Trip Report: All Across the South West

Nov 24th, 2019, 07:50 AM
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Trip Report: All Across the South West

The mission: Tour South West USA with a family of four in 28 days. A long-held dream started taking shape mid 2018, aiming at Summer 2019 to actually do it.
So here is our trip report. Since I got plenty of ideas and received a lot of recommendations from this forum, I consider it my duty to let you know how it turned out, and which of your tips worked well and which ones didn’t (short answer: almost all were spot-on). And for any of you future travelers: If this report helps any of you to get more out of your trips, I’ll be very glad.

Itinerary: Superficial or deep?
Once the frame of four weeks is set, first question is on the concept: Many places superficially vs. fewer places in-depth? Being from overseas, with little hope for a repeat in the next decade, we pick the former. The list of great places to visit in the area is infinite, and during planning it is very tempting to add more, and whenever I do, there is another interesting place just around the corner, “just another little detour”. Ultimately, we have to say stop somewhere, so we settle on this route: SLC – Yellowstone – Moab/Arches – Bryce – Zion – Page – GC South Rim – LV – LA – Sequoia – Yosemite – SF … 3,300 mi worth of driving.
When I lay out the itinerary, people in the forum call it overambitious. Well, it turns out just right. Of course, there is a lot of driving involved, and yes, you may argue that all places deserve more attention to truly experience them. Still, I believe we got a good first impression of all of them, and we appreciated the beauty and specialness of each of the places, and never felt we are in a rush.

RV or car?
Another question: RV or not? We choose RV for the first half, the rest with a car (I did not feel comfortable about driving the big beast in cities). Even though we are not campers, we end up enjoying the RV-ing more than the stays in hotels. As RV amateurs, and not knowing how long you can actually be independent, we pick full hook-up places mostly. This turns out to be unnecessary, you can easily do several days without.
For all of you pondering the same question, it should be clear that RV is by no means cheaper than going by car and staying in motels. On the upside, with the RV we stay independent from fast-food places and restaurants (it gets too much after a while), and you save yourself the hassle of packing and unpacking your stuff every time you go someplace else.

Preplanned or flexible?
With the trip being in August, we decide to plan every overnight stay well before the trip. We book all places before we leave, the ones in high demand already 6 months ahead, some even 12, following the forum’s recommendation … it pays off, and we get all places we want.
Of course, with this we sacrifice any flexibility, no staying longer in places we loved. This may sound quite constraining, however, for us this turns out to be liberating, as we do not have to spend any time looking for accommodation (and debating about it, which can be major mood killer), so our minds are free to enjoy the trip. The precise plan in hand, it feels like being on a guided tour with an invisible guide.

Day 1: Arriving in the US
For the stop-over in ATL, travel forums recommend 3 hours or more (when transitioning from international to domestic, with all the immigration and security) to be sure to catch the connecting flight. I learn this after I booked the flights, which had only 1h 50 min in between and no options to change (at least no cheap ones).
Turns out that even with a long line and a super slow immigration officer, we get to the gate more than 30 min before boarding. The airport layout is good, and the transportation between terminals is fast. This does not mean that this will work for anybody and under all circumstances, and maybe we just got lucky, but my impression is that 3 hours includes plenty of buffer, and your chances to make it if you only have 2 are still decent (of course, having an on-time landing helps).
Arriving in SLC, we get a first impression of the climate: 100F hit the jet-lagged family in the face leaving the air-conditioned airport building.

Day 2: RV Novices
The “early bird” RV pick-up option turns out to be worth the money, also the recommendation of a shopping list pre-written by RV pros saves us valuable time, so we hit the I-15 north by lunch time. With this, we could have made it up all the way to Yellowstone, but to be safe the plan is to stop at Warm River, ID. A good choice: Really nice camp ground, and it keeps the pressure off having to do too many miles on the first day.

