Four States in Four Days

After two painfully dull days in Las Vegas, it was finally New Years Eve. This was the day I had been waiting for – car rental day! We could finally escape Las Vegas! 

My partner, Matt, walked 1.5 hours to pick up our car rental while I stayed at the hotel with our 4 month old baby, Thomas. It was a sunny, clear sky day – perfect day for a drive! Matt picked up the car rental at 10:30am and we were out of the city shortly before noon.

Photo of a desert landscape with mountains
Death Valley National Park

Death Valley National Park

We did a day trip into Death Valley, which was top on Matt’s ‘To See’ List this trip. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a lot of time to take in the sights as we wanted to get back to the hotel before things got extra crazy in Las Vegas for New Years Eve. It was also the longest time Thomas had spent in a car. 

We stoped in the Furnace Creek Visitor Centre across the California border to use the washroom, then got back in the car to drive back to Las Vegas. We passed some very interesting rock formations and were tempted to do a detour to see the salt flats, but we restrained ourselves and stayed on course. The day was fading quickly. 

The drive home was pretty with the mountains bathed in gold then pink light with the setting sun. Soon the mountains themselves were shades of blue against a peach coloured sky, then black shapes against a night blue sky. The stars came out and soon the bright lights of Las Vegas were on the horizon. 

Photo of a No Public Access sign over the Hoover Dam
Hoover Dam

Hoover Dam

We checked out of our hotel in Las Vegas on New Years Day and steered towards the Grand Canyon. The canyons were reason we were here and I was very excited to see them in person!

En route, we made a slight detour to see the Hoover Dam. To access the dam, we needed to drive through a security checkpoint where they asked if we had any guns in the car! Even in America, it seems like such an odd thing to ask. Then again, even McDonalds has “No guns” signs by the cash registers here.

When Matt first said he wanted to see the dam, I didn’t see the appeal – but actually, it’s pretty neat! The Art Deco architecture and details of the dam structures was quite impressive with winged nude sculptures, reliefs, ornate gold elevators, and beautiful towers. 

Parking near the dam was $10, but we found a free place to stop at a lookout. We then drove over the dam, but you couldn’t see anything due to the barricades. Matt said the view was incredible 30 years ago when he last visited as a boy with his family.

Photo of gravel and desert beneath barren mountains
Death Valley National Park


The drive to Flagstaff took us through canyon country. The landscape was surprisingly green with brush, evergreen trees, and cacti. Cattle grazed here and there with mountains sweeping up to the sky. 

As we approached Flagstaff, snow began to crop up in fields along the highway. Matt joked, “We went to Iceland for New Years two years ago where it was warmer than home, and now we’re in Arizona with more snow than in Toronto!”

We arrived in Flagstaff shortly before sunset. Our accommodations for the evening was at an Ecolodge – your classic roadside inn. It reminded me of the type of place the characters in the tv show American Gods would stay at!

Photo of a run down hut beneath a snowy hill
Hut outside of the Grand Canyon

Dinner in Flagstaff

Once checked in, we went in search of dinner. The lady at checkin recommended Miz Zips Diner, but it was closed as it was New Years Day. So was everything else in Flagstaff it seemed! We ended up at Denny’s. It was open and we were famished. We hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast.

We had discussed going stargazing that night, but were too grumpy after dinner. Matt inquired at front desk for a place to have a drink nearby. They recommended a couple places, including one right next door! 

Photo of a neon sign for Western Hills Motel and Agave Restaurant
Little sign, big delight at Agave Mexican Restaurant

Agave  Mexican Restaurant

Agave was a Mexican family run restaurant and bar. Our waitress was head over heels with Thomas and no one seemed to mind his excited baby noises. Thomas had a blast cuddled up between Mum and Dad in the brightly coloured restaurant with so much to look at. He was so happy – it made us feel wonderful to see him so joyful.

