Take a two week Loop Route to visit the National Parks of Utah – In June, we flew in and out of Durango, Colorado and visited seven National Parks in and around Utah in a two week loop starting and ending in Durango by heading north and starting with Canyonlands and Arches and ending up at Mesa Verde.
A few side notes as we get started. We learned when the boys were young that if we tried to drive for more than six hours a day, we would have tired and cranky kids. On this trip, we tried to keep our driving to two to four hours a day and we listened to Harry Potter on CD whenever we were in the car.
We were also concerned about the heat in the parks in Utah in the summer, so we traveled as soon as school got out in the first weeks of June. It did get hot, but it was completely bearable.
Kick-off Trip in Durango, Colorado
Summary – Day 1/Night 1 in Durango via the Denver Airport:
We started our two week tour of the National Parks of Utah in Durango, Colorado by way of the Denver Airport. This itinerary with my reviews and recommendations is long, so I start each section (typically about a park) with a summary of what we did followed by a detailed list of where we ate, stayed and what activities we did along with my notes on what worked well and what didn’t with details on things that worked best with our boys.
DEN Wolfgang Puck – We ate at the Wolfgang Puck at the Denver airport and were pleasantly surprised. This place is in the central dining area by Concourse B. I got a humus platter and a salad. My boys got the usual chicken tenders and fries, but they were well made and my sons liked their meals. The healthy options were fresh and good. There was “something for everyone” and it felt like we could find fresh and reasonably healthy options even though we were at an airport.
DEN Haagen Dazs – There is a Haagen Dazs hiding near the B gates at the DEN airport between the main central food court and the B50 – B80 gates. The signs say frozen yogurt, but if you look closely, there is a Haagen Daaz sign and set of ice creams on the very left-hand side. Why get frozen yogurt when you can have really good ice cream?! So, after our dinners at the food court, we stopped by for cups of Haagen Daaz ice cream to eat at our B gate while waiting to board. It was a good choice. There was even a sorbet option.
Strater Hotel – For our first night in Durango, we booked the Strater Hotel, which is a wonderful historic hotel in the heart of Durango. It is a great location to stay for seeing Durango and for getting a sense for the town when it was an old western town during gold and silver prospecting times. The lobby is fancy with dark, carved wood and wall paper and is full of wooden furniture. There is a bar/lounge on one side and a restaurant on the other, which is great for breakfast. The staff was very friendly and helpful when we checked in and out. There are stairs to all floors and also an elevator. Our first night at the Strater Hotel, our room was in the 240s on the back side of the hotel which looks out on the roof and is sunny in the afternoon. It is in the back of the hotel. It is one of the rooms with two double beds in the room. Our room was very stuffy and hot due to the sun on it all afternoon. I had a hard time sleeping. Our view was also only of the roof, which was not great. When we returned two weeks later, we were in the 330s, which was much larger and had a better view. It was still over the roof, but was higher and so we could see more. I also like that the old windows still open and you can get fresh air, if you would like to. One small annoyance which I think they could easily fix is that the bathroom sink drained very slowly. Otherwise, the bathroom was modern and clean. The hotel has parking advice, so you can park in front to unload and then they give you a map to follow to park your car, which is very helpful. Durango is busy and parking is difficult. If you visit with kids, make sure to ask the lobby staff to show them the secret cubby holes where hotel staff and special guests could stash their valuables in case of a hotel robbery in the old West. Our boys really liked those and they remembered all of them when we returned two weeks later.
Strater Restaurant for Breakfast – We loved eating at the Strater Hotel for Breakfast. The restaurant is right off the lobby of the hotel. The options for breakfast include many egg options as well as a pecan cinnamon French toast and a chocolate pancake options, which our boys loved. I got one of the egg scrambles each time. They have an option for using local farm eggs , which I chose. They also have gluten free bread for toast. The toast comes with a fresh fruit compote for jam which is incredible. The first morning it was berry and the second it was apricot. I wanted to lick the bowl clean each time it was so good. They provide a $3 off per person for breakfast if you are staying at the hotel.
The Ore House for Dinner – When we knew we were coming to Durango, we made a dinner reservation at Ore House, the historic steak restaurant in town. When prospectors found gold or silver, they would bring their ore into town, get money for it and celebrate with a steak dinner at Ore House. We wanted to get more of a historic sense for the town and so we ate here. Even though we had a reservation, we had to wait about 15 minutes for a table to clear. We tried a variety of seafood and steak options. Our service was excellent but our food was mixed. I loved my ceviche appetizer. My husband and son loved their steaks. I got a wild boar with a quinoa base special and it was disappointing. It was expensive at $40. The boar ribs were interesting, but the quinoa was mushy and uninteresting, with a strange overpowering sweet berry sauce; I left it. For such an expensive meal, it would have been better with just great potatoes or grains and really fresh grilled asparagus or veggies. We also tried their legendary lobster bisque and were disappointed. I love a smooth, dense bisque and theirs is chunky and not as flavorful as I like. The best options on the menu based on our experience were the steaks. So, this is a place for a special night out and steak!
Start the National Parks loop at Canyonlands
Summary, Days/Nights 2 and 3:
- On Day 2, for nights 2 and 3, we drove to Needles entry of Canyonlands (3.5 hours) and then to our Cabin
- For lodging near Canyonlands, we booked the cabins near Mt Peale Animal Sanctuary east of La Sal Mountains.
- We stayed in the San Juan Sunrise Cabin Moab Mountain #1; 22 miles off the highway. We stayed there two nights to see both ends of Canyonlands.
- Canyonlands is more isolated but is Utah’s largest National Park and its least visited. It is at the meeting of Colorado and Green rivers.
To kick off our road trip, we drove to Monticello from Durango and had lunch at Peace Tree Café.
Peace Tree Café – It was so nice to find a healthy food stop in what felt like the middle of nowhere on our drive from Durango to Canyonlands National Park. We stopped for gas and found Peace Tree. Later in our travels we found there was a larger Peace Tree Café in Moab, but this was our first visit. You order at a counter and there is table seating or you can take it to go. We each ordered smoothies with healthy fruit, veggies and mix-ins. We ordered Mexican lunch options, such as burritos and warps with great meat, veggie and sauce options. There were also healthy salads. We got our food to go and were able to hit the road again. The parking for Peace Tree is on the side street next to the entry or in a parking lot across the street from the entry. They also sell some Native and local artifacts, jewelry and gifts in a small shop in front of the restaurant which are fun to look at as you wait for your food.
On the way to or from the Canyonlands Needles entry is the Wilson Arch – Our kids really enjoyed this easy stop along the highway 191. You do not have to enter any park or pay an admission fee and if you are driving from the south, this will be one of the first arches you see and be able to hike to. Our kids liked the openness of Wilson Arch. They were able to run to it and climb up to and around it. After driving, it was great to get some energy out. They enjoyed this arch more than some of the more dramatic ones we saw later at Arches because it was more accessible. It is right on the side of the road. It does get hot and sunny here in the afternoon.