Day 3/4: Yellowstone NP
This is a spectacular place, we are speechless! Of course, staying just two days in such a large NP with great variation of landscape and stunning nature is short, but it is enough to take in the highlights without rushing. Inbound to our camp site at Bridge Bay, we do the southern loop, stop at Midway, Biscuit Basin and Upper Geyser Basin with Old Faithful, and do long walks in each of these places and even a light hike up to the view point above Mystic Falls, and still make it to the camp site well before sunset. The next day, despite being stuck in a bison traffic jam in Hayden Valley, we manage to do Mud Volcano and the full north loop with Norris, Mammoth and the North Rim Drive over the Yellowstone Grand Canyon, again all without hurrying.
So two days are good enough to get a first impression; still, we definitely need to go back there some day and spend more time.
Also, the few clouds of the first day disappear, and after that there was only blue skies for the next four weeks. Not sure if this can be expected or if we are exceptionally lucky.

Day 5/6: Going South
On the way to the south Yellowstone exit, we stop by West Thumb Geyer Basin. The pools there are not as spectacular as the ones we saw the previous days, but the setting by the lake is amazing. We continue on to Colter Bay on Jackson Lake and arrive already in the early afternoon, so we decide to cancel the camp ground reservation and continue south in order to reduce the next day’s drive. Instead we spend the later afternoon in Jackson, a pleasant unplanned surprise: A nice lively little town! The KOA on Snake River a few miles further south has plenty of sites for walk-ins.
The long drive of the next day is the planned sacrifice we needed to make to include Yellowstone in our itinerary, which otherwise is the pretty standard southern Utah loop. We pick Route 191 via Flaming Gorge, 40 to Dinosaur and press on through Colorado on the 139. We make it to Thompson Springs, which is close enough to our next destination, Moab, in order to have two full days there.

Day 7/8: Moab and Arches NP
In Moab, having gained a half-day from the original plan, we sign up for the Raven’s Rim Zip Line Tour. We are lucky: The group is just us four. The idea that the kids could be too scared to do this, evaporates in the first minute. Two wonderful guides take us up the hill with ATVs, this ride alone was worth the money (and the tour is not cheap, around $120 per person), the zip lines, the little hike and the view are spectacular (I keep using this term, but there is no other way of putting it). Not a minute we feel unsafe.
In the afternoon, we tour Canyonlands NP. The vastness of the landscape is amazing, still, one half-day is good enough, since it is too hot to think of longer hikes.
The next day we visit Arches NP, arriving just in time for the reserved Ranger-led tour through the Fiery Furnace part (which otherwise can only be visited with a permit); definitely a recommendation.
The Canyonlands RV Park in Moab is good, plenty of shade (important, it is 100F!) and close enough to walk to Moab downtown for groceries and dinner.

Day 9: Route 12
A nice detour off Utah 24 is Goblin Valley State Park, it is like a huge adventure playground … the kids loved it.
My personal highlight of the entire trip: Utah Route 12! I have never seen such a beautiful road than this section from Torrey to Escalante; arriving there, I was seriously considering to turn around and do it again. The landscape drastically changes every 10 miles, and just when you think it cannot get any better, it does just that. The Kiva Koffeehouse made a nice stop inbetween, with a spectacular (see, again!) view and good coffee. Definitely worth a repeat if we ever come back … then we shall take more time and stop more often to take it all in, maybe even stay overnight somewhere.
We arrive at Bryce Canyon in the late afternoon, early enough to take a short peek in the park. Camping at Ruby’s, nothing special but definitely the best place in terms of proximity to the park.

Day 10: Bryce Canyon NP
The forum recommendation was that one night at Bryce (catch sunset and sunrise!) and half a day is enough, and this is true. In the morning, we hike from Bryce Point through the canyon to Sunset Point, thanks to the great shuttle bus services you can do open-loop hikes. A tour which seemed pretty standard, but we are almost alone. Only when reaching Sunset Point around lunch time, more people move in, but before it gets too much we are already on the road to Zion.

