Western USA National Parks Explorer

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15 days, from £2299
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Description

This trip combines the dramatic and diverse landscape of Western USA's greatest national parks with visits to the bustling cities of San Francisco and Las Vegas. We explore narrow gorges in Zion, discover the wilderness of Yosemite National Park and enjoy breathtaking views from the edge of the Grand Canyon.

If two-weeks aren't enough, from 2018 we have 17-day tineraries available which also include visits to the ancient cliffdwellings at Mesa Verde, and watching the sun set over Arches National Park, as well as itineraries in the early Spring and late Autumn, allowing us to explore America's great outdoors for much longer in the year. From the drop-down menu below, select the 'Inc Moab & Mesa Verde' itinerary, or the Spring/Autumn itinerary.

Tour comfort rating: standard

Tour pace rating: full-on

Itinerary


 Day 1 Join tour in San Francisco

Join tour San Francisco and check-in at the hotel. Hugging the shores of San Francisco Bay, the city has a fascinating mix of culture, commerce and character that cannot fail to charm.
Meals included: none
Single room option


 Day 2 Sightseeing tour including the Golden Gate Bridge, free afternoon

Today is spent exploring some of the city's highlights as we wander its famous streets, taking in the delightful Victorian architecture of Alamo Square and the colourful eccentricity of Haight Ashbury, San Francisco's once thriving 'hippie district' of the 1960s. We'll also drive up into the elegant Twin Peaks district of the city to enjoy some of the stunning views across the city and the bay (weather dependant), before moving on to the Golden Gate Bridge and finally the eclectic bustle and resident sea lions of Fisherman's Wharf. The afternoon has then been left free to continue exploring at your own leisure, perhaps paying a visit to Lombard Street and Coit Tower, before returning by the city's famous cable cars back to Union Square and Market Street. This evening there is the option to walk to Chinatown, taking in the palm lined Union Square with its famous department stores, as we make our way into the labyrinthine chaos of the largest Chinatown outside of Asia.
Meals included: none
Single room option


 Day 3 Transfer to Yosemite National Park, walks in the park

This morning we leave San Francisco behind and drive east, heading through the fertile landscapes of Stanislaus County towards Yosemite National Park, passing the highly productive agricultural region of the Central Valley, where numerous orchards and vineyards line the roads. As we climb into the Sierra Nevada, we begin to witness the fabulous natural beauty of Yosemite National Park, a region which in 1864 became the first protected land in the world, a landscape which caused one of the first white men to see it to gasp in admiration. As we arrive in the valley, the towering presence of the two most demanding peaks of the park will be visible - Half Dome (the sheerest cliff in North America) and the vast granite bulk of El Capitan (twice the size of the Rock of Gibraltar) - both of which attract serious rock climbers from all over the world. The central valley is a mere 20km long by 5km wide but is hemmed in on either side by dramatic 2km-high sheer cliffs, its cascading waterfalls and skyline of jagged pinnacles and smooth domed granite presenting an awe-inspiring backdrop. We spend some time visiting various viewpoints in the valley this afternoon, perhaps even taking a walk to the base of Yosemite Falls (739m), the highest waterfall in the States and Bridal Veils Falls, before continuing to follow the course of the Merced river to our final destination in Mariposa, just outside the park boundaries.
Meals included: none
Single room option


 Day 4 Explore Yosemite National Park on foot

Covering over 3000 sq km, more than 90% of Yosemite is designated wilderness area and today we will take the opportunity to explore it in a little more depth. Away from the main tourist areas of the Yosemite Valley the park is filled with a myriad of options to make the most of its spectacular natural charms. One possibility is a drive up to Glacier Point then hike along the Panorama and Mist Trail back down into the valley (a challenging walk of some 4-6 hours). The hike takes in an ever-changing tableau that includes the impressive cascades of Nevada and Vernal Falls, as well as some breathtaking views of Half Dome and the High Sierras. There are a number of other possibilities available, some scenic cycling options or a relaxing day along the riverbanks. As well as some of the most beautiful mountain landscapes on earth, the park is filled with a variety of wildlife too, including hummingbirds, deer and of course the ever present black bears, ensuring you a captivating encounter whatever you choose to do. It is not possible to do all the options, so your Tour Leader will explain the possibilities and you can choose the ones that interest you most.
Meals included: none
Single room option


