Updated: Jun 10
The beautiful colors of the South West are permanently impressed in my memory. I planned this trip for close to two years obsessively. And I'm glad I did. It was worth all of the reading and researching. Sandstone buttes, the Colorado River, red rock canyons with wind erosion sweeping through leaving designs that are as unique as snowflakes on the land - this is my favorite part of it all. I knew the Grand Canyon would be grand! I knew we'd be impressed by the massiveness but I had no idea how deeply leveled and intricately placed it all fits together. This was not just a family vacation. We felt like we visited another planet! And since we've been home each of my children have many times referenced how amazing the entire experience was. I started planning this trip with the thought that I could not afford to do it right - and boy did I prove my doubts wrong. I want to help you feel the same way, that anything is possible and the world is a beautiful place for you to explore with your loved ones!
As I share this trip schedule, I want to emphasize that this was created for a family who enjoys the high paced adventure mode. My kids are older (14 - 24 at the time of travel), it squeezes a lot in, and also gets the most experiences in the least amount of time. I could have easily spent three days at each stop. Every place was full of options and I did as much research as I could to ensure ALL of the main things we wanted to accomplish would be possible.
My main objectives were:
*See both the North and South rim of the Grand Canyon
*Explore some cultural Native American lands
*Gain an appreciation of the history and land of the Arizona/ Utah area
*Drive to California and spend a week with our cousins in Hemet
* Drive up to Santa Maria and spend a few days with our family friend.
Originally we were staying at an Air B&B with another family. We mapped out a daily itinerary and realized a few cons in our plan: TOO much drive time in between. So we began modifying to stay in more specific locations to cut down on drive time - and everything we read warned against driving after dark unless you know the area.
Once I knew we were going to circle the Grand Canyon, and sleep in a different location every night I looked at each pit stop. Since it is so spread out, I wanted to enjoy the whole area. The hardest part is finding good lodging on the South Rim so I started with that, and worked the trip around those accommodations. I heard from so many people not to go out there without seeing both Bryce and Zion. I took those recommendations to heart and I am SO GLAD we did. We only flew into Vegas because it was the cheapest air fare and car deal, but truly I’d have spent another night there if my time (and budget) wasn’t starting to extend so much. If possible I'd have flown in at an earlier time to spend a day in Vegas. After a night in the Luxor, we drove from Vegas to Bryce (just over 4 hours), which seems like a really long ride when there was much in between -but really I wanted the flow from Bryce to the other destinations to flow smoothly. So it was smart; Long drive, but great plan. The drive was scenic and exciting - everything was new! We passed through St. George and got gas and tacos. We stopped to see this awesome winding brook we were following, and then stopped again for a random snowball fight on the side of a mountain in 65 degree weather! Fun drive to Bryce!! Our log cabin in Bryce really set the tone of our trip. All of the kids were 100% sold on enjoying this excursion. Bryce was breathtaking. Literally. It's a steep hike! We loved everything about this park. We did several hikes which will be posted in detail below. The ride from Bryce to Zion takes you through the Mt. Carmel Junction, which is some really fun driving. There are buffalo and wild horses along the road. Driving through the tunnel was a trip highlight. The extreme views out the look out windows make for a dramatic ride and appreciation of the beautiful world!
Zion! We didn't want to leave Zion. When we finally managed to tear ourselves away we were driving down into the North Rim, and literally watched as the terrain changed and the world became a different place. From there we drove to Page, and had the most amazing Slot Canyon tour. Page is a pit stop that offers so much to do. Next day we went through the Navajo National Monument and had a tour through Monument Valley. Talk about a day of cultural appreciation! This was another huge impression. Again, we did not want to leave. By this point we were sure we needed to pack our bag and stay forever in this new land we just discovered. But the final stop of this first part of our journey was the Grand Canyon, and the South Rim was waiting. That was the only way we were able to leave - headed off to another awesome stop ahead.
Driving from the Grand Canyon to Hemet in one day was a long drive, so I planned the pit stop at the Joshua Tree National Park as a good get out of the car and stretch break. The ride was long and scenic and we greatly enjoyed it. "This Land is Your Land" has a reference to a "ribbon of highway" and wow, there was a perfect example of just that. What a beautiful road. For much of the ride we watched long trains spanning miles and laughed about the songs on the radio. One theme of this trip was "Life is a Highway" and a very scenic drive at that. (Yes we sing in the car) But all of these factors helped me to create a blueprint for what I needed from this trip and timing.
We have visited California before, so the places I chose for this trip were considering we’ve seen the Hollywood Stars, San Diego Zoo, and done some of those touristy things. Even though we’d been at La Jolla before I could not miss that. I’d go there every day to see the seals on the shore if I was close enough. I will share our previous trip itinerary and pros and cons in another blog post.
