With the coronavirus spreading, my son quickly packed up his college dorm room and we hit the open road without a plan
Los Angeles to Denver Road Trip, via Grand Canyon & Moab, Utah
3 days/2 nights – 1300 miles – 21 hours driving
My son Charles was at college in Los Angeles in March 2020 when he found out his college was moving online for the rest of the semester. He was asked to move out of his campus apartment by the end of the week and he would need to bring his car, and belongings, back to Denver, where we live. We didn’t want him driving alone so we scrambled to plan an impromptu road trip from Los Angeles to Denver.
Over breakfast on Saturday morning, with Charles on speaker, we made a rough plan, and were on a plane to Los Angeles at 5 pm, armed with wipes and hand sanitizer. (This was before masks were advised.)
We were on a plane to L.A. the same day
I should mention that when it comes to travel, I am a planner. Possibly an over-planner. And we were going to L.A. with nothing booked except the flights. Charles had to be home for online classes and reliable internet in just a few days, and we wanted to make the most of the opportunity to explore the southwest U.S. along the way.
Road Trip Los Angeles to Denver - Google Map
L.A. to Kingman, Arizona
We landed in L.A. and went directly to Charles’ campus apartment at Loyola Marymount University. Two of his roommates were there and the boys talked about how uncertain their plans now were; internships, summer projects and travel, everything was in flux. I felt badly for the kids – college is such a special four years and it passes quickly.
After a quick dinner stop, we hit the road that evening as we didn’t have a hotel booked in L.A. If you are planning to spend a few days in L.A. I’ve written a guide to the iconic neighborhood of Venice Beach: where to stay, my favorite restaurants and all the fun activities under the California sun.
There’s something special about the bright lights of L.A. at night. We headed east out of the city to connect to Interstate 40. This stretch of the drive is a part of the historic U.S. Route 66, which ran between L.A. and Chicago. We drove east into an inky night sky. If we had more time, we would have stopped at Joshua Tree and Joshua National Park. This is an ideal addition to the route; it would have only added 30 minutes to our drive time.
We reached Kingman, AZ around midnight and checked in to the Springhill Suites. If you are traveling with teens or kids, and want the affordability of a single room I think the setup of a suite works well. My younger son Nate was also traveling with us; he was 16 at the time. The suite came with two beds and a pullout – so more space for everyone to spread out and have their own bed.
Kingman to Grand Canyon, South Rim
If you have time before you leave Kingman, the White Cliffs Wagon Trail is about a mile from town; the wheel tracks etched in stone here date from the late 1800’s. I read about this too late, unfortunately. It’s one of the few wagon trails remaining in the U.S. and I would have loved to see it.
If you aren’t in a hurry, breakfast at Grandpa’s Kitchen is popular with the locals, so you’ll get a taste of Kingman, and the Chicken Fried Chicken. The chicken was delicious and exceptionally rich. The gigantic breakfast burritos were tasty as well. It was a fun place for breakfast and humming with energy that Sunday morning.
A diner breakfast or lunch is a great way to experience a place. People tend to be friendly, so it’s a chance to chat with the locals. Ask for tips and suggestions.
After breakfast, we began the long drive to our next stop, the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. If you left L.A. early enough, you could skip the stay in Kingman and drive the nine hours to the Grand Canyon. Arriving at the Grand Canyon the first day enables you to stay overnight there and tour it at sunset and again early the next morning. Early morning is the best time to avoid the lines. In spring, only the South Rim of the canyon was open. The North Rim is typically open May 15 – October 15.
Grand Canyon, South Rim
We arrived at the Grand Canyon in the afternoon and passed quickly through the gate (cost $35 per car). Parking lots were very full but we were able to find a spot which felt like a victory. This is not always the case and a shuttle runs from March 1 which allows you to park at the Tusayan visitors area, about seven miles from the main viewing area — recommended during high season.
(A note on the navigation to the Grand Canyon: use Google maps rather than Waze, which would have sent us 40 minutes out of the way.)