We had a great time at Agaves. The staff was attentive and super friendly. A generous basket of tortilla chips was served with our drink, including really good salsa! The server made me a ‘mommy drink’ and Matt tried a couple different beers we didn’t have back home. We were kicking ourselves we hadn’t noticed this place earlier – dinner here would have been WAY better than Denny’s!

Photo of red canyons against a blue sky

Goodnight Flagstaff

When it came time for Thomas to head to bed, I took him back to our motel. He was still all smiles and didn’t put up his usual flight to get into his pyjamas. I put on our favourite lullaby album and had a family cuddle when Matt came home from Agave.

Once Thomas fell asleep, Matt put on the news and I turned over to get some shut eye. I felt so at peace and content after such a nice evening together as a family. I savoured the sound of the rumble of trains going by in the distance and soon fell asleep, excited to finally see the Grand Canyon tomorrow!

Thomas only slept in two hour intervals again and when I did sleep, I was plagued by nightmares all night. The worse one had me in sleep paralysis while someone tried to break into the motel room. I was able to move my arm just enough to throw a Campbell’s soup can at him, but missed. I tried to wake Matt up, but couldn’t speak and was to weak to push him awake. Fortunately I woke up.

Photo of a dead tree in the snow with canyons in the distance
Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park

We left Flagstaff at 9am. The landscape was covered in untouched snow and frost twinkled in the sunlight over the desert brush. It was interesting seeing classic ranch country shrouded in white. Snow wasn’t something either of us associated with Arizona.

We arrived at the South Entrance park gates for 10:30am. Entrance was $35 USD for the vehicle. There were four slow moving lines of cars to get in. Things didn’t speed up much beyond the gate either! Everyone was at the park for their Christmas Break!

Photo of snow and evergreen trees with canyons in the distance
Grand Canyon National Park

Visitor Centre and the Plaza

We stopped in the Visitor Centre but it was jam packed with people. We made our way to the canyon lookout behind the centre then to the cafe to get some lunch. Both places were super crowded. We got back into the car and headed to the Plaza. There was a full grocery store there – neither of us had ever seen such a thing inside a park! Sandwiches were also half the price of the cafe, so we got two.

Doorway in the Desert View Watchtower

Desert View Watchtower 

After lunch, we drove along the South Rim to the Desert View Watchtower. The evergreen trees were weighed down with heavy snow and large black birds (crows or ravens?) flew overhead. There was no cell phone service, so Matt scanned the radio stations until we found NPR while I pondered aloud “Are those redwoods? Is that a vulture or a raven?” and Thomas played with his Peter Rabbit rattle. 

Photo of two trailers parked in a field below snow capped mountains

Driving Through the Grand Canyon

I must say, I knew the Grand Canyon was big, but it’s REALLY big in person! It really is quite impressive – nothing else like it! There were lots of lookouts along the South Rim road, but most were in the opposite side to we were driving. We still got lots of great shots though!

We exited at the East Gate and the snow soon gave way to desert country with round mounds, smooth and multicoloured rising up from the land. Empty wooden stalls cropped up all along the roadside, advertising indigenous wares and food. 

Soon we were driving beneath bright red canyon walls with bright green brush below and a soft blue sky above! It was stunning! I found it all very exciting. 

As the sun set, the canyon walls turned a muted purple in the shadows. As we drove towards Hurricane, the canyon and fallen boulders were silhouettes against the sky. The snow made the canyons glow. It was all so magical!

Photo of a river in a canyon at sunset
View from the bridge at Marble Canyon

Marble Canyon

We stopped at a bridge over the Colorado River at the opening of Marble Canyon as they sun was setting. Then we carried on towards Hurricane. The route took us along the North Rim of the park, but it was too dark to see anything. I admired the stars above, singing to Thomas to keep him entertained.

Photo of a red canyon at sunset
View from the car park at Marble Canyon


We arrived in Hurricane shortly before 8pm. Thomas was in a good mood, so after checking into an Econo Lodge motel along the highway, we scoped out the two Mexican restaurants within walking distance. We settled on Alfredo’s for takeout and picked up drinks from the gas station. 

