How to Spend 1 to 5 Days in Moab: Itinerary Ideas for an Epic Trip!

Allison standing at the edge in Canyonlands national park

I’ve spent a lot of time in Utah over the years, road tripping through its national parks and exploring as much of the Southwest as I could.

Of all the places in Utah I’ve visited — which include five national parks and at least twice as many state parks — truly nothing beats the beauty of Moab.  

While I love road tripping Utah, if I had to pick one place to base myself to explore the best that Utah has to offer on a short trip, it would be Moab.

Moab is otherworldly, surrounded by beautiful red rock formations everywhere you look. But it’s also in the perfect location, close to both Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park, as well as the Colorado River and Dead Horse Point State Park.

But Moab is more than just pretty views and a convenient location for ticking off a couple of national parks. It’s also an active mecca for everything from mountain biking to whitewater rafting to rock climbing to hiking. Every outdoorsy person should put Moab on their bucket list!

Honestly, it’s hard for any other place in the USA to come close for how much beauty Moab packs into such a small region.

How to Get to Moab, Utah

Sign for Moab town at the entrance to town

Typically, if you are heading to Moab, you will fly into Salt Lake City. There are many airports all over the U.S. that fly direct to SLC, making it a convenient choice.

From there, you can either drive to Moab (about 4 hour drive by car) or make a connecting flight to Canyonlands Airport (CNY). 

However, Canyonlands Airport is a small regional airport with limited flights. As a result, it can get rather expensive to fly into CNY. Another thing I’ll note is that renting a car at CNY typically is more expensive than renting at SLC.

If you don’t mind doing extra driving, you might want to fly into and rent a car from SLC. If time is really short and you don’t mind spending a little extra in order to maximize your Moab itinerary, then fly into CNY.

Insider Tip: If you are driving to Moab from SLC, Google Maps will have you go via Green River to I-70 and then turn off on Route 191. This is the fastest route! 

But there is an even more scenic drive if you continue east on I-70 and then turn off on Route 128. This is one of the prettiest roads in all of Utah! It will add about 1 hour of travel time, but it is so beautiful, as you track the Colorado River nearly the whole time. 

If you happen to be driving in around sunset, it’s even more majestic. Words don’t do it justice.

How This Moab Itinerary Works

Allison standing in Arches National Park in moab, Utah with the mountains behind her

This Moab itinerary is additive, meaning that the first day of the itinerary covers everything you’d want to see if you have only one day in Moab: the highlights, so to speak.

It is structured in a logical way that reduces backtracking and prioritizes the most important things, mindful of your limited time. 

It also makes sure you get out and do some light hiking, so that you’re not just doing a car-hopping, whistle-stop tour of overlooks without appreciating the nature. This is one of my pet peeves when traveling so I try to ensure that doesn’t happen in any of my itineraries.

If you have more time in Moab, you’ll find that the second day of this Moab itinerary contains the second most important things, and the third, fourth, and fifth days offer still more exciting things to do in Moab.

I would say that days 1 and 2 are the absolute core of a trip to Moab, covering Arches National Park, Dead Horse Point State Park, and a portion of Canyonlands National Park.

After that, I listed ideas for day 3, day 4, and day 5 based on my idea of importance and excitement. 

However, you could easily swap day 4 for 3, 5 for 4, etc. Stick to days 1 and 2 as the core of this Moab itinerary and feel flexible with the rest of it.

Where to Stay in Moab: Hotels & Glamping

Glamping at Moab Under Canvas with dark sky

There are lots of great places to stay in Moab for every type of traveler and budget!

GLAMPING | Moab Under Canvas

I finally got to stay at Moab Under Canvas on my last trip to Moab and it did not disappoint! The tents were laid out so thoughtfully and I loved the amenities like the in-tent bathrooms (including hot showers!).

There was also a wood stove in the tent which would have made it great for chilly nights, too. I stayed there in July and it was a little hot, though, so I would suggest it for the shoulder season.

>> Check availability and pricing on Booking.com | Hotels.com | Expedia

MID-RANGE | Red Cliffs Lodge

Located right on the Colorado River, this gem is a bit outside of Downtown Moab and Main Street but it’s worth the small sacrifice of convenience for a location this spectacular.

There’s an on-site pool, hot tub, fitness area, and restaurant, and there are also activities available such as wine tasting and horseback riding that the property can organize.

>> Check availability and pricing on Booking.com | Hotels.com | Expedia

BUDGET | Lazy Lizard Hostel

This was a godsend during my first trip to Moab, where we didn’t book anything in advance and then arrived in Moab, only to find the only remaining rooms were $300+ a night!

The setting was friendly, the amenities were basic but well-priced, and our private room was no-frills but comfortable. 

>> Check availability and pricing on Booking.com

Where to Stay in Moab: Vacation Rentals

Cabin Overlooking Moab

Image provided by the property

Cabin Overlooking Moab is a stylish cabin that can house 8 guests in 3 bedrooms. Best of all, it has one of the most impressive views in the entire Moab area. 

This cabin features 1,700 sq. feet of modern convenience, with all the things you’d need for an extended stay, but it’s still very much a cabin.

Best of all, it offers breathtaking views of the La Sal Mountains from one deck, the Moab rim from another, and Arches National Park from yet a third!

Book this VRBO cabin online here!

Wisteria Cottage at Cali Cochitta

A romantic, whimsical cottage surrounded by a tree and flowers, with a pastel green porch swing and a small dining table in front of the cottage in Moab.
Image provided by the property

The Wisteria Cottage at Cali Cochitta is a beautiful choice for couples and lovers of rustic cottage designs and colorful gardens.

The cottage is conveniently located 2 blocks from Main Street, and the inside comes equipped with a well-stocked kitchen, bathroom, and a beautifully designed bedroom with a king-size bed. Guests are also provided with a cruiser bike with which to explore the town, as well as secured bike storage.

The two main draws of this charming VRBO in Moab, however, are the garden area and hot tub. The garden is shared with other Cali Cochitta guests, so it makes for a beautiful place to chat with others outside.

On top of that, the hammocks are a great place to just sit back and unwind to the sounds of the stone water feature, another detail that adds to the dream-like ambient of the location.

Book this home in Moab!

Moab Travel Tips

Sitting on the edge of Dead Horse Point State Park at sunset in a black dress looking out onto the river

WHEN TO VISIT | Moab is indescribably hot in the summer! I visited Moab the last time in July and it was frankly pretty miserable. It was 110F the day we arrived! 

My previous trip to Moab was in May and the weather was gorgeous — warm but not overbearing. The best months are April-May and September-October. Note that it may snow in Arches in winter!

WHERE TO EAT | Downtown Moab has so many amazing places to eat, and if you’ve been on a larger Southwest road trip without much variety in your food, you can find a lot of variety in Moab! 

I had amazing Thai food at Thai Bella Moab (though some dishes were a bit too spicy, and I’m generally a person who can handle spice!) and Antica Forma has really nice Italian food. There are also a lot more options on Main Street.

Note that Moab can be very busy and crowded, so I always suggest making reservations or ordering take-out if picking last minute. On my last trip to Moab, waits for tables were like 1-2 hours!

If you’re on a budget, check out the take-out offerings at the Moab Food Truck Park — there are all sorts of delicious options.

GET AN EARLY START | While Arches currently does not run on a reservation system the way some national parks are, it is first-come, first-serve for space within the park. 

Once all 1,000 parking spots in the park are taken, it will shut down for a period of time — sometimes up to three hours. Avoid this by arriving early! My itinerary has you getting to Arches in time for sunrise on day 1, so you shouldn’t have this problem.

HIKING SAFETY | Always bring plenty of water when hiking in Moab. Stick to the trails and have an offline map downloaded on your phone in case you get disoriented. Bring filling snacks that aren’t too sugary to keep you fueled while hiking if it’s hot.

Your Customizable Multi-Day Moab Itinerary

Day One: Arches National Park + Colorado River Cruise

Windows section at Arches National Park with two arches next to each other

You can follow this guide or you can also download an audio guide to Arches National Park for less than $10. 

This one-day Arches mini-itinerary will walk you through the best spots quickly, but it may be more pleasant to have an audio guide if you’re an auditory learner!

Start with a sunrise hike to Delicate Arch.

Delicate Arch at sunrise with a sunburst and a small human figure at the base of the arch to give a sense of scale

For the first day of this Moab itinerary, I’m assuming you arrived the day before in Moab and are able to wake up bright and early for a sunrise hike.

I know I know. Waking up for sunrise is a pain. But at Arches National Park, which gets really crowded, it’s absolutely worth it — especially for the pay-off of seeing Delicate Arch at sunrise with minimal crowds. It’s the best hike in Arches for a reason.

Delicate Arch Trail is 1.5 miles each way (3 miles round trip), and note that the way there is uphill — 480 feet of uphill, to be precise — so you will get an early morning workout! Allow about 45 minutes to get there. 

To decide when to leave, I suggest looking at the sunrise time, then subtracting 45-60 minutes for the hike and however much time it’ll take you to drive to the trailhead. That should get you there around the right time!

Tip: You should bring a headlamp as it might still be dark when you begin your hike.

Explore the Devil’s Garden area.

Strange, towering red rock formations of the Devils Garden section of Arches National Park on a sunny day

Once you return to the Delicate Arch Trailhead and get back in your car, head to Devil’s Garden, about 15 minutes by car. 

You can do the entirety of the Devil’s Garden Trail if you are a serious hiker, or you can do just a small subsection of it. 

Here are a few trails to choose from in Devil’s Garden: pick whatever suits your current fitness level and desire!

The wide, narrow Landscape Arch in Arches National Park, with red rocks and green desert flora

EASY | Landscape Arch Trail: 1.9-mile out-and-back trail with little elevation gain. A good short hike for beginners.

MODERATE | Double O Arch Trail: 4.1-mile out-and-back trail with 670 feet of elevation gain and some scrambling and heights.

HARD | Devil’s Garden Trail: 8-mile loop with 1,085 feet of elevation gain. Some scrambling, primitive trails, and heights.

Snap photos at the Windows Section and Balanced Rock.

standing in the middle of an arch in utah

After you’ve done a fair bit of hiking, it’s time to take it easy, especially as the sun picks up in intensity. Luckily, the rest of this day in Arches is all easily accessible by car, with short walks rather than hikes.

Turn on The Windows Road about 15 minutes after leaving Devil’s Garden, and you’ll find a large parking lot. It may be difficult to find a spot here initially, so keep looking.

People tend to sightsee fairly quickly in this part of the park, since there are no long trails, so cars tend to cycle in and out at a decent clip. 

Once you find a parking spot, there are several gorgeous arches you can see in this section of the park. 

Those include Double Arch, North and South Window Arches, and Turret Arch, all of which are absolutely beautiful and worth seeing!

As you leave the Windows area, be sure to turn your head and spot Balanced Rock!

Make one final stop at the Park Avenue Viewpoint.

The red rock formations of the beautiful buttes and mesas and arches of Park Avenue in Arches

Finally, as you leave the park, make a stop at the Park Avenue Viewpoint, one of the best views in Arches National Park.

The viewpoint is beautiful, but you could also take the Park Avenue Trail for a short hike if you have enough time. It’s one mile to the Courthouse Towers Viewpoint one-way, two miles round trip, and the views from there are spectacular.

Relax and change at your hotel or glamp site.

Once you’ve tackled a full day at Arches, it’s time to head back to your hotel and get off your feet for a bit. 

Don’t get too comfortable, though — you’ve got to be out the door at 5 PM to get to your sunset cruise on time!

Take a sunset boat cruise on the Colorado River.

Sunset colors on the Colorado River near Moab

Time to finish your first day in Moab with a bang! A sunset boat cruise down the Colorado River is the stuff bucket lists are made of.

The cruise lasts 90 minutes, and then if you want, you can opt for a BBQ dinner add-on afterward so that you don’t have to figure out a dinner option after your cruise.

This tour starts at 5:30 PM, so be on time!

Book your sunset boat cruise here!

Day Two: Canyonlands National Park + Dead Horse Point State Park 

Allison standing at the edge in Canyonlands national park

Day two of this Moab itinerary is all about Canyonlands and its surrounding area. We will tackle one section of the park today, Island in the Sky. There are other districts of the park, but we won’t be visiting them today.

You can follow this guide for Canyonlands or you can also download the Canyonlands audioguide tour for under $10 if you want something to listen to while you drive!

A quick note on Canyonlands: The national park is divided into four districts: Island in the Sky, Needles, the Rivers and the Maze. I include Island in the Sky on Day 2 and Needles on Day 4. I don’t include the Maze (as it’s entirely backcountry and only suitable for experienced backpackers) or Rivers since it requires more planning.

Optional: Start the day with a scenic flight

Aerial view of the red rocks of canyonlands national park from a small plane above the park

For an incredible wake-up call, take the 9 AM scenic flight over both Arches and Canyonlands to get a birds-eye view of what you saw yesterday and what’s to come! 

It’s not cheap, but it is an otherworldly way to see the grandeur of the Moab region on an 80-minute flight — it’s certainly worthy of a spot on a Utah bucket list!

This is the only flight company allowed to fly over the national parks, so it’s a one-of-a-kind experience!

Book your scenic flight over Arches and Canyonlands here!

Check out Mesa Arch.

Allison sitting underneath Mesa Arch in Canyonlands national park on a sunny day

Whether or not you started the day with a flight, the first stop in Canyonlands is scenic Mesa Arch. 

If you didn’t opt for the flight, you could do another pre-dawn wake-up call to see the sunrise at Mesa Arch

At sunrise, there will be tons of photographers there, as the sun when it is rising lines up perfectly with the arch. With the right camera skills, you are able to get that classic framed “sunburst” you’ve probably seen on Instagram!

I didn’t visit Mesa Arch at sunrise (one sunrise is enough for me) but I still found it beautiful and worth the visit, with epic views and a gorgeous arch that rivals anything in Arches.

The Mesa Arch Trail is very short, just a 0.7-mile loop from the parking lot, making it an easy walk if you’re not in the mood for hiking.

Spend more time in the Island in the Sky District.

Sitting on the edge looking over Canyonlands national park

As you continue through Canyonlands, make your way to a few different stops along the Island in the Sky section of the park. 

Your final destination is Grand View Point, but there are a few spots along the way to stop at. I suggest stopping at Candlestick Tower Overlook, Buck Canyon Overlook, and Orange Cliffs Overlook before stopping at the Grand View Point.

There is an overlook there and you can also extend your sightseeing with a 1.8-mile return hike via the Grand View Point Trail.

If you want to hike in the Island in the Sky district, here are a few suggestions:

EASY | White Rim Overlook Trail1.8 miles out-and-back with 160 feet of elevation gain. Rocky terrain, so watch your footing, but the final viewpoint is otherworldly and worth every step.

MODERATE | Aztec Butte Trail: 1.7 miles out-and-back with 259 feet of elevation gain. However, it is moderate since there is slick rock and some scrambling necessary. 

HARD | Syncline Loop: 8.6 mile loop with 1,630 feet of elevation gain. Lots of scrambling and wayfinding, only for experienced hikers. Hiking the loop clockwise is recommended.

Watch the sunset at Dead Horse Point State Park.

Sitting at the edge of Dead Horse Canyon State Park looking out onto the Colorado RIver and red rocks and sunset colors

After a fun-filled day of hiking in Canyonlands, it’s time to rest your legs and watch the sun set over the beautiful Colorado River at Dead Horse Point State Park.

I consider Dead Horse Point State Park like a Grand Canyon in miniature. Personally, I find it more impressive than Horseshoe Bend in Arizona. It’s absolutely spectacular and sunset is when it’s the best.

If you arrive early at Dead Horse Point State Park you can opt for a hike. There is the Short Loop Trail (1 mile, easy), the Rim Loop Trail (5 miles, moderate), and the Big Horn Overlook Trail (3 miles, easy).

Note: There is a separate entry fee to Dead Horse Point that is a little pricy, about $20 per car, but it’s worth it in my opinion.

Grab a drink at Moab Brewery.

A beer tasting flight of four different color beers

After your long day hiking, you deserve a cold one!

This fun, lively microbrewery is a great spot to celebrate your hikes, scan through your snaps from the day, and enjoy a tasty beer.

They focus on ales and IPAs — the FMU Double IPA is especially delicious. 

The food, however, isn’t fantastic (though they do have good fries). I’d opt to eat at one of the restaurants I recommended above after you are finished with your beer!

Day Three: Rafting on the Colorado River

Start the morning with a half day rafting trip.

Three blue rafts sitting in the Colorado River in Moab near red rocks

Next up on this Moab itinerary, we’ve seen the Colorado River from a cruise and from afar, but now we’re going to see it up close and personal!

If you’re new to whitewater rafting, take it easy with a half-day Class I and II rapids tour. The tour lasts 4 hours as you traverse seven miles of river, and includes pick-up, drop off, a buffet-style lunch, and an expert guide.

Book your beginner rafting tour!

You could also pick a slightly more adventurous rafting tour, such as this Class I, II, and III rapids tour that includes Fisher Towers. 

Book your intermediate rafting tour here!

Hike Corona Arch.

The colors of the near night sky at Corona Arch

After you’ve rafted and had a tasty lunch, let’s go visit one of the coolest arches in Moab that isn’t part of a national park: Corona Arch!

The Corona and Bowtie Arch Trail is 2.4 miles long, out-and-back, with 482 feet of elevation gain. 

The trail starts on Potash Road near the Gold Bar camping sites. You start by crossing some train tracks and then make your way through the trail, which is well-marked. The scenery is nothing wildly special but when you arrive at Corona Arch: wow.

It’s rated as a moderate trail but I found it on the easy side, though there is some scrambling near the end of the trail as you approach Corona Arch, as well as a section with some cables and a ladder that helps you ascend the boulder.

Have a tasty dinner in town.

Once you’ve worked up an appetite again, it’s time to find somewhere to eat in Moab!

Grab a great dinner and then either head back to your hotel or onto our next activity.

Go stargazing.

Stargazing in Moab, Utah with the milky way visible as well as balanced rock silhouetted against the night sky in arches national park

I love stargazing and Moab is a fantastic place to do so! 

If you want to find one of the best places to see the stars, head back to Dead Horse Point State Park, which is an International Dark Sky Park!

Your pass should still be valid (they are good for two days), so you don’t have to pay the entry fee again. Just hold onto it from the day before. 

Dead Horse Point State Park holds occasional night sky programming, so check it out and see if anything is going on during your trip to Moab!

Canyonlands National Park is also a Dark Sky Park, and they even have night sky ranger programs!

While Arches isn’t technically a Dark Sky Park, the park is actively working on reducing light pollution and there are several great viewpoints in the park to do so. Panorama Point and The Windows are two great areas for stargazing!

Day Four: More Canyonlands National Park

Spend the day in the Needles District.

Red and white rock formations called 'the needles' in Canyonlands National Park

Tip: There is nowhere to eat in the Needles District, so have a hearty breakfast and pack a picnic lunch to enjoy later on one of your hikes!

Next up, we’re going to visit the Needles District, another part of Canyonlands National Park.

Here are some hikes you can choose from in Needles:

EASY | Slickrock Foot Trail: 2.4 miles with 137 feet of elevation gain. It’s on the moderate side of easy due to the uneven, rocky terrain, but it’s not a heart-pounder.

MODERATE | Lost Canyon Trail: 8.6 mile loop, 748 feet elevation gain, and some of the best views of all of the Needles District. Lots of up and down, so it’s a workout!

HARD | Druid Arch Trail: 10.8 miles and 1,614 feet of elevation gain. Added difficulty due to some sandy parts to hike through and some rock scrambling.

If you don’t feel like hiking, there’s still plenty to do in the Needles District! 

Check out the Roadside Ruin, which is an ancient granary from the Puebloan era. It’s just a short walk here. 

There are also some overlooks you can easily drive to, including Wooden Shoe Arch Overlook, and some very easy “hikes” that are really more like walks.

These mini-hikes clock in at around half a mile round trip. Pothole Point Trail and Cave Spring Trail are two of these short walks.

Take a sunset ATV ride on the Hell’s Revenge Trail.

The rocky formations of Hells Revenge in Moab, a perfect place for an ATV ride

After you’ve seen a good deal of the Needles District, it’s time for a sunset offroading adventure!

Be sure to time your day so that you can get back to Moab in time for your sunset ATV — around 6 to 6:30 PM in summer. Check the exact time on the GetYourGuide website as times may change throughout the year to reflect sunset time.

The famous Hell’s Revenge route takes you to a beautiful Colorado River overlook (a thousand feet above the river!) and includes a brief sojourn into Arches Natonal Park on a thrilling self-drive ATV ride. You’ll roar up petrified sand dunes and admire beautiful red rocks changing color as the sun sets on this 2.5-hour ATV adventure.

While this sounds every bit the adrenaline-pumping activity, it’s family-friendly — kids as young as 3 can be passengers in the ATV, and drivers need to be 18 or older with a valid license.

Book your sunset ATV ride here!

Day Five: Outdoor Adventure Your Way

Two women enjoying canyoneering in Moab

For your final day in Moab, let’s do some more outdoor activities — whatever you feel like trying, preferably something that you’ve never tried before!

Canyoneering is another popular activity in Moab, exploring beautiful slot canyons, rappelling down waterfalls (if the water level allows) or cliff edges, and getting to access all sorts of places you’d never be able to without this tour!

Book your canyoneering tour online here

And of course, another thing that Moab is famous is rock climbing. This is all set up with guides, so you can try rock climbing even if you’ve never learned the ropes (pardon the terrible pun).

I’ve just started getting into bouldering and rock climbing and I love it, but I’ve never tried it in Moab. It’s on my list for my next visit!

Book your rock climbing trip online here!

Moab Without a Car

Allison looking out of a car window in Moab

This itinerary assumes you have a rental car or your own car available to you. However, in case you don’t for whatever reason, note that there are no shuttles available in the Moab area national parks, and public transit is limited.

I don’t really recommend visiting Moab without a car, but if you had to, you could get around with tours. Here’s how I would do it.

Day One: Arches (4×4 tour of Arches) + Sunset Cruise

Day Two: Scenic Flight + Canyonlands (Island in the Sky 4×4 Tour)

Day Three: Rafting Tour 

Day Four: Canyonlands (Needles 4×4 Tour)

Day Five: Canyoneering or Rock Climbing

Where to Go Before or After Moab

Allison looking over the hoodoo fairy chimneys of Bryce Canyon National Park, another national park in Utah

You can continue your Utah road trip in any way you choose! 

Visit more of the Mighty 5, or head east to Colorado (Denver, Boulder, etc.), south to Arizona (Monument Valley, Page, Grand Canyon, etc.), or west to Zion National Park and Las Vegas.

Your 10-Day Colorado National Parks Road Trip Itinerary

4 of the 61 national parks in the United States are located in Colorado — some 5%! — and they just happen to be some of the parks with the most incredible views!

Colorado is home to Rocky Mountain National Park too, which is one of the most-visited national parks in the United States!

From epic outdoor hikes that lead to unparalleled views to fun activities like sandboarding on sand dunes (yes, we do have those in the United States!), Colorado’s national parks genuinely have it all — and you can see it on on a Colorado national parks road trip!

Throughout this post, you’ll learn the best route to take to visit all of the national parks in Colorado in just ten days! Be sure to save it for later because this is one post you’re not going to want to misplace!

PLANNING FOR COLORADO AT A GLANCE: 

When to Go: From beautiful sunny days, stunning fall foliage, to impressive snowy winters, Colorado is beautiful all year round. But if I had to choose one season, then I'd say summer is the best time to visit Colorado.

However, winter is also a great time to visit if you're into winter sports since Colorado is a haven for that.

Where to Stay: For this itinerary, you'll have sleepovers in Rocky Mountain National Park, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Mesa Verde National Park, and Great Sand Dunes National Park.

For Rocky Mountain National park, I suggest staying at Woodlands on Fall River hotel (luxury), Blue Door Inn (motel), Coyote Mountain Lodge (budget), or this cabin for a homey feel. 

While in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, I suggest enjoying the magic of sleeping under the stars at either South Rim Campground, East Portal Campground, or North Rim Campground.

