Tips and information for planning a trip through the US West National Parks
Visiting the most famous American National Parks is one of those “on the road” trips that everyone, just once, has always dreamed of doing. Strolling among the age-old giant sequoias, driving on the desert roads of Death Valley, admiring the immense Grand Canyon, enjoying the sunset into the Monument Valley and being immersed in the lush nature of Yellowstone Park surrounded by steaming geysers and herds of bison are just some of the wonderful things that will take your breathe away. However, the trip is challenging because the distances are considerable and, depending on the itinerary you plan, also very intense with early departures and late arrivals.
When to go
The West National Parks are situated in different States; some of them can be visited all year round, while others Parks are difficult to visit during the winter season (like Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Yosemite, Bryce Canyon, Sequoia NP), as many roads could be closed because of the snow or temporary closed until they are plowed. Therefore, in general, for a complete tour, the best time is from May to September-October. August is definitely a month that we do not recommend because the parks are very crowded and the temperatures are high. We arranged this fantastic tour twice: the first time in August and the second time in September, definitely preferring the latter.
What to pack: during the summer, especially in August, it is really too hot. Pack only light clothes and a heavier sweatshirt for nights in Yosemite, Yellowstone and San Francisco. Pack a light bag because, in most Chained-brand hotels like Super 8, Best Western, Motel 6 and Holiday Inn, we found the coin-operated washer and dryer.
Our country (Italy) is part of the “visa-free travel” program. In general, for trips not exceeding 90 days, visit the official US Government website and register your passport details to obtain an authorization called ESTA, which costs 14 USD and is valid for 2 years. If you are a citizen of not eligible visa waiver countries, you’ll have to apply for a visa in your country’s USA embassy.
Note on flights: If you have a stopover at a US airport before arriving at your final destination, remember to ask at check-in how the baggage check procedure works. When you land in the USA on an international flight and later take a domestic flight, your baggage must be re-boarded because it is not sent to your final destination. For example, we made a stopover in Chicago, and once we passed the custom, we had to collect the baggage and re-embark it on special belts that were not far from the baggage area. The re-boarding path was well signposted. Therefore, when you book your flight, ensure that your stopover is at least 4 hours because you really risk missing the domestic one. If so, you will be re-boarded on the first available flight, which could be several hours away (or the next day).
Itinerary and duration of the trip
The itinerary to choose and how to do that is always the main doubt of all those who decide to arrange this wonderful trip. The advice we give you is not to be in a rush but to take things slow. Read up ahead the Parks information to have a clear idea about the time to spend in each of them. Each Park has its own official website where you can find all the information you need. No worry; step by step, you will put together all the puzzle pieces in the best way!
The attractions to visit are many because, in addition to the parks, there will be the opportunity to stay in iconic metropolises like San Francisco, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Therefore, the tour choice is quite subjective; it depends on your interests, the time you can spend, and your budget. Let’s say that, to get an idea, a complete tour ranges from 2 to 3 weeks. A shorter tour can also be made, perhaps visiting California exclusively (including the coast) with a hit-and-run in Nevada to visit the Death Valley. Anyway, it is a choice that we do not recommend too much, also for the high expenses. In our case, considering how far Los Angeles and San Francisco are from Italy, we decided to stay for 3 weeks.
How to plan the itinerary
The first thing to decide is whether to leave from Los Angeles or San Francisco, and from here, with the help of google maps, start creating your route. The best choice is to plan your arrival in Los Angeles and leave San Francisco (or vice versa) to visit both cities. The main and most visited parks, in order of distance, are Sequoia NP, Joshua Tree NP, Yosemite NP, Death Valley NP, Zion NP, Bryce Canyon, Antelope Canyon, Grand Canyon, Canyon de Chelly, Monument Valley, Canyonlands NP, Arches NP, Grand Teton NP and Yellowstone. Please consider that Yellowstone is usually included in a 3-week trip because it stretches about 1700 km from San Francisco. After visiting Yellowstone NP, a long drive awaits you to reach SF or LA. However, there is also the chance of dropping off your vehicle in Jackson Hole or Salt Lake City and taking a domestic flight. Some days will be really long, and you will have to drive hundreds of kilometres. It is crucial to leave early in the morning; the sooner you leave, the better. We always woke up at dawn, leaving our accommodation around 7 am.
Time Zones: in general, there are three different time zones in the Western States. Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, Monument Valley are -8 hours behind Italy; Arizona is – 9 hours behind Italy; California and Nevada -9 hours behind Italy. Therefore, it could happen that on the same day, crossing several states, you’ll find different time zones. For example, we slept in Kanab (Utah), and the next day we headed to Page (Arizona) to visit the Antelope canyon. The distance between the 2 cities is only 120 km, but the time zone is different (Page is -1 hour behind Kanab).
Entrance fees to the Parks
At the entrance to the first park you will reach, you will need to purchase the Annual Pass (80 USD per vehicle), which guarantees entry to all parks managed by the National Parks Service (excluding Antelope Canyon and Monument Valley). You will receive a map and an informative newspaper. Each park has a Visitor Center where you can get all the necessary information. Antelope Canyon can only be visited with a private tour (about 1 hour) to be booked via the web through one of the Page tour agencies. It is always jam-packed during the summer, and we highly recommend booking months in advance because you risk not finding scheduled tours. We booked our Antelope Canyon tour with Adventurous Antelope Canyon Photo Tours.
