Pinnacles National Park

Pinnacles National Park

Best time to visit: Year Around 

Recommended Hikes/Walks: Bear Gulch Cave Trail, High Peaks Trail, Balconies Cave Trail

Ideal For: Hiking, Rock Climbing, Camping

Where to stay: Pinnacles Campground on the east side, wine country or Soledad on the west side

Park Website - Park Map

Pinnacles National Park is one of the newer parks in the country, but has been a national monument for over 100 years. It is a landscape of volcanic boulders and spires, mostly concentrated onto a single mountain ridge. Earthquakes over the eons have created two impressive cave networks that visitors can hike through. Pinnacles is a year around destination, but the caves are closed if there is rain.

Must See Attractions:

Bear Gulch Cave - Located on the east side of the park, Bear Gulch Cave is the larger of the two cave systems. Visitors can hike all the way through it to the Bear Gulch Reservoir. Flashlights or headlamps are crucial, and there are a few tight spaces that require crouching.

Balconies Cave - Balconies is smaller than Bear Gulch but still quite impressive. The trail here is steeper and narrower than Bear Gulch. These caves are located on the west side of the park.

High Peaks Trail - This hiking route goes right through the heart of the tallest rock formations and reaches the highest peak in Pinnacles. It can be accessed from both the west and east sides of the park. Read more about it in the hiking section below.

Useful Info:

  • There is no road that crosses the park, only hiking paths. It takes about an hour and a half to drive around the park to reach the opposite side.

  • Two full days should be enough to see the major attractions of the park - Bear Gulch Cave, High Peaks, and Balconies Cave. If you only have one day, you can see one of the caves and High Peaks, but it will be a long day of hiking.

  • Bring flashlights for the caves - they have sections that are very dark but unlike normal caves, also have breaks of sunlight..

  • The caves each have a few sections of low clearance where you have to crouch and move forward simultaneously, in addition to some narrow gaps in the rock to squeeze through. They can feel claustrophobic.

  • Click here for the park's rock climbing information.

  • Drinking water is available at the visitor centers on either side of the park, bring your water bottle to fill up.

  • There is a shuttle service on the east side of Pinnacles NP that runs from the visitor center to the trailheads when parking is scarce. If you visit on a weekend, you may be required to use the shuttle.

Where to Stay:

There are very limited options for lodging. 

There is one campground on the east side of the park, which can be reserved online in advance here. This is the only option within park boundaries. There is a small store at the campground and a bathroom with a shower.

Camping is not allowed on the west side of the park, but there are numerous wineries just outside the park's western boundary. Some of these offer bed and breakfast style lodging. A few more hotel options are available in the town of Soledad.

Hiking in Pinnacles:

Bear Gulch Cave is on the east side of the park while Balconies Cave is on the west side. High Peaks Trail connects the two and can be accessed via day hike from either side. 

Bear Gulch Cave - This is my favorite part of the park. Bear Gulch Cave is about a mile long with sections of deep caverns and suspended boulders. The cave opens up at the Bear Gulch Reservoir, and the trail continues further south from there. Read more about the hike here.

Balconies Cave - Much shorter than the Bear Gulch hike but still very cool. Balconies Cave has a section of steep and narrow descents that seem to go down rather than forward. There are low clearance sections here as well. Read more about the hike here.

High Peaks - This is an awesome hike that climbs to the highest peak in the park and runs right through the heart of the tallest rock formations. There are a few sections of steep and narrow stairs carved into the rock, but they all have handrails for support. This hike can be done as a loop from either the Bear Gulch or the Balconies areas, and can be extended to include other longer loop trails. Read more about High Peaks here.

A few hyperlapses I shot in Pinnacles National Park in central California. Locations in order of appearance: Balconies Cave, Bear Gulch Cave, High Peaks Trail, and Tunnel Trail

Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park

Best time to visit: Late Spring through Early Fall

Recommended Hikes: Dream Lake, Moraine Park, Bierstadt Lake, Sprague Lake

Ideal For: Hiking, Wild-life Viewing, Backpacking, Camping, Mountain Climbing, Horse-back Riding, Auto-Touring, Boating

Where to stay: On the East side of the park 

Park Website - Park Map

Rocky Mountain National Park has towering peaks, lush meadows, and picturesque lakes. An extensive network of hiking routes go deep into the mountains, especially on the east side of the park. The Trail Ridge Road, which connects the east and west sides of the park, opens at the end of May each year. The park is open year around, but winter access is only to lower elevations. Higher elevation hiking routes will be covered in snow into the summer.

