Zion National Park

Zion National Park

Visit the Grand Circle on a Budget

September 15, 2011, 1:48 pm

Fall is the perfect time to explore the Grand Circle on a budget

Labor Day marks the end of summer and the beginning of one of the most desirable times to travel. With the peak travel season coming to an end, the crowds at our national parks begin to thin, room rates begin to drop and the colors of the leaves become an attraction just as grand as our country's mountains, valleys and streams. The most noticeable change is the temperature, especially in the Southwest, when the days are shorter and no longer hit the triple digits. It's the best time of year to visit the Canyon Country and the Grand Circle.

For the uninitiated, the Grand Circle is the vast region located in the Southwestern United States. Comprising parts of five states—Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Nevada—the Grand Circle contains America’s largest concentration of national parks and monuments, connected by a series of extraordinary designated Scenic Byways.

These areas boast some of America’s most diverse and impressive scenery. Places like the Grand Canyon, Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon, Lake Powell and Arches National Park all help to make this one of the most beautiful places in the world. You’ll be inspired by the vivid splashes of color, desert flora and fauna, and the mysterious remnants of cultures that had a great respect for this rugged, yet beautiful land. 

Day 1: Williams, AZ and Grand Canyon by Train

The Grand Circle covers thousands of miles, but you can explore it in sections. Start your journey in Williams, Arizona (named after William "Old Bill" Williams, a mountain man and trader who often trapped in the area) and take the Grand Canyon Railway to Grand Canyon Village. The train departs daily at 9:30 a.m., winding through some of the country's most beautiful terrain as it travels north for the two-hour ride. Once you reach the canyon, walk along the Rim Trail, quietly soaking up your first awe-inspiring view of one of the most remarkable natural landscapes that the world has to offer. People come from all over the world to see the inner canyon, and you'll know why as soon as you get there. Cliché as it may be, it's something that needs to be experienced, as describing it on paper wouldn't give it justice. The trail is accessible from any viewpoint in The Village or the newly improved Hermit Road, which boasts some of the best views of the canyon.

All that jaw-dropping is going to make you hungry, so head over to the Bright Angel Lodge, a stunning structure designed in 1935 by famed architect Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter. Located just a few steps from the rim of the canyon, you can have lunch at the Arizona Room, where the dress is casual, the margaritas are cold, and the list of sandwiches and Southwest-inspired specialties is long.

When you're finished with lunch, head over to the Grand Canyon Visitor Center, located on the South Rim by Mather Point, and stop in the Books and More Bookstore before heading inside to watch The Grand Canyon: A Journey of Wonder. The film is twenty minutes long and starts on every hour and half hour. From the theatre, hop on the free shuttle bus to the Yavapai Geology Museum where three-dimensional models, photographs, and other various exhibits will teach you about the complicated geologic history of the mighty Grand Canyon. When you consider yourself an expert, head back to the train for the 3:30 p.m. departure and reflect on the day as you ride back to Williams. The vintage behemoth of a train made its first journey to the South Rim in 1901, and while you're aboard, the crew will share their extensive knowledge of the area's history while strolling musicians play the popular songs of the region's yesteryears.

Throw on your leather jacket and comb back your hair before heading to Cruiser's Cafe 66. The 50s-inspired diner offers classic American fare like brisket sandwiches, cheeseburgers and club sandwiches.

Walk off the french fries and take an evening stroll a few blocks west to the Americas Best Value Inn of Williams. The hotel boasts spacious rooms, a heated outdoor pool and hot tub, and a free breakfast every morning in the lobby. And if you decided to bring your pet along for the ride, the property has you covered. The hotel is completely pet friendly. The beds are comfortable, a good thing since you’ll need your sleep… there’s a lot more to see tomorrow.

Day 2: Exploring the Grand Canyon

Rise and shine! Hop in your car and drive north on Arizona 64 for just over an hour until you reach the South Rim. Today you'll visit the Tusayan Ruins and Museum, an 800-year-old Pueblo Indian site located in the park on Desert View Drive. The site consists of a small pueblo with a living area, storage rooms, and a kiva, a room used by Puebloans for religious rituals. Studies have indicated that the site was occupied for around 20 years, beginning in 1185. Take the free ranger-led tour or purchase an educational book at the museum's bookstore so you can walk through the ruins by yourself.

Continue along the Desert View Drive, which runs for 25 miles along the South Rim, to the Desert View Area. Grab some food at the marketplace, then drive back to one of the four picnic areas along the route and eat lunch. Because of its views, the Buggeln Picnic Area—named after Martin Buggeln, whose ranch was the last private property to be included in the park—is one of the most popular places in the park.

