The Grand Circle, southwest US parks

Bryce Canyon, Utah, USA

The Grand Circle

Grand Circle is a commercially-coined term, but a useful one nevertheless, tying together southwest USA’s most spectacular national parks, monuments and roads into a huge circle encompassing much of Utah, part of Arizona and smaller sections of Colorado and New Mexico. This area is geologically known as the Colorado Plateau and 300 million years ago used to be seas and dunes that dried and solidified into wild coloured sandstone that was then eroded into weird shapes – buttes, spires, arches, canyons and cliffs – by rivers and rains.

Geologically speaking the Plateau’s youngest rocks can be seen at Bryce, the middle-aged at Zion and the positively geriatric at the base of the Grand Canyon.
The Plateau’s first residents, known as the Anasazi ( aka Ancient Pueblo Peoples) arrived around 2, 000 years ago, building into caves and alcoves of canyon walls. Examples of their structures and art can be seen in Canyon de Chelly pictures.

Zion Canyon, Utah

Getting around the Grand Circle

Visitors flying in to explore the great sights of SW USA could arrive at Salt Lake City, Albuquerque, Denver, Phoenix but best of all Las Vegas for ease, convenience and entertainment, renting a vehicle on arrival. This is a must-drive route, public buses are just not going to do the job, though a fixed tour bus is an easy option.

Motorcyclists will be ecstatic about the rental Harleys available, the climate and the roads, car drivers delighted by the light traffic and heavy sights, but probably the most convenient form of transport on this grand tour – though not cheap – would be an RV (Recreation Vehicle, i. e. motorhome), giving maximum flexibility and mobility with minimum packing and unpacking.

Our trip to Las Vegas and the Grand Circle

Route 24 to Moab, Utah

The Bug Crew used an RV (the one in the photo above) and roamed the area for six weeks; for a normal holiday however, a one week trip is possible, a two week trip would be fine and three weeks would be perfect.

Even with 6 weeks time and moving fast it’s not feasible to visit all the National Parks in the Grand Circle, so we have distilled The Circle into a two week trip-of-a-lifetime route of magical roads and fantasy landscapes, choosing our favourites and correcting some of our (logistic) mistakes.

This is only a suggested itinerary. Bearing in mind that the Bugcrew were primarily interested in demented visuals with moderate walks attached, had no 4WD available, nor a lot of time, but were RV based, our preferred parks reflect our situation. Locals or tourists with more time or differing inclinations may well prefer other parks, or to spend more time in fewer parks. This latter option is probably the most sensible way to go.

Monument Valley, Utah/Arizona, USA

Monument Valley, Utah/Arizona

Monument Valley, Utah/Arizona, USA

Testing a  Hummer to the limit (with one hand)  in Sand Flats RA near Moab. And that angle is for real.

A  Grand Circle itinerary

Here is a possible two week National Parks itinerary, including walks ranging from one hour to all day:

1 night in Las Vegas, Nevada.
2 nights in Zion Canyon NP (National Park), Utah.
2 nights in Bryce Canyon NP, Utah.
3 nights in Moab, Utah, after a long but stunning drive on Route 12 to/through Capitol Reef NP, Utah, and on Route 24 (mostly) to Moab. With Moab as base spend 1 day in Canyonlands NP, 1. 5 days in Arches NP, and half a day in Sand Flats Recreational Area on a bike, ATV or Hummer hired/arranged in Moab.
1 night in Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, part Utah, part Arizona.
2 nights in Grand Canyon NP, Arizona.
1 night in Las Vegas = 12 nights.
The other two nights could be spent in Las Vegas recovering from an international flight or throwing the pension down the toilet, breaking the long Route 12/24 drive at Capitol Reef, adding Grand Staircase Escalante NM (National Monument) or Canyon de Chelly NM to the trip, or participating in some extra activity time in Moab – white water rafting, for example. Or a hundred other possibilities…

The Grand Canyon, Mather Point viewing area, Arizona, USA.

Mather Point on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.

Best time to go there

The best time to drive this route is September, May or June as crowds will multiply astronomically during July and August and winter months can get chilly. All locations are open year round, except the Grand Canyon’s North Rim which opens only in the summer months. Wild flowers bloom primarily from April to July.

Booking rooms or RV spaces ahead is essential on this tight schedule, even in off-peak months, though with more time you could afford to call and book only a couple of days ahead as you travel.

Double Arches, Arches NP, Utah

Double Arches, Arches NP, Utah

Most visited National Parks in ALL of USA 2015

The Baxter Creek Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains, North Carolina, USA. Photo by Miguel V.

The Baxter Creek Trail up to Mt Sterling is one of the toughest trails in the Great Smoky Mountains, 12 miles there and back with an elevation of 4,000ft. It isn’t technically difficult and the surrounds are gorgeous but the trail just keeps on rising! Tennessee/North Carolina, USA. Photo by  Miguel V.

According to the U.S. National Park Service top ten visitor numbers of all US  National Parks in 2015  were:

  1. Great Smoky Mountains National Park (800 sq miles of North Carolina and Tennessee): 10,712,674 visitors
  2. Grand Canyon National Park (1,900 sq miles of northwestern Arizona): 5,520,736
  3. Rocky Mountain National Park (415 sq miles of the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, north-central Colorado State): 4,155,916
  4. Yosemite National Park (1,200 sq miles of central Sierra Nevada, California): 4,150,217
  5. Yellowstone National Park (3,472 sq miles of mostly Wyoming along with 3% Montana and 1% Idaho): 4,097,710
  6. Zion National Park (229 sq miles of Utah): 3,648,846
  7. Olympic National Park (1,440 sq miles of Washington state): 3,263,761
  8. Grand Teton National Park (480 sq miles of northwest Wyoming, just south of Yellowstone NP): 3,149,921
  9. Acadia National Park (77 sq miles of Maine islands): 2,811,184
  10. Glacier National Park (1,583 sq miles of Montana, bordering with Canada’s Alberta and British Columbia): 2,366,056