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USA for the first time - 3 weeks


Lost in Place
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Joined: June 7th, 2007
Location: Black Forest, Germany

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Tags: usa, national park
  • Added on: January 22nd, 2012
Dear travelers,

in August/September 2012 we are planning a road trip in the USA for 3 weeks. I know that the USA is a huge country and that´s why we would like to pick a certain area / state where there are great things to see.
I do not know much about the USA but I know that there are amazing National Parks.

I have read somewhere that the west part is the best, lots of NPs not far from each other. The problem is that I do not know how much time we have to plan for each park, how much time we need to travel between them etc.

I was thinking of starting in Los Angeles, Hollywood, a bit of beach, than driving (or flying?) to Las Vegas, Grand Canyon and further to the east - NPs in Nevada, Arizona. Or the other way round.

Or maybe San Francisco, Yosemite NP, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Grand Canyon etc.?

Could anyone help me with a reasonable itinerary? What NPs are a "must see"? What else shouldn´t we miss?

We are mainly intersted in nature but also nice cities for a short stop are worth to see.

Thanks a lot for all your suggestions and ideas. :)


Holds PhD in Packing
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Joined: July 11th, 2004

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  • Added on: January 22nd, 2012
must sees-

Grand Canyon, probably Yellowstone, old faithful geyser, and

Zion national park. you could spend a week hiking about in Zion on day trips if you wanted. I recommed the camground there, if you can get a spot., Other spots cost more and aren't nearly as convenient.

There are more I like, of course.

The painted desert in arizone and the petrified forest in arizona-
It used to be much grander, but fossil thieves have reduced its size and grandeur.
Tortuga traveller


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Community Manager
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Joined: February 23rd, 2005
Location: Portland, Oregon

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  • Added on: January 23rd, 2012
Some time ago, one of my colleagues at BootsnAll put together a series of "RTW in the USA" articles listing the places people who are stopping in the US for a RTW trip should consider visiting. He broke up the country into big sections, including the Great Plains (with Yellowstone National Park, Grand Canyon, Las Vegas) & the West Coast. Stopping in every place listed would take far more than 3 weeks, of course, but this could help you compartmentalize such a big country into more manageable pieces.

I think you could do an awesome 3-week trip that included the Grand Canyon, Vegas, Yosemite, & a drive up through California. It wouldn't exactly be leisurely, but you'd certainly see much of the majesty of the country. Yellowstone is awesome, but a bit tougher to wrap in together with other spots due to its location (and a 3-week trip duration).
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Joined: February 23rd, 2005
Location: Portland, Oregon

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  • Added on: January 23rd, 2012
Oh, I forgot - this BootsnAll article could also be useful:

5 Best US Cities for National Park Lovers

It's got 5 cities from which you can visit multiple parks from one homebase.

Couple more you may find helpful:
Ultimate U.S. Road Trips for Nature Lovers
The First-Timer’s Guide to Planning a U.S. National Parks Vacation
The Official BootsnAll Italy Travel Guide
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Street Food Connoisseur
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Joined: March 23rd, 2008

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  • Added on: January 25th, 2012
I'll agree with others that an LA- Vegas- Grand Canyon- Zion/ southern Utah- Yosemite- SF- LA loop would be a great trip. It has the added advantage that renting a car would be very highly recommended/ pretty much required, but tends to get cost prohibitive unless you return it to the same place you rented it... oh and if you've ever considered Burning Man, I should mention you're in the right time of year for it.

I'd also consider heading north after LA and leaving the Grand Canyon part until the end of your trip rather than the beginning as I'd much rather go to Arizona in September than August due to the temperatures involved.

I will also add my voice to the crowd saying Yellowstone is an awesome place- Old Faithful didn't excite me that much (I think we're too used to giant fountains these days!), but the rest of the geothermal stuff coupled with the wildlife and scenery was just stunning. Tetons right next door are awesome too... though as others have said it's a touch out of the way, your best bet would likely be to fly up to Jackson Hole and rent a car there for a week or so if you're really keen (which, don't get me wrong, would be an awesome trip as well).


