National Parks Roadtrip - San Diego to Las Vegas in 16 days
I planned this trip with my bestie Rachel who was returning from New Zealand after completing her PhD. We fit in Joshua Tree, The Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon and Zion Nationals parks with lots of other adventures in between. My husband Jimmy and parents got to meet up with us for part of this trip too!
Day 1 - San Diego
After getting into San Diego and picking up our rental car, I headed over to meet up with Rachel. Rachel's friend Maren graciously hosted us at her house and took us to a restaurant near her house. After dinner, Rachel and I went out to Belly Up to see a local reggae band called One Drop . The opening band was a group of about 30 steel drum players. This was my first time in San Diego and I expected it to be a laid back and fun place. Both bands fit very nicely with that vision of San Diego, and it was a nice way to spend an unusually rainy and cold evening.
Day 2 - Joshua Tree National Park
We spent the morning hanging out with Maren and her family, and then we drove to Twentnine Palms which is a town outside of Joshua Tree and about 3 hours from San Diego. We were supposed to camp in the park at the Jumbo Rocks Campground, but Rachel had developed a cold and so we booked a hotel room instead. When we got in, Rachel went to bed while I took a hike out to Fortynine Palms. It was a nice hike to fit in before dinner and had some spectacular views and beautiful desert flowers. The hike ends at an oasis which supports the fortynine palms.
After checking in on Rachel and getting us some dinner, I visited Sky's the Limit which is an observatory in 29 Palms. Their big telescope was pointed to Jupiter and they had lots of other smaller telescopes out so visitors could see other points of interest.
Day 3 - Joshua Tree National Park
In the morning we moved to the Jumbo Rocks campground in Joshua Tree National Park. Rachel still wasn't feeling great but was up for the short 1.7 mile hike from the campgrounds to Skull Rock.
There were some fun sandstone scrambling options on this hike
Afterwards, I did the Lost Horse Mine hike. Since it was mid-May it was prime wildflower season, and this was a great hike for wildflower viewing.
After lunch, Rachel felt up for another short hike so we did the Hidden Valley trail which was amazing for cactus flowers and rock scrambling.
We enjoyed the sunset amongst the Jumbo Rocks and settled in for the night.
Day 4 - Joshua Tree National Park to Cornville, Arizona
Our destination for the day was Cornville, Arizona which was about a four and a half hour drive. As we made our way through the southern end of the park, we stopped at the Cholla Cactus Garden which I think looked like a patch of giant sour patch kids.
We ate a rather unremarkable lunch in Phoenix and then drove to Montezumas Castle National Monument which is preserved dwellings of the Sinagua people from over 800 years ago. My favorite part of the ride were the saguaro cacti on the roadside outside of Phoenix
We had booked the cutest AirBnB in Cornville which is in Arizona's Wine Country. We had time to do tastings at two of the nearby wineries before they closed. Page Springs Cellars was open later and had lots of games, so we enjoyed playing cornhole and HORSE while drinking wine before heading back to our AirBnB for the evening.
Day 5 - Bell Rock, Sedona
We got an early start so we could meet up with Peter Gersten who had offered to take us to the top of Bell Rock in Sedona. I found Peter through couchsurfing. If you are unaware of couchsurfing, I highly recommend trying it. It is an online community of travelers and people offering to host travelers for free. It is of course a great lodging option for budget travelers, but it also gives you an insiders view of a place while boosting your faith in humanity. When couchsurfing, I have always been so impressed by my host's hospitality, and grateful to receive their guidance about my trip. When hosting, I have enjoyed travelling vicariously through my guests' stories. I have met so many interesting characters through Couchsurfing, but they all pale in comparisson to Peter.
I'm not sure what he believes now, but at one time Peter believed that if he brought 1111 people up to the top of Bell Rock that a portal would open for him at the top on the winter solstice at 11:11 PM. When we met Peter, that portal window had closed uneventfully, and he was on his second round of guiding 1111 people to the top of Bell Rock for another chance at a portal opening. Basically he will take anyone who asks and he refuses to charge a fee. All those who make it to the top become part of his Top of Bell Rock Club.
