Southwest Road Trip: 13 National Parks in 3 Weeks

In Mid November 2020 we took a 3 week long trip across the country and visited 13 different national parks for my (Casey's) 40th birthday. We traveled with our 2 dogs, Hazel (cockapoo) and Johnny Rose (yes named after Schitt's Creek, a cavalier/bichon mix rescue). We live in Nashville and drove to Texas to deliver stock tanks (this is our other business. Check it out at www.stocktankpoolauthority.com). We left from Austin and drove down to Terlingua, TX in our 1996 GMC 3500 Vandura van, named Birdie. We literally finished converting this van after we arrived in Austin while we were staying with Savannah's grandparents. You can read more about our van conversion here.

The trip was epic and our itinerary changed many times. We had initially planned on driving up to the Pacific Northwest but pretty quickly realized we didn't want to drive that far with the amount of time we had. Then we planned on heading up to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, but a few days in snowy Colorado turned us back around and headed back south. Another unplanned part of the trip was that we experienced some car trouble and had to get new brake pads. I also left my wallet at a laundromat right as it was closing for the weekend so we spent 2 days in Boulder, Co waiting for this laundromat to open and praying that my wallet was still there. Thankfully it was! No epic road trip is without its drama. 

Even with the setbacks, we laughed a lot and saw some incredibly beautiful landscapes. All in all it was such an awesome trip and a great way to celebrate my birthday. Keeping reading to see what we thought of each of the national parks we visited. They are listed in the order that we visited them.




1. Big Bend National Park

This was the first national park we visited and we really enjoyed it. Going in November was great because the weather was nice and in the 70s. It is right on the border of Mexico so it can get super hot in the summer, so take that into consideration when you're planning a trip here. We loved the purple prickly pear cactuses everywhere. We actually saw a bear which was so exciting! I've been to the Great Smoky Mountains a zillion times since I grew up near there and I've never seen a bear even though it has one of the highest concentrations of bears of any national park.

We took turns walking to the Santa Elena Canyon trailhead (pictured above), and I wish we could have done the whole thing. No dogs were allowed on the trail. Also, you have to walk through water to get to the canyon so keep that in mind. The water you see in the picture above, you have to walk through that. This is a national park that isn't really close to anything else and there's not much else to do in the area, but it's worth the drive! 

We stayed at this Hicamp for 2 nights and really enjoyed our experience. The host was great and it was just minutes outside Big Bend. If you're using Hipcamp for the first time use our code: HEYWANDERER to get $10 off your first stay or click here. This is not sponsored but we do enjoy Hipcamp and it's a great way to find unique camping sites. We highly recommend checking reviews of each place though. We have booked listings that were an instant books and showed up and the host wouldn't let us in. He said he wasn't doing Hipcamp anymore even though he still had a listing. Hipcamp was great though and provided us another place to stay. So I would make sure you have some contact with the host and you read the reviews. 


2. White Sands National Park

I have to be honest this wasn't a national park that I was particularly interested in visiting. Savannah has always wanted to go and since it was on the way to our next destinations we decided to go. Ideally we'd love to visit all the national parks so we might as well go when we are near one. I'm really glad we did go! This is one of the few national parks on our trip that the dogs could walk around freely. Most national parks don't allow dogs on trails or really anywhere except parking lots and campgrounds. We got to the park right before sunset which was so great because White Sands is beautiful at sunset. You can bring sleds and sled down the sand. Also, be careful because you are literally surrounded by white sand. So it can be easy to get lost if you wander too far. We didn't spend a ton of time here but it's definitely worth the trip if you're in the area.

3. Great Sand Dunes National Park

This was another park that was visited mostly because we were near by and wanted to get this park checked off our list. However, again we really enjoyed it. There weren't a lot of people so we let the dogs run around (leashes still attached to their collars but we weren't holding on to them) and they loved that. When you drive up to the park you are surrounded by mountains and you're like- um I can't imagine there being sand dunes anywhere. Alas, they are there and surrounded by mountains. So it's a totally different landscape than the White Sands National Park. 

Would I drive out of my way just to go to this park? Probably not unless you're like us and trying to visit all of the national parks. What I will say about all of the national parks, even the ones we weren't enamored with, we're never sorry we went. They all have something to offer! 
4. Rocky Mountain National Park

This is a park I definitely want to revisit without dogs and when it is warmer. Traveling with dogs at most national parks really limits what you can do and see. I'd love to come back here and backpack around for a few days. There had recently been a fire so that limited the area we could visit. Also like a lot of national parks that have cold weather, certain parts of the park can be blocked off because of snow/ice. So in some regards visiting in the winter can be nice because there is less of a crowd, but you can miss out on some areas of the park. 