 Day 5 Travel via Mono Lake to Bishop

Leaving the park this morning we plan to drive across the scenic Tioga Pass (3032m), taking in the sub-alpine meadows of the Toulumne Meadows, an area that has been christened America's very own Switzerland. We continue through the dramatic mountain vistas down towards the alkaline waters and surreal volcanic 'tufa' rock formations of Mono Lake at the base of the High Sierras. This incredible body of water is two and a half times as salty and eighty times as alkaline as seawater and whilst its waters can sustain no fish life it does abound in brine shrimp and flies, which provide food for millions of migratory birds and waterfowl. At the height of summer the shrimp population alone is believed to number some 4 trillion! Continuing south from here our journey lies in the shadow of a range of towering peaks that rise to over 4200m as we make our way towards our overnight stop in the small settlement of Bishop. On early season departures, if the passes over the Sierra Nevada are closed we may have to amend our itinerary and re-route the tour.
Meals included: none


 Day 6 Journey through Death Valley to Las Vegas

Today we have an early start to drive through Death Valley before it gets really hot. En route we will stop for breakfast and for a short visit to Furnace Creek. After lunch we will stop at Pahrump before continuing onto Las Vegas for the night. You will have some free time tonight to visit the strip or you may wish to do this on an optional limousine ride.
Meals included: none
Single room option


 Day 7 Head to Zion National Park, afternoon to explore

This morning we will head to Zion National Park to get there just after lunch. Zion itself was established as a national park in 1919 and can boast an impressive array of natural credentials, encompassing some 8 geological formations, 4 major vegetation zones and a landscape that has been carved and honed by the Virgin River over a million years. This afternoon we will perhaps take a walk along the Watchman's Trail or a visit to Emerald Lakes. The position of the park, at the meeting of the Colorado Plateau, the Great Basin and the Mohave Desert means the region is rich in a vast diversity of flora and fauna that range from desert bush to Ponderosa Pine, cottonwood to red birch. Wildlife includes elk and mule deer, coyotes and black bear and turkey vultures and majestic golden eagles. This evening you may wish to visit the IMAX cinema. We will be staying in Springdale nearby.
Meals included: none
Single room option


 Day 8 In Zion National Park, walks include Angel's Landing or the Narrows

This morning we will continue to explore this magnificent creation, paying a visit to its impressive visitor centre. We will then take the shuttle bus to the start of the walks. You may wish to walk up to Angel's Landing, to take the meandering hike up to one of the most spectacular viewpoints in Zion, a journey of some four hours that affords us some quite breathtaking views down across the valley (please note this is considered challenging). Alternatively you may wish to walk in the Narrows to enjoy a unique walk along the river (walking quite literally in it at some junctures), a return journey of around three hours, most of which is flat but will (depending upon the season) require negotiating the riverbed and waist high water in parts. Those looking for more arduous treks might like to try the hike up to Observation Point (approximately 5hrs return). Your Tour Leader will outline the options to you and you can choose which you want do, it is not possible to do every walk or activity on offer. Later, we drive to Bryce Canyon, travelling via Buffalo and Mt Carmel Junction.
Meals included: none
Single room option


 Day 9 Early morning at Sunrise Point, Bryce Canyon, time to discover this natural wonder

Bryce is without doubt one of the natural highlights of the journey, as we enter a world of surreal formations of multi-coloured sandstone that are steeped in the legend of the Paiute Indian legend has it that the sandstone 'hoodoo's' of Bryce are in fact the petrified followers of the Coyote God, turned to stone as they stood listening to his angry tirade. The reality is somewhat less dramatic, with water playing the main part in the creation of these remarkable landscapes; the constant freezing and thawing and the violent summer storms causing the soft rocks to erode and split into the towering pillars that litter the floor of its great amphitheatre. This morning we see Bryce at its most radiant, in the golden hues of sunrise as we drive up to Sunrise Point to watch the dawn break across the landscape. This afternoon we will explore something of the myriad colours and shapes of this fairytale realm, hiking along the Navajo Loop, or taking in the grandeur of the Queen's Garden. Bryce was created as a national park in 1928 and is actually a part of the Grand Staircase that follows the rim along the Paunsaugunt Plateau. As you look out across the pink, orange and red spires it is easy to sympathise with Ebenezer Bryce, a Mormon farmer who is best remembered for the profound words. 'Well it's a hell of a place to lose a cow!'
Meals included: none
Single room option


