I have made it a goal to go on one big trip (preferably international) per year every year in my 20’s. In 2016, my big trip of the year was to Scotland in May. However, sometimes that one trip a year doesn’t quite satisfy my travel bug, and I also don’t just want to focus on visiting new international locations when there’s much of the U.S. I’ve still yet to see. So in 2016, in addition to the Scotland trip, Dylan and I planned a mini trip to the Grand Canyon.
The key for me to planning trips is trying to do and see as much as possible while you’re there. I’m not one of those people that likes to relax on vacations (unless I’m on a beach somewhere). If I’m spending money to go on a trip, I want to make the most out of it. Plus, you never know when you’ll get to go again, if ever.
That was the theme for the Grand Canyon trip. Neither Dylan nor I could take off much time from work since we were already taking 10 days off to go to Scotland just a month after. So we took off a Friday and a Monday which gave us three full days out west once you factored in travel time. The problem was picking and choosing what we wanted to fit in while we were there because we could’ve had a week out west and still not have done/seen it all.
Eventually, we decided to make a full circle from Las Vegas to Zion National Park to the Grand Canyon and back to Vegas with stops along the way to the Hoover Dam, Horseshoe Bend, and Lake Powell. And this is how we did it all:
We flew into Vegas on a Thursday night (the closest airport to the Grand Canyon is Phoenix, but Vegas is the second closest and fit into our plan nicely once we decided that we wanted to see Zion in addition to the Grand Canyon). Also, the flight prices to Vegas actually weren’t too bad (around $200 round trip for each of us). We got into Vegas around 9pm on Thursday, picked up a rental car at the airport, and checked into our room at the Mirage (side note: if you ever travel to Vegas I highly recommend staying at the Aria; Dylan and I were trying to save money and picked one of the cheaper hotels, especially since we were only staying for one night, but I’ve traveled to Vegas multiple times for work and there is just no beating the Aria). We picked up some beers at the hotel bar, walked around the casino, and then explored the strip for a bit. Vegas is a one-of-a-kind place that you could never accurately explain in writing, so I’m not even going to try. Plus, we were pretty jet-lagged (it was now like 3am EST) and we had to be on the road first thing in the morning, so we didn’t do much that night outside of walking around.
On Friday morning, we woke up bright and early, had a hearty breakfast at good ol’ Denny’s (classy, LOL), and got on the road to our first stop which was the Hoover Dam. Hoover Dam is only about 45 minutes outside of the city, and you also pass Lake Mead on the way which is surrounded by mountains and absolutely beautiful. You can park at the Hoover Dam both on the Nevada side and the Arizona side. We drove across from the Nevada side and parked on the Arizona side to take some pictures of the back of the dam (facing the larger part of the Colorado river). Then we walked across the bridge that faces the front of the dam; we didn’t do the tour of the power plant, we just saw and took pictures of the outside, so we were probably only at Hoover Dam for a total of an hour.
On to the next stop, which was Zion National Park. We decided to camp out at both Zion and the Grand Canyon to save money on hotel expenses and to get the “full effect” of being at a national park (we paid $25 a night for both camping sites vs. $100+ a night for hotel rooms). Packing tents in our checked bags on the flight was actually a lot easier than I expected! We had one checked bag full of camping supplies (one tent, two sleeping bags, and two pads to go under the sleeping bags; the key was to roll everything as tightly as possible to get it to fit) and two carry ons with all of our clothes.
The distance from the Hoover Dam to Zion was about 3.5 hours so that ate up a good bit of our time on Friday. We arrived in Zion around 3pm, set up our campsite (we stayed at the Watchman Campground which is just outside of the park’s south entrance), and went exploring. After seeing Zion, I am convinced that it is super underrated as far as national parks go. The massive sandstone cliffs of cream, pink, and red are amazing and there is greenery and wildlife everywhere. The most popular thing to do in Zion is hike the narrows, but it requires time and specific gear/equipment (neither of which we had much of), so it’s on the list for the next time we go! Instead we decided to hike the Upper and Lower Emerald Pools trails. Upon doing research before the trip, I learned that the Emerald Pools trails were a Zion classic: an oasis in the middle of the desert. We took a shuttle from the Visitor Center to Zion Lodge to get to the trails (you have to take a shuttle to get there because part of the road is closed off to private vehicles during the spring-fall, but it was great when our bus driver stopped in the middle of the road and made a turkey call to get a male turkey to ruffle his feathers). It wasn’t a very hard hike, the trail was surrounded by lush vegetation, and the “emerald pools” were formed by several small waterfalls cascading from the colorful cliffs. The Upper Emerald Pools trail offered a great view of the park, and we were there just as the sun was casting a golden light on the peaks of the rocks; overall, a great day in Zion! We made it back to the campground just before dark and fell asleep in our tent to the sound of the Virgin River that ran adjacent to our site.
