• Heather Vergara

National Park itinerary: Zion, Bryce, Grand Canyon


This Utah Arizona National Parks tour - of Zion, Bryce, Grand Canyon and more - has been my favorite family vacation we’ve taken so far. Why?

  • We saw parts of America we had never seen before (3 states!), and it was all jaw-droppingly beautiful.

  • We were incredibly active almost every day.

  • We challenged ourselves in BIG ways – canyoneering in Zion including a 70ft rappel, hiking in moving water that was up to Ava’s chest at times in The Narrows at Zion, and hiking into the Grand Canyon without falling in.😅

  • Last but not least, we cancelled all plans in Sedona and just relaxed together our last day with no agenda.


We visited in mid-October during Fall Break, which was ideal. Not too crowded, not too hot. Here’s our itinerary including what we loved, what we would do different next time (although it was pretty darn perfect!), and how much the big stuff cost.


Day 1: Fly into Vegas with noon-ish arrival. (Vegas is on Pacific time)

The night before, the kids and I watched Ocean’s 11 to prepare for Vegas, so they were pretty excited to see the Bellagio fountains. We stayed at The Cosmopolitan, a relatively new hotel beside the Bellagio. Hubs gave the check-in agent a tip and asked for a room with a balcony overlooking the fountains. Here's the view from our room - pretty amazing, although you can’t hear the music, so you still need to see the fountains from the Strip.

The Cosmo is hip and more manageable than the mega resorts like Bellagio and MGM. You don’t have to walk for an hour to get anywhere, but it still has excellent amenities including quite a few restaurants, a food court and three pools. We grabbed Hattie B’s Hot Chicken for lunch for the adults and pizza from the secret pizza place for the kids. (The Cosmo has secret nightclubs and restaurants you have to hunt for. Weird but cool). Then we got our swimsuits on and headed for the Chelsea Pool. If you’re young and single, the Marquee Dayclub Pool had a line of partyers waiting to get in, and we could hear the techno music from the other side of the hotel. But we were quite happy on our daybed at The Chelsea Pool. We ordered more food and margaritas and lounged and people-watched while the kids played. There weren’t a lot of families there, but our kids weren’t the only ones.

With the 3-hour time change and a few drinks, hubs and I were ready for a nap once we went inside. Unfortunately, the kids’ nap turned into bedtime for them, and we had to pry them awake. With only one night in Vegas, we wanted the kids to see the Strip after dark. They did not agree, but we forced them up and out the door. We watched the fountains, walked through the Bellagio exhibit, and ate an overpriced dinner at some diner in Caesar’s Palace while the kids whined and slept in our laps. Maybe that before-dinner nap wasn’t the best idea.


Vegas Do-Differents:

🎲 Stay at the Bellagio as I think it would have been more exciting for the kids and probably a more kid-friendly pool.

🎲 No naps before dinner! Stay out and come home early instead!

Day 2: Road trip to Zion - about 3 hours (Utah is on Mountain time)

On the way out of town, we stopped at a grocery store and bought snacks plus bottled water and Gatorades to fill our water bottles every day while hiking. Then we headed toward Zion. Kids were happy with their iPads, I was happy with my book, and Daddy was happy driving with his music on.


We stopped for THE BEST LUNCH with THE BEST VIEW at River Rock Roasters in La Verkin, Utah, which is about 2 hours and 15 minutes from Vegas.

Lunch at River Rock Roasters on the drive from Las Vegas to Zion National Park


The view, the food, and the anticipation of what was to come made this our favorite meal of the whole trip! Do not miss it! The kids devoured their pizza, and I loved my chicken panini. Hubs’ tuna sandwich was just ok but clearly, he ordered poorly. We considered some other stops prior to lunch – Valley of Fire State Park, St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site – but didn’t want to add any extra drive time and didn’t want to spend time in an indoor museum.


We finished our drive to our resort in East Zion, which included driving through Zion National Park – breathtaking but incredibly curvy. 🤢 We stayed at the Zion Ponderosa Ranch Resort because it was on the east side of Zion and a closer drive to Bryce. We were doing both parks, so I thought it would be easiest to stay on that side. The resort has a ton of amenities including some cool options if you’re into camping/glamping. In theory I am, but then I remembered I like bathrooms, so we decided on a 1-bedroom cabin instead. Hubs and I were in a queen bed and the kids were in bunkbeds in our room. The cabin had a kitchenette, table and chairs, a couch with TV, a bathroom, and front porch. Plenty of room for us and all our stuff! We ate dinner at the resort our first night because there’s nothing else around there and took advantage of the free breakfast most mornings. We didn’t have time for their other amenities – pool with slides (looked fun but it was cold!), mini golf (course in very bad shape), ziplining, playground. The resort has an adventure company onsite called East Zion Adventures, which we booked for our canyoneering trip.