In Mesa Verde National Park, you can stay inside the park by opting for Morefield Campground if you're into camping but if not, then it has to be Far View Lodge as it's the only lodge in the park. 

Great Sand Dunes National Park can be visited without staying overnight but if choose to, then you can stay inside the park and camp on the dunes or at Pinon Flats Campground. If camping is not your thing, then you can choose to stay at Great Sand Dunes Lodge which is located right next to the park, or go a bit further to Alamosa town and sleep at either Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites Alamosa, an IHG Hotel (boutique) or Best Western Alamosa Inn (budget).

How to Get Around: A car is essential to fully enjoy the National Parks of Colorado otherwise you'd have to rely on expensive tours. If you're renting a car, compare car rentals and prices from here. Alternately, you can rent an RV or campervan via RVShare and save on accommodations. 

Best Activities: Want to fully enjoy your Colorado road trip without the hustles of planning? Booking some activities will help you with that. You can book a full day tour of Rocky Mountain National Park from Denver so that you can just sit back and enjoy.

3 Things Not to Forget to Pack:  Colorado is all about hiking so a sturdy pair of hiking boots will serve you well -- I love my Ahnu boots. A dual-purpose phone mount and charger will come in very handy and you'll be happy to have a roadside emergency kit should your car break down while road tripping.

Know Before You Go: If you plan to visit multiple national parks in a year, the America the Beautiful Pass will save you a bundle! It costs $80 for an annual pass (for an entire vehicle traveling together) to all US national parks and federally managed sites.  

Colorado Itinerary, Day 1 – 3: Rocky Mountain National Park

Drive time: 1 hour 30 minutes from Denver to Rocky Mountain National Park

Because you’ll most likely come to Colorado from Denver International Airport, the logical first stop is Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s best to spend around three days in Rocky Mountain National Park due to all that there is to explore!

Pick up your rental car in Denver (I suggest booking a rental car via a search aggregator like Rental Cars, which offers the best deals on your rental) and it’s time to hit the road — we’re heading towards the Rockies!

Below are some of the best things to do in Rocky Mountain National Park over the course of three days. Pick and choose the ones that sound most interesting to you!

Sign at the entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park. Established in 1915

Take a leisurely drive on Trail Ridge Road.

Trail Ridge Road is one of the most unique drives available in the United States. It has the nickname of “highway to the sky” because of its high elevation and impeccable views of the Rocky Mountains from all angles.

Take a drive on this road to take in all of the views. There are occasional spots to stop off, too, so you can soak up the view and also take a photo if you’d like. It truly is unlike any other road in Colorado because it goes high above the trees, and the elevation is just shy of 12,000 feet.

The beautiful snow-covered landscape of Trail Ridge Road in Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park

Go on a hike.

Rocky Mountain National Park is filled with tons of hikes for all levels. Here are a few of the most popular hikes, as well as some basic information about them.

  • Dream Lake Trail: This easy hike is approximately 2 miles and is out and back. It’s great for hiking between April and October and offers impeccable views. The elevation gain is slightly over 400 feet, so it’s not too terrible.
  • Emerald Lake Trail: For a moderate hike in the Rocky Mountains, this is the one to do. It’s about 3 miles with an elevation gain of just under 700 feet, located by Estes Park.
  • Sky Pond: If you’re up for a challenge, go on this challenging hike that’s also near Estes Park. It’s about 9 miles long with an elevation gain of about 1700 feet on this out and back trail.
Hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park at the beautiful Dream Lake with still, glassy water reflecting trees and snow-dotted mountain peaks

Visit Alberta Falls.

One of the most beautiful areas in Rocky Mountain National Park is Alberta Falls. To get there, you have go on a super easy 1.7-mile hike! Because it’s easy, even children can do this hike to enjoy Alberta Falls at the end of it.

This is one of the most popular hikes to do in Rocky Mountain National Park because of the epic views. It’s known for its incredible aspen groves, so be on the lookout for those during the hike, especially if you’re road tripping Colorado in the fall!

The rushing cascading water of Alberta Falls, surrounded by trees and rocks

Search for wildlife in Moraine Park.

Moraine Park is an area of Rocky Mountain National Park that has tons of wildlife. It’s located near Estes Park and is filled with elk, birds, and other animals. Obviously, you shouldn’t get super close to the animals while visiting the park, but it’s a great way to see wildlife from a distance in the wilderness.

This is also one of the most popular spots to go camping. On the north side of Moraine Park is a campground right among the mountains. This can be a great place to call home base while you’re visiting Rocky Mountain National Park on this part of the trip.

Yellow flowers in a field in Moraine Park Colorado on a sunny summer day

Snap a photo of the view from Forest Canyon Overlook.

For the best views in all of Rocky Mountain National Park, head to Forest Canyon Overlook. This park observation deck offers extended views of the mountains and wilderness, and it’s truly unparalleled compared to other viewpoints in the park.

There’s a short paved walk to get to the observation deck. It’s not the biggest, so if you want to be there when there aren’t any crowds or other tourists, try to get there earlier in the morning. You might even catch the sunrise!

Scenery in Forest Canyon Overlook in Rocky Mountain National Park, view over the trees and mountains

Learn at Beaver Meadows Visitor Center.

No trip to an area is complete without learning, and there’s no better place to do that than at the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center. This is entirely free to visit and is technically the park’s headquarters.

Inside, you can learn all about Rocky Mountain National Park and even chat with some rangers. This can be a great way to find out what’s going on in the park, and if there are hidden gems you might be able to check out, they would know.

Trees and mountains at Beaver Meadows in RMNP

Explore downtown Estes Park.

Estes Park is a town in Colorado that is known as the gateway to the Rocky Mountains. If you’re looking for a great place to stay while exploring Rocky Mountain National Park, this small town is it.

The town is filled with wildlife, has great views of the mountains, and is even home to the Trail Ridge Road. Be sure to take a ride on the Estes Park Aerial Tramway to visit Prospect Mountain! This is one of the best things to do in Estes Park.

A view of accommodations like cabins and lodges in Estes Park near the base of Rocky Mountain National Park

Where to stay in Rocky Mountain National Park

Unlike other national parks, Rocky Mountain National Park doesn’t have any in-park lodges besides camping. If you prefer having an actual bed, there are great accommodation options in both Estes Park and Grand Lake to consider. But since Estes Park is closer to the majority of the park’s most popular attractions and hikes, I recommend basing yourself here.

CABIN | Located just a few miles away from Rocky Mountain National Park, this beautiful cabin gives the most stunning views in the area. With a large deck that features a hot tub, you can be assured of having a relaxed time while thanking mother nature for the stunning mountainous views. On the inside, the cabin is equally beautiful! The visible wooden beams add a cozy and rustic touch while the large glass doors bring the views right in the living room. The kitchen is modern, the light features are beautiful — there is nothing not to love about this cabin in the mountains.

>> Check photos and reviews on Vrbo

LUXURY | If you’re looking for a luxurious stay, then I recommend staying at Woodlands on Fall River hotel. With ensuite rooms that feature a large kitchen and a living room, this hotel will give you a home away from home kind of vibe. And let’s not forget the cabin-in-the-mountain kind of look that will make your experience in Rocky Mountain National Park even better. On top of all that, this hotel is right on Front River and just a few minutes from RMNP.

>> Check photos and reviews on Booking.com | Book it on Hotels.com

MOTEL | If you want something with a mid-range budget without compromising on quality and comfort, then I suggest staying at Blue Door Inn. The motel features a woody charming interior, clean rooms, a swimming pool to cool off the summer heat, and also offers beautiful mountain views from the deck.

>> Check photos and reviews on Booking.com | Book it on Hotels.com

BUDGET | If money is a concern but you want a place that’s comfortable, clean, and convenient, then I recommend Coyote Mountain Lodge. The rooms are nice, clean bathroom, and comfortable beds — nothing special to brag about but you can’t get any better for that price. The best part is that it’s perfectly located near RMNP so you won’t waste time on the road.

>> Check photos and reviews on Booking.com | Book it on Hotels.com

Colorado Itinerary, Day 4 – 6: Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

Drive time: 4 hours 50 minutes

For days four through six, hop on the road and get to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. This can be quite a drive, but you’ll be going through some beautiful small towns along the way.

If you want to make any pit stops, consider stopping in Breckenridge or Buena Vista. Breckenridge is one of the top-rated places to visit in Colorado, and Buena Vista is a little past the halfway point of the drive.

Here are some of the best activities to fill your few days in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.

Rock formations in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park with a river below and lots of trees

Watch the stars (and even camp under them!)

Believe it or not, but camping under the stars in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park is one of the best things to do while visiting! There are quite a few campgrounds to choose from, so you can pick the one that suits your needs best.

Some of the more popular campgrounds include South Rim Campground, East Portal Campground, and North Rim Campground. North Rim, in particular, is first-come-first-serve because it’s such a nice campsite!

Camping tent in Colorado lit up from within with stars above in the sky

Hike the S.O.B. Draw

The S.O.B. Draw is the hike to do while visiting Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park! It’s only 2 miles long, but it’s one of the most challenging yet most rewarding hikes to do in the entire park and shouldn’t be missed if you’re up for the challenge.

It’s an out and back trail with just shy of 2,000 feet of elevation, which is why it’s such a strenuous hike. It’s almost straight uphill the entire time, and it’s incredibly rocky. Many people who have hiked it even refer to it as a total vertical climb.

Looking straight down into the gorge of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Snowshoe trek through the park

Are you traveling to all of Colorado’s national parks during the winter? Don’t worry – there are still great activities and fun to be had! One of those is snowshoeing through the park on the Oak Flat Loop.

You can either bring your own snowshoes or rent them nearby if needed. It doesn’t take super long to snowshoe the trail, but it’s still great fun, and honestly, the park in the winter is beautiful. Plus, there are considerably fewer visitors during this time.

Snowshoes for hiking in Black Canyon of the Gunnison in winter

Explore the North Rim

The North Rim is the lesser-visited part of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, but that’s why it’s so worth visiting.

There aren’t as many ranger services here, and it’s not as well kept as the rest of the park, and that’s why it’s often overlooked.

However, because there aren’t as many visitors, you can usually get a good chunk of the North Rim just to yourself so you can explore without crowds of people. What’s not to love about that?

River winding through Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Go on a ranger-led boat tour

Yes, there are actually ranger-led boat tours in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park! This is fun for both locals and tourists because it truly gives you a unique experience while visiting, and you’ll get to learn from a ranger along the way.

These boat tours are called the Morrow Point Boat Tours and are only about 90 minutes long. It goes right along the Morrow Point Reservoir, and you do have to make a reservation to go on the boat and pay a small fee.

Water going through Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Take the scenic route: drive through the East Portal

The best way to drive through the park is by driving through the East Portal. Take the scenic route by driving East Portal Road. Though it’s closed in winter, it’s pretty heavily trafficked in the warmer months because it is near some of the best camping and picnic spots.

Keep in mind that the road is very steep, but the views are rewarding. Other great drives in the area include the South Rim Road and North Rim Road. North Rim Road isn’t as high up as the other two, but the views are still incredible!

The east rim of the black canyon on an overcast day

Colorado Itinerary, Day 7 – 8: Mesa Verde National Park

Drive time: 3 hours

Now to Colorado national park number three! Next up is Mesa Verde National Park, which is about 3 hours from Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Similar to the last long drive, there are a few points of interest along the way.

If you do want to make a pit stop, I highly suggest stopping in Telluride. Similar to Breckenridge, this is one of the best spots to visit in Colorado, known for its outdoor adventures. Right near Mesa Verde National Park is also Durango, a small town known for its scenic train rides!

Below are some of the best things to do during two days in Mesa Verde National Park.

sign that reads entrance mesa verde national park

Get up close to history on a cliff dwelling tour.

Park rangers run tours of the cliff dwellings so that you can get up close and learn more about them during your visit. This is easily the best way to get educated about the park while also having someone you can turn to if you have any questions about it!

Because these tickets tend to sell out quickly, you can only buy them two weeks in advance. If you know a tour is something you want to do during your trip to the cliff dwellings, be sure to call the ranger’s office and buy them the second they go on sale.

the cliff dwellings of mesa verde national park

Discover at the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum.

Located right in Mesa Verde National Park is a small museum called the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum. If you want to know even more about the history or weren’t able to grab tickets to the ranger tour, this is the place to go.

This is one of the most historic national park museums and was built in the early 1900s, and it’s made from the same types of materials used to create the actual cliff dwellings. Inside, you can learn all about pueblo life.

the archaelogical museum in mesa verde where you can learn about the cliff dwellings

Drive the Mesa Top Loop Road.

Obviously, by now, you can tell going on a short drive through the national parks in Colorado is one of the best ways to explore them. In Mesa Verde National Park, that road is the Mesa Top Loop Road!

It’s only about 6 miles long but is incredibly scenic. Along the drive, you’ll also be able to pass by remains of old archaeological sites dating back to 550 CE! There are many spots along the road that you can pull off and walk up to them too.

views over mesa verde with trees and cliffs and wood

Wander the Far View Sites.

The Far View Sites are one of the most popular places to visit in Mesa Verde National Park, and for good reason.

This was one of the more populated parts of the cliff dwellings, and 40+ different villages have been found in this area!

These sites are even older than the actual cliff dwellings, which is why so many people like to see them. It’s a great look into the history and the way of life hundreds of years ago.

Some of the top places in the Far View Sites to check out include Pipe Shrine House, Far View House, and Coyote Village.

archeaelogical findings at far view in mesa verde

Eat dinner at the Metate Room Restaurant.

For dinner with a view, look no further than the Metate Room Restaurant. They have sustainable cuisines, and they offer some of the best views of the park from above. This restaurant has even won an Award of Culinary Excellence, so you know it’s good!

The restaurant is only open for dinner with limited hours, usually only 3 to 4 hours a day depending on the time of year. To guarantee a spot, make a reservation 24 hours in advance. Walk-ins are welcome, but the restaurant can’t guarantee you’ll be able to eat there.

Where to stay in Mesa Verde National Park

You can stay overnight in the park but there are only 2 options. Morefield Campground for camping or Far View Lodge but you’ll need to book in advance to get a spot.

>> Book Far View Lodge Booking.com | Book it on Hotels.com

Colorado Itinerary, Day 9: Great Sand Dunes National Park

Drive time: 3 hours 50 minutes

After Mesa Verde National Park, spend a day or two at the Great Sand Dunes National Park. Truly, a day is all you need, but if you want to spend a night in the park, then you’ll have to plan for two days, making this an 11-day road trip instead!

The drive to Great Sand Dunes National Park from Mesa Verde National Park is just shy of four hours, but you can stop at either Durango or Pagosa Springs along the way for a break. Durango is easily one of the best places to visit in Colorado if you’re a fan of locomotives.

Here are some of the best activities in Great Sand Dunes National Park.

The undulating sand dunes of Great Sand Dunes NP in Colorado

Hike to the top of the High Dune.

High Dune Trail is the most popular trail in all of Great Sand Dunes National Park.

It’s only three miles with an elevation gain of just over 600 feet, but it’s rated as difficult. This is because trekking in the sand is a lot harder than you may think it is.

Despite being the most popular trail, most of the year, you’ll find that you may be one of the only people you can see along the route. This is what makes it such a lovely trail to hike. Plus, the views are incredible the whole way.

layers of beautiful sand dunes stacking against each other in the early morning light in colorado

Have a blast sandboarding.

The best activity, without a doubt, in Great Sand Dunes National Park is sandboarding!

Don’t worry; you can rent sandboards right near the park in the San Luis Valley because it’s such a popular activity. Keep in mind that you should rent them before arriving at the park.

If sandboarding isn’t your style, you can also go sand sledding. This is perfect if you’re traveling with children! These can also be rented, or you can bring your own sleds from home if you’d prefer.

people sandboarding and walking up a sand dune

Spot the Milky Way.

To get a great view of the Milky Way, stay until nightfall at the park. There’s something truly magical about seeing the Milky Way while surrounded by sand dunes.

It’s one of those experiences that you can honestly only have while at the Great Sand Dunes National Park! (Okay, except maybe the Sahara Desert)

Don’t forget to bring your camera too, because this is one view you won’t want to miss!

Camp in the sand dunes.

Believe it or not, but you can spend the night directly in the sand dunes if you want.

To do this, you can backpack and camp anywhere within the sand dunes by setting up your own tent, even just sleeping in a sleeping bag in the sand.

Keep in mind that there is wildlife at this park, so be careful with what you bring. You also can’t have more than six people in your group at a time, and only twenty groups can sleep within the park on any given night. Read more restrictions here.

Camping in sand dunes in Colroado with stars overhead

Visit Zapata Falls.

Zapata Falls is one of the best-hidden gems in Colorado, and it’s located right next to the Great Sand Dunes National Park. It’s a beautiful waterfall with a 30-foot drop that is a lovely example of Colorado’s nature.

The Zapata Falls Trail to get to the waterfall is less than a mile, with an elevation of around 200 feet. It’s an out, and back trail ranked as easy, so it’s not super challenging to get to the waterfall.

Visiting in the winter? You may find a frozen waterfall!

man hiking to a frozen waterfall in a canyon

Where to stay in Great Sand Dunes National Park

Great Sand Dunes National Park has no in-park lodges but if you want to experience the magic of the dunes, I recommend camping right on the dunes if you have the permit that allows you to do so or camp at Pinon Flats Campground.

But if camping is not your thing, there are a few accommodation types just outside the park to consider.

LODGE | If you want to stay just right next to the park, I recommend Great Sand Dunes Lodge. There is nothing fancy to write back home about but the rooms are comfortable enough, it has an indoor swimming pool, and you get some nice mountainous views.

>> Check photos and reviews on Booking.com | Book it on Hotels.com

If you don’t find a spot in the above lodge, then you can make Alamosa town your base for visiting the Great Sand Dunes National Park. It’s approximately 45 minutes to the dunes but it has a lot more accommodation options.

BOUTIQUE | If you want something familiar that you know will never disappoint, then stay at Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites Alamosa, an IHG Hotel. Just like most IHG hotels, the rooms here are comfortable with a chic interior that will make you feel welcome.

>> Check photos and reviews on Booking.com | Book it on Hotels.com

BUDGET | If you want to stay on the lower end of the budget with a touch of luxury, then I suggest staying at Best Western Alamosa Inn. Not a low budget per se but definitely a steal for this location and the amenities offered. All the rooms at this hotel feature a refrigerator, a microwave, and a coffee maker should you want to fix yourself a quick drink. And for active travelers, you’ll be happy to know that there is a fitness room to stay in shape and an indoor swimming pool plus a jacuzzi to unwind from.

>> Check photos and reviews on Booking.com | Book it on Hotels.com

Colorado Itinerary, Day 10: Back to Denver

Drive time: 3 hours 50 minutes

On the last day, head back to Denver (or wherever you started your trip from). The drive is just shy of four hours, and the halfway point is none other than the fantastic Colorado Springs. This is one of the top places to visit in Colorado and is also one of the best day trips from Denver.

I can’t recommend enough that you stop in Colorado Springs on your way back, just because it’s a great town.

While you’re there, be sure to visit Garden of the Gods, an epic outdoor attraction so beautiful it’ll have you wondering why it’s not another one of Colorado’s national parks!

beautiful light falling on garden of the gods

At Garden of the Gods, there are a few different walking trails ranging in experience level, but each one will take you through the fantastic rock formations so you can check out the park. This is a super popular photography location, too, so don’t forget your camera.

Other fun stops in/near Colorado Springs include Pikes Peak (an epic spot for hiking or rock climbing), The Broadmoor Seven Falls, and Pikes Peak Highway, which will take you up the mountain without hiking. However, it’s often closed in winter due to weather, so keep that in mind!

What to Pack for Your Colorado National Parks Road Trip

I have a complete USA road trip packing list here you may want to go through before your road trip.

Travel guides

While I’ve given you so much useful information in this Colorado road trip itinerary, sometimes it’s hard to include all the little details due to time and resources constraints. However, travel guides do a good job at filling in all the spaces and that’s why I recommend taking this Fodor’s Colorado guidebook on top of my first-hand experience.

Phone Mount & Car Charger

It’s never safe to use your phone while driving or bother your front-seat passenger with navigation help and that’s why you need a phone mount. Also, you’ll need to take a car charger for obvious reasons but instead of taking 2 different devices, I recommend taking this dual-purpose phone mount and charger! I’ve used it on every single road trip I’ve gone to and I can’t imagine going to one without it.

Snacks

Road trips just go better with snacks and let’s not forget how quickly hanger can kick in especially if you don’t want to keep stopping just to get something to eat. Pack a few snacks — and not just the sweet ones but a mix of sweets and salty ones too.

Comfortable Footwear: Colorado national parks have a lot of hiking trails, so you’ll need to take sneakers or comfortable hiking boots (I love my Ahnu Sugarpine boots for women, and for men, I suggest the KEEN Durand boot.) You can go with sneakers but just make sure they have good traction and are comfortable to walk in for an extended period of time.

Bug spray and after-bite care

Nothing ruins an epic adventure in the wild like bugs — those little monsters just know how to change someone’s mood quickly but the good news is that you can protect yourself with this DEET-free lemon eucalyptus-based mosquito repellent — it’s great on even the most stubborn mosquitos.

Unfortunately, sometimes bugs are just too sneaky and they become hard to avoid. When that happens, use After Bite itch eraser to manage itches. It will instantly soothe your skin and you’ll be able to go back to enjoying the beautiful National Parks of Colorado.

Rehydration packets

If you’re like me who gets nasty headaches when dehydrated, you might want to pack rehydration packets. With the scorching sun, uncoordinated meal times, Impromptu hikes, salty snacks, there is no way you can avoid dehydration except if you take these Rehydration packets. I’ve been packing them for years for every road trip and they’re now a big part of my road trip tradition.

Sunscreen

Some people think that just because they’ll spend a good amount of time in the car driving that they don’t need sunscreen but they’re wrong!

While windshields protect against UVB rays (which cause sunburn), most do not block UVA rays, which cause aging and skin cancer. So for that reason, you need to pack and wear sunscreen even when you’re driving. And not just when driving but even when you hit the trails or spend the day on a beach. I love this sunscreen as it prevents my face from breaking out –( my skin is sensitive to chemical sunscreens) but since it’s a bit pricey, I use a cheaper one for the rest of my body.

And remember that it doesn’t matter which skin color or race you are — white, pale like me, Black, Latina, or Asian, you need sunscreen! Skin cancer doesn’t discriminate based on skin color.

If you’re hiking, don’t forget about your scalp either — I often end up with a burned scalp and it’s no fun, often leading to headaches. Buy a special sunscreen for hair and scalp to avoid this!


Don’t forget travel insurance!
Travel insurance coverage helps you recoup your losses in case of emergency, accident, illness, or theft. I’ve relied on World Nomads for my travel insurance coverage for four years with no complaints, and I’m a happy paying customer. I recommend them highly to fellow travelers!

Get your free quote here.

Complete Guide to the Avalanche Lake Hike in Glacier National Park

Nestled on the west side of Glacier National Park is one of the most beautiful hikes in the country: Avalanche Lake, sitting pretty at an elevation of 3,905 feet.

This Montana park draws over two million visitors a year, most of them being hikers and outdoor enthusiasts.

Avalanche Lake is known for its impressive beauty and is rated one of the top attractions in the whole park. It’s a must-see when you are visiting Glacier National Park.

Keep reading to find out what you need to know about the Avalanche Lake hike before you go!

PLANNING YOUR AVALANCHE LAKE HIKE AT-A-GLANCE:

Mileage: 5.9 miles roundtrip

Elevation Gain: 757 feet

Difficulty: Moderate

Getting Around: Most poeple who travel to Glacier National Park use a car, whether that's their own personal car or a rental from a nearby airport. There is also a shuttle that stops at Avalanche, you can read more here.

Gear: Be prepared for all manner of weather on this hike! You'll want layers that can adjust to variable temperatures, waterproof layers (like this rain jacket), proper hiking boots (I love my Ahnu boots), and you'll probably want some trekking poles to help you on the descent.

Need To Know: If you plan to visit multiple national parks in a year, the America the Beautiful Pass will save you a bundle! It costs $80 for an annual pass (for an entire vehicle traveling together) to all US national parks and federally managed site. 

