Endless expanses, breathtaking landscapes and untouched wilderness. A trip through the western United States is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Special sights are the large national parks, which attract millions of visitors every year. Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Zion are some of the most famous and beautiful national parks in the western United States.
Biggi and Flo tell you what you absolutely have to see and do on your tour through this very special part of the country.
An important tip in advance: Visit several national parks in the USA , you can save a lot of money by buying the “ America the Beautiful ” pass. The pass is valid for one year and gives access to National Parks, National Wildlife Refuges and other government managed areas. The pass costs $80 (as of April 2020).
1. The Grand Canyon National Park is a must on any USA trip
The Grand Canyon – the mightiest gorge in the world – is known far beyond Arizona and the USA. Many visitors come to the Grand Canyon South Rim as part of a long day trip from the gambling metropolis of Las Vegas, Nevada. Even if you know the Grand Canyon from pictures and videos – you will never forget the first sight. The mighty canyon is beyond imagination. The South Rim, with its many vantage points, is ideal for getting a first glimpse of the Grand Canyon.
Driving from Las Vegas to the South Rim Visitor Center takes just over four hours by car. The Grand Canyon Skywalk on the West Rim can be reached much faster – in around two hours . The Skywalk takes visitors over a steel and glass structure over the rim of the canyon. At $82 per person, however, this attraction isn’t exactly cheap.
By far the most impressive spot on the Grand Canyon is the lonely Toroweap Overlook on the North Rim. Nowhere are the cliffs of the Grand Canyon closer together than here. The walls drop 800 meters vertically. Anyone who undertakes the arduous journey – 100 kilometers of gravel road from Highway 389 in each direction – will be rewarded with an unforgettable experience.
Tip: The Toroweap Overlook is hardly suitable as a day trip. It is best to spend the night in a car or in a tent at the nearby Tuweep Campground. However, the campsite only has ten pitches. You can apply for the required permit up to four months in advance. Here you will find the form that you send to the national park administration by post or fax.
Admission to Grand Canyon National Park – whether South Rim or North Rim – costs $35 per vehicle (valid for seven days). The alternative is the America the Beautiful pass mentioned above .
2. Yosemite National Park: a top highlight in California
A detour to Yosemite National Park in California (admission: $35 per vehicle) is a must on any trip through the western United States. One of the most impressive places in the park where you have a good chance of seeing bears is at the iconic Tunnel View lookout. From here you can see the imposing granite giants El Capitan, Half Dome and Bridalveil Fall.
In the national park – one of the most beautiful in the USA – with its colorful wildflowers, there are some easy hikes such as the Mirror Lake Loop or the Lower Yosemite Fall Trail, which are also suitable for families with children. More challenging is the Four Mile Trail, which leads in four miles to Glacier Point , almost 1,000 meters higher .
Here you can take the bus back to the valley (be sure to get your tickets in advance) or continue the hike on the impressive Panorama Trail, which also leads into the valley. The latter variant, which leads past the Illilouette, Nevada and Vernal Fall waterfalls, is more than 20 kilometers long and is only recommended for hikers with endurance. The reward for the hardships are unique impressions.
Hiking professionals climb the 2693 meter high Half Dome (accessible only with a permit). Depending on the variant, the mountain tour is between 22 and 26 kilometers long and covers almost 1500 meters in altitude. Ten to twelve hours are estimated for the demanding hike.
3. The best attractions in Arches National Park
Arches National Park (admission: $30 per vehicle) with its more than 310 square kilometers near the outdoor Mecca Moab is one of the absolute must-sees in the Mormon state of Utah – the heart of the American Southwest. Arches National Park is known for its huge stone arches, which were formed by erosion over thousands of years.
There are more than 2000 of these natural stone arches, formed by wind, sun, heat and cold, to be discovered. You almost feel like you’re on another planet.
Even the drive to Arches National Park – the access road meanders steeply upwards in serpentines – will leave you speechless.
The most famous sight in Arches National Park is the 20 meter high Delicate Arch. The huge stone arch is also the symbol of Utah. You can even see the imposing stone arch on state license plates. Every evening, hundreds of visitors make the arduous journey to celebrate the sunset at the Delicate Arch.
The La Sal Mountains shimmer in the distance, with peaks reaching 12,000 feet into the sky. The round tour is about five kilometers long and 150 meters in altitude have to be overcome. The hike should not be underestimated, especially in summer with temperatures well over 40 degrees. In any case, take enough water and sun protection with you!
You absolutely have to see the so-called “Windows Section” in Arches National Park. Some call it the beating heart of the park. Here you can see the huge Double Arch, the Turret Arch and the North Window, which is a great photo motif, especially in the morning. In the area you will find other highlights such as Garden of Eden, Elephant Butte and Parade of Elephants – all impressive sandstone formations.
A real insider tip in Arches National Park is the Tower Arch. You should only set off when the weather conditions are stable. After eight miles on the Salt Valley Road, a rugged washboard road that becomes impassable when wet, you’ll reach the trailhead of the hike. From the parking lot you need about half an hour to walk through the grandiose landscape to the unknown Tower Arch.
