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Trip Report How many western National Parks CAN we see in 2 weeks? (7/10-25/09

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(In which we are gone 15 nights and 15.5 days; travel over 5000 miles; take over 5000 pictures; visit 12 states, 12 National Parks Service sites, and 2 state parks; drive about 90 hours; and live to tell the tales!)

General itinerary/must see list: From Corpus Christi, Texas, to Mt. Rushmore, Devil’s Tower, Yellowstone for 4 nights, through the Grand Tetons, Bryce Canyon, Zion, North Rim of Grand Canyon, South Rim of Grand Canyon for 2 nights, Tucson (with perhaps some stops along the way that day), home to Texas

Motivation: Years ago when we offered to take our children (now 24.5, 22.5 and 20) on trips to the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone, they weren’t interested, so we traveled instead to east Tennessee, various state and national parks in Texas, Colorado and Hilton Head. But when my youngest took college geology at the local university, she said, “I want to see geysers; I want to see big holes in the ground”—this from an English major! So knowing that our time with DD is short, we agreed to take her.

Motives/goals: As I began planning, it quickly became evident that we’d have to pick and choose from the vastness. So our goals for this trip were to see, even if briefly, several national parks; to take tons of pictures (DH with one DSLR and DD with another!); and to take a few short easy hikes and walks, not anything long or back-country. We wanted to save money whenever and however possible so didn’t look to stay in the most luxurious places and were willing to eat as inexpensively as possible.

Parameters/boundaries: Our school and work schedules meant that we’d have to go in July for 2 weeks max. We opted to drive ourselves (no flying or RV-ing). It takes a LONG time to just drive out of South Texas, but we are used to rather long driving stretches. Therefore, the sheer distances involved in conjunction with (or maybe in opposition to?) our “must-see” lists were the biggest influence on how long we would spend in each place

Planning: I used new and old guide books like Fodors and Frommers, MANY web-sites, and lots of maps (including Google-maps) to plan. I read the Forum comments on places we were interested in going to, but I did not use the Forum to pose specific questions. (I didn’t find the Forum as helpful as when I planned a 2008 trip to London. My initial forays were met with “Don’t do” instead of “Here’s how to.”) I did lots of homework and reading and looked at what might work for MY family and went from there. I KNOW we weren’t able to spend enough time in any one place to see it extensively, but we picked the things we most wanted to see or do and made an itinerary that would accommodate as much as possible. I also knew we were traveling at the peak of tourist time, but that’s when all 3 could go. I began planning around Christmas 2008 and made reservations as quickly as I could (I changed one and added one night a couple months later). I found even then some places inside the parks already filled so was glad I started when I did.

Equipage: 1 Garmin (named “Sheila” for her Aussie accent), 2 Blackberries, 2 laptops, and 2 Sony DSLR’s with all the accouterments digital life requires in the way of batteries, memory cards, and chargers! Lots of food, for lunches and snacks and maybe even breakfasts. Clothes for all weathers (e.g., gloves and fleece as well as sleeveless tops and shorts and raingear). Music, books, and crossword puzzles. Refillable Camelback hydration system and bottles. Several pairs of binoculars and a range finder. And my accordion file with papers (maps, brochures, reservation info) filed day by day. All loaded into our 10-year-old, well-maintained Suburban.

(Note on communication connections: Phone service was a bit spotty in all the parks but one of us usually had service. We had wireless internet at all the motels, but inside the parks only at the lodge areas of the Grand Canyon’s south rim.)
Day 1: DEPARTURE ALMOST DELAYED: The plan was to leave in late afternoon on Friday and drive the 230 miles to Austin, Texas, which would make Saturday’s drive a bit shorter (Marriott points for free night). That above-mentioned, well-maintained Suburban’s AC fan stopped working during my last minute errands that morning—AARGGH! But we were able to get it replaced by 3 pm (pays to have 20-year-relationship with a mechanic!) and we were off. Stopped at Cabela’s in Buda for DH.

Day 2: FINALLY OUT OF TEXAS: Just drove, generally, from Austin to Salina, Kansas. Stopped at another Cabela’s for DH in Fort Worth. (Only “glitch” this day was a phone call I received telling me a close friend had been struck by a hit and run driver while on her bicycle (in a bike lane) and was in critical condition with many many broken bones and life-threatening lung injuries. More about her later.)

Day 3: ARRIVAL IN CUSTER STATE PARK, SOUTH DAKOTA: After another day of driving, through the hills and prairies of Kansas, Nebraska and South Dakota (with a stop at the mother-ship Cabela’s in Sydney, NE), we arrived in Custer State Park. I stumbled upon this park while researching places to stay near Mt. Rushmore and am so glad I did. We stayed at the State Game Lodge (a “summer White House” for Coolidge and Eisenhower)—in the motel-like section. Completely adequate. It’s a lovely and quiet place, one of largest state parks in US. Full of prairie dogs, which we saw upon arrival (Don’t approach!) and we saw the rumps of our first bison-sighting. After one of the best meals of the whole vacation in the Lodge’s dining room (which has been expanded just this year), we stretched our legs with a bit of walking around the Lodge grounds, allowing some altitude-adjustment to take place. (We live at about sea level and the altitude is really a factor, especially for DH.) We also had the first round of what became a necessity every night—we downloaded the pics to my computer, backed them up on an external hard drive, and plugged in the camera batteries and Blackberries for charging.