Must See Attractions:

Moraine Park - Rocky Mountain National Park has a huge elk population, and they love to hang out in Moraine Park. A "park" is basically a really big meadow. The female elks congregate here in great numbers to graze and nurture their young throughout the summer, while the males stay on the fringes, preparing for the fall breeding season. Its really impressive to see them all here, bring binoculars! 

Sprague Lake - This is a tranquil lake with great views of mountain peaks rising up in the distance. There is an awesome, leisurely foot-path that goes around the lake, with a nearby parking lot and shuttle stop which makes it easy to access for all ages. 

Bear Lake - a really popular lake at the end of Bear Lake Road on the east side of the park. It is the starting point for several hikes which lead to other lakes and waterfalls in the area. Parking here fills up early; if the shuttles are running when you visit, it's worth using them to avoid the hassle of parking.

Trail Ridge Road - Open summer ONLY - Trail Ridge Road runs along a spine of Rocky Mountain peaks to connect the west and east sides of the park. There are numerous viewpoints to stop at, and also the Alpine Visitor Center which sits at an elevation of almost 12,000 feet. The road opens each year at the end of May (Memorial Day Weekend) and closes down for the winter in mid-October. 

Useful Info:

  • Wildlife in Rocky Mountain NP is abundant - Look for elk, deer, and black bears at the lower elevation meadows and bighorn sheep on the rocky high elevations near Trail Ridge Road. Male elk are dangerously aggressive during the fall breeding season and they will charge if you get too close. Proper food storage is required at all times to protect the park's black bears.

  • Many higher elevation hiking routes will have snow on them well into the summer - bring hiking poles for increased stability on the snow.

  • Arapaho National Recreation Area is just outside the park's western boundary - there are several big lakes here where motor-boating is permitted.

  • Estes Park is a town just outside the park's eastern boundary. There are hotels, restaurants, and grocery stores here.

  • Drinking water is available at most developed areas of the park, including visitor centers and campgrounds. Bring your water bottle to fill up.

  • There is shuttle service that runs from Moraine Park to Bear Lake during summer and fall. There is no charge to use the shuttles - it is included with the park entrance fee.

Where to Stay:

If you are interested in hiking and wild-life viewing, the most opportunities are on the east side of the park. There are major campgrounds on the east side, one of which is reservable in advance online here. Hotels in Estes Park are a good place to stay if you are not interested in camping.

If you are interested in motor boating, you will want to stay on the west side of the park, near the Arapaho National Recreation Area.

Hiking in Rocky Mountain:

Dream Lake - This is a pretty short hike that leaves from the Bear Lake area on the east side of the park. Dream Lake has an impressive backdrop of mountain peaks and the trail to get here also passes Nymph Lake. This hike can be extended to include Emerald Lake and Lake Haiyaha. Read more about this hike here.

Bierstadt Lake to Hollowell Park - This is a good long hike that is off the beaten track. You can park at Hollowell Park and take the shuttle up to the Bierstadt Lake stop. The first part of the hike is a climb up to Bierstadt Lake which is secluded and picturesque. The trail down to Hollowell Park from here is rocky but all downhill, and Hollowell Park is a nice endpoint to the hike. Bierstadt Lake can be done as an out and back hike as well - read more about it here.

Cub Lake - A popular hike that leaves from Morraine Park. I recommend doing the Morraine Park section but not necessarily continuing on to Cub Lake. The first mile of this hike circles the perimeter of Morraine Park which is great for seeing elk. However, Cub Lake is not as pretty as many other Rocky Mountain NP lakes, so I do not recommend hiking to Cub Lake as an endpoint.

There are many hikes I haven't done in Rocky Mountain NP - I recommend researching more online or asking at the visitor centers if you are planning a trip. 

Parts that I missed:

All of the higher elevation hiking - due to too much snow when I visited in May. Some hikes to consider if you visit in late summer include Sky Pond, Glacier Gorge, and Fern Lake.

