Planning a trip to an unknown territory can certainly be overwhelming. If you’re still debating whether or not it is a good idea, I can assure you it is a GREAT idea! The national parks we have all around our country are incredible and most definitely something worth seeing at least once in a lifetime. We headed west with our three children exploring north, central and south for nine weeks. We had never explored any of the west and were blown away by the vast landscapes “just down the road” in our very own country. From winding mountain roads to flat desert highways, lush forests to sandstone and red rock formations, you won’t be disappointed!
If you have one long weekend, one week, one month, or more, there is a trip for you!
There are many factors to consider: how to get there, where to stay, what to see/do, where to eat, what not to miss, and the list goes on. Whether you plan to be adventurous in a tent or a bit more conservative in a hotel, I’ve got some tips on how to plan a trip out west I’d love to share with you!
FIRST: How much time do you have?
If you are planning a trip of two weeks or fewer, I recommend flying to a starting point out west, driving the road trip portion around the areas you would like to see, and then flying back from a DIFFERENT location. If flying in and out of two different airports is not in the budget, that is ok too. You will want to plan more of a loop path back to the same starting point, but driving in from a different direction to maximize your sight-seeing. Flying then driving will save you approximately 4-6 days of your trip that you would spend as long days in the car before reaching any of your exciting stops! BUT, if you DO have extra time, more than two weeks for the trip, I highly recommend embracing the long drive out west and planning additional fun stops along the way. You’ll find the more you research, the more places you will want to see and making the road trip out west will allow you to see more in one trip.
SECOND: Where are you going?
Once you have determined how much time you will have to travel on this trip, you’ll need to decide where you are going out west. If you’re allotting roughly two weeks, I recommend choosing a region: north, central, or south. You’ll also want to consider the time of year and the expected weather for that region. Of course things don’t always go as expected. In fact, we ended up in a blizzard in September!
The north region would include some variation of South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, eastern Idaho, and northern Utah.
The central region would include some variation of Colorado and Eastern Utah.
The south region would include some variation of southeastern California, Arizona, New Mexico, southwestern Colorado, and southern Utah.
*I consider most of California, Oregon, and Washington the Pacific coast and not “out west,” so those are not included in this post, but would make for an incredible trip on their own.
Choosing one area for your trip will allow you to see plenty of sites while not spending too much time in the car. You’ll have a decent amount of time to see the highlights of each place and possibly all you would want to see depending on how you plan your trip and what your interests are. This will also leave you excited to come back for more when you plan to return to see the other two regions.
THIRD: How are you getting there?
Once you have decided where you are going, you’ll need to decide how you’re getting there. We did our long trip out west in a minivan. We decided this would be the best option for us as we did not have a set timeline or return date, making the rental of a camper, RV, or campervan nearly impossible and incredibly expensive. We are also not great campers, so a car of some sort just made sense for us. Camping our way through our trip full time would have been a lot more work and time-consuming than driving our vehicle and staying in other accommodations. However, if you are the camping type, you are sure to experience some incredible campsites amongst breathtaking scenery! You should also consider whether you will have an additional vehicle with you. Many places along the trip through the different states out west did not allow for large vehicles, had winding roads, or tight parking, so pulling a regular size vehicle behind an RV would definitely be recommended if you choose to go that route. If you’re flying then driving, you will need to plan where you’re flying in and out of and where you will pick up and drop off whatever type of vehicle you plan to drive.