So we set out with four others that morning to join the club. It was some pretty intense scrambling and I'm not sue I would have made it to the top without Peter's guidance.
Peter also knew all the good photo op spots and served as our photographer as well.
Once at the top, Peter made us solve three riddles before showing us the way down. Luckily I am a riddle master and so we weren't stuck on the top for too long.
If you want to go to the top of Bell Rock with Peter, I believe you can just message him through his Facebook group called the Top of Bell Rock Club.
We did end up couchsurfing with Peter and so spent the rest of the day with him as well. He took us to his favorite deli for lunch and then we went to The Red Rocks Swimming Hole. Despite being a little dry, there were still some good spots to wade in and the view of Cathedral Rock was gorgeous. It was an awesome way to round out the day.
We picked up some groceries and cooked Peter dinner before finishing the night off with some board games.
Day 6 - Sedona - the Grand Canyon
We ate breakfast with Peter and said our farewells. We first visited the Chapel of the Holy Cross which is an iconic photo spot in Sedona.
Afterwards we did the Airport Mesa hike, which was probably the best smelling hike I have ever been on with all the desert sage. There were also some lovely views of all the red rock formations around.
We had to pick up Jimmy from the Flagstaff airport so we headed in that direction. We decided to take a small detour and visit Walnut Canyon National Monument which was a good way to kill time while waiting for Jimmy.
Day 7 - Grand Canyon - Page, AZ
There were intermittent thunderstorms and hail the whole time we were at the Grand Canyon. So we just drove along the south rim stopping at the pull offs and waiting for a break in the weather to see the sights. This was a pretty good strategy and by the time we got to the Desert View Watchtower, the sun had come out for good.
We were headed to Page where we were meeting up with my parents, and on the way, we stopped at the Navajo Bridge.
There was a little RV park with a beach and Colorado river access, which was a lovely place to play for a little bit before finishing the drive.
Afterwards, we made our way to Page. My Mom made some cocktails and a lovely dinner for us in our Airbnb.
Day 8 - Page, AZ
After breakfast, we set out to rent some kayaks so we could explore Lake Powell. It was so incredibly windy and it was by far the most challenging kayaking I have ever done.
The good thing about it being so treacherous is that we were the only ones out there. It was also incredibly beautiful. There were also many places to pull over and walk around while resting our arms for a bit.
We looked into visiting Antelope Canyon in the evening, but learned that all the evening entrances were booked and we would have to come back the next day. So we went to Horseshoe Bend for the sunset instead.
Day 9 - Monument Valley
We woke up to lots of rain, and so reconsidered our plans to do local things for the day. Looking at the radar, it appeared that we could make it out to Monument Valley, which was about a two-hour drive away, and leave the rain behind us. We stopped at Goulding's Trading Post on the way in to check out their western memorobilia museum.
Monument Valley is a Navajo Park and so your national parks pass is not valid there - same for antelope canyon. It cost us $30 for our carload of five to drive through the monuments at our own pace.
Day 10 - Page, AZ - Kanab, UT
After checking out of our Airbnb, we headed over to upper Antelope Canyon. You can only go into Antelope Canyon through a Navajo tour and they book up fast. So we got there early and still had to wait about two hours before our time slot.
Afterwards we started driving towards Kanab. We stopped at the Big Water Visitor's Center on the way. They have some cool dinosaur stuff and information on local hikes. Many of the hikes in the area require a good off-roading vehicle, which we did not have. We took the advice of the nice man at the front desk and went to the Toadstools. I couldn't have asked for a more unique and interesting pitstop.
Afterwards, we drove the rest of the way to Kanab and stopped to hike the Bunting Trail.
We got some dinner at the Lost Horse Saloon before heading to our home for the night, which was the Days Inn at Kanab.
Day 11 - Pink Coral Sand Dunes and Bryce Canyon
After getting our complimentary breakfast and checking out, we drove to the Pink Coral Sand Dunes State Park. We rented some sand boards and set off to shred some sand.