Newspaper Rock – Just before the entry to Needles, you first come to Newspaper Rock. We were a bit surprised at how exposed the petroglyphs are. It seems as if they should be more protected so that the carvings do not wear away and so that people do not try to carve more into the rock. That said, you can easily drive up to the parking lot near it. Once parked, there is a short path to walk to the rock. The rock is fenced off and you can walk around it to see very well marked Petroglyphs spanning 2000 years. It was one of our boys’ favorite things to see in our two week trip.
Canyonlands Visitor Center – We stopped and picked up the Junior Ranger magazine for the kids so that they could do the puzzles and answer the questions as we hiked. We did this for each of the National Parks. It involves the kids in what is unique about each park and they get their Junior Ranger badge after they complete the necessary exercises for their age level. We also have National Park passports, so we got our stamps and stickers at the Visitor Centers for each park. The boys like to track their progress.
Needles Entrance – Once in Needles, Canyonlands was the least populated park we visited in our two weeks. The Colorado and Green rivers meet in the park. We went to the end of the road and hiked Slip Rock Trail and Pothole Trail. We passed the Shoe rock to get to these and the hikes were short, easy and scenic. It was hot and sunny, but we were the only humans around on the roads and hiking trails. We had this part of the park to ourselves — a real treat in a National Park. Canyonlands is the largest and the least visited of the Utah Parks.
After visiting Needles, we drove north to the La Sal mountains and headed east about 20 miles to our cabin outside of Moab. It was more quiet than being in Moab and we had beautiful views.
Mt Peale Animal Sanctuary/Moab Mountain Cabin #1 – We really loved our huge cabin, Moab Mountain Cabin #1 at the end of the line off the La Sal Mountain Road (Route 46). It was quiet, big and open around us. The cabin was well equipped with two large separate bedrooms. Each bedroom had a sink in it and the bathroom had another sink and shower. The kitchen was huge with another futon. Everyone was comfortable. The cabin has a wrap-around porch which made shady outdoor seating easy. At night with no outdoor lighting for miles, the stars were amazing. The drive back to the main Moab highway was only 20 minutes and 30 minutes to Moab. The cabins are convenient and beautiful for Canyonlands (Northern entrance) and Arches. Our boys also really enjoyed being able to help with the rescue animals. When we were there, they had a number of rescue horses, cats and dogs. The boys got to help with morning chores for the horses. They were able to say hello to the dogs. The two women there talked through the animals’ stories which were great for our boys to hear. Humane treatment to animals and thinking about that is a wonderful for visiting kids to be exposed to. It is a nice extra to being a guest there.
In the morning, we drove into Moab for breakfast and to explore the northern end of Canyonlands.
Love Muffin – We tried to get muffins here for breakfast and at 10 am they were out. Huh? This seemed odd for a muffin shop. We got coffee and left. It was disappointing.
Red Rock Café – We stopped by here (after a disappointing first stop) for muffins and breakfast items and were not disappointed. At 10 am, they were restocking their options. We found coffee and tea as well as a variety of scones, muffins and other gooey desserts. Our only complaint was that what looked like lemon bars in fact had no lemon flavor. Otherwise, everything was great.
Dead Horse State Park – Before entering Canyonlands Islands of the Sky do not miss a quick stop at Dead Horse State Park which is along the Islands entry road. It is another separate admission, but I am sure the State Park can use the extra $20 per car to take care of the land and it is worthwhile. This is one of your only opportunities to see the actual rivers at the base of the canyons. It sounds crazy, but there are very few places in Canyonlands were you can glimpse the Green or the Colorado Rivers. At this State Park, you can see both. At the end of the road, there is a great set of shade structures from which you can look out to many directions to see the rivers and how they have cut the canyons. There are a number of plaques explaining the layers of rocks and when they are from. You can see many land forms up close as well as many things in the distance. It is worthwhile although it can get very hot. Do take your hat and water.
Canyonlands Islands in the Sky – We did a number of shorter, easier hikes which were still wonderful and gave us a good sense for the park. We saw and hiked around Mesa Arch. We drove to the end of the road and hiked to Grand Point Overlook. You can walk from the parking area just to the lookout or down the stairs. From the stairs, there is a beautiful, flat rock walk with views of the canyon. The views here reach all the way down to the Needles Area of the park. These hikes are easy and worthwhile.
Zax in Moab for dinner – We had an early dinner at Zax in Moab. We parked easily on the street after driving in from Canyonlands. After being in the hot sun and hiking in the afternoon, it was nice to walk up to the spray mist around the outside of Zax. I don’t know how much or often they have the spray going, but they had it going all day during the week of early June we were in Moab. It was nice to walk by and feel it. We were seated outside and sat alongside the mist and that also felt nice when a breeze lifted it our way. Zax is known for its pizza. Their most popular option is the pizza, salad and soup bar. My husband ordered that. I ordered a custom pizza. We found that my pizza was the best, being the most fresh. If you want variety and quantity, the pizza bar is best with at least six to ten pizzas out at a time, but it you want fresh pizza and one kind will do, ordering one is best. Our kids loved their entrees, the kid’s salmon for one and pasta for the other. Our service was fine. It wasn’t high-end food, but it hit the spot after all day in the park. The drinks were huge which also helped us rehydrate.
Moab Roaster – Gelato – For dessert, we each got a small gelato, each of which was huge. My boys got two flavors and they could not finish theirs. Two flavors were labeled sorbet, but only one was a true sorbet without dairy. If you cannot have dairy, that is something to look for. They had interesting flavors, such as coffee chip and some good fruit options. It was a good gelato stop. My husband also bought some ground coffee for the rest of our trip.
Arches and Colorado River Rafting
Summary – Day 4; Nights 4 and 5
On the morning of our fourth day, we drove from our La Sal cabin to Arches National park for the next two days of exploring. We spent the next two nights (Days 4 and 5) in the smallest cabin I have ever stayed in!
We stopped first at the Arches Visitor Center at the entrance to the park. – The Park movie was helpful to understand how arches form.
Arches – We spent one full day at Arches and felt that we had seen and gotten a good feel for the park. There are supposedly 1,600 to 2,000 stone arches, which is the highest concentration of arches in the US in the park, but only a few of these are visible from the drive or hikes. The park has an 18 mile scenic drive around it to see the arches and from which a number of short, easy hikes are available. We hiked around Balanced Rock. We went to the Windows and hiked up to the North Window with a large group of very disrespectful foreign tourists. I love the fact that people from other countries want to visit our National Parks, but when people blatantly ignore the signs which say “delicate eco-system” and “please stay on the path” by walking straight off the path in large groups to take photos; it makes me very upset. I wish the large tour bus companies bringing them into the parks would talk more clearly (in their native tongue) to them about this. That aside, we had a great view of Turret Arch and walked to South Window. The crowd thins out there. If you then hike back from behind South Window, you will be alone. This gives you wonderful views, but make sure you do it with a buddy, water and a hat. The trail takes you back to the lower parking area and near the entrance to Double Arch. Double Arch was crowded and never empty of people. We drove to and loved the longer hike to Landscape Arch. It was my favorite arch in the park. It sits alone in a more natural setting. There is also a look-out to Delicate Arch, so if you do not want to do the long and strenuous hike to Delicate Arch (which is recommended only in the cool morning time and not with children under 10 to 12), you can see it at a distance at a look-out point. The Fiery Furnace is also a famous hike in the park, but requires an advanced reservation. It is supposed to be hot and strenuous, so we chose not to do it with our kids. Compared to the other National Parks in Utah, Arches was my least favorite. It is the most crowded and the arches are mostly just sitting out by themselves. It is small and doable in a day unless you want to do the longer hikes.
