This post covers a road trip we did in January 2017 from Los Angeles, California to Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico, across six states, where we visited nine national parks and reserves, including classics such as Death Valley, Grand Canyon and Monument Valley. We had a hire car, and realistically having your own vehicle is the only way to get to all these parks easily and in good time.
As Australians we didn’t have a great understanding of the geography of South West USA prior to this trip. What we learned through our travels was just how many amazing national parks there are in this part of the country. The hardest part was to make decisions about which to visit.
We also weren’t sure if doing the trip in winter would present a problem – would we have trouble with snow blocked roads, would the parks we wanted to visit be open in January? The research we did beforehand indicated that, if we took into consideration the current weather conditions, remaining flexible in our plans, that it should be fine. Here is how we approached the challenge.
Here's the map of the trip we did over a 2 week period in January 2017.
Joshua Tree National Park
Best known outside of the US as the name of one of U2s most successful albums, the joshua trees that give the park its name are tree sized yuccas. It took us around 4 hours to drive from NW LA to the park.
We stayed at the town of Joshua Tree but there were also plenty of motels in the nearby towns of Yucca Valley and Twentynine Palms.
We started by calling in to the visitors’ centre where the rangers were very helpful with a map and advice on where to visit.
Highlights for us were the short walks at Hidden Valley and Barker Dam (which included some Native American petroglyphs).
The view from Keys View was chilly and a bit hazy but would be spectacular on a clear day.
For more info the park’s website is www.nps.gov/jotr
Death Valley National Park
From Joshua Tree the drive to Death Valley took us around 5 hours.
Death Valley has been recognised as consistently the hottest place on the planet and it holds the US record of 57 degrees C. The park also contains Badwater, a salt flat/lake that is the lowest point in the US at 86 metres below sea level.
So what did we find when we visited in January 2017 – rain, sleet and snow!!
This meant that some of the main attractions were closed, notably the Artists Drive and Dante’s View. But we still managed to find plenty to see and do.
We enjoyed the walk up Golden Canyon to Red Rock Cathedral.
Zabriskie Point had great views of the valley.
We walked out to Badwater on the salt flats.
And the ghost town of Rhyolite was also an interesting place to check out.
For more info the park’s website is www.nps.gov/deva
We stayed at Amargosa which was around 30 miles from the park. The most central place to stay is Furnace Creek, which is also where you’ll find the park visitors’ centre which has lots of useful information and some very informative displays about the park’s many features and its history.
Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area
Our next stop on the road trip was Las Vegas. It is a drive of around 4 hours from Death Valley, longer if you stop on the way.
Just a few miles south of Las Vegas is Red Rock Canyon Conservation Area. Our national parks pass got us in for no charge.
The rare snow had attracted a lot of visitors and the best option on a cold windy afternoon was the 13 mile/21 km scenic drive.
Their website is www.redrockcanyonlv.org
Zion Canyon National Park
From Las Vegas we drove for around 3.5 hours to the town of Hurricane, Utah, which is a half hour drive away from Zion Canyon National Park. We found motel accommodation in Hurricane for $US50 per night, which was considerably cheaper than anything we could find at Springdale, the town adjacent to the national park entrance.
The most popular attraction in the park is the Scenic Drive from the Visitors Centre to the Temple of Sinawava, a distance of 6 miles/10 kms.
From the car park at Sinawava there is a 1 mile Riverside Walk.
Another good short walk is the Kayenta Trail to Emerald Pools from the Grotto.
For more details on the many walks and other drives in Zion Canyon check out www.nps.gov/zion
The Grand Canyon
Zion Canyon is to the north of the Grand Canyon so the closest entry point to the Grand Canyon NP is the North Rim of the canyon. But in winter the North Rim is closed so we had no choice but to head for the South Rim, which is open all year around.
The drive from Hurricane to the Grand Canyon turned out to be longer than we’d hoped. The South Rim has Southern and Eastern entrances. If coming in from Utah the Eastern entrance is closest, but unfortunately this was closed due to snow so we had to do a long loop via Flagstaff to get to the Southern Entrance.
But in the end, we made it and it was so worth it.
We started our oohing and ahhing at the viewpoint closest to the Visitor Centre, Mather Point.
We then headed down one of the two scenic drives, the western route to Hermits Rest.
One of the advantages of visiting in winter is that you can self drive the 20.6 km route. This is the way to experience the trail from 1 December to 28 February. For the nine months of the year from 1 March to 30 November visitors move via shuttle buses.
We think that the snow added an extra special dimension to the visit.
The other scenic drive is the eastern Desert View Drive. Fortunately for us, this had reopened on the day we visited after several days being closed due to heavy snow.
In the case of both drives there are many fabulous viewpoints to pull over into to catch the spectacular vistas.
If you want more info about the park, including hiking options visit the park’s official website www.nps.gov/grca
We also found economical motel accommodation in the town of Williams, a Route 66 tourist town around an hour’s drive from the park’s southern entrance.
Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park
We’ve all seen old westerns shot in amazing desert landscapes with towering buttes and mesas dominating the vast red desert with its endless saltbush covered plains. Well this place has a name and its name is Monument Valley.