Car rental is a fairly large expense. If you are a solo traveller, the expense of this trip could be really too much. We rented a car directly at Los Angeles International Airport with the Alamo company. As soon as you leave the arrivals, follow the purple signs to the left. Here are the various shuttles that take you to the rental companies. The rental agreement included CDW, EP, unlimited km, Gps, 1 full tank of petrol and 2 drivers. To guarantee the rental, you need a credit card that must not be prepaid and must have the numbers in relief. Once the paperwork is completed, go into the parking lot and choose the car you want, corresponding to your booked category. We chose a Dodge. We dropped off the car at the San Francisco International Airport.
Useful tips for driving
First of all, it is essential to have a full tank because you often travel for many kilometres without seeing a petrol station. The procedure for refuelling: you must first go to the cashier indicating the petrol pump’s number and give him the dollars you want to refuel. Once the refuelling is complete, go back to the cashier to collect the change and the receipt. Always stop refuelling as soon as you reach the middle of the tank.
To drive in some States, it is necessary to have an international driving permit issued by the Department for Transport. They only asked for our national driving license at the rental company desk, and when the police stopped us in Los Angeles, they checked only that. However, it is always better to have an international driving permit to avoid getting into trouble. Always respect the speed limits because there are many speed controls. If you bump into a Police check, remember not to get out of the car and wait for the police officer to tell you instruction. On highways and multi-lane freeways, you can also overtake on the right, so be careful and check the right mirror if you change lanes. At 4-way intersections, where it isn’t easy to understand who has to give way, traffic is regulated according to arrival order (unless otherwise indicated). Even when the traffic light is red, you can make a right turn (unless indicated – “no turn on red”).
Accommodations inside parks are always the most expensive; so, to save money, look for accommodations in the nearby small towns. The advice we give you is to always book in advance to find the best deals and have a wider choice. During the summer months, especially July and August, budget accommodations fill up immediately. To make the idea, we booked our accommodation in February / March for August. Through booking.com, we looked for rooms without prepayment and with the chance of cancellation up to the previous day. Obviously, you need a credit card as a guarantee. During the trip, it may happen that you will be made a charge to guarantee the reservation. Be careful to have enough credit limit because if you cannot guarantee the requested sum, the hotels will cancel the reservation. If you are a tent lover, in some parks you will also find areas for camping. Check directly on their official website. In the main cities, you can also find to try a hostel through hostelworld.com.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner
It is a trip “on the road”, and time is never enough. If breakfast is not included in your accommodation, you can stop at the petrol station well stocked with pastries and coffee. The same consideration can be made for lunch as, in the petrol stations, you will often find fast-food or hot dogs, sandwiches, salads and fruit. We often bought sandwiches and fruit when we stopped for breakfast or refuelling. In the parks, you will find restaurants, bars and fast-foods. For dinner, you won’t have problems as there are many restaurants. We looked for the best restaurant using TripAdvisor.
Mobile Phone and wifi
Wifi is basically everywhere, but it’s better to have your own data because it will make your trip easier. We found a local Simcard at Chicago airport at 50 USD (too expensive), but the best option was with our Italian provider offering 20 GB of data.
Expenses of our trip
Oh yes, as well as being spectacular, it is a very expensive trip, so you have to estimate a quite high expense. The best way to save money is to arrange the trip for 4 people because motels/hotel often have 4-person rooms (2 double beds), and the cost will be more sustainable. If you travel in July-August, try to book in advance because you have more choice to find affordable accommodation, especially in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Las Vegas, where prices are high. The costs that we list are those we incurred during our trip.
Hotel: The average cost for a 4-person room (even double occupancy) is between USD 60 and 90 per night. It really depends on the town where you are going to sleep. If the city where you plan to stop has too high prices, look in a nearby town. For example, we were supposed to sleep in Jackson Hole, but the prices were too high. Therefore, we decided to sleep in Alpine.
Car Rental: We rented a Dodge for 21 days at the cost of USD 540 per week. Renting smaller cars costs around USD 400 per week.
Petrol: It depends on the vehicle type you rent and the kilometres you drive. We paid a gallon of gasoline (3.8 litres), about 2.5 USD. We drove approximately 7000 km, spending around 600 USD.
Food: For breakfast, we usually spend about 5 USD; for lunches/dinners in fast food (or sandwiches in minimarket) between 5 and 7 USD; while for dinner in the restaurants between 15 and 20 USD.
Flight: the cost of the flight depends on the airport you leave and the period. We spent 650 euros booking it several months before (United airline).
Other expenses: there are also other costs like, for example, the annual pass (80 USD per car), the entrance tickets to Monument Valley (20 USD per car) plus a horseback excursion, and Antelope Canyon tour (USD 80), Lake Powell boat trip (40 USD), Grand Canyon helicopter flight (USD 300), Los Angeles and San Francisco attractions.
Total expenses: we arranged the trip for 4 of us, thus managing to split the costs. Pretty much, we spent 3300 USD each. Consider that we visited the parks in the peak season when the prices are higher.