Broken Oar – I wish I could give this restaurant a good review. We also took a river rafting tour with Adrift Adventures and I understand that these two groups are linked. Unfortunately, Broken Oar is currently broken. Our waitress was new and the kitchen is painfully slow. We were seated for our 7:30 pm reservation and we waited for 20 minutes for anyone to bring us water or talk to us. No one came. I talked to the hostess station and one of them came over with water and eventually took our order a half hour after we had been seated! The new waitress came with her. Our salads came in reasonable time, but then we waited for our entrees. And we waited… An hour after we were seated our food started coming. Many things were sweet that didn’t seem like they should have been. I ordered Insalata Caprese. The balsamic and oil on it were sweet. We got sweet potato fries since they are a specialty and they had a sweet sauce. I ordered surf and turf with steak and shrimp and that combo was good. It ended well, but when we left two hours after we arrived, we were all tired and ready for bed.
Peace Tree Café – Moab – We had a great breakfast experience at Peace Tree in Moab. They also have mist spray all around the outside of the restaurant in the summer. It is so nice to walk by or be seated by the outside wall and have the occasional mist. In early June, we had full fun and daily temperatures in the 90s and the mist was refreshing. We each tried a different smoothie at breakfast. I liked my carrot citrus. We all ordered egg, French toast and pancake options and everything came quickly. I liked everything mine came with except the potatoes. The fried potatoes are the cut up and fried variety rather than hash browns. The potato squares are powdered with a red spice mix which didn’t have a good flavor to me. Perhaps they would have been better at another meal or to another customer, but they didn’t appeal to me at breakfast. Otherwise, we had a great meal with friendly, attentive service.
Arch View Cabin – Staying here was a “mixed bag”. The web direction information for its location was confusing. Once or twice when we looked up the directions to it, Maps showed it six miles north of Arches near highway 313. This is the correct location. When we looked for its location from its website, Maps showed it six miles south of Moab and that information was incorrect. There is an “Arch- something else” in Moab which is not the same place and the Arch View reservation office is south of Moab, but that is also not the cabin or RV camp location. The location of Arch View Cabins and RV camping is north of Arches National Park, just north of the 313 turn-off. Once here, there are two reservation agents in the store building and checking in went quickly. Our cabin was a “deluxe cabin”, but it was tiny. We had two twin bunk beds on one side of the cabin and a double bed on the other side of the cabin and there was a small corridor between them. The “kitchenette” is only a mini-fridge and a sink and a microwave. There is not a chair or a table or anywhere to sit down in the cabin. You cannot cook or eat in the cabin. You can go outside and there is a grill which takes BBQ charcoal outside with a picnic table. The bathroom is right next to the double bed and has a toilet on one side and a shower stall on the other. There is no extra room anywhere. We could not even bring our luggage into the cabin; we had to unpack what we needed from the car and just bring that into the cabin each day and night. It is the smallest space I have ever slept and tried to move around in. On the plus side, there is a very small pool near the RV spaces and our boys enjoyed cooling off in that. It is about ten to twelve feet long and about five kids can play in it at a time. Also, the park is very close to Arches National Park and the entrance to Dead Horse State Park and the Islands in the Sky entrance (north entrance) of Canyonlands National Park. It is about six miles north of Moab. There are very few trees in the park and so the cabin got very hot and stuffy and we needed to run our AC most of the time. It was hot to sit outside. The parking for our car was directly to one side of the cabin and there was another cabin right next door to us. I would not stay here again unless we could not find larger accommodation in Moab.
Adrift Adventures (in downtown Moab) for River Rafting – One of our afternoons while at Arches National Park, we booked an afternoon with lunch river rafting trip with Adrift to see the Colorado River. This is a mild, all ages trip, compared to other rafting trips we have taken. On the plus side, this is a well-organized group. We met at the Adrift headquarters in town in Moab. They gave us plenty of time to get organized. Here are my recommendations on what to wear and what to bring. Wear technical clothing which is light and dries easily. If you sunburn easily, wear longer sleeves. Bring sun cream in a zip-lock bag. Bring a hat with a string to secure it under your chin. Baseball caps and unsecured hats will blow off. Two people lost their hats in the river on our cruise. If you want to bring your camera, put it in a zip-lock bag and request a wet bag at the headquarters; when on the boat, you can put it in one of the white buckets on the boat. Wear water shoes or closed toe sandals. You will get wet. There is no shade on the trip. Your arms and tops of legs will get a lot of sun on a sunny day. From the headquarters, they pack everyone into one or two school buses and you drive down a very scenic road about 20 minutes to the launch site where other boat companies are taking off also. The river and locations are busy. The float is very safe and it is a great journey for kids and people at all skill levels. The lunch is well organized. They serve sandwiches of all types, chips, salads, cookies and fruit. On the less plus side, this was a mild trip. We only went over five or six rapid locations and they were not that exciting. If you are looking for more white water, this may not be the group or level for you. The rapids were level 1 and 2. On previous trips in CA and OR, we often got off the boat and were able to swim alongside. Floating on a river has been a past joy with our kids. On this trip, it was discouraged. I got the sense our guide was not comfortable with it. We got out once and he asked us to get in very quickly. We had requested a kayak and so my husband and boys were able to kayak alongside the larger boat for most of the float. That was a fun extra option. I would recommend this group for a first time river rafting experience, larger groups, a mix of skill levels and for younger kids.
Moab Brewery – We had a nice dinner at Moab Brewery. There is parking out front, but it was filling up when we got there. There is also street parking around the sides. We appreciated being seated without a reservation. My boys each got corn dogs and I tried a chile verde burrito, which was great. They have lots of steak and burger options and my husband liked his. This is a no-frills place where our service was fast and attentive and the food was all fine. It wasn’t too expensive and it was good enough for all of us. Sometimes unpretentious is the right thing. Afterwards, we stopped at the front door for gelato. If you have eaten there, you get a discount! We tried the different flavors and enjoyed them. I liked my mango sorbet. The double in the waffle cone was too much for my younger boys. All good, especially with kids. We would return.
Tamarisk Café in Green River – On the way out of Arches to Capital Reef National Park, we stopped half way for brunch in Green River. We were pleasantly surprised by this nicely decorated, healthy, local food option right off the highway. There is tons of parking right in front. The booths look right out to the river. The food options are diner style, but have a healthy twist. There is a big “Rural and Proud” in lights on the wall and it rings true. There were mostly regulars and locals in when we were there for an 11am breakfast. We tried the special cinnamon rolls, which are great but with tons of icing (too much for me, but my boys liked them). The special strawberry French toast was a favorite for one of my sons. They had nice healthy egg options. The only healthy option they didn’t have was soy milk, but that was asking for a lot. All in all, we had a great brunch when we were least expecting it, which was a treat.
Capitol Reef National Park
Summary – Day 5
- Day 5 we drove to Capitol Reef park, which is 2 hours 15 minutes from Arches
- It is north between Arches and Bryce. We stopped for breakfast in Green River.