Monument Valley is Native American Navajo land sitting in the south east corner of Utah near the four way border with Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico.
For most visitors the ‘must do’ activity is the Desert Drive. This is a 17 mile/27 km scenic drive. Entry to the park is $US20 for a car with up to 4 people. The road is pretty rough in parts, so we were pleased that we had a four wheel drive vehicle.
Upon entry you’re provided with a map which indicates the various points of interest.
Monument Valley is, well, monumental, and is best appreciated with photos rather than any words we can use to describe it.
Here’s the official website http://navajonationparks.org/htm/monumentvalley.htm
Canyon de Chelly
We had originally planned to travel from Monument Valley east to Southern Colorado to visit the Native American Archaeological site of Mesa Verde, but we learned that most of the site was closed due to winter and restoration of some parts so decided to change direction and head south to Canyon de Chelly. It is a 136 mile/221 km 2.5 hour drive from Monument Valley.
Canyon de Chelly has been occupied by Native Americans for thousands of years and continues to this day. There are a number of ancient Pueblo Indian sites inside the canyon.
We took the two scenic drives. There are well positioned outlooks that allow good viewing on both drives. We did the Southern Rim drive at sunset.
And the following morning the Northern Rim drive.
There is no cost for the scenic drives, but if you want to go down into the canyon to get a better view of the Pueblo sites and see how the Navajo farmers live you need to do an organised tour.
More info here at www.nps.gov/cach
Painted Desert and Petrified Forest
Heading south from Canyon de Chelly the drive to the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert National Park takes around 3 hours.
The park straddles Interstate Highway 40 with the Painted Desert in the north and the Petrified Forest in the South. It’s a national park so our annual parks pass spared us the $US20 entry. A short loop drive from the visitors centre initially takes you past a number of outlooks to view the coloured sands of the Painted Desert.
The drive then crosses a bridge over I40 where ancient Pueblo sites at Puerco Pueblo and Newspaper Rock provide access to Puebloan ruins and petroglyphs.
Further on the considerable evidence of the 217 million year old Petrified Forest becomes very apparent. We had wondered if the “forest” tag would be overstating it, but not so. At the Crystal Forest you really do get a strong sense of what it must have been like as a forest and the petrified remnants are everywhere.
And some pieces are huge.
Overall a very interesting couple of hours was spent cruising the outlooks and other sites of the park before heading to Albuquerque where we spent the night.
The website for the Painted Desert and Petrified National Park is www.nps.gov/pefo
Last stop on our winter national parks tour of the south west was Carlsbad Caverns National Park. From Albuquerque to Carlsbad it is 300 mile/ 500km trip. We broke it up by staying overnight in Roswell so we could check out the UFO Museum.
Carlsbad Caverns has two self guided tours which appealed to us. We’re not big on being led around if we can avoid it so self guiding is our preference. The tours are the Natural Entrance Route (1 mile – 1 hour) and the Big Room (1 mile – 1 hour).
We started with the Natural Entrance Route which then articulated with the Big Room Route. In all we spent about 2 hours exploring the caves.
The Big Room is amazing. It is around 250 metres below the surface – over 500m long and 75m high it is the biggest cave of it’s kind in the Western Hemisphere.
There are interpretive boards throughout and the lighting is not over powering which adds to the atmosphere.
Carlsbad is open all year round and, located in Southern New Mexico, chances are the weather will be good whenever you visit. It was a balmy 70F/21C when we were there in late January i.e. mid winter!!
If you don’t want to take the 1 hour Natural Entrance route into the caves you can go in directly via an elevator which takes you down the 250m, which is the equivalent of the Empire State Building in height.
Carlsbad Caverns was the last spot on our National Parks road trip. It was very different to the other places we visited which made it a great finish to our trip.
The website for the park is www.nps.gov/cave
Our first piece of advice is, if you’re planning to visit more than a couple of national parks in the US, then buy a National Parks Pass, full title “America the Beautiful: The National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass”. At just $US80 for a year it pays for itself by the time you’ve visited your third or fourth park.
One of the advantages of a winter visit to the big name parks is that a lot of the accommodation is at it’s cheapest, especially if you’re prepared to stay at towns a short drive away rather than in the parks themselves. We stayed primarily at motels out at nearby towns and had no difficulty staying within our nominal budget of $AUS100/$US70 per night. This also means that there’s no need to book accommodation too far in advance as there is plenty available.
We found that all the parks we wanted to visit were open, though some parts were closed for winter or specifically for snow. But this did not impact significantly on our ability to see the main sights in the parks.
One of our most important apps on this trip was our weather app, combined with the informative and ever present Weather Channel on cable TV for giving us the heads up on what was happening weather-wise in the locations we had on our itinerary.
So, our conclusion overall – winter is a great time to visit some of the South West’s most popular national parks as you will not have to compete with the big, high season crowds. You will also find accommodation much more affordable.
Yes, you do have to watch the weather reports and vary your route if necessary, but all in all we found it to be a great time to see these amazing places.