My wife and I were finally in a spot where we could take a solid 10 days off (Sep 15-25) together with our 23 month old son for a family vacation before I started my new job. We contemplated several different destinations. We were considering Maine (Acadia National Park), Western Canada to the rockies or even Ireland. We ultimately decided that this was the perfect opportunity to take on the “Mighty 5″ National Parks of Utah (Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands and Arches National Park). I was initially concerned about the amount of car time our toddler would have to put up with. Looking at the map, we would tally over 800 miles of driving broken up over 10 days. He has proven to us however on past trips to Shenandoah, Yellowstone and the Great Smokies that he was a road warrior.
Day 1: Richmond, VA to Las Vegas
Our journey started in Las Vegas, after a long travel day from Richmond, Virginia with a layover in Charlotte, North Carolina, we were exhausted. Minh did surprisingly well on the both legs of the flight. I don’t think we could have done it without “Bob the Train”, his favorite TV show. For the most part, we don’t allow him to watch tv, tablets or phones during the day, we save them for long travel times in the car or plane. As a result, he is able to stay occupied for hours because it is still novel to him. We packed along toys on the plane as well such as cars, bulldozer, play doh and of course plenty of snacks. We arrived in Vegas at midnight eastern time zone, but Minh was wide awake once we stepped into the Venetian, the lights, sounds and bustle of people even at this hour was enough to get him riled up. I’m surprised he was able to fall asleep that night!
Day 2: Las Vegas, Nevada to Springdale, Utah (159 miles)
This leg of the trip was what I called the “HOT” segment. The drive along interstate 15 was easy enough, but it was a scorcher through the desert at 103 F. While the desert is a beautiful place, I find that its desolation and unforgivingness leaves me with a sense of loneliness and unease. At these moments, I compare deserts to forests. While both are magnificent; one of them provides, and the other taketh away….
We made a short detour to the Valley of Fire State Park (Nevada’s oldest state park). The park is named after red sandstone which were formed from shifting sandstone formations 150 million years ago. Under the harsh sunlight, these formations give the illusion that they are literally on fire. Stare long enough, and the rock formations started to look like faces trapped in stone….creepy. We wanted to go on a decent hike of 2 miles however the extreme heat cautioned against this idea. Thankfully, Valley of Fire is a driver friendly park and we were able to hop from point of interest to the next.
We arrived in the town of Springdale, Utah (pop 529) that night, all of us were pretty exhausted. We stayed at a peaceful air bnb with an unexpectedly green and lush backyard for our son to run around. It was clear that the owners worked diligently to keep the garden and lawn flourishing. Water barrels and a irrigation systems seemed to be all placed carefully. It was odd to see so much green in the desert, but it was certainly welcoming. I made a trip to the general store that night to pay an arm and a leg for milk and breakfast items for our crew the next day. On the way back, I saw that there was a grocery store, “Sol foods”, that was open late…..awesome. I didn’t really care at this point. We were in Zion and we had the next two full days to explore it.
Day 3: Zion National Park
The next morning, a combination of the climate, altitude change and allergies seemed to hit us all at once. We were congested and drowsy to say the least. We decided that we were going to take it easy and spend the day on short hikes and get a good idea of the layout of Zion. For those that wish to drive into the park, be warned that even in shoulder season, parking spaces in Zion are pretty much full by 8-9am! Instead, an excellent shuttle bus system runs through the town of Springdale (every 15 minutes or so) and will take you directly into the park. We hitched a ride in front of our street, along with many other hikers in one of the shuttles. Minh really seemed to like the bus system and he proceeded to sing “the wheels on the bus go round and round” for all to hear.
We started our adventure at the visitor center to discuss trail conditions, special highlights, get maps and hear recommendations. When traveling with a toddler, I am not ambitious about what we attempt to accomplish. My main concern out here was safety and letting him have a good time. We took on the Kayenta trail, a mild hiking trail that wasn’t heavily populated. We later went back for ice cream and lunch in front of Zion National Park Lodge. Minh was getting used to the hiking. We had our bearings, and we were ready for the Narrows the next day.