- The park gives out fruit to guests (apricots) before hikes because history of park was as an orchard. Visiting the Homestead house and barn is a nice stop. They have pie, for example.
- Panoramic view of the gorge from Goosenecks and Sunset Point are worth the stop.
Capital Reef National Park – Capital Reef was one of my favorite Utah National Parks. It is large, has an incredible history and it is not heavily visited. The Rangers we met were friendly and very informative. Since there were not many people there, they spent a lot of time with us. It is north between Arches and Bryce. The Native Indians of that region, the Fremont Indians were along the river and in the gorge from about the year 500 until 1700. For the last two hundred years, white settlers joined them and grew fruit there. So, there is a mix of orchard and indian carvings to see. The park gives out fruit to guests (apricots in season) before hikes because the history of park was as an orchard. We really enjoyed our visit to the Homestead house and the barn is a nice stop. They sell pie. My favorite drive and hike was the Capital Gorge, which was the original road into the area. Amazing panoramic views of the gorge are available right off the road from Goosenecks and Sunset Point.
Petroglyphs Trail – These Petroglyph Trails were less impressive than we thought they would be. The most impressive fact about them is their age. From 500 – 1700 is remarkable. But, the etchings themselves and how hard they are to see at the distance they are make them difficult to make out and really connect with. You walk along two boardwalks. On the walk on the right hand side, you have to keep your eye out to spy the very faint carvings. Most people on the boardwalk walked right past the faint animal etchings in the stone. On the left hand side, there are a set of people carved and then many animals stretching to the left of the rock face.
Fruita and the Gifford Homestead – In the middle of the Capital Reef Park is the Gifford Homestead with a rich history of what it was like to live and work as farmers in the gorge area and raise most of one’s own food. The family traded with the Indians and grew all their own fruits and vegetables. The kids there went to a one room school house which is also in the park. They were there into the 1960’s. They are one of the last Mormon families living and growing fruit alongside the Indian groups who lived along the river valley there, which started hundreds of years before. It is nice for kids to see that and try to understand what it was like for early settler families to live in that valley. We liked visiting the farmhouse and lovely barn with its pies and gifts to purchase. There is parking alongside the farmhouse.
Nature Preserve – The ranger at this location was super friendly. Our boys brought their Junior Ranger books and were able to ask questions and learn much more about the park, what it was like for settlers and adventurers in the park, and to complete the Junior Ranger program.
Capital Gorge Road – This Scenic Drive was amazing. I was so glad that they let us drive it and see the gorge. Driving the original Capital Gorge Road was one of my favorite places in all seven National parks we visited in two weeks. It was very out of the ordinary (There are a number of YouTube videos of the drive). You drive on a rutted dirt road and so the driving is not quick, but you can see the gorge of narrow rocks up close. This was the original road in and out of the park area in the early 1900’s. At the end of the road is the Gorge Trail. You can park, (go to the bathroom) and just look into the gorge further or hike further into the narrow gorge with more time.
We hiked Gooseneck look out – The trail was very hard to follow to the metal, protective look out so many people just walked to the edge, which was a bit dangerous. From the parking, there is a fenced in, safer look out to the left of the parking area. The view down either side of the canyon and down the river is very dramatic. I preferred seeing it with the railing and protection for the kids.
Sunset Point Hike – At the end of our day at Capital Reef Park, we drove to the parking for Gooseneck and Sunset and hiked to each. Luckily, we left Sunset for last. We were the only people on the trail and we spent lots of time on it and at the point. It was a fun hike and very beautiful. It was one of my kids’ favorite hikes and places on our whole two weeks trip. The hike starts uphill, like many of the rocky park hikes. Then, you come to a flat, wide path that runs along the rim of on overlook. The rim path takes you to a point with large rocks laying in almost a shelter pattern. The view is of parts of the canyons and at sunset the colors are great. My kids pretended that the point was their new home and called out certain rooms in the rocks as their own. They had a great time climbing around and finding best views. It was a great hike and a beautiful spot. Capital Reef Park was beautiful and rugged with few people. Two thumbs up, especially in the late afternoon or close to sunset.
Route 12 Boulder to Escalante – Route 12 is an “US Scenic Byway” and is worth the drive. It is particularly beautiful between Boulder and Escalante, Utah. The road narrows to cliffs and has dramatic views on either side. It is particularly lovely at sunset with all of the red rock and deeply carved river canyons. It is breath-taking and highly recommended. If passengers are scared of heights, you can stop the car at pull-outs and see the views. They are less terrifying if you are not driving past them with very little clearance on either side of the car.
Escalante to Bryce
Summary – Nights 6 and 7
- After day 6 at Capital Reef Park, we drove south to Canyon Country Lodge for two nights, our nights 6 and 7. (almost 2 hours south; have dinner before or on drive down). The drive between Boulder and Escalante on Route 12 is a most beautiful (and breathtaking) route.
- Lodging: Canyon Country Lodge which is one hour from Capital Reed Visitor’s Center, 30 minutes from Grand Staircase National Monument and one hour from Bryce in Escalante, UT for nights 6 and 7
- While in this area, you can visit the Grand Staircase National Monument Visitors Center in Escalante
- We spent first morning in Grand Staircase area and Escalante. We visited the Petrified Wood State Park Visit in morning and drove to Bryce National Park in the afternoon.
Escalante Outfitters for dinner – We ate at EO for dinner late on our arrival night. We arrived at 8:30 pm and it was very full. Everything seems to close at 9 pm in Escalante, however, so it started clearing out quickly. It is known for its pizza. We ate pizza and calzone which all came with starter salads. There is plenty of inside seating, but it was nice to sit in the covered outside porch for dinner. There is one German waitress and many of the guests were German and able to speak with her. It was a nice benefit if you are a German speaking tourist. She has been there three years and lives locally all year round. We liked the pizza and calzone, each was sharable between two people.
Canyon Country Lodge – We stayed in this new lodge for two nights. We had a two bed double on the second floor. The lodge opened in September 2017 and is family run. On the positive side, our kids enjoyed the pool and we used the guest laundry while we were there. It was nice to wash our clothes midway through our two week travels. Everything was very new and clean, which we appreciated. One oversight in the new build, however, is that there is not an elevator. We are a young and athletic family, however, we had been hiking all day and each of us had a piece of luggage and a backpack. We had to haul our stuff up the stairs to the second floor. The person who checked us in volunteered to help us, which was nice, however, it would be best to have a simple one floor elevator for folks with luggage. I can imagine an older couple or anyone with physical issues would find this very difficult. We appreciated the complimentary morning breakfasts with egg options, waffles, cereals and fruit each morning. The only challenge there was that they closed the food down at 9 am, which is a challenge for us. Perhaps this is setup for business travelers, but I would think that the majority of their guests are on vacation and we tend to get up around 8 am and would like to eat at 9 am, not be done by 9 am. It would be great if breakfast could start later and go later. We appreciated the guest laundry on the first floor and large guest pool off the lobby to cool off after hiking in the parks. A good start for the hotel, but some tweeks would make it better.
Escalante Visitors Center – We stopped at the huge “interagency” Visitor Center for the Grand Staircase area in Escalante. It covers three parks: Glen Canyon, Grand Staircase and Dixie State Park. They also gave us information about the Petrified Forest. It was large, well-managed and informative.
