Even though distances seem vast in the western United States, it's possible to visit more than one of the region's national parks in a single trip. In fact, people often combine visits to Yellowstone and Grand Teton, Yosemite and Sequoia, and Zion and Bryce Canyon.
You can knit the parks of the California desert (Death Valley, Joshua Tree, and Mojave Preserve) into a nice itinerary that might even leave you time to stop off in the resort town of Palm Springs. A popular trip for families is a drive through Badlands National Park and the Black Hills of South Dakota, all the way through Devils Tower to Yellowstone. It's not a small stretch, but it's doable if you have more than a week.
Although it can be a lot of fun to combine several national parks in your vacation trip, try not to make the all too common mistake of attempting to see everything there is to see in too short a period of time. Be realistic about how much you want to see at each park, and create an itinerary that lets you thoroughly enjoy one or two aspects of a park rather than just glimpsing every corner as you speed by. And try to schedule a little relaxation time, especially for trips of more than a week -- perhaps loafing in the campground one afternoon, or lounging by the motel swimming pool.
Following are two of our favorite national park tours.
This long circle drive hits five states and involves a lot of driving (or flying regional airlines and renting cars), but it takes you to a fantastic variety of parks -- desert, cave, mountain, and deep canyon, plus one of the world's most fascinating archaeological preserves. We begin and end in Phoenix, Arizona, where almost all major airlines serve the airport, and car and RV rentals are available. We've laid it out for just under 2 weeks, but allowing more time would make it more satisfying.
Day 1: Phoenix, Arizona
After arriving and picking up your rental car or RV, Phoenix is a good spot to stock up on supplies. The city is also famous for its golf resorts, so you may want to hit a few balls before heading south.
Day 2: Saguaro National Park
This is one of America's few national parks dedicated to protecting one specific plant -- the saguaro cactus. Here you will see forests of them. But you'll also see a variety of other plants and animals, such as javelinas -- odd pig-like animals that have mouths so tough they can bite through prickly pear cactus pads. The park has two good scenic drives as well as numerous trails through the Sonoran Desert, including the Valley View Overlook Trail, which provides a close-up view of the desert, and the Signal Hill Petroglyph Trail, where you'll get a good look at some ancient petroglyphs.
Day 3-5: Carlsbad Caverns & Guadalupe Mountains National Parks
One of the largest and most spectacular cave systems in the world, Carlsbad Caverns in southern New Mexico has practically countless cave formations, ranging from the fantastic to the grotesque. Be sure to take the Big Room Self-Guided Tour and the King's Palace Guided Tour. For a genuine caving experience, get your clothes dirty on the Slaughter Canyon guided tour. Just over the state line in Texas, Guadalupe Mountains is a rugged wilderness of tall Douglas firs, offering panoramic vistas and the highest peak in Texas. Recommended for experienced hikers is the trek to the top of Guadalupe Peak. Everyone can enjoy the colors in McKittrick Canyon -- either the trees in fall or the wildflowers in spring.
Day 6: Santa Fe, New Mexico
It's a long drive from Carlsbad Caverns to Mesa Verde National Park, so we recommend breaking it up with an overnight stop in Santa Fe, famous for its art, history, and picturesque adobe buildings. For information, see Frommer's New Mexico.
Day 7-9: Mesa Verde National Park
The largest archaeological preserve in the United States, Mesa Verde contains intriguing, well-preserved cliff dwellings, plus mesa-top pueblos, pit houses, and kivas, built by the ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) people hundreds of years ago. Recommended stops here are Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling in the Southwest, and Balcony House.
Day 10: Petrified Forest National Park
Especially colorful after a rainstorm has washed away the dust, this national park is a fascinating look at an unreal world of wood turned to stone. Take the 28-mile scenic drive, stopping at the pullouts and walking some of the short trails. We especially recommend the Giant Logs Trail, where you'll see some of the park's largest petrified logs, and Blue Mesa Trail, one of the prettiest and most otherworldly hikes in the park. At Newspaper Rock, early inhabitants pecked dozens of petroglyphs into the dark stone, including an image of the famous humpbacked flute player, Kokopelli.
Day 11-12: Grand Canyon National Park's South Rim
The Grand Canyon truly is grand, and no matter how many photos you've seen, being there in person is an awe-inspiring experience. After stopping at the information center for a quick geology lesson, take the shuttle to some of the South Rim viewpoints, and perhaps walk the Rim Trail a bit. Then, if you're physically able, walk down Bright Angel Trail at least a little way, watching the vegetation and rock layers change as you descend. Unless you are in very good condition, however, it is probably best to not go beyond the One-and-a-Half-Mile House, which has restrooms and drinking water, before heading back up to the rim.