Day 11/12 Zion NP
We slow our pace a little at Zion. Two full days are appropriate to cover the two main highlights: The Narrows and Angel’s Landing. For the Narrows, we strongly recommend to rent the wooden walking sticks (at 7$), but don’t waste your money on renting water boots. The 20$ are a rip-off, and regular hiking shoes will do just fine. Another recommendation: Go early, take the first bus up the valley if you can.
Angel’s Landing is absolutely spectacular. Not a real physical hiking challenge (only 400m up), but a mental one. The path is narrow and drop-offs are steep and high, sometimes on both sides … so if you have any fear of heights, this is not for you. My 13-year old son surprises me, he does not seem to care and rushes up the rock. I am trying to keep up with him and not look down too much. But once you make it up there, the 360 degree view is absolutely breath taking. Again here, go very early, because there are some places along the way where you would prefer to have no oncoming traffic on your hike down.
Staying inside the park saves you valuable time, because there is the outside shuttle bus (taking you from anywhere in Springdale to the park entrance) and the inside shuttle bus, and the transition will cost you valuable time. Inside in our case is Watchman Campground (for this make sure you book 6m in advance precisely; so if you want to book for Aug 15, make sure hit it on Feb 15; the sites fill up in less than 24 hours).

Day 13/14: Antelope Canyon
We drive over to Arizona and end the day with a swim in Lake Powell and an overnight stay at Wahweap Campground. Next morning, it’s Lower Antelope Canyon, another awe inspiring natural wonder.
I read about people complaining how the tour operators are trying to maximize business by pumping as many groups through the slot canyon as possible. It is true that they are doing just that, but in their defense: The canyon is so narrow (sometimes you will have to walk single file) that if you allowed everyone to go at his pace, the whole place would jam up and everyone would get unnerved. This is also why the guides take the pictures for you with your cameras, otherwise everyone would hold up everyone else behind them by trying to find the best photo spots and angles … and the guides know precisely where they are, so the pics we get are brilliant. In our view, the real downside of the business-oriented optimization of the tour operations is the lack of enthusiasm of the tour guides (for whom it’s just a job), compared to the National Park Rangers who dedicate their lives to do this.
In the afternoon we continue to Grand Canyon, arriving early enough to walk the South Rim and take in the stunning view. Overnight stay in GC Village RV park.

Day 15: Grand Canyon
We follow another forum recommendation: As amazing as this incredible landmark may be, if you have no intention to hike down, one evening and one morning is enough for the Grand Canyon. In the afternoon, we arrive in Las Vegas to drop off the RV.

Day 16/17: Las Vegas
Before the trip we read many recommendations that with kids, we better skip LV altogether.
Not true in our view: We find plenty of fun stuff to do: The Tournament of Kings Show in the Excalibur, the arcade areas, just walking the strip, riding the double decker bus, seeing the Bellagio Fountains and taking a peek inside the crazy architecture of the hotel-casinos already makes a full day of fun (it is a shame they removed the Treasure Island show, which was always a highlight in my previous visits). Just avoid the late evenings, when the people with half-gallon margaritas conquer the sidewalks. What we could have skipped is to see Fremont Street Experience, a failed attempt to bring back some life into downtown LV after the strip has sucked up all the attention in the 90ies. A waste of time unless you are drunk or looking for adult entertainment or both.
We couldn’t get any Dodgers tickets because the Yankees are in town that week, so we choose to see a Minor League game at the brand new LV stadium. A fortunate choice: Perfect seats right behind home plate for $35, still 85F at 9 pm and a great game.

Day 18-21: Los Angeles
The opinions about LA range from one extreme to the other. Our view is: Even though LA is not really a particularly pretty city, it has plenty of interesting spots to visit (some even beautiful). We choose to not spend money on the insane fees for Disneyland or Universal Studios, instead, we visit the Griffith Park Observatory for the view (and find that the museum inside is also great. Recommendation: Park down in the city, take the bus up and walk back down) and the wonderfully bustling Farmer’s Market for lunch (the Grove right next to it is your regular mall, so need to spend a lot of time there). One day on the beach in Laguna Beach, good food on mellow main street Seal Beach and on 2nd Street in east Long Beach, a visit to my old school, this rounds off our LA visit. The kids don’t seem to have missed out on Disney.