Day 4: MT. RUSHMORE, CRAZY HORSE, AND MORE CUSTER: Early in the morning we headed to Mt. Rushmore, driving along the winding, scenic Iron Mountain Road in Custer State Park. I highly recommend this approach to the park. There are a couple tunnels which frame the monument as you drive from this direction. We saw more prairie dogs, deer, antelope and some very tame wild burros along the way.

At Mt. Rushmore we just did the typical, about 3 hours walking around the visitor center, the plaza, and the short walk to the base, taking LOTS of pictures. The sky was an amazing blue and cloudless. Perfect! It was busy even when we arrived before 9 and got increasingly packed.

Next we drove the few miles to the Crazy Horse Memorial site. I was somewhat surprised by the amount of people there. This is also an awesome work in progress and worth a stop. We didn’t spend a long time here (huge gift shop/museum area but we just breezed through that and we didn’t buy tickets for bus trip up the hill), just took more pics. It was getting a bit hot.

We had considered sticking around somewhere and seeing the lighting of Mt. Rushmore at night, then heading to our motel in Spearfish, but that ceremony doesn’t start til about 9:30 in July and we decided we didn’t want to get in bed that late with another full day of driving ahead, so we spent the rest of the afternoon driving the scenic roads through Custer. We didn’t see many more animals even on the route touted as full of fauna, but it was mid-afternoon. We did enjoy all the rock formations and tunnels and twists along Needles Highway. Another definite recommendation.

We drove to Rapid City to catch some supper and the interstate to Spearfish—and surprise! Another Cabela’s! While DH wandered around, I watched the Weather Channel which warned of a severe storm, with hail and wind, right over Spearfish, so we dawdled there a while longer til radar indicated some improvement. We did drive into the driving rain, and a semi was blown over just a couple minutes ahead of us! But we avoided the hail (softball to golfball-sized in some areas we heard later) and arrived in just a sprinkle. (This Fairfield Inn, the 3rd we stayed at in a row, was typical Fairfield Inn but overpriced; I would not stay here again if something comparable for less was available. It was also undergoing some renovation which didn’t limit services but was unsightly—but still charging regular prices.)

Days 5-10 to follow

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    This report has certainly gotten off to a good start. Feel like I should mention that Fodor's is running a national parks photo contest starting in mid-August. I hope you enter some of your 5000 (!) photos from your incredible journey!

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    Thanks for encouragement.

    Days 5-9 are the Yellowstone Days (with short Grand Tetons Trek)

    Day 5: ON TO YELLOWSTONE, VIA DEVIL’S TOWER: We got another early start so we could try to catch morning light at Devil’s Tower. It was cool to see it rise up in sight miles before we got there.

    At this National Park we purchased the $80 Annual Pass which I know saved us money. It allowed us to enter all the subsequent National Parks Service areas of all kinds without additional charges.

    At the Tower DD went on ahead of us on the walk around the base. She missed some sign and “accidentally” took the 3.5 mile loop! But she enjoyed the solitary walk, although at the end she was puffing, both from altitude and from hurrying, as she figured we’d beat her back and wonder! But DH and I strolled so slowly along our much shorter walk around the Tower and took so many pictures that we only beat her back by a very few minutes. We saw only about a half a dozen people on our walk, but the parking lot was filling up as we left the Park. DD was really beginning to enjoy all the geological “stuff” she encountered—and she was actually remembering many of the terms and concepts, and she enjoyed teaching us as we traveled on.

    We hit the road again across Wyoming, enjoying the hills and mountains as they rolled by (or we did). On Highway 14 we happened upon Shell Falls in the Bighorn National Forest and stopped by for a break, a look and of course, some pictures! We grabbed burgers in Cody for an early supper before entering the Park’s East Entrance and kept driving toward Canyon Village where we had lodging for 2 nights. In between Yellowstone Lake and the Canyon area, with storm clouds lowering overhead, we encountered our first “animal-jam”—this one to look at the bison on and crossing the road. They moved on and we drove into a storm, with pelting rain turning into pellets of hail! Not big ones but now the road was covered with an icy but quickly melting slush and the hillsides were white like with snow. We were soon through the little storm cell and now there was a—no, wait, two!—rainbows. Bison, hail, double rainbows all within 10 minutes—nice dramatic entrance!

    We arrived to the busy, busy Canyon Village area and got quickly checked in and drove around to our Pioneer Cabin. This room was—well, it had a roof and running water and enough electrical outlets. It was clean. That’s about all I can say. These cabins are really ugly outside, ugly inside, had saggy beds, and a view of only vehicles and other ugly cabins. It was better than camping and we weren’t inside the room that much, but I’d look at how much more something a step nicer might cost before I ever stayed there again. That evening we just explored the Canyon Village area a little and hit the (saggy) hay!

    After breakfast in the Canyon Cafeteria, we drove to the South Rim of the Canyon (better light on that Rim in the morning). It was cool but fair and promising to warm up. First stop—Upper Falls Viewpoint. Uncle Tom’s Trail, which DD wanted to tackle, is closed this year, so we just took in the iconic views and then DD walked alone along the South Rim Trail while we drove to Artist Point. This was actually one of the few places I felt overwhelmed by people, as a couple tour buses had just unloaded and it was shoulder to shoulder for a bit. But by the time DD arrived on foot, the crowd had thinned. No wonder artists flock to Artist’s Point—a picture-worthy view at every turn. One of my favorite spots the whole trip. I know when most people think of Yellowstone, Old Faithful is the image, but the Lower Falls from Artist Point (Lower Falls are actually the higher ones, you know) is absolutely breathtaking.