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Thorn Tree Refugee
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Joined: February 17th, 2012

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  • Added on: February 17th, 2012
I agree with the PP - Old Faithful was not very impressive, but Yellowstone is. It might be a little too far/out of the way for a trip like this though.
An almost-married couple exploring at home and abroad:Couple of Travels


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Thorn Tree Refugee
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Joined: May 14th, 2012
Location: Tucson

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  • Added on: June 3rd, 2012
We did a two week car camping trip a few years ago that included a flight to LA where we booked a rental car with unlimited mileage.
We did Disney, the Queen Mary and Spruce Goose at Long Beach, the museums, and, of course, the Hollywood stuff.
We then headed north on the coast road to Hearst Castle, Monterrey, and Santa Cruz redwoods.

We eventually arrived in San Francisco and did a hotel overnight. From SF we did the wine tasting Napa tours and then headed east for Yosemite camping. We both loved to drive so we could really put on the miles.
Over the Tioga Pass we toured Mono Lake and then headed for Tahoe. We then turned south through Death Valley and then to Las Vegas. After a day of rest there in a plush hotel at mid week room rates we went to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon via the Hoover Dam and Route 66 in Williams. We headed north on Route 64 and camped at the south rim and then headed east and north to Little Antelope Slot Canyon in Page Arizona. If you like to make unusual photos, this is the place.

We next camped on the North Rim, splurged on a sunset dinner in the restaurant at cliff edge.
From the North rim we headed to Zion Canyon and then Brice.
From Brice you could probably reach Yellowstone and Teton on a three week vacation by going north through Salt Lake City but it is about 600 miles one way. We didn't, we headed back to LV through Valley of Fire SP and on to LA where we turned in our rental to fly back east.
One note of caution, late September could see cold temperatures on the Grand Canyon rims at high elevation, 7000 to 8000 feet.

We covered a lot of ground on that trip and came away with great memories and photos but we would take it slower today. We have returned to several of those places and found that we could do a week or more in several such as the Grand Canyon, San Francisco, and Yosemite.

Desert Rat

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Joined: July 11th, 2012

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  • Added on: July 11th, 2012
OK. I will offer a bit of a contrarian perspective. Long post, but hopefully helpful and to the point…

First, if you truly want to focus most on National Parks and scenic beauty, with a bit of “best city” time, consider the lay of the land and distances, time of your visit (summer)…

The American West and Southwest is vast, and hot. I am somewhat of a desert rat, so that’s fine for me. However, you have the opportunity to balance your “hot time” with various environments and destinations that are truly unique and spectacular. Also, if you do your swing through the desert Southwest nearer the end of your trip, it will be cooler.

As a second prime planning-consideration, think TYPE of location. Your proposed trip could conceivably include (1) alpine (Yosemite high Sierra, Yellowstone and Tetons, Sequoia Natl Park), (2) Canyon and slickrock country (Grand Canyon, Zion, Canyonlands, Arches Natl Parks), (3) Ancient Anasazi Cliff dwellings, and (4) the Pacific Coast, redwoods and sequoias.

If some of these appeal more to you, place them front-and-center in your planning. If you already have some experience in some of these environments, consider leaving some out to focus elsewhere.

As one example, many have mentioned seeing Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone is no doubt fantastic. It has the largest collection of mammals outside of the Alaskan tundra and Tanzania’s Serengeti. It is one of our most crowded parks, although if you go in September, crowds are less, and the Autumn migrations will be beginning.

The problem is distance. It’s far, off near by itself, and part of the Rocky Mountains. It does have the Grand Tetons on the south boundary, a spectacular destination in itself. But the drive from west coast is over 1000 miles, and unless you picked this as your primary destination, you’d miss the other parks I will discuss next.

Others mentioned going north from San Francisco up to the wine country (Napa, Sonoma). Fine if that’s what you enjoy, but personally, I can only drink so much, and the countryside is not THAT pretty, much less spectacular. Also, it is in the “wrong” direction to get to most of the reachable parks…

That all said, I will offer that my style for US Natl Park travel has been to enjoy (or endure!) a single long-day rental car drive to reach each of my primary National Park destinations, then spend a few days in each exploring, hiking, backpacking.