Wild Basin - This is a more remote section of the park in the south-eastern corner of the park. There are no services here or drinking water, but a network of out-and-back hiking routes. 

A few hyperlapses I shot in Rocky Mountain National Park. Locations in order of appearance: Moraine Park, Bierstadt Lake, and Hollowell Park

Sequoia National Park

Sequoia National Park

Best time to visit: Year around, but avoid snow to best explore the Giant Forest

Recommended Hikes: Moro Rock, Congress Loop, Round Meadow, Crescent and Log Meadows, Pear Lake, Redwood Canyon Grove, Muir Grove

Ideal For: Hiking, Camping, Backpacking, Auto-Touring

Where to stay: In the park at numerous campgrounds and lodges

Park Website - Park Map

Sequoia trees are the largest living things on Earth. Some of them are more than 3,000 years old and and they are truly awe-inspiring to witness and walk amongst. The largest trees have official names, but there are thousands more that are not named. The park also has excellent hiking routes that get out of the forrest and lead to hidden lakes with jagged peak backdrops. Sequoia is a year-around park - but be ready for snow in the winter.

Must See Attractions:

General Sherman Tree - the largest Sequoia tree in existence today. General Sherman is accessible with a short hike from a satellite parking area. Handicapped parking is available near the tree, but all others must use the satellite lot. The General Sherman parking area is also the parking lot to use to access the Congress Loop trail.

Congress Trail - The entire Giant Forest is worth hiking, but if you are short on time, do the Congress Trail. It includes all the famous Sequoia trees including The President, Lincoln Tree, Mckinley Tree, Chief Sequoyah, and the groups of the House and the Senate. The Congress Trail can be extended to see the rest of the Giant Forest and its meadows.

Moro Rock - This is a big granite monolith just south of the Crescent Meadow area. A stone staircase with hand railings allows people to hike up to its peak for panoramic views of the mountains and valley below. This is a great place to be during sunset or sunrise! Read more about Moro Rock in the hiking section below.

Crescent Meadow Area - John Muir called Crescent Meadow the "Gem of the Sierras". It is flanked by Huckleberry Meadow to its left and Log Meadow to it's right, with hiking paths that go around and between all three. All three meadows are must-sees, and they are great place to spot black bears, especially in the morning and evening hours. "Tharp's Log" is worth seeing as well - it’s a hollow, fallen Sequoia Tree converted into a tiny home in the late 1800s by Hale Tharp. 

Tunnel Log - A very popular photo op, Tunnel Log is a fallen Sequoia with a big hole cut in it that you can drive your car through. It's located on the road in between the Moro Rock and Crescent Meadow parking areas - you can't miss it.

Round Meadow - Round Meadow is my personal favorite meadow in the park. It is surrounded by Sequoia trees, and the open space of the meadow makes it easy to appreciate them in their entirety. The walk around Round Meadow is a must-do for every visitor of every age. The nearest parking for Round Meadow is at the lot across from the Giant Forest Museum. Read more about the walk around the meadow here

General Grant Grove - This grove of Sequoias is separated from the Giant Forest by about 25 miles, but the trees here are just as impressive. The grove is located near the park's north entrance on Highway 180, accessible from the south via the General's Highway (closed during winter). There is another "tunnel" tree here which hikers can walk through. Read more about the Grant Grove here.

Useful Info:

  • Sequoia is a black bear stronghold - I have seen more bears here than anywhere else. Look for them in the meadows, especially in the morning. Proper food storage is required at all times. Read more on food storage on the park's website here.

  • There is a general store at Lodgepole which sells food and souvenirs. It also has a small cafeteria that is open throughout the day from spring - fall.

  • A trip to Sequoia can be combined with a trip to nearby Yosemite National Park. Read more about Yosemite here.

  • There is no direct access to Sequoia NP from the east side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Sequoia's gates are open year around from the south entrance on Highway 198.

  • The General's Highway which connects the north and south entrances of Sequoia NP is closed during winter - access to the Giant Forest is open year around via the south entrance (Highway 198).

  • There is shuttle service during summer months. Try to lock down a parking space early at General Sherman or the Giant Forest Museum and then use the shuttles to get around from there. There is no charge to use the shuttles - it is included with the park entrance fee.

