This is the year to take that national parks road trip you've always dreamed of: The National Park Service marks its centennial in 2016. We’ve planned the perfect road trip through the otherworldly red-rock cliffs, canyons, and spires of the Southwest, with stops at Bryce, Zion, Capitol Reef, Arches, and the Grand Canyon. Go in September and October, when the temperatures and the crowds are both tolerable, then fly into Las Vegas and out of Flagstaff, Arizona.
Zion National Park: Two days
It’s a three-hour drive from McCarran International Airport to Zion Lodge, where rocking chairs on porches and handmade Mission-style furniture in the rooms evoke summer-camp simplicity. Bonus: Guests get special permission to drive their cars into Zion Canyon. (Others need to use park shuttles between March and November.) During those months, you can rent a bicycle from the lodge and pedal along a paved road to ogle soaring sandstone walls and access Zion’s best hikes, such as the one to Angel’s Landing, a breath-snatching rock promontory offering bird’s-eye views down into Zion Canyon. After a day of exploring, retreat to the lodge’s Red Rock Grill for bison meat loaf and Navajo fry-bread tacos. Don't miss a beer at Zion Canyon Brewing Company in Springdale, the gateway town to Zion.
It's 85 miles to your next stop. Post your pics: #zionnationalpark and don’t miss homemade pie at Bryce Canyon Pines.
Bryce Canyon National Park: One day
Hike the strenuous eight-mile Fairyland Loop, which offers views of this park’s iconic rock pinnacles, called hoodoos. Then check into the Lodge at Bryce Canyon, where TVs are verboten and the canyon rim is just a five-minute walk away. The 40 newly renovated cabins feature stone fireplaces and Douglas fir flooring. After dark, drive to the park visitor center for a ranger-led astronomy program and get a closer look at planets and galaxies with high-power telescopes.
It's 78 miles to your next stop. Don’t miss: In Boulder, Hell’s Backbone Grill & Farm serves inventive organic fare.
Capitol Reef National Park: Two days
Just as stunning as neighboring parks—but with fewer paved roads and maintained trails—Capitol Reef is a lesser-known playground. Plumb golden slot canyons and slickrock domes on an off-trail day hike led by Redrock Adventure Guides. Dine on watermelon-marinated pork at Café Diablo’s outdoor patio, then move on to the Saddlery for boot-scootin’ to live Western bands. Bed down at the Lodge at Red River Ranch, a grand retreat styled after Teddy Roosevelt-era lodges—right down to the Navajo rugs, bronze cowboy sculptures, and resident bison herd. Linger over the lodge’s decadent breakfast, then pick apples at Capitol Reef’s Fruita Orchards, planted in the 1880s by Mormon settlers. Prefer pie? Buy fresh-baked fruit pastries (the six-inch size satisfies two eaters) from the Gifford Homestead and snack on them during the 2.5-hour drive to Moab, where you’ll sleep in safari-style tents at Moab Under Canvas.
Arches National Park: One day
Arches is located just north of Moab and the best approach is to start early in the day, before the sun is high in the sky. At the park entrance, first secure a $16 ticket for a ranger-led, afternoon Fiery Furnace hike through a labyrinth of sandstone fins. Then take a scenic drive past russet sandstone towers to Wolfe Ranch, starting point for the hike to Delicate Arch, Utah’s state icon.
It's 331 miles to your next stop.
Grand Canyon National Park: Four days
Head to Flagstaff to join the outfitter O.A.R.S. on its Rim to River trip, which unveils the region’s ancient puebloan ruins, stops at lesser-known viewpoints along the rim, and includes a stay at Phantom Ranch, a riverside lodge that dates back to the ‘30s at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Prefer to skip the nearly 5,000-foot climb down and back up? Opt instead for the flat, two-mile stroll from the trailhead to spectacular Shoshone Point. Spend the night at Bright Angel Lodge, where rooms and log cabins are set right along the rim and an old-fashioned soda fountain serves milk shakes.
Back to Flagstaff
Take your final stop at The Museum Club in Flagstaff. Step inside the massive, log-walled dance hall where Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings practiced their riffs and new country artists keep dancers swinging.