We camped nearby at Golden Gate Canyon State Park and spent our Thanksgiving there. It was such a different Thanksgiving experience but I loved it. With the pandemic going on and not being able to spend it with family, having Thanksgiving in the middle of a beautiful state park was a lovely alternative. We made some things but also picked up some pre-made foods from a nearby Whole Foods. I attempted making a lemon icebox pie that never set up even though we left it buried in the snow overnight. 

5. Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

This is probably one of the most underrated national parks. It was SO COOL and I'd love to visit again without dogs and when it's warmer. Dare I say this but I think I enjoyed it more than the Grand Canyon. A big chunk of this park was closed down because of the weather. I will say I don't think many share this love of this park- another blogger, Renee of Renee Roaming rated this park in her bottom 10 after visiting all of the national parks in one year. What did we love about it? I think it was the shear magnitude of the canyon and it seems more awe inspiring than the Grand Canyon to me. The hiking opportunities may be less and there is certainly not as many facilities as the Grand Canyon. If you're into skiing it isn't far from several skiing towns in Colorado. 

6. Arches National Park

If you follow US based van-lifers, you've definitely seen them talk about this national park. When we drove to the campsite we quickly realized why so many van-lifers love this park. The campground has an incredible view that is super IG worthy. 

Arches is a cool place but we felt it was over-hyped. However, the day we went it was so windy and cold which does have an impact. We didn't want to get out of the van because it was so cold, so that definitely affected our experience. You also can't see a lot of the famous arches without hiking to them and again, no dogs were allowed so we missed out on this. 

7. Canyonlands National Park

Another underrated park. I think Arches gets a lot of hype which is well-deserved but we enjoyed Canyonlands more. It's hard to put my finger on why exactly, and the weather could have played a big part. It was super windy and cold when we visited Arches which made going outside kinda miserable, but it wasn't windy on our day at Canyonlands. So it may not be a fair comparison. Canyonlands felt epic. There is this place (pictured above) where you can walk out and you are surrounded by the canyons. It was one of the places where you didn't feel like you could properly catch the epic-ness in a photo. 

This was not the most dog friendly park and to my knowledge there weren't any paved trails or any areas other than campgrounds and parking lots where the dogs could walk. 

8. Capitol Reef National Park

Another beautiful Utah national park. One of the thing that sticks out to me the most about this park is that it has an orchard. There are fruit trees planted everywhere and when they are in fruit, you can just pick them. I want to go back just for that! Since we visited in December, we obviously missed that. This was another glad we visited it and we got to see the overall beauty but it deserves more time. 

9. Bryce Canyon National Park

So Arches, Canyonlands, Captiol Reef, and Bryce all kind of have similar vibe/look to them BUT they are definitely unique. What I mean is that they the main attraction to these 4 parks are the terracotta colored rock formations. However, all the formations are shaped differently and the surrounding landscape is often different. But it is really cool to think that all of the 5 national parks in Utah are within 1-3 hours from each other and have similar features but they are formed so uniquely. God is truly an awesome Creator and that became very evident on this trip. Bryce Canyon's terracotta rock formations are called hoodoos.

Relatively speaking this was another more dog friendly national park. They have a trail that is paved where dogs can walk. It's nice to not have to walk the dogs in a parking lot. But don't feel sorry for the dogs, they visited so many dog parks and had plenty of time to run free. They probably spent more time outside on this trip than they do at home. 

Would I visit this park again? Yes. Would I drive just to go to this one park? No. If you're going to any of the national parks in Utah, you are so close to all the other ones, you've got to see them all. They are all worth visiting and you could do an epic road trip where you just visited all the Utah parks. 

10. Zion National Park

This was one of the national parks we most looked forward to visiting and we will definitely be going back. Not to sound like a broken record but again we'd like to go back when it's warmer and without dogs. They did have one paved trail close to the visitors center (which was closed) where dogs could walk. I will say Zion was pretty busy even though it was so cold, so I can't say I'm looking forward to going when there are even more people.

We were visiting at a time when you could take your car on the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. Most of the year, this part of the park is accessible only by shuttle. I can't even imagine how they did that in the midst of a pandemic but I am really glad we didn't have to deal with any shuttles. However, they only allow so many people on that road at a time. Our first day there, the road had already reached its limit. So your options are to keep driving back by in hopes that someone left for you to go in, or come back earlier the next day. That's what we decided to do.

