Top 10 Tips for Your Grand Circle National Park Tour

I’ve done all the hard work, so you just have to pick your dates and pack! We did a loop trip starting and ending in Las Vegas and traveling counterclockwise, but you could choose to go the other direction. After reading articles on how crowded the National Parks were this summer, I was worried we would run into too many people and at-capacity parks, but it only happened once. (We went to Arches and were turned away so we drove to Canyonlands for a hike and returned to Arches later in the day.) I think it paid off going in late August/early September after most schools had started. And even after the record crowds the parks saw this year, all of the trails and restroom and visitor facilities at every park we visited were so well maintained that I have to give kudos to our national park system!

Before I share my top 10 Tips for a stress-free National Park Tour, though, here are just a few thoughts on my planning strategy. We had two weeks and we knew we wanted to hit as many parks as possible. We didn’t want to feel like we were in a rush, though, so we stayed in most locations for two nights which allowed us to arrive at a park in the late afternoon and do a hike or visit a scenic viewpoint. Then we’d get a good night’s sleep and have the entire next day to explore before waking up the following day and driving to the next park. We also usually broke up the driving by stopping at a park and doing a short hike on the way to the next park. We tried not to drive more than three-ish hours between our lodging, so we didn’t feel like that was all we were doing. We ended up visiting 12 parks which sounds like a lot, but we were only at some of them for a few hours on the way to our next destination. Here is everywhere we visited and the number of nights we spent at each place.

  • Las Vegas, NV (1)
  • Grand Canyon / South Rim, AZ (2)
  • Page, AZ (2)
    • Antelope Canyon
    • Glen Canyon National Recreation Area
  • Four Corners Monument Navajo Tribal Park, AZ, CO, NM, UT
  • Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, AZ (1)
  • Mesa Verde National Park, CO (2)
  • Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, CO
  • Moab, UT (2)
    • Arches National Park
    • Canyonlands National Park
  • Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, UT
  • Bryce Canyon National Park, UT (2)
  • Cedar Breaks National Monument, UT
  • Zion National Park, UT (2)
  • Las Vegas, NV (1)

Hey, what is the difference between a national park and a national monument, anyway? National parks are areas set apart by Congress for the use of the people of the United States generally because of some outstanding scenic features or natural phenomena. National monuments, on the other hand, are areas reserved by the National Government because they contain objects of historic, prehistoric, or scientific interest. Want more info, click here.