    Then we drove to the now one-way North Rim drive. We went to the Upper Falls brink and marveled at the rush of water so close. Engineer DH had to try to figure out the flow/gallons/energy involved; I don’t know the numbers, but it is a great sight! On to the Brink of the Lower Falls which DD and DH walked down to—steep but short. Then on to Grand View where DD and I departed along the North Rim Trail to meet DD at Inspiration Point. It was a nice, morning walk almost all in the pines with a few marvelous views of the Canyon. We caught up with DH at the Inspiration Point parking lot, ate some lunch from our cooler, and planned the rest of our day. These walks along and views of the Canyon were a definite highlight of the trip.

    Next stop was our first thermal area up close, the Mud Volcano. It was pretty warm in the afternoon sun so we didn’t plan to spend long. Along the way there we saw herds and herds of bison and then right there at the Mud Volcano area, one seemed to be enjoying his sauna as we passed by on the boardwalk. As we came around a corner of the boardwalk, there was another bison standing near it. A group was waiting yards away beyond him and people stopped in front of us as we all stayed our distance and waited for him to move on. DH got closer to take pics, then he got even closer, so I got real nervous. Then the thing GOT UP ON THE BOARDWALK AND WALKED TOWARD HIM! I saw his life flash before my eyes. DH walked back toward us and the bison lumbered on to join his friend, I guess. DH said he didn’t think it would cross or walk on the boardwalk—but now we know! Anyway, nobody got run down or gored so we kept on the walk around the boardwalk. Then we stopped briefly at Sulphur Cauldron. We don’t find the thermal features as interesting as the other parts of Yellowstone, so we can go by these sights fairly quickly.

    Back at the Canyon Village we ate dinner in the dining room and then DH wanted to drive through the Park so we went through Lamar Valley over to the Northeast Entrance. We saw lots more bison, including moms nosing along their calves; antelope; and deer. We crossed briefly into Montana (never been there before) and let DD stick her feet in a Montana stream. Then back almost before dark to drop into beds again.


    We were all tired and a bit testy today; inevitable after a grueling week in confined spaces together! But we pressed on. After breakfast in the cafeteria again, we packed up and headed toward Mammoth Hot Springs. We were repeating some of the travel we did the night before but with morning light. We were again struck by the evidences of the 1988 fire—and the evidences of the recovery. Near Mount Washburn we ran into a “bear-jam” and pulled over to the side of the road. There were dozens of vehicles stopped; DH and DD got out with the cameras; a ranger cruised by soon and spread the word to not stop on the road, to keep a distance—it was a grizzly going up the hillside now that had been seen crossing the road the day before. So they got some pics and we went on. (I really don’t care to be near a bear so this was about as close as I wanted to get!) A bit further on the other side of the mountain, where we’d run into a crowd of cars the night before but didn’t see anything, there was another jam. No place to pull off so only DD got out right when all the people seemed to shift attention to our side of the road. She was able to see the mama black bear and 2 cubs, not too far away she said. DH and I caught sight of just the rumps as we drove by. So bear sightings a highlight of this morning.

    By the time we got to Mammoth Hot Springs, it was hot. Nobody wanted to walk around anywhere. The area with its historic fort and lovely hotel looks great but we just drove. Saw herd of elk enjoying the shade near the post office. Drove to the North Entrance; encountered some road construction and lots of traffic but on the way back (we just turned around inside the park in sight of the Roosevelt Arch) DH spotted mountain goats!

    Back at Mammoth Springs we took a few pics and drove around the Upper Terrace area to see some of the formations.

    Then we headed to Norris Geysers; again, an interesting spot but we were too hot and tired to explore it much. We walked out to Steamboat Geyser and watched it blow for awhile! This area was extremely crowded, here in the middle of the afternoon.

    Next stop, Old Faithful area, where we had rooms for 2 nights. The place was even busier than Canyon Village but we had good directions from Sheila and printed maps, found the Lodge and checked in quickly about 2:30, then found our cabin. Frontier Cabin #113. A bit nicer than the Canyon one, a bit roomier, and the view—out the door, one step left and –there was Old Faithful! If you stay in this area, if you requested #113 or #114, you’d have a spectacular view right outside your windows and doors! We could tell by the crowd gathering that an eruption was imminent and sure enough, off it went! Wow! It really is a wonder.

    After a rest, we grabbed a rather forgettable dinner in the cafeteria. I made reservations for the next night at the Old Faithful Inn. (There were no tables available this evening and only spots at 4:30 and 9 pm the next. I knew about making reservations but didn’t realize how quickly they would fill. I’d hesitated about making them in advance because I didn’t know what our evening schedules would be. But I would say that if eating there is a priority, you would do well to make reservations weeks in advance, for the busy summer season.) We explored the area and watched Old Faithful go off every 90 minutes. DH and I found the laundry in the Snow Lodge and did a couple loads and rested. Then we joined DD on the Old Faithful Lodge porch and watched the sky, the people and the geyser. This venue was definitely one of our favorites of the whole trip.

    Day 8: OLD FAITHFUL AREA: After breakfast in the Old Faithful Inn, we headed to the visitor center to check on geyser times and then walked up the hill to the Overview for the 8:30 eruption. This is a great vantage point and a highly recommended short climb. DD saw what she first called badgers but later identified as marmots. A wonderful start to this gorgeous day!