Cost: 3 nights in a 1-bedroom cabin at Zion Ponderosa $680

Day 3: Zion and Bryce Canyon. Canyoneering in Zion.

I stole the idea for canyoneering from my longtime friend, Mandy, whom I look to for guidance on all things, especially travel. She said we had to canyoneer, do the Narrows, not do Angels Landing (too dangerous!), and see Bryce. She was right on all counts! When I researched canyoneering, I didn’t even know what it was. For those of you in the same boat, let me illuminate: it’s hiking and rappelling down into the slot canyons. Looking out over the canyon, you’d never know all that is inside until you're at the edge!


I told the kids and hubs about canyoneering and they seemed super excited. I, on the other hand, wasn’t quite sure I could do it. I’m athletic and in shape, but I’m somewhat afraid of heights. Nothing debilitating - I did zipline in Costa Rica, but I did not bungee jump in New Zealand - but I’m not a daredevil because of it. I confirmed with Mandy that she actually canyoneered, because if she could do it, I could do it. And I double-checked with the kids, and they were in. East Zion Adventures say they normally take kids ages 12 and up (Brady was 11 while Ava wasn't quite 8), but that they’ll take younger kids on a case-by-case basis. They basically defer to the parents to assess whether their kids are capable. My kids are careful but not fearful and have no problem indoor rock climbing, so I wasn’t worried about them. However, I was worried about me. But I vowed to be brave in the name of adventure!

Our "before" picture. Pretending I'm not freaked out.


We were supposed to meet our guide at 8am, but she texted the night before to see if we wanted to start a little later given how cold it was going to be in the morning (a chilly 30°F). We agreed to meet at 8:30am despite the cold, because we were trying to hit Bryce in the afternoon that day. We met up that morning, got our gear (helmets and harnesses plus the guides’ bag of ropes), and she drove us out to the canyon, about a 20-minute drive from the resort. We hiked 20 minutes to the slots and got ready for our first rappel, a 12-foot drop into the canyon. The guide got up on the edge and showed us what to do – hold the rope behind your backside as the brake, lead with said backside, and let your legs walk down. Oh dear. 😳


No one wanted to go first. Daddy took one for the team, harnessed in, and got up on the ledge. Once he felt how taut the ropes were, he relaxed and rappelled down. You can’t see the bottom unless you’re on the edge, so we had to take Daddy’s word for it that he made it down. Ava was up next. I actually don’t remember much about her first rappel because Brady started feeling faint watching, and I was attending to him. I have similar issues when anyone talks to me about medical procedures – I blacked out in a bar once when a friend was telling me about her childbirth class – and I guess Brady inherited that gene from me. Oh joy. I was inwardly freaking out about what we would do if he couldn’t recover, because half our family was down in the slot and the other half was still on top. The guide said that once you start, you have to keep going. But I didn’t want to make things worse for Brady, so I kept calm on the outside and didn’t act like it was a big deal that he had his head between his legs sitting on the desert floor. The guide did the same.


Once Ava got down, the guide asked Brady if he was ready to go. He hopped up and gave us a tentative “yes” - to our surprise and relief. I held my breath as he harnessed in and started his descent. The seated position did not come naturally to him, and it took a while for him to fight his way down. But he did it! I was a big ball of stress inside worried about Brady and then worried about me freaking out up there, but I knew if I showed how scared I was, it would only fuel Brady’s anxiety. So, I played it cool. A big part of being a Mom is pretending everything is fine, right?! I hopped up there, held my rope as tight as I could, and did a squat like my trainers make me do almost every workout. And those squats paid off, because that position came so naturally to me! I was down in a few seconds, and we all shared some shaky high fives and sighs of relief.

The second rappel was longer but easier as we all got the hang of it. At the bottom, we were confident we would make it out in one piece, so we relaxed. In between rappels, we hiked, took pictures, and traversed the weird openings by bridging our bodies, scooting, and sometimes carrying each other over the difficult parts. Some of those difficult parts were scarier than the rappels, but luckily Daddy could hoist us when necessary!

There were six rappels in all, but the hardest for me was the longest one – 70 feet. 😳 There’s a big difference between a 15-foot rappel and a 70-foot rappel. Obviously. For one, it takes quite a while to rappel that far down. I was always the last to go (before the guide), so that was a lot of waiting and watching and time to get freaked out. I found I would get dizzy watching (like Brady), so I had to look away and sing songs to myself to stay calm. Thank goodness no one was around to hear me singing the ABCs. But once we were all down from that rappel, we felt like we could conquer anything!