Day 13: Back to Phoenix
Back in Phoenix, you can practice your golf swing or visit some of the city's excellent museums before catching your plane for home.
Southern Utah has five delightful national parks and several national monuments, the North Rim of the spectacular Grand Canyon is just over the border in Arizona, and perched along the state line is an awe-inspiring Navajo Nation park. Together they form a somewhat circuitous loop. This jaunt begins and ends in Las Vegas, Nevada, which is accessible by almost all major airlines and has car and RV rentals. You can complete this tour in 2 weeks, but it is much more satisfying in 3 weeks, as described here.
Day 1: Las Vegas, Nevada
Fly in, pick up your rental car or RV, lay in some supplies, and maybe try the slot machines for a half-hour or so. Then hit the road and head northeast into the mountains of southern Utah.
Days 2-4: Zion National Park
Famous for its mammoth natural stone sculptures and unbelievably narrow slot canyon, this park begs to be explored on foot. Hop on the shuttle bus that runs the length of the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, getting off to take trails. We especially recommend the easy Riverside Walk, which follows the Virgin River through a narrow canyon past hanging gardens, as well as the Emerald Pools Trail. Especially pleasant on hot days, this walk through a forest of oak, maple, fir, and cottonwood trees leads to a waterfall, a hanging garden, and a shimmering pool.
Days 5-6: Grand Canyon National Park's North Rim
The North Rim of the Grand Canyon receives far fewer visitors than the South Rim, but that doesn't mean it's any less spectacular. The North Rim (which is open in summer only) provides views of and access to the same overpowering canyon as the South Rim does, just from the other side. You'll want to stop at the Grand Canyon Lodge, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and then hike a few of the Rim Trails. If you're in good enough physical shape, you might want to hike partway down into the canyon on the North Kaibab Trail.
Days 7-8: Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park
Although not a national park, this Navajo Tribal Park is well worth a stop (and it's on your way). Monument Valley is, to many of us, the epitome of the Old West -- we've seen it dozens of times in movies and on television. Part of the vast Navajo Nation, the park has a 17-mile self-guided loop road that lets you see most of the major scenic attractions, or you can get a personalized tour with a Navajo guide. Either way you'll see classic western scenery made famous in movies such as 1939's Stagecoach, which starred a young John Wayne.
Days 9-12: Arches & Canyonlands National Parks
Famed for its massive red and orange rock formations, this area is home to two national parks and the lively town of Moab. Canyonlands National Park is a great hikers' park. Make sure you stop at the Grand View Point Overlook, in the Island in the Sky District, and hike the Grand View Trail, especially scenic in the late afternoon. Arches National Park is a bit more user-friendly. Take the scenic drive and walk a few trails -- on the Devils Garden Trail, you can see 15 to 20 arches, including picturesque Landscape Arch.
Days 13-14: Capitol Reef National Park
Relatively unknown, this park offers brilliantly colored rock formations and a bit of history. The Fremont River created a lush oasis in this otherwise barren land, and 19th-century pioneers found the soil so fertile that they established the community of Fruita, named for the orchards they planted. Today you can explore the buildings and even pick fruit in season. Hikers can examine Pioneer Register, a rock wall where traveling pioneers "signed in," and explore canyons where famed outlaw Butch Cassidy is said to have hidden out between train and bank robberies.
Days 15-18: Scenic Utah 12 & Bryce Canyon National Park
From Capitol Reef, go south on Utah 12 over Boulder Mountain and through Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, possibly stopping for a short hike to Calf Creek Falls, before heading to Bryce Canyon National Park. Spend the night in the park or nearby so you can be on the rim of Bryce Amphitheater at sunrise, the best time to see the colorful and often whimsically shaped rock formations called hoodoos. Top hikes here include the colorful Queen's Garden Trail, named for a formation that resembles Britain's Queen Victoria.
Days 19-20: Cedar Breaks National Monument
This small, high-altitude park has an amphitheater reminiscent of Bryce Canyon's as well as a 5-mile road that offers easy access to the monument's scenic overlooks and trailheads. Hike Spectra Point Trail along the rim for changing views of the colorful rock formations. The trail also takes you through fields of wildflowers, which are especially colorful in late July and August, and past bristlecone pines that are more than 1,500 years old.
Day 21: Back to Las Vegas
Back in Sin City, you can catch a stage show or feed the one-armed bandits before boarding your flight home.