    DH went back to the room and the porch for much needed (and earned) rest. DD and I did the walk around the thermal area around Old Faithful on the boardwalk. It was getting pretty warm but we had fun. We JUST MISSED the Grand Geyser going off. It was still spewing but we’d missed the highest spurt.

    Our only drive of the day was a short one to Biscuit Basin to catch the trailhead to Mystic Falls. This was a not-very-long walk but much more out in the open than I thought; not much shade but a lovely falls at the end. We just walked to the falls and backtracked.

    The evening included an early good dinner at Old Faithful Inn. (It was expensive for the portion size and taste; in fact I don’t even remember what I had. But I know we were paying for the history and ambience which are astounding! It was worth it.) It is such a blessing that this did not succumb to the 1988 fire. This is an amazing building and no trip to Yellowstone would be complete without at least a look at this landmark. Then we enjoyed the Lodge porch again for a long time.

    Day 9: THROUGH THE TETONS TO UTAH: Okay, something had to be shorted this trip and the Grand Tetons are what got way too brief of a look.

    We left really early and drove out of the Park easily, crossing the Continental Divide and heading through the Roosevelt National Forest into the Grand Tetons Park. Through that Park we took the quicker straighter route, stopping a few times to take pictures of those towering peaks. Awesome. Maybe we’ll be back one day.

    Then we just drove through Utah to a Hampton Inn in Richfield, ate at a decent Mexican food restaurant Pepperbelly’s, restocked our cooler, and washed our very dusty Suburban! DH and DD enjoyed the internet at the motel for a while!

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    Hi texasbookworm,

    I still remember vividly your most excellent London trip report, which had lots of great tips and ideas and helped me enormously!

    I am enjoying this a lot. I used to live in Dallas, and your comment "It takes a LONG time to just drive out of South Texas" - ain't that the truth!!!

    If you don't mind, may I ask what was the average cost of lodging for this trip? Did you get double rooms or triple rooms?

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    Brief response to yk--Thanks! I think the average, with taxes, was between $110 and $120. We had 2 free nights in the mix; several of the hotel/motel nights were $90 or under before tax; the lodges/cabins ranged from $92-140 before taxes. Six of those nights, the first/only nights in all the parks, were paid for in December upon booking. Which kinda helps in the spreading out of payment.

    We only booked single rooms but with beds for 3 which in the cabins was a double and a single and everywhere else was 2 doubles or 2 queens.

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    The Tetons are truly amazing aren't they? I don't think I've seen a more beautiful range anywhere. Hopefully you'll be able to spend more time next time. The hikes on the other side of Jenny Lake are quite worth it. We live relatively near you and we're always having to plan for that first day when it takes all day to drive across the state (and sometimes more than that)

    Thanks for the report.

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    Bryce, Zion, and Grand Canyons

    Day 10: BRYCE CANYON: We had a couple hour drive to Bryce Canyon. I had read about the optional shuttle, but DH opted to drive ourselves in, and as we arrived really early, that worked for us. (Plus, the shuttle only goes to the main area, the Ampitheater, and we wanted to go to the southern part of the Park, too, if we had time.) This was the Sunday of one of the “free-admission to all national parks” weekend, but we still saved money in the long run by having the Annual Pass.

    The ranger at the visitor center said to head to Bryce Point first to get the best pics and beat the crowds, so off we went. When we got to the turnoff to that Point, the road further into the park was blocked. Another ranger (or volunteer?) there told us that there had been a fire started in Dixie National Forest by lightning about a week before and then it jumped into Bryce where they’d been fighting it since Tuesday and thought they had it under control and would open the road by one pm.

    Bryce. Wow. It can’t be described adequately or even photographed well. It’s amazing. The hoodoos! The colors! The depth and the arches and the rocks and the bridges—on and on. We made lots of stops at various points—Bryce Point, Paria View, Inspiration Point, Sunset, Sunrise. All amazing. They kinda run together in my mind now, but we basically spent the morning going to the different points. DD and I took a short Rim Trail walk and an extremely abbreviated hike down the canyon trail for just a teeny ways; I would need a walking stick and my hiking boots to attempt much of it and would need all day. It’s steep. And then there would be the coming back up! So we all contented ourselves with only looking down.

    After lunch we returned to the visitor center to learn that the road into the southern part was now open, so we headed for the Natural Bridge. We quickly encountered the still smoldering, ashy, burned areas on both sides of the main road. The ranger said that Bryce hadn’t had a fire in 100 years so the underbrush caught quickly, but they seemed to have confined the fire well. The equipment and smoke-blackened firefighters were still abundant.

    We enjoyed more spectacular views at almost all the major pull-offs and view points on the road to the end of the Canyon and then we backtracked to a couple formations we’d missed earlier in the Ampitheater area. Then on through Red Canyon, where Butch Cassidy had hidden, and then to Mt. Carmel Junction.

    There we stayed in a Best Western. It was fine—a big room, nice room. Nice staff. Off the beaten path but a great spot between Bryce and Zion for our purposes. However, we got the worst service in the adjoining restaurant we can ever remember having. To the point where we actually deliberately didn’t leave a tip. This is unheard of in our etiquette. Other waiters were attentive to their tables, so it was just the un-luck of the draw, but it means I can’t recommend the restaurant like I can the motel.