Petrified Forest State Park – We stopped for a few hours at this State Forest. There is an entry fee per car, but it was worthwhile. There is a swimming lake right next to the check-in cabin, which we did not try. Off to the right, you can park and there is a nice hilly trail up and looping around which takes about an hour. You can get a great view of the area and see a number of beautiful petrified logs. You have to watch out for them because they are just lying next to the path. It’s easy to walk by them. You can spy them from all the colors shining from them. There was less petrified wood than we were expecting. I was expecting large groups of trees and this path contains a few sets of broken logs to see. The main groups of them are at the end of the loop trail. There is also a large log to see next to the parking lot. Our kids liked the hike and seeing the petrified wood stones because they have not seen much of it before. It was a good stop on our way to Bryce.
Circle D Eatery for Dinner – We stopped here for dinner on our way back from Bryce National Park and after a day of hiking. This had a good atmosphere on the patio, but was insanely slow. I got the ribs and the BBQ flavor was strangely sweet/tangy. I was not a fan. Our boys got hamburgers and pasta. My husband got a burger. The food was ok once it arrived, but it took an hour for our food to come. I had to request chips and dip to keep us sane.
Bryce National Park
Summary: Day 7 and 8, Night 8 at Bryce National Park
- We spent two days exploring Bryce, one from Escalante and one from Bryce Park Lodge. While in the Bryce area, drive Highway 12 one of our nation’s “most scenic highways”. Canyon Lodge in Escalante to Bryce is 1 hour.
- On our first day, we returned to Escalante and Canyon Lodge (since the Lodge at Bryce was only available for one night). We booked Bryce Lodge for our second night. Please note that Park cabins and lodges need to be booked about six months in advance. Sometimes single nights can be found four months in advance.
- We were able to see the sunrise at Bryce Canyon by walking from Sunrise to Sunset Point and stopping anywhere along that rim hike. This is a park highlight.
- Other Highlights: Navajo Trail, Queen’s Garden and Inspiration Point to see the “hoodoos”, which are the tall rock formations of the park.
- “No reservations required” at the lodge for dining; First come, first served
Overall Bryce Canyon National Park – We loved our visit to Bryce Canyon National Park. This is probably obvious, but most of the main trails and sites all face and focus on the canyon (Bryce Canyon) which is filled with interesting rock formations called hoodoos. There is no denying that this is a busy National Park. We had recently been to Capital Reef Park and so in comparison, this park seemed crowded. But, when we arrived, we were still able to park in the parking lot at Sunset Trail our first day. Our second day, we parked near the lodge. Once parked, here are my recommendations:
1) Take the shuttle to the spots where you want to hike. The shuttles go in a loop and pick you up within a 10 minute wait (during normal daylight hours) and take you wherever you want to go on the park loop. It is very convenient and parking does fill up. If you ever cannot find parking, there is always parking somewhere around the Bryce Lodge and Cabins.
2) We started with the Sunset to Sunrise hike on the Rim Trail. This is an easy hike and it is paved. This is accessible to anyone and you can see the entire canyon. Anyone of any ability, if you only do one hike or only have one view into the park, this is your hike. It can be only one mile total and can take as long as you would like it to. When you are done, you can go to the lodge for drinks and souvenir shopping. If you would like to do more, there are other great hikes, most of them taking you to other ends of the canyon to look further into it or hike further into it!
3) We really liked Inspiration Point which has three levels of height to its hikes and the Navajo Loop Trail.
4) If you do Navajo Loop, it is best at the start or end of the day because it gets hot and crowded, but it was one of my favorite hikes of our two week trip to seven National Parks. Really worthwhile.
5) We stayed at the Bryce Cabins in the park, which were also a highlight but need to be booked at least six months in advance. It is worthwhile just to be able to walk out of your cabin and be a few feet away from the canyon edge and the Rim Trail.
6) We sat between Sunset and Sunrise on the Rim Trail at sunrise one of our mornings, which is a real treat. Bryce is worth a visit.
Sunset to Sunrise on the Rim Trail – We started at the Sunset to Sunrise hike on the Rim Trail. This is an easy hike and it is paved. This is accessible to anyone and you can see the entire canyon. Anyone of any ability, if you only do one hike or only have one view into the park, this is your hike. It can be only one mile total and can take as long as you would like it to. When you are done, you can go to the lodge for drinks and shopping. If you would like to do more, there are other great hikes, most of them taking you to other ends of the canyon to look into it or further into the canyon. We sat between Sunset and Sunrise on the Rim Trail at sunrise one of our mornings, which is very special.
Inspiration Point – We took the shuttle to Inspiration Point. There are three levels to the look-outs with steps up. At each level there is a viewing area with railings to look out along the Rim Trail and into the Canyon. Each viewing area is quite a bit higher than the previous one and the hike up is steep. All four of us (two adults and two kids) were able to hike and stop at all three to see the view. It was worthwhile to see the canyon from any other view point. There were less people here than on the Rim Trail and at Sunset and Sunrise, which I appreciated. We were able to get better group photographs. We didn’t have to wait long for a shuttle back to the Lodge. Shop at Bryce Lodge was nicer than other Visitor Center shops.
Navajo Loop Trail – I recommend taking Navajo Loop Trail clockwise from Sunset area and seeing Thor’s Hammer first to Twin Bridges (you have to walk back to see them, it is not well marked) and then to the half-way mark. There is a benchmark at the half-way point and a nice shady area to hang out and have some water. Then the incredible climb up Wall Street. Do both ends of this early in the day. It is beautiful and incredible that they let people do this trail without railings or safety. We are so lucky to have that freedom and beauty available to us. It was one of my favorite hikes of our two week trip to seven National Parks. It is really worthwhile.
Parking for all of these near Sunset or the Lodge and take the shuttle. When we arrived, we were still able to park in the parking lot at Sunset Trail our first day. Our second day, we parked near the lodge. Once parked, here are my recommendations: 1) Take the shuttle to the spots where you want to hike. The shuttle goes in a loop and picks you up and takes you wherever you want to go. It is very convenient and parking does fill up. If you ever cannot find parking, there is always parking somewhere around the Bryce Lodge and Cabins.
Bryce Lodge Restaurant – We had a lunch and a dinner at the Bryce Lodge Restaurant. When I called ahead to try to make reservations, they said the restaurant was large and it was first come, first served. I was concerned about this, but once we got there, their approach seemed to work. The times we came for a meal, we were seated right away. At our late lunch, I had the buffet. The food was not great but it was quick. I had the chicken. Because it seemed most fresh on the buffet, I got a lot of it and it was not bad. The other food that had been sitting there for a long time was not edible, such as the salmon. But they replaced it with fried fish which was better. If you are trying the buffet, my recommendation is to try small amounts first, find what you like and then get a full plate of that option. The salad and fruit bar was good and the dessert pudding was sweet. Dinner at Bryce was much better. We shared an enormous hummus plate. Our entrees were all fine. We all shared three desserts, our most on our trip.