After lunch, check out Yaki Point, the only viewpoint on Desert View Drive that is not accessible with a private vehicle. Located at an elevation of 7,262 feet, you can reach it by the free Kaibab Rim Route Shuttle Bus that departs from the Grand Canyon Visitor Center.

Dining options in the park are varied. Treat yourself tonight and head to the El Tovar Dining Room, located in the El Tovar Hotel, one of many architectural gems in the park. Reservations are recommended, especially around dusk, when you can watch the sun set below the canyon rim from one of the many window-side tables. The food is a perfect complement to the backdrop and you can sleep easier knowing that it only serves sustainable items like Mustard Rosemary Prime Rib of Beef and Blackened Wild Salmon, which is certified by the Marine Stewardship Council. If you have room for dessert, the chocolate taco is memorable, but there's nothing quite like heading back to your campsite to make s'mores.

There's no nature experience quite like sleeping under the stars. After dinner, make your way to Mather Campground, located in Grand Canyon Village. Located at an elevation of 7,000 feet above sea level, Mather offers 317 campsites, welcoming both tent and RV camping. During the summer, this campground is booked every night. This site is only steps from the South Rim and is extremely popular year round. Remember to book a reservation, which is available five months in advance. The temperature fluctuates dramatically at this elevation and it gets chilly at night. A 30° or 40° sleeping bag and a three-season tent should be perfect for this time of year. If you aren’t outfitted before you leave, always check with an experienced sales person at an outdoor retailer and explain the type of trip you'll be taking so he/she can suggest the proper gear.

Now to the s'mores. Before you make a fire in one of the campsite grills (and who doesn't want to make a fire while they're camping?), head to the general store to purchase marshmallows, graham crackers and chocolate (dark is healthier). You’ll also need to buy firewood… gathering the wood from the park is strictly forbidden. Tired of the original recipe? Here are some new twists on the old favorite. Sweet dreams.

Day 3: Zion, St. George and Springdale

After you've woken up and taken down your tent, load up the car and start heading toward Zion National Park, another of America's most breathtaking landscapes. Drive leisurely on U.S. Highway 89—known as the National Park Highway because it passes seven national parks—which takes about 4.5 hours from park to park. The road weaves through the Navajo Nation and the Kaibab National Forest, which was “set aside for the protection of game animals and birds," and is "to be recognized as a breeding place therefore" by Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. Thanks to Teddy’s foresight, this area still teems with wildlife. Whitetail deer, mule deer, elk, antelope, turkey and coyote are quite common.

Mountain lions, bobcats, and black bears are considerably rarer; they’ll see you, but it’s unlikely you’ll see them. The rarest and most special creature in the area is the Kaibab Squirrel, a tassel-eared squirrel that is endemic to this area and exists nowhere else in the world. Its habitat is confined entirely to a small area of the ponderosa pine forests of the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park and the northern area of Kaibab National Forest. In 1965, 200,000 acres within the ecosystem were designated as the Kaibab Squirrel National Natural Landmark, which is the best place to see these endangered creatures. Remember to drive safely and watch out for wildlife.

Before going to Zion, take a detour to St .George, Utah where you can fill your cooler at one of the many grocery stores. Take a stroll along the Water Walk, a memorial that wanders through old irrigation lakes and parks in the town's main square. The Water Walk begins at the northern most end of Main Street with the creation of the Brooks Nature Park and Cox Pond. The Cox Pond, located on the east side of the street, was created in the 1900s as an irrigation pond that supplied water to residents and businesses in the downtown area and made a great swimming hole on hot summer days. The focal point of the Water Walk can be found just north of the existing St. George Social Hall at the Pioneer Center for the Arts.

When you arrive in Springdale, Utah, make a quick stop at Cafe Soleil. You'll need some added energy upon arriving at the park for your afternoon hike. When you've finished your meal, drive into Zion and head to Angels Landing, the park's iconic 1,208-foot tall rock formation. A 2.5-mile trail, cut into the rock in 1926, leads to the top of Angels Landing and provides a spectacular view of the park. If you can't make it the whole way up, the views from most of the trail are just as inspiring.

