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The National Parks of USA in an RV
USA National Parks in an RV
Should you rent an RV (i.e. campervan, mobile home) and explore America?
This article gives travel advice for road-trips in America and details my experiences from when I took a career break and set off on a road-trip in an RV, round the national parks of the USA: Zion Park; Bryce Canyon; Canyon Lands; The Arches; Moab; Yosemite and of course Yellowstone where we saw coyotes, mountain lion, wolves...
Here is a description of the journey and some hotel and travel tips, advice and recommendations.
The Road-trip. Starting in Las Vegas
4,500 mile road-trip in a 24' long RV round the national parks of Utah, Montana, Wyoming, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona...
I am a very keen traveler, living in the U.K. I have been to many obscure places around the world and there is so much to see right on my doorstep in Europe so I wasn't really intending to explore America at the moment. I have been to the USA more than ten times, mostly on business, working for a Silicon Valley company for the last 15 years, but it was now time to take a career-break and my partner was out of work too. The weak dollar made a trip to America very tempting and I do love the national parks in the USA.
My initial plan for our 2008 adventure was to fly into the south then drive up through the US in an RV for a few weeks, through the national parks ending at Yellowstone and fly home from Denver. Unfortunately this would have cost a lot of money. We'd be far better off flying in and out of Las Vegas, to avoid the additional costs of flying into one airport and out of another, and for the drop-off fee for the RV.
We flew from London to Las Vegas in March 2008 and stayed for one night at the Planet Hollywood Casino/Hotel. I had been to Vegas once before and didn't intend to spend very long there.
Map of National Parks in USA - Map of Utah and Wyoming
Some essential travel reading
The Truck (Rental RV)
We rented the RV from Cruise America: http://www.cruiseamerica.com
for about Â£1000 ($2000) for 3 weeks. Their smallest model, based on a Ford V8 pickup truck with a huge house bolted on top. 24 feet long, 10 feet wide and 12' to the top of the air-conditioning unit. Inside the RV was very spacious, with one permanent double bed over the cabin, a double sofa-bed and the four-seater dining area converts into a third double bed, so 6 very friendly people could theoretically be accommodated. This would save us a fortune, rather than staying in expensive hotels. Cruise America provided bedding and kitchen equipment for a small extra fee of about $100 in total, and because it was our first time, gave us a briefing on how to empty the various fluid tanks. We watched a short film about what to do and what not to do, then set off. We stocked up on food and other camping supplies, and set off North.
We didn't get very far though. Cruise America, very sensibly, won't let you pick up a vehicle on the same day you arrive on a long-haul flight, so we had to wait until the following day. There is also a very expensive "early-bird" option with the RV rental costing between $200 and $400 depending on the day, to pick it up in the morning. We didn't pay this and left quite late and only got as far as Mesquite, just south of the Nevada border. We stayed in the Oasis Casino Motel (just $70 for the room), rather than camp.
It wasn't quite National Park camping experience I was hoping for: Huge numbers of keen gamblers had made the Friday night journey over the border to Nevada, where the laws allow them to feed their addiction. The motel had no other redeeming features apart from a reasonable bar and restaurant in which to while away the evening.
The National Parks: Zion Park
We continued the next day towards Utah's wonderful national parks. Our first night in the RV was at Zion National Park, in the beautiful campsite near Zion Lodge. It was just $18 for the night and for that you get a good sized parking space with a picnic table and an electric hookup to plug the RV into for lights and air-conditioning etc. but most important of all, that view. An absolutely stunning place to sit outside and watch the sun go down behind the hills, and the red soil gradually change colour. I then cooked a nice meal in the ample galley kitchen and we went to bed. We had propane heating and there was still some snow around, so it was cosy. My other half disagreed. The heating was too noisy so we had to turn it off and my cooking was too smelly and she couldn't sleep. Oh well. Only another 3 weeks to go. Zion Park has a 6 mile scenic road running through it which gives an excellent view of the scenery. Various trails are accessible along the way, and at the end of the road, a car park, viewing area and more trails. Soaring rock faces with twisted trees clinging to them and a strange surreal light. What could be more beautiful?
Bryce Canyon was our next one night stop, and really is even more beautiful than Zion. Stunning vertical columns of reddish sandstone are even more impressive than the Grand Canyon. Going in mid-March had the advantage that very few tourists had arrived yet, and seeing Bryce covered in snow is a sight few will have seen, making it perhaps even more special. Bryce has a similar setup to Zion, but the lodges inside the park didn't open for a couple of weeks (mid-March is a bit early in the season) and, rather than spending two nights in a row in the RV we opted for an hotel, Ruby's Inn, just outside the park. Bryce Canyon has another beautiful 10 mile scenic drive with several places to stop, photograph and marvel at the wonderful views.