Day 22: Sequoia NP
Almost too much urban life, we are longing back to go to nature, and to escape the heat. Sequoia NP welcomes us with perfect 80F and a wonderful scenery. Giant Forest and General Sherman in the afternoon. Staying at Wuksachi Lodge is nice, dinner is OK. Next morning we take a small hike from Giant Forest to Crescent Meadows, and we seem to be the only ones in the forest, it is quiet and beautiful.
Then we hike up to Moro Rock, a must-do when in Sequoia, and not a heavy physical challenge. It’s like Zion’s Angel’s Landing plus handrails, also some steep drop-offs but more protected.

Day 23/24/25: Yosemite NP
Next to Yellowstone, Yosemite is the most beautiful place. No crowds, maybe because it’s already end of August. The kids enjoy climbing the rocks below Bridalveil Falls and Lower Yosemite Falls, and we take a wonderful half-day hike up to Nevada Falls, with plenty of great views.

Day 26/27/28: San Francisco
To round it all off, three days in SF. We start off by what all tourists do: Drive across the GG Bridge and take pictures from Conzelman Road (smart move by the city to make it a one-way street). The setting of the city is already so unique, so for us parents it is enough to just stroll across the different neighborhoods. For the kids, riding the cable car (with the cable car museum) is the highlight (we end up doing it every day, using the Muni day ticket for $7, a fantastic deal), and the Exploratorium. We avoid Fisherman’s Wharf and skip Alcatraz (I remember from previous visits that it steals half a day and is not that spectacular), instead we just soak up the town’s atmosphere, a nice conclusion of our big trip.

Tl;dr:
Summary of recommendations and busted myths:
  • Crowds: Travelling after August 6, we experienced almost no crowds (even in the popular places), or it was easy to escape from them by being early or leaving the beaten path.
  • Kids in Las Vegas: Despite what a lot of people say: Not a problem at all, plenty of fun stuff to do … 1-2 days is enough though.
  • Driving an RV with zero experience: Was much easier than we had feared. Roads and parking are wider than in Europe, traffic is a lot more relaxed, maintenance is simple.
  • Weekdays: A recommendation that worked well: Spend weekdays in the National Parks, and weekends in the cities.
  • Zion NP: Doing the Narrows and Angel’s Landing is fantastic, make sure you go very early in the morning.
  • Use park shuttles: Don’t bother using your car in Bryce, Zion, Sequoia, Yosemite. All these NPs have perfect bus shuttle services, with really nice, informed and helpful drivers.
  • What we would do differently if we did the same thing again? Not much, really. Probably cut a few days off the cities and add them to the National Parks. The timing for Bryce, Zion, Antelope, Grand Canyon was perfect, but an additional day in Yellowstone and Moab would have been nice. Adding Yellowstone to the itinerary included two day-long rides, and for us it was worth it … probably not everyone would agree.
One line summary: Best trip ever!
I am happy to read your comments, questions, opinions about our recommendations.
mac_kraut

