Our Southwest Grand Tour leads from Las Vegas into the canyons and mesas that form the heart of the Colorado Plateau. Here you will find some of the best-known natural wonders anywhere in the world, including Zion, Bryce Canyon, and Grand Canyon National Parks. But here, too, are lesser-known gems, like Utah's Goosenecks State Park and Arizona's Antelope Canyon.
With their array of nearby services, the national parks provide the steppingstones around this area; you'll probably want to center your journey around them. The trip described in this story took us 10 days to complete, but we easily could have lingered longer. (For a four-day option, see "Mini Grand Tour," above right.) Except where noted, the entire drive took place on two-lane roads off the interstates.
Frequent flights from just about anywhere make this a natural place to start your grand tour. Nearby attractions like Valley of Fire State Park (702/397-2088) will whet your appetite for what you'll see later on. For more information, contact the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (702/892-0711).
Approximately 127,000 hotel rooms give you lots to choose from; for a list of lodging options, contact the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (702/892-0711).
ZION NATIONAL PARK
Zion's towering red sandstone formations will stay in your mind forever. Shuttles take visitors through Zion Canyon, where two good short hikes are the 3-mile round-trip Watchman Trail (terrific valley views) and the 2 1/2-mile round trip to the waterfalls and spring-fed pools on the Emerald Pools trails. Less crowded but just as spectacular is the park's Kolob Canyons section, off I-15, where the 5 1/2-mile round-trip Taylor Creek Trail leads to the grottolike Double Arch Alcove. www.nps.gov/zion Springdale, Utah, is the park gateway and has a large selection of lodging and restaurants. or (435) 772-3256.
Desert Pearl Inn. Beautiful, modern rooms. From $103. www.desertpearl.com or (435) 772-8888.
Zion Lodge. Vintage cabins as well as motel rooms in a traditional lodge in the park. From $107. www.zionlodge.com or (888) 297-2757.
BRYCE CANYON NATIONAL PARK: Bryce Canyon is easily explored via auto or shuttle bus (mid-May until early September) on the 18-mile main park road. But a hike into the formations gives a whole different perspective. The 8-mile Fairyland Loop is hard to beat. Outside the main part of the park is the 3/4-mile round-trip Mossy Cave Trail off Utah 12, where you can hike to a small grotto and also walk along the Tropic Ditch. www.nps.gov/brca or (435) 834-5322.
Panguitch, Utah, is about 21 miles from the park and is the largest nearby town. There are also several motels and restaurants along Utah 12 and in Tropic, about 7 miles from the park turnoff.
Bryce Canyon Lodge. In the park, 2 miles from entrance. Open April 1 through October 31; it has both rooms in the main lodge and cabins. Make reservations early. From $99. www.brycecanyonlodge.com or (888) 297-2757.
Best Western Rubys Inn. Attractive, large complex just outside the park entrance. Open year-round. From $66. www.rubysinn.com, (866) 866-6616, or (435) 834-5341.
GRAND STAIRCASE-ESCALANTE NATIONAL MONUMENT
This sprawling monument was established in 1996. Outside Escalante, unpaved Hole-in-the-Rock Road leads 14 miles to the arches at Devil's Garden, then 26 more miles to Dance Hall Rock ― where Mormon pioneers held dances. Twelve miles east of Escalante, a 6-mile round-trip hike visits Lower Calf Creek Falls. Find information at the Cannonville visitor center or the Escalante Interagency Visitors Center (435) 826-5499.
Although tiny, Boulder, Utah, is nearby and offers dining, food, and gas services. Escalante, Utah, is slightly larger and also has basic accommodations.
Boulder Mountain Lodge. One of our favorite places, this is an updated take on a classic Western lodge. Its restaurant, Hell's Backbone Grill, serves modern, Southwestern-influenced cuisine ― a big cut above the more basic fare found at most spots along the drive. From $85. www.boulder-utah.com or (800) 556-3446.
MONUMENT VALLEY AND ENVIRONS
Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. Most visitors see this icon of the American West from the Valley Drive, the 17-mile unpaved loop road that runs through the park. Try to time your drive for morning or late afternoon. Guided vehicle tours can take you into parts of the valley otherwise hard to access; you can hire Navajo guides at visitor center booths (from $25 per person). $5 park fee per person. (435) 727-5870.
Monument Valley sits on the border between Arizona and Utah. Other than Goulding's Lodge, the nearest services are available in Kayenta, Arizona, 22 miles south, and in Mexican Hat, Utah, 22 miles northeast. Bluff, Utah, is farther away (45 miles northeast) but with its galleries and restaurants is in some ways the most attractive place to base yourself.