    DH loves to drive (obviously—thus the possibility of this sort of trip). He loves his trucks. He loves his independence. So he did NOT love the idea of having to ride the shuttle into Zion, but that’s the facts in the summer. So we left Mt. Carmel at just light and drove along the very wiggly Mt. Carmel highway—which includes a tunnel that is actually really a mile long! And narrow. We got to the Park very early, before Visitor Center opened, got confused about where to park and pick up shuttle, and wasted some time. And energy. The Visitor Center, which is where to park if you don’t park outside the park, isn’t well-marked. Look for it. Anyway, we rode the shuttle to the lodge and got off and ate a very nice breakfast with a very nice view.

    Next we walked right across from the Lodge for the “easy” (said the guide book) hike to the Lower Emerald Pools. Well, I think it’s more “moderate.” Maybe it was just the altitude still affecting our breathing. Anyway, it was a great walk but DH got a bit tired. It’s up and down and a bit steep for a while, but the pool was lovely, with deer all around it.

    We got on the shuttle again and rode to the Temple of Sinawava area, where DH rested (and caught a shuttle back to the lodge for a drink and then rode it back to where DD and I were waiting) and DD and I took the Riverside Walk trail to the point where you have to get in the river to go to The Narrows. An adventure for younger bones than mine! A very nice walk, mostly level and mostly in the shade.

    I read where someone said in Bryce you look down all day and in Zion you look up. True. (DH used his laser range finder and measured canyon walls up to 300 yards high.)

    We finished our Zion experience by riding the shuttle back to the visitor center, enjoying the views even if they were out the window of the vehicle.

    DH had wanted to drive, on our way from Zion to the North Rim, to the Glen Canyon/Lake Powell Dam to compare it to Hoover/Mead, but I had discouraged that idea since I didn’t know what this day would hold. But we finished our Zion seeing in the early afternoon and “Sheila” said we had plenty of time, so we put that destination in our plan and off we went. (First we had to drive back out the Mt. Carmel Highway; this time we had to wait at the tunnel as they escort groups through single file as long as there are any wide vehicles in the queue at all. We’d avoided that on the trip in.) At the Glen Canyon dam, it was very windy; I heard them announce they cancelled the dam tour for that hour because of high winds. ??Makes me wonder about dam integrity?! Anyway, we saw the engineering marvel and then headed on. Stopped briefly at the Navajo Bridge area in Marble Canyon.

    Arrived at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon about 5; the dining room, which requires reservations, had no seats, so we had to make do with pizza and salads from the little café thing. We had a cabin, not a room in the lodge. It was rustic and cute. Sorta small (and we sure missed our queen sized bed as most rooms, even a couple hotel ones, had doubles only) but ok. Parking is a pain as we had to park far away and then even from an unloading spot had to lug our luggage quite a ways. The lodge itself is beautiful with those picture windows looking over the canyon and Brighty’s statue in the lobby. DD’s first glimpse of the Canyon was at this venue.

    We headed to the highest point on the Canyon rim, Point Imperial, for some sunset pictures. But for the first time on the trip, the sky let us down. It was cloudy and overcast and hazy. Not good for spectacular pics, but it was a sight to behold anyway. DD was duly impressed with the vastness and grandeur. It really does defy words.

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    Day 12: THE GRAND CANYON, NORTH AND SOUTH: DD got up before daylight to catch the sunrise but the sky wasn’t pretty—but she did it. We were able to enjoy the Lodge’s dining room for breakfast; food, view and service all great. DH enjoyed the morning views from lodge and took a bunch of pictures at Bright Angel Point and wrote postcards. (He’d taken on a project of writing postcards to the 3 year old grandson of a friend at work and must have mailed the little boy about 20—he and his grandpa loved it). Meanwhile, DD and I took a walk along the Rim, which was mostly in the pines and a quiet, mostly level walk. Wonderful.

    We met back up with DH and left about 11. The few miles across the canyon can’t be traversed directly but take about 4 hours! So we retraced much of our steps, including a longer stop at the Navajo Bridges, and then on to the Grand Canyon’s South Rim. DD was surprised by the number of trees. All the pictures she’d seen of the Grand Canyon made her think it was all bare and rock even on the rim. I was not surprised by the crowds but they were certainly there! Our first stop was Desertview and the Watchtower which we enjoyed (is that the right word?) climbing. The skies were still not cooperating with our photographers’ goals, but they still took many pics inside and out. Then on to Grand Canyon Village to the Bright Angel Lodge. As we drove past El Tovar, I popped in there to check on dinner—they had tables available so I made reservation for about an hour later at 5:15. We checked into Bright Angel and found our room in Buckey Lodge. There are no rooms in the Bright Angel Lodge building. It was a pretty roomy room with a motel like atmosphere—no view. Door opened into a hall way. But convenient to all things and a few steps from the rim. Parking here was also not near the room but nearer than on the North Rim.

    We ate in El Tovar. It’s expensive, too. Like at Old Faithful Inn we thought it was overpriced for actual food quality, but the service and history and ambience are spectacular. It’s an experience. Rested around the room and lobby (which had internet) for the evening.

    Day 13: GRAND CANYON: We spent the day on the South Rim. First we had a wonderful breakfast at the Bright Angel Dining Room—try one of the “skillets” but split it with someone! DH was moving slower than DD and I this morning, so we left him for a bit and went down the Bright Angel Trail, just to say we had. We had never entertained any idea of a down-to-the-canyon-hike this year, but it was fun to be on that historic trail for 30 minutes or so.

