Utah and the Big 5 National Parks
At the height of the pandemic in 2020, we did the only reasonable thing…
We packed our bags, cooked our food, iced down the beer coolers and hit the road for wide, open spaces and almost no people. It was glorious! So many people have asked about our trip and just how we did it, so buckle up for a serious dish on national parks and roadtripping with a big family. And in about 6 weeks, I’ll share this year’s national park road trip. It’s gonna be epic!
WHERE WE WENT
Mesa Verde NP (Colorado), Arches NP (Utah), Canyonlands NP (Utah), Capitol Reef NP (Utah), Zion NP (Utah), Bryce Canyon NP (Utah) and, by accident, the Continental Divide (Colorado)
LOGISTICS AND NON-NEGOTIABLES
I wrote an entire post about packing and cooking food for our family of 8. That should answer all your food-related questions. Going to church while on vacation is a non-negotiable for us. But, because most of our trip was in remote areas and there were limited choices for church, we did the next best thing. We called up the priest in Clovis, New Mexico (Fr. Michael is THE best) and he held a small communion service for our family. It was the first time we’d ever met and he was incredibly gracious. I won’t ever forget that hospitality, or his joy for the priesthood.
Mr. Whitaker is the master national park planner. He decides the itinerary, what hikes to do at the parks and where we will stay. I keep telling him he should start his own business. We buy the annual park pass (and if you have a fourth grader, it’s free!) for admittance into all the parks. He does an excellent job of breaking out hikes for bigs and littles, while I’m responsible for packing lunches, filling water buffaloes and lathering on the sunscreen. Maybe someday I’ll jump on the RV bandwagon, but for now we find Air BnBs along the route so we have access to a kitchen and washer/dryer. We wash all the clothes at each stop so when we arrive home, that chore is knocked off the list. And, because I love photos, I either bring my fancy camera and tripod for a family photo, or we hire a photographer to snap them. Flytographer is my favorite. That link gives you $25 off and if you’re wondering just how much I love them, you can check this out.
Final advice? Stop at the visitor’s center upon arrival, hit the bathroom and then ask a park ranger to review your hikes for the day. They often give excellent advice and tips you can’t find online.
OUR PACKING LIST
The kids each bring 6-7 outfits and we wash clothes during the trip. I pack the guys in one suitcase and the girls in another. We also have a smaller bag for pajamas and toiletries. Before we leave, I do a big shopping trip at Costco for snacks, drinks, beer and lunches. Then, the 2-3 days before we leave, I cook all our food for the trip and freeze it. We pack one “frozen” YETI cooler with dry ice and all the pre-cooked food and two smaller YETIs with drinks in one and refrigerated items in the other. It’s down to a science now since we’ve done this so many times! Everybody has a water backpack for hiking (so much better than water bottles), lots of sunscreen and snacks. In the van we pack a first aid kit, baby wipes, a couple of old towels, plastic cups, car bingo and each kid can bring a backpack of books/toys/etc.
MESA VERDE NATIONAL PARK
During the pandemic, many of these areas were closed, but the kids still got to see some cool stuff. Keep in mind, this one has a long drive in, so account for that. We got there in the late afternoon and while it was super hot, the lighting was pretty great. It’s still hard to believe how well preserved the ancestral Puebloan archaeological sites really are. It’s mind-blowing, honestly. We absolutely loved it here.
CANYONLANDS NATIONAL PARK
Our original plan was to rent two JEEPs and hit some awesome trails deep in the canyon. It’s still #toosoon to share how the rental place lost one of our reservations (each JEEP only seats 4 people) so one vehicle did us no good. I don’t want to share the name of that rental company, but I can tell you who you SHOULD rent from: Moab Adventure Center! The views are just stunning here. We did a few small hikes and took some spectacular photos. The cool thing about Moab, Utah, is that both Canyonlands and Arches are just a few minutes away with easy access. And, it’s a cute little town.
ARCHES NATIONAL PARK
Who hasn’t heard of this place? I mean, it made the Utah license plate! This was definitely a family favorite. Yes, we hiked to delicate arch (at sunset) and it was a beat down. But worth it. So many family inside jokes after that hike. We ended up doing the evening hike to delicate arch, took a quick drive over to Devil’s Garden right at sunset (wow) and caught the moon at Balanced Rock. The next morning we hit some of the popular arches (Sand, Skyline, Double and Landscape) and Park Avenue. Yeah, we hit our 10,000 steps in case you’re wondering.
CAPITOL REEF NATIONAL PARK
Honestly, we all thought this would be a quick “pass through” park on our way from Moab to Zion and Bryce. I’m happy to say we were wrong. It’s the only national park with a functioning orchard (yes, you can pick fruit there!) and a little bakery on site that lets you enjoy homemade pies. Originally founded by Mormons, the city of Fruita has some stunning views. Our only regret is that we didn’t spend enough time here! After leaving the park, we hopped on Scenic Highway 12 (Grand Staircase-Escalante) and holy cow. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.
BRYCE CANYON NATIONAL PARK
The hoo doo’s were worth it, even if I felt like there was some false advertising on Thor’s Hammer. Where was Thor?! Our big hike was Queen’s Carden, then Navajo Trail, finishing on Wall Street. That’s definitely the way to do it because the end of the hike you’re in the shade, even if you are huffing and puffing! This was the day I didn’t drink enough water and it caught up with me. Moral of the story, DRINK WATER.
ZION NATIONAL PARK
Due to COVID, the shuttles required a reservation (which we secured) and many of the trails like Angel’s Landing, were closed. Of all the parks we visited, Zion was the smallest and the busiest which meant it was pretty congested. The key to all the parks, however, is arriving early. It makes all the difference. Scott took the bigs up part of the Narrows while I stayed back and skipped rocks with the littles. This park was the family favorite, but just barely. Truly, every single park in Utah is worth the stop. And then some.
Trust me when I tell you that this trip was full of providence. Because of the closures in New Mexico, we bypassed the state on our way home and drove throgh Colorado instead. Our original plan was to head straight across the state on the interstate and then down into Texas. That was, until the interstate closed due to fires. We turned the van around and ended up on the most scenic highway of our lives, which led us straight to THIS. The kindest family sent us a DM and we found ourselves the loveliest place to stay in their home on our way back to Texas.
And that, y’all, is our epic trip to Utah during a global pandemic!
I am always in awe of your family vacations. You seem to have it so well-planned and organized. Thank you for sharing all these beautiful places. Adding some to my list for future places to visit!
I loved your post! I had the pleasure of hiking Palo Duro SP in TX, Arches NP, Canyonlands NP, and Dead Horse Point SP in Utah, and Mesa Verde NP in CO with a sister, brother-in-law, nephews, and two of their girl friends. It was a challenge but I made it and I’m looking forward to our next trip. Brother-in-law wants to hike the Grand Canyon rim to rim.
Wow! What a trip! This looks amazing. I’d love more details about how you manage hiking with a wide range of ages and endurance levels, as we struggle with that with our 6 kids.
I would love to know that highway in Colorado you made your return trip on.
I’ll have to look it up!
Love these! Thanks for popping in on our St. Vincent’s Book Study Zoom last Wednesday night! What a fun surprise! I’m happy our study leaders took my book suggestion!! Oh and loving the Mahomes jersey on the little guy!!
This looks amazing! Can’t wait to read about 2021 trip
[…] made so many great memories traveling to national parks (2020 was a highlight, for sure) that it seemed more than appropriate to make his 50th birthday celebration all about […]