If you resonate with that general approach, here is what I suggest.

The itinerary below entails per Google ( 50 hours TOTAL of driving. However, there is no segment more than 8-10 hrs (two), and most are 4-8 hours with 1-3 days on-site in a Park with minimal or local driving those days.

Total distance entire trip sounds daunting, 2700 miles. Cutting out Mesa Verde (see below) would cut 10 hrs and about 600 miles off of this…

If you have 2 or more weeks, this would provide you a great and varied experience of US National Parks and the west. If you have less time, or want to drive a bit less, I would leave off the Utah Parks, though it really pains me to say that! That would cut hours and miles to half of the “Grand Sweep”…

Here’s my Grand Sweep suggestions.

1. Fly into San Francisco. I regard SF as a truly beautiful city, and a convenient jump-off point for a very doable and fantastic round trip as you intend. [Coming from an avowed ruralist and wilderness freak, that may tell you something…]

2. Head to Yosemite National Park, seeing Mono Lake outside the East Gate on your way out. Yosemite is a glacier carved wonderland abounding with astounding waterfalls and granite domes and spires. I will add, however, that if you’ve spent time in Patagonia or the Alps, even Nepal, while Yosemite rivals and is even unique compared to these, you might want to focus elsewhere. A short drive north of the gate are a set of wilderness hot springs in the Sierra foothills, FYI…

3. Drive from Yosemite across Nevada’s Great Basin to Utah’s Zion National Park (8-9 hrs via US Route 6 and 50). This takes you through old and on-going silver mining towns, Great Basin National Park (with a pretty fine cavern), and will give you an excellent feel of the high desert. You’ll either love it, or be glad it’s done, likely both!

4. Zion National Park – There is no place outside Jordon I’ve seen like this… There are two fantastic half-day adventures in that Park. (1) the NW part of the Park, attached but separate, Kolob Canyons, some of the most spectacular slot canyons I’ve seen anywhere; (2) Angel’s Landing, a safe but heart pounding platform sitting high above the Virgin River and canyon. Doing a half-day in “The Narrows” is also a fine venture.

5. From Zion, I would head to the NORTH RIM of the Grand Canyon, a 6-8 hr drive max through fantastic canyon and red rock country of the Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monument, to the Ponderosa Pines and Aspen of the North Rim, always less crowded.

A hike INTO the canyon is a compelling imperative. The Bright Angel Trail descends in 5 miles to Roaring Springs, a doable one-day RT hike that allows an “in-depth” feel of that incredible place, and an overnight to there or Cottonwood Camp is SO worthwhile.

Some suggested taking in Bryce Canyon National Park. This is no doubt a top tourist spot, quite pretty, but crowded, actually quite small in scale, w limited wilderness opportunity. Me, I’d skip it.

Same with Las Vegas. It is convenient in providing a route to and from some of these parks, but I will confess I personally detest the place. Oh, it WILL give you a unique perspective of Americana, can’t argue that. But unless you groove on tacky fake attractions and mostly older people spending their retirement on the slots while they smoke themselves to a quicker grave, skip it. There ARE frequent shows and acts many people actually come to Las Vegas see, but you can do shows in San Francisco easier if that’s something you want to take in.
In short, if you want parks and nature, use Las Vegas as a breakfast or overnight stop at most.

6. From Grand Canyon, I would drive north and east on US 163 to Moab Utah and its collection of National Parks all within 1-2 hours of each other, and each unique. On the way are classic sites such as the Navaho’s Monument Valley (classic in so many ads and movies: it’s classic but not a place I found enchanting, with numerous other spires and mesas around that are as good (e.g., Goosenecks State Park, Garden of the Gods, etc).