Top 10 Tips for a National Park Tour

  1. America the Beautiful
    • Before you do anything else, buy your National Parks pass! It will save you money (especially if you’re going to a lot of parks), and it benefits our national parks. The entrance fees at the museums and parks we visited ranged from $7 to $35.
  2. Are We There Yet?
    • Use Google maps to figure out your driving itinerary and print out the directions that also include the driving times so you can decide how long you want to drive before stopping for the night and plan your accommodations accordingly. I would also recommend taking printed copies (or saving screenshots on your phone) of the maps and directions as we did a lot of driving in places with no Internet access. 
  3. No Bates Motel for this Girl
    • I love Booking.com! I’ve used it to book hotels/motels for my trips for the last 15 years. I became a fan when they very professionally (and quickly) resolved an issue I had with one of my accommodations during a trip to New Zealand where a last-minute change found us staying in a shipping container on Christmas Eve. And, no, it wasn’t one of those adorable Instagram-worthy interiors. It was a box, anyway, back to why I love Booking.com and why you should use it for planning your trip. After you determine your route using Google Maps, it’s very easy to find places to stay on their site. And once you book something, if you try to book another place for one of the dates you’ve already booked, it will tell you so you don’t double-book and you can easily choose which location you prefer. The site also makes it very easy to keep checking rates which I did up to a few days before we left and saved a substantial amount of money as a lot of the rates dropped the closer we got to the dates. During the low seasons, you could probably get even cheaper rates if you just show up and don’t book in advance, but I didn’t want to chance not having a room for the night.
    • Here are all the motels/hotels we stayed in on our trip. I would recommend all of them if if you’re looking for a comfortable bed, good AC, solid water pressure, in-room fridge, and proximity to the parks. None of these places are luxury accommodations, but they were comfortable, reasonably priced, and the staff was very friendly.
      • Yavapai Lodge (in the park!)– Grand Canyon
      • Country Inn & Suites by Radisson (amazingly nice hotel, hidden gem)– Page, AZ
      • Goulding’s Lodge (nice on-site restaurant and gorgeous setting)– Monument Valley
      • Retro Inn at Mesa Verde (each room has a different theme)– Mesa Verde
      • Big Horn Lodge (walkable to restaurants and close to Arches & Canyonlands) — Moab, UT
      • Bryce View Lodge Part of Ruby’s Inn Resort (this is the only place I wouldn’t stay at again as it needs a major rehab; pros are you get a voucher for breakfast at their restaurant and the motel is very close to the park entrance) — Bryce
      • Zion Park Motel (nice pool and right by the park shuttle stop) — Zion
  4. Baby, You Can Drive My Car.
    • If you’re driving with your spouse or domestic partner, check to see if there is a daily charge for an extra driver before you reserve your car. If there is a charge, see if their rewards program will waive the charge. For example, a perk of Thrifty’s rental rewards program, among other things, is not paying for a second authorized driver; otherwise, they charge you $12 a day. The rewards program is free to join, so it’s a win-win.
    • While hatchbacks are cute vehicles, you’ll want a place to securely store your stuff out of view whether you’re parked at a motel or trailhead, so opt for a model with a trunk.
    • When you pick up your car, most companies let you choose your specific vehicle from the inventory on their lot, so make sure it has Apple CarPlay (if you have an iPhone) and a USB port in the dash or center console. Apple CarPlay and a nice-sized screen make driving long distances in unknown locales a breeze as you can easily see the map and upcoming turns — no need to keep looking at your phone. An easily accessible USB port lets you connect to CarPlay and charge your phone en route. CarPlay also lets you listen to your favorite downloaded podcasts during the drive — my personal favorites are Dateline to feed my true crime habit, Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! for a humorous review of current events, and Pop Culture Happy Hour to tell you what to read, watch, and listen to!
    • Make sure to decline the Collision Damage Waiver and pay with the United Explorer Visa card. The card provides primary coverage on the rental. If you get in an accident, it will pay for damages before your insurance has to kick in…see more info here and find out what other cards offer primary rental car coverage.
    • If you book an early morning flight, save money on your rental car by returning it the night before flying out. This saves you a day on your rental price and makes getting to the airport in the morning quick and easy. Of course, it works best if your hotel has a free airport shuttle.
    • When you rent, always choose to return the car with a full tank. It’s usually a lot cheaper, and when you return the car the night before you leave, you’ll have plenty of time to fill the tank up. Never go to the gas station closest to the rental car return as you’ll pay more for the convenience. Drive a few blocks and get a better price. We paid almost a dollar less per gallon on our last trip by filling up at station two blocks away.