 Day 10 Drive to Page, visit Lake Powell and Antelope Canyon

Today we drive to the town of Page, situated near the Glen Canyon Dam and backing onto the azure waters of Lake Powell. At a length of 186 miles (and a shoreline length of an incredible 1960 miles - longer than the western coast of the United States), Lake Powell is one of the most scenic lakes in the world. Named after the one-armed civil war veteran John Wesley Powell, who first recorded his travel through the area, the lake is the second largest manmade lake in the U.S.A after Lake Mead. With a surface area of 161,390 acres and reaching a depth of almost 200 meters (when the lake is full) Lake Powell backs up into more than 96 major canyons throughout the south-western United States. This afternoon is free to enjoy the famous Antelope Canyon in Page, a beautiful peach-gold coloured canyon formed by the force of flash floods coming from the plains above or perhaps you would prefer to take a cruise boat excursion.
Meals included: none
Single room option


 Day 11 Travel to Monument Valley; optional jeep tour with a Navajo guide

Today we drive to the Navajo Reservation, the biggest in the country, founded in 1888 to provide a protected region for the Navajo people. The Navajo Nation constitutes the largest tribe left in the United States, the last survivors of a people who were decimated by the arrival of the white man and his rapacious quest for land and gold. We'll make a stop at the Navajo Monument, where a short walk will bring us to a cliff overlooking of the impressive Anasazi Indian ruins of Betatakin, perhaps the most intact and amazing cliff dwellings to be found in Arizona. Monument Valley, our destination for this afternoon, lies within the heart of this vast tribal area and in spite of its familiarity through the exposure by Hollywood, nothing can truly prepare you for the sheer grandeur and spectacle of this incredible setting. Isolated monoliths, sandstone pinnacles and towering spires rocket skywards, as much as 1000m above the desert floor, the warm embrace of the late afternoon colours altering the landscape's appearance as the sun dips towards the horizon. We offer you the chance to take an optional guided jeep tour of the valley with a Navajo guide, affording a closer exploration of this compelling land before we must depart for our nightstop at Kayenta.
Meals included: none
Single room option


 Day 12 Drive to the Grand Canyon via Tuba City

This morning we continue our remarkable journey, heading next towards the southern rim of the Grand Canyon. Travelling via the Navajo community of Tuba City we arrive at the canyon this afternoon. Once described by Theodore Roosevelt as 'the one great sight every American should see', the canyon extends some 277 miles from east to west, from the western edge of the Navajo Reservation, to the Nevada border around Lake Mead. Reaching a depth of 1600m the canyon's floor is littered with some of the oldest rocks on the planet and as we take in the views from the Grand Viewpoint and Yavapai Point, we gaze out across a land that has taken over 2 billion years to create. This evening there should be (weather permitting) the option to take a stunning flight across the canyon by plane or helicopter, or perhaps visit the IMAX cinema to learn more about the history of the canyon and its discovery.
Meals included: none
Single room option


 Day 13 Free day at the Grand Canyon

Today has been left free to make the most of this natural wonder at your own pace. You may want to follow the path down from the South Rim into the canyon itself, walking down to Indian Gardens and maybe even heading out to Plateau Point for some incredible views down onto the Colorado River below. Those not wishing to undertake the walk in and out of the canyon might prefer to make use of the park's shuttle service to explore something of the rim, enjoying the vast panoramas from the crest of this remarkable setting. Sunsets at the Grand Canyon present an altogether unforgettable experience, with the possibility of condors circling on the thermals above to add to the majesty of the moment.
Meals included: none
Single room option


 Day 14 Drive to Las Vegas via Route 66

Today we drive along one of the most historic highway in America, the famous Route 66, a road that during its lifetime has been called the 'Main Street of America' and the 'Mother Road'. Over 200,000 people travelled this route during the 1930s to escape the Dust Bowl of the Depression years and hopefully find a new life in California. A shadow of its former self, the road nonetheless is rich in Americana and its architecture still affords us a rare insight into a time long past and we will travel via the town of Williams before reaching our final destination amidst the bright lights of Las Vegas. Vegas presents us with America in all its flamboyant excess, a desert city that is surely one of the most surreal and extravagant destinations anywhere on earth, let alone the United States. The rest of the afternoon and evening is free to explore this unique location, where you can watch exploding volcanoes and pirate battles, cruise the canals of Venice and take a rollercoaster ride across the New York skyline. Still the most breathtaking view over the city is to be had from the top of the 1149ft Stratosphere Tower, the tallest freestanding observation tower in the United States and you can follow this up with an evening in the gaming rooms and slots of the world famous Caesar's Palace.
Meals included: none
Single room option


 Day 15 Tour ends Las Vegas

The tour ends in Las Vegas this morning.
Meals included: none


Tour Map