We made a camp stove lunch in the picnic pavilion and then drove to Bryce Canyon National Park, which was about an hour and a half away. The weather was pretty awful so we adopted our Grand Canyon strategy of driving the one way scenic drive and stopping at pull offs whenever the weather let up.
By the time we drove through the park, the weather had cleared up, so we stopped at the Red Canyon area of the Dixie National Forest. Jimmy loves westerns and there is some good signage about Butch Cassidy's time in the area. There are also a lot of cool rock formations that are fun to scramble around.
We had booked a campsite in Bryce, but when we were in Kanab and saw that there was a lot of thunderstorms and cold in the forecast, we ended up booking The Pink Polka Dot apartment in Panguitch instead. While I was glad to have avoided camping in the hail and thunderstorms that came that night, this was an awful place for someone like me who has dust triggered asthma. The apartment was decorated with a gazillion dust-collecting tchotchkes, which triggered an asthma attack and all night coughing, fit. Another confirmation that it's better to collect experiences not things!
Day 12 - Bryce Canyon National Park
Although I had hardly gotten any sleep the night before, I was eager to get some fresh air in my lungs. Luckily, the weather had cleared up and so we decided to hike the Navajo / Queens Garden / Fairy Land Loop.
It was an amazing hike, unlike any other I had ever been on before.
After the hike, we hopped on the free park shuttle to go to Bryce Canyon Lodge for lunch. Fun fact we learned from our shuttle driver - Ponderosa Pine bark smells like creamsicles.
As soon as we got a table, it started pouring and hailing and we felt doubly blessed to have just completed a gorgeous hike and to have done it before it rained.
We headed back to Panguitch and wandered around town a little bit before heading back to the Pink Polka Dott.
Day 13 - Zion National Park
We drove down to Zion National Park, which was only about an hour away from Panguitch. After parking at our campground, we took the shuttle to Angel's Landing since there are no cars allowed in the park. Angels Landing was a very crowded hike with a good amount of elevation gain, but well worth it for the view at the top.
As we neared the trailhead on our way back, we realized there was a swimming hole so we stopped to take a dip.
We were super hungry so went into Springdale for a late lunch. We were really shocked by all the options and found Springdale to be a really cute town. We gorged on Mexican food and margaritas and then went back into the park to set up our tent at the Watchman campground. We had a shared campfire with a few other campsites, which was conducive to making new friends. Before settling in for the night, we did the quick Emerald Pools hike.
Day 14 - Zion National Park
We made ourselves a camp stove breakfast and discussed our options for the day. I had wanted to hike the Narrows, but Rachel was not into it. Since it was chillier than I had expected, it didn't take much to convince me to do something else. So we decided to hike the Hidden Canyon trail instead. The trail itself was somewhat like Angel's Landing, but instead of a great view at the end, this hike ended in a slot Canyon.
Or so we think - it was unclear where the trail ended so we just kept going until we couldn't fit anymore.
Rachel and I returned our bikes, but Jimmy went on without us. He hopped on a shuttle with his bike and went all the way to the Temple of Sinawa stop, which is where the Narrows begins. Then he left his bike and hiked the Narrows for about a half an hour before turning back. He biked all the way back, which was completely downhill on a traffic free road. It was a genius plan, and I regret not joining him. However, with Zion being so close to Vegas, I reasoned that I would be back there again and have another chance to hike the Narrows.
Day 15 - Las Vegas
I had wanted to stop at the Red Cliffs Recreation Area on our way to Las Vegas, but my travel partners were against that idea. I didn't push it too hard since I wanted to go back to Zion again anyways. So we ended up getting into Las Vegas before we could check into our hotel - The Flamingo. Luckily, they let us go hang out at the pool while we waited. The pool was pretty awesome and there was a DJ and lots of bros hanging out to complete the Las Vegas party vibe.
