National park trips in the western U.S. are something that simply must be on your family bucket list, whether you’re an American citizen or international visitor. The American west is filled with stark, wide-open beauty and the majority of American National Parks are out there, including some of our largest and most popular parks. Sooner or later, your family really just needs to experience these gorgeous parks.
But heading off on a National Park road trip as a family can be logistically challenging. One time-saving solution is an RV rental.
Think about it: an RV is a hotel room on wheels. To enjoy multiple destinations via car means multiple hotels, and that means packing and unpacking multiple times. With a motorhome rental, you unpack once. Further, RV’s allow you to:
- Save money on eating out because you can buy groceries as you normally would (further, we had fun ‘theme night’ dinners, such as pizza night or burrito night, and had our daughters really get into the meal prep and cooking)
- Develop routines and family familiarity with your hotel-room-on-wheels, rather than skipping from new accommodation to new accommodation.
- Convene with nature – but with an array of creature comforts, like a nice bed, to start.
- Use the opportunity to further educate your kids on cooking, cleaning up, etc. as you divvy up various ‘camp chores’.
In an RV rental, our family recently explored Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area (Lake Powell), and Grand Canyon National Park. We flew into and out of Las Vegas and simply – and easily – rented an RV from there.
Zion National Park
Just a few hours’ drive from Vegas, we parked just outside the Park in Springdale, Utah. The Park’s main entrance and village was walkable from our site and the nearby bubbling Virgin River proved perfect for our family to play in and cool off during hot afternoons.
The Park itself is stunning, slotted into a desert valley with sheer walls on both sides. While we were there at the height of the season, the free shuttle bus system worked very effectively.
One highlight included the Weeping Rock Trail, an easy, albeit steep, trot up to the fabulously cool spring-fed hanging gardens. Another highlight was ‘The Zion Narrows’. This exceptionally popular hike through the Virgin River is fabulous but does get busy, even early in the day, as it’s probably the most popular element within a very busy park.
And Springdale offered the widest array of amenities than any of the areas we stayed in. The little strip of a town offers plenty of gem shops, ice cream parlors, restaurants (Zion Pizza & Noodle Co. was perfect for families), galleries, and gift shops.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Entering Bryce Canyon National Park, we had zero expectations. And, yet, we were blown away – parents and kids alike.
Words like ‘fantastic’ are used far too often to describe things that are interesting, cool, or exceptional but Bryce’s landscape was quite literally like something out of fantasy. The narrow slot canyon trails wind themselves among the jumbles of spire-shaped rock formations called ‘hoodoos’, creating a delightful maze. The stark juxtaposition of brilliant blue western sky, high wispy white cirrus clouds, red stone formation, and, occasionally, massively tall green pine trees was really quite incredible.
We stayed in the delightfully quirky Ruby’s Inn RV Park & Campground. The sprawling complex, which opened in 1919, includes a hotel, grocery store, restaurant, post office, laundry, pool, and some 150 RV sites. The Park shuttle stops right out in front.
Glen Canyon National Recreation Area
The best way to really enjoy Lake Powell is to get out in it. Take the family-friendly and easily accessible boat tours and dinner cruises, rent a boat or kayak, or even just sit in the water. It was brutally hot while we were there, but we were quite happy to just put a camp chair right in the water and stay cool as our girls romped, played, and built sand castles.
Services at the Wahweap RV & Campground were quite nice with a well-stocked camp store, laundry facilities, and more. The Lake Powell Resort at Wahweap was walkable from the campground, has a lovely restaurant and bar, and is the launch point for the boat tours. And a side trip out to the famously photographed Antelope Canyon is a must.
Grand Canyon National Park
The Grand Canyon is big. At 277 miles long, about seven miles across, and a mile down, it’s actually so massive that it’s really somewhat hard to take in. While I was exceptionally excited to experience this very notable National Park, I found my daughters were somewhat underwhelmed. The canyon itself is just so massive that it’s a hard thing to take in all at once, so be sure to explore as much of it as possible from different viewpoints.
We did a brief 1.3-mile hike and, in the heat, it was plenty for our ‘tweens’. Beware the temptation to keep hiking down into the canyon since it’s so ‘easy’. With a canyon hike, the hard part comes, of course, at the end, when you have to hike back up all those switchbacks.
- If you are new to RV’s, pay very close attention during your RV rental orientation and take notes. Then, after the orientation, walk through everything as a family again.
- Western states like Utah and Arizona are very dry. Consume plenty of water before heading out and bring plenty of water with you. We love to use personal hydration systems, both for us and our kids.
- Since many of these parks are in desert environments, it also gets HOT. Apply sunscreen liberally and wear wide-brimmed hats. A desert hiking tip: when you come across any water source, dip your hats and shirts into the water too, to help cool you as it evaporates.
- The altitude is a huge factor too, especially if you’re coming right from sea level and start hiking around at 9,000 feet in Bryce. It’s critical to stay hydrated and if headaches and other symptoms persist, get down to a lower elevation before it becomes more serious. You have to take seriously the potential effects of altitude – and be sure to articulate both the dangers and preventative measures to your children.
- When determining your trip budget, don’t forget to consider the cost of fuel for your trip. We drove a moderate amount in a 26’ RV and paid about $400 in gas for a 12-day trip.
RV Rental Companies
If you are looking at RV rental options, these have offices in select western cities:
- Road Bear RV – Considered by some in the industry to be the top of the line when it comes to RV quality and consumer service, they’re German-owned and service a large number of German-speaking visitors. From our experience, they were very efficient, punctual, and well-managed.
- El Monte – For just about every Road Bear RV you see in the parks, you’ll probably also see an El Monte. Very much a quality and trustworthy company.
- Escape Camper Vans – Escape is part of a new wave of cheap campervan rental companies that specialize in smaller campervans, which are quite a bit smaller than RV’s. Their creatively-decorated vehicles are smaller, more nimble, easier to drive, and consume less fuel than a traditional RV. However, campervans don’t have a bathroom or many of the other amenities of a full-on RV.
- Jucy RV Rentals – The New Zealand company has been renting cars, campers and even boats in their own country since 2001. Their distinct purple and green Caravan campers are new to North America but are growing fast in popularity.
Chris ‘Chez’ Chesak is a travel writer and tourism consultant, serves on the Board of Advisors for the Family Travel Association, and is a 15-year veteran of the travel industry. While he’s lived all over the U.S. and traveled to more than 30 countries, he has the most fun when he’s exploring with his wife Sally, and two daughters. An avid outdoors person and writer, he’s happiest on a trail, on skis, or nestled into a sleeping bag. And he loved exposing his daughters to some amazing National Parks via RV rental!