Look how high that is! 70 feet!! And those are my little kids up there! Amazing!


For the last couple rappels, the kids were fighting over who went first. But if the kids went first, that meant they were alone in the slot where we couldn’t see them and had to unhook their rope and send it back up by themselves. So brave!


After our final rappel, we had a long hike up and out of the canyon. We arrived back at the van around 2pm, so it ended up being a 5+ hour adventure. We were tired but exhilarated, because we had overcome our fears and accomplished something so extraordinary! The kids were talking over each other about how incredible it all was and which rappel was their favorite and which was the scariest. It’s a memory we will never forget!

Our "after" picture. We made it!


But our day didn’t end there. We wanted to see Bryce Canyon, and that afternoon was our only option if we wanted to do the Narrows the following day. We grabbed Subway on the way back to the resort, showered off all the dust and sand, and got back in the car for the 1½-hour drive to Bryce. Luckily, it was not a winding drive.


As we got closer to Bryce, we saw Red Canyon, which we hadn’t heard of. I wish we had stopped for pictures, because the red hoodoos looked amazing! But we were worried we wouldn’t have enough time at Bryce before sundown, so we kept going.


Inside Bryce, we parked at Sunset Point so we could see the Amphitheater and hike part of the Navajo Loop Trail. Bryce is SPECTACULAR! The hoodoos are unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. It looks like an artist sculpted each and every one. We were in absolute awe! Zion is beautiful and breathtaking, Grand Canyon is massive and hard to believe, but Bryce is spectacular! Do not miss it! We were tired from canyoneering, so we only hiked about 1/3 of the way in and then walked to Inspiration Point along the rim. If we had had more time, we would’ve hiked to the bottom and hiked to Sunrise Point, too.

Bryce Canyon's hoodoos


The sun was setting, and we were beat and ready for dinner. We stopped at Cowboy’s Buffet & Steak Room right in Bryce. We all ordered the buffet and loved it - stick-to-your-ribs and healthy food plus a dessert bar. Yum! The souvenir shop called our name after dinner before the dark ride home. The kids slept, I tried and failed to keep my eyes open, but luckily Daddy stayed awake. I woke up to him slamming on the brakes when he almost hit deer in the road – not our first wildlife near-miss of the trip. Deer are everywhere. We also saw mountain goats on the road in Zion. They’re easy to spot in the day, but nighttime driving is scary. Whew, that was a long day!


Half-day canyoneering for 4 people $585

Day 4: Zion Narrows

If you've heard of someone going water hiking, they were probably talking about the Narrows. And if you've seen amazing pictures of tall verticals with moving water in between, that's the Narrows. I'm gonna borrow one of those pictures, so you understand the draw.

All the Narrows research I did said to rent water gear and to start off as early as possible in the morning. We followed the first piece of advice and rented gear online at Zion Outfitters right at the Zion Visitor Center. But we didn’t start out first thing, because we needed some rest after our previous day. So, we slept in a little and then drove to the Visitor Center, the 45-minute winding drive through Zion. We rented our gear - waterproof pants, socks and shoes for the adults, full water suits for the kids, plus walking sticks for all. The kids looked like space explorers without the helmets! In the summer months, you don’t need the pants/suits because the water is warmer. We picked up sandwiches for lunch (breakfast wraps) at the store next to Zion Outfitters and walked to the park shuttle center. Unfortunately, you can't drive to the Narrows. The shuttle is your only option, and the Narrows is the last shuttle stop – about a 45-minute bus ride.

We did one last bathroom break at the Narrows stop before starting our hike. The first mile is a beautiful paved trail, although we were anxious to get in the water, so we probably didn’t appreciate it as we should have! We started wading and then did our first major plunge. The water was freezing! And high! And moving pretty fast in places! Ava fell in a couple times, but she seemed kind of happy about it. She held onto Daddy during the fast-moving parts and didn’t seem bothered that the water came up to her chest at times. Thank goodness we rented the full suits! We were walking in water about 65% of the time. You’d walk through water to get to dry land, then more water to dry land. It was pretty slow-going and tiring during the deep parts. The water was fast, and the rocks were slippery! But it was beyond amazing!