Last edited by mac_kraut; Nov 24th, 2019 at 08:02 AM.
mac_kraut is offline  
Nov 24th, 2019, 08:51 AM
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Thank you for a very insightful travel report. I have been to nearly all of the sights you have mentioned on many trips. I try to avoid LA but we're heading down to northern LA County later this week. I agree about Disney. My grandchildren prefer Knotts Berry and Six Flags (near Newhall).
I take it that you went south on US 89 from Page and then west on AZ 64 just south of Cameron. You may have missed one of the best parts of the Grand Canyon just inside the east entrance. Earlier this month we were at the Desert View Watchtower at sunset. The watchtower was funded by Fred Harvey and the on site architect was Mary Colter.
If you want to visit a much better observatory, go to see the Lowell Observatory on Mars Hill in Flagstaff. Next to one of the telescopes that he used is the mausoleum of Percival Lowell. At an elevation of 7200' Flagstaff has a little less light pollution and less atmosphere to look through for celestial viewing.
We also enjoyed the tour of Riordan mansion in Flagstaff.
Which of the sights do you intend to revisit for a longer stay? Which of the sights will you never return to? Check my recent Trip Report for some pictures that I took earlier this month.
tomfuller is online now  
Nov 24th, 2019, 09:13 AM
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Fast-paced, but what a wonderful trip! Probably because you really thought about what was important and would work for your family. 5* for your planning.
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Nov 24th, 2019, 10:35 PM
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Originally Posted by tomfuller View Post
Which of the sights do you intend to revisit for a longer stay? Which of the sights will you never return to?
This is difficult to answer. Revisit and intensify: Utah Route 12 with slower pace, maybe hike down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon (but not in August), go to Yosemite in spring with more water and hike the back country a bit, exit via Tioga (so late spring) and add the Death Valley (never been there). Zion with the Kolob section. Maybe sign up for the lottery for "the Wave". Stay in a countryside town (like Jackson WY), see a rodeo and get a flavour of real life (not just the tourist perspective). Yellowstone certainly deserves more time, but if I try to put all these things in one future trip, I end up with more-or-less the same route. On our next trip, I'd probably focus more on new places we haven't seen.
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Nov 24th, 2019, 10:37 PM
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Originally Posted by Jean View Post
Fast-paced, but what a wonderful trip! Probably because you really thought about what was important and would work for your family. 5* for your planning.
Thanks! I spent a lot of time planning, but it was not a chore, rather a joy, filled with the excitement of anticipation of future adventures.
I am glad it turned out the way I had in mind (major hick ups), yet there were so many impressions which I did not expect.
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Nov 25th, 2019, 11:44 AM
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"no major hiccups", I mean.
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Nov 25th, 2019, 12:07 PM
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Enjoyed your report - thanks for posting!

Curious where you're from? You're a lot heartier than me - no way, no how would I visit Utah and AZ in August!
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Nov 25th, 2019, 01:07 PM
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Originally Posted by Melnq8 View Post
Curious where you're from? You're a lot heartier than me - no way, no how would I visit Utah and AZ in August!
Germany.

If it had been entirely up to me, it would have been May ... but with school kids there is not much choice if you want to be off for four weeks.

Last edited by mac_kraut; Nov 25th, 2019 at 01:08 PM. Reason: typos
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Nov 25th, 2019, 03:56 PM
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Yeah, kids.

We visited Moab in April last year and are planning a return visit in January. Maybe I'm hardy after all.

I'll be in your country in a few weeks for my annual winter pilgrimage - looking forward to it.
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Nov 25th, 2019, 04:04 PM
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Thanks for reporting back! Glad it all worked out! We loved the Hwy 12/Grand Staircase Escalante area.
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Nov 26th, 2019, 10:50 PM
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Originally Posted by Patty View Post
Thanks for reporting back! Glad it all worked out! We loved the Hwy 12/Grand Staircase Escalante area.
Yeah, this is certainly something I would like to explore more. I read about some side roads of Hwy 12 which are supposed to be even better (hard to imagine). Next time!
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Nov 26th, 2019, 10:55 PM
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Originally Posted by Melnq8 View Post
We visited Moab in April last year and are planning a return visit in January. Maybe I'm hardy after all.

I'll be in your country in a few weeks for my annual winter pilgrimage - looking forward to it.
Moab in January, how will that be, and what can you do there? Do they have snow in winter?