I have included a few sample 2-week itineraries based on the regions:
Northern Region Option 1: Fly into Rapid City, South Dakota – Badlands National Park – Custer State Park – Wind Cave National Park – Jewel Cave National Monument – Mount Rushmore National Memorial – Devils Tower National Monument – Yellowstone National Park – Grand Teton National Park – Fly out of Jackson, WY
Northern Region Option 2: Fly into Rapid City, South Dakota – Badlands National Park – Custer State Park – Wind Cave National Park – Jewel Cave National Monument – Mount Rushmore National Memorial – Devils Tower National Monument – Glacier National Park – Yellowstone National Park – Grand Teton National Park – Jackson Hole – Bear Lake, UT/ID – Great Salt Lake – Fly out of Salt Lake City, UT
Central Region Option 1: Fly into Denver, Colorado – Rocky Mountain National Park – Pike’s Peak – Colorado Springs – The Garden of the Gods – Great Sand Dunes National Park – Salida – Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park – Colorado National Monument – Moab, UT – Arches National Park – Canyonlands National Park – Dead Horse Point State Park – Goblin Valley State Park – Capitol Reef National Park – Fly out of Salt Lake City
Central Region Option 2: Fly into Denver, Colorado – Rocky Mountain National Park – Pike’s Peak – Colorado Springs – The Garden of the Gods – Great Sand Dunes National Park – Pagosa Springs – Durango – Mesa Verde National Park – Moab, UT – Arches National Park – Canyonlands National Park – Dead Horse Point State Park – Goblin Valley State Park – Capitol Reef National Park – Fly out of Salt Lake City
Southern Region Option 1: Fly into Las Vegas, NV – Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area – Hoover Dam – St. George, UT – Snow Canyon State Park – Cedar Breaks National Monument – Bryce Canyon National Park – Zion National Park – Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park – Kanab, UT (including Toadstool Hoodoos and Moqui Sand Caves, add Grand Canyon North Rim if extra time) – Page, AZ (including Horseshoe Bend Overlook, Glen Canyon, Antelope Canyon, Lake Powell) – Flagstaff, AZ – Grand Canyon National Park South Rim – Sedona, AZ – Fly out of Phoenix, AZ (You could add in Monument Valley after Page, AZ if you had extra time and really wanted to see the famous land from the Forrest Gump movie.)
Southern Region Option 2: Fly into Albuquerque, NM or El Paso, TX – White Sands National Park – City of Rocks State Park – Saguaro National Park East – Tucson, AZ – Saguaro National Park West – Phoenix, AZ – Sedona, AZ – Flagstaff, AZ – Grand Canyon National Park South Rim – Joshua Tree National Park, CA – Death Valley National Park – Hoover Dam – Fly out of Las Vegas, NV
FOURTH: What do you want to do?
Once you have a rough draft of your route, now it is time to start planning the details. Look at each of the major locations you plan to stop and research if there are any activities you would like to do that require a ticket, timed admission, restaurant reservation, or other restriction, such as weather. If you are planning an activity that requires good weather, I would recommend planning to be around that area for more than one day and plan that activity on the first day in case of bad weather, allowing you to reschedule for the second day. If anything requires a ticket or timed admission, I would recommend booking those things first and then loosely planning the rest of your activities around the ticketed events with flexibility to rearrange as needed. If you are wondering where to find activity information, I typically use Pinterest searches, Google, Instagram hashtags, Instagram Geotags, travel Facebook groups, and travel family blogs to find all of my travel inspiration and recommendations. There are also countless books available to help you plan. I am also happy to help any way I can.
FIFTH: Where will you sleep?
After you have researched what you want to see and do in the areas you will be, you will have a better idea of how much time you would like to spend in each of those areas. You will then need to begin booking accommodations. If you plan to camp via tent/rv/car/camper, you will need to book those sites far in advance for the national parks. If you are willing to be more flexible in your location, some national parks have first come-first serve campgrounds and open campsites that morning for later that same night. If you are not successful within the national parks, there are many campgrounds near the parks and they typically do not book as far in advance. However, if you are traveling during the summer or other popular school breaks, they are likely to book up too. Hotels will also book up in advance but not quite as quickly as campgrounds. Shuttle tickets and timed park entry tickets will definitely sell out in advance and should be reserved as soon as you have a rough idea of when you will be in the area. In addition to one weekend of tent camping and many hotel nights, we also stayed in a World War 2 train car, a Conestoga covered wagon, an Airstream within an entire Airstream resort, a desert dome AirBNB, and camping cabins at various KOAs. There are all sorts of unique accommodations to add extra excitement to your road trip experience!
SIXTH: What are you taking with you?
Finally, you will need to pack. Less is best. Easier said than done. I am the world’s worst packer, though I am improving with each trip we take. Stay tuned for my next post on all the packing must-haves for a trip out west!
I cannot recommend a trip out west more! Grab your calendars, maps, camera, and family and hit the road! If you have any additional questions, please reach out via FB or IG (@karamwilliams) and I will be happy to help. There you will also find many more details from our previous trips.
*At the time of this post, the local, state, and national governments recommend staying home or staying six feet apart while wearing a mask if you do leave home. Please follow the advice of your local professionals, do your part to keep the world well, and only venture out when you feel safe to do so.*