You also need a separate ticket to access Going-to-the-Sun Road. This is different than your general entry into Glacier National Park.

How To Get to Avalanche Lake

Photo Credit: Leah Bilquist

Note: Access to Avalanche Lake is only possible via Going-to-the-Sun Road via the West Entrance of the park, which requires a separate ticket to enter.

Once you enter the park, you will drive towards Apgar Campground. You will begin to see signs for Going-to-the-Sun-Road. Make a right onto Going-to-the-Sun-Road and begin your drive towards the trailhead.

You will first pass Lake McDonald on your left. Once you get to the end of Lake McDonald, you will be a little over nine miles from the trailhead.

You will then see signs for Avalanche Lake. Keep in mind, the main parking area holds about ten cars and is normally full, unless you get lucky and see a hiker leaving the parking lot.

It is recommended to loop around and wait for someone to leave if there is no availability. Popular times are 8:00 AM, 10:00 AM, and 12:00 PM.

There is additional parking about a half-mile north of the trailhead where another five to ten cars can be parked.

You can walk the road back to the trailhead if you find a spot there. This will add mileage to your trip, but it is well worth it once you see the beauty of the lake.

Keep in mind the reservation system is currently in place at Glacier National Park. You will not be able to access this trailhead unless you have a Going-to-the-Sun-Road entry ticket.

History of Avalanche Lake

You are probably wondering how Avalanche Lake got its name… well, you’re looking at it!

The lake’s turquoise blue waters are due to the abundance of avalanches that fall down the Sperry Glacier, the mountain that sits behind the lake.

Avalanche Lake got its name in 1895 from Dr. Lyman Sperry, who is the namesake of Sperry Glacier. The glacier itself provides the water for the lake, from its constant avalanches.

Dr. Lyman was in awe of how many avalanches he witnessed during his short time visiting the lake — hence its name.

Avalanche Lake is also unique because it is one of the few lakes of its size that still has fish in it! It is rare to have fish in the area due to its size and elevation. Yellowstone cutthroat trout are the most popular fish found here in the lake.

The lake itself is a mile and a half long with a depth of 54 feet in some sections, which is an impressive depth for its relatively smaller size.

The Avalanche Lake Hike: Step by Step

Photo Credit: Leah Bilquist

Hiking to Avalanche Lake via the Trail of the Cedars is an unforgettable trek! The reason it is so distinctive is that it is two top-rated hikes in one.

First, you will begin your hike at the start of Trail of the Cedars, which is 0.9 miles long.

This hike starts you out in a wooded forest filled with green trees and mossy rocks. There is a wooden boardwalk that goes through the woodland which you will follow along.

Wildlife such as deer and moose walk the trail freely here and are commonly spotted. The sound of flowing rivers will surround you. Small cascading waterfalls line the trail.

You will even pass over a wooden bridge that provides astonishing views of the bright blue waterfalls!

Photo Credit: Leah Bilquist

This part of the hike is for all skill levels and is even wheelchair-friendly due to the boardwalk.

The trail lives up to its name: you will be surrounded by enormous cedar trees throughout your whole walk! The Trail of the Cedars hike is recommended on very sunny or hot days due to the amount of shade the cedars provide.

Surround yourself in the majestic wilderness while enjoying a much-needed hike in Glacier National Park that will bring you back to nature.

Halfway through the Trail of the Cedars is the start of the Avalanche Lake Trail. Avalanche Lake is two miles from Trail of the Cedars, with an additional two miles back.

This makes the hike in total around 5.9 miles with a 757-foot elevation gain, since you only do half of the Trail of Cedars’ length. This trail is rated as moderate and can be quite the workout, especially on hot summer days.

As soon as you follow the signs to the left on Trail of the Cedars, you will begin your ascent to Avalanche Lake.

The first part of the hike is completely uphill on a dirt trail. There are large wooden steps built into the trail in certain sections, making it an intense workout!

Stop and enjoy the views during this uphill battle whenever you need to catch your breath. You will be surrounded by icy blue rivers and vibrant green mossy trees. It is a very peaceful hike with background sounds of birds chirping and running water over the rocks!

Once you get about a mile and a half up, the trail begins to level out, making the last half mile pure excitement. You will continue your way through the trees until you spot a crystal blue image in the distance, peeking through the trees.

Another wooden boardwalk appears and you will follow that to the lake. The trees will part and the incredible Avalanche Lake will sit before you: a tranquil oasis of clear water merging with turquoise blue water.

Photo Credit: Leah Bilquist

The stunning mountains behind the lake showcase rivers flowing down the sides. A lush green forest fills the surrounding areas. When the sun hits just right, you can see the snow still sitting on the top of the peak. It’s an absolutely scenic and beautiful visual.

Most hikers spend their day here on the sandy beaches of Avalanche Lake. Visitors take off their shoes and soak their feet in the cold glacier water.

Some even become brave enough to swim in it, which is allowed but not commonly seen due to how cold the water is, even in the heart of the summer!

It is recommended to bring lunch and a small blanket to sit on, as this is a remarkable spot to have a bucket list picnic. Hikers lounge out on the beach and enjoy the views.

The hike can be crowded, but there is enough room for everyone to have their space at the beach.

If you want a less crowded area, continue on the boardwalk for ten minutes to reach the other side of the lake. This side is rumored to be just as beautiful with fewer people around!

If you are lucky enough, you can even find your own secluded beach on this side. A lot of people think that the main entrance is the only stop off of the lake, but the trail continues all the way around. I would recommend spending some time at both beaches for optimal views.

When you are ready, begin your descent back down another two miles following the same route you used earlier. The wooden steps are high in some parts, making it a bit strenuous on the knees.

If you have knee issues, plan on bringing a brace or using a walking stick for the hike back down.

Once you reach the bottom of Avalanche Lake Trailhead, you will continue on the Trail of the Cedars to the left. This will eventually loop the Trail of the Cedars trail and provide some new scenery.

The trail ends in half of a mile and brings you back out to the parking lot where you started.

Final Things to Know About the Avalanche Lake Hike

Photo Credit: Leah Bilquist

Due to its popularity, this hike to Avalanche Lake can get very crowded!

Just take your time and use hiker etiquette. If you’re descending the trail, step aside and give space to the people climbing up.

Also do not go off-trail and be respectful of the marked trail signs…. yes, even (and especially) for photos!

If you encounter wildlife, give them enough space and do not approach. Glacier National Park is grizzly bear country, so always be bear aware. You may want to bring bear spray or bear bells.

The hike itself can take anywhere from two to three hours depending on your level of fitness. Add on an additional two hours to spend at the lake. Plan for a total of five hours to fully enjoy this gorgeous day hike!

Remember to pack a delicious lunch and yummy snacks to eat at the top. Most importantly, bring extra water. It may be cooler at the lake with a slight breeze but your body needs additional water for those hot summer days.

If you don’t want to bring a lot of water, you may want to bring a filtering water bottle like the Grayl so you can fill up on delicious glacier water that is filtered so as to be safe to drink!

***

There is a reason why Glacier National Park has gained so much popularity over the past three years. Avalanche Lake shows the secret as to why: a mix between glaciers, waterfalls, and a lush forest makes the beauty surreal.

After driving all over this park, the Avalanche Lake hike took my breath away the most, becoming one of my favorite hikes of all time. 

If you have one day or five hours in this park, drop everything else and hike the famous Avalanche Lake: a view that is often only seen on computer screensavers will come to life before your eyes.

Lace up your hiking boots and visit this Montana hotspot — Avalanche Lake is waiting for you to visit!

9 Fun Things to Do in Rocky Mountain National Park in Winter

Rocky Mountain National Park is a winter wonderland located outside the adorable mountain town of Estes Park, Colorado.

The park is 415 square miles and only a two-hour drive from Denver, Colorado, making it an excellent day trip from Denver or an easy addition to your Denver itinerary.

Rocky Mountain is known for its snowy winters and massive peaks. Snow normally begins in late October and ends well into the middle of May.

This pattern attracts ski bums and winter enthusiasts to the area each year. Ice climbing, cross country skiing, and winter hiking are the most sought-after activities here, in this national park that is known for being a winter playground with stunning views of the snow-capped Rocky Mountains.

The activities are limitless and this guide to visiting Rocky Mountain National Park in winter will help you navigate them all!

Rocky Mountains Winter Packing List

Landscape view of Rocky Mountains National Park in Colorado with trees in the foreground and mountains in the background.

Locals joke that you need to pack for every season when visiting or hiking in Colorado… well, that joke is actually true!

Sometimes you might start your hike with the weather being sixty degrees and sunny, but as you climb, the higher your elevation is, putting yourself in more extreme weather situations.

The temperature can drop to single digits, with added wind chills on top of it. Layers, layers, and even more layers are the key to staying warm!

Your first layer should be your base layer. Merino wool is known to keep you the warmest and is very comfortable and breathable — we suggest these ones by Merino.tech (leggings + top layer), which use 100% merino wool from farms in New Zealand.

Your middle layer is your insulation layer, which helps you retain body heat. Using fleece (like this one from North Face) as your middle layer is highly recommended and extra comfortable.

Your outer layer is your final layer and where you will be spending most of your money. Heavy winter jackets with protective layers and a hood are preferred — I also use North Face for this layer, in particular, their insulated Metropolis parka (which I’ve had for 15 years and loved!).

In Colorado, you want to make sure you have a reliable windshield in your outer layer, as the wind chill above the treeline or mountains cuts you totally differently. If you also get caught in a snow or rainstorm, this will help keep you dry and protect your other layers.

It is okay if you do not wear all three layers at the start of your adventure — just have them available, as the higher you get, the colder it will get.

That is why it is recommended to have all of these options in your backpack, so you can easily add or remove layers, depending on the weather.

Happy family with arms around each other enjoying beautiful mountain view on winter hiking trip in Rocky Mountain National Park.

A warm winter hat and insulated, waterproof gloves are a must-have. Use fabrics that will not get soggy when wet.

Multiple pairs of socks (preferably wool socks) should always be in your backpack. This is important in case you step into a heavy snowpack or puddle when hiking.

Your socks could become frozen, risking hypothermia or frostbite. Having multiple pairs of socks you can layer up with if you get wet or extra cold is key. It is an extremely lightweight but important hiking hack for winter.

Always remember that when it comes to playing in the winter snow, you must prepare for the worst while hoping for the best. Being over-prepared could save your life — or others around you.

Microspikes and/or snowshoes (depending on the amount of snow on the ground) are needed when attempting any winter hiking.

Microspikes help keep your grip with chains or small spikes that slip over your hiking boots. They help you stay grounded on icy trails and will prevent you from falling. I used and loved these Yaktrax while hiking in Arctic Norway.

They are a lifesaver and it is rare to spot hikers without them! There is nothing worse than losing traction and sliding down an icy mountain.

In addition, after a heavy snowfall, you will need snowshoes. The mountains get pounded with multiple feet of snow and it takes a while for it to become packed down.

In these conditions, one wrong step could have you post-holing, covering your body in the snow!

Snowshoes will keep you above the soft snow instead of having you fall through it out.

Most of the time, you will start off with microspikes until you reach a higher elevation. That is when you swap them out for the snowshoes. They are a dynamic duo for winter mountain hiking and will make your life ten times easier!

Most hiking trails are not even accessible without them. It is ideal to always bring them with you, even if you think you won’t need them.

Snowshoes can be expensive — you can get a cheap-ish pair on Amazon, or invest in a heavier-duty pair from REI — so many people choose to rent a pair in Estes Park if they don’t plan to hike in the snow frequently.

Avalanche Awareness

Sign reading "avalanche area: no stopping or standing next two miles" with snow in the background

According to reports from the CAIC, Colorado Avalanche Information Center, there are over two thousand avalanches in Colorado every season.

It’s important to be avalanche-aware whenever you head out into the winter backcountry.

If you see an avalanche heading towards you, do not try to run away from it. The best thing you can do is move to the side, grab something sturdy, and hold one arm up.

If you have one arm up and get buried, the rescue team will be able to locate you faster, increasing your chances for survival. 

Even though getting caught in an avalanche is slim, it is very important to be prepared!

Having an avalanche transceiver (and more importantly, knowing how to use it) may save your life.

If you stick to more traversed areas of the park, this is likely not necessary, but if you want to go into the backcountry, it is essential.

You are probably wondering how avalanches even start. Simply put, an avalanche occurs when a layer of snow collapses and slides downhill.

There are four factors that cause this natural wonder: a steep slope, heavy snow cover, a layer of snow that is weak, and of course (as all the movies have shown!) a trigger.

Backcountry skiers, snowboarders, and snowmobilers are the biggest cause of avalanches, due to the vibrations from machinery and boards. Some other causes are earthquakes or even rain and wind combined with heavy snowfall.

Warming temperatures can be a common factor, causing the melted snow to become heavier.

The CAIC has a map on their website that shows the Rocky Mountain Range, including Rocky Mountain National Park.

It is updated every day in the winter months to display what level of threat is in the area: 1 being the lowest and 5, extreme, being the most dangerous.

It is highly recommended to make this website your winter tool before any outdoor activities in the Rocky Mountains. You can view the conditions map here

Winter Road Closures

Snow Covered Trail Ridge Road in  Rocky Mountain National Park in winter before the closed part of the season starts

Trail Ridge Road is 48 miles with an elevation of 12,183 feet at its highest point.

It is one of the most talked-about and famous roads in all of Colorado, and a popular Colorado scenic drive, drawing over 900,000 visitors each month in the summer.

This drive is not for the faint of heart and can be downright terrifying to most people! This is caused by the lack of guard rails and very steep drop-off.

In the summer, you can take the road from Estes Park which is the east entrance of the park, all the way to Grand Lake, which is the west entrance of the park, allowing you to visit both of these Rocky Mountain towns.

Driving the road is allowed in the summer months, depending on when the snowfall declines. It normally reopens around late May to mid-June. 

Don’t worry, you can still explore it during the winter months, but only by foot and by ski! 

The road is plowed up the viewpoint section of Many Parks Curve; cars are not allowed past this point.

Trail Ridge Road is the only road that officially shuts down every winter from October until Memorial Day weekend. The other roads in the park are very well maintained, even after heavy snowfall.

All of the roads are paved and plowed throughout the park, keeping winter visits popular and safe to visitors.

Winter Weather in Rocky Mountain National Park

People walking on the frozen surface of Dream Lake in winter on a sunny day in Colorado

Weather can be tricky at Rocky Mountain National Park in winter!

Colorado is known for its 300 days of sunshine and also snowy destinations, an odd combination for knowing what to expect.

Weather can — and does — quickly change from fifty and sunny to blizzard conditions frequently!

Checking the weather before your departure is always recommended. Being prepared for all weather conditions is a must.

Snow typically begins falling in October and doesn’t stop until late April to mid-May., but keep in mind that every year is different. 

You can call the Rocky Mountain National Park information line at 970-586-1206 for the latest conditions and snow reports.

Things to Do in Rocky Mountain National Park in Winter

Ice climb the frozen waterfalls.

Ice climbing is a hard but popular mountaineering activity in Colorado. This fun winter activity includes climbing frozen waterfalls or large rocks covered with ice.

Luckily, Rocky Mountain National Park is home to a remote and scenic ice climbing area, making it a bucket list winter destination for ice climbers.

In the Wild Basin area of the park, you’ll find Hidden Falls, located twelve miles south of Estes Park near the Longs Peak Trailhead.

There will be signs for the horse trail about one hundred yards from the ranger station: that is where the trailhead begins.

If you are interested in ice climbing but don’t know where to start, we’ve got you covered!

This waterfall freezes in mid-winter, drawing skilled climbers to the region. The trail to Hidden Falls can get very snowy and icy at times. It is recommended to be prepared and have the correct equipment before taking on this challenge.

The American Alpine Institute provides technical climbing education to new students.

This mountaineering school offers courses in ice climbing, rock climbing, glacier skills, and more. They even have an Introduction class to Alpine Ice Climbing, a six-day course led in different locations all around the country.

Whether you want to take on the hobby long-term or just try it out, they are there to ensure you are doing it safely. Check out their courses on their website here.

No time for a long course? The Kent Mountain Adventure Center in Estes Park offers one-day intro classes that get you started on ice climbing.

Have winter fun in the Hidden Valley Snow Park.

Once a ski resort in the 1950s until the 1990s, Hidden Valley was a popular spot for locals to ski and snowboard.

Initially, chair lifts were not available at the resort, causing the skiers to hike up the runs and ski down. Later, lifts were built, creating a full ski experience.

However, the National Park Service eventually closed the slopes in the early 1990s.

Today, the lifts are gone and it has become a backcountry skiing and snowboarding destination. The runs are narrow, allowing skiers to alternate turns down the slope.

In order to get there, enter from the Estes Park entrance and drive to the Hidden Valley picnic area. You will see signs for parking, and a lot of people getting ready to enjoy the area!

If snow tubing is more your speed, then Hidden Valley has got you covered. The bunny hill from the old ski resort is now used for sledding and tubing!

After heavy snowstorms, families and large groups flock to this area. Be sure to bring your own tubes and sleds (or rent them in Estes Park before entering Rocky Mountain National Park) as there are no rentals inside the park!

Children riding on an inflatable snow tube in Rocky Mountain national park in winter

Go cross-country skiing.

Cross-country skiing is a fun sport that involves gliding across the snow while getting a fantastic workout.

Cross-country skiing requires skiers to use a back and forth motion with their legs, as if they are running with skis on. No wonder it’s such a good workout!

In Rocky Mountain National Park in winter, Trail Ridge Road closes to vehicles, allowing cross-country skiers to use the road as their playground, with a stunning workout view at 12,000 feet in the air.

The road is a steady uphill climb on the way up — which makes it even more enjoyable coming back!

Cross-country skiing is a great winter activity in Colorado, and there are lots of options to choose from in RMNP in winter.

If Trail Ridge Road is a little out of your league, you can try Glacier Basin Campground Loop: a beginner-friendly 2.7-mile loop through a forest with stunning views of the surrounding lake!

Tackle some winter hikes.

Dream Lake – Easy

One of the most photographed locations in Rocky Mountain National Park is the famous Dream Lake.

The name fits the scenery and this spot is perhaps even more stunning in the winter! The snow falls around the crevices in the mountain, creating a dreamscape of a winter wonderland.

In cold temperatures — typically by around January — the lake freezes over and is covered with snow, allowing you to walk out to the middle of the lake for that perfect photo opportunity! Note: Be sure to ask a park ranger if the lake is safely frozen over before embarking on this hike

The hike itself is rated as easy and only two miles long. Due to the high elevation of the park, the elevation gain of 426 can be moderate for those sensitive to uphill gain.

Either way, seeing this view in person is worth the extra effort!

You even pass Nymph Lake on your hike back to Bear Lake parking lot, which is another gorgeous place to extend your hike if you want more winter scenery.

Keep in mind that the Bear Lake Parking lot fills up relatively quickly in both the winter and summer months. It is important to get there early as the park rangers will close the road off once it fills up!

The snowy landscape of a frozen-over Dream Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park in winter in Colorado

Emerald Lake – Moderate

About a mile after Dream Lake is Emerald Lake, making it a great addition to your winter hike in Rocky Mountain National Park if you want to get some extra mileage in with even more gorgeous views!

The trail is 3.2 miles and starts at the Bear Lake parking lot, similar to the previous hike mentioned. Once you get to Dream Lake, you will continue north on the trail around the shore of the lake, bringing you through a very lush pine forest.

You will then arrive at Emerald Lake, where you will be able to see the views of Flattop Mountain! The views become even more breathtaking around sunrise and sunset.

Emerald lake in rocky mountains national park, CO in winter with frozen ice sheet on the lake and snow

Sky Pond via Glacier Gorge Trail – Hard

This is a winter hike that is rated as hard but makes it on most visitors’ bucket lists — only tackle it if you are an experienced winter hiker!

Making it to Sky Pond in the winter months is a great achievement for hikers: this 9.4-mile trek through the snow and ice is only recommended to be taken on by hikers with some experience.

If you’ve never hiked in the winter before, stick to one of the previous two hikes, and add this to your Rocky Mountain National Park winter bucket list for future years!

Start at the Glacier Gorge Trailhead parking lot, then begin your journey through the snowy forest.

Eventually, you will reach Loch Lake, which is normally frozen over in the winter months. You can either walk on the lake or around it, depending on how thick the ice is (you may want to ask a ranger before embarking on this hike).

From there, continue on until you reach Lake of Glass. You may think your hike is almost over once you reach this lake, but it is not!

You will then have to climb the falls to the top where Sky Pond is. This can be especially difficult in the winter, but it is doable. It is important to go slow and make sure you have proper hand and footing.

Due to the slipperiness of the icy rocks, it is important that you bring your microspikes!

This hike may be difficult, but the views are breathtaking for the whole 9.4 miles. Be sure to pack some lunch and enjoy it at Sky Pond before heading back.

Hiking Trail to a Frozen Lake Beneath "The Spearhead" in Glacier Gorge, Rocky Mountain National Park

Long’s Peak – Extremely Difficult

This is a Colorado 14er that is rated dangerous and sometimes deadly — so only undertake this with sufficient experience.

Be sure to follow all safety guidelines, let people know where you are going, and have an GPS-enabled SOS device on you such as the Garmin InReach Mini, which can send out an alert in case you get injured or lost without cell reception (which you will most definitely not have out on this hike!).

For the uninitiated, a 14er is a mountain peak that sits at 14,000 feet or more. Colorado has 58 of them located all over the state.

For those trying to tackle all 58 of Colorado’s 14ers, Long’s is a staple in Rocky Mountain National Park, one that is only encouraged to be taken on by mountaineers who are properly trained — especially in the winter.

20,000 people come to Rocky Mountain every year in an attempt to summit this mountain, but only half of those climbers make it to the top and back down. It is rumored to be the most tried and failed fourteener in the state!

Unfortunately, there have been 58 people who have died while trying to complete this hike since the year 2000, so it is not without its risks (hence our suggestion for a SOS safety device).

The difficulty is due to the distance of 14.8 miles and the scramble at the top. The hike turns into a climb accompanied by very steep drop-offs.

One wrong move can become fatal, so experience in climbing is a must. Since the distance is so long, most hikers get an overnight camping permit to break it up. This can also be dangerous due to the quickly changing weather, especially in the winter months.

Long’s Peak is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and it takes most people that long to accomplish it. Even though it can be scary, it is a beautiful peak and a good goal to have for those who take it seriously.

View of Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Go snowshoeing.

Hiking trails become snowshoeing trails in the winter in Colorado, and Rocky Mountain National Park in winter has plenty of trails to bring them on!

It is common to see the above trails filled with snowshoers in the winter. After heavy snowstorms, hiking the trail without them becomes impossible.

Sometimes the snow is too fresh and can be as high as your chest! The snowshoes allow you to stay above the powder, keeping you safe from falling through.

If you are visiting the area you can rent snowshoes at local mountain shops in the town of Estes Park, Colorado for the day.

Explore the cute mountain town of Estes Park.

The east entrance of Estes Park is the most popular entry point in the winter season.

Since Trail Ridge Road connects you to the west entrance, and it is closed in the winter, there are not many winter activities available on that side of the park.

As a result, the already bustling Estes Park gets even more lively in the winter, as it’s the primary access point into the park.

In the winter, Estes Park resembles a picturesque snowy postcard, filled with mountain views and wildlife. Moose are commonly spotted roaming the streets downtown and outside lodging facilities!

Restaurants and shops line the streets of their quaint downtown area to enjoy after your action-packed day.

Estes Park downtown in winter with plowed streets and the city covered in snow

Enjoy accommodations in the area such as cozy winter cabins or their spooky Stanley Hotel.

The Stanley Hotel is famous in the area, known for its haunting encounters. Author Stephen King stayed at the hotel, which inspired his book and (that was later turned into the famous movie) The Shining.

You can even tour the Stanley Hotel during the day if staying overnight is out of your comfort zone!

Local ranches and farms offer horseback riding activities, even in the winter.

You will drive through the downtown area of this town when leaving and entering Rocky Mountain National Park.