There are also restaurants and hotels at Tusayan. If you prefer to drive into the park as we did, you should go early. Lines typically form from 10 am and parking lots fill up not long after. (All this information pertains to the south rim, I haven’t visited the north rim.)
From the main visitors center you’ll have access to the Mather Point viewing platform, along with everyone else. Some day hikes are accessible from here as well. We didn’t have time for hiking sadly, as it was a gorgeous spring day. Too bad we are “short on time” was emerging as the theme of this road trip. (Also note that the water fountains are not operational at the visitors center this time of year, so if you plan to hike, come with water.)
A vast panorama and a mile down to the Colorado River
Mather Point Viewing Area
My husband had visited Grand Canyon as a teenager but it was the first time for the boys and I. We reached the platform which was quite crowded and there was a line of people waiting to climb atop a sizeable rock for a photo. I reached the handrail and looked out at the stunning panorama, cliffs like ocean waves that went on and on, with a dramatic cut a mile down to the Colorado River. It was more colorful than I imagined and the scale of it is incredible, and hard to grasp from photos. I had been feeling a little sad that morning, about the upheaval caused by the pandemic. Staring out at the vast expanse, I felt only awe and gratitude.
For me, Grand Canyon was one of those places that is even better than you imagine, the Taj Mahal in India was another. We walked around, enjoying the views. I was struck by the many colors of the canyon, lit by the afternoon sun. We attempted a family selfie and then separated to spend some time exploring.
I got my DSLR camera out and started trying to capture the beauty and colors. I was in my happy place, taking photos. I love photography but shooting in manual mode is a work in progress for me. I took a lot of photos that day but was only happy with a few. I wished I had more time to play with my camera settings. But I also just wanted to look around and enjoy the scenery.
We wrapped up our visit and turned east on to highway 64. This is also called Desert View Road, and this stretch offers stunning views as you wind along the south rim of the canyon. It is entirely different than Highway 64 heading into the canyon from the south, which offers no views at all.
There are several places to pull off and park, and get wonderful pictures with hardly any people around, compared with the designated viewing areas. We stopped and took photos at Moran Point and there were maybe two other cars. There was no fence and my husband obligingly took a few quick shots of me. There are also some picnic areas in this area — perfect for lunch with a view of a lifetime.
Where to Stay at Grand Canyon, South Rim
I had hoped we could have lunch at the El Tovar hotel, but by the time we were ready to eat, it was past 2 pm, and lunch was over. I decided that when we return, I would like to stay at El Tovar. When it was built in 1905, it was considered the most elegant hotel west of the Mississippi. It is a National Historic Landmark and sits at the canyon’s edge, so sunset views from the verandah are supposed to be spectacular.
This would require planning ahead. Grand Canyon is generally not a last-minute lodging situation, especially if you want to stay inside the park. Those hotels book up months ahead; reservations are made at Grand Canyon Lodges. Besides El Tovar, there are five other lodges in the park: Bright Angel Lodge & Cabins, Kachina Lodge, Thunderbird Lodge and Maswik Lodge. If you want to stay within the canyon, Phantom Ranch is the only option and is wildly popular. Most reservations are made more than a year ahead by a lottery system. Last minute reservations are sometimes available.
Phantom Ranch is reached by mule, raft or a hike in. Accommodation is either a dorm-style room or in a cabin for up to four people. It’s also possible to have a meal at the Phantom Ranch Canteen, if you are planning your own hiking adventure in the canyon. (Note: this requires a backcountry permit.) Add this one to your bucket list.
Accommodation outside of the park is in the town of Tusayan, where well-reviewed options include the Best Western Grand Canyon Premier Squire Inn and the Grand Hotel.
Navajo Nation, AZ
We continued east from the canyon and enjoyed the incredible scenery, waves of smaller canyons, cut into the earth all around us. We soon entered Navajo Nation where the landscape reflects its size: 27,413 square miles, the largest territory of American Indian land in North America, extending into Arizona, Utah and New Mexico. The population is more than 350,000 people. (A note that cell service was very spotty as we drove through here.)