After checking into the hotel, we were hungry and so decided to go to The Bacchanal Buffet at Caesar's Palace. It was the most gluttonous experience I have ever had. There was every food imaginable and all of it was beautiful and delicious. It was an amazing experience while I was eating, but I was so full that I felt sick nearly the rest of the day. So I only recommend The Bacchanal to those with more self-control.
It was necessary to take a walk after that experience, so we strolled along the strip looking for some good show tickets and taking in some good busking acts along the way.
We ended up getting tickets to Cirque Du Solei's Love featuring Beatle's music. The show was definitely the highlight of our time in Las Vegas and my favorite out of the three Cirque Du Solei shows I've seen. The acrobatics were amazing and the set design and costumes were so beautiful.
After the show, we walked to 1923 Bourbon and Burlesque where we saw some pretty amazing acrobatics and drank some very expensive cocktails. From there we just wandered the strip again which was a good reminder as to why I never spend more than one night in Las Vegas. By midnight, all the Bro's that were having a respectable good time at the pool earlier had turned into sloppy drunks chasing after prostitutes. We popped in an Asian restaurant for a midnight snack of century egg which was a delightful find.
Day 16 - Las Vegas
Rachel had a late morning flight, so we got breakfast at a diner and then dropped her off at the airport. Jimmy and I however were supposed to be out on a red eye that night. Therefore, we had the full day, and I was game to do anything that was away from the strip. So we checked out Downtown Las Vegas, which had changed a lot since we were last there ten years earlier. We had recently listened to the Freakonomics podcast about how Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh basically took on the downtown revitalization project all by himself. And so that podcast inspired our visit to downtown, which we found to be very fitting with our image of the Zappos culture. There's a lot of walkability and play and family space mixed in with a lot of whimsy.
This grasshopper statue was outside the Container Park, which is basically a shopping center, made out of shipping containers with a playground in the middle. We stopped at the Chill Spot and I tried my first ever halo halo which was delicious. It's a Filipino snow cone with every Asian topping imaginable - sweetened condensed milk, taro, coconut, red beans, and other gooey things.
Afterwards we set up an appointment for Jimmy at Go Float Yourself . They have a bunch of rooms with pods full of warm salt water that you float in. We had heard of people having intense trance-like experiences in the pods, but Jimmy did an hour session and said it was just very relaxing. It was not a very cheap experience, and I was a little worried about being claustrophobic, so I sat this one out.
Afterwards, we ate at VegeNation back in the downtown area, and I had some jackfruit tacos that were so good. We then wandered around the Fremont Street Experience. There were buskers everywhere and people zip lining down the street. Downtown Las Vegas is full of free entertainment.
We thought we were leaving with plenty of time to catch our flight, but because we could not find the rental car place and then their shuttle was incredibly slow, we ended up missing our flight. Our flight was rescheduled to the next morning, and while I was somewhat grateful to not be on a redeye, it was Memorial Day weekend and finding a place to sleep for the night was near impossible. Finally, we found an Airbnb way outside of town, and we made sure to get to the airport with plenty of time to spare in the morning.
Flight from D.C. - $210 per person. This could be cheaper if you are willing to fly Spirit out of BWI.
Rental Car and Gas - $500 total. It was actually cheaper to get a one-way rental car from San Diego to Las Vegas than if we had started and ended in Las Vegas. This is the only time I have found a one-way rental car to be the more inexpensive option.
Lodging - $398 per person. This included 4 nights camping and two nights couchsurfing.
Food and Drinks - $296 per person. We brought camp stoves with us on this trip and so ate a lot of ramen and oatmeal. When we did eat out though, we generally splurged (I.e. The $50 Bacchanal experience).
Activities - $295 per person. A lot of the fun we had on this trip was free. Things that were not were the concert in San Diego, Wine Tastings in Arizona, kayaking in Page, Antelope Canyon, Monument Valley, Sandboarding, Renting Bikes, Cirque Du Soleil, and Jimmy's float.
Total per person was about $1365- not bad for a 16 day trip. $72/person/day if you don't include the flight.