Day 4: Zion National Park (The Narrows) and travel to Bryce Canyon City (87 miles)
Temperature High: 70 F, Low 57
We needed to get an early start today. Sarah and I woke up at 5:30am to pack all of our belongings and load the car and prepare breakfast while Minh slept. Once he awoke, we all eat a hearty breakfast and drove into the park at 7:30am. It was cold and dark. Sunrise was at 7:07am although we were heading to the bottom of the canyon and I didn’t expect sunlight to reach us until noon. At this early part of the day, parking was still available. We made our first stop, just outside outside the park at Zion Outfitter, a canyoneering and camping equipment store to rent canyoneering boots and socks for the hike in the narrows.
“The Narrows” is Zion’s most popular attraction and hike. It is the narrowest section of Zion Canyon where the North Fork of the Virgin River flows. There are two ways to approach “the Narrows”.
1. 3.6 mile bottom-up hike from Temple of Sinawava to Big Springs. This is the most popular approach and the easiest. This is what we would be attempting.
2. You could also hike the Narrows from top-down. A 16 mile hike from Chamberlain’s Ranch back to the Temple of Sinawava. This approach requires a permit, as well as careful planning because it is a 2 day excursion.
Careful weather planning is needed before attempting the Narrows. As you can imagine, the area is incredibly dangerous during times of rain as it is susceptible to flash flooding.
This hike was one of the main reasons we wanted to come to Utah. It lived up to the hype and every step of the way was gorgeous. The water is clear and the light reflecting from the canyon walls spectacular. Minh enjoyed this segment greatly! We decided not to hike the whole 3.6 miles mostly for safety reasons. On all of these hikes, I carried Minh in a Deuter Comfort Active pack that we purchased specifically for this trip. I love this pack. It is comfortably for the passenger as well as the carrier. It is lightweight and the passenger sits closely to your back to prevent that torsional force on the spine. I saw a few others with kids on their back. It is very important to practice extreme caution when hiking with a toddler. Always 3 points of contact for me, and also making sure I had firm footing. Trekking poles are a must. We finished our hiking at approximately noon and head back to the parking lot to return all of our gear. Minh was tired and thankfully slept all the way to Bryce Canyon town.
Day 5: Bryce Canyon National Park
We awoke in the town of Bryce Canyon to clear skies and cool temperatures in another air bnb. This was probably my favorite place that we stayed at because we had a beautiful backyard all to ourselves with a small playground and trucks to play with. Behind us was a wooded area where plenty of deer roamed. They even crossed through the backyard to welcome us. Similar to Zion, a bus shuttle system takes visitors throughout the park. I have heard from many visitors that Bryce was their favorite park of the mighty 5. I could easily see why. The views are unlikely any other. The canyons are filled with thousands of hoodoos (a tall thin spire of rock that protrudes from the ground). Many of the locations are drive up views, but the hiking trails into the canyons are amazing. We took on the Queens Garden trail that meets up with the Navajo Loop trail to get back to the top, the purpose was to see Wall Street and Thor’s Hammer. Bryce did not disappoint.
Day 6: Bryce Canyon City to Capitol Reef National Park (109 miles)
We head out the next morning to the town of Torrey, Utah (population 243). We arrived at approximately noon and head straight out to see Capitol Reef National Park only a short drive away. Out of the might five national parks, Capitol Reef is considered by many to be “in the middle of nowhere” as it is far from the interstate. This park is definitely the least visited of the mighty five although I actually preferred the peace and quiet out there. This was our easy day. The Fruita valley is where we spent a good portion of our time, exploring the beautiful apple, apricot, pear orchards. Minh loved picking fruit from the tree, I think the idea of it was still novel and amazing to him. We stopped by the Gifford house and enjoyed some berry pie on the picnic tables outside. We head back to Capitol Reef resort to settle for the night. Surprisingly, the view outside our door was one of the best we had during our tripping.
