Topped in fame by the Grand Canyon, our self-drive itinerary combines the bright lights of Las Vegas and San Francisco with the iconic landscapes of the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Zion, Bryce, Death Valley and Yosemite.
Las Vegas, a popular nonstop gateway to the best of the west, induces the same sort of extreme opinions as Marmite. But love it or loathe It, you will certainly be overwhelmed by the sight of this incandescent oasis in the middle of the desert. The Strip beckons, not just for its casinos but its whacky, over the top parade of buildings, an Eiffel Tower one minute, Venice Grand Canal (complete with gondoliers) the next.
Even if you don’t gamble a cent (although why not at least have a modest punt, just to get into the spirit of the place), you can enjoy first class shows such as Cirque du Soleil and the Blue Man Group, dine at Michelin starred restaurants and watch the performing fountains choreographed to music in front of the Bellagio Hotel before indulging in its sumptuous, famous buffet.
Stay: 3 nights at Bellagio
The Grand Canyon
If Oscars were to be awarded for world’s most spectacular scenic showcase it would surely go to the Grand Canyon. ‘It is the one great sight’, said Theodore Roosevelt, ‘that every American should see.’ The whole world, too; of the five million visitors a year, a quarter come from abroad. That first encounter, when you peer over the edge of what represents the entire history of the world, quickens the pulse, pumps the adrenaline and lubricates the palms. The scale is unimaginable, only really registering when you catch a glimpse of the thin, silvery jade streak of the Colorado River a mile down below.
Visitors staying overnight, aside from enjoying the Canyon without the day tripping crowds, will also experience two, trooping of the colours parades, one at dusk and one at dawn.
Stay: 2 nights at El Tovar.
The landscapes, of steep-sided ‘buttes’, some 100 feet high, rising up from the plateau, have been a familiar backdrop to John Ford’s and other Hollywood westerns. In fact the images have become almost synonymous with the ‘wild west’.
But however many times you may have seen in on the screen, nothing can prepare you for the impact of a first hand encounter. Be sure to take the 17 mile scenic loop drive through Navajo tribal lands.
Stay: 1 night at Gouldings Lodge – The View Hotel
Two national parks, Arches and Canyonlands, are located almost next to each other within easy reach of the town of Moab, which makes the best place to be based for exploring both. Arches is relatively small, its most scenic drive taking you through past several of its spectacle arch rock formations. Canyonlands, by contrast, is huge.
Stay: 3 nights at Sorrell River Ranch
Bryce Canyon National Park is a surreal place where the twin impact of water and wind over millions of years of freezing and thawing have carved natural amphitheatres and distinctive red rock pillars, called ‘hoodoos’, narrow bridges and other geological formations noted for their brilliant colour, especially the pinks and oranges which are particularly vibrant at dawn and dusk. A view of Bryce under a full moon is an experience you will never forget. Bryce is also one of the best places in the nation for stargazing because of its pristine air and lack of surrounding development.
Stay: 2 nights at The Lodge at Bryce Canyon
Zion National Park
Carved by water and time, Zion National Park’s canyons and mesas boast an especially exquisite beauty. Breathtaking Zion Canyon is the centerpiece of this 147,000-acre parkland that protects a spectacular landscape of high plateaux, sheer canyons, and monolithic cliffs.
Opportunities to see and explore Zion National Park abound for people of all ages and abilities, from the scenic byways that slice through the park to the trails that wind through the backcountry. Wildlife watchers can stop at numerous lookouts and search the sky for Zion’s more than 200 bird species, while hikers can strap on their boots and venture out on trails ranging from easy, interpretive nature walks to lengthy, challenging hikes through narrow canyons. Hiking in Zion National Park is major reason why many people visit.
Stay: 2 nights at Zion Lodge
One of the most evocative names in travel. It’s the lowest, driest and hottest area in North America, but with 11,000 feet mountains where snow can blanket the peaks. Its 3.4 million acres support a remarkable 600 species of plant and remarkable wildlife, from sheep to snakes, plus Native American archaeological sites and ancient rock art.
Stay: 1 night at Furnace Creek Inn
Yosemite National Park boasts amazing waterfalls like bridal veils, wildflower meadows carpeting the valley floor, granite monoliths and 3000 foot cliffs and El Capitan, the park’s tallest peak. Take a guided open-top tram tour, rent a bike, hop on the free shuttle bus and hike one of the well signposted trails.
Stay: 2 nights at Teneya lodge
There’s so much to do. Highlights include taking the ferry to Sausalito across the Bay and returning to the city by open topped bus across the Golden Gate Bridge, the prison island of Alcatraz where Al Capone was in residence, riding the cable car up to Nob Hill, exploring the arty, foodie, boutiquey Hayes Valley neighbourhood and visiting the California Academy of Sciences.
You should also plan on eating out in two distinctly different neighbourhoods, Chinatown (the biggest outside Asia) and the distinctly Italian North Beach (where you should also browse in the City Lights bookstore, cultural crucible of the Beat poets).
Stay: 3 nights at Argonaut Hotel
Day 20 – Fly home