Below is the breakdown of what our days looked like. I will dive into each day individually to give more specifics on eating and lodging, and share any other info that may be helpful for planning families. I will say, my kids are older and very active. This is a fast paced itinerary and was perfect for us. I will give my pros and cons and honest reviews of each activity, but I do absolutely think this schedule works, and gives a great quality appreciation of the area and God's work in that part of the Country.
You will also see in the itinerary planned “down days”. This is the real schedule we followed, but feel free to remove or add down days as your family desires. In these areas, there are many things in the vicinity to do if you want to get out and explore! Or if you need to add down days,feel free! These are merely what worked for us. Our down days were intentional so that we could just enjoy the family we were visiting.
Some things to purchase in advance:
America the Beautiful Parks Pass – Cost $80.00
Pays for itself twice on this trip! Many parks have a $30.00 or $35.00 car fee, this pass allows unlimited access for the year to all National Parks.
Plane tickets – we flew there on South West, and returned on Jet Blue, this return flight was awesome and had great movies! I specifically searched for the most affordable non stop flight in the best interest of quality time. I did not opt to sit together or pick our own seats as my children are older now. I booked flights that included a carry on and 1 checked bag. I was more focused on the times and prices of flights than the airline.
Fox rental car - What you need to know: Fox is NOT on the airport grounds like other companies that may be more convenient because they are closer. But they are not far and there is a free shuttle to take you to their locations outside the airport. Their cars are well kept and less expensive than competitors.
Booking.com – I was able to get hotel discounts using this site. I did look for the cheapest options. My first preference was location – to save time and energy. I was a bit particular with WHERE we would stay, since many of these destinations are spread apart already I did not want to drive unnecessarily. Plus considering more money on gas vs hotel savings. Also, it is strongly recommend NOT driving in the dark as areas are not well lit and the roads are tricky. This is something I have to agree with. I like to drive, but these roads have a lot of wild life, and high speed limits. Even in the day light I was amazed at how the animals live so close to the edge of traffic. Driving as little as possible or not at all after dark was priority. With Booking, some hotels had to be paid in advance, and others were paid for on check in. This helped me budget because things paid in advance were already off my radar for things to do/ get for the day. This helped in my planning immensely.
Fixed Costs: Add up all of the balances that will be due for unpaid hotels and rental car (including deposit) and transfer that into a separate account/ credit card. Those are fixed costs. You can plan ahead for them.
Credit cards: If you get cash back on purchases, you may want to use that account (card) for the biggest/ majority of costs. You may also want to factor in a daily gas budget or food budget, transfer funds and swipe that card. But all of your expected expenses, that must be reserved for the necessities should not be available for other spending in the event that you accidentally spend more than expected in another place.
Separate: Keep the necessity fund separate from the fun fund!
Click through the days below to get a detailed description of each day’s itinerary, events, costs, pros and cons.
Our Southwest Itinerary
Day 1: Fly into Las Vegas Nevada – rent car – sight see
Day 2: Drive from Vegas to Bryce – Bryce hike
Day 3: Drive from Bryce to Zion on Mt. Carmel Hywy – Zion
Day 4: North Rim, Page, Water Hole Canyon Tour
Day 5: Navajo National Monument, Monument Valley
Day 6: Drive to South Rim Grand Canyon – Stop at Cameron Trading Post for lunch, Hike rim trail
Day 7: Grand Canyon morning hike, Drive to Hemet Ca, Stop at Joshua Tree National Park
Our California Itinerary: All Days HERE
Day 1: Down time/ laundry and food shopping Family Time Hemet California!
Day 2: Wine tasting in Temecula, Mom’s night out! Gaslamp San Diego
Day 3: Down Day – BBQ/ pool time
Day 4: Family Day in San Diego: Balboa Park, Spruce Street Suspension Bridge, La Jolla
Day 5: Mall, shopping in area
Day 6: Coronado Beach, Point Loma, Sunset Cliffs
Day 7: Down day
Day 8: Los Angeles Day: The Cathedral of our Lady of the Angels, Venice Beach, Santa Monica Pier, Drove to Santa Maria
Day 9: Family Day in Santa Maria! Food shopping, home cooking, s’mores in fire pit, ice cream
Day 10: Down Day
Day 11: Neverland Drive by, Santa Barbara drive through, Magic Mountain Amusement Park Los Angeles
Day 12: Pismo Pier, Avila Beach, Morro Bay
Day 13: Drive to Los Angeles to fly home!
If you are really looking for details, I hope you click through each day's journal above.
Our family favorites even a year later are: the Water Hole Canyon tour, and the Monument Valley Tour. These were the more costly things so I share this for budgeting purposes.
In Vegas we enjoyed walking around, and would have loved to have had more time to walk and sight see. The car rental and Luxor check in slowed us down A LOT.
Bryce Hikes: Rim trail up to Inspiration Point and Bryce Point were great at Sunset.
