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Million Mile Secrets team member Meghan recently returned from a 2,500+ mile road trip through some of the top National Parks in the US. I’ll let her tell you about it!
Meghan: Thank you Daraius! My husband and I love adventure, and with a new(ish!) baby in tow, we decided it would be a great idea to take a road trip to fantastic National Parks like Yosemite, Death Valley, Red Rock Canyon, Zion, and Bryce Canyon. Especially because our daughter is still light enough to carry in a backpack. 😉
Death Valley National Park
Death Valley is the kind of place you’d never imagine could exist in the US, because it’s so unique. It holds the record for the hottest place on earth (134° F!) and is the driest place in North America. Plus, it’s nearly the size of Connecticut, so you could explore the area for days and still not see it all!
Due to high wind conditions, we weren’t able to do any hiking in the park.
That said, I’ve included information on popular hiking trails and hotel options inside the park.
Just driving through the park is pretty neat, especially because you end up 282 feet BELOW sea level!
I hope to come back again sometime in the Spring when the desert is covered in wildflowers.
1. Death Valley Hiking
Badwater Salt Flat Trail
One of the most popular hikes in the park, the Badwater Salt Flat Trail is an easy ~1 mile hike.
The neat thing about this hike is that it takes you to Badwater Basin, the lowest point of elevation in the Western Hemisphere!
Dante’s View Trail
To get some of the best panoramic views of the park, hike Dante’s View Trail.
It’s a moderately difficult ~1.5 mile out-and-back trail that takes you to ~5,400 feet in elevation. From the viewpoint, you’ll be able to see Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the park, and Telescope Peak, the highest point in the park (~11,040 feet).
2. Death Valley Lodging
Nights at these hotels range in price from ~$100 per night to ~$235, depending on the time of year and room type. Camping spots are usually ~$10 per night.
Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area
The rock formations and vivid colors of Red Rock Canyon are spectacular. I had been to Las Vegas once before and didn’t realize Red Rocks was so close!
1. Red Rock Canyon Lodging
The closest hotels to the Red Rocks National Conservation Area are in Las Vegas, a ~20 minute drive. But depending on which direction you’re coming from, it might make more sense to stay outside the city.
The good news is, if you decide to stay in Las Vegas, you’ll have a number of hotel options where you can use points for free stays. Like these Las Vegas hotels where you can use your Marriott & Starwood points. And there are tours that run from Las Vegas to Red Rock Canyon.
We were coming from the opposite direction after our trip through Death Valley, and decided to stay at the Holiday Inn Express & Suites Pahrump, Nevada, ~45 minutes west of Red Rock, because it was getting late. The hotel was nearly brand new, super clean, and very comfortable.
It was a nice treat after camping!
2. Red Rock Canyon Hiking
Link: Red Rock Canyon Hiking
The hiking in Red Rock Canyon is great for families, because there are a lot of shorter trails. Just be sure to bring water and sunscreen, and don’t venture too far out on a hot day! Even in October we got a little toasty. 😉
We were only there for a day, so we spent some time in the visitor’s center learning about the geology of the area and did 2 different hikes.
One of the most popular family hikes in Red Rock Canyon is Calico Tanks. It’s just ~2.5 miles, but there’s quite a bit of scrambling over rocks. So it might take some folks longer than usual!
At the top, you’ll be rewarded with views of Las Vegas and the valley below.
Ice Box Canyon
Ice Box Canyon is a great option if it’s a hot & sunny day, because the hike is shaded a majority of the way by the canyon walls.
It’s an out-and-back hike that’s ~2.5 miles, but there is a lot of boulder hopping. So it took us longer than we expected. Especially because navigating large boulders is difficult with a baby on your back!
If you want to try rock climbing, there are LOTS of routes in this area of the park.
Bonus – Devils Postpile National Monument & Whitney Portal
Our road trip route led us through Mammoth Lakes, California, a quaint ski town just southeast of Yosemite.
So we spent a day visiting Devils Postpile National Monument, a ~35 minute drive from Mammoth Lakes.
I’d never heard of it before, but we ended up loving the time we spent hiking there! We were even able to hike a tiny part of the Pacific Crest Trail, that runs from the border of Mexico all the way up to Canada!
We also stopped for 2 nights near Whitney Portal, in Lone Pine, California. If you have time, this area is also known for great hiking, camping, fishing, and climbing. Plus you’ll get to see Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the lower 48 states!
You Can Do It Too!
1. Camping, Hotels, & Airbnb Stays
If you decide to camp during your vacation, be sure to bring enough cash. Because you can NOT pay with a credit card at a lot of camp sites, unless you’re booking your site in advance.
Just remember, it can be hard to find chain hotels inside most parks. So you’ll have to decide whether it’s worth staying outside the park and driving in each morning.
Or you could even find a great Airbnb nearby!
I like spending as much time exploring as I can during a vacation, so I’d prefer to pay cash for a hotel inside the park to save time, and save my points for another trip.
One of the biggest expenses on a road trip is gas. So use a credit card that earns miles, points, or cash back at gas stations.
I used my Chase Ink Plus (no longer available), that earns 2X Chase Ultimate Rewards on gas. But you could also use a card like the AMEX Premier Rewards Gold, that earns 2 AMEX Membership Rewards points per $1 you spend at US gas stations. Or the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express that earns 3% cash back at US gas stations.
Check out this post about how to decide which is the best card to save on gasoline.
3. Flights & Rental Cars
Depending on where you live and which parks you plan to visit, you might need to fly closer to your destination and rent a car.
Using the Southwest Companion Pass can save you LOTS of money on airfare, because you can fly nearly 2-for-1 on domestic paid and award tickets.
Pay with a credit card that earns bonus miles and points on airlines. Or a card that earns a bonus on travel, like the Chase Sapphire Preferred or Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard.
And if you need to rent a car, read this series on cheap car rentals, for tips & tricks on saving money on rental cars.
4. More Ways to Save Money
All of the National Parks charge a vehicle entrance fee, so depending on how many parks you plan to visit, it could be worth buying an Annual Pass that costs $80.
I did the math, and if you plan on visiting 2+ parks over the year, an annual pass is likely worth it. Because the major parks, like Yosemite and Grand Canyon National Park, charge $30 for a week-long permit. And the pass grants you access to other National Park Service monuments, like Devils Postpile, that can easily cost $10+ per visit.
Tip: This Wikipedia page lists the areas in the US National Park System. So it’s a good resource for planning your trip.
Plus, if you need to buy gear for your trip, you can go through shopping portals that earn cash back, miles, or points at certain retailers. I like using sites like CashbackMonitor.com that show you what bonuses various portals are offering.
And don’t forget to check out this post on how to plan a terrific road trip!
If you’ve ever wondered about where to stay and what to do in either of these parks, hopefully this is a great resource to help you plan your trip!