Western Parks adventure: top highlights

My daughter and I enjoyed three fabulous weeks at six national parks, hiking 108 miles with 24,000 feet elevation gain (Everest is 29,000 feet!). We flew into Denver June 22, 2021, then drove 3,200 miles to Rocky Mountain NP, Grand Canyon South, Grand Canyon North, Escalante, Bryce, Cedar Breaks, Zion, Death Valley and Yosemite. We flew out of Los Angeles after a dolphin cruise at Newport Beach.

Here are our highlights and tips.

Best hikes:

  • Chasm Lake, Rocky Mountain. Gorgeous glacial lake at the foot of Longs Peak, at 14,259 feet, the highest in the park. 2,500 feet elevation gain amid lots of boulders.
  • Bright Angel, Grand Canyon. I went to 3-mile house while my daughter continued onto Indian Springs. She confirmed the grueling return up would have done me in. 2,166 feet elevation for me; 3,048 for her
  • Angel’s Landing, Zion. We stayed at Zion Lodge for an easy 5:30 a.m. start, and were atop around 7:30. The fast hikers from the first shuttles soon arrived. Beautiful scenery, challenging rocks and chains, 2,090 feet elevation including a jaunt to the Rim Trail afterward. (In hindsight, we should have started at 5 or 5:15.)

Top of the world

  • Mt Hoffmann from May Lake, Yosemite, 10,850 feet. This is the geographic center of Yosemite, from where you can see Half Dome below you. Pretty grueling, especially the last bit, as much of it is boulder strewn without clear paths. 2,039 feet elevation gain.
  • Via Ferrata, near Estes Park, CO, Cathedral peak at Deville rock, 9,000 feet. We love via ferratas and started our adventure with a great one installed by Kent Mountain Adventures just outside of town. We were disappointed and surprised the via ferrata was relatively short while the hike to and from was quite long and tough.
  • Sentinel Dome, Yosemite, 8,123 feet. Beautiful views, surpassing Taft Point.

Gorgeous viewpoints without much effort:

  • Glacier Point, Yosemite
  • Shoshone Point, Grand Canyon South
  • Cape Royal, Grand Canyon North Rim
  • Canyon Overlook, Zion
  • Kolob Canyon overlook, Zion

Best critters:

  • Huge herd of elk with prancing babies, Coyote Valley, Rocky Mountain NP
  • Intimate views of a young moose and mom, interrupted by another moose who came right by us, Coyote Valley, Rocky Mountain NP
  • Young bear frolicking in the creek at McGurk Meadow as we finished our longest hike, Yosemite NP (we saw two bears over four days).
Gorgeous double rainbow at North Rim

Surprised by:

  • Hail/sleet at Rocky Mountain NP in June.
  • Beautiful double rainbow at the Grand Canyon North Rim.
  • The Wave in-person lottery at Kanab. Turns out they take four applications OR 16 people. The day we went the winning four applications only had 12 people (including a group of one!) so four “slots” went unfilled.
  • Running out of water on two hikes at Yosemite. Although they were relatively short (7.5 and 5.5 miles), they were very steep and it was very hot.
  • How ill-prepared many people were for serious hikes: especially families.
  • Such lousy internet access at the parks…until you got to the peaks of hikes.

Most fun:

  • Ebikes, Zion. We loved our rentals from Ride Zion, which gave us freedom to control our own time without lines when we did the Narrows, and an exhilarating appreciation of the park’s beauty from the ground.
  • Peekaboo Canyon, Escalante. You know a canyon is going to be fun when you have to climb up a rock wall to get in. Peekaboo was filled with rock hurdles and curls that ended all too soon. “More fun than a Disney ride.” We found this much more appealing than Buckskin Gulch (Antelope Canyon remained closed until we came home).
  • Mist Trail to Nevada Falls, Yosemite. Waterfalls were not at their full power on our trip but we enjoyed getting close to Vernal and Nevada Falls. My daughter loved scrambling on the boulders in the mist of beautiful Nevada.
  • Nymph, Dream and Haiyaha lakes, Rocky Mountain (after the fact). We were prepared to get caught in rain but did not expect hail/sleet in June. We got soaked and were freezing as the temperature dropped to 54, and had to forego Mills Lake. In hindsight, it was a lot of unplanned fun.

Harrowing moments:  

  • Death Valley drive-through in record heat with a glitchy rental car. We barely stopped.
  • Returning home on Rocky Mountain’s famed Trail Ridge Road at night when it was completely enshrouded in fog.
  • Blistering sand that scorched bare feet through water sandals at Escalante during the Peekaboo/Spooky hike (I expected a lot of water hiking!)
  • For me: the final boulder field up to Mt. Hoffmann after having already ascended nearly 2,000 feet.
  • For my daughter: going through the very tight maze of Spooky slot canyon at Escalante

Top temperatures:

  • 125 at Death Valley, when the sign told us to turn off our air conditioning to avoid overheating the car. We declined.
  • 113 at Escalante during our Peekaboo/Spooky hike
  • 110 around 4 p.m. after the Narrows hike, Zion
  • 46 at Grand Canyon North Rim

Top tips:

  • Keep checking lodge cancellations! We scored rooms through daily diligence.
  • Don’t forget the time change between states, especially Arizona (PST) and Utah (CST).
  • Great porters at the Grand Canyon hotels, working just for tips
  • North Rim only has six official rim-side cabins (309 being the best) but a good number of others are also terrific: 318, 332, 334, 340, 359, 360, 355, 354, 314.
  • Cheapest gas is at Native American-owned stations
  • Fresh avocado will add great flavor to sandwiches
  • Bring your hiking poles on every hike–you never know.
  • Buy more ziplock bags than you think you’ll need

Best dining:

  • Wynn Buffet, Las Vegas
  • Erick Shats Bakkery, Bishop, CA
  • Thai Cortez, Cortez, CO
  • Georgie’s Mexican, Escalante, UT

Best lodging:

  • Fred Harvey suite, El Tovar Hotel, Grand Canyon. Totally worth the splurge.
  • Entrada Escalante Lodge, Escalante, UT. Extremely guest and eco-friendly.
  • Sonnenhof Lakewood Manor; Estes Park, CO. Spacious Twin Sisters apartment with great views.
The amazing terrace of the Fred Harvey suite at El Tovar.

Click here to see our top 100 images.

4 thoughts on “Western Parks adventure: top highlights

  1. Mei-Mei,

    Just stunning! Thanks for sharing and all the details for those of us who would love to do this in the future. Particularly liked, and not surprised, all of the factual data accumulated! 🥰


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