The United States has 61 National Parks scattered across 29 states. The first National Park was established in 1872 by President Ulysses S. Grant; but it was not until 1916 that President Woodrow Willson created the National Park Service and system when he signed the Organic Act into law.
The law stipulates that the park service was to “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and…leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
When I was young, after my parents divorced, most of my traveling was done with my mother. One of my favorite trips was visiting the National Parks. In 1990, I had been living in Southern California and was moving back East. My mother and I drove up the Pacific Coast Highway from Orange County to Yosemite, then down to Las Vegas, out to Bryce Canyon, Zion, Lake Powell, the Grand Canyon, finally heading to Sedona and ending in Phoenix, AZ. The trip was so ingrained in my brain that I wanted to take a similar trip with my kids when they were old enough to appreciate the parks.
When my mother and I planned our trip, 30 years ago, there was no world wide web, no mapquest, not Apple Maps. We used AAA to create TripTik flip book maps. Back in 1990, you would call AAA to have them plot your navigation from point-to-point. The AAA agent would literally print out the map pages of your journey and then start marking up each page with a bright fluorescent yellow highlighter. Now AAA TripTiks can be created using their online program.
For my family vacation, I decided I would plan the trip myself, map it out on google maps. Truth be told, with today’s rental cars navigation, getting from point-to-point is a breeze.
As far as planning the trip, I first made a list of places I wanted to visit, emulating the my trip with my mother, and used google maps to calculate out distances, hotels, rest stops, etc.
My mother and I stayed in the Ahwahnee Hotel located on the floor of Yosemite Valley and loved it so much that I figured I would see what dates were available and work around that. Getting reservations at the hotels and lodges located within the park system can be challenging to say the least. Especially the summer months, these historic lodges are often booked-up a year in advance!
When my husband Lewis and two sons, Elijah and Nathan, arrived in San Francisco we hit a few key sites, Ghirardelli Square, and Lombard Street with a quick stop to see a relative for lunch. Then we were off for a 4 hour drive to Yosemite. We arrived at the park just before nightfall with just enough light to take in the majestic granite walls of Half Dome and El Capitan.
After breakfast the next morning, we took the free park shuttle to Yosemite Valley Lodge to rent bikes. Yosemite Valley has 12 miles of flat bike paths and pedal poweris the easiest way to get around the park. We quickly biked passed traffic at a dead-stop heading east towards Half Dome. We all giggled a bit at the people stuck in their cars while we pedaled in the glorious sunshine. Riding along the bike paths of the park, we took in the sheer majesty and awe-inspiring nature of Yosemite. We stopped to let the kids take a chilly dip in the Merced River that weaves across the valley floor. The bike paths loop all around the floor and you can stop whenever you want. Heading back west we detoured to get up close to the base of El Capitan catching a glimpse of rock climbers halfway up the walls.
TRAVEL TIP: Rent bikes in Yosemite. You can navigate the valley floor much better and stay out of traffic.
The next morning on the way out of Yosemite, we stopped at Tuolumne Grove to walk among the giant Sequoias trees and out via the Tioga Pass stopping at Mono Lake, a salt water lake just on the east side of Yosemite that was formed about 760,000 years ago! There are many columns of limestone that rise above the surface of the lake called Tufa. Since we are skiers, I thought it would be fun to stop a Mammoth Mountain to take a ride up the lift but we got there too late and missed the last ride up! So if you want to do that check the schedule!
The US National Parks are truly natural wonders, each with its own unique ecosystems, and each an important part of the natural history of the United States.
TRAVEL TIP: Must stop at Alabama Hills, Lone Pine, CA to visit amazing rock formations.
