My husband & I had been contemplating taking our first child-free vacation since our son was born for a few months, when we received a save-the-date in the mail. Our good friends were having a Vegas wedding, so we thought it was the perfect opportunity to spend some time together. We decided to make a road trip out of it to explore a part of the US that neither of us had been to. While not big fans of desert landscapes, we at least wanted to see what that part of the county had to offer and, while we were at it, cross a couple more National Parks off our list.
Hoover Dam > Grand Canyon > Horseshoe Bend > Lower Antelope Canyon > Monument Valley > Bryce Canyon > Zion > Vegas
Our trip would start September 7th and conclude September 15th. After doing some research, we put together an itinerary that included 7 stops spanning 7 of those 9 days. Below, I outline our trip and filled in the details of where we stayed, good places to eat, and things we would do differently if we ever find ourselves in the area again. I had to split this trip into two posts, because I wanted to be able to include all the details I think are important when planning a trip.
Day 1: Hoover Dam
I'm not even going to try to lie, leaving our son even for one day, is so incredibly hard for me. Leaving him for 9 days pretty much shattered my heart. I ugly cried all the way to the airport, and pretty much after every FaceTime call we made with him while we were gone. I knew that taking him wasn't an option though, as we wouldn't have been able to do a lot of the things we had planned with a toddler. It was also great for my husband & I to spend some time together and only focus on each other for the first time since he was born. I also knew that he was in great hands while we were gone, and would have so much fun bonding with his grandparents. So, I had to brush my mom guilt aside and get myself into vacation mode.
We landed in Vegas around 12p, picked up our rental car at the airport and headed towards the Grand Canyon. We stopped at a local Walmart to grab some snacks we could keep in the car (oranges, apples, couple gallons of water, electrolyte packets, & protein bars) so we would be set for the long drives and hikes we had ahead of us.
On the way out of Vegas, we stopped to see Hoover Dam. It’s only 40min away from the airport and is on the way to the Canyon. It was pretty much a no-brainer to stop here. There is a multi-level parking garage on the Nevada side that’s $10 per vehicle and it is the most convenient parking option for the dam.
Holy-moly was it hot & windy! But it was a really cool sight to see. Due to timing (trying to make the Canyon before dark), we just did a self-guided tour around the top of the dam to check out the views. If we ever go back, we will definitely take a tour because there’s SO much you can’t see from the topside. There is a walking path that goes across the dam that’s a half-mile, round trip. After we walked across & back, we made our way along Mike O’Callaghan – Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge to get a better view of the dam. I’d say we probably spent about 2hrs there tops, before hopping back into the car and heading to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon (4.5hr drive).
It wasn’t a bad drive at all, and we passed through some cute western towns that would have been fun to explore if we weren’t tight on time. We stopped to get a fast-food dinner (yuck, I know…) and by the time we reached our hotel, it was just after sunset. We checked into the into the Holiday Inn Express & Suites Grand Canyon, which was 20-ish minutes from the park entrance and offered free breakfast, which was super convenient.
Ideally, we would have stayed in the actual park at one of the many cute cabins or lodges they have there, but they book out WAY in advance, so we missed that boat. The Holiday Inn was fine though, it was clean & the breakfast was good so I would definitely stay there again.
Day 2: South Rim Grand Canyon
We started off the day at the Grand Canyon bright & early with a 7a mule ride booked through Xterra tours. It is a little on the pricey side in my opinion, but since it was a bucket-list item for me, we made the splurge. While we both really wanted to go into the canyon, we found that they no longer offer the daily rides in the canyon like they did in the past. Instead, you can do a rim ride (offered daily) or book their overnight trip to Phantom Ranch. I would have loved to do the overnight ride, but that books out over a year in advance and very rarely has last-minute openings, so we settled for the 3hr rim tour. The ride was a lot of fun and the views were great. Our guide told us a lot about the history and fun-facts about the canyon during our ride.
There are many requirements for the mule rides (for the record, those outfits were not our choice), so make sure to read those carefully and make sure you fully understand everything before you book! They of course have everything you need onsite in their tourist shop, but it’s much cheaper to buy locally or on Amazon. Also, they will weigh you before allowing you on a mule, so don’t lie!
After the mule ride, we had an early lunch at the Harvey’s restaurant located in Bright Angel Lodge, followed with ice-cream from the little parlor right outside (highly recommend!) while relaxing on the edge of the rim and taking in the views.
We then drove along the canyon rim to Mary Colter's Desert View Watchtower, which was highly recommended by our mule ride guide. The tower was built in 1932, and the view of the canyon from the top of the tower was stunning. We spent around two hours wandering around the tower, and I enjoyed a delicious iced latte from the coffee shop nearby. We then slowly made our way back to the Bright Angel Lodge, doing random pull-offs along the way to check out the views and walk out to the rim.
After watching the sun set, we decided to have dinner at the same Harvey’s restaurant we had lunch at in Bright Angel Lodge. While lunch was great, dinner was very lacking- so I’d recommend going to one of the many other options the park has to offer.
The Grand Canyon is now a registered “Dark Sky” park, so after dinner we drove back out towards the Mary Colter's Desert View Watchtower to catch the stars. During the certain times of year, the Milky Way is supposed to be amazingly bright, but of course the night we were out there the stars were competing with an almost full moon. Despite that, we could still faintly see the Milky Way, and it was cool to see the canyon lit with moonlight. We then headed back to our hotel and stayed another night at the Holiday Inn.