  • Drinking water is available at most developed areas of Sequoia, bring your water bottle to fill up.

Where to Stay:

There are numerous campgrounds in the park, one of which can be reserved online in advance here. The Wuksachi Lodge and Stony Creek Lodge are great options in the heart of the park if you prefer a hotel - click here and here for their websites. 

There are a few private campgorunds/RV parks and small hotels outside park boundaries and many more as you get closer to the California valley.

Hiking in Sequoia:

The Giant Forest - In my option, this is some of the best hiking in the world. It really is a moving experience to walk amongst these silent giants. Hiking trails in the Giant Forest connect General Sherman, Congress Trail, Crescent Meadow, and Moro Rock. 

Moro Rock - This is a must-do hike to the peak of Moro Rock. The hike has stairs and handrails up the side of the rock, which rises about 250 feet to its peak from the parking area. The road here is closed during winter months, but is still reachable on foot from the Giant Forest Museum. Read more about the hike here.

Pear Lake - If you want to get above the tree-line, the Pear Lake hike offers rugged mountain peaks. You will see zero Sequoia trees on this hike, but the trail passes three small Sierra lakes before reaching the biggest lake in the area - Pear Lake. This is a popular overnight backpacking destination in Sequoia as well. Read more about the hike here.

Off the Beaten Track:

Redwood Canyon Grove - This is the largest grove of Sequoias in the park. The hike can be done as a loop or an out-and-back to the Sugarbowl Grove which is really cool as well. The trailhead can be accessed on a two mile dirt road that breaks off from the General's Highway across from "Quail Flat”. Read more about it here.

Beetle and Sunset Rock - I recommend Beetle Rock over Sunset Rock if you only have time for one. Beetle rock is a much shorter hike and it can be seen in 20 minutes total. It also offers a better view of the valley than Sunset Rock. Crowds should be minimal at both locations compared to the rest of Sequoia.

Parts that I missed:

Crystal Caves - Located at the southern end of the park, the Crystal Caves can be toured if you reserve a ticket online in advance here. The caves are closed during winter months. 

the House Group at Sequoia National Park in California
hiking down from Moro Rock - Sequoia National Park in California.

the General Sherman Tree

Supai

Supai

Best time to visit: Spring through Fall

Ideal For: Hiking, Swimming, and Camping

Where to stay: Supai Campground

Website - Camping Reservations

2019 camping reservations went on sale February 1st and are now sold out for the year. 2020 reservations will likely go on sale February 1st, 2020.

The oasis of Supai is one of the country’s most spectacular natural destinations. Supai itself is a tiny, Native American town in the canyon - the ancestral and current home of the Havasupai Tribe. A mile south of the town is a system of turquoise waterfalls which are famous the world-over. Advanced reservations are required - read more about making a reservation in the Useful Info section below.

Must See Attractions:

Navajo Falls - The first waterfall that you reach - there is an Upper and Lower Navajo Falls which are both really cool with intricate travertine formations. This is a great place to swim.

Havasu Falls - The most famous waterfall in the group, and another popular place to swim. The hiking path descends from the top of Havasu Falls and circles around to it's base.

Mooney Falls - The tallest and most impressive waterfall in the group. The hike down to the base of Mooney Falls is pretty treacherous and not for those with a fear of heights. Mooney can also be enjoyed from above.

Beaver Falls - The last major waterfall - about 3 miles down canyon from Mooney Falls. The hike to get here crosses the creek multiple times, so wear shoes that can get wet. There are a few ladders in the area surrounding Beaver Falls and also a famous cavern underneath the water that you can swim into.

Colorado River Confluence - Fit hikers can reach the Colorado River where the turquoise blue Supai Creek mixes with the Colorado. The hike is long (16 miles roundtrip) and probably not worth it for most visitors, but the endpoint at the Colorado is really spectacular. Read more about it in the hiking section below.

Useful Info:

  • Advanced camping reservations can be made online here. 2019 campsites went on sale February 1st and are now sold out for the year.

  • All campsites are reserved in 3-night blocks. Weeknights are $100 per night per visitor, and weekends are $125 per night per visitor.