On Saturday, we woke up with the intention of visiting Horseshoe Bend and Lake Powell on our way to the Grand Canyon. Horseshoe Bend and Lake Powell are both located in Page, AZ which was just over two hours from Zion. We drove through Zion National Park as far as we could go (until the road was restricted to shuttle access), exited on Zion-Mount Carmel highway and were on our way. Horseshoe Bend was absolutely amazing. I will have to let the pictures speak for themselves on this one. It’s a little bit of a hike to the top from where you park your car (but nothing too bad and totally worth it!) Such a cool view of the Colorado River.
We didn’t spend much time at Horseshoe since our plans for Lake Powell were to go on a self-guided kayak tour (I rented kayaks from Hidden Canyon Kayaks ahead of time), and we had to make it to the Grand Canyon before dark to set up camp. Lake Powell is known for its deep slot canyons and large rock formations that come up right out of the middle of the water, and we wanted to see those as up-close as possible. However, when we arrived at Hidden Canyon Kayaks we were told that all kayaking tours and rentals had been canceled for the day due to weather conditions (it was super windy). We were disappointed, but one of the tour guides suggested that we visit Antelope Canyon which was only a 15 minute drive away. Antelope Canyon wasn’t planned but ended up being one of our favorite parts of the trip. I learned on the tour that it is one of the most photographed places in the world! The tour was about $50 a person, but you can’t see the canyon on your own since it’s on a Navajo reservation. We rode out to the canyon with about 15 other people on the back of a four-wheel drive tour truck. Once we were inside, it was easy to see why it’s one of the most photographed places in the world. The slot canyon is made up of red and orange sandstone that’s been carved by many years of wind and water. There are several places where beams of sunlight shine through to cast colorful light and dark shadows on the rocks. The tour guide was very knowledgeable (he had grown up doing tours with his father and grandfather) and even helped adjust people’s camera settings to capture the best images. Even though we were in the canyon with lots of other tourists, there was nothing touristy about it!
After leaving Antelope, we stopped for lunch at a Mexican restaurant in Page (when in Arizona…), and then we were finally on the way to the south rim of the Grand Canyon (it had already been an amazing trip, but we definitely saved the best for last!) Our campsite at Grand Canyon was located inside the park, and we got there just in time to set up our tent and catch the sunset over the canyon from an overlook. Spending the night in our tent that night was actually comical; our elevation was much higher than it was in Zion, so it was naturally much colder. Luckily, our campsite came with a small fire pit, but we struggled to get a fire going. We finally got the fire started, but then we were both so tired, we decided to put it out and call it a night. I remember waking up at some point and arguing/wrestling with Dylan to get him to let me crawl in his sleeping bag. I remember cursing myself for wanting to camp and not stay in the lodge. It was that cold.
Anyways, we woke up around 5:30am on Sunday to catch the sunrise (I am not a morning person at all but was absolutely determined to see the sunrise, and I’m so glad we did. Easily one of the best sunrises I’ve ever seen.) We had a great breakfast and then hiked the Bright Angel Trail down into the canyon. The trail can be up to 12 miles round trip; of course, we didn’t have time to do the whole thing, but we walked at our leisure, were passed by people on mules, crawled up on rocks where signs were posted “Danger – Do Not Climb,” and took lots of pictures. The Grand Canyon is just that: grand and amazing and breathtaking and makes you realize how small you are compared to the big world we live in. I would go back in a heartbeat.
We left the Grand Canyon in the mid-afternoon on Sunday with a four hour drive back to Vegas. We had a red-eye back to DC that night. The trip was short, but we were able to drink and play slot machines in Las Vegas, walk a bridge across the Hoover Dam, hike in Zion National Park, sit on top of Horseshoe Bend, ride in a truck out to Antelope Canyon, and watch a sunset and sunrise over the Grand Canyon. All in three days! It was the trip of a lifetime. We even made it back to Vegas with plenty of time before our flight so we got dinner and watched a burlesque show 😉