    Then I made sure I had pics of all the historic buildings around that end of the Village, including that marvelous geological strata fireplace by Coulter. DH caught up with us and we hopped on the shuttle (mandatory) to Hermit’s Rest, which we enjoyed for a while. DH and I remembered driving out to this area in December 1988 but no-can-do anymore. On the way back we stopped at a couple of the return-trip views and took in more of the Canyon. The skies were still not those deep blues we’d had in Wyoming, but the Canyon is amazing whatever the weather.

    After noon we braved the traffic and drove into the Village to the General Store for some provisions and souvenirs. Traffic was crazy on the roads (construction zones and closures add to the problems) but not within the Market area proper. Then we drove to near the Canyon View Information Center, which you can’t drive to this year, and parked along with everybody else along the side of the road and walked to it for a bit of visit to this lovely (except for too much concrete) visitor area. Then went to Mather Point where, despite my predictions based on the main road, there was plenty of parking.

    Back at the Bright Angel area, DD camped out in the room for some quiet time and DH and I went to see if he could spot the remains of a car that had gone over the edge 9 days earlier. He finally found it. They had of course removed the poor person’s body, but the vehicle was still there and I have no idea how they will (or did by now) get it out—about 600 feet down. While walking along the Rim area here near the Lookout Studio, a sudden camera stir alerted us to something—a California condor, and then another, were picturesquely perched on an outjutting rock below that studio. Cool—ugly but stately!

    Our dinner that night was excellent—in the Arizona Room. We went very early and got seated immediately; the later the evening, the longer the line. Highly recommended. We enjoyed not rushing or driving anywhere the rest of the evening, just sitting and strolling in between El Tovar and our rooms in Buckey Lodge.

    Something I noticed about the Grand Canyon, which is true of many, if not all, National Parks (the Smokies come to mind)—there’s something for everyone. There are the cool geological aspects. There’s family-friendly kids stuff. There’re views everywhere for photobugs. There are miles of trails of all sorts. There are places to shop. Accommodations and services. And there’s a lot of history, both important and mundane, about all kinds of people who settled and tried to tame the area, as well as about the original inhabitants, the native Americans. I really enjoyed reading the history parts, more than I anticipated (and I’m a history fan, I just went expecting to enjoy the views and the walks, not so much about the people).

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    Last installment!

    Another early departure took us by a couple more nice views of the Canyon under (finally!) lovely clear skies. Grandview is definitely a Grand View.

    First stop was Sunset Crater National Park. I did not have that on our agenda; DH and I had stopped there in 1988. But when he mentioned it to DD, her geology-antennae went SPROING and they decided we needed to go by. So we did very briefly. It’s way cool and worth a jog out of your way to spend a bit of time; the blue, red and yellow flowers growing out of the black soil are gorgeous. We didn’t do much walking at all, just a short jaunt out to see the lava flows a bit closer.

    The next stop was Montezuma Castle National Monument. This was another very brief stop but one worth the few minutes. It was too hot for us to want to do much besides walk to the base and take pictures, and we had too far to go to read all the info in the visitor center, but I’m glad we stopped by.

    The next stop was Saguaro National Park, the western portion. It was quite an out of the way route there, and even “Sheila” got a bit rattled, but she was a big help. Again, it was hot (near 100 in the shade by now probably) and we had no desire to walk in the mid-afternoon heat, so we just walked a bit around the lovely visitor center area and then drove some on an unpaved road for DH to get some off-road time! My eyes are more soothed by the beauty of mountains and waterfalls than the starkness of a desert, but there are such lovely lines and shadows and textures here. I’m glad we spent a brief time driving through the area.

    The next stop was Mission San Xavier del Bac, the Pearl of the Desert, built in the 1700’s and currently undergoing refurbishing and still functioning as a parish church for the Tohono O’odham. DH and I have visited many other mission churches in Texas and around San Francisco and he wanted to compare this one. It is lovely. Another brief stop I’m glad we made (and glad we had “Sheila” for!).

    Final stop was the Doubletree at Reid Park in Tucson (one of our freebie-nights). Nice place although not right on the highway. Got burgers for dinner and RESTED in the cool of the AC with the internet and tv for a change!

    Days 15-16: BACK TO TEXAS!
    We have camped in the Davis Mountains in west Texas 4 times, and DH especially loves the area. I had kinda always wanted to stay in the Indian Lodge in the Davis Mountains State Park, so that became our stop for this last night on the road. There’s not really much between El Paso and San Antonio anyway, so driving to Fort Davis only added maybe an hour to our trip that day. So we left Tucson after a nice breakfast buffet, and DH enjoyed the 75-80 mph speed limits on the interstate from Tucson through El Paso and beyond.

    We arrived in Fort Davis without a hitch, and although we “lost” two hours going from Arizona time to CDT, we still had the evening before us. Our room in the Lodge was huge—a bedroom and separate living room with pullout sofa, fireplace, table. Not sure if they’re all that big but it was wonderful. We ate dinner in the Black Bear Restaurant at the Lodge, and it was good, too.

