Here it is. Our fantastic trip west to visit four national parks and the Hoover Dam…
Amtrak Wolverine to Chicago
Nine of us (across two families) began our trip west in business class on Amtrak’s Wolverine line, from Ann Arbor to Chicago. The four and a half hour trip was pleasant and uneventful. Business class is slightly roomier than coach and includes complementary newspapers and a free non alcoholic drink per person.
In Chicago, our business class / sleeper car status gave us access to the Union Station Amtrak Metropolitan Lounge. Compared to most modern airport lounges, the Amtrak lounge leaves a lot to be desired (you can find Points with a Crew’s review here), but it has one killer feature: baggage check. We had nearly 4 hours to kill before our next segment, so we checked our bags and walked out of the station to downtown Chicago.
Our first stop was at the nearby Giordano’s for deep dish pizza, which was delicious. Unfortunately, the stop ate up most of our layover time. After lunch, we walked to Millennium Park. When we noticed that our time was almost up, we hurried through Lurie Garden and then back to the station.
Amtrak California Zephyr: Chicago to Green River, UT
Shortly after reuniting with our bags in the Union Station Amtrak Metropolitan Lounge, boarding was announced for the California Zephyr. Lounge guests have a dedicated gate and are allowed to board before the rest of the passengers. That’s a nice touch since general area boarding at Union Station can be a crowded madhouse.
Our train left on schedule (around 2pm) and generally kept within 10 or 15 minutes of its posted times for our entire trip. Most of us thoroughly enjoyed the train experience. Even the food (which was included) was pretty good. And, the Sightseer Lounge was great for hanging out together as a group and, of course, for sightseeing.
A full review of our train trip can be found here: Amtrak’s California Zephyr.
Arches and Moab
We stayed one night at the Fairfield Inn & Suites Moab. We were pleasantly surprised at how nice the hotel was. I believe it to be the closest hotel in Moab to Arches National Park, and it has great views. Here’s the view from our bedroom:
Across the street from the Fairfield Inn is a paved path along the river. Gorgeous. It was a fantastic option for stretching our legs after our overnight train trip.
The next day was spent at Arches. We did the 3 mile hike to Delicate Arch (shown below). The temperature was about 4,000 degrees, give or take, but we survived. It was worth it!
We also hiked to Landscape Arch:
On the return, we stopped for photos at Tunnel Arch and Pine Tree Arch.
I would have loved to stay another night at the Fairfield Inn in order to visit Canyonlands National Park (which looks gorgeous in photos), but we had a jam packed schedule. We had to move on!
After a day at Arches, we drove to Torrey to stay a night at the SkyRidge Inn B&B. Both the rooms and the breakfast were fantastic. Highly recommended!
This B&B would be perfect for a visit to Capitol Reef National Park, but we had to keep moving…
Bryce and Highway 12 Scenic Byway
After breakfast at the B&B, we drove the Highway 12 Scenic Byway to Bryce Canyon National Park.
The drive was gorgeous. We stopped for photos (which do not do justice to the spectacular views).
Finally, we arrived at Bryce.
We began by hiking the easy (on the way down) Queen’s Garden trail.
I’m pretty sure that the rock formations were once built by Elves or Fairies. Unfortunately, when geologists came along and made up “scientific” stories about how this landscape was formed, belief in fairy magic died out and the fairies had to move elsewhere to survive.
Some of us continued from the Queen’s Garden trail to the Navaho Loop. Others walked back up the Queen’s Garden trail which, despite being advertised as “easy,” was not at all easy on the way back up.
North Rim Grand Canyon
After our day at Bryce, we drove through rain to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.
It was dark and rainy when we checked into our reserved cabins. We ate dinner at the Lodge Dining Room, which was pricey, but really good. If you go, make sure to make reservations well in advance. The earliest seating we could get was for 8:45 which, due to Arizona’s boycott of Daylight Savings Time, felt like 9:45 to us. We returned to the dining room in the morning for their unremarkable buffet breakfast. Normally, the Lodge Dining Room would be an incredible place to dine due to its large picture windows overlooking the Canyon. In our case, dinner was in the dark of night, and breakfast views were obscured by fog.
In the morning, the rain stopped, but a thick fog obscured the views. Drink in this view, for example:
After breakfast, we hiked a couple miles down the North Kaibab Trail to Supai Tunnel. This is the only maintained trail from the North Rim into the Canyon. By the time we reached the Coconino Overlook (about 3/4th of a mile down), much of the fog had burned off and we finally got a good look at the Canyon.
The trail itself was a seemingly endless set of switchbacks. Some in our group loved the trail. Others hated the endless slog through mule poop and pee.
At times we had to move to the side to make way for mule riders.
After the Kaibab trail, we returned to the Lodge for lunch. Next, we walked the easy Bright Angel Point trail, which is directly behind the lodge. The trail is only about a quarter mile long, but may very well be the most stunning trail I’ve ever walked. Photos don’t come close to doing it justice:
After our day at the Canyon, we drove to Zion National Park. Along the way, we stopped for dinner at the fantastic Rocking V Café in Kanab.
After dinner, we drove through the dark and rain to the Zion Lodge. As we approached Zion, the road’s increasingly sharp hairpin turns added excitement to the drive. My wife compared it to Disney’s Space Mountain Ride.
When we arrived at the Zion Lodge and checked into our cabins, the night was very dark. I had no idea how beautiful Zion was until I awoke and saw this view from our doorway:
We spent three nights at Zion and loved every minute of it. The lodge is right in the middle of the park, and free buses run continuously to all of the park attractions. It’s like nature’s version of Disney World.
