Road Trip: Getting started and LA to Zion National Park

I’ve always wanted to go on a cross-country road trip. Well.. I didn’t do that BUT I did go on a road trip. One day I’ll do a cross-country road trip but this time around, budget, time, and driving partner limited where I could go. After camping in Yosemite, I made my way back to LA to meet up with a friend and embark on a 10 day journey. Our plan was to go camping and hiking in southern Utah and Big Sur.

Ultimately, we went from LA -> Las Vegas -> Zion National Park -> Bryce Canyon National Park -> LA -> Big Sur Coast -> Atascadero -> LA.

In this post I’ll be covering the first leg of our trip  from LA to Zion National Park cover the rest in future posts.

Ideally, we would’ve gone from northern California all the way down to LA, through Las Vegas, and then to southern Utah, but we had to switch things up a bit, hence, our crazy itinerary. For one thing, we had to rent a car and the cost of renting a car and dropping it off in a different location than the one we picked it up bumped rental prices a significant amount. We were on a budget and didn’t want to spend a few extra hundred dollars to be able to drop off our rental car in different locations. Therefore, LA ended up being our pick-up and drop-off point. The other reason why our itinerary was so jumbled was the timing in which we were traveling. Summer is a busy time at National Parks and we originally had a different itinerary but had to switch things around based on our ability to get reservations for accommodations. We traveled from June 24 to July 4 which is right during peak season so costs of just about everything but gas was inflated.

Anyways, here’s my guide (and experiences) if you’re looking to do a small road trip like the one I did.

Rental Car aka a pain in the butt

We did quite a bit of online shopping to find the best deals for rental cars which is not an easy feat. There are so many companies out there and it’s not easy to tell if there are any extra fees until you actually pick up the car.

We initially went with U-Save rental cars at LAX. My friend was flying into LAX and was planning on picking up the rental car, getting me, and then starting on our journey. Things, of course, did not go as smoothly as planned. First of all, the U-Save location near LAX was impossible to find and since my friend was flying from Canada, he didn’t have data on his phone so couldn’t simply GoogleMap it. After getting on a shuttle and hoping for the best, he eventually found the office which was hidden and not well marked only to be told that they had no cars available for us. After going to another location, he was told that his Canadian insurance wouldn’t work and would need to purchase their insurance policy. Apparently Canadian car insurance will be okay in certain states but not in California. We didn’t know until we tried renting a car.

My friend ended up trying other rental car companies to see if he could somehow haggle for better deals. He eventually came upon Nu Car Rentals but still had to purchase insurance. The car we drove was a 2015 Hyundai Elantra.

So if you’re renting a car here’s some of my advice:

  •  Be sure to do a really good job checking and noting any scratches or imperfections on the car.
  • Check if you can purchase an insurance policy beforehand or if your insurance policy will work with the rental company. Oftentimes you can find cheaper insurance than what the rental company offers. In our case, we didn’t know Canadian insurance wouldn’t work in California.
  • Check where you’re allowed to drive your rental car. Some car companies limit where you can drive the car and if you’re crossing state lines, you’ll want your rental car to be able to come with you. We weren’t technically allowed to go into Utah with our rental car but since we had no choice, we did anyways and luckily weren’t penalized. You never know though so check ahead of time.

All in all, we paid about $400 for 10 days. Car rental rates range depending on how far in advance you book and how long you’ll need the car for.

So after about 5 hours of dealing with car rental companies and picking me up in Santa Monica, we were finally on our way to Las Vegas.

Stopping in Las Vegas

The drive from LA to Zion National Park is about 7 hours (longer or shorter depending on LA traffic). Since we knew we’d be getting a late start driving, we planned to stay a night in Las Vegas to break up our drive. I’m glad we did, too. We originally thought we’d be well on our way by 3 p.m. which would’ve given us some time to explore Las Vegas. Instead, we didn’t end up leaving LA until about 6:00 p.m. We got to our hotel in Las Vegas pretty late and, although, didn’t get to spend a night out on the town in Vegas, were glad to have a place to rest our heads in between driving.

Sleeping in Vegas

Since we were arriving in Vegas on a Friday, hotel prices were more expensive. I did a lot of searching around for the best deals and decided to try my luck with hotwire.com. Hotwire is a discount travel site that does not identify the company until after you’ve purchased. It sounds sketchy but I’ve used the site in the past and have gotten pretty good deals at some really good hotels. Just pay attention to the descriptions and filter your search as needed. All sales are final on hotwire as well so there’s no going back once you’ve made your purchase whether you’re happy with your hotel or not.

I always look for places that have about an 80% recommendation and 3 star hotels. This time around though I was having a hard time finding a good place to stay within my budget so I had to widen my search to 2 star-rated hotels and up. We ended up staying at the Baymont Inn and Suites which is right next to the Las Vegas airport and a short drive away from the Las Vegas Strip. Normally, I would like to stay on the strip but since we had a car and parking is free everywhere in Vegas, I didn’t mind being a short drive away from the main stretch. In any case, it didn’t matter since we didn’t have time to do much in Vegas because of our late arrival.