Goulding's Lodge & Tours, Monument Valley. Founded by Harry Goulding and his wife, Mike, this is the original accommodation at Monument Valley. The facility includes a restaurant, grocery store, gas station, and museum in addition to its motel-style lodging. From $118. www.gouldings.com or (435) 727-3231.
Cow Canyon Trading Post and Restaurant, Bluff, UT. Great selection of Zuni and Navajo art. The restaurant is the area's best, with a limited selection that emphasizes fresh local ingredients. Trading post open year-round, restaurant open Thu-Mon Apr 1-Oct 31. (435) 672-2208.
Desert Rose Inn & Cabins, Bluff, UT. Built in a traditional lodge style, the inn offers hotel-style rooms and attractive cabins with timbered ceilings. From $69. www.desertroseinn.com or (888) 475-7673.
Recapture Lodge, Bluff, UT. A local institution, the Recapture has motel rooms but can take on the sociable feel of a summer camp, thanks to the many rafting groups that stay here. Most nights, there are slide shows on local subjects; owners Jim and Luanne Hook are great sources of information on nearby trips and outings to Monument Valley. From $40. www.recapturelodge.com or (435) 672-2281.
Best Western Wetherill Inn, Kayenta, AZ. From $70. (928) 697-3231.
San Juan Inn & Trading Post, Mexican Hat, UT. From $70. (435) 683-2220.
GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK
NORTH RIM: If you have already visited the South Rim, consider making the North Rim your Grand Canyon destination. At 8,000 feet, it is higher in elevation and less crowded. A drawback is that snow limits the North Rim's season to mid-May until mid-October. Check out the Grand Canyon Lodge, which celebrates its 75th anniversary this year. For great views, drive 23 miles from the lodge to Cape Royal or 11 miles to Point Imperial. An easy hike is the 3-mile round-trip Transept Trail. www.nps.gov/grca or (928) 638-7888.
With no nearby towns, lodging and dining choices are limited, so plan ahead.
Grand Canyon Lodge. Designed by Gilbert Stanley Underwood, the lodge is a national-park classic. It offers vintage cabins and some motel-style rooms. From $87. www.grandcanyonnorthrim.com or (888) 297-2757. Reservations are required for dinner and recommended for other meals at the lodge's spectacular dining room. (928) 638-2611 ext. 160.
Jacob Lake Inn. Motel rooms, rustic cabins, and a dependable restaurant 45 miles from rim. From $55. www.jacoblake.com or (928) 643-7232.
Kaibab Lodge. Cabins, plus restaurant open for dinner and continental breakfast. 18 miles from the North Rim village. Open May 15-Oct 15; from $80. (928) 638-2389; Oct 16-May 14, (800) 525-0924.
SOUTH RIM: The South Rim gets most of the park's annual 4 million visitors, which means that in-park lodging should be booked in advance (888/297-2757 or www.grandcanyonlodges.com). In-park options include: Bright Angel Lodge. These rustic, cabinlike lodgings were designed by famed architect Mary Colter. From $56.
El Tovar. Wonderful 78-room canyon-rim lodge was built in 1905; a must-see even if you don't stay here. From $124.
Kachina Lodge and Thunderbird Lodge. Motel-like twin lodges. From $116.
Maswik Lodge. Modern motel units. From $63.
Yavapai Lodge. Large motel complex. From $90.
You'll find other motels south of the park in Tusayan and more in Williams and Flagstaff, 60 and 80 miles south, respectively.
Arizona Office of Tourism: (888) 520-3434.
Dixie National Forest: (435) 865-3200.
Garfield County Travel Council: (800) 444-6689.
Grand Circle Association: (888) 254-7263.
Kaibab National Forest: (928) 643-7395.
Lake Powell Resorts & Marinas: (800) 528-6154.
Page-Lake Powell Chamber of Commerce: (928) 645-2741.
San Juan County Multi-Agency Visitor Center: (800) 574-4386.
Utah Travel Council: (801) 538-1030.
Lake Powell Ferry. For schedule, call Bullfrog Ranger Station (435/ 684-7400) or visit the ferry website.
Mini grand tour
Don't have the 10 days our Grand Tour requires? Here's a four-day sample, starting from Las Vegas
First day: Kolob Canyons in Zion National Park.
Second day: Cedar Breaks National Monument.
Third day: Bryce Canyon National Park. Then return.