The USA’s National Parks are some of the country’s greatest assets and today the National Park Service celebrates its birthday – when entry to every park across the country is free for the day. Each National Park has so much to see that you’d ideally want to spend at least a couple of days there – and hikers could easily spend a week in each. But what if you’ve only got a day to spare, or even less? My visits to five of the southwest’s National Parks earlier this year were all on a fairly tight timescale, with a day or sometimes only half a day to spend in each. I had to balance what I wanted to see with the time I had available, and it was tough to know what to choose. So afterwards I put together this list of my must-sees for each park I visited for anyone else in a hurry who’s looking to see the highlights.
Bryce Canyon National Park
In half a day… From Bryce Canyon‘s visitors centre, follow the 18-mile-long scenic driving route, starting off in the Bryce Amphitheater area. Park up at Sunset Point first and follow the Rim Trail for a mile along to Sunrise Point. Drive on around the amphitheatre to the viewpoints at Inspiration Point, Bryce Point and Paria View. Then leave Bryce Amphitheater and head out along the road to the furthest point at Rainbow Point. There are plenty of viewpoints on the way, my favourites were the arch at Natural Bridge, the two towering hoodoos at Agua Canyon and the wide views from Rainbow Point.
In a full day… Get down into the canyon amongst the hoodoos on one of the hiking trails – there’s the Queen’s Garden Trail from Sunrise Point, which is the easiest at just under two miles, or the steeper one-and-a-half-mile Navajo Loop Trail from Sunset Point. Or you can combine the two into a longer route.
Zion National Park
In half a day… For most of the year you have to park at Zion‘s visitors centre and take the shuttle around the park. Get some background information at the Visitor’s Centre and Human History Museum first before catching the bus out to the Emerald Pools Trail for the hour-long walk to the lower pool. Head back to Zion Lodge, where there’s a cafe and picnic area if you want to stop for lunch before catching the next shuttle. Stop off at Weeping Rock for a short walk to the cascades, then get the shuttle to the end of the road where the two-mile-long Riverside Walk takes you to the entrance of The Narrows.
In a full day… Continue your Emerald Pools walk by another hour to visit the upper pool. If you’re heading to or from the east, spend some time following the 25-mile-long Zion–Mount Carmel Tunnel scenic drive which follows a tunnel cut through the rock and winds down to the park.
Arches National Park
In half a day… Start off your Arches exploration at Park Avenue Viewpoint, then drive on to Balanced Rock, where there’s a short circular path around the precariously perched rock. Take the turn off just after it towards the Windows Section of the park and do the short walks out to Double Arch (half a mile) and around the loop passing the North and South Windows and Turret Arch (one mile). Drive back to the main road then take the turn off to the right towards Delicate Arch. There’s not really time to do the walk out to the park’s most famous arch in half a day, but you can follow the lower path to Delicate Arch Viewpoint (one mile), where you get a great view of it across the canyon.
In a full day… Do the hike out to Delicate Arch (three miles, with some steep sections) – best done in the early morning or late afternoon as there’s not a lot of shade en route. Also add on the drive to the park’s furthest point, Devil’s Garden, stopping off at the Fiery Furnace lookout on the way, and do the one-and-a-half-mile walk out to Landscape Arch.
Canyonlands National Park
In half a day… Canyonlands is divided into three sections – if you want good views concentrate on the Islands in the Sky district, which is the most accessible. Stop off at the visitors centre first where there’s a short walk out to the Shafer Canyon Overlook. Drive on to Mesa Arch where there’s another short half-mile walk out to an arch on the edge of a cliff. The road then splits – take the right fork to Upheaval Dome, where there is a viewpoint a mile’s walk out onto the dome. Then backtrack to the junction and take the left fork and follow the road out to the end at Grand View Point for some of the park’s most spectacular views.
In a full day… Extend your walk at Upheaval Dome out to the second viewpoint (an extra mile) and add in stops at the Green River and Buck Canyon overlooks on your way to Grand View Point. You can also take a side trip to Dead Horse Point State Park, which is on the way back to Moab.
Mesa Verde National Park
In half a day… Drive the 20-mile winding road up up to Mesa Verde’s plateau, stopping off at a couple of the overlooks on the way to take in the view. The biggest concentration of sights is in the Chaplin Mesa area. Learn about the Ancestral Puebloans at the Chaplin Mesa Museum (where there’s a picnic area if you want to stop for lunch) then take the self-guided tour to Spruce Tree house – the best-preserved cliff house and one of the few you can visit without a guide (takes around 45 minutes). Then drive the six-mile Mesa Top Loop where there are stops at short walkways where you can see pit houses, the Sun temple and get great views of the cliff houses across the valley.
In a full day… Add on a drive around the six-mile Cliff Palace Loop and take a ranger-led tour of Cliff Palace, the largest cliff house, or the more adventurous tour of Balcony House where you climb through tunnels and up ladders (each takes an hour and you need to book in advance at the visitor’s centre).
So those are my highlights from each park – do you disagree with any or did I miss out something? And do you have any tips on the must-sees at other National Parks in the southwest USA?