  • You must obtain an advance reservation to visit Supai. When you arrive, you will receive a wristband and a tag for your tent. Day hiking down to Supai from the canyon rim is not allowed - you are required to stay the night if you hike down and you must have a reservation as it is always at capacity.

  • All reservations are non-refundable and non-transferrable.

  • You can reach the Supai camping reservation office at (928) 448-2180. You can reach the Supai Lodge reservation office at (928) 448-2111.

  • To reach the waterfalls, you will need to hike about 10 miles, one-way into the Grand Canyon. The hike is hot and strenuous, especially when climbing out.

  • There is a helicopter service - it is first-come-first-served and runs a few days a week. Read more about it here.

  • There is drinking water available for free in the campground and in Supai, and food for purchase at a small cafeteria and convenience store in Supai.

Rain and Flash Flood Potential

There are famous photos of Supai during floods where the waterfalls are brown instead of turquoise. I visited during a moderate rainstorm and can report that the turquoise water was unaffected. However, substantial storms do occasionally turn the water brown, and even flood the campground. These happen most often during monsoon season (Mid-June to Mid-September).

Where to Stay:

The campground is incredible. There is a designated stretch of canyon between Havasu Falls and Mooney Falls where you can set up camp wherever you see fit. Many people string a hammock between two trees, or find secluded corners along the creek. You can camp right next to the brink of Mooney Falls if you dare. Fires are not allowed, and the Supai town is roughly a mile’s hike away. 

There is also a very small and rustic hotel in Supai which can be reserved at 928-448-2111.

Hiking in Supai:

The hiking route simply follows Havasu Creek up or down the canyon - from Navajo Falls all the way down to the Colorado River. The trail crosses the creek many times below Mooney Falls, so if you want to hike to Beaver Falls or the confluence, wear shoes that can get wet.

The descent to the base of Mooney Falls is treacherous. There are steep steps and two ladders to navigate, with chains to hold onto while climbing. This section is always wet from the mist coming off Mooney Falls. It can get crowded and sometimes traffic jams form.

After descending Mooney Falls, the hike to reach Beaver Falls is about 3 miles one-way. There are four major creek crossings where you are best off having shoes. Walking barefoot in the creek is possible but there are painful rocks to step on.

Hiking to the confluence with the Colorado River is about 5 miles beyond Beaver Falls (16 miles roundtrip). The hike is picturesque but there aren’t any major waterfalls beyond Beaver. The confluence with the Colorado River is a spectacular endpoint for the hike. There is a cool slot canyon that Supai Creek runs through before it disappears into the brown water of the Colorado.

hyperlapse video of Mooney Falls in Supai

Vermilion Cliffs National Monument

Vermilion Cliffs National Monument

Best time to visit: Year-around

Ideal For: Hiking and backpacking

Where to stay: Page, AZ

Vermilion Cliffs National Monument is located north of the Grand Canyon, on the border of Arizona and Utah. It’s a remote wilderness landscape with no services, and it’s mostly accessible via dirt roads and long hiking routes. The most famous attractions here are the Wave, Paria Canyon, and Buckskin Gulch - all are spectacular. Plan for at least 3 full days to see everything discussed below. 

Useful Info:

  • All permit related information and lotteries can be found here.

  • There are a few huge slot canyons that you can explore in the Vermilion Cliffs. They are potentially dangerous during rainstorms. Keep a close eye on the weather across the entire region.

  • GPS devices do not work in Paria Canyon and Buckskin Gulch due to the high rock walls.

  • Most of the dirt roads in the region are accessible to passenger cars, but they may become un-passable when wet. This is especially true for the road which runs to the Wave Trailhead.

Attractions:

the Wave - The permit you need to apply for is called "Coyote Buttes North" - click here for the permit application website. 10 permits are given out online four months in advance, and another 10 permits are given out in person each day as walk-ins the morning of. Walk-in weekend permits are issued on Friday morning during winter months. Refer here for more detailed information. If you are lucky to get a permit, you will receive a placard for your vehicle and a map with photos that show how to find the Wave.

