A visit to one or more of the national parks is an ideal fall getaway, especially those in the Southwest that offer views of age-old canyons, mountains, and other primeval attractions. The astonishing scenery and desert air of Bryce Canyon, Grand Canyon (the North Rim), and Zion national parks are accessed via a flight from Oakland International Airport to Las Vegas’s Harry Reid International Airport, followed by a drive of two to five hours.
These uncultivated treasures provide a magical connection with ancient Earth—an experience free of the clutter, distractions, and stress of the modern world.
Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
Bryce Canyon’s name is misleading: The park’s rim doesn’t actually look down on a canyon but rather a collection of massive natural amphitheaters that dip several hundred feet. Easily admire the sights from the 18-mile rim drive, which also has many hiking trails along the way.
The stars of the show are the irregularly shaped columns of red, orange, and white rock known as hoodoos; Bryce Canyon is home to the largest collection of these geological marvels found anywhere in the world. The hoodoos—which have been formed over millions of years by frost weathering and stream erosion—have an otherworldly feel, like something that might be seen in an elaborate Star Trek episode. Hiking through the hoodoos is a must-do activity, whether on a day trip or an extensive backcountry camping excursion (inexpensive camping permits are required and can be reserved up to 48 hours in advance). You can also utilize the motel-like rooms and cozy cabins at Bryce Canyon Lodge for overnight visits.
All the trails within Bryce Canyon are quite strenuous with sudden drops in elevation—especially on the way back. Rim trail walks are recommended for casual hikers.
The park, located in southern Utah, is a four-hour drive from the Las Vegas airport.
Grand Canyon National Park (North Rim), Arizona
The North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park is also a heavenly destination, this one located in northern Arizona, about a five-hour drive from the Las Vegas airport. The road trip comes with stunning scenery, especially during the final 90 miles, as you pass through pastoral meadows and lush forests.
Those views are amplified considerably upon reaching the North Rim, which features jaw-dropping panoramas of the canyon—one of the seven natural wonders of the world. There are infinite places to watch the sunlight paint stunning images across the myriad peaks and valleys of the colossal canyon, which has been formed over millions of years by the Colorado River. Visitors can enjoy the countless walks along the rim trail, or descend into the canyon via the Bright Angel Trail or other well-marked hikes.
For an overnight visit to the park, try the Grand Canyon Lodge North Rim or one of its rustic cabins (these are terrific for families with young kids); the main lodge promises a relaxed and elegant dining environment.
The North Rim’s elevation and annual snowfall means that the park usually closes in mid-October and reopens in May. Its South Rim, closer to Flagstaff, Arizona, is open year-round but lacks proximity to the other parks mentioned here.
Zion National Park, Utah
Another amazing attraction is Zion National Park, also in Utah. Visitors can enter by shuttle from the base of the park and are rewarded with spectacular sights and hiking trails. Take the shuttle around the base to get a glimpse of the layout of the entire park as well as the massive rocky structures on both sides of the basin.
Zion is a hiker’s paradise; its name means “a place of peace and refuge,” and fans of the outdoors can find countless such places among the park’s 146,000 acres of canyons and cliffs. Several basic hikes start at the park’s visitor center—the Lower Emerald Pool Trail takes about an hour and features a pool and waterfalls. Ambitious visitors should plan their adventures using the park’s website, nps.gov/zion.
Zion Lodge is the only accommodation within the park, which is open year-round. Cars are not allowed on Zion Canyon Scenic Drive when shuttles are operational from the spring through the fall (to cut down on traffic and protect the vegetation, the park’s free shuttle is the primary mode of transportation during most of the year, with reduced runs during the winter).
St. George, Utah
All three parks feature no-frills lodging, but a stay in St. George, Utah, is a good choice for anyone hoping to hit more than one national park on the same trip or break up the long drives. The charming desert town is less than two hours from the Las Vegas airport and less than three hours from all three parks. The superior culinary options in St. George are another plus as COVID-19 precautions caused noticeable reductions in the dining opportunities at the national parks.
For upscale rooms in St. George, check into the Advenire. The boutique four-story hotel opened in 2020 and is centrally located downtown. The charming St. George Children’s Museum is just a few blocks away, and the family-friendly George’s Corner Restaurant and Pub is right across the street. The Advenire’s restaurant, Wood, Ash, Rye, is outstanding and open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
A stopover in quiet St. George is the perfect buffer between the eternal majesty of the national parks and the hustle and bustle of your return to the real world.