For dinner, treat yourself to Springdale's Whiptail Grill, located on Zion Park Boulevard. The service and staff are friendly and the entrees are reasonably prices. The Whiptail Grill offers Mexican-inspired classics like Chipotle Chicken Enchiladas, Fish Tacos, and for  vegetarians, a Spaghetti Squash and Goat Cheese Enchilada. And when you're full from the Chocolate Peanut Butter Habanero Crème Brulee—and yes, you read that correctly—you can head back to the Zion Lodge for the night, the only in-park lodging at Zion. Designed by renowned park architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood in the 1920s, the lodge was quickly rebuilt that same year to accommodate the influx of visitors, but wasn’t restored to its original appearance until 1990. The Zion Lodge is very popular, so book rooms as far in advance as possible. No pets are allowed, so if you are traveling with your pooch, you’ll need to stay at one of the many pet-friendly properties in Springdale.

Day 4: Zion and Bryce Canyon

Wake up early and drive to Checkerboard Mesa, one of the park's most recognizable landmarks. The orange, brown and white slickrock towers 900 feet above the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway and resembles a giant, extended checkerboard. The scratches that run from left to right are caused by a north to south wind direction while the vertical cracks are a result of a cycle of freezing and thawing. The park is still continuously changing, and one day, the massive monoliths will eventually break down and once again become great dunes of sand.

From Checkerboard Mesa, head northeast for a little over two hours toward Bryce Canyon National Park. When you're getting close to Bryce, make sure to pull over and see Red Canyon, a forested area with 60-million-year-old dark red rock castles protruding up from the sand. The area, which is within Dixie National Forest, features an extensive and well-maintained trail system that provides something for everyone. For a nice stretch, keep your eyes open for The Bird's Eye Trail, a moderate 0.8-mile hike offering spectacular close-up views of the geologic formations.

When you reach Bryce Valley, check in at the Americas Best Value Inn Bryce Canyon. The hotel is pet-friendly and features new executive and junior suites, as well as newly renovated deluxe and standard rooms. The property offers a home away from home with standard amenities such as cable TV, high-speed Internet and a coffeemaker. And if you're dusty from the hike, the hotel has a 24-hour Laundromat on property as well. After you've checked in, stop by the onsite grocery/convenience store, where you can pick up everything you need to have lunch and dinner in the park.

On your way into Bryce Canyon National Park, make sure to stop at the visitor center where you can explore the park's museum and bookstore. You can also watch Shadows of Time, a 20-minute film about the park that plays on the hour and half hour throughout the day. When the movie is over, drive to Rainbow Point, located at the southern end of the park, and take in one of the best views in Utah. Don't forget that lunch you packed as you'll want to have a picnic as you're taking in the scenery.

When you're done with lunch, hike to the southern overlook of Rainbow Point, Yovimpa Point, where you can get a good look at the Grand Staircase, layers of rock that are named after each cliff's dominant color. At Yovimpa Point, you are standing on the top step known as the Pink Cliffs and directly below you are the Grey Cliffs. In the distance is Molly's Nipple, part of the White Cliffs, and even further are the Vermilion and Chocolate Cliffs. At the horizon, you can see the tree-covered hills that make up the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.

When you're done soaking up all the different colors, bring your cooler to Sunset Campground and have a cookout and watch the sunset. Make sure to check in with the host before you start cooking, as the picnic areas at Sunset Point or the North Campground's general store are usually reserved for people who are spending the night. The campground is located west of Sunset Point, approximately 1.5 miles south of the Bryce Canyon Visitor Center, and is comprised of 100 sites. When the stars start to shine, it's time to pack up and head back to the Americas Best Value Inn to get some sleep before the final day of your Southwest adventure.

Day 5: Exploring Bryce Canyon

When you wake up, head over to the Bryce Canyon Lodge for breakfast. Surrounded by Ponderosa Pine, the restaurant in the lodge was built in the 1930s and is certified green, serving up an environmentally sustainable menu. Finish eating and drive to Sunrise Point, which offers some of the most famous and breathtaking views of the park, including the Claron Formation, primarily composed of limestone deposited approximately 50 million years ago in a large freshwater lake, known to geologists as Lake Claron. Iron oxide minerals supply the vibrant red, oranges, and yellows of the lower half of the cliffs which geologists call the Pink Member.

After you've eaten a little lunch, it's time for Bryce Canyon's Rim Trail, which offers hikers the opportunity to see Bryce from above. The entire trail, which encompasses the park's amphitheater, extends from Fairyland to Bryce Point and has several steep elevation changes. The entire trail, which passes through juniper, manzanita and Douglas fir, is 5.5 miles one way, but can be accessed at several points, one of which, the section between Sunrise and Sunset points, is considered easy with minor elevation changes.

When you've finished your hike, you know what happens next. It's time to go home, so take a few last pictures, flip through old ones, look around one more time, and start planning to do your next section of the Grand Circle.

Happy Trails!