Even if you’re just passing through, it is a convenient place to grab snacks or gear prior to spending the day in the park.

End your adventure by spending some time at Lake Estes, a 185-acre lake with views of Rocky Mountain National Park from afar.

It’s also a great place to visit in the holiday season when the lights are up all over town!

Rocky Mountain National Park Tips

With endless winter activities and stunning views, Rocky Mountain National Park is a winter lover’s paradise!

Making sure you have the proper equipment and gear for winter activities is beyond important in Colorado. A well-stocked hiking backpack will be your best friend in these adventures!

There is a $25 vehicle entrance fee into the park, but if you are planning on visiting multiple times over the course of the winter or multiple national parks, I suggest you buy an America the Beautiful Pass.

It’s just $80 for an annual pass (good for one entire vehicle!) for all the national parks and 2,000+ federally-managed sites!

Buy your America the Beautiful pass online at REI!

Finally, Rocky Mountain National Park is requiring reservations from May 28 to October 11, with their new timed entry permit system. If you are visiting in that time frame you will need to make a reservation online.

It is not stated if they will be extended into the winter months as of yet, but be prepared for that to be a possibility.

The Rocky Mountains are waiting for you to explore their snowy peaks. Come see this real-life winter wonderland for yourself.

Badlands National Park Itinerary: 1, 2, or 3 Days of Adventure!

The prettiest formations of rock in the Badlands!

South Dakota is seriously one of the coolest states in America. It doesn’t seem to have that reputation, but it is true! 

The Black Hills and Custer State Park are gorgeous and full of wildlife. The Cathedral Spires are one of the most prominent rock climbing destinations in the United States.

As the state is full of exciting wildlife and rock features, you cannot miss a visit to Badlands National Park

You will be awe-struck by the colorful rock features and spires. Imagine reds, yellows, oranges, and white striped mountains and spires!

Small hills in the Badlands National Park at sunset with light falling on the rock formations
PLANNING BADLANDS AT-A-GLANCE:

When to Go: Mid-summer brings heavy storms -- and crowds. Best time to visit is late spring/early summer or in the early fall.

Where to Stay: The best place to stay is in Wall, SD, near the Northeast Entrance to the park. I suggest the Best Western Plains Motel (mid-range, best-rated) or the Peaceful Country Living Home (vacation rental by owner).

More options: Days Inn (mid-range), America's Best Value Inn (mid-range with pool)

How to Get Around: You'll want your own car to travel around Badlands National Park, as there is no shuttle or public transit through the park. If you're renting a car, compare prices for car rentals from Rapid City Airport here.

Don't want to drive or plan? This private one-day Badlands tour departs from Rapid City, SD and will cover all the highlights without you doing any legwork.

3 Things Not to Forget to Pack: A sturdy pair of hiking boots will serve you well -- I love my Ahnu boots. You'll want binoculars to spot all the beautiful wildlife -- I suggest these Nikon binoculars. If you're hiking deep in the backcountry (this is an Open Hike Park!), you'll want something enabled with GPS and satellite SOS, like the Garmin InReach Mini. 

Know Before You Go: If you plan to visit multiple national parks in a year, the America the Beautiful Pass will save you a bundle! It costs $80 for an annual pass (for an entire vehicle traveling together) to all US national parks and federally managed site. 
Striated red and tan rock and grasslands in the Badlands of South Dakota

This national park is one of the most extraordinary examples of prehistory in America. It used to be underwater, and some of the remaining rock seems to be still moist. 

You can see fossils and imagine how this land looked when it was still immersed under the ocean 45 million years ago.

Not only is the prehistory of this park enough to pique your interest, but it has a long history of Native American culture.

It is flourishing with plants and animals for anyone to have the opportunity to thrive off the land here. There are prairie dogs, Badlands bighorn sheep, pronghorns, and bison roaming throughout the park. 

In addition, you will see edible and medicinal plants such as wild sunflowers, licorice, and juniper.

The Lakota, Sioux, and Cheyenne Native Americans once thrived in this wild land. They were among countless other tribes who learned the lay of the land and survived for hundreds of years before white settlers took the land from them.

As always when visiting stolen land, and particularly national parks, keep in mind the history of the land. The various Native American tribes of this area were true masters of the land. Remember this when you come here. The energy is palpable, and you can feel the ancient wisdom in the air.

Rock formations in Badlands National Park with shadow and light coming into play

How to Get to Badlands National Park

From Rapid City

From Rapid City to Badlands National Park, it takes about an hour drive to get to the park. There is a small regional airport at Rapid City.

There are direct flights to the Rapid City airport from Minneapolis, Denver, Chicago, Salt Lake City, Atlanta, and Dallas.

From Sioux Falls

It’s a bit of a long drive between Sioux Falls and Badlands National Park, which is about a 4 hour drive via I-90, but it’s an airport that has a little more options than Rapid City.

There are direct flights to the Sioux Falls airport from Las Vegas, Phoenix, Dallas, Atlanta, Orlando, Atlanta, Charlotte, Chicago, Denver, and Minneapolis.

On a South Dakota Road Trip

I’m in the process of writing a post for a South Dakota road trip, but here’s a quick little overview for you.

Your road trip itinerary should include Wind Cave National Park, Custer State Park, the Black Hills and the Crazy Horse Memorial, and Mount Rushmore, all of which are clustered close to the Rapid City Airport. 

Other places that might be of interest are Deadwood, SD and Devils Tower National Monument in nearby Wyoming.

Below is a map that shows a rough South Dakota road trip itinerary.

On a Larger American Road Trip

South Dakota’s two NPS sites (Wind Cave and Badlands) pair well with Mountain West or other Midwest national parks.

One example would be a road trip that includes Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Mt. Rushmore, etc. You can see both Wyoming and South Dakota on a single road trip.

You could also pair with Colorado national parks or Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota.

Geyser basin in Yellowstone National Park with blue geothermal waters

Entering Badlands National Park

There are three main entrances to Badlands National Park: the Northeast Entrance (close to the Ben Reifel Visitor Center), the Pinnacles Entrance, and the Interior Entrance (near the White River Visitor Center and Cedar Pass Lodge).

Either way will allow you to see a lot of the park, but the White River Visitor Center is more on the way if you are doing a South Dakota road trip as it’s easier to go to Custer State Park, the Black Hills, etc. from there.

You can enter one way and exit another or return via the same park entrance you came.

Entering Badlands National Park costs $25 per vehicle, or if you have the America the Beautiful Pass, entrance is free!

NPS Sign reading "Entering Badlands National Park" in the late afternoon sunset light

Travel Tips for Visiting Badlands National Park

Preparation for Visiting the Badlands

An important thing to note before we get into all of the options you have to explore the Badlands is that there are limited amenities. So make sure you fill your gas tank before you head into the park!

You should make sure that you bring plenty of food for 1, 2, or 3 days in the park. Packing a lunch that needs to stay cool? Skip the bulky cooler — we suggest this awesome insulated tote from Hydroflask for your picnic needs.

You can also get food at the restaurant at Cedar Pass Lodge near the south edge of the park (Interior Entrance).

They have bison burgers, tacos, and vegetarian options. They also make their own fry bread, which is delicious.

Take note: the lodge is only open seasonally. Therefore, if you are coming in the off-season, you will need to bring all the food you need for the duration of your stay.

One of the many pointed rock formations of Badlands National Park with sunset light making shadows

Weather and Timing your Badlands Visit

An important thing to note about Badlands National Park is that the weather changes rapidly. One moment it can be warm and sunny; the next cool and stormy.

There are often high winds that will rip through the landscape. This is especially important to note if you plan on camping in the Badlands. A sturdy, legit tent is imperative. We’ll let you know more about camping in the Badlands later.

Note that summer is an especially stormy time with high winds and frequent thunderstorms…  and rainbows that follow!

The best time to visit the Badlands is in late spring/early summer (April-June, where you’ll get to see wildflowers) or late summer/early fall (September-October). The peak summer months (July and August) tend to have quite volatile weather!

Wildflowers in Badlands National Park at sunrise

What is an “Open Hike” Park?

One of the most incredible things about the Badlands is that while they may have many small trails and overlooks, this park is actually what is called an Open Hike park! 

That means you can hike and camp anywhere you want in the park, even if there are no trails.

If you choose to camp off-trail, you must camp at least 0.5 miles from any trails or roads. So you should be out of sight from anyone on the trail.

Always carry a map and a daypack. See the end of the post for our gear suggestions!

If you hike or camp off-trail, you will have the fantastic opportunity to see ferrets, prairie dogs, Badlands bighorn sheep, and bison.

A bighorn sheep standing looking at the camera in Badlands national park

Be sure to give all wildlife at least 25 yards of berth and do not approach them for any reason, particularly bison, which can occasionally be aggressive.

Note: there is also a presence of rattlesnakes in the Badlands! You should look out for them especially when adventuring off-trail. Always keep your eyes on the ground when walking. You can find them sunning themselves in open areas.

So while there are some great suggestions here, you are free to explore and hike anywhere the wind may take you while you explore the Badlands! 

It makes it a great way to spend time in the Badlands as you travel and explore to your heart’s content.

 Read a bit more about the “open hike” policy here.

Exploring the backcountry of Badlands National Park which is an Open hike park meaning you do not have to hike on trails only

Camping in Badlands National Park 

There are two different campgrounds in the park and dispersed camping in the Buffalo Gap National Grassland outside the park boundary. There is no fee for dispersed camping.

The campgrounds in the park are truly lovely. The first time I came to the park, I stayed at the Cedar Pass Campground

I camped on soft grass with an incredible view of the Badlands Pinnacles, the beautiful rock formations the park is known for. I found myself easily making my way to hike right from the campground for a lovely early morning stroll!

There is also primitive camping at the Sage Creek Campground. You can access this campground from Sage Creek Rim Road. There are no amenities. 

It, however, offers spacious campsites on prairie land. It is gorgeous and will give you a wilderness experience.

To reach dispersed camping, you want to head to the north and exit the park at the Pinnacles Entrance. When leaving the park, there is a dirt road just to the right after you cross the threshold of the park boundary.

You will travel along the road to find countless areas to set up your tent, RV, or sleep in your car. The road is bumpy, so 4-wheel drive is ideal. However, I saw multiple sedans parked along the road, too, so it is doable if you are careful.

Just go slow, watching for potholes, and you should be fine despite whichever vehicle you are driving. The dirt roads of the area can be especially treacherous in the rain.

Despite the roads, it is some of the most beautiful dispersed camping I have ever had the pleasure of experiencing. You will have sweeping views of both the plains and the rugged, colorful rock of the Badlands.

Because of the Open Hike Policy, you can also camp anywhere you want in the park. Just remember to stay out of sight and 0.5 miles from any trails and roads while using Leave No Trace principles.

A blue tent out in the wilderness of Badlands National Park backcountry

A Quick Rundown on Leave No Trace Principles

Camping in the park and enjoying Badlands’ Open Hike policy works best when you use Leave No Trace (LNT) principles. 

Leave No Trace should be kind of self-explanatory. I like to think of it as “leave it better than you found it.”

LNT means you should always camp at least 100 feet from any water source. You should also urinate 100 feet away from water sources and 200 feet if you have to dig a cathole.

Carry out any soiled toilet paper. If you have to bury it, bury it at least 8 inches below the surface. This is how deep your cathole should be, but 12 inches is ideal.

Never leave trash anywhere, ever. Never!

Another nice thing to do is to “re-naturalize” your campsite. You can do this by adding debris to the area where you had set up your tent to make it appear as if you had never camped there.

Badlands FAQs

How much time do you need in Badlands National Park? One day in Badlands National Park is enough to get the basics, but two or three days will be even better. We give you options for 1, 2, and 3 day itineraries for this exact reason.

Can do you do Badlands National Park in one day? Absolutely! Start at the Northeast entrance and make your way through the park according to the itinerary suggested and you’ll hit all the Badlands highlights in a single day, or opt for one of the below tours which depart from Rapid City, SD.

What should you not miss in Badlands National Park? Everything on our one-day itinerary are the highlights of the park!

Is there a shuttle in Badlands National Park? No, there is not. You will want to bring your own car or rent a car from one of the airports if you are flying in. You can also take a private guided tour departing from Rapid City, SD if you cannot drive, just don’t want to, or if rental cars are not available.

Beautiful formations within Badlands National Park with green flora and red and earth toned rock

How This Badlands Itinerary Works

This Badlands National Park itinerary is additive, meaning that the first day of the itinerary covers everything you’d want to see if you have only one day in Badlands National Park. 

It is structured in a logical way that reduces backtracking and prioritizes the most important things. 

It also makes sure you get out and do some light hiking, so that you’re not just doing a car-hopping, whistle-stop tour of overlooks without appreciating the nature.

The second day contains the second most important things, and the third day offers some bonus ideas for things to do if you have an additional day to dedicate to your Badlands itinerary.

If you only have one day in the Badlands, you don’t need to read past day one: all the best things are in there!

If you have more than one day in Badlands National Park, continue reading to either the end of Day 2 or Day 3.

The prettiest formations of rock in the Badlands!

Badlands National Park Itinerary: Day One

Take a scenic drive on Badlands Loop Road.

Whichever end of the park you decide to enter from, you will end up on the Badlands Loop Road, a beautiful scenic byway through the park. 

It is the absolute best way to see the park if you only have one day in the Badlands, and it is one of the most scenic drives in all of the state!

Honestly, this park is relatively small compared to other national parks in the USA, so one day will allow you to see the major attractions of the Badlands.

The Badlands Loop Road is just 30 miles. As you traverse along the road, you will be able to hop out to enjoy vistas and some tremendous easy hikes in Badlands National Park!

When discussing this route of trails and overlooks, we will be entering the park from the Northeast Entrance.

Taking the scenic Badlands Loop, driving on an empty road in the Badlands in South Dakota

Make some stops for hikes and overlooks.

Your first stop will be the Big Badlands Overlook. It is a popular stop that offers hikers stunning views of the Badlands.

As you traverse south on Badlands Loop Road, you will find a great short hike at the Notch Trail

This trail is 1.5 miles and not too strenuous. One nifty feature of the trail is the rope ladder which ascends to a stunning viewpoint. It is one of the most popular hikes in the park!

Other tempting short hikes are the Window Trail and the Door Trail. Both of these trails are located at the same trailhead as the Notch Trail, so you can simply add on to your first hike if you have some energy!

In addition, these trailheads are located at the same point for the trailhead to the Castle Trail (more on this trail below), just north of the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. See the photo below for trailhead information

The Window Trail is 0.3 miles, and the Door Trail is 0.8 miles. Both offer hiking trails along a boardwalk with wonderful views. 

You can also freely hike off-trail anywhere you want along the way: this is allowed within the park, due to their “open hike” policy (unlike other national parks!).

Sign that reads trails "Door, Window, Notch, Castle": 4 trailheads diverging from one point

Take a short hike amongst fossils.

One of my favorite short hikes along Badlands Loop Road is the Fossil Exhibit Trail at the Fossil Exhibit Trailhead. It is a great way to get to know the prehistory of the park!

Plus, the fossil exhibits are hands-on so that you can touch the fossil moldings. You may even find an actual fossil along the trail! 

It is only 0.25 miles to hike this guy, so it’s easy for everyone, even if you’re visiting the Badlands with kids!

The Ben Reifel Visitor Center is also an awesome place to check out fossils that have been found in Badlands NP!

Have a picnic lunch with a view, followed by more exploring.

From the Fossil Trail, stop at Bigfoot Pass Overlook for a picnic lunch… this is why I suggested bringing the food you’d like for the day into the park!

Another option would be the White River Valley Overlook, which also has amazing views suitable for a picnic lunch!

Then, hit up Panorama Point for more sweeping views of the Badlands. You will also find grand vistas at the Yellow Mounds Overlook. 

This overlook has lots of little trails leading out from the parking lot. These yellow mounds also contain hues of pink, purple, and orange… not just yellow!

To the right of the parking area, you can ascend a mound to take in the views of the prairie and the classic rock features of the Badlands.

You can also hike down around the yellow mounds to the left of the lot.

Yellow mounds in Badlands National Park with stripes of orange, tan, and pinkish-red with a clear blue sky behind it

View the sunset for an incredible show of color and light.

Sunset is one of the most incredible times to view the beauty of the Badlands! 

The colors of the rock will glow in a myriad of colors as the hues of sunset complement the features of the Badlands pinnacles.

One great spot for viewing the sunset is the Pinnacles Overlook, which you can find at the end of the Badlands Loop Road.

This overlook is a popular spot, as you will see. However, it offers some of the most beautiful sweeping views of the jagged rock of the Badlands.

Striations in the rock formations of the pinnacles in the Badlands national park of south dakota at sunset

Set up camp or stay in the lodge, if overnighting in the park.

Depending on how you are structuring your trip to the Badlands, this may be the point where you turn around and go back to Rapid City or wherever you are staying the night. 

Or you may want to set up camp or head to the lodge (if you have it pre-booked) if you are spending 2 or 3 days in Badlands National Park!

If you are staying overnight in the park, you will most likely be camping (more on that below).

However, there is a lodge that is open seasonally, Cedar Pass Lodge.

Cedar Pass Lodge offers lovely accommodations and a great restaurant. They have a campground as well as environmentally-conscious cedar cabins with all the amenities. 

They also self-describe themselves to be an excellent place to view the moon… or do some stargazing on a moonless night!

The colors of the Milky Way stretching up over the horizon in Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Badlands Itinerary: Day Two

Spend some time exploring the area around your campsite.

Once you’ve slept in and made yourself breakfast (or ate a filling, tasty breakfast from the lodge), you will want to explore more of whatever area you chose to stay in. 

If you’re staying only two days in Badlands National Park, you may want to break down your campsite now before continuing on with your day, or if you have three days in the Badlands, you can continue on without taking down your campsite.

The start of the day is up to you! Whether this is hiking on an established trail or taking advantage of the “Open Hike” policy of the Badlands, spend the morning your way.

If you stayed at the Lodge or the Badlands Campground near the Interior Entrance, now might be a good time to tackle the Saddle Pass Trail. 

This is a moderately-rated trail that packs a lot of punch into its short 0.7-mile length. Prepare for some scrambling!

If you stayed elsewhere in the park, you can find off-trail adventures near you or look for the nearest trailheads on your park map if you prefer to hike on-trail.

The easy boardwalk beginning to the moderately-rated Saddle Pass Trail which has some rock scrambling

Hike the Castle Trail for Sunset.

If you are staying for two days in Badlands National Park, be sure to take the time to view the sunset along the Castle Trail! 

Be sure to start this hike in the early afternoon. At 10.8 miles round trip, it is the longest trail in the Badlands. It will take up a nice chunk of an afternoon in the park, so be sure to start plenty early and bring a headlamp.

You will go on a stunning hike and explore the Castle Trail for incredible sunset views. Be sure to start the trail at the west trailhead heading east, across from the Fossil Exhibit Trailhead. This will allow for you to be heading back west for the best views of the sunset.

The Castle Trail is a great option if you really want to get your hike on. It would be a wonderful way to end your last day in the park while you fully immerse yourself in the beauty of the landscape.

Sunset colors at the Castle Trail rock formation at the end of the trail

Alternative: You can camp along this trail if you want to do it the first day, instead. Remember that you have to be half a mile from the path and out of sight. It would be a great way to enjoy the park if you desire to backcountry camp out on this trail.

Other Alternative: If you’re not feeling a long hike, you can also view the sunset at the Conata Basin Overlook or Big Badlands Overlook.

Badlands Itinerary: Day Three

If you have three days to spend in the park, you can add endless backcountry adventures to your Badlands National Park itinerary! 

Perhaps you could spend the first day exploring the Badlands Loop Road, and then head on out to the depths of the park for your two nights in the park.

Twists and turns in the road of Badlands Loop Drive in South Dakota

Adventure in the park’s backcountry.

For your first night in the backcountry, Deer Haven is a great option. It would make the most sense for you to head there after you tour the park on the loop road.

It is only 2.5 miles from the Conata Picnic Area to reach the wilderness section to set up camp. While the trail is unmarked, there is a path you can follow. It will lead you to a grove of junipers, or you can camp on the buttes.

Another option for your first night would be to venture along the Badlands Loop Road and make your way out to Sage Creek Rim Road

The Sage Creek Wilderness Area of the park is another excellent spot for more backcountry adventures on your first night.

Close to the Sage Creek Bason Overlook, you’ll find the Roberts Prairie Dog Town, which has one of the highest concentrations of prairie dogs in the park!

You can find many bison game trails in this area, explicitly leading from the Sage Creek Campground. Explore the buttes or the plains from the Sage Creek Wilderness area for an all-encompassing Badlands experience.

Refer back to the info on the Castle Trail, as this is a beautiful undertaking for your second night out in the park’s backcountry. 

It is a 10.8-mile round trip, the longest maintained trail in the park. It is a nice option if you want to hike a lot while still having some time to check out more overlooks and short hikes in the early part of the day.

As it is an Open Hike park, you can venture out off-trail and explore as you please. Remember to camp at least 0.5 miles from the trail.

Notes on Backcountry Camping

If you want to camp in the backcountry here, you should always be sure to be at least half a mile from any roads or trails. Make sure you are out of sight.

Water is limited in the Badlands, so depending on where you decide to backcountry camp, you should make sure you bring plenty of water. 

Always check with a ranger before you venture out to learn about water availability out in the backcountry. Even with filtration systems, there may not be water available.

Additionally, you should always register at a ranger station before you venture out into the wild. Let them know where you plan to go and for how long. 

You do not want to get stuck out there and find no one is coming to look for you because you didn’t let anyone know where you were going!

Rule #1 of backcountry hiking: Always have a plan and make sure someone knows what that plan is.

Blue tent contrasting against the red rock and green grass landscape of Badlands National Park

Alternative Day 2 & 3 Badlands Itinerary

Explore other trails and overlooks.

If you don’t want to do backcountry camping, there are still plenty of ways you can enjoy a multi-day Badlands National Park itinerary.

On your second day in the park, head out to watch the sunrise. You will be awe-struck by the colors and sheer majesty of the park during the early morning hours. 

Again, there are some great options for this. This includes the Castle Trail, as mentioned above.

If you plan to make the Castle Trail for sunrise, you can add the Medicine Root Loop Trail to your hike, which would add 4 miles, making the entire undertaking 14.8 miles. 

This will allow you to spend a whole day hiking in one of the best sections of the park for views and buttes.

Other tempting options for sunrise are at Big Badlands Overlook or on the Door Trail. You will definitely see the sun come up and the beautiful light as it ascends over the rock of the Badlands and the prairie land of the Buffalo Gap National Grassland.

Sunrise falling on a rock formation near the Door Trail in Badlands National Park

If you choose to view sunrise at the Big Badlands Overlook or the Door Trail, you can easily make your way to the Cliff Shelf Nature Trail

This trail is 0.5 miles and is sometimes host to bighorn sheep and bison. 

Note: The park asks that you stay on this trail and sway from the Open Hike policy to help maintain this area.

When you have three days in the Badlands, you can truly explore the depths of the park. It is an excellent opportunity to drive along the Sage Creek Rim Road or Conata Road and explore at your heart’s whims.

You may also desire to head down into the Stronghold Unit. The Sheep Mountain Table Road is an off-road vehicle-only road.

If you have a vehicle with high clearance, then this is a stellar option for scenic driving. However, you can also hike this section; it is 2.5 miles to hike it.

Stair trail boardwalk leading to beautiful rock formations amidst a green lush landscape in the Badlands
Remember: the Cliff Shelf Trail is one of the exceptions to the Open Hike policy!

Get out of the park and into town.

Additionally, when you have more time on your itinerary, you can leave the park for a few hours to explore the outlying area of the park. 

For example, you may want to head out to the tourist town of Wall, SD, where there are a handful of restaurants and shops to enjoy.

Wall Drug is one of the big attractions. It is here where you can get handmade donuts and get some free ice water. The ice water was one of the ways that the original owners drew travelers to this town in the “middle of nowhere.” 

You can also find the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site here, which is an interesting place to visit to learn a bit about Cold War history.

A decommissioned Minuteman Missile silo

You can access Wall by heading out at the Pinnacles Entrance of the park.