The staff were really friendly! The gas station employee was recommending different beers to us and asked us to come by tomorrow to tell us what we thought of his selection. At the restaurant, the TV had PBS playing – with my favourite tv show from my early 20’s!

I was miraculously not tired and had to force myself to go to bed at 11. Thomas only woke up once in the night and went back to sleep easily. The canyon air must have all done us good! It was like winning the mommy lottery!

I was the first to wake shortly before 7am. I showered before Thomas woke up, then we had breakfast at the motel and packed our bags for the flight home. We hit the road at 9:30am – and wowee, Hurricane was quite the beauty in the daylight! The town was nestled below mountains and canyons of varying colours with some snow. It was gorgeous!

Photo of snow covered ground beneath canyons
Zion National Park

Zion National Park

The drive to the park from Hurricane was a feast for the eyes. The rock formations were lovely and the landscape was dotted with quaint little ranches, winding rivers, and trees that glowed in the morning sun.

The villages leading up to the park were quite lovely and looked like they would make for excellent vacation spots. Rockville was my favourite! However, Springdale was one of the wealthiest towns we’d seen on our trip. It was a well built up resort town with exquisite views! It appeared to be mostly closed up at this time of year.

Entrance to Zion National Park was $35 or $45 if we wanted a year pass to all national parks with yesterday’s Grand Canyon pass applied. We had no ambitions to return to the US in the next year though.

We were pleased to discover that Zion National Park was much smaller than Grand Canyon. The Visitor Centre staff said we could easily do the whole park in the time we had allotted. I was very excited! Everything looked so gorgeous and there was much less people here than at the Grand Canyon.

The park did not have sufficient parking for the amount of visitors at the park even during off season! There were places we wanted to stop, but no where to park. So, we tootled along and enjoyed the beautiful drive. The shuttle service was not offered at this time of year, but the park was not designed for many guests visiting here by car. 

Photo of a creek running through red canyons
Temple of Simawava, Zion National Park

We found an unofficial parking spot in the lot at Temple of Simawava. It was a paved pathway along a river. We put Thomas in the stroller and meandered down the path, remarking how this wasn’t a bad way to start a day, walking through a canyon!

After our walk, we jumped back in the car. The other roadside stops were overflowing with cars parked in clearly marked ‘no parking’ zones, so we made our way to the East Gate. This route had a switchbacks leading up to a dark tunnel through the mountainside. At the other side was a parking spot – and some mountain goats! We stopped to take some pictures with other camera happy tourists.

We drove the ‘scenic drive’ and stopped in the Zion Park Village to have lunch at the brew pub there. Food was mediocre but the staff was great and we enjoyed the beer. 

Photo of a mountain goat amongst red rock and evergreen trees
Mountain goats in Zion National Park

Driving back to Vegas

We headed back towards Las Vegas at 3pm. The drive took us back through Springdale, Rockville, Virgin, and Hurricane. Matt realized our schedule for the day didn’t account for the time change in Vegas, so we had more time to kill! He then took a random dirt road where we had fun taking pictures of the view of the valley below. 

Photos of canyons below a blue sky with brush in the foreground
Zion Canyon Corridor

The sun began to set in front of us in the Virgin River Canyons. The mammoth canyon walls above us looked like melting pocked faces with all the books and crannies in the rock face. In other places you could clearly see the strata of the rocks decorated with green bush and snow on the red rock. Coming out of the canyon, we were greeted by a vibrant setting sun over a flat plane with blue mountains in the far distance. It was a beautiful way to end our trip as we headed towards the airport.

Our first trip as a family was coming to a close. The road trip had been very special and 4 month old Baby Thomas had a blast by account of all his smiles and giggles. We hope to travel again in August – so stay tuned on Trip #2 with Baby in tow!

Photo of a colourful sunset over mountains
Sunset on the drive back to Las Vegas