We stopped pretty early for a rest and lunch on a little island and then kept going. I wanted to get to the very narrow part. We were still in the wider area, but the kids were losing steam. I kept saying “Let’s just see what’s around that next bend.” That only worked twice before the revolt started. We turned around long before I wanted to but long after the kids wanted to. By the time we got back to the starting point, we were all wiped out, so it’s good we didn’t keep going. We rode the shuttle back, ditched our wet gear (hallelujah!), changed into dry clothes for those that needed it, and walked 50 feet to the Brew Pub for dinner. We had grand plans to walk around Springdale and have dinner there, but proximity won.

Narrows gear $250 for 4


Zion/Bryce Do-Differents:

⛰ Buy the multi-park pass at your first national park entrance and save your receipt! We bought a day pass the first time through Zion and couldn’t find our receipt for a while. Once we found it before Grand Canyon, that park let us buy the multi-park pass and credited us for the Zion and Bryce day passes.

⛰ If possible, leave more time to explore Bryce including Red Canyon on the way. Optimal timing = one day canyoneering, one day Bryce and Red Canyon, one day Zion Narrows. If you have even more time, check out Arches and Grand Staircase.

⛰ Stay in Springdale so you’re right there at Zion and you don’t have to do the windy 45-minute drive to/from East Zion. Springdale to Bryce is 2 hours whereas Zion Ponderosa where we stayed is only 1½ hours. However, I still think we’d have done less driving if we had stayed in Springdale. Zion Outfitters and another outfitters in Springdale offer canyoneering, too.

Day 5: Antelope Canyon, Horseshoe Bend, Grand Canyon South Rim - 4½ hour drive from Zion Ponderosa to Grand Canyon.

Be careful of time zones once you cross into Arizona. Arizona doesn't observe daylight savings time. They were on Pacific time when we were there but sometimes are on Mountain.

We drove 2 hours to Page, AZ to Antelope Canyon where we had pre-booked a morning tour of the canyon. Antelope is lesser-known but is becoming more popular, so BOOK IN ADVANCE. You cannot go on your own. You have to book through one of the five tour operators, because Antelope is on Navajo territory. I reserved our tour about a month in advance and several of the operators were already sold out. For our tour, we booked with Adventurous Antelope Canyon Tours and LOVED our guide.


Because of the confusion in time zones that luckily worked in our favor, we had an extra hour before the tour and had time for breakfast at the Ranch House Grill in Page. Yum! For the tour, you meet at Adventurous and take a 10-minute jeep ride to the canyon. Antelope is unlike any other canyons you’ll visit in the area - a photographic tour, not a hiking tour. You’re walking through on flat ground and looking up. Beautiful does not begin to describe it. Brady and Ava took over as photographers, and our guide helped them get the best shots and even showed us some features on our phones we didn’t know existed. Antelope was second on the list behind canyoneering as our favorite on the trip. We’ll let the pictures show you why.

Antelope 1½ hour tour for four people $308


After the tour, we drove about 15 minutes to Horseshoe Bend. You park and walk about ¾ mile down to the rim where the view is jaw-dropping. We took a bunch of pictures and then made the trek back up the hill to get to the car. We likened the hike up to the Sleeping Bear Dunes climb in Michigan but quite a bit easier. Thank goodness.

We then got back in the car for the final 2½ hours to Grand Canyon. We stopped along the way at Cameron Trading Post for souvenir shopping and a potty break. Once near Grand Canyon, we drove straight into the park and went to Mather Point as it was one of the first vista stops we saw. We took pictures, watched a wedding, marveled at the grandness of it all, and then got back in the car and headed to our hotel – The Grand Hotel, which is right outside. We planned to go to dinner inside the park at El Tovar but decided we were too tired. We found a Mexican restaurant minutes away called Plaza Bonita and called it a night.

Day 6: Grand Canyon hiking

The next morning, we drove to the Visitor Center, picked up sandwiches at Bright Angel Bicycles & Café, and took the shuttle to the South Kaibab Trail. They say that 98% of Grand Canyon visitors don’t get below the rim, so we were determined to be in the 2% that do! We hiked down 1½ miles to the aptly-named “Ooh-Aah Point” and stopped for pictures, rest, and lunch on the rocks. We power-hiked back up and made it to the top in less than an hour, where we felt quite proud of ourselves. Daddy was a bit of a crazy person freaking out that someone was going to fall over the edge, but we all made it out alive. He wants to come back and do the full hike in and stay at Phantom Ranch. Me, I’ve checked the Grand Canyon box and don’t feel the need to go back.

After our hike, we took the shuttle into the village and shopped at the El Tovar gift shop, walked along the rim, and had ice cream. We tried to go for a drink on the El Tovar deck with a view, but it was closed for construction. However, the deck is tiny, so I’m not sure we missed out on much. We then took the shuttle back to our car and headed to the hotel. Dinner was surprisingly good pizza at the absurdly-named “We Cook Pizza and Pasta.”


