A road trip through the glorious national parks in Utah is a crowd-pleaser (for all ages ) that's as easy (fly in and out of Vegas) as it is beautiful (all that majestic nature). Here's how one family did it.
UTAH – When a road trip through Utah came up as an option for our Christmas holiday, all three members of my family had different reactions. The German husband hoped we could drive at least ten hours a day without stopping. The Indian wife hoped for decent food along the way, though she knew that the open sprawl of the West was not exactly known for its culinary delights. The 14-year-old son was concerned about accommodations and general entertainment.
But with a bit of planning that involved chats with friends who had ventured westwards and, most helpfully, Fathom founder Pavia Rosati (whose indispensable and unlikely top advice was to stay at Best Western hotels along the way), we had the most fantastic twelve days in Utah — all three of us declaring it one of the best holidays we had ever taken and vowing to return. Here’s what we did.
It Starts in Vegas
We flew from New York to Las Vegas, arriving early enough to have a full day to see the sites. We checked into Four Seasons Hotel Las Vegas, which was perfect — removed from the madness but still close to the action.
In 24 hours, we walked through all the hotels and casinos (a spectacle in their own right) and our son rode the roller coaster in New York New York twice. (Tip: Go to the concierge in the NYNY hotel, even if you’re not staying there. He kindly gave us passes for two rides for the price of one and also booked a time slot, which helped with the lines outside the roller coaster.)
I categorically refused to eat at any of the insane restaurants in the casinos and hotels because I found the perfect place in old Vegas in a strip mall: The Golden Steer. Super old-school, with white-jacketed waiters, tableside tartare and flambés, red leather booths, amazing steak, and great lighting. My son is not a particularly adventurous eater, so the great hidden Vietnamese spots would have been wasted on him, but The Golden Steer was heaven. So much so that we went twice.
Zion and Bryce Canyon
The plan (and it was a perfect plan) was to stay two nights at each national park and proceed to the mountains to ski as a final hurrah. After a quick — and well worth it — detour to see the impressive Hoover Dam, we drove to Zion National Park.
The hotel options in Zion are a little basic, but no one comes here for the hotels. We stayed at Marriott's SpringHill Suites Springdale Zion National Park — in my opinion, the best choice for its location, nicely modernized interiors, and stellar views. Ask for a room with a view onto the back so you’re not overlooking the parking lots. Dinner at Spotted Dog Cafe at Flanigan's Inn was very nice — a surprisingly good wine list and comfort food prepared with finesse.
The walks and hikes through Zion National Park were lovely, although because it was December, we couldn’t do the famous Narrows, which is only open in warm weather. Walks were vigorous and sometimes difficult, but worth every aching muscle for the views and the thrill. The park’s visitors’ center provides a thorough explanation of the levels of difficulty, and shuttle buses connect all the options. (You cannot self-drive through the park, which limits traffic beautifully.) This means that even if you don’t hike, you can take the bus to the highest point, disembark, take a few photos, and pretend you did it all.
Along the way to Bryce Canyon, we took what was meant to be a tiny detour to see the amazing Kodachrome Basin State Park. It was spectacular. Just us, eight lazy cows, and the entire park spread out before us in all its majesty.
Small, but important tip: Keep your Google Maps on and, once you’ve seen Kodachrome, hit the road directly towards where you are going to spend that night. We made the mistake of dreamily staying on Scenic Route 12 (which really is very scenic) past Kodachrome, and it took us an extra five hours to get to the next hotel, which put a small damper on what should have been a one-hour detour.
At last, Bryce Canyon National Park. We stayed at Best Western Plus Bryce Canyon Grand Hotel next to a shuttered rodeo. I would return just for a glimpse of it in action. Across the street was Best Western Plus Ruby’s Inn, which has a pool (nice) but apparently also moldy rooms (no thanks). Their restaurant is the only game in town during the winter months, so that’s where we ate both nights. In better weather, I’m told there are far better options for food.
The walks in Bryce through the formations known as "hoodoos" are amazing. Stop at the tourist center first for a full map to make it easier to get around. Bryce has good bird watching, so pack your binoculars. We didn’t, and missed them daily.
Canyonlands and Arches
I had planned our itinerary so that the drive between parks would be no more than four hours. This left time for a relaxed breakfast, hitting the road by 11 a.m. to arrive at the next destination by cocktail hour, with time to stop and admire the scenery along the way. If you are pressed for time, you should pick Canyonlands and Arches over Bryce. It’s a five-and-a-half hour drive from Zion, but the parks are breathtaking.
We stayed at Best Western Plus Canyonlands Inn in Moab, right on the main street. (Yes, we took the Best Western tip to heart. They really are nice and easy when doing the National Parks circuit.) We could have picked a posher hotel nearby, but we wanted to be able to walk around the town. I would do it differently next time, as Moab was a little meh.
We spent the first day exploring Canyonlands, and soon realized that our plan to see it all in one day was foolishly optimistic, as the best sites are deep in the park and not within easy distance of the parking areas and roads, as was the case at Zion, Bryce, and Arches. On day two, we drove through Arches and went on a long hike. Wonderful.
Even more wonderful was the two-hour plane ride we took over the parks with Redtail Air Adventures. Well worth the expense and absolutely a must do to get a sense of the majesty and grandeur of the parks.
Once again, we had dinner at the same place both nights: Zax, which was perfectly fine for a few nights. (Look, we didn’t come to Utah for the fine dining.) We talked about having a fancier dinner at sunset on the terrace at the upscale Sorrel River Ranch just out of town, which would have been a great idea, but we were too knackered every night to make the drive.
All the rocks and the hikes had been wonderful, but after nine days, we were ready to ski and ensconce ourselves in luxury on snow-covered slopes dotted of pine trees. We checked into The Cliff Lodge in Snowbird and spent three marvelous days skiing, dipping into hot pools (Cliff Lodge has a gorgeous outdoor heated rooftop pool with spectacular views), eating and drinking well.
We drove back to Vegas for a night (oh, hello, Golden Steer restaurant yet again) and flew back to NYC the next day content, energized, and thrilled at the unexpected discovery of glorious Utah.
No family squabbles, something for everyone, each of us happy we took the trip and for the time spent together.
A family vacation miracle.