Bryce Cabins – We stayed in a Bryce cabin for one night right near the Rim Trail. It was a treat. The cabin was just the right size for a family of four with two double beds, lovely rustic furniture and Native Indian inspired blankets and hangings. There is a nice porch for sitting and staying cool. I spent an afternoon sitting there and just reading, which was such a treat. The cabins are incredibly close to the Rim Trail between Sunset and Sunrise. In the morning, we were able to wake at 6 am, walk out our door and be at the best spot for seeing the sunrise to the left of Sunset point in two to five minutes. No driving and no fuss. I stayed in my PJs. Once you park, you don’t have to worry about your car or moving it after you hike for the day; you are staying in the park! It was super convenient for hiking and for dining. You need to book six or more months in advance to secure a cabin for your dates.
Backerei Forscher on the way from Bryce to Zion – When we saw the sign for Backerei Forscher on the way from Bryce to Zion, we were excited. We pulled right in at lunchtime. The bakerei specializes in German style baked goods and had a butter crumb cake, a cinnamon wrapped croissant type roll as well as a moist apple cake slice. These were all good. We thought they would benefit from also having lunch sandwiches, cool drinks, as well as many coffee options and by advertising better outside.
Zion National Park
Summary – Days 9 and 10 at Zion
- For days 9 and 10, we drove south to Zion where we had a place at the Zion Lodge booked for one night (Night 9).
- We had a recommendation to hike the Narrows along the Virgin River (shallow and through water with steep rocks either side), only if no rain predicted. It is best in the morning.
- Another visitor had recommended renting special technical socks and boots for the Narrow hike for all of us outside the park in Springdale before we entered Park, however, we hiked in water shoes and had a good experience.
- The lodge restaurant serves all three meals
- We had a dinner reservation at Zion Lodge Red Rock Grill, but it was not needed.
The drive into Zion is so dramatic from Bryce. We never drove through to Springdale, which is another common route to and from the Zion park.
Hiked to Nature Center for Ranger Program – Our first hike in Zion was a short one from the Visitor’s Center to the Nature Center. It was very helpful and great for our kids. Ranger Tom led the children’s programs. Afterwards the kids walked around for photos and answered questions in their junior ranger books. It was an informative center and worth a visit with kids.
We started at the Lodge and hiked to Emerald Pools and up to Grotto Shuttle stop and took the Shuttle back to the Lodge. Our first hike to see something at Zion was to the Emerald Pools. We hiked to the lower pools and back via the trail to the Grotto. Both were beautiful, although the trail back to the Grotto at sunset was more breathtaking. The hike to the pools tends to be crowded, but it is nice to see the pools and it can be nice and cool on a hot day. The rocks around the pools can get slippery so watch any kids and their footing. This first hike was a great way to get to know Zion and it’s a very straight forward hike for young kids or less able hikers. The path is paved and there are railings. You can stop there and head back down. We continued around the pools and took the trail up and above the pools back to the Grotto shuttle bus stop. This hike didn’t have any people on it and gave great views back down the valley towards the Zion Lodge. Our kids really liked the hike and we really appreciated the beautiful views.
Red Rock Grill – The Zion Lodge serves all three meals. There is a convenient café with vending machines, coffee and quick food downstairs, but there is also a nicer restaurant upstairs from the Lodge check-in called the Red Rock Grill. We had dinner as well as a breakfast here. It is not overly busy and there is indoor and outdoor seating. For Dinner at Zion Lodge, I got the hummus plate as well as salmon entrée. The salad bar came with everyone else’s meals and they got very filled up. The service was good and the food came in large servings. For Breakfast, we were running very late and found the Breakfast Buffet very convenient. There are tons of options set out and ready to go. You can have pancakes, eggs, oatmeal or cereal. There are many fruit options. Everything you could want for a brunch or breakfast is there. It was super-fast. We all had so much to eat that we didn’t need lunch.
We stayed overnight at the Zion Lodge. We were in the Watchman Building which is not in the lodge building, but over to the side on the lower floor. The rooms were not cabin like, but hotel like and stuffy. We had two standard double beds and a bath. We also had a balcony and windows, which were nice to open once the night air cooled off enough, but because we were in a small hotel room without cross ventilation, there really wasn’t any breeze. There was an ice machine on our floor and it was good to get ice into our cooler for our food and water bottles.
Store at Zion – The gift store in the Lodge was separate from the Visitor’s Center and had nicer items that the typical National Park Visitor Center gift store. It is at the entrance for the Lodge next to the check-in desk. The store had many Native Indian artifacts, arts and craft items for sale. It was nice to see some of the area’s tribal art available. There were also many toys and gifts for kids.
The Narrows Hike – Hiking the Narrows along the Virgin River was one of the stand-out hikes of our entire two week trip visiting seven National Parks. It is unusual to get to hike in the narrow area between two canyons and it is unusual to hike through a shallow river stream. It is special when a National Park enables you to do exceptional activities that stretch you as a visitor and give you a real sense for what makes a park unique. The Narrows gives you that activity. We took the recommendation to do this hike first thing in the morning while it was cool and to avoid the crowds. Here’s my recommendations on how to approach the hike. You take the shuttle to top of the line, which is the Temple of Sinawava stop. The hike starts with a mile walk on land down the Riverside Walk Hike and then you enter the stream. There is a stop there with a flat area and seats where you can adjust your gear, relax, drink, etc before you enter the water. You can hike to the stream and just take photos and turn around without getting wet (and if you are less mobile) or you can hike any portion of the nine miles up and back in the stream from there. The only way is up the stream and back. My understanding is that the river water is waist high for an adult at times, so it is not advisable for kids to do the full hike. We hiked 25 to 30 minutes up and 25 minutes back and the deepest it became for our eight year olds was thigh high. Of course, do this hike only if no rain is predicted because of the danger of being caught in a flash flood. We got up at 6:30 am and had a light snack in our room. We caught the shuttle by 7 to 7:30 am and were hiking by 8 am on the trail and into Narrows. Three of us used water shoes; one wore Keens. Our boys were more stable with water shoes. The Keens felt like planks on the stones and didn’t give any “feel” for the stones. The water is cold, but it is like swimming in the Pacific. Some friends of ours rented special socks and shoes in Springdale in advance, but we didn’t find these to be necessary. The socks are for cold and the shoes are for stability. Since the rocks are slippery and the shoes are rigid, they seemed to increase your chances for slipping. Each person should use a pole, if you have them, or find a stick, for stability. I recommend technical clothing to dry easily. One adult should bring a camera, preferably a waterproof or water resistant one (in a ziplock bag or pocket). We were done and had seen awesome rocks, walls and light by 10 am. As we were reaching the end of the water path where we had started earlier, the number of people starting was five times more than when we had started and the buses kept coming as we hiked the trail back. We returned to the lodge and had brunch at 11 am. It was a great morning and our boys felt like “Iron Boys”. If you do only one special hike at Zion with kids who are older than six, this is the hike I would recommend. Do it in an organized way, however. It’s a great one to approach with a “be prepared” approach with kids and get them ready and excited.
Weeping Rock and start of higher – This is a short, easy hike for all skill levels and for kids. You can take the shuttle to the stop for Weeping Rock. We found that the start of the hike can be a bit confusing. There is a small sign for the start to the hike up and to the left. The other harder and longer hikes go to the right. Once on the hike, you walk up to a large, arched rock with seeping water. There are metal steps to help you get under the water. It can be cool and refreshing and there is a nice view. It is often crowded here and the metal steps can be slippery.