    We’ve been to the McDonald Observatory every time we’ve been in the area and DH loves it, too. He had tried to see about a special viewing for the night we’d be there, but between a slow-posting web-site and not being sure when we’d arrive and a very limited number of seats, he couldn’t arrange that. But we were in the park early enough that he wanted to drive the 17 miles to the Observatory to go to a Star Party. DD opted out, so DH and I loaded up with cool-weather gear and headed up the mountain. A Star Party, which starts about 9:30 in July, includes a talk about the night sky and then in the dark several telescopes set up to view ?? whatever is good to view that night. The sky was mostly clear with some clouds moving in later, the astronomer said, so he wanted to skip much talking and let us start the viewing. There were hundreds of people there, and the viewing lines got long quickly and we didn’t want to wait around too late, so we looked through a couple at the moon and a nebula and then decided to leave early. The astronomer had told us when and where to watch for a group of satellites to pass by visibly for a few seconds and then the ISS/Space Shuttle would also be visible. So we waited in the dark parking lot and we saw both of those things. Cool. The sky from this vantage point is phenomenal. Back to the Lodge for a good night’s sleep.

    (Taking a bit of a detour from the recommendations from the current trip report--Do not skip the McDonald Observatory if you are ever anywhere near there—or make a special trip to get there! Fort Davis, the Davis Mountains, the Indian Lodge and the Observatory are wonderful; Guadalupe Peak and Carlsbad Caverns and Balmorhea (spring-fed swimming pool) are close; and Big Bend is ---well, not near but in Texas terms, close!)

    Day 16: HOME VIA SAN ANTONIO: Our last day on the road was planned to be just that, a day on the road. But when my friend was hit on her bike, they halo-flighted her to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, so we decided to stop by on our way this day. Her injuries were numerous and critical, but her prognosis generally better than at first feared although as of this writing, we don’t know how complete her recovery will be. Anyway, when we saw her, she had been able to be taken off the vent and feeding tube the day before, so she was able to talk to us. It was good to stop there. We then made it back to our hot, dry home! Laundry, visiting with our son, calming down the happy dog, restocking the fridge, sorting through the mail, sorting through the pictures, starting a trip report—all the after vacation chores!

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    Glad your friend looks like she'll make it. What a bad experience.

    Agree that the GC really does offer something for everyone. A truly amazing place.

    We have often taken vacations where we pushed it because there was so much we wanted to do and had limited time. I'm curious - did you feel rushed on this trip? You covered so much but wondering if there was anything you feel like you might have done differently. [Interested in the same basic trip - although we've been to most of the places at least once. So much is worth seeing again]

    Thanks again for nice report.

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    Thanks to readers who give feedback!

    We didn't feel rushed as much as DH felt exhausted a lot! I really tried to mix up the long day drives (except at beginning and end) and days that had less distances (the days driving around in parks). The day from Grand Canyon to Tucson might read as if we rushed as we made so many stops, but really it was just too hot to want to spend anytime outside at those places. We would have liked more time just sitting on the Old Faithful porch! Zion was our biggest disappointment because of our desire to drive ourselves. I really do understand the problems the shuttles are trying to alleviate, and other than a reservation system to allow a limited number of cars per day in, I don't have another solution, but our experience there felt a bit rushed.

    I can't really see how we could have done anything differently in the big scheme of things and cover the area we did in the days we had allotted.

    If we could have had one more day or more, we would have spent at least a whole day in the Grand Tetons and spent the night in Jackson. If we'd had a lot more days, we would have cut down the long driving days from 8-9 hours to 5-6 and added some days to Yellowstone probably.

    Because of living in south Texas, that adds like 2 days to the trips of people who live say nearer to Dallas or something.

    Originally we didn't have Mt. Rushmore on the agenda; going straight to Yellowstone would have given us more time everywhere. I'm GLAD we went to Mt. Rushmore, Custer, and Devil's Tower but I probably will not go back there if we ever attempt something similar.

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    Totally enjoyed reading your trip report. Sounds like your planning really paid off -- you saw and did an amazing amount. It will be a great resource for future travellers. Thanks for taking the time to post it.

    Which cabins did you stay in at Old Faithful? The ones by the Lodge or the ones by Snow Lodge?

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    If you want to drive into Zion, you can make a reservation to stay at the lodge there. It is a motel type place, but not bad. Or if you go in February, you can drive in I think. We did a trip then and drove in and scored rooms in the lodge and it was fine weather wise, got cheap flights into Vegas and lucked out all along, Bryce was snowy on the trails, but the roads were fine and GC was fine for hiking in a light jacket. Someone was looking out for us.

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    maj--Our cabins were the ones by Old Faitful Lodge; our particular one happened to look directly at the geyser itself and was about the closest one to the Lodge--the other cabins in that grouping did not have the same view! So ask for 113 or 114, if it's possible to ask. I didn't, just got blessed.

    emalloy--I did consider staying in Zion which would have allowed our driving, but it didn't work into the demands of our scheule of where we needed to be. We did enjoy our breakfast in the lovely Lodge there.

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    tbw - great report! I hope your friend's recovery is swift and complete - sounds like a bad one...

    We're planning a blitz like yours ourselves: Denver, Colorado National Monument, Arches NP, Canyonlands NP, Capitol Reef NP, Bryce NP, Zion NP, Las Vegas, Grand Canyon NP, Sunset Crater, Walnut Canyon MN, Meteor Crater, Sedona, Montezuma's Castle, and Phoenix.

    Once again - great report and thank you so much for taking the time to write - we all enjoyed it.