For a one night stay, the Baymont Inn and Suites was find at $85/night. There are definitely cheaper hotels available in Vegas but I was okay with spending a little more for free breakfast and nicer rooms. Our room was clean and the beds were comfy. The breakfast was super basic with cereal, fruit, yogurt, and waffles but satisfied our appetite.

We did spend the morning and ate lunch on the strip. Parking is free everywhere so you can just choose a casino and park in the lot and walk around. Vegas is ridiculously hot though so we did as little outside walking as possible. Once we had our fill of Vegas, we were on our way again to Zion National Park.

Zion National Park

If you want to go to Zion National Park during the summer months, plan as far ahead of time as possible. We didn’t confirm travel plans until pretty late so it was really difficult finding places to stay with only a month out. There are 3 campsites and a lodge within the park itself as well, but of course, those fill up pretty quickly.

Where to stay

If you can’t stay within the national park, Springdale is literally a step outside of Zion. Most places in Springdale run along the free shuttle  bus to the park so it’s convenient to get to the park. There aren’t many places in Springdale to stay but if you can, it’s pretty awesome because 1. It’s beautiful and 2. You’re right outside the park.

Unfortunately for us, every place in Springdale was completely booked or way above our budget by the time we were looking for places to stay. We decided to stay in nearby Hurricane, which is a 45 minute drive outside of Zion National Park. We stayed at the Super 8 in Hurricane at about $75/night. Our room was a little musky when we first arrived but once we aired out the room a bit, it was fine. Overall, the rooms were clean, albeit a bit outdated. Our room included a microwave and fridge which was nice to have. The Super 8 also had free breakfast which was very basic (cereal and waffles).

What to do in Zion

First of all, I would suggest downloading the Zion National Park app and downloading the offline maps. I used the app to plan out what hikes we wanted to do before we got to Zion.The app provides good descriptions on all the hikes in the park.

We spent a total of 3 nights in the Zion National Park area and did the following things in the park:

  • Pa’rus trail. We had a bit of a late start driving from Las Vegas to Zion so we didn’t have much time to spend in Zion the first day. We did , however, walk along the Pa’rus trail in the evening and spent some time soaking our feet in the river which was really nice.
  • Angel’s landing. One of the most famous hikes in Zion. It’s strenuous and exposed so be prepared. This hike is is 5.4 miles and will take you about 4 hours, out and back, to complete. It’s steep all the way through with the last half mile being the most intense since it’s very steep, narrow, and along the ridge. It can get especially crowded since much of the last stretch of the hike only has room for one person to pass at a time. Keep in mind, proper etiquette on this hike. There were a bunch of instances while I was on the hike where people tried passing in very dangerous parts of the hike, climbing around or racing past us. Wait your turn and don’t pass someone unless it’s safe to do so and the people you are passing feel safe that you are passing them. We started this hike at about 10:30 a.m. and finished the hike at an incredibly hot and sunny part of the day. I would recommend starting this hike early to avoid the heat and sun.
  • The Narrows. The infamous Narrows hike. There are a number of ways to hike the Narrows. 1. Out and back. 2. Top down (requires permit). We did the traditional out and back hike. We hiked about 2 hours in before we decided to turn back but you could walk for a total of 10 miles roundtrip if you wanted to hike the entire stretch that’s allowed without a permit. This hike is nice and cool so it was a nice break away from the southern Utah heat. You’ll be in the water for most of this hike. When we did the hike, the water was always at least to my  knees and as high up as lower torso. Water levels differ at different times of the year so keep a look out. Flash floods are also common in this area so check the weather before doing this hike. I wore tennis shoes and wore a swimming suit under my clothes. I also kept my phone in a ziplock bag to keep it dry in case I fell in the water.
  • Lower Emerald Pool. This is an easy hike. It’s 1.2 miles roundtrip and will take you 1 hour to complete. We wanted to fit an easy hike into our day after we completed the Narrows and chose this one. The pool was almost completely dry and the waterfall was pretty unimpressive but I could imagine there being more water earlier in the summer. There was, however, a very nice mist at the end of this trail before it connects to the Kayenta and Upper Emerald Pool trails.
  • Swimming in the Virgin River. Zion is very hot in the summer time so I love that the Virgin River is super accessible from many parts of the trail. We went swimming several times in the river to cool off. There are river access signs throughout so keep a lookout if you want to cool off in the river. One of my favorite moments was finding a really cool river access point that was sunny, secluded, and deep enough to dip our entire bodies in the water.

Outside of the park in Springdale there are a lot of restaurant options and shopping if you need a break from all the outdoor activity. If you’re staying in Hurricane, I would suggest eating in Springdale. Eating options were super limited in Hurricane (especially on Sunday).

All in all, I loved Zion and would definitely go back there. In the next post, I’ll cover the Zion to Bryce Canyon National Park portion of my road trip.

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