Shuttles to other stops for photos – The shuttle service at Zion Park is the best we saw anywhere at the other Utah National Parks. The shuttles come often and do a constant loop. You can go either direction and get to any of the drop off points for the hikes you want to do throughout the day. We picked up one of the first shuttles around 7 am for the Narrows and we took shuttles back to the lodge in the evening up to 6 pm. It was very convenient. We had a parking pass for the lodge since we were staying there, so we just left our car parked there. Otherwise, you can leave your car parked at the Visitor Center or closer to the Park entrance.
Parking at the Visitor Center always worked – There is a lot of signage stating that you should not park at the Visitor Center or it was full. We found that there were always spots available at the Zion Visitors Center throughout the day, even when the full sign went up. People are constantly coming and going from the parking lots. We found parking there at all times of the day during the two days we were there in June.
Page, AZ and Glen Canyon Dam (on Route to Monument Valley)
Summary – Night 10 in Page, Arizona
- Drove to Page, AZ; Lodging is 2 hours and 15 minutes away from Zion
- Stayed at the Red Rock Motel for the night of Day 10 in Page, AZ
- Visited Horseshoe Bend in Colorado River in the morning as we left AZ
Glen Canyon Sunset point from highway – It was a bust. We decided to stay in Page, AZ on our way from Zion to Monument Valley. There were a few things to see and it was mid-way between. One of the things to see was the Glen Canyon look-out at mile marker 552 on Highway 89 at sunset. Yes, you can see 360 degrees to Page and the dam and up and down river and to Lake Powell, but I found the environment desolate. There are only trees in Page. The surrounding land is barren.
Red Rock Motel – We stayed at this motel on our way from Zion to Monument Valley because we thought it might be a throw-back for our kids, something out of the Cars movie or from Route 66. On the positive side, it is one block off the main street, which made it quieter. Each room was more like a small apartment and has space for parking in front of it. The rooms were large, more cabin like than hotel room like. There were two separate bedrooms with a bath between and a separate living area, dining area and kitchen. The shower in the bathroom was modern and clean. The A/C and other details of the rooms, trim, painting and outside, however have seen better days. The motel is a period piece. It is locally owned and it is nice to support a non-corporate owner. It was comfortable for our stop-over, but it is not polished or pristine.
Big John’s Texas BBQ with music – We ate BBQ and listened to western rock and roll for dinner while in Page. This was a treat. We sat outside on picnic tables; we had one end. Each of us had ribs, brisket or pulled pork sandwiches. There was a variety of sauces and the meats were good. There are salads for sides or various fries and large drink options. The night we were there, there was a live band on stage in front of us and they played two sets during our dinner. It was a mix of well-known old rock favorites and some country I didn’t know. The band called kids up to help them play percussion which was a nice extra. It made for a fun atmosphere and noisy place to pick up a big, sloppy meal.
Horseshoe Bend on the drive out of Paige, AZ – I had read about Horseshoe Bend and it was on our map. So, on the way out of Page, we stopped. It is south on 89 at mile marker 545. I found the entire experience a bit scary for a number of reasons. It is about a mile and half hike roundtrip to the view point. The day we were there it was 100 degrees in full sun by 10 am. It is a State Park site and there is a ranger or two in the parking area, but it is not well maintained or managed as a park. The signage advises that people carry water, but the site was very crowded and most people we saw were 1) not dressed appropriately (not ready for a hike), 2) not carrying water, and 3) not wearing a hat. There is only one shade structure at the half-way point. The viewpoint is about 1000 feet above the river and canyon and there is currently no railing. When we reached the view point, hundreds of people were taking photos and selfies by sitting near or on the edge and dangling their feet off of the rim with cut away rock faces. One group of girls sat together taking a selfie, probably weighing 350 – 400 pounds on the edge of a cut away rock. I couldn’t even look near them as their boyfriends also took photos of them. The likelihood that someone would fall and die while we were there seemed very high. That said, the view of this dramatic turn in the river from very high up is amazing. It looked like they were installing railings this summer; two people died falling over the edge in April and in May 2018. If you go, I would recommend dressing in cotton or technical, light clothes, wear shoes you can hike in, wear a hat and sun cream and bring water. Be careful near the edge of the rocks due to the extreme fall hazard. Just to get a sense of scale… the white dots on the right in the water are boats!
Summary – Day 11
- On Morning of day 11: we drove to Monument Valley, which is 2 hours away from Page
- Monument Valley, the famous movie backdrop, is on Navajo Land. You can only drive a 17 mile valley loop with photo stops, or take a Navajo guide, do a 1 – 8 hour guided hike or take a horse back tour.
- The recommended drive is at sunset to see the rock formations in the sunset color
- Our lodging for Night 11 was Gouldings Lodge in Monument Valley, UT. We reserved dinner there or at the View. Please note that the View will only serve their hotel guests after 7 pm! There are not many places around to eat and these are the two hotels at Monument Valley.
Monument Valley, Navajo Nation – When we arrived at Navajo Nation/Monument Valley area we noticed that there are two separate Visitor Centers or areas. First we arrived at the Navajo Nation Visitor Center and got a map. Then, we entered the Monument Valley drive and paid $20 entrance fee. They treat the drive like a separate National Park, but it is not as open and welcoming nor as well maintained as a National Park. Visitors can only drive a 17 mile valley drive with photo stops. Or, you can take a Navajo guide in a jeep, do a 1 – 8 hour guided hike or take a horse back tour. Our experience was that the road is not well maintained and it is best to do in your own car at your own pace. It is rocky, has potholes and is hilly at the start and end; the best cars for the drive were four-wheel drive. We were fine in a minivan and using the map as our guide. The people we saw with guides were in the open jeeps and were in clouds of dust. We did not see anyone on horseback or hiking. It was incredibly sunny and hot; I would not have wanted to be with a guide, walk 17 miles or be on a horse. The guide books recommended doing the drive at sunset to see the rock formations in the sunset color. We did the drive around 4 pm and looked at the view from the Visitors Center at 6 and 7 pm and liked the colors at that time. By the end of our two hour drive, we had seen enough of the formations. We were glad we drove around to see them, but once around is enough. Two main recommendations: be careful to stay on the road, our tires spun in sand once and I would not want to get caught in sand out there. The best view was at point 9, called Artists Point. If you don’t have time for the full loop, you can do the top half and Artists Point and see most of the formations. Here is a van coming out of the start of the loop road as seen from the scenic viewpoint.
Gouldings Lodge – We stayed in one of the new cabins at Gouldings. We loved it. They are spacious with two double beds and fit our family of four well. They had a view out to Monument Valley. We ate dinner and breakfast at the restaurant, enjoying their Navajo Fry Bread meals and the Navajo Tea. We also used the pool. The history of the lodge and the land being established by the Gouldings was interesting to us. My kids were intrigued by the early settlers and how they worked with the Indians of the region. This is a cool place to stay while in this area.