Paria Canyon - This huge slot canyon is just as impressive as Zion's Narrows with a fraction of the crowds. You can obtain a permit to spend the night in Paria Canyon here. Overnight permits are limited to 20 visitors per night, but day permits have no limit. A popular endpoint for seing Paria Canyon is its confluence with Buckskin Gulch, which joins up with Paria about 7 miles from the "Whitehouse Trailhead". There are also longer backpacking trips into Paria Canyon which eventually runs into the Colorado River at Marble Canyon, AZ. The entire hike is in the Paria River, so wear shoes that can get wet and bring hiking poles for added stability.

Buckskin Gulch - The granddaddy of all slot canyons. Day-hikers can see Buckskin from either the "Wirepass Trailhead" which is the upper mouth of the slot, or from the "Whitehouse Trailhead" which runs through Paria Canyon and is essentially the lower mouth of the slot. Wirepass is a much shorter hike and doesn’t require getting wet, but the mud in this area can be cumbersome. A popular backpacking trip is to start at either Wirepass or Whitehouse and hike through Buckskin and Paria as a through hike. Read more about it here.

Horseshoe Bend - My personal favorite viewpoint in the world. Horseshoe Bend is a must-see if you are in the area. The Park Service recently instituted a $10 entry fee for Horseshoe Bend which was needed and worth paying. Reaching the viewpoint requires a 2 mile roundtrip hike. Horseshoe Bend is extremely popular and you can expect a crowd, all day, every day.

Antelope Canyon - Arguably the prettiest slot canyon in the world. There is an Upper and a Lower Antelope Canyon, both are Navajo Tribal Parks - you must be on an official Navajo Guided tour to see them. There are numerous tour companies which can all be found on google. If you are a photographer, book one of the photography tours that allow tripods. Mid-day tours are the best for seeing the iconic beams of sunlight that shine down into the slot.

Lake Powell - If you are a watersports fan, Lake Powell is a world-class boating destination. The lake that doesn't have shoreline, but rather vertical sandstone walls rising out of the water. You can explore these canyons at will if you have or rent a boat. You can also book one of the tour cruises which run daily to various points of interest, including one of Earth’s largest arches - "Rainbow Bridge".

Where to Stay:

Page, AZ is close enough to Vermilion Cliffs that you can get to the Paria, Buckskin, and Wave trailheads with an hour’s drive. There are no other developed areas in the region.

The "Wahweap Campground" is on the shores of Lake Powell, right next to Page, AZ. There are showers and wifi at this campground. Their website is here. Several other private RV parks can also be found in the city of Page.

Horseshoe Bend

Paria Canyon and Buckskin Gulch

the Wave - Vermillion Cliffs National Monument in Arizona

Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park

Best time to visit: Year Around

Recommended Hikes: Brink of Lower Falls, West Thumb Geyser Basin, Upper Geyser Basin, Mammoth Hotsprings, Norris Geyser Basin

Ideal For: Wild-life Viewing, Auto-Touring, Fishing, Hiking, Camping, Boating

Where to stay: Campgrounds and hotels throughout the park

Park Website - Park Map

Yellowstone is a massive national park and it has it all. The wildlife viewing here is the best in the United States, with abundant bison, elk, bears, wolves, and deer. Yellowstone also has powerful waterfalls and world class geothermal features. The park is open year around, but only the north entrance and northern part of the park are open during winter. All seasons offer advantages and disadvantages, but perhaps summer is the best for being able to see the entire park. Five days or more is a good amount of time to spend if you want to see all of Yellowstone and nearby Grand Teton National Park. 

Must See Attractions:

Old Faithful - Most geysers erupt erratically - Old Faithful, which erupts roughly every 90 minutes, is the exception. The nearby visitor center shows what time the next eruption will occur - If you just miss an eruption, you can spend the 90 minutes exploring the rest of the Upper Geyser Basin. There is bench seating near Old Faithful which starts to fill up 15-20 minutes before each eruption, and plenty of standing room.

the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone - If you've wondered where the park gets its name, it's from the yellow rock walls of the "Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone" in heart of the park. Lower Falls flows into the canyon with incredible power - and you can hike right down to the brink of it! This is a must-do hike, read more below in the hiking section. There are multiple viewpoints on either side of the canyon, they are all worth stopping at.