About 40 miles from the South Rim is the small town of Cameron where we stopped for gas. We were hungry but unsure of lunch options because with no cell service, we could not do a Google search.
We were pleasantly surprised to find a charming cafe, McAlister’s Deli, next to the gas station. There was lots of choice of freshly prepared sandwiches, salads and soups. Lunch was really good.
A historic “Cameron Trading Post” is next to the deli and sells books, blankets, artwork and jewelry, by Native Americans. You can support the town’s economy by stopping here and also enjoy some small exhibits explaining the history of the trading post and the life of Navajo cowboys. There is also a motel here: The Cameron Trading Post Grand Canyon Motel, a suite-style accommodation with separate living areas and kitchenettes.
Navajo Nation, AZ to Moab, UT
From Cameron it was still 270 miles to our next stop, Moab, Utah, where we planned to spend the night. The sun melted into Arizona’s red landscape and we drove north on Highway 160. After several hours of quiet highway, we arrived at the Red Cliffs Lodge, a ranch set on a bend in the Colorado River. It’s 17 miles from the town of Moab, but I suggested it because I wanted to enjoy the beautiful river setting. I thought we could all benefit from a little nature bathing.
We had visited Red Cliffs Lodge many years earlier on a rafting trip, but had only visited for lunch that day. I had always wanted to return, so I was thrilled when we pulled in — in the dark I could see a faint sparkle of the river beyond the lodge. We checked in and picked up brown bag lunches they had saved for us, as we hadn’t stopped for dinner. Everyone was tired — ok I was. So after our picnic dinner, I happily settled into the very comfy bed in our little 2-bedroom cabin by the river.
Red Cliffs Lodge, Moab
In the morning, we left the boys happily slumbering and Sean and I walked to the river in front of our cabin. The rising sun shone on the cliffs that framed the property; a row of cute cabins lined the river that took a right turn as it left the edge of the property. The cabins are perfect for a family; they have two bedrooms and a pullout couch in the living room, a fireplace, a small kitchen and a dining table. And a lovely deck that faces the river and cliffs beyond.
I took some photos and continued along to where the water was rushing over the rocks, noisy and churning white. One of my memories from our rafting trip is how shockingly cold this river is, even when the air is 90 degrees. I could have stayed all day, just watching the river go by. I wasn’t ready to return to Denver, and to the reality of life in a pandemic, whatever that meant. Come to think of it, I was ready to stay for the rest of 2020, and just wait it out by the river.
We walked around the property which has a lovely pool and horseback riding onsite, as well as nearby hiking and rafting. While not a five-star resort, I think it’s well priced given the setting and amenities, certainly compared with many ranch resorts in Colorado, which are very expensive. The dining room has gorgeous views of the Colorado River and cliffs.
The boys were stirring so we discussed breakfast. The hotel had a buffet that looked quite nice and was only $11.99, but a buffet + highly contagious virus seemed unwise, so we decided to get breakfast in town. I had heard that Giliberto’s on the main street of Moab had excellent breakfast burritos.
Also, my husband and I appreciate good coffee and Moab has it. Moab Coffee Roasters and Moab Garage Co. are next to each other on Main Street, and this tester can give a thumbs up to both. Moab Garage also has its own kombucha and interesting food options.
Moab is a mecca for mountain biking. National Geographic writes: “It’s almost impossible to overhype Moab. Its red-rock landscape is truly like nowhere else on Earth, and the best way to appreciate it is by riding it.”
It was the perfect season for a bike adventure; March through May are ideal as it’s too hot in the summer. But it had been eight years since we had last visited Arches National Park so we decided to head there instead. Our first trip to Arches was our first experience in Utah, shortly after moving to Denver from Toronto and I had fond memories.
Arches National Park
With burritos and coffee, we drove from town a few minutes to Arches National Park. We arrived around 11 am and there was already a long line to get in. It took about 30 minutes to reach the entrance gate. Arches has really grown in popularity but doesn’t have multiple entry points like some of the other parks (Entry fee is $30 a car).
