Western US National Parks tour planning help

Old Aug 1st, 2021, 10:21 AM
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Western US National Parks tour planning help

We have a wedding in Plymouth, CA and another one 2 weeks later 1 in Denver, CO. We plan to take the time in between to drive from Plymouth to Denver, hitting national parks and other sites along the way. This will be a “highlights” tour -- I realize we will be just skimming the surface at each stop, but that’s okay. Neither of us has spent time in this part of the US before so want to see the highlights in hope of coming back at some future date to go more in depth on the places we loved.

We are 2 physically fit adults, driving a rental car, overnights will be spent in motels and hotels. Our planned itinerary is below. We plan to wake early to enter the parks then do the driving to our next stop in the late afternoon/evening.

Specific questions I have:
  • Are there any places you would drop, add, or adjust the # of days spent there?
    • I know Lake Tahoe and Las Vegas might be suggested as places to drop, but my husband has wanted to go to Lake Tahoe for years so I want him to get it out of his system, and we know Las Vegas won’t really be our thing, but we feel a need to see it.
    • Am I going to regret not adding Monument Valley or Canyonlands in here somewhere?
  • Do I have the driving times approximately right? (I know we will need to add time for meals, sightseeing stops, etc.)
  • I’m concerned that we’ll be visiting the Grand Canyon, Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend on the weekend. Is it going to be a madhouse? Should we skip it or brave the crowds? Is there a better way to do this?
  • Any other advice on how to do this well is welcome.
Current plan:

Sept 11 - wedding in Plymouth, CA / overnight in Plymouth

Sept 12 - drive to Lake Tahoe (2hrs), daytime activities in this area / overnight in South Lake Tahoe

Sept 13 - Lake Tahoe daytime / drive to El Portal, CA (4.5 hrs) / overnight in El Portal

Sept 14 - Yosemite / overnight in El Portal

Sept 15 - Yosemite / drive to Lone Pine, CA via Tioga Pass (4 hrs) / overnight in Lone Pine

Sept 16 - drive through Death Valley with stops for sightseeing (4 hrs of driving without stops taken into consideration?) / overnight in Las Vegas

Sept 17 - Las Vegas / drive to Grand Canyon South Rim (4.5 hrs) / overnight town TBD

Sept 18 - Grand Canyon South Rim / drive to Page (2.5 hrs) / overnight in Page, AZ

Sept 19 - Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend / drive to Bryce (4hrs) / overnight town TBD

Sept 20 - Bryce and possibly Capitol Reef parks / drive to Moab (4hrs?) / overnight Moab, UT

Sept 21 - Arches / overnight Moab

Sept 22 - Arches / drive to Grand Lake, CO (6.5 hrs) / overnight Grand Lake, CO

Sept 23 - Rocky Mountain National Park / overnight Grand Lake

Sept 24 - drive to Denver (2.5 hrs)

Thank you very much!
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Old Aug 1st, 2021, 06:13 PM
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You have Arches on Sept. 21 and Sept 22. You could do Island in the Sky of Canyonlands instead:


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Old Aug 1st, 2021, 06:25 PM
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Sounds like an interesting trip. Do check to see if Antelope Canyon will be open when you go as the Navajo parks have been closed. If I t is not you might consider driving from Vegas to Zion and then on to the north rim of Grand Canyon then Bryce to Moab. That said I really do prefer the south rim.

You might find it takes longer to get from one site to the next than the mapping sites indicate, I wouuld add 25% to the times.
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Old Aug 1st, 2021, 08:00 PM
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All great destinations -- but that is a LOT of travel time (need to add probably 20%+ drive time - and more in the mountains - to any on-line mapping sites. For example Southshore Tahoe to El Portal will usually take 5+ hours no matter which route you take. Yosemite Valley to Lone Pine could take as little as 4 hours but more likely closer to 5.

El Portal is the best location outside the Valley floor so that is a good choice.

Right now the CA bits of your itinerary are rushed but definitely doable. But this is the height of fire season so you'll have to keep on top of the actual situation in mid Sept and have a Plan B (and probably plans C & D) just in case. There is a large fire south of Tahoe which is about 80% contained so should be a non-issue when you travel, but there could be others impacting/interrupting your plans. The locals at the wedding in Amador County will be able to give you specific advice on any fires.
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Old Aug 1st, 2021, 09:23 PM
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More of a NASCAR race than vacation.
Seriously, straight line from from Lake Tahoe to Zion. Then to Bryce, Escalante, Goblin Valley, Capitol Reef, Arches, Island in The Sky.
Then enjoy the Rockies to Denver. Stop at Aspen ski resort for a few days.

Do the others later

At South Shore, take the gondola to Heavenly Valley top (one of my favorite ski areas)
In winter, there is a restaurant open up there; not sure about summer.
There are several YouTube videos of this gondola journey.
The most scenic view of lake Tahoe is Emerald Bay on the west side of the lake. You can hike to the shore line
That is also on YouTube



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Old Aug 1st, 2021, 10:12 PM
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That's a LOT of driving day after day and not much time anywhere. I agree with the others that you've underestimated the drive times.