Early the next morning we hikes the Mossy Cave and Waterfall which was very close to our Cabin. This was so much fun, not too hot, and not crowded at all. Afterwards we hiked down/ up to the Queens Garden Trail which is much more work! I wanted to get closer to the hoodoos and this gave us some closer views. But the sun was directly overhead, crowd's were pretty thick, and I was running out of breath!
Zion Hikes: We took the Zion Express bus to the last stop hopping to enjoy the Narrows - however the rushing water created a safety concern and this hike was closed. We still wanted to "go see" so we took the Hanging Garden's Tail and Temple of Sinewa route. These were prefect and gave us lot's of views, climbs, and cool opportunities to enjoy being there. Just being ! Afterwards because it is sunlight for so long we did the Emerald Pools hike, which gave us great water falls and mist! I highly recommend all of these.
Northern Rim: We of course wanted to go to the highest view point so we made our way up to 8800 feet at Point Imperial. This is a great place to eat some sandwiches and take in the amazing landscape! With a view of the Painted Dessert below this picnic spot will not be forgotten. We did a short rim hike at the Visitor's Center as well before headed out to Page. We enjoyed the Kaibob National Forest surrounding the North Rim and really giving that remote location feeling.
Page: A great little town with everything you need! Less touristy, but still "vacationy". Great places to shop and eat. We LOVED Horseshoe Canyon and were glad to be there first thing in the morning before the crowd's hit. We REALLY LOVED Water Holes Canyon. This is also home of Antelope Canyon, another slot canyon available to tour. We chose Water Holes due to it being much less busy. I felt the crowds would take away from the experience. At Water Hole Canyon Jason was very knowledgeable, as he lived on the Navajo Reservation and shared lots of hisotry with us, plus it was just my family of 5 and two other people on the tour. So we had lots of time and pictures. I just felt in a crowd we may not be able to get that full experience. Glen Canyon: We did not have time to go to Hoover Dam as we left Vegas for Bryce, so the Glen Dam was our consolation. It was a quick stop for a really awesome engineering feat.
The Navajo Reservation: YES! So much history and culture. We went to the Navajo Monument and Visitor Center which is FULL of interesting artifacts and relevance. Fun way to leave the country! Betatakin was also well worth the short hike to the view point of the native cliff dwelling. All of the Anasazi/ Hopi references make this whole trip feel significant.
Monument Valley: I was REALLY looking forward to this! We chose Native Spirit Guides to be our tour guide because of some friends who suggested - and good thing. Certain areas of Monument Valley you must have an initiated Navajo guide to explore, and that is just what "Larry" our guide was. Going into the sacred spaces and hearing the explanations of all we were seeing was priceless value. Driving through on our own would not have come close to the quality time we had out there with Larry.
South Rim: The Grand Canyon. The full experience of a crowd all ready to hike, learn, explore and discover. We stuck to mostly rim trails and found the perfect little rock cliff to catch the sun set. We enjoyed moose and elk. We studied geology and time. We discussed rock and evolution. True family fun !
Joshua Tree National Park: What a great place to climb! It was hot! Hotter than I'd imagined. But the climbing was much appreciated after the 6 hours in the car to get there. We still had another hour and a half to get to Hemet our next location. Luckily there was an In and Our Burger on the way and we were all super happy about all our discoveries.
San Diego: Balboa Park, The Spruce Street Suspension Bridge, La Jolla, Coronado, the Gas Lamp... and more! Oh how we loved spending a few days in San Diego!
Pismo Pier: A windy and gorgeous cliff beach where the powerful Pacific Ocean will impress you. We liked walking out on the pier and watching the surfers below!
Magic Mountain: Fast paced roller coasters! Yay! Fun!! High speed excitement and some really cool theme park fun.
Los Angeles: Venice Beach, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, and the Getty Center. Who doesn't love all the art and music along the Venice Beach strip? We bought some tee shirts and watched the skate boarders before climbing some of the ropes and obstacles and making our way down to the water. We had a REALLY cool experience at the Cathedral (which is much like an art gallery).
Avila Beach - This whole little beach on the side of a mountain is scenic, quaint and unique. It was a very windy day, and we loved watching the surfers. Walking out on the pier as it swayed in the breeze was a bit scary! We hoped to whale watch, we coudn't see anything with the wind whipping!
Morro Bay - This feels like a fisherman's town. With huge mansions on the cliffs and lots of shops along the water line, a great place to watch the seals and otters playing! How fun!!! We also just enjoyed the neighborhood. Pretty area to sight see.
These are most of our stops along this trip. The detailed reviews are in the daily journals above. Thank you for sharing the journey with us and where ever you travel may each road be blessed!
This is a beautiful World we get to live in to wander and explore - may all your journey's be a success!
~ Mz. Savvy