This entire “Four Corners” area is rich in ancient Anasazi ruins and cliff dwellings. Hovenweap National Monument and Mesa Verde National Park are fantastic, although the Ute Tribal Park tour bordering Mesa Verde goes into unexcavated cliff palaces and with smaller groups. While vigorous and all-day, I suggest it will give a much more authentic and cultural experience of this ancient civilization.

The Parks around Moab include the three units of Canyonlands National Park, many world-class whitewater trips and “The Maze” (pertinent if you ever read Edward Abbey’s “Monkey Ranch Gang”). Moab is considered the heart of slickrock country, and one of the best areas for mountain biking, 4WD ventures, and incredible hiking.

If you DO rent a daylong 4WD, I suggest the Needles District, going up Elephant Hill to Chelsea Park and “The Joint”.
The other Moab National Park is Arches. Like the name suggests, this holds the largest collection of windows, fins, arches and natural bridges in the world. I love the place, and some of the vistas are classic in many a movie and ad.

Don’t miss the drive up the Colorado River from Moab, State Route 128, to Fisher Towers (20 miles). I personally call this drive the “Oh My God Highway”…

7. Start your trek back with your second long drive, Interstate 70 west across the San Rafael Swell, through Las Vegas, then to Sequoia and King’s Canyon National Park. These are home to the biggest and oldest trees on the planet, and are in the heart of the Sierra Nevada range. Absolutely a place to see.

Its only problem is you can only approach the park from the west, and the San Joaquin Valley (and Fresno), while agricultural breadbaskets, just ain’t pretty, and your trip back would entail a 4-6 hour ride across the valley toward the west coast.

8. I’d end up driving California Route 1, the Pacific Coast Highway through Monterey (John Steinbeck fame, “Cannery Row”) and Big Sur, a superbly scenic drive, and one that gets you to also see the Redwood trees, magnificent creatures. Keep on Route 1 all the way back to San Francisco.

Hope this is helpful to you. Have fun!

Beverley in Oakland CA

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Thorn Tree Refugee
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Joined: July 5th, 2009

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  • Added on: July 24th, 2012
Yosemite is my favorite! Leave the beaten paths a little and you will not find crowds. Walk the mile from Ahwahnee Hotel to Yosemite Falls. Take shuttle bus to Happy Isles and enjoy the rushing river.
The waterfalls may be UNspectacular after July, as they get more and more dry as summer progresses.

You will need to take a day trip or reserve outside the park, I think. MANY visitors in summer. Check where you can reserve.

DESERT RAT, July 11, has very good suggestions.

There are many wonderful scenic spots in the USA! You might consider Carlsbad Caverns (only if you have not experienced underground caves with stalactites and stalagmites.) You might consider a second trip some day!


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Armchair Traveler
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Joined: November 9th, 2012

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  • Added on: November 10th, 2012
Just to put down a second option away from the American Southwest if extreme heat is not your thing. The Pacific Northwest has some amazing national parks and great American culture.

Fly into Seattle. Washington State has some amazing forests and mountains, then travel either East to Wyoming/Dakotas, or south into California. The Northern route is going to be cheaper and have much less tourists, much less populated in general, while the southern route will take you to the more well known and well traveled parks (For good reason, they ARE spectacular)

I'm not much of a nature guy, I much prefer cities. So this is the part of the trip I'll weigh in on. I personally HATE Las Vegas. Unless you want to be in a bizzaro City themed amusment park and are big into gambling or expensive high class partying, Las Vegas is not for you. It is also one of the worst example cities to send someone looking to experience America, because it is fake and does not portray America very realistically. I'd say the same thing about LA, but to a lesser degree, add celebrities minus gambling. As far as Western cities go, I'd recommend Seattle WA to San Francisco CA any day. Or San Diego CA to Phoenix AZ if the south west is your destination.

Just another point of view, playing devil's advocate since everyone is suggesting the same thing.


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Thorn Tree Refugee
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Joined: February 22nd, 2013

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  • Added on: March 10th, 2013
I agree, Vegas when you stay for several days , last days you have a strange feeling, due to all that money surrounding. You have to stay just 1 day or 2 days I think.

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