  5. En Plein Air
    • On the first day of our road trip, we went to Safeway and bought a loaf of bread, peanut butter, raspberry jelly, two large bags of chips, a box of six blueberry muffins, and four apples. We also “picked up” several bags from the produce section to hold the sandwiches and chips and a few plastic knives from the deli counter to make the sandwiches. We decided to prioritize hiking and being outside over searching for restaurants, so we ate breakfast in our room before we left for the day and took PB&J sandwiches with us to eat on the trail. This was easy to do as all the motels had mini fridges to store our food. We ate dinner out every night (and I mean out as we sat outside because of COVID.) Here are some yummy, don’t-miss food rides: 
  6. So Many Hikes, So Little Time
    • Bryce Canyon National Park — Queen’s Garden & Wall Street (The views and rock colors are otherworldly, you’ll get sweaty, and your legs will ache, but just do it!)
    • Canyons of the Ancients — Visitor Center and Museum & Lowry Pueblo (Just when you think you’ve seen enough pueblos and kivas…ignore that thought and visit the Lowry Pueblo, amazing!)
    • Grand Canyon (South Rim) — Bright Angel Trail (You don’t have to go the whole way, just go as far as you’re still feeling good for the return trip and you have enough water. Must-do hike!)
    • Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument — Lower Calf Creek Trail (A hidden gem of a waterfall rewards your hiking effort.)
    • Mesa Verde National Park — Long House Tour (You can book your tickets on a rolling basis up to two weeks in advance, so I would jump on this once you have your dates confirmed. It’s a fantastic hike and brings history alive. I thought the ladders would be scary to climb, but they’re really easy and not an issue.)
    • Page, AZ — Horseshoe Bend Float (This was more fun than I thought it would be, plus pretty scenery, roaming wildlife, and interesting stories of the area.); Antelope Canyon Slot Canyon (A thundershower canceled our tour, but it looks so incredible that it goes back on the list for next time.)
    • Zion National Park — The Narrows (The Instagram-famous hike you have to do. Oh, and it’s also a lot of fun and probably the only hike of its kind you’ll ever do, so don’t miss it.)
  7. H2O
    • Another tip that worked out well for us was buying a case of bottled water at our Safeway stop. We kept most of the bottles in the trunk and took four to six bottles into the hotel room with us each day. We drank the water at night and filled our Camelbaks for the next day’s hike. I encourage you to buy a Camelbak or some other type of water reservoir if you plan on hiking a lot as it makes staying hydrated easy, no need to carry heavy water bottles around. My husband used an insulated bladder, but I just put the bladder in my existing Patagonia backpack.
  8. Happy Feet
    • I brought a pair of Danner hiking boots and hiking shoes and alternated between the two. I wore both of them for several weeks before our trip on walks around the neighborhood so my feet wouldn’t blister. Anyway, it worked and I didn’t have issues with either shoe. I also recommend buying a few pairs of Darn Tough socks to wear with your shoes. Since it was hot when we went, I bought their lightweight wool versions. They even had a pair called Phat Witch — faintly reminiscent of Witchiepoo from H.R. Pufnstuf! Also, don’t forget to bring a pair of flip-flops (we call them slippahs in Hawaii!) as your feet will be tired at the end of the day.
  9. For Girls Only
    • A must-have for me on this trip was the Neutrogena lip balm with SPF I picked up at the drugstore the day before we left on our trip. My lips felt moisturized and protected from the sun on our hikes with no waxy taste. The thin semi-flat container easily fits in my pocket, and I still have a lot left. The balm’s slight hint of color and a tinted SPF moisturizer were the only makeup on my face for the two-week trip. I alternated between a lower SPF Neutrogena tinted moisturizer and my SPF 50 Kiehl’s B&B cream (which I think they’ve discontinued, but you can still find on Amazon!) It was very sunny and hot at the parks even in early September when we went, so don’t forget the sunscreen. 
  10. Go With the Flow
    • We had a great trip. Some of it was our planning, but a lot of it was the fantastic scenery we saw along the way. I remember being afraid that after three days, I would start feeling we were repeating ourselves. I mean, just how different could each park be? Well, I was soooooo wrong. Each park was terrific in its own right, and each had a unique hike or vista to share. I also have to give a shout-out to the park rangers. They were all so professional and excited to share their knowledge. 2021 may end up being the year of our National Parks, but it’s also the year of our National Park Rangers and everyone else who helps maintain these majestic parks for us to visit. So, getting back to just going with the flow — relax, breathe, bask in the scenery, the animals, the stars, and enjoy!

Here’s a peek at what awaits you on your trip… 🙂

9 thoughts on “Top 10 Tips for Your Grand Circle National Park Tour

  1. Awesome Kim! I’m saving your article hopefully for when I go someday in the future. Thanks for doing the work.

  2. Trip of a lifetime Kim. Great tips and now I am looking for a ruggedized motor-powered wheelchair. ♥️♥️♥️

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