The View (Please note: The View will only serve their own guests after 7 pm!)– We wanted to eat at the View and look out at their fabulous view of Monument Valley, but when we arrived after 7 pm for dinner we were informed that they only serve guests who are staying at their lodge after 7 pm??! We were staying at Gouldings, the other lodge in town and so we returned and ate there. What a strange limitation. Be warned!
Gouldings Restaurant for dinner and breakfast – We ate one dinner and one breakfast while we were guests at a cabin at Gouldings. We really appreciated the service we had while dining here. We tried some of the Navajo specialties of the restaurant and our Navajo server talked to us about what she ate and liked. We liked the Fry Bread options. At breakfast, there are many good and filling options for kids and adults. The booths have a nice view of the old Trading Post and parts of Monument Valley.
Old Trading Post has a nice little museum and the Gouldings original house upstairs. It is nice, especially for kids to see how they lived. The upstairs house has a lovely, lived-in feeling.
Four Corners and Mesa Verde National Park
Summary – Days/Nights 12 and 13
- In the morning, we drove 1.5 hours to Four Corners on the way to Mesa Verde; Mesa Verde is another hour at most, away.
- At Four Corners, kids loved to put one foot in each of four states (which is a plaque showing a corner of each of the four states which come together in that place) for a photo.
- Four Corners is on Native American land.
- We had booked our next lodging at Far View Lodge which is in Mesa Verde National Park. We were going to stay one night, but changed it to two.
- The best way to see the cliff dwellings in the park are on ranger lead tours. You can book Ranger lead tours of Cliff Palace, Balcony House and Long House once you arrive at the Visitors Center at the park. You can only book in person once you are there, one to two days in advance.
- We spent nights 12 and 13 at Mesa Verde in the Far View Lodge in the park. We booked dinner in advance for one of the nights at the lodge at Metate, which is the nicest dinner option.
- The Scenic Route back towards Durango starts North of Cortez
Mesa Verde National Park was quite a shock coming from Zion and Bryce Parks. I would estimate that about 80% of Mesa Verde has been burned in fires in the past 20 years. The types of trees that grow in the park will take hundreds of years to grow back. So, as you drive through the park, it can feel quite desolate. There are many burned out sections in which the trees are empty and stark. The reason to go is to see the cliff dwellings in the rocks.
Far View Lodge in the National Park – We stayed at the Far View Lodge for two nights while enjoying Mesa Verde Park. It was nice to be able to book ranger-lead tours a day in advance at the main cliff dwellings and still have time to relax and see the museum, stores and some of the hikes along the road. Our room was a hotel room, but since one door opened onto a balcony and the front door opened to our parked car, we were able to get the most wonderful full open breezes and blasts of air. The lodge is in wind swept country on the top of a hill and contrary to other national parks it does not feel crowded at all. The lodge has three dining options: Terrace is cafeteria style and we ate breakfast at the buffet there every morning. The Lounge upstairs had burgers and other options, but it was very slow. Metate is upscale dining and very nice, but also very slow. We enjoyed our stay and would stay in the park again.
Cliff Palace (Ranger lead tour) – This was my favorite tour and we did it first. We learned how corn, beans and other crops changed the Pueblo Indians to become more sedentary and start settling down. They built the houses. We learned about all the structures and the mystery of what Cliff Palace might be. It is not residential, so it is not clear what it was used for. All of this knowledge was useful for the other tours. I recommend Cliff Palace first since it is the most majestic and then you have the background for the other tours.
Balcony House – This was my least favorite tour. It has the longest climb and the ranger had the least to say about the building and its contents. It was the spiritual house, supposedly so there could have been much to say about it. Our kids liked climbing all of the tree limb ladders to get up and around the balcony house, which is the highest and steepest of the dwellings we toured.
Long House – I liked Long House except for the long walk to it in the desolate forest. The park used to provide a tour bus to drive from the end of the road to the long house, but that has been discontinued, so the tour includes a long hike down to the dwelling. It is about a mile to 1.5 miles. It’s quite desolate country, so it can look beautiful or empty. We saw some wild horses on our walk, which was interesting. Long house includes some of the oldest dwellings and you can see the old soot on the ceiling from older fires. There are many tools and rocks from the inhabitants cooking which were interesting. It is a large, long set of houses and the hiking between dwellings is easier than in balcony house.
Meals at Metate – Good food, very slow service. The food at Metate was the best of the three restaurants at Mesa Verde, but the service is very slow. They serve some of the same food at the grill in the lodge at Far View, but the service is also incredibly slow there, as well.
Terrace for Breakfast – Great breakfast buffet. We ate at this breakfast buffet each morning and enjoyed the options there. The kids had eggs and cereals and I liked having oatmeal options. We found that it closed earlier than we would have wanted (9 or 10 am, I believe) and we were always getting there as they were taking some of the food away from the buffet.
Back to Durango, the Silverton Railroad and Ouray, CO
Summary – Day and Night 14
- We originally were going to spend our last two days in Durango and end with a historic steam train ride in the mountains, but fires shut the train down, so we spent our last day in Ouray and our last night in Durango rather than two days.
- We booked lodging at the Strater Hotel in Durango for our last night
Here is information about the Durango to Silverton steam train, which we didn’t ride due to fires in the Summer of 2018. The steam engine RR experience through the mountains is “stunning”. It is a full day experience. You leave in the morning from the town of Durango and ride to Silverton. You return in the evening. There are a variety of train cars and types of seating available, which is summarized on their website. Their customer service people are very helpful when making your reservation, if you need more information about the types of seating, food and viewing available. I made a reservation for four for a Rio Grande open gondola car with seating on the left side both ways for our trip because apparently, the views are different on the two trips. The details for our trip were we were expected for a 9 am arrival for 9:30 am departure our of Durango and in Silverton, it was a 3 pm return getting back to Durango at 6:30 pm. For the kids the return trip views “can be scary” but it is the “best scenery in CO”.
Our railway trip was cancelled due to fires, so on our last day, we drove north from Mesa Verde to Ridgway and down highway 550 for lunch and ice cream in Ouray, Colorado. Ouray is like finding a small Swiss town in the middle of the Colorado mountains. It is filled with trendy shops and restaurants, none of them are large or from chains and most of them seem healthier and outdoor-life oriented. It has a slightly European feel and it is surrounded by mountains and cool, clean air.
Ouray Brewery for lunch – We liked the order process in which you order at the roof top bar. There are a number of overly friendly people talking to you about the options and specials and you feel like family. They have many drink and beer options. After ordering, we enjoyed hanging out in their rooftop garden seating as they or we brought our lunch stuff to our table. We had nice views of the mountains and town. Good, easy-going, but on the healthy side, food. I liked my falafel sandwich and everyone else liked their sandwiches.
Mouse for ice cream – After lunch at the brewery, we went across the street for ice cream and handmade chocolates. We each got a double at Mouse. They had interesting handmade flavors and it was more than our kids could eat.
From Ouray, we drove back to Durango with a police escort at times to get through the fire damaged areas, which were dramatic, closer to the road and sad to see. We stayed again at the Strater Hotel, which I have covered previously. From Durango, we flew home on day 15.
Any one of these National Parks is wonderful to see and seeing a number of them in a loop is a real treat. Most of the ones we visited are part of the Grand Staircase of rock formations which end at the Grand Canyon… that will be a park for another trip!