Ruby's Inn, Bryce Canyon was the only hotel open, near-by, but also appeared to be the best option for miles around. It was ancient, by American standards, established in 1916 and still retained it's character. It is now run by Best Western, which in no way diminishes the experience. The roaring fire in the Foyer (I mean lobby) is surrounded by leather chairs and makes a wonderful place to thaw-out and read. A large, useful camping shop on one side of the lobby and a restaurant on the other provided our entertainment. There is no bar, as such, perhaps due to rather strict licensing laws in Utah, but if you ask permission from the staff, drinks purchased in the camping shop can be consumed next to the fire (I did feel rather naughty though, so we went to the licensed restaurant for a meal) The restaurant was O.K. rather than good, and provided the usual options in ridiculously huge portions. I hate wasting food, and quantity is no substitute for quality, but outside cosmopolitan cities that's the only option.
Recommended Photographic Equipment: Nikon DSLR
If you don't already have an SLR camera it would be a good idea to get one before taking a big road-trip like this, a compact camera will not get such good results, in some situations, although is more convenient. Typically a zoom lens going from wide-angle (e.g. 18mm) to telephoto (200mm or more if you want to take wildlife photos) would also be ideal.
I used a Nikon D80 and an F4S for the pictures shown on this web-site, but any of the current Nikon range will give excellent results.
I have written a more detailed recommendation of cameras here:
but here is some good kit for a road-trip:
Capital Reef to Moab and the Arches National Parks
Our journey continued through Capital Reef, another national park with similar, but still striking scenery, to Moab, Utah. The intention was to get to Moab in one day, but ended up staying in a Day's Inn in Tooley, for just $100 for the night, which was very good value for money for a good simple comfortable room and access to a child infested swimming pool, but no restaurant. There is a coffee shop next door, and a diner/restaurant a short walk up the hill nearby, where more enormous quantities of steak or chicken could be consumed. Not too bad, in fact, but extremely fast service and certainly not a relaxed experience.
Next stop was Moab, Utah, an ideal base for Canyonlands and the Arches National Parks. Two more stunningly beautiful national parks, with similar scenery, perhaps with the exception of the arches themselves (huge arches of sandstone carved out by the winds) We had perhaps seen enough of this kind of scenery, by this stage, but were certainly not bored. The town of Moab is a popular tourist destination, particularly with sporty types, with plenty of climbing, "horse-back riding" (as they say in America) and off-road driving opportunities. There are a good selection of standard American hotels and restaurants and bars. If you want a drink in a bar, you must buy some chips (i.e. fries) to get round the strict licensing laws.
Driving out of Moab, at high altitude and up hill, we managed just 4 miles per gallon and after 30 miles without seeing a petrol (i.e. gas) station we ran out of petrol. The steering became impossibly heavy as the engine cut out and I struggled to keep the monstrous truck on the road. We started walking, and we immediately picked up by a very kind man, who took us 25 miles to the first petrol station, bought 5 gallons in a plastic container and some more extremely helpful people took us all the way back to the RV. 24 miles later we ran out of petrol again within sight of the petrol station.
We drove north to Salt Lake City via Lima, a one horse town, with just a snow-covered, empty RV park to stay in, for the exorbitant price of $8 and an empty bar where frozen pizza was lovingly thawed out by the chef.
Some more reading
North American National Parks: Souvenirs etc.
And finally to Yellowstone National Park
We eventually reached Yellowstone, North Entrance, just over the border in Wyoming. The highlight of our trip. I have wanted to go there ever since seeing Yogi Bear cartoons as a child. The west & south entrances were still closed for winter and many of the roads through the park impassable due to snow. This is an important consideration if planning to go to Yellowstone during the winter. Some of the lodges are open most of the year, but most are closed in the winter. There is a two-week period in late March each year when all lodges are closed, and access to much of the park is not possible, because the roads that are usually closed all winter are being cleared and even the snowmobiles, the usual means of getting around in the winter can't be used on them. By a slight miscalculation we chose this time to arrive, so the whole place was deserted. This however turned out be a bonus. Few other tourists were there, with virtually no traffic on the north road, which remains open all year. Driving between the Gardiner, Montana, near the north entrance and Cooke City at the north-east entrance takes a couple of hours in snowy conditions and provides wonderful snowy views of the park. We saw three coyotes eating a deer, very close to the road, then a pack of 12 wolves, lots of bison, big-horn sheep...
Coyotes in Yellowstone National Park:
Wolves in Yellowstone National Park:
The one that got away... A Bobcat?:
Should you rent an RV and drive 4,500 miles through the national parks of USA? I would say yes, but unless you are very hardy don't do it until the snow has melted. Having your own kitchen means that you can have decent food in even some of the more remote parts of America, it is very inexpensive and ought to be fun for all of the family.
Yosemite, National Park, California
In a separate road-trip, from my base in San Francisco (I am from the U.K. but was working for a Silicon Valley consultancy firm) I have also explored Yosemite National Park, with it's stunningly beautiful rock formations. The most famous view in Yosemite National Park is probably that of Half Dome Mountain.