2 nights at the Grand Hotel reserved through Expedia $706

Day 7: Road trip to Sedona - 2 hours

I was ready and raring to go the next morning, so we packed up to head to Sedona. None of us had been, but I had heard so much about it and could not wait to get there! Not much to see on the drive there until you start getting close. At first, it seemed like we took a wrong turn because we were driving through a lush, green forest high in the mountains similar to the Pacific Northwest or Colorado. Then as you wind down with the creek below you, you begin to see the Sedona red rocks. Hubs and I started talking about retiring there before we even saw Sedona. We got to our hotel, The Amara Resort, before lunchtime.


The Amara is stunning! It’s nestled below the red rocks with an open-air restaurant, greenspace for play and lounging (see Brady sandwich below middle), and infinity pool right in the middle. We had lunch at Salt Rock and played at the pool while waiting for our room to be ready. Our afternoon was free until the 3:30pm check-in for our Pink Jeep Broken Arrow tour, which everyone had recommended. The Amara is a 5-minute walk to Upper Sedona where Pink Jeep is along with gobs of restaurants and shops.

We loaded into our pink jeep along with four other tourists and our guide and headed to the Broken Arrow Trail. We drove up and over rock formations that no vehicle had any business driving on. I was sure the jeep would topple over several times, but we stayed upright. We stopped at several different vistas for incredible photos. Again, our guide made sure we got the best shots and showed us new photo tricks. The kids squealed with delight as we climbed ridiculously steep hills and bumped so high, I thought my shoulder was gonna come out of the joint. I was nervous I’d be carsick, but each leg of the trip was short enough that I felt okay. As expected, Pink Jeep was a highlight of the trip!

Afterward, we shopped a little but then agreed to go back to Salt Rock at our hotel for dinner, because lunch was so darn good. The margaritas alone were worth the three meals we ate there. We sat outside under heaters while the kids drew the red rocks until they turned black, and then they drew the stars.


Pink Jeep Broken Arrow Tour $473. We used points for the Amara, so I don’t have pricing.

Day 8: Sedona

On our last full day, we left plans open but intended to at least visit Slide Rock State Park. However, after breakfast outside at HP Café in Upper Sedona (delicious!), the kids begged and pleaded for us to just hang out at the pool all day. I was in and we out-voted Daddy. We shopped for a bit and then headed back to the hotel to suit up and start our lounging. A daybed had our name on it, and we piled in with our books and iPads. We ordered lunch and drinks, played in the pool and hot tub, and napped the day away - the best finale for our trip.

Early evening, we ventured out to the Tlaquepaque Old Mexican Village for shopping and dinner. This outdoor market of art galleries and gift shops with cobblestone paths and stone archways is incredibly charming and lives up to its description of “The Art and Soul of Sedona.” Ava and I got lost wandering through the stores and pathways shopping for Christmas gifts. We watched as they set up for a wedding reception and were relieved when Daddy and Brady found us. We grabbed an un-noteworthy dinner at a pub there and headed back to bed.

Day 9: Drive to Phoenix to fly home - 2-hour drive

Before our drive, we had one last outdoor breakfast at Creekside Sedona. I hiked by myself back to the hotel to spend a few last moments with the Sedona vistas. Then it was back in the car for our drive to the airport and our flight home. Our hearts and minds were full of everything we had experienced, and our bodies were strong and tired from all our challenges. We were ready to get home to our furry dogs and our own beds.

Our route: Road trip Las Vegas, Zion, Bryce, Grand Canyon

Our goal was to fit in as much adventure as we could with as little driving as possible. And to have time at the end of our trip in Sedona to relax. If we had more days, we would have spent more time in Bryce and would’ve visited Grand Staircase and Arches in Utah.


The Grand Canyon North Rim is closer to Utah but is already closed in October, so we chose the South Rim. We didn’t do the Grand Canyon Skywalk because it’s 4 hours from the South Rim nor did we see the Hoover Dam, which is also 4 hours away. The Dam is easiest to get to from Vegas but it’s southeast of Vegas and we headed northeast to Utah.


Heather Vergara is a former PepsiCo marketing executive who left the corporate world to be a Mom and never went back. In addition to family, Heather is passionate about kindness, community, travel and adventure, whole food, and sweating every day. Heather has an MBA in Marketing from Indiana University, a Digital Marketing Executive Education certificate from Columbia University, and a BA in Journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She lives with her husband, two kids and two furry dogs in Zionsville, Indiana.


 

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