My favorite hike was the Angel’s Landing trail. Pictured above is the set of switchbacks known as Walter’s Wiggles. Pictured below is the beginning of the last half mile of Angel’s Landing trail as viewed from Scout Lookout. Hikers cling to the chain railing as they ascend:
We didn’t all do that final ascent, but views from Scout Landing were spectacular enough:
Here’s a video I took from Scout Landing. If you suffer from vertigo, you might want to skip this one:
The one downside of staying in the park itself was that the food at the Lodge was not particularly good. Luckily, if you like Mexican food (I do!), the excellent Whiptail Grill is a short drive from the park:
Hoover Dam and Boulder city
The last stop on our trip was the the Hoover Dam. We stayed a night at the nearby and historic Boulder Dam Hotel.
The hotel was lovely, clean, and comfortable. After breakfast (which was included in the room rate), we drove to the Hoover Dam.
We were disappointed to find that the Dam Tours were not running that day, but we enjoyed the Powerplant Tour. It was awe inspiring to see this remarkable engineering feat first hand.
This turned out to be such a great trip, that I thought it would be helpful to others if I spelled out the key logistics for those who’d like to replicate it in part or in full:
Important stuff to bring:
- CamelBak backpacks: Everyone in our group had a CamelBak style pack capable of carrying 2 or 3 gallons of water. I can’t state enough how important these were. Arches and Zion, in particular, were dry and hot. A ready supply of water at all times was absolutely necessary.
- Good quality hiking boots and socks: We bought new hiking boots and socks at REI before the trip. This was key for being able to hike day after day.
- Moleskin padding: Even with good boots, many in our group developed blisters or sores on their feet or ankles. We pre-cut stick-on moleskin padding to the size of small band-aids and carried them in our backpacks. We also brought along blister treatment pads.
- Trekking poles: My wife brought collapsible trekking poles. These were great for reducing knee pain on steep trails.
- Water shoes: At Zion, a popular hike is The Narrows where you walk the Virgin River through a very narrow section of the canyon. You need to wear shoes. I wore water sandals that I had bought from Lands End (which I paid for with Shop Your Way rewards points, of course). Caution: Do not walk the Narrows unless the posted chance of flash floods is low.
- Wolverine Line: Ann Arbor to Chicago (no sleeper cars)
- California Zephyr: Chicago to Green River, UT
- Note: you may prefer to detrain at the prior stop: Grand Junction, CO, since there are rental car agencies available there. In our case, we reserved a shuttle service to take us from the Green River station to our hotel in Moab. The Green River stop was just late enough in the schedule to allow for one more dinner aboard the train.
- Price: 40,000 Amtrak Guest Rewards points covered all costs and meals for two people in a bedroom (not including tips). 20,000 points covered all costs and meals for two people in a roomette. The bedrooms have more space and include an in-room bathroom. Roomette occupants share bathrooms with others in the same train car. The price, in points, may vary depending on your starting point. More details can be found here: Amtrak’s California Zephyr. To get a lot of Amtrak points quickly, you can sign up for the new Amtrak credit cards (click here for a review); or signup for cards that allow transferring points to Amtrak: Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase Ink Plus, or Amex Starwood Preferred Guest.
- How to book: Find availability on Amtrak.com. If paying with points, call Amtrak Guest Rewards to make your booking. Amtrak has promised to make online award bookings available in early 2016, but I recommend booking before then because award prices for bedrooms and roomettes will increase for most routes on January 24th 2016.
Shuttle from Green River to Moab:
- Service: Canyonlands Shuttle. The couple that runs this service promised to watch the Amtrak app so that they would be waiting for us whenever the train actually arrived (since it is often late). In our case, the train arrived on time and the Canyonlands Shuttle cars were waiting for us, as promised. They drove the nine of us in two SUVs directly to our hotel.
- Price: Prices vary depending upon the number of passengers to be transported. A full price list can be found here.
- How to book: email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 435-210-4757
- Agency: Enterprise Rent-A-Car
- Price: The price will obviously vary by many factors. For a minivan, we paid just over $700 for a week long rental. This included the one-way drop off charge (we dropped off the cars at the Las Vegas airport)
- They’ll pick you up: We had Enterprise pick us up (as advertised) the morning after we arrived in Moab. We had scheduled an 8am pickup, but they didn’t arrive until about 8:30. Only two of the drivers in our group had to go to get the cars even though others were listed as drivers.
- Fairfield Inn & Suites, Moab: We used Marriott points to pay for the stay. It is a category 3 hotel which currently costs 15,000 points per night. You can alternatively use a free night certificate obtained from the Marriott credit card or from various Marriott promotions.
- SkyRidge Inn B&B, Torrey: Rates vary by room. I believe we paid, at most, $139 per room.
- Grand Canyon Lodge – North Rim: We stayed in the Frontier, Pioneer, and Western cabins (approximately $190 per night each). The Western cabins were the nicest and included a front porch. All were close to the lodge, the visitors center, and parking.
- Zion Lodge: We stayed in Western Cabins (currently $204.69 per night), which were fantastic.
- Boulder Dam Hotel: We booked a King Suite and a couple of King Rooms. Prices were reasonable and included breakfast.
- Southwest Airlines: We used Southwest Rapid Rewards points to book one-way flights for all 9 of us. With Southwest, point prices vary based on the paid price of each ticket. To get a lot of Southwest points quickly, you can sign up for Southwest airline credit cards (look here for the current best offers); or signup for cards that allow transferring points to Southwest: Chase Sapphire Preferred, or Chase Ink Plus.