4. You must see this in Canyonlands National Park
Like nearby Arches National Park, the best place to start exploring Canyonlands National Park (admission: $30 per vehicle) is in the desert town of Moab, Utah. At least if you visit the well-known “Island in the Sky” district.
Over millions of years, the Colorado River has carved its way deep into the rock and created a unique landscape. From vantage points such as Grand View Point, White Rim Overlook or Green River Overlook you have a fantastic view from above over the seemingly endless landscape formed by the Colorado River.
The most famous photo motif in Canyonlands National Park is the Mesa Arch in the light of the rising sun. Just after sunrise, the huge stone arch seems to glow. Of course, word of this photo spot has long since spread on social media. Dozens of photographers and onlookers wait here in the morning to experience the natural spectacle live. If you want to see the sunrise at the Mesa Arch for yourself, you’ll want to wrap up. Even in the summer months it can get very cold in the mornings.
Hikers will get their money’s worth in the southern Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. The most beautiful tours include the hike to the mighty Druid Arch and the Joint Trail. Both tours take you into a unique world of colorful rock needles that rise up into the blue sky. Both hikes should only be tackled by experienced hikers who are sure-footed and fit enough for a long day’s hike.
5. A trip to Zion National Park
Zion National Park (admission: $35 per vehicle) is another top attraction in the US state of Utah. To cope with the influx of visitors, there is a free shuttle bus in the park that takes you deeper into the imposing valley. You can park in the visitor car park at the Visitor Center.
The hike up Angels Landing (The Grotto shuttle stop) is on almost every visitor’s “to-do” list. The view from the 1765 meter high peak is truly breathtaking. The almost nine-kilometer hike (out and back), on which 450 meters in altitude have to be overcome, provides a thrill, especially at the end. To the left and right of the path, which is secured with steel chains, there is a vertical drop of several hundred meters. Nothing for people afraid of heights. Good shoes and a head for heights are a must.
If you don’t want to go that high, the hike through the Narrows is for you. From the Temple of Sinawa shuttle stop, you soon enter the narrow gorge created by the Virgin River. The tour takes you partly through waist-high water, deeper and deeper into the canyon. Even in summer, neoprene socks are recommended. Hire wooden hiking poles from one of the many outdoor shops in Springdale just outside the National Park. The hike is doable even in winter.
Another highlight in Zion National Park is the hike to Observation Point. From up here you have a unique view over Zion Canyon and Angels Landing. The hike is around 13 kilometers long and climbs 650 meters in altitude. Sturdy shoes are mandatory. In addition, you have to be absolutely free from giddiness in places, as the well-developed path sometimes leads steeply down.
6. The magical Bryce Canyon
Bryce Canyon National Park (admission: $35 per vehicle) in Utah is one of the most beautiful national parks in the USA and is a must on any trip through the American Southwest. Visitors can expect to see hundreds of thousands of orange stone formations soaring into the sky. The Bryce Canyon is particularly impressive in the morning or in the evening light of the low sun.
Bryce Canyon also has a lot to offer hikers. One of the best-known tours is the Navajo Loop, which is just over two kilometers long and gives hikers a great first impression and leads directly through this unique landscape.
The American national parks at a glance
The national parks in the USA have a long history. Yellowstone National Park, established in 1872, is the first national park in the United States and the first in the world. Today there are 62 national parks in the United States.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park – located in the US states of North Carolina and Tennessee – has the title of the most visited national park with over eleven million visitors in 2018. It is followed by the Grand Canyon National Park with more than six million visitors and the Grand Canyon National Park with almost five million visitors.
In terms of area, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in the state of Alaska is the largest national park in the USA at over 53,000 square kilometers. With just 80,000 visitors a year, visitors to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park will find plenty of unspoiled nature. The national park is also an Eldorado for adventurers and mountaineers. After all, some of the highest mountains in the United States are located in the national park.
Last but not least, the question about the most beautiful canyon in the USA: That is really difficult to answer. The Grand Canyon definitely has to be mentioned here. If you are near the town of Page in Arizona – about two hours east of Zion National Park – you should make a detour to the well-known Antelope Canyon.
Tips for your round trip through the national parks in the western United States
- Las Vegas (Nevada) or Denver (Colorado) are ideal starting points for your journey through the Southwest of the USA.
- Outside of the villages you usually have no cell phone network. But: The people are very friendly and helpful. Whenever you have a problem, help is usually not far away.
- In the months of April, May, September and October you usually have very good weather, but many spots are not as crowded as in midsummer and the prices for flights, hotels and rental cars are significantly cheaper.
- The best way to experience the Southwest of the USA is with a campervan. The USA can be explored very well with a caravan.
- For the round trip, it is best to download the free National Park Service (NPS) app . It contains information on all 62 parks such as opening hours, tour suggestions, offline maps and audio guides.
- A credit card is mandatory. You cannot book a hotel or rental car without a credit card. In addition, you can pay for almost everything in the USA with plastic money.
Biggis and Flos points of interest in the 6 national parks can be found here: