America’s National Parks are big, huge even. Yellowstone covers 9,000 sq km; The Grand Canyon, 5,000 sq km; and tiny Zion National Park is still 600 sq km. UT Rt 12 runs for 150 km across the 8,000 sq km Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monument. You will not, you cannot see it all on one trip unless you stay for years. Your bus tour will take you to the highlights, such as they are accessible by road, and most are, but you will also have some free time. Here are a few suggestions on how to best spend your free time.
Zion National Park: Many tours stay at Zion Park Lodge which is right across the street from the trail to the Middle Emerald Pool, one of the best easy hikes in the park, with an elevation gain of 50m. Another good, very flat walk is the paved trail from the end of the shuttle bus route to the Start of The Narrows, where the canyon eventually narrows to 5m wide and 570 m deep. All the stops on the shuttle bus route offer fine views, especially Court of the Patriarchs, The Big Bend, and the terrace behind the Zion Museum, where Zion Canyon is its deepest. The rim above is almost 1,000m straight up.
Our favorite trial is the Emerald Pools trail.
If you are staying in the town of Springdale, set right at the entrance to the Park, there is a free shuttle bus that takes you to the pedestrian entrance to the park at the park's Visitor’s center where you can change to the park’s shuttle bus.
If your lodging is in Springdale rather than inside the park, you miss nothing. Zion Canyon actually starts on beyond Springdale so when you are staying in Springdale, you are inside the canyon, just not as far as the arbitrary line on a map that says the park starts here. Springdale also offers choices of places to eat while there is only one restaurant at Zion Park Lodge inside the park.
Don’t miss trying a buffalo meat burger at the Sol Market, located at the transfer point between the Springdale shuttle bus and the park shuttle bus just outside the pedestrian entrance to Zion National Park.
Bryce Canyon: Both Ruby’s Inn and Bryce Canyon Lodge are on the shuttle bus route. One of the horse back descents into the hoodoos is a remarkable ride. They depart from near Bryce Canyon Lodge. To walk down into the hoodoos, top choice is the Navajo Trial from Sunset Point, within walking distance of Bryce Lodge. The rim is 2,400 ft above sea level. You will get very much out of breath on the climb back up.
If your tour does not otherwise include a look at an Arch or natural bridge, consider taking the shuttle bus to the natural bridge overlook. Otherwise, the views seen from the rim trail between Sunrise Point and Inspiration Point, especially at Sunset Point, are the finest in the park. It should be experienced before going anywhere else.
Arches and Canyonlands National Parks: Lodging is in Moab, 10-50km from either park. Best bet for free time: rent a bicycle and try the Slickrock Trial, the most famed mountain biking route in the world, or take a jet boat ride on the Colorado River. You can pedal to the Slick Rock Trail. The jet boat company will pick you up at your hotel.
The hot dry air sucks moisture out of your body without you noticing it because your sweat evaporates as fast as it hits your skin. Carry a bottle of water with you for any outdoor activity lasting one hour or longer.
The desert sun is more intense than the sun experienced in more humid climates. High altitudes make it even stronger. Look out for sunburn.
Salt Lake City: If I were planning your trip, I’d have you stay overnight in Park City rather than Salt Lake City to visit a well preserved real wild west mining town and to shop at the Outlet Mall (Levi’s for $17). Salt Lake City has no great sights except the view of the city’s situation at the foot of Wasatch Mtns., which is best seen from the windows of your bus as you drive by. Other good views of the setting are from the top floor of the Joseph Smith Building (free) or the observation deck of the LDS Office Building (free), both in Temple Square.
The Mormon Tabernacle Choir programs twice a week. Their Thursday night practice in the Mormon Tabernacle is open to the public( free). There is a half hour concert (free) every Sunday morning at 9:00 am in the Tabernacle in the off season and at the LDS Conference Center in high season.
If you have free time in Salt Lake City, I suggest you take a look at an American West city by riding the tram, called Trax, to the end of the line at the University of Utah and then taking a stroll through the residential neighborhood across the street. American cites are highly segregated with neighborhoods being almost all commercial or all residential. The Trax trip goes though a major commercial area, and the walk at the end is through an established residential neighborhood.
Taking Trax back to the opposite end of the line brings you to the Gateway Mall– shopping and restaurants.
Trax is free to ride in the immediate downtown area of Salt Lake City.
Also take note of the size of Salt Lake City’s streets. They were originally designed so a team of 12 oxen pulling a wagon could make a U-turn in the street. Another difference between American streets and those in much of the world concerns street names. Consider the short trip along the Seine opposite the Ile de la Cite in Paris. You start out the Quay de Conti and by the time you reach the other end of the Ile, the same street has changed names five times. Most American streets keep the same name from start to finish. State Street in Salt Lake City may hold the record. State Street is 600 km long, ending somewhere in the town of St. George near the Arizona border.
If you have to arrange your own dinner, head to Gateway Mall for a range of American restaurants or to Lamb’s Grill(inexpensive), the Metropolitan(expensive), JIB's(inexpensive).
The LDS History Museum is of some interest for its display of old west memorabilia and Mormon Impressionist Art-- the Mormon Church sent artists to France to study with the Impressionists in preparation for returning to America to decorate the interior of Mormon Temples. There is a well preserved real wild west log cabin in the little square at the entrance to the LDS History Museum.
There is a good chance you will stay in Kanab. A lot of western movies were filmed around Kanab and the Hollywood stars stayed at the Parry Inn (restaurant). If you are on your own for dinner, consider the Parry Inn or Houston’s, a classic example of traditional western food served by waitresses wearing real six guns, supposedly unloaded.
American Indian jewelry, pottery, and rugs make good souvenirs. Ruby’s Inn has an extensive gift shop selling them, but be careful everywhere to check the labels for where the items were made. Lower priced items, like Navajo patterned rugs, are usually not authentic but made in Mexico. The Kokapeli Gallery in Moab has superb Indian crafts, and don’t hesitate to buy directly from the artisans at the road side stands in Monument Valley.
When in Monument Valley or on the Navajo Reservation, be sure to try some Navajo Fry Bread.
If your tour starts or ends in Yellowstone, there is no public transportation within the park and unless you are staying at Old Faithful or Mammoth Hot Springs, there are no major sights close at hand.