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    thanks for your trip report. i too live in texas and the "just driving out of texas can take days" has always discouraged me from driving from home and instead opt into flying in to somewhere and then drive around, sometimes in a loop, sometimes as an open jaw. that's what we did last summer with flying in to idaho falls seeing craters of the moon, through to tetons, yellowstone, montana, and south dakota and flying out of rapid city. we had 10 days and felt we still needed more days. the thing is, we like to hike so the drive through thing won't work for us but glad it worked out for you and your family. it is a lovely country and we are huge supporters of the national parks. we get the annual pass every year.

    happy travels and glad you got the last chance to take your daughter to the places you love! memories that you can't buy anywhere at all.

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    Whew, I'm tired just reading your report.

    Thanks for the effort posting this. As
    a kid, I was involved in similar family road
    trips. Now, as an adult, I enjoy revisiting
    all the places we went and spending more time
    exploring them. I'm sure it will be the same
    for your kids. Trips like this are a great
    gift to your children and will have life long

    Again, thanks for the effort....loved the report

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    I never did read this TR until now. Not the kind of trip I like to take, but it does sound like you saw a lot and had a good time.

    I gotta ask how things turned out with your friend? Funny how something like that sticks in your mind even though I know noone involved here.

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    spirobulldog--I hadn't noticed until today your response/question here. How kind of you to inquire. She is doing ok. Actually, amazingly well. There is permanent spinal nerve damage and loss of the uses of some muscle, both internal and external. But she is back on a bike some, quite active despite pain, heading up a ministry to an inner-city apartment complex for after school activities, driving 3 kids still at home to all their home-school activities and classes--she's a miracle we all thank God for often. Again, thanks for the inquiry. Hope you see this soon.

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    I'm sooo glad this report was linked to in a recent post. It's just the encouragement we need as we plan something just as ambitious.

    I've been trying to formulate questions to pose to this forum, but I'm afraid I'm going to be met with a lot of "you can't drive that much" and "you need more time in xyz park" so I hesitate.

    Loved the breakdown in the beginning: "motivation" "boundaries" "goals" "equipment" haha I could so relate as I'm a very detail oriented person!

    thanks for the great report!

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    For some reason I think this is my first reading of your report. Great trip and report!!!

    I'm not sure I'd want to drive that much, but I have no problem going to as many places as you did. I'd probably want to spend more time in most.

    I have to disagree with you about the cars in zion. I've been there twice and both times stayed in the park. I left my car in the lodge parking lot and drove the shuttle.

    Last year I took my daughter and granddaughter to Yosemite. While beautiful I would have a hard time convincing my self to go back. A big part of the reason is the traffic. It could be avoided but people like there cars and the park doesn't help much.

    Now, any chance to see the photos?

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    I don't think you get as much of "you can't do that" here. Much more on the European forums. Renting a car vs not.

    There are things i would have suggested be added but in the end you have to do what interests you within your timeframe and budget.

    Don't be afraid to ask. Just sift thru the responses and use what fits.

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    4sharie, Don't be afraid to ask questions. There are folks who like to go to an area, unpack and examine every inch of it, and there are people who drive to the next destination, only take out the clothes they will wear tomorrow, check the high points and decide they will come back and do more the next time. I'm one of those who likes to go for a drive and seldom stays more than 2 or 3 days in one place when on vacation. As Myer says just sift through the responses and use what fits.

    BTW I also agree about Yosemite -

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    Ah, so fun to have people still reading "old" trip reports and finding them helpful.

    No, I didn't post pics and won't do so now. Sorry.

    However, if you look at the Fodors (2010?) guide to the National Parks (or maybe the western parks--I'm not home to check my book) you can see a full page pic of my hubby on the boardwalk with a bison! Sorta the "What not to do" caution! I entered the pic in the contest Kay mentions way up this thread, in an early response, and while I didn't win, they did use the pic in a guide--so I got a free one.

    And yes 4sharie, ask questions, post itineraries for feedback. Just be a bit "thickskinned" and protect the uniqueness of YOUR trip and know that you know yourself, family, and circumstances best. And I agree generally with Myer that there's more "can't do" on European forums. But then I think there is more chance of being totally clueless about a foreign country.

    And Myer not sure what you mean by disagree with me about the cars in Zion-- ? The lodge was full so we didn't have option in the summer of driving into the park at all. And we went there with an opinion and left with same--we'd rather have our own transport in a park. I do "get it" as to why Zion has had to adopt this plan, but that doesn't mean I enjoy it as much, even when I agree with the policy for environmental/economic/logistic reasons.

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    Some parks are laid out for better car traffic and other are not. I noticed how small the parking areas were in Zion. There's no way they could have orderly parking.

    Bryce has less traffic so it's not mandatory.

    Yosemite is impossible.

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    Thanks for the encouragement to ask away! 4 years ago we did a big trip to California and Oregon and got a lot of "that's WAY too much driving" on here during the planning stages. At first I was a little "but you don't know what we're capable of" but the more we thought about it, we actually did tone down the trip and not go as far north! So I did appreciate all the opinions.

    We've been to Yosemite twice and traffic wasn't an issue, but we always travel off season (before Memorial Day or after Labor Day).

    I hope to get something up here tonight or this weekend about our preliminary plans. Please jump in TexasBookWorm!

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    Make sure to start a new thread.

    And you make get some of "that's way too much driving". You admitted that it did get you to tone down the trip. I assume that was good.

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