitor center you will reach the Upper Terrace Drive, for close-ups of hot springs. In the late afternoon, drive south, keeping an eye out for wildlife as you go—you’re almost certain to see elk, buffalo, and possibly even a bear.
Alternatively, from Tower-Roosevelt you can head south to go through Canyon Village to see the north or south rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and its waterfalls, and then head west through Norris and Madison.
When you reach Old Faithful, you can place the famous geyser into context by walking the 1½-mi Geyser Hill Loop. Watch the next eruption from the deck of the Old Faithful Inn.
Begin at the Valley Visitor Center, where you can watch the inspiring documentary Spirit of Yosemite. A minute’s stroll from there is the Indian village of Ahwahneechee, which depicting American Indian life circa 1870. Take another 20 minutes to see the Yosemite Museum. Then, take the free shuttle to the Yosemite Falls and hike the Lower Yosemite Falls Trail to the base of the falls. Then proceed via shuttle or a 20-minute walk to Yosemite Lodge.
Next choose one of three things: leisurely exploring Curry Village—perhaps going for a swim or ice skating, shopping, renting a bike, or having a beer on the deck; checking out Happy Isles Nature Center and the adjacent nature trail, then enjoying an ice-cream treat while walking back to Curry Village; or hiking up the Mist Trail to the Vernal Fall footbridge to admire the view.
Hop back on the shuttle, then disembark at the Ahwahnee Hotel. Step into the Great Lounge, which has a magnificent fireplace and Indian artwork, and sneak a peek into the Dining Room, if you’re up for a splurge.
Get back on the shuttle, and head to Yosemite Village, where you can stop by the Ansel Adams Gallery. Get back in your car and drive to the El Capitan picnic area and enjoy an outdoor evening meal. At this time of day, “El Cap” should be sun-splashed. (You will have gotten several good looks at world-famous Half Dome throughout the day.) Any sunlight left? If so, continue driving on around to see Bridalveil Fall.
Begin your visit at the Zion Canyon Visitor Center, where outdoor exhibits inform you about the park’s geology, wildlife, history, and trails. Catch the shuttle or drive—depending on the season—into Zion Canyon. On your way in, make a quick stop at the Zion Human History Museum to watch a 22-minute park orientation program and to see exhibits chronicling the uman history of the area. Board the shuttle and travel to the Court of the Patriarchs viewpoint to take photos and walk the short path. Then pick up the next bus headed into the canyon.
Stop at Zion Lodge and cross the road to the Emerald Pools trailhead, and take the short hike up to the pools themselves. Before reboarding the shuttle, grab lunch in the snack shop or dining room at Zion Lodge. Take the shuttle as far as Weeping Rock trailhead for a brief, cool walk up to the dripping, spring-fed cascade. Ride the next shuttle to the end of the road, where you can walk to the gateway of the canyon’s narrows on the paved, accessible Riverside Walk.
Reboard the shuttle to return to the Zion Canyon Visitor Center to pick up your car. Head out onto the beautiful Zion–Mount Carmel Highway, with its long, curving tunnels, making sure your camera is loaded and ready for stops at viewpoints along the road. Once you reach the park’s east entrance, turn around, and on your return trip stop to take the short hike up to Canyon Overlook. Now you’re ready to rest your feet at a screening of Zion Canyon: Treasure of the Gods on the giant screen of the Zion Canyon Theatre. In the evening, you might want to attend a ranger program at one of the campground amphitheaters or at Zion Lodge. Or you can follow a relaxing dinner in Springdale with a stroll downtown.
Photo credit: (1) Grand Canyon South Rim courtesy Shutterstock (2) Old Faithful image courtesy iStock