Our first day there was on a Sunday so I know more people were visiting then, and we were back by 9:00 am on Monday morning. We were able to get on the scenic drive. Most of the areas that Zion is known for are accessed on this scenic road. I will say, the drive in from the east entrance is beautiful and it's much longer than the scenic drive you turn off. Since we couldn't do any of the hikes with the dogs, we really didn't miss much the day before.

With that said, the famous The Narrows hike is accessed from this road. Make sure to do you research about that hike before driving to Zion to do that. We considered boarding the dogs to be able to do this hike because it's so incredible but the water was so cold and we would have been miserable. We are definitely going back to be able to do all of the hikes we missed. This is a park that you can drive through and see a lot of beautiful things but you'll miss most of the incredible beauty the park has to offer if you don't get out and hike some of it. This park is definitely worth of a several day visit and lots of planning. 

11. Grand Canyon National Park

I'm going to say something so controversial. I think Grand Canyon is overrated. This was my second time going and it was Savannah's first and we both felt the same way. Don't get me wrong, it's incredible and beautiful and maybe we would have felt differently if we would have spent more time there. I also think being able to hike and backpack increases your enjoyment of visiting any park. We arrived close to dark so we got to see it at sunset which is extraordinary. We actually got to camp in one of their campgrounds, and the next day it started snowing pretty good. We decided to not stick around for that and head to our next destination. So our trip to the GCNP was short and I know it's worthy of spending more time there. Yes, we do think it's overrated BUT I'd still go back again because both times I went I was more passing through. I've never given it the time it deserves. 

12. Saguaro National Park

Okay so this park was cool, but it is mostly just a bunch of saguaro cactuses. It was cool to see them in such high concentrations and if you're into taking pictures of yourself, you could get some cool ones here. I do wish we had been able to see it at sunset because I've heard that's magical. They did have a nature trail where the dogs could walk on so we were super excited about that. They had the best visitor center/gift shop of all the parks we visited. It was seriously so well curated. We were getting a sticker for every park we visited and some of the parks had terrible options but Saguaro had a lot of great ones. I know that's a random detail but after being so disappointed by the gift shops at bigger parks like Grand Canyon, it felt worth mention. Zion's wasn't even open. 

After we left the park we happened upon a really cool state park, Tucson Mountain Park, so that is definitely worth visiting if you are going to Saguaro. 

13. Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Since this was the last park we visited,  I think we were possibly national parked out. This was underwhelming but if I'm honest, I just don't think we were in the mental space to enjoy it. I really don't even have a lot to say about this park. It's only 30 minutes away from Carlsbad Caverns and we almost shoved that in there because we were so close and it would be another check off our national park list, but we couldn't do it. We would have had to stay another day and we were ready to get back to Austin. We had to pick up some stuff we left at Savannah's grandparents house. 




The national parks were all awesome in their own way and we definitely liked some more than others. And you'll notice a recurring theme that we didn't feel like we got to fully experience the beauty of each park, but this was not what this trip was supposed to be. We wanted to get a general overview of a large amount of parks and this helped us know which parks we'd go back and visit and which ones we wouldn't. What's cool about a road trip like this is that some of the most memorable things were the moments that happen in between the planned times. For example, some of the places we camped were as memorable and breathtaking as the national park we visited. 

You will notice that we mention a lot of times throughout the post that we couldn't do a lot of things because we had the dogs with us. We knew this was going to be a big challenge going into this trip but we also knew we didn't have a way or a desire to leave the dogs at home for that long. Johnny Rose is a puppy and there is just no way we could have swung leaving him at home. Going on this trip did help him overcome his fear of peeing in new places. He'll pee anywhere now and it also helped seal the deal of potty training.

We did have a few incidents that required us washing our bed linens unexpectedly. Traveling with dogs is a whole other layer of stress and traveling with a rescue puppy was next level. But at the end of the day it was either not go on this trip or take the dogs with us. Another option if you do want to travel with your pets but want to fully experience all the national parks have to offer- take them to a doggy daycare. There are doggy daycares in a lot of towns nearby national parks. Zion National Park actually had their own doggy daycare facility. 

My advice if you are doing a trip like this is to figure out what you want out of your trip. Do you just want to visit as many national parks in as you can? Or would you rather visit less parks and really spend time in each park? Are you traveling with dogs? Children? How long do you want to drive each day? You need to consider the time of year you are visiting and think about when busy seasons are and weigh the pros and cons of visiting in off seasons.

There is a ton of information out there and it's great to read blogs like ours to get opinions but also keep in mind who you are and what you like because it could be very different than what the person likes who is writing. Most of all that the adventure there is just as important as the destination and plan on being flexible. Planning is important on a trip like this but you'll learn really quickly that your plans will change nearly everyday. Figure out what is most important to you for your trip and don't stress about the rest. 

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