Arches now operates a timed-entry system for the high season. So between April and October you will need a reservation to visit. They can be booked up to three months ahead here: Arches National Park. When I had a quick look, tickets were still widely available for the rest of summer 2023.
The nice thing about Arches is there is a lot to see by simply driving around, so even if you are short on time, it’s still really worth visiting.
As you climb the hill up to the park you begin to see the incredible sandstone rock formations, a stunning natural sculpture gallery. It’s amazing what water, ice and 100-million years of erosion can do.
Many of Arches’ famous rock formations are easily viewed from your car including the Three Gossips, Sheep Rock and Tower of Babel. A little further on is the famous Balanced Rock. There is a short 0.3 mile hike around the base of it, if you can find a parking spot.
There are over 2000 Arches here, (the largest is 306 feet wide). The most accessible arches to explore are the North and South Window Arches. Park at the windows section parking lot and take the Windows Trails to see the Turret Arch and North And South Windows Arches.
If you have time for a longer hike, head to the Wolfe Ranch parking lot to access the trailhead to Delicate Arch, the state symbol of Utah and perhaps the best known natural arch in the U.S. This trail is 3-miles roundtrip and climbs 480 feet up a slickrock slope. Along the way you can see a wall of Ute Indian petroglyphs.
Delicate Arch is one of the more popular hikes at Arches and people camp in the park to get a chance to do this hike at sunrise. This trail has no shade, so take lots of water and go early in hot weather. For a shorter hike, it’s a half a mile to the Upper Delicate Arch viewpoint.
Another worthwhile and easy hike is Park Avenue, a 2-mile walk with stunning views, close to the entrance of the park. It was a quick visit and we agreed we wouldn’t wait another eight years to return, since it’s less than six hours from Denver. I would love to camp here and hike to delicate arch for sunrise.
Moab to Denver
If you explore Arches in the morning, you are well positioned to arrive in Denver by the end of the day. As you head east along I-70 toward Colorado, the first stretch is quite flat, but you will be rewarded with beautiful views within three hours of Denver, at Colorado’s Glenwood Canyon. There are lots of places to stop for food in Glenwood Springs or carry on to the ski resort towns of Eagle or East Vail. I would avoid Vail proper as it is busier and requires exorbitant paid parking — unless you specifically want to visit Vail Village.
Another great mountain town, a little further along I-70, is Frisco. Our favorite place for brunch and lunch in town is the Butterhorn Bakery and Café. (On the weekends, you can add your name to the waitlist before you get there; the link is on the website.)
As we drew closer to home the car was quiet. We didn’t know what was ahead, beyond the fact that our dog Archie would be happy to see us. But we were returning with lovely memories of an unplanned but happy time together in one of my favorite places — the open road of the U.S. West.
Ways to Extend this LA to Denver Road Trip itinerary
* Spend a night at Joshua Tree National Park, California
* Visit Monument Valley, on the border of Arizona and Utah, in Navajo Nation. Stay at The View Hotel – reserve a cabin if you are travelling as a family.
* For a longer and luxurious experience in Moab with a price to match, check out the Sorrel River Ranch Resort & Spa. This place is HIGH on my bucket list.
*And if you are spending some time in L.A., I’ve written a guide the iconic L.A. beach neighbourhood of Venice: where to stay, reviews of my favourite restaurants and ideas for a range of fun activities.
If you have some time in Denver at the beginning or end of your road trip, you’ll find ideas for exploring the city in this guide, (including a tip by Midlife Globetrotter) – The Ultimate Denver, CO Bucket List | Redfin.
If you plan on exploring more national parks in the U.S West, you might enjoy my guide to Grand Teton National Park; it’s my favorite of the seven national parks I’ve visited!
If a glamping vacation is your kind of getaway, learn more in: Glamping in Yellowstone.
Finally, one of my favorite places in Colorado is Great Sand Dunes National Park, another terrific road trip from Denver.