Additionally, 1880 Town is a fun option. You can get there by leaving the park from the Northeast Entrance and heading back towards I-90.

Movies were filmed in the more than 30 buildings built during the pioneer days—the structures date from 1880 to 1920.

Plus, they have a museum, the ’50s Train Diner, gemstone panning, and live entertainment. It closes at 6 PM so you will want to make this a daytime activity.

1881 Post Office part of 1880 Town in South Dakota

Revel in the satisfaction of an incredible visit to Mako Sica.

Mako Sica is what the Lakota called the Badlands. It translates literally to bad lands. 

The variable weather and sometimes harsh environment are what created this namesake. However, this land is also sacred. It provided sustenance and a beautiful home for countless tribes. 

Remember this and treat this land with the proper respect it deserves. Remember that all National Parks are on stolen land — the same as virtually all of the United States. 

When you come here, you will be blown away by the energy and the beauty. The colors are stunning, and the adventures are endless. 

There is a reason it is nicknamed the “Land of Stone and Light.” As the weather changes rapidly, so does the light.

Embrace the wild and unpredictable movement of the Badlands. Arrive prepared for all kinds of weather. And remember, always leave the land better than you found it, especially in this most precious of landscapes.

Sunset over the Badlands of South Dakota with a sunburst effect and grass in the foreground

Badlands Day Pack Gear List

Badlands Backpacking Gear List

North Rim Vs. South Rim Grand Canyon: Which Side is Right for You?

grand canyon lodge at sunset in the north rim grand canyon

The Grand Canyon is rightfully one of the most renowned landmarks in all of America, and there’s no wonder that it figures high on nearly everyone’s national parks bucket list.

The Grand Canyon was formed by the rushing waters of the Colorado River after many million years of erosion and assisted by plate tectonics which uplifted the Colorado Plateau, creating an even more…. well, grand, of a canyon!

The Grand Canyon National Park site encompasses a massive 1,902 square miles. At its longest point, the Grand Canyon measures 277 miles across, and is up to 18 miles wide… which means that the North and the South Rims are quite far apart!

In fact, to drive from the visitor center at the North Rim to the visitor center at the South Rim takes about 4 hours!

As a result, you’ll likely want to pick one or the other. 

Allison standing at the South rim of the grand canyon
Me standing at the edge of the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in 2017

If you are doing a huge, long Southwest road trip and have 2+ more weeks in the region, you can easily see both sides, but frankly, seeing one side of the Grand Canyon is plenty for one trip.

I spaced out my visits to the South Rim and the North Rim, visiting the South Rim in May of 2017 and just completing my visit to the North Rim in July of 2021.

In this post, I’ll quickly cover a few frequently asked questions about visiting the Grand Canyon, explain the difference and pros and cons of the North Rim vs. the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, and give some tips to help you pick which side of the Grand Canyon is better for your trip.

I’ll also include things to do on each side of the Grand Canyon, specific to the North Rim or the South Rim.

Finally, I’ll also have some tips on where to stay, including some feedback about the campsite I stayed at as well as suggestions for accommodations.

Grand Canyon FAQs

Which is better to see: the North Rim or the South Rim of the Grand Canyon?

Honestly: either!

If we are strictly talking views, both sides of the Grand Canyon offer exquisite ones. There is no real reason to privilege one side over the other in terms of what you can see.

When I go into whether you should pick the North Rim vs. the South Rim, views aren’t a factor, but itinerary, how far in advance you are planning, and time of year you are visiting the Grand Canyon all are!

Allison at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in 2017
At the South Rim of the Grand Canyon near sunset in 2017

Is visiting the North Rim of the Grand Canyon worth it?

Absolutely! The North Rim of the Grand Canyon is every bit as beautiful as its more popular southern rim. 

However, if you’re already visiting the South Rim for sure, I don’t know that the North Rim warrants a separate journey on the same trip.

I’d suggest picking one side of the Grand Canyon per trip. If you visit the area again on another road trip, then pick the side you haven’t visited before!

At the North Rim of the Grand Canyon at sunrise in 2021

Where is the best view of the Grand Canyon?

Every view of the Grand Canyon is pretty stunning. I’ll list a few of the best viewpoints of the Grand Canyon broken down between the two rims.

North Rim Viewpoints: Bright Angel Point, Cape Royal, Point Imperial, Walhalla Overlook.

South Rim Viewpoints: Mather Point, Yavapai Point, Yaki Point, Moran Point, Lipan Point.

Yavapai Point at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon

Can you drive from the South Rim to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon?

Totally… but it takes time! 4 hours, in fact. 

From the South Rim to the North Rim, you’ll leave the Tusayan / Grand Canyon Village area, drive along Highway 64 until you reach Highway 89 at Cameron. 

From there, you’d drive until Marble Canyon, then take Highway 89A to Jacob Lake. Once reaching Jacob Lake, you’d take Highway 67 the rest of the way.

This driving route would also work in reverse if you were visiting the North Rim first and then going to the South Rim.

However, I wouldn’t really advise this unless you have a ton of time that you only want to dedicate to Grand Canyon National Park. 

If you are visiting the Grand Canyon as part of a larger Southwest itinerary, I’d suggest allocating more time for other destinations and places.

So many places to visit in the Southwest, so little time!

What is the difference between North Rim and South Rim Grand Canyon?

That’s what this post is all about! We’ll go into more detail below, but here’s the TL;DR.

North Rim: Far less crowded (only 10% of the visitors), more remote, fewer amenities, better for a Utah parks road trip, not able to be visited in winter months, better in summer months.

South Rim: Much more crowded (90% of the visitors go here), better for Arizona road trips, better for day trips, more amenities and lodging options, open year-round.

One other thing to keep in mind is the appreciable elevation difference between North and South.

The elevation at the South Rim is 6,804 feet; the elevation at the North Rim is 8,297 feet (and up to 8,803 feet at Point Imperial, the highest point of the Canyon rim).

The South Rim tends to be several degrees hotter in summer as a result. However, hikers should note that the altitude is a little easier to adjust to at the South Rim, whereas hikers at the North Rim will have a little more struggle with the altitude.

Sign that reads "point imperial elevation 8803"
The highest point on the Canyon Rim!

Are there entrance fees to the Grand Canyon?

Yes. Park entrance fees are $35 per vehicle to the Grand Canyon. That grants 7 days of access to both the North and the South Rims, as they are both operated as one National Park Service site.

Both the North and the South Rim are also included in your America the Beautiful Pass, which can be purchased online at REI before your trip.

Which is the best time of the year to go to the Grand Canyon?

It depends! 

If you’re visiting the North Rim, know that it’s only open between May 15 and October 15… and any of those times is a good time to go! The North Rim is not very crowded, so any time will be fine within that period.

If you’re visiting the South Rim, the Grand Canyon is able to be visited year-round! However, the South Rim is very crowded in the summer and even in the shoulder seasons. 

I visited the South Rim in early May and it was packed… I can’t even imagine peak summer!

The South Rim is a popular option if you are visiting the Grand Canyon in winter, as it’s open year-round and is really beautiful under a layer of snow!

Snow covered landscape of the Grand Canyon in the winter months
Views of the Grand Canyon at wintertime (South Rim)

What is the best place to stay at Grand Canyon National Park?

There are so many options when it comes to where to stay!

North Rim: The Grand Canyon Lodge is the main traditional accommodation option. I went here to check out the sunset and it looked like a fantastic place to stay.

There is also the North Rim Campground, where I stayed — and I loved it! For $20 a night, I literally could see Grand Canyon views squeezed between some pine trees. It was incredible.

South Rim: There are so many options! The main lodges are Bright Angel Lodge, Yavapai Lodge, and the Thunderbird Lodge, but these need to be booked well in advance…. like 6+ months, typically.

There are also lots of great vacation rentals near the Grand Canyon if all the traditional accommodations and lodges within the National Park Service site are full!

Additionally, you can also stay at the Mather Campground outside of the South Rim.

Note that Bright Angel Campground is located at the bottom of the Grand Canyon and has limited campsites that can only be accessed via a hike, for which you need a (highly coveted, hard-to-get) backcountry permit.

There’s also the Phantom Ranch located at the bottom of the Grand Canyon as well if you are hiking in!

One of the cabins at the Grand Canyon Lodge (North Rim) — almost worth booking a trip for on its own!

Pick the North Rim if… 

… You want to avoid the crowds.

Grand Canyon National Park sees nearly 6 million visitors each year… but 90% of those visitors will only see the South Rim.

Only 10% of people who visit the Grand Canyon make it to the North Rim of the park…. meaning that only some 600,000 people a year visit the North Rim, period. 

This means that the North Rim is far less crowded than the South Rim all year round.

I went to the North Rim right after the Fourth of July weekend, and it was really quiet and peaceful. 

Meanwhile, I visited the South Rim a few years back in early May, during the shoulder season before school holidays and summer vacations, and it was extremely busy and crowded.

For me, the serenity of the North Rim makes up for the fact that there are fewer amenities and activities around it. But more on that in a bit!

Views as seen from the North Rim

… You are also visiting Utah national parks.

The North Rim of the Grand Canyon gets a bad rap for being “harder to reach” but I’m not really sure why that is.

The North Rim of the Grand Canyon is only open from May 15 to October 15 each year, but within that time frame, it’s very accessible, especially if you are doing a Southwest road trip that involves some of Southern Utah’s Mighty 5.

From Zion National Park to the North Rim, it’s 122 miles and 2 hours and 45 minutes.

From Bryce Canyon National Park to the North Rim, it’s 157 miles and 3 hours. 

Additionally, the North Rim of the Grand Canyon is pretty easily accessible from Page, AZ (where you’ll find Antelope Canyon & Horseshoe Bend). 

From Page, it’s just 124 miles driving, which takes about 2 hours, 20 minutes.

However, from other places in Arizona, such as Flagstaff, Sedona, or points along Route 66, the South Rim is more convenient.

sign for sedona arizona with red rocks in the background
If you want to stay in Sedona, I suggest the South Rim, vs. the North Rim!

… You want to see wild bison.

One of the coolest things about visiting the North Rim of the Grand Canyon is that the park encompasses a massive bison herd! 

Normally people think they need to head all the way to Yellowstone National Park if they want to see bison… but that’s not the case! 

There is a huge herd of bison living on the Kaibab Plateau, which you’ll find after you enter the NPS park boundary and the entrance station, but before you reach the North Rim.

The bison stay very close to the roadside and it’s very easy to spot them. In fact, on my trip into the North Rim, the bison literally were crossing the road and traffic was stopped until they passed!

On my trip out of the North Rim, coming out the same way we came in, there were still plenty of bison quite close to the roadside. 

Keep in mind that bison are wild animals and you should never approach them or make them feel uncomfortable. Staying in the car is the safest way to observe them, unless they are quite far away.

Stay at least 25 yards away as per the NPS guidelines, and watch for signs of them being uncomfortable (eye contact, raised tails). Bison can and do attack humans, so be careful.

Bison standing by the side of the road along the way to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon

Things to Do at the North Rim

Catch the sunrise at Bright Angel Point.

One of the best places to catch the sunrise at the North Rim is at Bright Angel Point, which connects with both the Transept Trail (the trailhead is right in the campground!) and the Grand Canyon Lodge Area.

From the Grand Canyon Lodge, it’s about a 0.3-mile hike one-way, which takes about 10 minutes. The views at sunset are spectacular!

If you’re staying at the North Rim campsite, you can also do a sunrise hike to Bright Angel Point via the Transept Trail. 

Please note that there are no dogs allowed on the trail to Bright Angel Point or anywhere on the Transept Trail.

Sunrise at Bright Angel Point is a dream!

Watch the sunset from the Grand Canyon Lodge.

One of the best places to watch the sunset at the North Rim is from the Grand Canyon Lodge area, near the main parking lot for the North Rim.

You can either check out the viewpoints near it, from the dining area in the lodge, from the outdoor patio area of the lodge, or down the stairs there is access to the viewpoint via the Transept Trail.

Seeing the Grand canyon lodge at sunset with brilliant colors in the sky
The Grand Canyon Lodge at sunset at the North Rim is phenomenal!

Walk the Transept Trail.

The beautiful Transept Trail connects North Rim Campground with both the Grand Canyon Lodge and Bright Angel Point.

It’s a serene, easy, and peaceful trail. To the Grand Canyon Lodge from the campgrounds, it’s 1.2 miles one-way (2.4 miles round-trip). To Bright Angel Point, it’s 1.5 miles one-way (3 miles round-trip).

It’s a great and easy day hike option that has you on the rim of the canyon vs. going into it!

walking the transept trail towards bright angel point at sunset with trees and clouds and canyon
Views along the Transept Trail at sunset

Drive the Cape Royal Road.

This beautiful scenic drive is the southernmost point of the North Rim, with the widest panorama of all — 270 degrees of horizon is filled with the beautiful canyon!

The drive is 15 miles from the North Rim Visitor Center along a narrow and winding road, and it’s a bit hair-raising at times — but it’s extremely beautiful, especially as you reach the Walhalla Plateau. 

Once arriving at the Cape Royal parking area, there is a small paved 0.3-mile trail you can take to the overlook, which offers unparalleled views.

You’ll see a number of sights along the trail, including Freya Castle, Wotans Throne, and Angels Window.

Angels Window: one reason to visit the North Rim vs the South Rim!

How to Get to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon

Turn onto Highway 67 once you reach Jacob’s Lake. From Jacob’s Lake, it’s a little under 1 hour drive.

To get to Jacob’s Lake, you’ll be coming on Highway 89A, either from Utah (Kanab area) or from Arizona (Page + Marble Springs).

From Page: 2 hours 20 minutes

From Zion: 2 hours 45 minutes

From Bryce: 3 hours

From the South Rim: 4 hours

From Las Vegas: 4 hours 30 minutes

From Phoenix: 6 hours

the red rocks of zion canyon and hiking trails
Zion National Park is a popular waypoint for North Rim adventures!

Pick the South Rim if… 

… Accessibility is a concern for you and your group.

The South Rim of the Grand Canyon is the far more built-up of the two, which means that there are a lot more accommodations in place for people with disabilities.

However, that’s not to say that the North Rim is inaccessible or not suitable for people with disabilities. 

The Grand Canyon Lodge is wheelchair accessible and the North Rim Campground has 6 accessible campsites, as well as accessible restrooms. Point Imperial and Cape Royal are accessible as well.

Both the Transept Trail and access to Bright Angel Point are not accessible, and the overlook by the Grand Canyon Lodge is definitely not accessible and would be hard for those with mobility limitations (stairs and deep steps).

The South Rim has a lot more accessibility options. Both the Bright Angel Trail and North Kaibab Trail are accessible up to a certain point. 

The shuttle buses that service the South Rim are all wheelchair accessible, with ramps and space to carry wheelchairs (up to 30″ wide by 48″ long). The bus can also ‘kneel’ for those who would like a reduced step up to the bus.

Most overlooks at the South Rim are wheelchair accessible and there are also many scenic drive options with accessible viewpoints and plenty of accessible restrooms

An excellent and far more complete guide to accessibility for people with disabilities is available on Frommer’s here; I’ve merely summarized a bit of the information here, but they cover it all!

… You are primarily visiting Arizona destinations.

One of the main reasons why you might want to choose the South Rim of the Grand Canyon over the North Rim is that it is far better if you are following an Arizona road trip itinerary (like mine!).

The South Rim is easily accessible by day trip from Williams, AZ (part of Route 66!) or Flagstaff, AZ. I personally visited the South Rim on a day trip from Flagstaff and I found it perfect, as it was only 90 minutes away by car. Just enough time for sightseeing and a day hike!

The South Rim is also a popular day trip from Sedona, Arizona, which is about a 2-hour drive each way. It’s a little bit of a long day, but it works!

Sedona church next to cactus
Sedona is an easy day trip destination for Grand Canyon adventures!

The only place in Arizona that the North Rim is easily accessible to is Page, AZ, which is right at the Utah border. 

In fact, the North Rim of the Grand Canyon pairs way better with a Utah National Parks itinerary than an Arizona road trip itinerary! 

If you were to do that, I would sandwich it between Bryce Canyon National Park and Zion National Park to minimize your backtracking.

allison looking over the edge of bryce canyon and its orange hoodoos
Bryce Canyon National Park is an easy stop before or after the North Rim!

… You want lots of activity options.

There are so many things you can do at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, including a ton of tour options and fun additional activities you can add to your trip. 

Helicopter ride? Those leave right from Grand Canyon Village and there are more helicopter tour companies than you can shake a stick at.

(And if you can afford it, do it — I did a helicopter tour over the Grand Canyon from Las Vegas, and it’s one of my top 5 travel experiences of my entire lifetime).

Book your helicopter tour online here!

Allison in a helicopter taking off for the Grand Canyon
About to take off to check out the Grand Canyon via helicopter!
View over the Grand Canyon via helicopter
Viewing the Grand Canyon from above in a helicopter — priceless!

Small scenic plane tour? Yup, they have those too! 

They cover the Zuni Corridor, Point Imperial, the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers, and even points on the North Rim such as Point Imperial, the Kaibab Plateau, and Kaibab National Forest.

Book your scenic plane tour here!

Pink Jeep Tour? Absolutely! Pink Jeep Tours is one of my favorite tour companies (I’ve used them in both Las Vegas’s Valley of Fire and in Sedona) and they offer incredible sightseeing tours right from the South Rim.

I didn’t get a chance to do a Pink Jeep Tour on my trip to the Grand Canyon’s South Rim, but I wish I had. Judging from past experience, it’s a great way to see the Grand Canyon through rose-colored glasses!

Book your Pink Jeep Tour online here!

Allison standing on top of a pink jeep in the valley of fire of las vegas

And these are but three of the many great Grand Canyon activities leaving from the South Rim.

Below are a few other select activities! The below tours leave from Tusayan and Williams, two spots near Grand Canyon Village.

… You are planning at the last minute.

Because the South Rim is so much more accessible and built-up than the North Rim, it’s not a problem at all to plan at the last minute.

If you want accommodations at the North Rim, you have one option inside the park, one option just outside it, one campground, and then a whole lot of nothing until you reach Jacob Lake one hour away (and there’s not much there, either).

If you are visiting the South Rim at the last minute, you don’t really have to worry because there are dozens of great vacation rentals near the Grand Canyon, plus abundant options in Williams and even Flagstaff. 

The main lodges will likely be booked up well in advance at the South Rim, but I was even able to find campsites at Mather Campground (the big South Rim campground) open with just one-week advance booking in the middle of July, peak season!

one of the lodges at the grand canyon south rim
One of the three lodges at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon

Things to Do at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon

Walk some (or all of!) the Rim Trail.

The Rim Trail is a mostly-paved, easy trail that stretches between the South Kaibab Trail (which you can take into the canyon) all the way west to Hermits Rest.

The Rim Trail offers 13 miles of paved trail, but you can do any fraction of it and return via shuttle bus at any of the designated stops, so it’s easy to tailor to your own preferences and abilities.

girl sitting on the edge of a brick wall on the paved rim trail looking over the expanse of the grand canyon in mid afternoon sunlight

Take one of the many day hikes available.

The South Rim of the Grand Canyon has a ton of fantastic day hikes you can do — including short hikes into the canyon.

No need to sweat the Rim to Rim hike — there are plenty of in-between options!

Here are 5 of my favorite South Rim hikes including very short options that take about 1-2 hours to complete and can be done by total beginners.

a hike in the south rim of the grand canyon

Take a tough descent to Skeleton Point and back.

The South Kaibab Trail will take you all the way into the belly of the beast, but there are plenty of stop and turn-around points that make your hike in the Grand Canyon a lot less cumbersome.

The hike on the South Kaibab Trail to Skeleton Point and back is a great 6-mile hike that’s hard but not insane. Keep in mind the 2,000+ feet of elevation gain (and loss) when considering this hike!

a sign reading skeleton point halfway down into the grand canyon with expansive views of the canyon everywhere you look
The turn-around marker at Skeleton Point, two thousand feet below the Canyon rim

Check out the Desert View Watchtower.

Take the Desert View Drive 23 miles between Grand Canyon Village and the small settlement of Desert View for a beautiful drive.

It’s also home to a really cool viewpoint on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon!

Note that the Desert View Watchtower itself is currently closed due to the pandemic; however, it’s still well worth visiting for its beauty and the gorgeous drive to get there!

a brick-style watchtower towering over the south rim of the grand canyon; a couple wearing backpacks looking over the canyon off in the distance
The Desert View Watchtower is a popular South Rim viewpoint!

How to Get to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon

Williams, Arizona is a great gateway to the Grand Canyon!

Here is where you’ll find the historic and scenic Grand Canyon railway, which is one hell of a way to make an entrance to the South Rim!

Book your Grand Canyon Railway tickets online here!

the historic grand canyon train from a straight-on angle
The scenic Grand Canyon Railway connects Williams and the South Rim of the Grand Canyon

Driving into the South Rim is also totally possible. You can come in via Las Vegas or via Flagstaff, depending on your trip itinerary.

From Vegas, you’ll take I-11 to the Hoover Dam, where you can check out one of the coolest marvels of engineering in the United States.

Did you know that the concrete in the middle of the Hoover Dam is still not dry nearly 100 years later?

You can also walk — on foot! — between Nevada and Arizona.

the giant dam at the hoover dam, holding in water from lake mead, near the border of arizona and nevada
The beautiful engineering of the Hoover Dam

Then you can continue along Highway 93 into Arizona, then turn onto I-40 / Route 66 in Kingman. Take that to Williams, AZ, where you’ll turn onto Highway 64, which brings you right to the Grand Canyon.

If coming from Tucson, Phoenix, Sedona, or any point south in Arizona, first make your way to Flagstaff (likely via I-17)

Then, take either I-40 / Route 66 to Williams then up to Highway 64, or alternately take Highway 180 up to Grand Canyon Junction and then onto Highway 64 to Grand Canyon Village and the South Rim Visitor Center.

What about the Grand Canyon West Rim?

I would advise against it, personally, in favor of the North or the South Rim. 

Yes, there is the Grand Canyon Skywalk attraction, which is $23 per person plus park admission. 

a skywalk deck at the grand canyon west rim, looking over canyon views below
People out on the Skywalk at Grand Canyon West Rim

Other than that there is not too much to see compared to North and South Rims (though there are a few other viewpoints, which you can check out more information on here.)

Plus, it has a separate $45 per person admission fee, as the site is not on national park land, but rather it is owned and operated by the Hualapai Native American tribe. That means your America the Beautiful pass will not apply, either.

In favor of it, I will say that it is beautiful, and it’s convenient if you are coming from Las Vegas, as it’s only a 2-hour, 15-minute drive (and hence it is a popular Vegas day trip!). 

It’s also a popular option for small group rafting trips which can be organized to depart from here.

people rafting on the colorado river which is part of the grand canyon around the sunrise hours
Rafting is a popular activity from Grand Canyon West

It’s a great option if you are coming from Vegas on a day trip and that’s all the time you have for the Grand Canyon. If you want an organized day tour, this is an affordable and easy one that has to option to add the Skywalk.

Book your Grand Canyon West Rim tour here!

But if you have more time, I’d offer that you should pick either the South Rim or the North Rim, especially if it’s your first time at the Grand Canyon!

Pick Both if… 

… You are visiting both Arizona and Utah and have plenty of time.

There is no reason not to visit both the North and the South Rim! 

I am writing this guide targeting people who want to choose between the North Rim or the South Rim, but there’s no law saying you have to visit just one.

If your road trip encompasses both Arizona destinations and Utah destinations, it’s pretty easy to visit both sides without a lot of backtracking!

the brilliant red rocks of sedona arizona, part of a popular arizona road trip itinerary
Sedona is a must-visit in Arizona!

If you want to visit both, this is how I would route it: Nevada / Southern Arizona sights (Las Vegas, Tucson, Phoenix) –> Sedona –> Flagstaff –> South Rim –> Page –> North Rim –> Zion –> Bryce Canyon –> Other Utah National Parks (Capitol Reef, Arches/Canyonlands in Moab).

Obviously the same also works in reverse!