El Portal to Lone Pine will take at least 5 hours, not including stops or small detours that, IMO, are pretty hard to skip when you're basically RIGHT THERE. Mono Lake... one of if not the most unique bodies of water in the U.S. Bristlecone Pine Forest... the oldest trees on the planet. Manzanar National Historic Site... one of ten WWII internment camps in the U.S. and a lasting reminder of how fragile our Constitution really is.

Driving through Death Valley in mid-September can still be dangerous. Last year, temps between Sept. 14 and 18 ranged from 108F to 111F. I don't know what stops you're thinking of making, but you need to take this day very seriously. Make sure your car is up for the drive and carry gallons of water.

I can't stand Vegas, so no comment there.
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Old Aug 2nd, 2021, 04:47 AM
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Thanks! It looks like Antelope Canyon is currently open, but of course that could change.
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Old Aug 2nd, 2021, 04:57 AM
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This is all great information, thank you to everyone has replied so far. I do agree that it is rushed and we are going to be exhausted, but I'm having a hard time figuring out what to drop out of the itinerary because it all seems so unique and wonderful!

We had decided to skip Zion because of hearing that a number of trails and roads had been closed due to flooding and rockslides. I wasn't sure if that would still be the case in September (and we needed to drop some stops so that info helped make the decision.)

My mother has been a National Parks visitors center volunteer at Death Valley National Park so she has fully apprised us of the dangers. We take that seriously and will be prepared, as well as altering our plans as needed based upon conditions.
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Old Aug 2nd, 2021, 07:49 AM
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Originally Posted by loristethers3761 View Post
This is all great information, thank you to everyone has replied so far. I do agree that it is rushed and we are going to be exhausted, but I'm having a hard time figuring out what to drop out of the itinerary because it all seems so unique and wonderful!.
A couple of problems with that -- for most of your itinerary you'll be too rushed and have too little time to figure out if you love anything. And -- Aug/Sept time frame is not a good time to visit Yosemite. It is hot/dry (therefore no waterfalls) and there is often bad air quality because of fires in the central Sierra. Don't get me wrong -- I LOVE Yosemite, one of my favorite places on Earth. But I never visit in Jul/Aug and September is almost as bad except the crowds are smaller. Later in the Fall is good because of the color (though still no waterfalls). Winter is just great but one is limited to the Valley floor, late Spring is very best, June is really good too -- but July through mid September can be gawd awful.

Maybe simplify things and net some extra time at other stops by doing Plymouth > Tahoe, down 395 to Death Valley and so on from there. Keep YNP for another future trip
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Old Aug 2nd, 2021, 09:20 AM
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Yes it is all wonderful and amazing but you need to cut some things to make this trip enjoyable. And yes add another 20-25% if those drive-time estimates came from Google maps.

If you want to include Las Vegas, why only go for an overnight and barely half a day, with a 5 hour drive on either side? Since you're including it, don't you want to have dinner, see a show, check out some of the highlights?

Follow janisj's suggestion to skip Yosemite, for example. Do that a couple more times. Then you'll have a better, more realistic, less "Amazing Race" kind of a road trip plan
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Old Aug 2nd, 2021, 11:59 AM
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Ok, points taken! I think we are going to drop Las Vegas, Grand Canyon, and Antelope Canyon as we could easily do those together in future trip. We' spend more time at the sites in CA, UT and CO. Not sure yet if we are willing to let go of Yosemite but I hear you @janisj and we will consider it. I really want to see giant redwoods or sequoias somewhere

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Old Aug 2nd, 2021, 01:17 PM
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Redwoods are on the coast and Sequoias are in the Sierra. (Coastal redwoods are the REALLY tall ones and Sequoia are the REALLY big circumference ones) and their habitats are entirely different -- Redwoods think cool/lush ferns/near the ocean, and Sequoia dryer, more mountainous. Now IF big trees are a major must -- why not stick to CA (with or without Yosemite). Are you flying in to SMF? A loop from Plymouth > Calaveras Big Trees State Park (and/or Yosemite) > Tahoe > Then either the redwoods in far NW CA or Henry Cowell state park near Santa Cruz and Monterey. then fly out to Denver. September is the absolute best month for the CA coast and redwoods.
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Old Aug 2nd, 2021, 03:32 PM
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I've been to Yosemite nearly every month of the year and I'd say mid Sept is by far my favorite time of year there. The peak summer crowds are gone after labor day, but it will still be busy. Nights will start to cool down and the days are still long enough to enjoy. If you can get a place to stay in the park, even better.
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Old Aug 3rd, 2021, 07:29 AM
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I would still do the drive through Tioga pass and if it isn't too smoggy from fires, go up to Glacier Point (drive if you can get there early enough).

​​​​​​I think it's still going to be busy this year in Yosemite and all of California. A lot of retirees wait until after Labor Day to travel and there is still all that pent up demand.

I like the Eastern Sierra. Maybe add a night in Bishop or Mammoth so you have time for Mono Lake and Manzanar. Mono best around sunset which is hard to do if stopping along the way in Tuolimne Meadows.

Last edited by mlgb; Aug 3rd, 2021 at 07:31 AM.
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