Where in Germany are you headed? Enjoy your trip! (although I think this time of the year is not a good travel time here ... too bleak and hazy)
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Nov 27th, 2019, 05:00 AM
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mac -

Regarding snow in Moab - we're going to find out! We're cool weather hikers, but if the weather is really abysmal we'll probably spend a lot of time in our hotel's outdoor hot tub. In fact, the whole trip is geared around hot tubs and natural springs - we'll be making a loop from our home in Colorado to Ouray, Moab, Pagosa Springs, Ojo Caliente (NM) and Buena Vista. The winter version of the trip we made back in April.

As for Germany - I'm taking my 19 year old niece - her first trip to Europe. Christmas themed - we'll visit the usual suspects - Munich (with a side trip to Zugspitz if the weather cooperates), Rothenburg ob der Tauber and then Innsbruck and Salzburg.

One of these days I'll get around to visiting Germany in the spring or summer.

Last edited by Melnq8; Nov 27th, 2019 at 05:04 AM.
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Nov 27th, 2019, 06:56 AM
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Originally Posted by Melnq8 View Post
Regarding snow in Moab - we're going to find out! We're cool weather hikers, but if the weather is really abysmal we'll probably spend a lot of time in our hotel's outdoor hot tub. In fact, the whole trip is geared around hot tubs and natural springs - we'll be making a loop from our home in Colorado to Ouray, Moab, Pagosa Springs, Ojo Caliente (NM) and Buena Vista. The winter version of the trip we made back in April.
Haha, hot tubs are never wrong
This sounds like a great trip. Be sure to post a trip report ... I would associate most of these places with summer, so I'd really like to know how they look in winter.
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Nov 27th, 2019, 07:00 AM
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Originally Posted by Melnq8 View Post
As for Germany - I'm taking my 19 year old niece - her first trip to Europe. Christmas themed - we'll visit the usual suspects - Munich (with a side trip to Zugspitz if the weather cooperates), Rothenburg ob der Tauber and then Innsbruck and Salzburg.
This is a pretty good winter mix ... all of these places are great. M is my home town. Check out the Winter Tollwood festival when you have a chance https://www.tollwood.de/en/
And of course the Christkindl Markets, but the small ones in the different neighborhoods, not the big one on Marienplatz.
Enjoy your trip!
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Nov 27th, 2019, 10:48 AM
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Thanks Mac. We discovered Tollwood a few years back - definitely interesting.
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Nov 27th, 2019, 12:26 PM
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Sounds like a successful trip.. I also love Hwy 12.
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Nov 27th, 2019, 10:34 PM
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Originally Posted by mlgb View Post
Sounds like a successful trip.. I also love Hwy 12.
It certainly was.

A question to all of you:
If I ever get to go back to drive Hwy 12, how would you recommend to experience it: How many days, where to stay overnight, any special food places along the way, and which side roads are worth driving?
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Nov 28th, 2019, 10:29 AM
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Thanks for posting your trip report.
For your next trip, Late September- October or April-early May are my favorite times to do the parks in Utah. If you wanted to do Death Valley as an add on, put it at the very beginning of a spring trip or at the end of a fall trip to avoid the extreme heat. You could do it from Las Vegas, drive up UT 94 to Beatty then head west over to the park with a stop in Rhyolite for the "ghost town" experience, the view from the top of the mountains as you approach the park is spectacular.
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Nov 28th, 2019, 12:08 PM
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This is a wonderful report, and will be particularly helpful to my husband and me, since we will be embarking on another very long (4-5 months) road trip in our RV, starting in April. After JazzFest in New Orleans, we will be heading west to "do" the national parks and Canadian Rockies (last summer, as RV newbies, we spent 4 months traveling from Arizona to New Orleans to Florida (both coasts) up the east "coast" to Canada (as far as New Brunswick), and back through New England to DC).

I was skeptical about traveling in the RV, but I am a convert. We loved the lifestyle, loved having all our stuff at our fingertips, loved being outdoors more of the time than we would be staying in hotels, loved being able to eat in or out depending on the mood (we usually ate out one meal a day, but ate in all three meals if we weren't any place where eating out was special), loved not having to pack and unpack. All in all, we're looking forward to getting back on the road in April 2020.
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