Our next national park on the list was Death Valley and the only real town just right outside was Lone Pine, CA. We had no idea this would be a highlight of the trip. Located in central California, Lone Pine is at the base of the Sierra Nevada mountains and is home to the Alabama Hills, an area of amazing rock formations and the popular filming locations for movies and some television shows. More than 150 movies were filmed there including Iron Man, Gladiator, Django Unchained and Lewis’ favorite, Tremors. After breakfast at the Alabama Hills Bakery & Cafe, whose walls are painted with cartoonish drawings of the different rock formations, we headed off Highway 395 to climb the rock formations. We had the entire area to ourselves taking our time driving through the area and climbing the rocks.
Then we were off to Death Valley to see the lowest point on dry land in the world, and then the brightest — Las Vegas! Driving through Death Valley is a thrill, you slowly descend to more than 100 feet below sea level! We were lucky to spot a coyote crossing route 190 on our way to Stovepipe Wells — the inspiration for the movie Cars. We made a quick stop at Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes then headed to Badwater Basin, which sits at 282 feet below sea level, the lowest spot in the world. The temperature was well over 110 degrees!
While my husband and I loved all the nature, if you ask my kids their favorite part of the trip — Las Vegas is top of the list. They loved the wave pool and aquarium at the Mandalay Bay, the rides at the top of the Stratosphere, walking through the casinos and the downtown container park. In the evening we treated them to the Cirque du Soleil show O at the Bellagio. Out of the number of different, Cirque du Soleil shows in sin city, we feel this is by far the best. A two day reprieve in “civilization” was enough, and then we were off to Zion National Park in Utah.
Utah’s Zion National Park has become one of the most visited national parks in the US and we saw why. From its box canyons, wildlife, flora and fauna, the park is visually breathtaking. We only spent one night there and it was not nearly enough. Luckily, we had the chance to overnight at the only lodge located within the park, the Zion Lodge. If you can, I highly suggest you stay here. During the busy months, March through November, cars are not allowed in the park, but there is a free shuttle to get around. There is no light pollution within the park from cars making stargazing incredible. You can sit on the benches around the lawn of the lodge, stargaze and watch the deer come to feed at night.
TRAVEL TIP: Overnight at Zion Lodge to witness a sky full of stars and deer feeding on the lawn of the lodge.
In the morning, we were off for our two hour drive to Lake Powell, the reservoir behind the Glen Canyon Dam park of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. The lake is fed by the Colorado River and borders Utah and Arizona. Created by the flooding of Glen Canyon, there is so much to do around the region that we spent two nights in the area. We took a helicopter ride over the lake and landed on Tower Butte, a raft trip on the Colorado River to Horseshoe Bend, the kids went swimming in the lake, jumping off the side of the lake walls and we visited Antelope Canyon.
Antelope Canyon, an extraordinarily beautiful slot canyon on Navajo land in Page, Arizona, was created by the erosion of Navajo Sandstone to form flowing smooth walls and shapes. Time your visit right and you will be treated to sunlight pouring in creating delightful beams of light streaming in the canyon.
TRAVEL TIP: Take a tour of Antelope Canyon to marvel at the beauty of this slot canyon.
TRAVEL TIP: Stop at Slide Rock State Park just North of Sedona to get a thrill ride down a natural water slide.
Our last stop before heading home was Sedona. On the way to Sedona we stopped at Slide Rock State Park, a historic apple farm outside of Sedona. But you are not stopping for the apples — you are stopping for the natural water slide. Slide Rock is an 80 foot long water slide. Algae makes the rocks slippery and the flow of constant water has worn the sandstone to create an ultimate natural water park and swimming experience! Our final activity was the Broken Arrow Pink Jeep Tours, an off road thrilling ride up and down the red rocks of Sedona at times as steep as 45 degrees!
Phew! This 10 day trip is well worth it if you have time. We went during August which is peak season and the weather can be very hot in certain areas, so plan accordingly. In addition, book well in advance. If you have a child going into or in 4th grade, check out the National Parks Foundations “Every Kid in a Park” campaign — 4th graders and their families get free passes to every park.
If you have any questions or want to share you experience, please reach out to me via email firstname.lastname@example.org or on social media.