The Perfect 2 Days in Yellowstone Road Trip Itinerary

Seemingly endless opportunities for adventure wait for you on this Yellowstone National Park itinerary.

With 3,500 square miles of wilderness terrain, over 10,000 hydrothermal features, more than 500 active geysers, and approximately 1,000 miles of exciting hiking trails, it’s hard to know where to start in this giant outdoor playground.

Where do I go first? What Yellowstone attractions do I absolutely need to see?

There’s no need to feel overwhelmed by the massive selection of recreation and site seeing options in America’s first national park because we have put together the ultimate 2 days in Yellowstone road trip itinerary.

You’ll get to make the most of your visit with famous attractions, insider tips (this itinerary was written by a Big Sky, MT local who lives less than an hour from the park!), hidden gems, and a thoughtfully designed driving route!

Have your camera, binoculars, and park map handy while tackling this Yellowstone itinerary! 

We have a lot of exploring to do to tackle one of the USA’s most bucket list-worthy destinations in such a short amount of time.

Photo of the waterfall at Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (Lower Falls) surrounded by canyon and trees
PLANNING FOR YELLOWSTONE AT A GLANCE: 

When to Go: While Yellowstone is beautiful in winter, all its main roads close off to passenger cars which means that you won't be able to go on a self-drive. So the best time to visit Yellowstone National Park is in late spring, summer, and early fall.

Where to Stay: There are so many places to stay in Yellowstone both inside and outside the park but those inside can only be book directly at the Yellowstone National Park Lodges website!

However, if you don't book early enough and find the accommodations inside the park full, you can stay at one of these cabins in West Yellowstone which is next to the park entrance, or The Adventure Inn if you want a luxurious stay and if you're on a budget, Kelly Inn is the best option.

And if you're unable to get accommodation in West Yellowstone, you can opt to stay in Jackson, WY especially if you plan to visit Grand Teton National Park as well. In that case, I recommend The Elk Country Inn for budget travelers, Wyoming Inn (mid-range boutique), and Teton Mountain Lodge and Spa for a luxury stay. And for a homey feel, I suggest staying at this cozy and luxurious cabin.

How to Get Around: A car is key for Yellowstone National Park; there is no shuttle, and without a car, you'd have to rely on tours. If you're renting a car, compare car rentals and prices from here. Alternately, you can rent an RV or campervan via RVShare and save on accommodations.
 
Don't want to drive or plan? You can book this two-day Yellowstone tour from Jackson, or this full-day Yellowstone tour from West Yellowstone. And if you plan to visit both Yellowstone and Grand Teton, then I recommend going for this two-day tour of both Grand Teton & Yellowstone. 

3 Things Not to Forget to Pack: Binoculars are key for spotting wildlife like bears, elk, moose, and bison-- I suggest these Nikon binoculars. For hikes, you'll want a sturdy pair of hiking boots -- I love my Ahnu boots -- and some bear spray for safety reasons. 

Know Before You Go: If you plan to visit multiple national parks in a year, the America the Beautiful Pass will save you a bundle! It costs $80 for an annual pass (for an entire vehicle traveling together) to all US national parks and federally managed sites.  

How This 2 Day Yellowstone Itinerary Works

The Old Faithful geyser at sunset, a plume of steam shooting high into the air as the sun sets behind it, a classic sight on any Yellowstone itinerary.

Yellowstone is one of the largest national parks in America, so of course, there is simply no way you can see all of Yellowstone National Park in 2 days.

Since time is limited, we’ve picked the most essential sights in Yellowstone. I mean, you can’t visit Yellowstone and NOT go to the Grand Prismatic Spring or Old Faithful, right?

But as magical as those spots can be, they can also be rather crowded. With 4 million annual visitors, most of those in the summer months, you’re definitely not alone!

So we’ve also filled in the gaps between those busy-but-beautiful spots with some (relatively) off-the-beaten-path suggestions. 

These will allow you a chance to break away from the crowds a bit and experience the beauty of Yellowstone for yourself, away from masses of selfie sticks!

Of course, “off the beaten path” is relative to a place as well known as Yellowstone National Park! 

But Yellowstone is a park where most people simply drive between overlooks and drive-in spots, so allocating time for some of these short Yellowstone hikes that I’ve outlined is the best way to get away from the crowds.

This is the best way to experience the beauty of the park as it was intended to be experienced, before a time of mass tourism.

This 2 day Yellowstone itinerary is intended to be done by self-drivers, those with their own car or a rental car.

You don’t need any sort of 4×4 or special bells and whistles on your car, though if you are visiting in the early spring or fall, you may need tire chains depending on road conditions (check with the Yellowstone website for up-to-date information).

Be aware that Yellowstone is almost entirely closed to vehicle traffic in winter — more on this below.

Visiting Yellowstone in 2 days actually divides quite neatly due to the structure of the park’s main roads, which form a figure 8.

On the first day, we’ll tackle the lower loop, and on the second day, we’ll tackle the upper loop.

This way, you’ll see the main park highlights and some lesser-known spots without backtracking excessively and wasting precious time of your two days in Yellowstone!

Renting a Car for Yellowstone

A car on the road heading towards snow-covered mountains on a Yellowstone road trip between Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks.

If you’re road tripping to Yellowstone from your home state, disregard this section.

If you need to fly in to get to Yellowstone, I suggest flying to Jackson Hole Airport (JAC).

In the peak summer season, 15 destinations fly directly to Jackson Hole, including NYC, Chicago, LA, Denver, Salt Lake City, Dallas, and others.

American Airlines, Delta Airlines, United Airlines fly to Jackson Hole year-round, and seasonally, Alaska and Frontier also service the airport.

At Jackson Hole Airport there are plenty of car rentals available.

Not sure where to get the best deal on your rental? I’ve rented cars dozens of times through various search engines and have settled on RentalCars.com as the best car rental search aggregator – it sifts through dozens of trusted rental companies to find the cheapest price for your rental! Compare prices for your car rental here.

There is also the West Yellowstone Airport, but flying here is usually more expensive and car rentals are often pricier here. I don’t recommend this one if you are on a budget!

Another option is the Bozeman-Yellowstone airport in Montana, though this requires a 1.5-hour drive to the park. That said, you may be able to find cheaper car rentals via Bozeman.

How to Do 2 Days in Yellowstone Without a Car

A bison on the edge of the orange part of Grand Prismatic Spring, the turquoise center of the spring is close by in the upper right corner of the photo.
This bison clearly didn’t read the “keep off” safety signs!

If you don’t have a car, you may be wondering how to tackle this 2 day Yellowstone itinerary. Honestly: it’d be basically impossible to do it without either A) your own car or B) a guided tour.

Unlike other national parks, Yellowstone does not have its own shuttle service, and there are no local buses that serve Yellowstone (just the area around Jackson Hole).

So, if you don’t have a car or don’t want to drive, you’ll definitely need to take a guided tour. I recommend staying in Jackson or West Yellowstone where most tours depart.

From Jackson: I recommend this two-day Yellowstone tour which covers both the Upper and Lower loops.

It’s a bit pricy but you will see all the best things to see in the park without missing out. Alternately, you could do this Lower Loop tour for Day 1, which pretty closely tracks this itinerary, and on Day 2, you could explore the lovely Jackson Hole area which has plenty to see!

Book your two-day Yellowstone tour here!

Another option if you’re staying in Jackson is doubling up on National Parks and visiting two-in-one with this 2-day Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone tour.

The parks are surprisingly close together and it’s quite easy to combine the two into a tour that’s been organized for this purpose. This tour is wildlife-focused so it’s perfect for people who are more interested in wildlife over landscapes.

From West Yellowstone: This full-day Yellowstone tour will cover most of the best things to see in the park in just one day, including most of the Lower Loop such as Old Faithful, Fountain Paint Pots, and Grand Prismatic Spring.

For your second day, you can go on a zipline adventure or rafting trip departing from West Yellowstone.

Best Time of Year to Visit Yellowstone

The waterfall at Tower Falls, a long exposure photo of a waterfall going off of a sheer cliff drop, surrounded by green trees in summer.

This Yellowstone itinerary is really only suitable for late spring, summer, and early fall, when you are able to drive yourself into the park and self-guide. 

This is because once there is significant snowfall, the main roads in Yellowstone all close to passenger vehicles, and the only way to access the park becomes by snowcoach tour (which can get pricy!) or by snowmobile (even pricier, unless you happen to already own your own!).

While Yellowstone in winter is an absolutely incredible experience, and one that I have no qualms recommending, this itinerary for Yellowstone simply will not work in winter because you won’t be able to access the roads needed in order to see the sights in the order suggested.

If you’re planning a winter Yellowstone trip, I suggest you read this post on 30 things to know before visiting Yellowstone in winter, written by the same Montana local who wrote this post!

I would suggest that the best time to visit the park would be in the shoulder season just before or just after summer.

May and September are brilliant months to visit Yellowstone, especially if you don’t have kids (or if you’re homeschooling), since the park definitely fills up with families during the summer vacation months. You’ll find better prices on accommodations as well outside of the peak season.

A nice thing to know about visiting Yellowstone in the summer is that temperatures are never that hot!

Even in July, the hottest month in the park, the average high temperature is 72 degrees F.

It can get quite cold in the evening due to the high elevation (8,000 feet!) though, so you’ll want to come prepared with layers for the evening chill!

Where to Stay in Yellowstone

Old Faithful Lodge near the geyser, a large wooden mountain lodge surrounded by trees, a popular place to stay on a Yellowstone road trip
The Old Faithful Lodge in Yellowstone books up months and months in advance!

There are so many options for where to stay in Yellowstone! I’ll make a few suggestions both inside and outside of the park.

Between May and October, some lodges are open in Yellowstone. You can find the full list here, which is also where you can book the accommodations.

You cannot book these accommodations on other booking portals, only directly. You must book several months in advance… like, we’re talking 6+ months for places like the Old Faithful Inn and the Canyon Lodge!

If you didn’t book your lodge inside Yellowstone on time, or if you’d prefer to stay outside the park, I’d suggest either West Yellowstone, Idaho or Jackson, Wyoming as your base.

West Yellowstone is closer to the park entrance and is better for following this itinerary. It’s where I strongly recommend you stay!

However, Jackson is doable if you are also planning to visit Grand Teton National Park during your stay, and it can be done as long as you get an early start each day of this itinerary.

There are options that are further afield, like Gardiner, Montana, and Cody, Wyoming. However, these will definitely add extra travel time to your trip and may not be worth it for a short 2 days in Yellowstone itinerary.

West Yellowstone, ID Accommodations

CABINS | If you want to stay in a self-contained cabin (great for social distance!), Explorer Cabins at Yellowstone is ideal.

The grounds are made up of 50 cabins which have plenty of space between them, and each unit is self-contained so there are no communal areas except for the fire pit (where you can toast your welcome s’mores!).

Plus, they’re dog-friendly, and just a few minutes from the West entrance to the park!
>> Check photos and reviews on Booking.com | Book on Hotels.com

VRBO | For a homey feel, I suggest this stylish and luxurious loft.

The cabin is perfectly located near Henry’s Lake and stylishly designed for your comfort. It is fully equipped with all the appliances you might need. It might be a little pricy but the comfort and serenity it provides will make up for that.
>> Check photos and reviews on Vrbo

BOUTIQUE | For design lovers who want a hint of luxury, I suggest the hip The Adventure Inn.

This stylish spot has a minimalist style, with a Scandinavian sensibility mashed up against a woodsy edge. It’s like a Brooklyn loft and a mountain cabin had a baby: it’s beautiful. 
>> Check photos and reviews on Booking.com | Book it on Hotels.com

BUDGET | If money is a concern but you want a place that’s comfortable, clean, and convenient, it doesn’t get much better than Kelly Inn.

This cozy, rustic hotel has perks like an indoor pool, sauna, and hot tub while not breaking the bank. However, the rooms are a little dated, but for the price, it’s perfect.
>> Check photos and reviews on Booking.com | Book it on Hotels.com

Jackson, WY Accommodations

BOUTIQUE | If the design and the personality of a hotel is important to you, I suggest Wyoming Inn.

This cozy inn features Western-style decor complete with a roaring fireplace, warm woodsy colors, rustic design touches, and large, modern rooms. 
>> Check photos and reviews on Booking.com | Book it on Hotels.com

BUDGET | If you’re traveling Yellowstone on a budget and want to stay in Jackson, I’d pick The Elk Country Inn.

It’s highly rated by fellow travelers and affordable (well, by Jackson standards). It’s located just 4 blocks from Town Square in central Jackson, and the rooms are modern, spacious, and clean.
>> Check photos and reviews on Booking.com | Book it on Hotels.com

LUXURY |  If cost is not a factor, the stunning Teton Mountain Lodge and Spa (a Noble House Resort) is a no-brainer.

Located in Teton Village, the rooms all have their own fireplace and cooking area, and there are rooms ranging from queen studios to two-level, two-bedroom suites.

There are indoor and outdoor pools and hot tubs (all heated year-round) and a massage and spa center for those who want a little luxury on their Yellowstone trip.
>> Check photos and reviews on Booking.com | Book it on Hotels.com

Your Perfect 2 Day Yellowstone National Park Itinerary

Day 1 of Your Yellowstone Itinerary

Sign that reads "Welcome to Montana, entering West Yellowstone".

Rise and shine! After spending a restful night in the gateway town of West Yellowstone, you’re conveniently located right near Yellowstone National Park’s West Entrance.

There’s no time to waste because your first day is going to take you on an exciting tour of the Yellowstone Lower Loop.

What’s the Lower Loop? Take a quick look at your map. Notice how Yellowstone National Park’s road system is shaped like a figure 8, which is broken into three loops, as follows:

Upper Loop: the northern circle of the figure 8

Lower Loop: the southern circle of the figure 8

Grand Loop: the outside perimeter of the figure 8

Now that you have a better idea of where Day 1 is taking you, we’re ready to get into the fun stuff — the heart of this Yellowstone itinerary!

Start at the West Entrance.

Sign that reads "Yellowstone National Park National Park Service", made of wood, surrounded by trees.

Welcome to Yellowstone! Excited?

This first section from the West Entrance to the Madison Junction is famous for phenomenal fly fishing.

The Madison River hugs the road providing the perfect view to spot anglers and the occasional moose wading the waters.

As you approach the Madison Junction, look to your right for a view of National Park Mountain standing 7,500 feet tall with the junction of the Firehole River and Gibbon River in the foreground.

We’re headed south at the junction to work the Lower Loop counterclockwise.

Firehole Canyon Drive

View of a rushing river, with rocks in the river bed, surrounded by mountains and trees.

Trust us… You do not want to miss the scenic Firehole Canyon Drive. The turn comes up pretty fast on the right, so be ready!

On this 2-mile detour, you’ll get an up-close look at the 40 ft tall Firehole Falls. We have a little bit more driving to do before the first hike of this Yellowstone road trip, but it’s coming!

For now, take a pullout and scope the hillsides with your binoculars. You’re bound to spot some wildlife in the Firehole River Valley.

Fountain Paint Pots

A geyser in Yellowstone, orangeish deposits on one side of it with a deep blue spring in the middle.

Yellowstone National Park is famous for its colorful hydrothermal pools and you’re going to witness them first hand.

The 0.6-mile loop at the Fountain Paint Pots will bring you past a variety of colorful pools. Don’t forget your camera!

Grand Prismatic Spring

The brilliant colors of Grand Prismatic Spring: purplish-brown, orange and yellow on the rim and deep turquoise in the middle, with a tree-covered mountain behind it.

The next hot spring is surely one you have seen before in photographs, but there’s nothing quite like standing in front of the real thing with its beautiful rainbow of colors.

There’s no way you can skip putting this on your Yellowstone National Park itinerary — it’s probably why you came in the first place!

It’s located in the Midway Geyser Basin, which also includes the Excelsior Geyser, the Turquoise Pool, and the Opal Pool. 

Note: Always stay on the boardwalk or designated hiking trail – it’s illegal and extremely dangerous to walk off the path here!

If you’re visiting Yellowstone with kids, be sure to be extra cautious here!

View of Grand Prismatic Spring and its orange and blue colors from afar, with a treeline in front of the view.

Most visitors stay on the lower boardwalk loop to see Grand Prismatic Spring, but if you’re looking for the best view available on foot, we know exactly where to go.

Drive to the Fairy Falls Trail parking lot and park your car. From there, head to the Grand Prismatic Spring lookout point, located about 0.6 miles into the Fairy Falls Trail, about a 20-minute walk one way.

From the trailhead, you’ll gain about 105 ft of elevation before ending up at the scenic overlook.

You could continue this hike all the way to Fairy Falls, which is a 5.4-mile roundtrip hike, that takes about 3 hours. 

However, with limited time on this Yellowstone itinerary, I think it’s best to just hike up to the lookout point and back.

Remember: Anytime you’re hiking in bear country, carry bear spray and understand how to use it.

Old Faithful

A geyser of steam bursting a hundred feet into the air, surrounded by a barren landscape, on a partly cloudy day with afternoon light.

Old Faithful is named such for its predictable eruptions which make it easy to schedule a trip around. 

It’s not the largest geyser in the park — that would be Steamboat Geyser, which is the world’s tallest active geyser — but it is the most predictable and thus the most popular to see.

The beautiful Old Faithful geyser is located in the Upper Geyser Basin, a separate part of the basin of Yellowstone than the previous springs on this itinerary.

Just outside the Old Faithful Visitor Center, there are rows of benches set in front of the geyser for a stadium-style viewing.

But… That’s not actually the best place to view the eruption of Old Faithful!

Insider tip: After checking the next eruption time in the visitor center, take the Observation Point – Geyser Hill Trail for a birds-eye view of Old Faithful!

This 2.3-mile loop is well worth the hike and will bring you past some less-trafficked thermal features like Doublet Pool and Giantess Geyser!

West Thumb Geyser Basin

A deep blue and turquoise geyster, with orange and white mineral deposits beside it, next to a deep blue lake.

Take the boardwalk along Yellowstone Lake and check out the geysers that hug its banks.

This is also a perfect spot for a picnic lunch if you didn’t already stop for a bite at Old Faithful!

Hayden Valley wolves and grizzly bears on your must-see Yellowstone wildlife list? This is one of the best places to spot bears, wolves, and many other YNP residents roaming the valley.

Be patient, scan the landscape with your binoculars, and use the pullouts off the main road for thorough searches.

Mud Volcano

Bubbling mud pool in Yellowstone National Park with steam rising off the top at the Dragon's Mouth part of the loop

As you head north towards the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, you can stop off at the Mud Volcano, where you’ll see many incredible volcanic elements in one easy 0.8-mile loop trail. 

Don’t miss the Dragon’s Mouth part of the loop — it’s a brief detour but it’s an incredible sight to see!

You’ll also see Mud Caldron, Sizzling Basin, Churning Caldron, Black Dragons Caldron, Sour Lake, and Grizzy Fumarole as you pass through this short, boardwalk hike.

Grand Canyon of The Yellowstone

A giant waterfall in a massive canyon surrounded by trees and orange-yellow rock canyon.

As you approach the Canyon Village area, turn right onto South Rim Drive towards Artist Point.

This is one of the most iconic viewpoints of the 308 ft tall Lower Falls. You definitely don’t want to miss the view on this short 0.1-mile paved walk!

Want a closer look? Take Uncle Tom’s Trail down to a viewpoint of the Lower Falls. Just remember that there are 328 steps: so easy to take down, so much harder to take back up!

There is also the shorter but still impressive Upper Falls, which are 109 feet but still massively impressive. Stop at the Upper Falls View for great photos.

Gibbon Falls

A waterfall in a river going over the steps of a tiered rock formation, forming a veil shape.

The 84 ft Gibbon Falls is another must-see waterfall. With its convenient location right off the road, there’s no reason not to stop and take a look!

There’s also an easy 0.5-mile roundtrip walk down to the falls if you’d like to get closer.

For a convenient starting point on your second day, we recommend camping at Madison Campground or Norris Campground.

If camping isn’t in the books for this Yellowstone road trip, there are cabins and hotel accommodations in the Canyon Village area near the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Get a good sleep to tackle the next day of this Yellowstone itinerary!

Day 2 of Your Yellowstone Itinerary

Yellowstone River meandering through grassy plains surrounded by trees on a partly cloudy day.

There’s still so much to see, and an early start gives you a better chance for some exciting wildlife sightings!

Today, we are going to visit the best of the Upper Loop.

We’ll start at the Norris Geyser Basin Area and head North towards Mammoth Hot Springs to take the loop clockwise.

Obsidian Cliff

This National Historic Landmark is a neat way to start the day!

The obsidian from these cliffs was first collected by hunters and gatherers over 11,000 years ago and has been traced across the country along historic trade routes. Obsidian was once used to make arrow and spear heads!

Sheepeater Cliff

Gray basalt columns with lots of smaller, broken apart rocks at the base, on a sunny blue sky day with a patch of clouds.

Here’s another interesting geological site that’s worth the stop.

If you’re ready to give your legs a morning stretch, take the fishing trail out of the picnic area. Follow the trail about for about 0.5 miles to get awesome views of the Gardner River and a small falls.

How’s that for a morning stretch?

Mammoth Hot Springs

White and rust-colored calcium deposits form a travertine staircase of a hot spring at Mammoth Hot Springs, a must on your 2 days in Yellowstone.

Park in the Lower Terrace Parking Area and hop onto the intricate boardwalk paths that weave around the many hot springs. 

It’s easy to spend over an hour exploring these intriguing thermal features formed by travertine deposits over the millennia!

This is also a popular area to spot elk! 

Look in the grass below the terraces and around the cone-shaped Liberty Cap, which is one of the area’s most prominent feature standing at 37 ft tall.

Optional: Boiling River

A 7-minute drive from Mammoth Hot Springs, the Boiling River is one of the few hot springs in Yellowstone that you can actually swim in!

There is a designated soaking and swimming area where a hot spring mixes and mingles with the Gardner River, creating a bath-like temperature where you can soak and enjoy the geothermal features of Yellowstone for yourself!

At the time of the last update (6/2/2021), this hot spring is still closed due to the pandemic, but check the NPS website for updates to see if that’s changed!

Blacktail Plateau Drive

Late afternoon light falls onto the landscape on Blacktail Plateau, illuminating a distant mountain and a grassy plain.

After you’ve taken a thorough tour of the Mammoth Hot Springs, head west to continue on the Upper Loop.

This section is famous for wildlife viewings, so keep your eyes peeled. It’s never a bad idea to take the scenic route! Right? Turn onto the Blacktail Plateau Drive and get off the main road for 6 miles.

Petrified Tree

The trunk of a tree which has been petrified, surrounded by trees and blue sky.

Almost immediately after rejoining the main road, the turnoff for the Petrified Tree will be on the right.

Is it a tree or a rock? Worth the very short walk up the trail to get a closer look!

Tower Falls Optional Detour

View of Tower Falls from above, a waterfall plunging into a pool below it, surrounded by rock formations and evergreen trees.

If you’re interested in checking out the 132-foot drop of Tower Falls, it’s only a short detour south at Tower Junction. The rock pinnacles framing the massive falls truly make it a sight to see. The trail to the viewpoint is less than one mile round-trip.

After the falls you will head back to the intersection and turn towards Lamar Valley… Have your binoculars in hand!

Insider tip: The Yellowstone River Picnic Area in the Lamar Valley is a great spot to stop for lunch. It even comes equipped with a quiet scenic trail down to the Yellowstone River.

Lamar Valley

Three bison walking next to a small river, with yellow grass and several mountain peaks behind them.

Lamar Valley is a wildlife lover’s dream. Take your time driving through this section and use pullouts frequently to scan the hillsides with your binoculars or scope.

Bison and antelope sightings are almost a guarantee, but you’ll have to be very observant to spot the resident bear and wolf packs.

For a short hike following your wildlife safari, check out Trout Lake. The trailhead is a small signed pullout on the main road. This lollipop loop trail is only 0.6 miles, and offers beautiful mountain views!

Beartooth Highway

A view of a highway going through some pine trees with a slight bit of fog on some of the distant trees.

As you approach Cooke City after your hike, prepare to say goodbye to Yellowstone National Park as you exit via the scenic Beartooth Highway to head towards the fun mountain town of Red Lodge!