Day 7: Capitol Reef to Moab, Utah (136 miles)
We woke up this morning to complete a hike in Capitol Reef, our goal this morning was to see Hickman bridge before we made the drive to Moab. The Hickman bridge trail is an easy 1.7 mile hike out to the natural bridge and back. Overall the hike is very pleasant and moderate in difficulty. One thing we noticed on these trails, were the “beware of aggressive wasps” signs. As we approached the bridge, Sarah actually got bit by one! These were certainly aggressive and they went after her for sure. Interestingly enough, no one else nearby including Minh and I were being swarmed by these wasps. Aside from the wasp incident, this trail was awesome. We packed up into the car and made the 2.5 hour drive to Moab, Utah. Thankfully Minh slept for most of this leg. We arrived in the town of Moab to reunite with Minh’s grandparents for the last few days of the trip. He was certainly thrilled to see them. I also believe that he was more cooperative as he is surrounded by more adults. 4 to 1, he didn’t stand a chance. Moab was the biggest town by far, that we’ve been in for several days. Population greater than 5000. Amazingly, 3 million visitors come to Moab each year to engage in every outdoor activity possible.
Day 8: Canyonlands National Park
The next morning, we head out to explore Canyonlands National Park, the fourth of the might five on our list. I was amazed at just how different each of the parks could be, even though they were in the same geographic region. Canyonlands made me feel the smallest. The awesome thing about Canyonlands is the fact that you are able to get up close and personal with alot of these canyons. Just outside, the national park is Dead Horse Point State Park which actually boasts some of the most impressive views on the entire trip an absolute must detour. We also allotted some time at the end of the day to go to Moab Giants, a dinosaur park for kids that features full sized dinosuars along a 0.5 mile trail through the desert, a 3D prehistoric aquarium that Minh loved, and dinosaur playground. As a giant dinosaur fan, this was also a must visit for us.
Day 9: Arches National Park
One of the most popular of the mighty five is Arches. It is only 1 mile north of Moab and bordered by the Colorado River in the Southeast. It is home to over 2000 natural sandstone arches. The most famous of which is probably the “Delicate Arch” which is featured on probably every postcard and tshirt. We were actually able to get in some good hiking at Arches to see the thin Landscape Arch and Minh had the opportunity to play in a giant sandbox. If you only had an hour in Arches, I would go to the “The Windows”. From this parking lot, you are able to access several arches all in one spot. Including the famous “windows”, “turret” arch and the “double arch”. All of which are within sight of each other.
Day 10 Arches National Park to Salt Lake City (233 miles)
On our last morning, Sarah and I rose early to get in Arches National Park to see the sunrise. We decided to go the “windows”, a popular spot that opens up to several fantastic arches. I was surprised when there were actually far less people who were willing to wake up at this hour than expected. In retrospect, the hours between 6:30am and 8:30am are probably the golden hours of the park. The trails are empty and the colors spectacular. The cool temperatures also allow for optimal hiking conditions. We were both surprised that even at 8:30am, we were able to get some prime locations all to ourselves. We head back to back up the cars and then made the long drive to Salt Lake City for our flight home the next day.
Looking back on this trip, I was amazed at the distance we were able to travel with our little boy. It actually didn’t feel tiring at all, because we were fueled by the thrill of new sights and we had clear objectives each day. Above all else, I am grateful that we were able to travel safely without any accidents or injuries. There are certainly risks involved when traveling with a child on a road trip like this through the desert. Medical centers are few and far between so make sure that you are prepared. I’ve compiled a list of essentials that I think anyone going on such a trip such strongly consider bringing.
Also, for anyone considering making the “mighty five” road trip, I would also highly recommend allocating time to seeing some of the state parks. Many of these parks in the area offer spectacular views and are less crowded than the national parks.
– medical kit with “epi pen”
– abundant supply of water (national park services recommend drinking 1 gallon of water per day, this is actually twice the amount recommended during a typical day in the city).
– sun protection (sunblock, sunglasses!)
– satellite messenger if hiking in remote areas
– hard copy maps or GPS (signal strengths are variable out in the desert)
– multi purpose tool (ex. swiss army knife)
– carry two sets of car keys! (we helped a couple at canyonlands when they locked themselves out of the car)