The Ultimate Western National Parks Road Trip


Route: Bryce, Utah, to Joshua Tree, California

364 miles

Park: Bryce Canyon

Bryce is known for its high-desert landscape, with towering hoodoos that rise like exclamation points from the amphitheater-like canyon. The park is blessed with a relative abundance of water and a rain-catchment system, which yields an interior full of fir, spruce, and aspen forests. Backpack the 23-mile (one-way) Under the Rim Trail through surprisingly lush meadows, which burst into blue from columbine flowers in late summer. Need to know: Secure a $10 backcountry permit at the visitor center, camp in one of seven designated sites, and arrange a shuttle. There are springs along the trail, but check with the ranger station about water availability before you set out.

Stay: Under Canvas

Perched on 750 acres of high plains, the newest property from this glamping operator is just 15 minutes from the park and located at 7,600 feet of elevation (which means summer temperatures in the seventies and eighties). Each tent has a bathroom, a king-size bed, a wood-burning stove, and views of John’s Valley. From $329

Detour: Vermilion Cliffs National Monument

This underappreciated preserve on the Arizona-Utah border features Zion-quality slot canyons without the throngs. The site’s signature adventure—backpacking Paria Canyon—guarantees solitude: only 20 permits are granted each day. The 38-mile, nontechnical hike follows a riverbed deep into the canyon, delivering you to narrows where rock walls rise 200 feet. You’ll need a four-wheel-drive rig with high clearance to really explore.

Park: Zion

This sandstone stunner is a road cyclist’s dream, starting with the main thoroughfare, Zion Scenic Drive, which is closed to all vehicles except shuttle buses. The real gem is Kolob Terrace Road, a remote two-lane blacktop that traverses the park’s western edge for 25 miles, gaining 5,000 feet of elevation. If you have a gravel bike, you can add on Smith Mesa Road, a hardpack dirt track that forms a 25-mile loop around Smith Mesa. Need to know: Reserve a spot on the park’s free shuttle to explore Zion Scenic Drive.

Adventure: Lake Mohave

You’ve been in the desert for a stretch, and you’re heading into more of it, so a dip in a lake is mandatory. While Lake Mead is the busy backyard pool of Las Vegas, the lesser-known Lake Mohave, farther down the Colorado River, is ideally suited to paddlers. Launch at Willow Beach and head upriver along the Black Canyon National Water Trail to look for quiet coves that reveal hot springs, waterfalls, and caves. If you can, plan your trip for a Sunday or Monday, when motorboats aren’t allowed in certain stretches.

Stay: Zion Spirit

This wilderness retreat, recently opened on 1,100 acres in the Clear Creek Mountains, is just a mile from Zion’s eastern border. It’s outfitted with 40 suites and small cabins, all of which focus on sustainability—think solar-paneled roofs shaped like leaves—and each cabin has a wellness studio and wraparound terrace. Other amenities include a restaurant, a pool, and an aquaponics greenhouse. From $3,000

Eat and Drink: River Rock Roasting Company

This café in the tiny town of La Verkin might have the best coffee and most enviable views in southern Utah. Seek out a spot on the patio—it overlooks a basalt canyon carved by the Virgin River—and enjoy a morning breakfast burrito, then come back at night for a pint and a kale and sausage pizza.

Park: Joshua Tree

There are plenty of remote stretches you can reach by foot in this nearly 800,000-acre park, but triple-digit temperatures in the summer make any big adventure foolish at best, deadly at worst. The solution? Go underground and check out a handful of small caves and rock shelters that few visitors know about. Most dramatic is a quarter-mile passageway called Chasm of Doom. Technical climbing gear isn’t required, but you’ll be scrambling into cathedral-like rooms and squeezing through narrow corridors, so come mentally prepared. Need to know: Even if you’re hanging out in a cave, heat is no joke. Bring lots of water and, for the dark, a headlamp.

Stay: The Bungalows

Embrace the desert landscape at these new digs on the 152-acre campus of the Joshua Tree Retreat Center, designed by the late architect Lloyd Wright (who was almost as accomplished as his dad, Frank). The 14 rooms are decked out in mid-century modern furnishings, and the grounds feature hiking trails, a pool, and enough wellness activities to satisfy your inner yogi. It’s all just three miles from Joshua Tree’s entrance and village. From $250

Eat and Drink: Sam’s Indian Food and Pizza

The gateway town of Joshua Tree buzzes with an eclectic dining and cocktail scene, thanks to its proximity to Los Angeles. A Sam’s, you can get authentic chicken tikka masala and a curry pizza. After dinner, head to the Restaurant at 29 Palms Inn, where you can drink prickly pear margaritas by the pool.