This is where we leave you to discover your next adventure — hopefully you enjoyed this Yellowstone itinerary!

If You Have More Than 2 Days in Yellowstone…

Turquoise and white geyser and geothermal area with a boardwalk trail and pine trees in the distance on a hill

I’d suggest getting off the beaten path (no, not literally — stay on those boardwalks, for your sake and the park’s!) and checking out some of the more sedate areas of the park.

One such area is Porcelain Basin, part of the Norris Geyser Basin area on the West side of the park. There are two loops which will have you see all of the Porcelain Basin area, and the total walking distance for tackling both of the loops is only 1.1 miles. 

Tired of all the driving and want to stretch your legs? Take a hike up Bunsen Peak, a 4.6-mile roundtrip hike that is moderate in difficulty but outstanding in views.

Enjoy views of Mammoth Hot Springs, the Yellowstone River, and other stunning sites from a bird’s eye view on this lesser-visited hike.

What to Pack for 2 Days in Yellowstone

A woman wearing an orange hat and orange rain jacket and a backpack taking cellphone photos at one of the hot springs in Yellowstone by a lake.

I have a full guide to what to pack for a road trip here, but here are the quick packing essentials for a 2-day itinerary for Yellowstone.

Travel Guides: While I’ve given you as much information as I can in this info-packed Yellowstone itinerary, there’s no denying that a dedicated travel guide does it better as they just have so much more time to dedicate to research! Combine our firsthand experience with a travel guide like this Moon Yellowstone & Grand Teton guide for a more epic adventure.

Layered Clothing: Even if you are visiting Yellowstone in summer, due to the high elevation, it can get chilly at night so plan accordingly!

You’ll want at least 2 shirts (synthetic or wool, long and/or short sleeve depending on the season), 2 pairs of leggings or pants, 2 pairs shorts, 1 fleece outer layer, a waterproof jacket, beanie, gloves, and 3 pairs of socks.

Comfortable Footwear: You can go with sneakers or hiking boots (I love my Ahnu Sugarpine boots for women, and for men, I suggest theKEEN Durand boot.) However, if you pick sneakers, make sure they have good traction and are comfortable enough for 2-3 mile hikes.

Sunscreen: At 8,000 feet elevation, it’s so much easier to get sunburned even on a cloudy day (I learned this the hard way in Quito, Ecuador!). Bring and wear sunscreen every day of your trip, and be sure to reapply it every couple of hours. I like this chemical-free organic sunscreen.

Sunhat: I recommend a packable hat like this one which has a strap. It won’t blow off in gusts of wind (Yellowstone can get windy — it’s that high elevation!) and you can easily wear it on your back when you don’t feel like wearing it on your head.

Day pack: A compact day pack is helpful to have when in Yellowstone so you can easily put everything you need accessible and handy. I like this inexpensive and lightweight Osprey day pack.

Snacks: None of these Yellowstone hikes are particularly intense, but you should have some snacks just in case you get hungry and don’t want to waste time on your Yellowstone itinerary sitting down for a long lunch. Pack or pick up a picnic lunch or have plenty of snacks for the day. I recommend protein bars (I love CLIF bars), nuts, or other high-density snacks that give you a lot of energy for their weight.

Camera: I use and love my Sony A6000! It’s mirrorless, so it’s lightweight and perfect for a high-quality camera that won’t weigh your pack down. I suggest bringing a zoom lens for wildlife and a wide-angle lens for landscapes.

First aid kit: Don’t let things like blisters or scrapes ruin your Yellowstone trip! I recommend tossing a first aid kit like this HART Weekend First Aid kit in your day bag. It’s lightweight, but if you ever need it, you’ll be so glad to have it.

Headlamp (and extra batteries): If you want to do any sunrise or sunset hiking, I recommend bringing a headlamp like this Petzl headlamp.

Water filter bottle: While there are water fountains around Yellowstone, I still suggest having a water bottle with a filter so you can fill up anywhere there’s a water source! There are a wide variety of water filtration systems and treatments, but I love the GRAYL Geopress, which allows you to filter water from any source — perfect for filling up on a hike if you see water. It’s compact and easy to use and filters out 99.99% of microplastics, viruses, bacteria, and particles.


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The Perfect 2 Days in Grand Teton Itinerary: Road Trip Style

The Teton Range stands tall over Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.

Their recognizable formation is alluring to mountaineers, photographers, hikers, and road trippers alike.

We will be traveling across the park from south to north with stops at all of the best attractions! 

Grab your camera, binoculars, and hiking gear, and get ready for an adventure you’ll never forget – a memorable Grand Teton National Park road trip.

view of a marina with all the boats out on the lake with lots of mountains in the distance
PLANNING FOR GRAND TETON AT A GLANCE:

When to Go: While winter in Grand Teton is beautiful, summer is when Grand Teton shines the most. It's also when it's at its most crowded, so get an early start, especially if you are following this itinerary which uses the Moose entrance (the most convenient, but also the most crowded!).

Where to Stay: There are so many places to stay in Jackson Hole area! I stayed at the Gros Ventre Campground right outside the Elk Refuge and Mormon Row and loved it. 

There are a few lodges in the park (Colter Bay Cabins, Jackson Lake Lodge, Jenny Lake Lodge) but they book up quickly, often 6 months in advance.

If the lodges are all booked up, there is usually plenty of availability in Jackson and Teton Village. I suggest Wyoming Inn (mid-range boutique), the Elk Country Inn (budget/mid-range), or the Teton Mountain Lodge & Spa (high-end luxury).

How to Get Around: A car is key for Grand Teton National Park; there is no shuttle, and without a car, you'd have to rely on tours. If you're renting a car, compare car rentals and prices from here. Alternately, you can rent an RV or campervan via RVShare and save on accommodations

Don't want to drive or plan? You can book a wildlife tour of Grand Teton, a Jeep tour with boat ride, or a two-day tour of both Grand Teton & Yellowstone.

3 Things Not to Forget to Pack: Binoculars are key for spotting wildlife like bears, elk, moose, and bison-- I suggest these Nikon binoculars. For hikes, you'll want a sturdy pair of hiking boots -- I love my Ahnu boots -- and some bear spray for safety reasons.

Know Before You Go: If you plan to visit multiple national parks in a year, the America the Beautiful Pass will save you a bundle! It costs $80 for an annual pass (for an entire vehicle traveling together) to all US national parks and federally managed site.  

How This Grand Teton Itinerary Works

The snow-covered Teton Range is reflecting in a pond or river in the afternoon sunlight, surrounded by grass and trees.

This is a self-guided itinerary that assumes you’ll have access to your own car throughout the duration of your time in Grand Teton. 

Road tripping Grand Teton is definitely the best way to experience the park at your own pace and maximize your time.

If you don’t have a car, there is a free shuttle available. It connects Jackson, the Jackson Lake Lodge, Colter Bay Village, and the South Jenny Lake Visitor Center. 

However, besides these stops, there is no shuttle service within the park. As a result, it’d be pretty hard to follow this itinerary, which is designed to be a Grand Teton road trip itinerary.

This itinerary for Grand Teton is best suited for people who want to see the best of Grand Teton National Park’s main highlights, while also having time to hike and experience the beautiful wilderness of the region.

 It affords opportunities for appreciating the area’s wildlife while also seeing the natural wonders and highlights of the park.

However, since this itinerary just allows for 2 days in Grand Teton National Park, it’s not going to be possible to see everything.

We’ve had to make a few omissions in order to have an itinerary that is reasonable, not stressful!

This Grand Teton itinerary will work best if you are staying in the park itself or in the nearby town of Jackson, WY or Teton Village, WY. 

These destinations together (along with Hoback, Kelly, Moose, Moran Junction, and Wilson) make up the region of Jackson Hole, but Jackson and Teton Village have the most accommodation options.

Renting a Car for Grand Teton

An empty road leading towards the distinctive peaks of the Teton Range near Grand Teton National Park on a cloudless summer day.

If you are driving to Wyoming in your own personal vehicle, you can disregard this section!

If you are flying into Grand Teton, you’ll want to pick the Jackson Hole Airport (JAC). 

This offers the easiest access to the park by a long shot. If you are also visiting Yellowstone first, you may want to look into flying into West Yellowstone or Bozeman-Yellowstone Airport.

In the peak season (summer), there are 15 destinations that service Jackson Hole directly, including but not limited to Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago, Denver, Salt Lake City, Dallas-Fort Worth, and more. 

American, Delta, United, Alaska, and Frontier all service the airport, though Alaska and Frontier are only seasonal.

Therefore, I suggest renting a car from the Jackson Hole Airport.

Not sure where to get the best deal on your rental? I’ve rented cars dozens of times through various search engines and have settled on RentalCars.com as the best car rental search aggregator – it sifts through dozens of trusted rental companies to find the cheapest price for your rental! Compare prices for your car rental here.

How to Do 2 Days in Grand Teton Without a Car

The pale turquoise water of Jenny Lake, surrounded by evergreen trees and steep mountain peaks in the Tetons, on a sunny day visiting Grand Teton National Park in summer.

Honestly — it would be very tough! 

While there is a shuttle between Jackson and 3 key park stops, it’s not nearly enough to be able to handle this Grand Teton itinerary.

If you were to try to tackle this without a car, you’d end up fairly limited. 

You could spend one day at Jenny Lake and hiking to Inspiration Point and the next day visiting Colter Bay Village and the area around Jackson Lake, including Christian Pond Loop.

However, you’d miss all the wonderful scenic overlooks in between, as well as the National Elk Refuge which is a true highlight of the park (well, technically just outside the park).

If you can’t drive but you want to maximize what you can see inside Grand Teton in 2 days, the best option would be to go with a guided tour. 

I’d recommend this full-day tour which includes stops at Antelope Flats, Mormon Row, Oxbow Bend, Pacific Creek, Jackson Lake, Signal Lake, and Jenny Lake, as well as a light breakfast and hearty picnic lunch.

Book your full-day tour of Grand Teton here!

The following day, you’ll still have plenty of opportunities to enjoy the landscapes around Jackson Hole and the Grand Tetons.

You could enjoy all the fun things to do in the town of Jackson, enjoy a scenic flight over the Grand Tetons or even a sunrise hot air balloon ride, or take a day trip to Yellowstone’s Lower Loop to see all the highlights of Yellowstone National Park in a single day!

Best Time of Year to Visit Grand Teton National Park

Mt. Moran at Oxbow Bend in Grand Teton National Park, reflected in the river which is surrounded by orange foliage in the autumn.

The peak hiking season in Grand Teton is quite short, mostly consisting of late spring, summer, and early fall. 

If you are going to Grand Teton and hoping to hike without significant snow on the ground, you’re best off if you wait until at least late June, and better yet going in July or August. However, note that crowds at that time will be at their peak then!

September is a delightful month to visit Grand Teton National Park: the crowds are far fewer, due to school resuming and families disappearing from the park, and the temperatures are still warm in the day but there’s little risk of snow disrupting your plans.

The fall foliage is brilliant in September, generally from the middle of the month towards the end, and October usually has beautiful leaves as well, though the weather becomes colder and more unpredictable towards the end of the. month. 

However, the fall foliage season does shift year to year, so this is not a guarantee, but end of September / beginning of October is generally the “safest” window for beautiful fall foliage.

However, winter in Grand Teton is not a no-go! The park is absolutely beautiful in the wintertime, with lots of great winter activities and landscapes to enjoy. You simply have to be prepared and know what to expect in terms of closures and access. 

I have a guide to 30 things to know about visiting Grand Teton in winter that will help you plan a trip in the winter season.

Plus, unlike Yellowstone in winter which almost entirely shuts down to passenger vehicles and requiring the pricy booking of snow coaches and snowmobiles, much of Grand Teton National Park is still able to be visited in the winter independently, making it a great choice for the winter season.

Spring in Grand Teton is beautiful, with alpine wildflowers replacing the snow as its melts. 

However, you can expect snow on the hiking trails until at least the end of May, making hiking more treacherous unless you are experienced and equipped for hiking in the snow.

What to Pack for Grand Teton National Park

A female hiker looking at a valley in Grand Teton National Park, well-prepared with a backpack, hiking poles, and a sunhat on her back.

I have a full road trip packing list here, but here’s the quick rundown.

Travel Guides: I have included so much information in this Grand Teton Itinerary that I believe will be helpful in your trip planning process but sometimes guide books provide more than I can fit in one piece! Combine my personal experiences with this Moon Yellowstone & Grand Teton guide and you’ll be set for an adventure of a lifetime.

Layered Clothing: Even if you are visiting Grand Teton in the summer, due to the high elevation, it can get chilly at night so plan accordingly!

For summer or early fall, you’ll want at least 2 shirts (synthetic or wool, long and/or short sleeve depending on the season), 2 pairs of leggings or pants, 2 pairs of shorts, 1 fleece outer layer, a waterproof jacket, a beanie, gloves, and 3 pairs of socks.

For winter, you’ll skip the short sleeves and shorts and add in thermal layers, a parka, a scarf, waterproof pants, waterproof gloves, and snow boots.

Comfortable Footwear: Visiting the Grand Tetons is all about hiking! A sturdy pair of hiking boots with strong ankle support is really worth the investment. I love my Ahnu Sugarpine boots for women, and for men, I suggest the KEEN Durand boot.)

However, if you pick sneakers, make sure they have good traction and are comfortable enough for several 2-4 mile hikes over the course of this Grand Teton itinerary. Be sure your choice of footwear is waterproof if visiting any time there might be snow on the ground.

Sunscreen: At 6,500+ feet elevation for much of the park (such as Jenny Lake, Taggart Lake, etc. — you’ll go higher on any mountain hikes!), it’s easy to get sunburned, even if the weather seems cloudy. Trust me — I’ve learned this the hard way. Wear sunscreen every day, and ensure that you reapply it every few hours. I suggest this chemical-free organic sunscreen –especially if you plan on swimming, you don’t want to be polluting the pristine lakes with chemical-filled sunscreen!

Sunhat: I recommend a lightweight but packable hat that has a strap, so that you can ensure it won’t get blown off, never to be seen again, by a gust of wind. It’s also handy because you can just wear it on your back when you don’t feel like having it on your head (or for Instagram pics — no judgment).

Day pack: A lovely lightweight day pack is essential to have when in Grand Teton so you can easily put everything you need for a day out hiking in a place that is both easily accessible yet unobtrusive for active days out. I like this inexpensive and lightweight Osprey day pack, which has mesh panels on the back to allow for airflow (goodbye, sweaty backs!).

Snacks: None of these Grand Teton hikes are that strenuous, but I strongly recommend you always have some snacks on you when you hike, just in case you get hungry. You also may not want to waste time on your Grand Teton itinerary waiting for a sit-down lunch or heading to Moose or Jackson for a meal.

I suggest you make or pick up a picnic lunch on your way into the park, or have plenty of snacks for the day. I suggest things like protein bars (I love CLIF bars), nuts, or other high-density snacks that give you a lot of caloric energy for their weight!

Camera: I absolutely love my Sony A6000! It’s a mirrorless camera, not a D-SLR, so it’s lightweight and perfect for a high-quality camera that won’t weigh your daypack down like a larger camera will. That’s just the body: I also suggest bringing a zoom lens for wildlife and a wide-angle lens for landscapes, as the kit lens is OK, but nothing to write home about.

First aid kit: Don’t let a little thing like blisters ruin your Grand Teton trip! I recommend always keeping a first aid kit like this HART Weekend First Aid kit in your daypack. It’s lightweight and unobtrusive, but if you ever need it, you’ll be glad to have it.

Headlamp (and extra batteries): If you want to do any sunrise or sunset hiking, I recommend bringing a headlamp like this Petzl headlamp.

Water filter bottle: While there are water fountains around Grand Teton, I still suggest having a water bottle with a filter so you can fill up anywhere there’s a water source — like all the beautiful alpine lakes around you!

There are a wide variety of water filtration systems, but I personally have and love the GRAYL Geopress, which allows you to filter water from any source. It’s perfect for filling up on a hike if you see water anywhere on the trail. It’s compact and easy to use and filters out 99.99% of microplastics, viruses, bacteria, and other nasty particles, making water instantly safe to drink without plastic waste.

Where to Stay in Grand Teton

A two-story cabin overlooking a lake in Grand Teton National Park, surrounded by mountains and trees, with a few boats out on the lake on a sunny day.

There are lots of options for where to stay when visiting Grand Teton on a road trip! If you’re visiting in the summer, you can stay in the park… but you’ll need to book way in advance!

For where to stay in the park itself, I recommend Jenny Lake Lodge. It has a beautiful location and they have cute rustic cottages, each with its own entrance, as well as an on-site bar and restaurant serving delicious meals, including a 5-course dinner every night.
>> Book your stay at Jenny Lake Lodge on Booking.com | Book it on Hotels.com

However, for most people, unless you plan extremely far ahead in advance, lodging within the park isn’t that feasible. If you find yourself booked out of park lodging, I suggest staying in Jackson, WY or Teton Village, WY.

It’s just a short drive and there’s so much to do in Jackson any time of year (especially in winter!) that it’s worth the extra drive time… especially since the road between Jackson and the Moose entrance of the park is one of the prettiest in the United States!

Jackson Hole Accommodations

BOUTIQUE | If you love a hotel with design that’s packed with a punch of personality, I’d stay at the Wyoming Inn. This charming hotel is super cozy and rustic, with Western-inspired decoration on the interior: we’re taking roaring fireplaces, woodsy colors with lots of natural light, rustic touches and design elements, and large, renovated rooms.
>> Check photos and reviews on Booking.com | Book it on Hotels.com

BUDGET | While Jackson isn’t the biggest budget destination, if you’re trying to save a few bucks on accommodations without sacrificing comfort, I’d suggest The Elk Country Inn. It’s very highly reviewed and offers modern, clean rooms with plenty of space, just 4 blocks from the Town Square in Jackson.
>> Check photos and reviews on Booking.com | Book it on Hotels.com

LUXURY |  While not technically in Jackson but rather in Teton Village, the beautiful  Teton Mountain Lodge and Spa is an absolute stunner. The rooms each have their own fireplace, kitchen, and seating area, and the property has both indoor and outdoor heated pools and hot tubs, as well as a world-class massage and spa center perfect for some well-deserved R&R.
>> Check photos and reviews on Booking.com | Book it on Hotels.com

CABIN | The incredible views you get on the Grand Teton are why you should sleep at this beautiful cabin.

With large windows and a rustic but modern interior, you’re guaranteed an amazing stay at this place while taking in beautiful mountains views from every room. The cabin has a large kitchen, sitting area, a dining area, and a number of bedrooms to accommodate even big groups. The best part is that it’s near Teton River and Big Hole Mountains so you’ll never run out of outdoor activities to do.
>> Check photos and reviews on Vrbo

Your Grand Teton Itinerary

Day 1 of Your Grand Teton Road Trip

This Grand Teton National Park road trip departs from Jackson, Wyoming.

A popular ski town in the winter, Jackson becomes the ultimate gateway town to the Tetons for summer road trips and recreation.

National Elk Refuge

Focus on two elk interlocking horns, several other elk in the background with a tiny bit of snow on the ground on a summery day.

As you make your way north toward the Moose Entrance, the National Elk Refuge hugs the road to the right.

This area is home to one of the largest elk herds ever recorded! There is no fee to enter the refuge if you’re interested in getting a closer look.

Stop and take some photos of these gorgeous elks and start to get pumped for the wildlife and scenery that await you once you enter the park proper!

Mormon Row Historic District

The historic barn or homestead along Mormon Row with the Teton Range in the background

One of the first stops in the national park itself is the Mormon Row historic district located in the Gros Ventre section of the park. 

This is likely one of the photos you’ve seen in all the travel guides (including this one!) to promote Grand Teton. 

The view of the historic barns and homesteads from the 1800s, built by Mormon settlers, juxtaposed against the Teton Range are simply unforgettable.

Stop here to walk around and take some photos, but let’s keep it moving: you have a full day itinerary ahead of you!

Moose Junction

View of Moose Junction and the river snaking below it with a sunburst coming out of the trees as the sun sets behind the Teton range.

Welcome to the park! When you arrive at the Moose Junction, clearly marked, turn left onto Teton Park Road.

Soon after turning, you’ll cross over the Snake River, the largest tributary to the Colombia River.

The Moose Visitor Center is located down a road on the left and is a great place to ask questions about the park.

Windy Point Turnout

A grassy, brushy landscape with mountains in the distance and spotty clouds.

As you’ve probably noticed, there are no bad views in Grand Teton National Park!

If you’re eager to get some early morning photos of the mountains, use the Windy Point Turnout soon after the Moose Entrance Station.

From here, you’ll be able to see Grand Teton, Mount Owen, Middle Teton, and Teewinot Mountain in the distance.

Taggart Lake

Very clear lake water, showing rocks and logs at the shallow end of the lake, deepening in color as the water goes out deeper, and mountain peaks behind it.

Time to get the blood flowing with a 3-mile short hike to Taggart Lake. Fair warning, the Taggart Lake Trailhead parking area fills up early in the day. Arriving in the morning will be worth it!

From the Taggart Lake Trailhead, head down the trail until you come to the loop junction. Take a right at the junction to stay on the Taggart Lake Trail. 

A little farther down the trail, you’ll cross a bridge over Taggart Creek. Check out that waterfall!

Not much farther now, Taggart Lake sits at the base of the Teton Range with the mighty peaks standing proudly in the background.

After completing your photo op and taking in some mountain air, continue back the way you came… or add an extra mile to your round-trip by taking Beaver Creek Trail back to the Taggart Creek Trailhead. Both paths lead back to your vehicle and onto the next adventure!

Jenny Lake

Deep blue water reflecting two large mountains, and two pines in front of the lake.

There is so much to do at Jenny Lake! 

If the views weren’t enough for you, there’s also a visitor center, boat shuttles, camping, concessions, and amazing trail access.

All aboard! Park near the Jenny Lake Visitor Center and take the short trail towards the docks to catch the boat. 

The boat shuttle runs every 15 minutes and there is a small fee for riding. Worth every penny! 

Enjoy the ride until you hop off the boat ride on the west side of the lake at the base of the magnificent peaks.

The fun is just getting started. Any waterfall lovers here? From the dock, Hidden Falls is only a 2-mile round trip hike. This easy-to-access falls drops 100 feet!

Close up of a section of a waterfall cascading down rocks with some green trees in the foreground.

If you’re looking to add in some more hiking miles and really want to earn that ice cream waiting for you at the Jenny Lake Store, forgo the return boat shuttle.

Instead, take the loop trail 4 miles along the southern half of the lake for prime wildlife and mountain viewing opportunities! 

If you want to spend more time at Jenny Lake, there’s also the Cascade Canyon area near the West Shore Boat Dock area, which is really beautiful and scenic. 

hike to Inspiration Point is also fairly easy from the West Shore Boat Dock, taking about 1.8 miles roundtrip and gaining about 500 feet.

Back at the parking area, it’s time to refuel and relax by the rocky shore before hitting the road!

String Lake

Perfectly still water acting like a mirror to reflect the evergreen trees and green-covered low mountains at String Lake, a must on a summer Grand Teton itinerary.

Take the One Way South scenic road and don’t forget to stop at the Cathedral Group Turnout for more breathtaking mountain views. 

Not much farther down the road, you’ll want to make a right to head to the String Lake Picnic Area.

Hot summer days and String Lake were meant for each other! 

The picnic area at the crystal clear lake has an inviting sandy beach with plenty of room to set out chairs and towels for an afternoon swim.

If your legs aren’t cooked from the day’s hikes, there is an easy 4-mile loop trail that rounds the lake and offers additional views of the neighboring Leigh Lake. Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife as you make your way around the loop.

Day one ends back at the beaches of String Lake. 

Insider Tip: Watch the sunset over the Teton Range from the Jenny Lake Overlook off of the One Way South scenic road, take a peek at the uninterrupted starry night sky and rest up for another exciting day. 

Day 2 of Your Grand Teton Road Trip

Good morning road trippers! Ready to start this adventure-filled day?

The northern half of Grand Teton National Park awaits! Make your coffee to go because this mountain sunrise is going to be epic.