During our original planning, we had decided to go to the North Rim of the canyon instead of the South Rim because from what I’d read, it was supposed to be much less touristy and have a lot more wildlife & plant life. After doing more research and putting it into our route, not only was it an extra hour and a half added to our drive time, but they also didn’t offer mule rides from that rim. Due to those reasons, we decided to just go to the more popular South Rim. If we ever go back (which I’m sure we will), we will most likely do the North Rim.
Day 3: Horseshoe Bend & Lower Antelope Canyon
We got up with the sun and had breakfast at the hotel before hitting the road to Horseshoe Bend. Let me just tell you, the 2.5-hour drive from the Grand Canyon to Page, AZ was not enjoyable. Due to the extreme heat they experience out there, the road was warped and very wavy which made me feel carsick. There was also nothing to look at but sand dunes, a few small and rocky mountains, and shriveled little plants. Luckily it wasn’t a terribly long drive, but it’s something to be aware of if you also get carsick!
Located just before you reach the city of Page is Horseshoe Bend, where we made our first stop. There’s a parking lot with a fee of $10 right in front of the trail-head to the viewpoint. The 1.3 mile out-and-back trail is steep in some areas and very sandy, but since it’s not terribly far it’s a manageable hike. The worst part of the hike was the sun. It was very hot and there is zero shade to duck under for a little relief. There was an area of construction happening just off the trail where it looked like they may be building some type of awning, so maybe in the future there will be some shade.
As we came close to the viewpoint, we could see that it was incredibly crowded. So many people were trying to get that infamous Instagram photo haha. I had read that the ideal time of day to be there is sunrise because you can avoid the crowds and the lighting is best, but again, that didn’t with our timeline. We made it there around the noon hour, and while the sun was very direct and hot, I didn’t think the lighting was the worst for photos.
I’d say we were there for an hour, tops. Walked out, took a good look, and walked back. Honestly, if it wasn’t a stone’s throw away from Antelope Canyon, we probably wouldn’t have stopped there. We can cross it off the list of sites to see, but most likely will never go back. It may have been different had we been able to go at sunrise and had less of a crowd, but we weren’t terribly impressed.
After taking a look at Horseshoe Bend, we went into the city of Page for lunch before our Antelope Canyon tour. We ate at a place called Dam Bar & Grille, and it was SO good! Would highly recommend.
After lunch we drove to Antelope Canyon (20 min from Page) for a Lower Canyon tour. If you’re like me, before I started doing research for our trip, I had no idea that there are in fact two Antelope Canyons- Upper & Lower. Both canyons are located on Navajo land and the only way to see them is by taking a guided tour. They are accessed via different locations and have quite a few things that set them apart from each other. So, how to choose which one to see?
Both Canyons are fundamentally the same but have different perks that may appeal to different people. In the Upper Canyon, the iconic light beams are the biggest perk. If you’ve seen a photo of Antelope Canyon, chances are it’s of the Upper Canyon with falling sand through a beam of light. These light beams are highly dependent on time of day though, so keep that in mind when planning your trip and do a little extra research to see when that ideal time of day may be. The walk through the Upper Canyon is short, easy, & flat, and its accessibility makes it very popular.
Lower Antelope Canyon tours are a little longer than the ones of the Upper Canyon because it’s a longer canyon, and it also involves climbing stairs and ladders. If you are mobile and don’t have problems with stairs in your everyday life, these won’t trip you up. Some of the ladders are a little high but would still only be problem if you have mobility issues. We though the different elevations in the canyon sounded fun, so we chose to tour the Lower Canyon.
I will say, this was my second favorite stop of our trip (my top favorite you’ll read about in Part 2!). It was a dusty and slightly claustrophobic experience, but SO worth it! When you’re first being led down into the canyon you feel a little bit like a herd of cattle being shuffled around, but you forget about that as soon as you’re in there and taking in the views. The way the canyon swirls and curves is something you have to see it to believe, and even then, it still doesn’t feel like it could be real. I can’t emphasize enough how crowded it was, but the whole operation was a well-oiled machine and they kept the people moving through the canyon at a decent pace while still allowing you to take it all in and get great photos. While Horseshoe Ben was scorching hot, it actually wasn't too hot down in the canyon. I was expecting it to be really stuffy, especially with all of the people, but it was quite pleasant.
After the canyon tour, we hit the road again and headed to Monument Valley, which spans the borders of Utah and Arizona. The 2-hour drive wasn’t bad at all. The desert landscape changes a lot in this area, so it was neat to see.
We arrived at the Utah and Arizona border right as the sun was setting, and it was beautiful. The epitome of the “Wild West” landscape. We lingered for a little bit and took a photo with the Utah state sign before heading down the road to our hotel.
We stayed at Goulding’s Lodge, which is a historic hotel just outside Monument Valley. Our view of the valley from our room was spectacular, and they have a restaurant onsite that was good & had huge portions. You can actually stay in Monument Valley, but I wasn’t aware of this until we got there the next morning and saw the accommodations. I enjoyed our stay at Goulding’s Lodge though, and would definitely stay there again.
And that concludes Part 1 of our Southwest Road-trip post! I had to split this trip into two posts because I wanted to be able to include all the details I think are important when planning a trip, but didn't want to suck you all into a 20 minute read (your welcome!). Stay tuned for Part 2 and my favorite stop of the trip, as well as some tips for planning your Southwest Road-trip!
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