With coronavirus spreading, my son quickly packed up his college dorm room, then we hit the open road
Los Angeles to Denver Road Trip, via Grand Canyon & Moab, Utah
3 days/2 nights – 1300 miles – 21 hours driving
My son Charles was on spring break when he found out his Los Angeles-based 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, so we scrambled to plan a sudden road trip from Los Angeles to Denver, where we live.
It was mid-March 2020 and Coronavirus was suddenly upending life. In the U.S., schools around the country were shutting down, New York ordered bars and restaurants closed and Northern California residents were told to “shelter in place”.
Charles had left his car in L.A. and it would need to be driven back to Denver, meanwhile, rumors were circulating that the government was considering halting domestic air travel. Over breakfast on Saturday morning we agreed he needed to go as soon as possible and our family was 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, but we were on our way to L.A. with nothing booked except the flights. Charles had to be home for online classes and reliable internet in a few days, but we also wanted to make the most of the opportunity to explore 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. I wondered if we would even be back here in the fall, dropping Charles off for his junior year.
After a quick dinner stop, we hit the road. There’s something special about the bright lights of L.A. at night.
If you are planning to spend a few days in L.A. I’ve written a guide to the iconic neighbourhood of Venice Beach: where to stay, my favourite restaurants and all the fun activities under the California sun.
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 didn’t see much as we drove east into the night. If we had more time, we would have stopped at Joshua Tree and Joshua National Park, which would have only added 30 minutes to the drive time.
We reached Kingman, AZ around midnight and stayed at the Springhill Suites. If you want the affordability of a single room I like the suite setup when travelling with older children. My younger son Nate was with us as well and he is 16. The suites come with two beds and a pullout – more space for everyone to spread out.
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 later, unfortunately; it’s one of the few wagon trails remaining in the U.S.
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.
We were wiping everything down and using a lot of hand sanitizer, which detracted a little from the enjoyment of our experience, but it was a fun place for breakfast and packed full that Sunday morning, despite increasing warnings about coronavirus.
I think 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.
After breakfast, we began the long drive to our next stop, the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. I realized I should confirm that it was still open, and was relieved that it was. This was March 15, it closed on April 1 and as of writing this, it is scheduled to reopen on June 14, 2020.
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 see it early the next morning and avoid the lines. At this time of year only the South Rim of the canyon is open. The North Rim is 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 – 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 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 get a selfie on top of a high rock. I reached the rail 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, and now 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 and struck by the many colours of the canyon, lit by the afternoon sun. We attempted a family selfie and then separated to spend a few minutes taking it in.
I got my DSLR camera out and started trying to capture the beauty and colours. I found it challenging, with the lens I had, but 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 around with my camera, but we were “short on time”.
We left the canyon turning east on to highway 64. Also called Desert View Road, this stretch offers stunning views as you wind along the south rim. It is entirely different than highway 64 heading into the canyon from the south which offers no views.
There are several places to pull off and park, and get wonderful pictures with hardly any people around, compared with the viewing areas. We stopped and took photos at Moran Point and there were maybe two other cars. There was no fence here so we stopped and my husband obligingly took a few quick shots of me. They weren’t great, and I might have asked him to take a few more, but we were “short on time.”
There are also some picnic areas along this stretch, so you could enjoy lunch with a view of a lifetime.
Accommodation at Grand Canyon, South Rim
I had hoped we could have lunch at the El Tovar hotel, but by the time were were ready, it was past 2 pm and lunch was over. I decided that when we return, I would like to stay at El Tovar. Built in 1905 it was considered the most elegant hotel west of the Mississippi at the turn-of-the-century. It is designated a National Historic Landmark and sits at the edge of the canyon, 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. Besides El Tovar, there are five other lodges located in the park: Bright Angel Lodge & Cabins, Kachina Lodge, Thunderbird Lodge and Maswik Lodge. If you want to stay within the canyon itself, Phantom Ranch is the only option and wildly popular. Most reservations are made more than a year ahead by a lottery system.
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 we had not been able to do a google search, with no cell service.
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 and lunch was very good.
The historic Cameron Trading Post is next to the deli and sells books, blankets, artwork and jewelry by American Indians. 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: 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 Moab, Utah, where we planned to spend the night. The sun melted into Arizona’s red earth 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 been here for lunch. I had always wanted to return, so I was thrilled when we pulled in; even in the dark I could see the beautiful setting. We checked in and picked up brown bag lunches as we hadn’t eaten dinner. Everyone was tired; ok I was, so after our picnic dinner, I happily settled in to the very comfy bed.
Red Cliffs Lodge, Moab
I had reserved one of the cabins which are located next to the river. They are perfect for a family; they have two bedrooms and a pullout couch in the living room, a fireplace, small kitchen and dining table. A lovely deck faces the river and cliffs beyond.
In the morning, we left the boys happily slumbering and Sean and I walked to the river in front of the cabins. The rising sun shone on the cliffs that frame the property.
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 buffet + contagious virus seemed unwise, so we packed up and left to get breakfast in town. I had heard that Giliberto’s on the main street of Moab had excellent breakfast burritos.
Also, 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 their 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, coffee and kombucha, 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). In 2022 Arches is piloting a timed-entry system for the high season. Between April and October you will need a reservation to visit; they can be booked up to three months ahead. Details are here: Arches National Park.
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 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 when you get 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 town of Eagle or East Vail. I would avoid Vail proper as it is busier and requires paid parking, unless you specifically want to visit Vail.
For us, the final couple of hours of the drive were quiet, a nice chance to decompress before we returned to Denver, and the latest coronavirus news. We didn’t know what was ahead, beyond the fact our dog Archie would be happy to see us. But we had lovely memories of an unplanned but happy time together, on one of my favourite places – the open road.
More U.S.-West National Parks
If you plan on exploring the U.S West, you might enjoy my guide to Grand Teton National Park – my favourite of the 7 national parks I’ve visited!
If a western glamping adventure is on your bucket check out: Glamping in Yellowstone.
And in Colorado, where I live, one of my favourite places is Great Sand Dunes National Park.
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.