Mountain View Turnout

Alpenglow (the reddish glow at sunrise on mountain peaks) illuminating a peak of the Teton Range with a pastel lavender sky.

Just past the turn to head toward Sting Lake on the Teton Park Road, you’ll find the Mountain View Turnout on the left.

Appropriately named, this viewpoint is a great spot to set up a tripod. Bring some camp chairs, blankets, and that hot coffee we talked about to watch the sunrise over the Teton Range.

Signal Mountain Road

Trees in front of a lake in the distance with a large mountain with a little bit of snow on it far away, on a clear sky day in summer in Grand Teton National Park.

Soon after leaving the Mountain View Turnout, Jackson Lake begins to come into sight.

Sitting at 6,772 feet above sea level,  this massive lake has a surface area of 4,750 acres! 

Take the scenic drive up Signal Mountain Road to get a look at the lake from above via the Jackson Point Overlook. 

Take this road slowly. There’s no rush. The switchbacks become very tight at the top and require conservative speeds to travel safely.

Up for a longer hike? You can get to the Jackson Point Overlook on Signal Mountain on foot. The moderate 7-mile round trip hike is well worth the early morning incline. 

For the sake of time, it may be worthwhile to opt for the scenic drive up to the viewpoint today, but if you’re a quick hiker, you may want to make the hike!

Jackson Lake Dam

A very large cement dam showing rushing water in a long exposure photo rushing underneath the dam, turquoise water coming from the dam, and pine trees on the sides of the dam.

Just after passing over the Jackson Lake Dam, there is a road on the right leading down to a parking area next to the river.

Walk up the steps toward the sidewalk and make your way across the dam for awesome views of the Tetons over Jackson Lake. 

Across the road, there are some paved interpretive trails along the lake that are fun and easy to explore.

The parking lot next to the Snake River at the dam’s outflow is a popular spot to stop and cast a fly!

Christian Pond Loop

Yellowing grass surrounding the pond at Christian Pond with brilliant blue water and rolling hills in the background on a blue sky summer or fall day.

Wildflowers and wildlife wait for you along the Christian Pond Loop Trail! 

This easy 3.5-mile hike departs from the trailhead parking next to the horse corrals at the Jackson Lake Lodge. 

As you approach the pond, be on the lookout for moose and elk grazing as well as trumpeter swans gliding through the shallow water.

The trail leads to the shores of Emma Matilda Lake before looping back toward the trailhead. Take a little detour and hike along the lake’s edge. Another great spot for wildlife viewing! 

When you’ve taken it in all in, head back to the Christian Pond Loop and back to the parking area.

Colter Bay Village

A mountain perfectly reflecting in the still water at Colter Bay, with lots of boats sitting still in the water, anchored.

It’s easy to spend a full day in the Colter Bay Village area, so we have narrowed it down to the best activities!

From the Colter Bay Visitor Center, take a leisurely hike along the Lakeshore Trail. 

This 2-mile nature trail offers amazing views of Mount Moran behind Jackson Lake. The trail will bring you along the lake’s astonishing shore. Don’t forget the camera!

After your short hike, make your way over to the nearby Colter Bay Marina just in time for the Jackson Lake Scenic Lunch Cruise! 

The boat will take you to the shore of Elk Island in the middle of the lake, where you can explore and enjoy a picnic-style lunch. There’s nothing like the panoramic views from this scenic cruise.

Want to guide your own watercraft around the lake? You can also rent canoes and kayaks at the marina and explore the lake shores on your own time! 

Paddling away from the high-use areas around Colter Bay provides great opportunities to catch a glimpse of wildlife along the water.

Lakeview Picnic Area

Boats on Jackson Lake in Grand Teton in summer

Take in one last good view of Jackson Lake at the Lakeview Picnic area on the northern part of the lake. From the picnic area, there is easy access to the lake’s shore for photos.

Those who are feeling extra brave can jump in for an icy swim!

Your exciting two-day Grand Teton itinerary ends on the shore of Jackson Lake.

From here, continue north toward Yellowstone National Park, where we leave you to discover your next adventure!

Have More Time in Grand Teton?

While this itinerary will completely fill 2 days in Grand Teton, if you are tempted to add extra time — and you should be! — there is a number of ways you could spend more time in the park.

If you want to get more hiking in, consider a hike to Surprise Lake and Amphitheater Lake. This is a hard hike, numbering 10 miles roundtrip and 3,000 feet of elevation gain. 

It is spectacular, though, so if you have the prowess for a hike of this difficulty, consider it! If not, I have a post on several other day hikes in Grand Teton that are a little easier.

Tired of hiking but want some outdoor adventure? You could go rafting on the Snake River with one of the many rafting outfitters that operate within the park. 

This 7-mile float down the river is a low-intensity rafting trip with a guide that would make an awesome addition to your Grand Teton itinerary.

Book your rafting excursion here!


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Your Perfect Arches Itinerary: 2 Days in Arches National Park

The perfect desert adventure is waiting for you in Moab, Utah, at Arches National Park!

This outdoor playground is home to the highest density of natural sandstone arches in the world: we’re talking over 2,000 documented to date!

Full of breathtaking red rock features and scenic hiking trails, Arches National Park is sure to impress every US national park enthusiast. 

But there’s a lot to see here, spread across 50+ miles of roads, and it can get overwhelming to plan the perfect route to hit all of the bucket list musts in Arches National Park.

Don’t sweat (save that for when you hit the trails!) — we’ve broken down the top things to do in Arches National Park, day by day, into this easy two-day Arches itinerary!

Travel Tips for Arches National Park

Allison exploring Arches National Park on a sunny day

Go early. This is one of the most popular national parks in the Southwest, so don’t expect solitude. Usually, there is a line to enter the park starting as early as 9 AM. 

Try to get an early start on both days, since you only have two days in Arches. Aim for at least one day where you wake up early enough for a sunrise hike!

Be sure to have a car. Arches National Park does not have a bus or shuttle system, so you’ll need a car to access the trailheads and viewpoints in this itinerary. If you’re not driving to Arches from your home state, you’ll likely want to fly into Salt Lake City and rent a car there — flights to Canyonlands Regional Airport are expensive and rentals are limited there.

Not sure where to get the best deal on your rental? I’ve rented cars dozens of times through various search engines and have settled on Discover Cars as the best car rental search engine – it searches over 500 trusted rental companies to find the cheapest price for your rental! Compare prices for car rental from Salt Lake City here.

If you don’t have a car, plan tours. It is possible to do Arches National Park without a car, but you’ll want to book some tours of the National Park and some Moab activities in order to fill up your itinerary.

Slather on the sunscreen. Arches National Park is hot, hot, hot in the summer! Be sure to apply sunscreen at least 10 minutes before a hike, and reapply every two hours or so (or more if you’re sweating a lot). 

Don’t forget exposed skin on the back of your body, like the back of your next, behind the knees, lower calves, etc! This is where I typically end up burned when I’m not diligent.

Bring a lot of water. As mentioned in the previous point, Arches gets quite hot in the summer season and it can be quite easy to get dehydrated. 

In every road trip packing list, I make sure to impress upon how important it is to have a large supply of water in your car just in case of an emergency. 

Define your accessibility needs. Not all of the park is accessible to people with mobility limitations. The following places are wheelchair accessible: Park Avenue Viewpoint, Balanced Rock Viewpoint, Lower Delicate Arch Viewpoint, and Wolfe Ranch Cabin. 

There is an accessible campsite at Devils Garden (#4H) and the Visitors Center and the restrooms are accessible all throughout the park.

It’s best not to bring your pet. Arches National Park is not a particularly dog-friendly national park. Dogs are not permitted on hiking trails or at overlooks, nor in the backcountry, which basically eliminates all of this itinerary! 

Dogs are only permitted at the Devils Garden campsite, picnic areas, and along paved roads. If traveling with a pet, check out these other dog-friendly hikes in Moab.

Where to Stay when Visiting Arches National Park

Glamping tent lit up from within with starry sky behind it

We give some details on campsites below in the itinerary, but if you’re not planning to camp — or the campsites in Arches are all full — here is where we suggest you stay in Moab!

GLAMPING | Not into full-on roughing it and camping? Glamping is the perfect middle ground where you can experience comfort and ease while also being in nature. Under Canvas Moab knocks it out of the park in terms of comfort, style, and entertainment, and is frequently cited as one of the best glamping lodges in the entire United States.

Book your stay at Under Canvas Moab here!

BUNGALOWS | The charming Moab Springs Ranch has private bungalows that are the perfect place to stay in Moab if you want more privacy than the typical hotel. Each bungalow has its own little terrace, and each room has A/C, TV, a kitchenette and dining area, and a private bathroom. The property also has a restaurant, garden, and BBQ facilities on-site.

Book your stay at Moab Springs Ranch here!

INN | For a rustic stay that nonetheless has all the amenities you need, Red Stone Inn is a fantastic choice. Rooms all come with a kitchenette, AC, TV, and en-suite bathroom. In terms of shared amenities, there is a hot tub and free WiFi throughout the property.

Book your stay at Red Stone Inn here!

5 Things Not to Forget to Pack for Arches

man standing below delicate arch in utah wearing hiking boots

Sunscreen. I’m weaning myself off of chemical-based sunscreens, especially if I’m doing any water activities like rafting or swimming. I love SunBum SPF 50 with Vitamin E as it’s all-natural and moisturizing without feeling icky and sticky.

Hydration backpack. You’ll want to rehydrate a lot while hiking in Arches, especially if visiting in the summertime! I recommend bringing a hydration pack like this Camelbak which you can wear on your back and sip water from, totally hands-free. It has a zipper pocket so you can throw in other essentials — car keys, cell phone, granola bars, etc. and use it in place of a day pack.

Hiking boots. This Arches itinerary includes a number of hiking trails that are rather rocky and uneven, and having ankle support is really key in these instances if you don’t want to roll an ankle and ruin your trip. 

I love my pair of Ahnu hiking boots (for women) and for men, I suggest these similar Keen boots. Whatever boots you pick, be sure to break them in with a hike or two before heading to Arches.

Hiking socks. Don’t forget to pack hiking socks! Regular old cotton socks in hiking boots can lead to massive amounts of blisters — I’ve learned this lesson firsthand, unfortunately! Moisture-wicking hiking socks are cheap but can save your vacation. These DriTech socks are a great and inexpensive option, or you may want to invest in some merino wool quick-drying socks.

Headlamp. Because this Arches itinerary includes some sunset hikes and sunrise hikes, you’ll need a headlamp like this one. Trust me, as someone who hiked back from a sunset hike at Corona Arch in the dark without a headlamp, you’ll absolutely want one! A smartphone flashlight won’t cut it.

Day One of Your Arches National Park Itinerary

Start the day at the Arches National Park Visitor Center.

the rugged landscape of arches national park, starting at the visitor center

Time to get ready for a full day exploring the beautiful red rock landscapes of Arches. 

However, the rugged landscape that makes up the 119 square mile park is more fragile than you may think!

Luckily, the Arches National Park Visitor Center near the entrance station is well-equipped to provide information about park stewardship. 

They also offer important insider details on how to access and appreciate the park’s many famous attractions.

Also, they’ll let you know of any important closures. For example, on my last visit, unfortunately, the Devil’s Garden was temporarily closed.

The visitor center is also a great place to top off all your water bottles! Although there are fill stations sprinkled throughout the park, it’s important to carry plenty of water at all times.

Summertime temperatures often exceed 100ºF/38°C, so proper hydration while tackling this Arches itinerary is extra important — especially if you’re hiking a lot!

Begin your exploration at the Moab Fault Overlook.

view from the moab fault overlook viewpoint over the red rock landscape of this beautiful utah national park.

As you continue into the park from the visitor center, you will begin to gain elevation.

Look around at the sandstone features as you make the switchbacks above the park entrance.

To the left, you will see three pinnacles called the Three Penguins. Can you make out the penguin shapes?

The turnout for the Moab Fault Overlook will be one of the first viewpoints in the park on the right side of the road. 

Check out the impressive fault and read through the helpful interpretive signs to understand the tectonic plates and how they have impacted the beautiful Utah landscape.

Hike the scenic Park Avenue Trail.

red rock formations seen from a hike on this arches national park itinerary.

From the Moab Fault Overlook, continue on the main road to the Park Avenue Trail and Viewpoint

The views are epic right from the parking lot — this stop makes a great backdrop for a group photo, even if you’re not planning to do a hike!

Park visitors that are unable to hike long distances can enjoy an amazing lookout here. The first section of the hiking trail is paved to be wheelchair and stroller accessible.

For those who wish to continue past the paved section, the trail leads toward the astonishing Courthouse Towers in the distance. 

The 2-mile out-and-back trail takes hikers to the canyon floor for a close-up of the various towers and fins!

The trail connects with the main road at the 1-mile turnaround point, so it’s possible to arrange for a private shuttle.

If you want to arrange a shuttle, be sure to do it in advance, especially if you don’t want to hike back to the Park Avenue Trailhead or if you are trying to save time on this Arches itinerary to maximize your trip!

Gaze at the La Sal Mountains Viewpoint.

the famous 'three sisters' rock formation seen from the la sal mountains viewpoint in arches national park

After a nice walk through the sandstone monoliths, head back to the main road and stop at the La Sal Mountains Viewpoint.

There’s not much of a trail here, but it’s a nice place for scenic views with some interpretive posters to read through. 

You’ll also be able to spot the Three Sisters rock formation here, one of the most beautiful landmarks in Arches National Park!

The La Sal Mountains that you can see in the distance are about 20 miles south of Moab and are the second-highest mountain range in Utah.

They offer great recreation opportunities for locals and visitors with skiing in the wintertime! But in summer, boy, do they make one beautiful backdrop.

Visit Arches’ very own ‘Great Wall’.

large red sandstone 'wall' next to a road with a car on it driving in arches national park on a sunny partly cloudy day.

This feature isn’t quite the same as the great wall you may be thinking of on the other side of the globe. It is, however, really beautiful and impressive!

The Great Wall in Arches National Park is a towering row of naturally formed sandstone cliffs and towers.

Take in a drive-by view of this phenomenal feature or stop at the Petrified Dunes Viewpoint.

From the designated viewpoint, you can see the Great Wall in the distance and the petrified dunes with the La Sal Mountains in the background. It’s picture-perfect!

Hike to the viewpoint at Balanced Rock Trail.

hoodoo holding up a rock that looks like its balancing. mountains capped with snow in the distance at sunset.

This next tower is going to blow your mind! If you’re looking closely, you can even spot it as you drive to the trailhead…

Continue past the Great Wall on the main road until you see the well-marked parking area for the Balanced Rock Trail on the right.

Near the trailhead, there are bathrooms and a nice picnic area. Take some time to regroup, hydrate, and refuel with a well-deserved picnic lunch before you head out on a hike to Balanced Rock.

Feeling rejuvenated? Good!

Now, it’s time to get a closer view. The short and easy 0.3-mile scenic loop will take you around the base of the iconic feature.

This rock formation, known as a hoodoo (the likes of which you’ll see all over Utah, in particular, Bryce Canyon National Park) appears to be balancing a bolder that is 55 feet in diameter.

The total height of the structure is 128 feet!

Explore the Windows Section of Arches National Park.

a giant rock with an arch showing blue sky behind it in arches national park

Not far past the Balanced Rock Parking Area is a side road marked with signs leading to The Garden of Eden, Double Arch Trail, and The Windows Section.

The first hike takes off at the very end of the side road. Park in The Windows Section Parking Area and look for signs that lead to The Windows Trail. 

The Windows Trail is an easy 0.65-mile loop that takes hikers to the North Window and South Window (nicknamed ‘the Spectacles’ for its unique shape)

The hike finishes off with an up-close view of Turret Arch. You can take epic photos of Turret Arch through the North Window for a beautifully composed shot.

As another option, hikers can take Windows Primitive Loop Trail for an alternate view of the North and South Windows. 

Truth be told, all the trails are all scenic in this section of Arches National Park!

Hike the Double Arch Trail.

low angle shot looking up to the double arch off the trail in moab.

The second trail that you must hike on this side road is the Double Arch Trail.

The Double Arch Trailhead Parking area is just a short drive from the Windows Section, so it’s great to pair these two Arches activities back-to-back. 

Set aside ample time to explore this next arch and don’t forget your camera!

This easy 0.25-mile hike begins in a cool desert forest of juniper trees. Continue on the trail until you come to the unmistakable Double Arch! There’s nothing quite like it.

Set up camp at Devils Garden Campground, if camping.

the campsite at arches national park, devils garden, surrounded by trees and red rocks.

A fun-filled day in Arches National Park is best rewarded with an overnight at Devils Garden Campground. It’s also the only campground in Arches proper.

As the only campground in Arches, you’ll want to book it well in advance online at recreation.gov

Bookings open six months in advance ($20 site fee), and so you’ll want to book as far in advance as time allows if you are trying to camp within the park. 

There are only 50 sites in all of Arches National Park for camping, and it is full pretty much every day between March 1 and October 31, when it is by reservations only.

If Devils Garden is all booked up, you may want to check out the Slickrock campground outside of the park.

Not trying to camp? Refer back to the top of the post where we suggest places to stay in Moab, and skip forward to the sunset hike in the next section. After that hike, you’ll return to your hotel.

Located right inside the park, this campground makes a perfect starting point for your next day’s adventures. The sites in this campground are all well laid out providing some shade and red rock views.

It’s also a great place for stargazing in Arches!

Take in the sunset at Skyline Arch.

skyline arch seen with brilliant colors and red rocks.

Did you think you were done for the day? No way! Arches National Park is famous for its glowing golden hour!

Right from the campground, take the short and easy walk over to the Skyline Arch. The round trip walk will be less than 0.5 miles from the trailhead.

If you have extra time, you could also tack on the short 0.3-mile hike to Sand Dune Arch, located just a short walk from the Skyline Arch. 

However, if you have to pick one, Skyline is better at sunset.

If you brought your headlamp along, stick around for the star show. The uninterrupted night sky is sure to reveal some stellar views of the Milky Way.

That’s officially all for day one. Now, it’s time to rest up for an early start!

Day 2 of your Arches Itinerary

Catch sunrise on the Broken Arch Trail.

view of an arch that looks partly broken, with a small crack in the rock, seen at sunrise.

Rise and shine!

Grab your headlamp, camp stove, instant coffee, and a breakfast bar for the trail, because this is a sunrise you will not want to miss. Mornings are hard, I know, but this will be 100% worth it.

Right from the campground (or driving in from your hotel), hop on the Broken Arch Trail

The arch is located less than a mile from the trailhead, and it offers a perfect spot to sit and brew some morning coffee as you watch the sun come up over Arches National Park. 

This is one of those great short hikes with an epic reward, especially if you time it for sunrise.

From Broken Arch, you can complete the loop to pass by Sandstone Arch on your way back to the campground or go back the way you came. The distances are about the same.

Trek through Devils Garden on one of Arches’ best hikes.

two hikers walking down a trail in the devils garden section of arches national park.

Take your time breaking down your campsite as you prepare for another day of adventure in this desert playground! 

Don’t forget to top off on water here, as refill spots can be few and far between in Arches National Park.

No trip to Arches is complete without a hike on the Devils Garden Trail. Within only 2 miles of hiking, you will pass by a dozen natural sandstone arches, including Landscape Arch.

Landscape Arch is the longest sandstone arch in the national park, stretching nearly 300 feet across. 

It looks impossibly thin at points — its thinnest section is only 6 feet across — which is wild when you consider its size!

This is a good hike to do earlier in the day before temperatures become too hot (hence the name Devil’s Garden!).

With detours to grab a closer look at some of the arches, the total distance on this hike becomes about 5 miles — so it’s not for the faint of heart. 

Be prepared to tackle this hike and bring lots of water, preferably in a Camelbak for easy access.

To amp up the difficulty, you can tack on the Double O Arch, also accessible off the Devils Garden Trail. 

However, this is on the hard side of moderate difficulty, so be sure to be prepared with proper footwear and water. 

Note that this is not for the faint of heart as there is quite a bit of drop in some sections of the hike, as well as some sections where you need to scramble and do some wayfinding.

Whatever hiking adventure you choose, return to the parking area to find some shade and a cool drink of water!

Take a scenic drive to the beautiful Fiery Furnace Viewpoint.

lots of beautiful red rocks at the fiery furnace viewpoint in arches

On the main road headed toward the park entrance, there is a parking area for the Fiery Furnace Viewpoint. 

From here, you can get an epic view into the thick fins, hoodoos, and arches of this area.

To hike in Fiery Furnace, you must obtain a permit from the visitor center or join in on a ranger-led hike (I recommend this latter option). 

You can book a ranger-led hike on recreation.gov: note that you need to book at least 4 days in advance, and it’s suggested to book several weeks ahead if possible as these are all small groups of no more than 25 people.

Note that since there are no maintained trails through Fiery Furnace, it’s easy to become disoriented and lost — another reason a ranger-led hike is a fabulous idea.

Visit Delicate Arch for sunset.

sunset at the scenic and iconic delicate arch with sunset colors and mountains in the distance.

We saved the most iconic arch in Arches National Park for last! You will probably recognize Delicate Arch from the many social media snaps of it, and even from Utah’s license plate!

To reach the trailhead, continue on the main road toward the park entrance until you reach the turn for Wolfe Ranch / Delicate Arch Viewpoint Road on the left. 

Continue down the side road and park at the Wolfe Ranch Parking Area — this is where you’ll start your hike to Delicate Arch.

The hike to Delicate Arch is a little challenging and requires hikers to follow the cairns marking the trail to avoid getting lost. 

However, there are usually a fair number of hikers here, so it’s hard to get too lost.

Take your time and be observant. At 3 miles round trip, this hike is well worth the close-up view of the arch!

Say goodbye – for now – to Arches at the pristine Panorama Point.

one last look at arches national park before finishing up this itinerary

Take one last good look at Arches National Park from Panorama Point.

This is the perfect place to reminisce and plan your next Utah adventure — trust me, there will be another one!

Take one last good look at Arches National Park from Panorama Point.

This is the perfect place to reminisce and plan your next Utah adventure — trust me, there will be another one!

Have More Time in Arches National Park?

the red rocks of tower arch in a more remote park of arches national park, seen shortly after sunrise in the morning light

This is already a fairly ambitious Arches National Park itinerary, but if you’re a fast hiker who doesn’t spend a lot of time soaking up views or photographing, you may want to tack on a few additional hikes in the park where it makes sense.

You may also want to keep these in your back pocket in case the crowds of Arches start to get to you: these are lesser-visited and a bit off the tourist path, though they are by no means a secret.

Here are a few additional arches in the park worth the hike!

Tower Arch: A moderate 2.7-mile roundtrip hike in a more secluded section of the park — this is great if you’re tiring of the crowds on the more on-the-beaten-path part of Arches and want to make a detour to shake off the crowds.

Pine Tree Arch & Tunnel Arch: These can easily be added onto a hike to Landscape Arch while hiking the Devils Garden section of the park. These are less-visited than some of the other arches in the section, but the Devils Garden area is still rather popular, so don’t expect total solitude.

Additionally, you can add some more fun activities in Moab, like this sunset cruise on the Colorado River, a half-day rafting tour, or a 4WD tour in Hell’s Revenge.

Where to Go Before or After Arches National Park

Allison visiting Mesa Arch in Canyonlands national park sitting in the middle of Mesa Arch

Arches National Park is often visited in conjunction with other incredible Utah bucket list destinations.

If you base yourself in Moab, you’ll likely also want to visit Canyonlands National Park (where you’ll find Mesa Arch — contrary to popular belief, this arch is not in Arches!).

You’ll also want to spend at least a half-day exploring Dead Horse Point State Park, where the Colorado River bends beautifully in a way similar to Horsehoe Bend in Arizona.

People often spend a few days in Salt Lake City before making their way to Arches, but you can also do this in reverse.

Other stops people often make include Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, and Capitol Reef National Park. 

I’ve included all of these on my one-week Utah Mighty 5 road trip itinerary, so if you are planning a longer stay, be sure to read that post!

I also have a post that combines all the best Utah attractions with some stops in Arizona like the Grand Canyon as well as Nevada in this Southwest USA itinerary.