Road Trip: Canyon Country, AFAR, Jan/Feb 2016

CanyonRoadTripsRoad Trip: Canyon Country

This article appeared as part of Afar's Where To Go in 2016 feature.

The National Park Service marks its centennial in 2016. We’ve planned the perfect road trip through the otherworldly red-rock cliffs, canyons and spires of the Southwest, with stops at Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, and the grandest of canyons along the way.

1. Zion National Park

From McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, it’s a three-hour drive to Zion Lodge, where rocking chairs on porches evoke summer-camp simplicity. Bonus: Guests can drive their cars into Zion Canyon. For most of the year, you can rent a bicycle from the lodge and pedal along a paved road to Zion’s best hikes, such as the one to Angels Landing, a breath-snatching rock promontory offering bird’s-eye views down into Zion Canyon. After a day of exploring, retreat to the lodge’s Red Rock Grill for bison meatloaf and Navajo fry-bread tacos.

2. Bryce Canyon National Park

Hike the strenuous eight-mile Fairyland Loop, which offers views of this park’s iconic rock pinnacles, called hoodoos. Then check into the Lodge at Bryce Canyon, where TVs are verboten and the canyon rim is just a five-minute walk away. The 40 newly renovated cabins feature stone fireplaces and Douglas fir flooring. After dark, drive to the park visitor center for a ranger-led astronomy program and get a closer look at planets and galaxies with high-power telescopes.

121 miles. Snack: Black pepper biscuits at Hell’s Backbone Grill & Farm.

3. Capitol Reef National Park

Just as stunning as neighboring parks—but with fewer paved roads and maintained trails—Capitol Reef is a lesser-known playground. Plumb golden slot canyons on a day hike led by Redrock Adventure Guides. Dine on watermelon-marinated pork at Café Diablo, then move on to the Saddlery for boot-scootin’ to live Western bands. Bed down at the Lodge at Red River Ranch, a retreat styled after Teddy Roosevelt-era lodges. Pick up a few fresh-baked pastries from the Gifford Homestead for the 2.5-hour drive to Moab, where you’ll sleep in safari-style tents at Moab Under Canvas.

Overnight in a tent in Moab, then it’s 336 miles to Flagstaff.

4. Grand Canyon National Park

Head to Flagstaff to join the outfitter O.A.R.S. on its Rim to River trip, which unveils the region’s ancient Puebloan ruins, stops at lesser-known viewpoints along the rim, and includes a stay at Phantom Ranch, a riverside lodge that dates back to the ‘30s at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Prefer to skip the nearly 5,000-foot climb back up? Opt instead to stroll the canyon’s edge at spectacular Shoshone Point. Spend the night at Bright Angel Lodge, where rooms and log cabins are set along the rim and an old-fashioned soda fountain serves milk shakes.