Grand Prismatic Spring - The largest hot spring in the USA and the prettiest spring in the park. The spring is so big that it's difficult to see its center, with a multitude of colors expanding out from it. The park service also opened up a new trail in 2017 that goes up the hill behind the Grand Prismatic Spring. It's a cool perspective and worth the short hike to see it. The parking area for this trail is about a mile to the west of the main parking lot for the Grand Prismatic Spring.

Hayden Valley and Lamar Valley - Wildlife is everywhere in Yellowstone, but these two valleys are the most common places to spot wolves and grizzlies. Sightings are usually at a distance, so binoculars and scopes are great to have. If there is a crowd along the road, you can stop and likely look through someone else's scope to see the animals. Wolves are most often seen in Lamar Valley and Grizzlies in Hayden Valley.

Waterfalls - Yellowstone has outstanding waterfalls, many of which can be seen with just a short walk from parking areas. Lower Falls and Upper Falls at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone are both must-sees. Tower Fall and Gibbon Falls should both be on your list as well. 

Yellowstone Lake - By far the biggest lake in the park with mountains rising from its eastern bank. The West Thumb Geyser Basin is a good place to see Yellowstone Lake in addition to thermal features right on the lake's shoreline.

Mammoth Hotsprings - A white mountain of sulfate deposits, with a network of boardwalks climbing across and over it. Most of Mammoth Hotsprings is currently dry with only a few sections of steaming water flow. The water-flow changes over the years however, and at points in the past and likely again in the future, the entire sulfate mountain overflows with boiling hot water. 

Grand Teton National Park - just 12 miles south of Yellowstone - spend at least a day here if you go to Yellowstone. Visitors need to pay the park entrance fee at both parks if visiting Yellowstone and Grand Teton. Read more about Grand Teton National park here

Useful Info:

  • Wildlife viewing is the highlight of Yellowstone - if you see a big crowd while driving, there is likely a bear in sight. Expect traffic jams throughout the park due to people stopping and parking, and watch out for animals and pedestrians on the road. Bring binoculars!

  • All wildlife is potentially dangerous. The park rules are to stay at least 25 yards away from large herbivores and 100 yards from bears and wolves. A small amount of visitors have been killed by bears and wolves, any many more have been seriously injured by bison and elk. Do not approach, feed, or harass any wildlife!

  • Proper food storage is required at all times, and extra caution needs to be used whenever hiking in grizzly territory. Read more about bear safety here.

  • Hot springs are just as dangerous as wildlife. Every year, people are severely burned and even killed when they fall into hot springs. Almost all accidents happen when visitors leave the boardwalks and fall through brittle ground that breaks away to boiling hot water just a few inches beneath the surface. Stay on the paths at all times, it can save your life!

  • Much of Yellowstone closes for the winter. However, the north and northeast entrances are open year around, as is the road that connects them within the park. This stretch of road includes Mammoth Hot Springs and Lamar Valley, but no other major geyser basins or the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Visit in summer or fall to ensure all the roads and park attractions are open.

  • Yellowstone is a great fishing and boating destination - permits are required to do either, which can be obtained at park ranger stations throughout the park. Wyoming state fishing licenses do not apply, you must obtain a Yellowstone National Park permit.

  • There are general stores, restaurants, hotels and gas stations at major developed areas throughout the park, including Lake Village, Canyon Village, Old Faithful, and Mammoth Hotsprings.

  • Yellowstone is bigger than it looks on a map - it can take up to 2 hours to drive from Old Faithful to Canyon Village.

  • There is no shuttle service, but Yellowstone is a very car-friendly park. You will spend a lot of time driving which is great for chance wildlife sightings. Most attractions like the geyser basins, lakes, and waterfalls are very short walks from parking areas.

  • Drinking water is available at most developed areas of the park, bring your water bottle to fill up.

Where to Stay:

In the park - I prefer Canyon Village or Lake Village because they are in the center of the park which allows for the shortest daily drive times. There are hotels and/or campgrounds at Canyon Village, Lake Village, Old Faithful, Mammoth Hotsprings, and Tower Roosevelt.

All lodging and camping within the park can be reserved online in advance here.

Hiking (Walking) in Yellowstone

Brink of Lower Falls - Everyone who visits Yellowstone should make it here if they can. Its about a mile one-way with a consistent incline, but it's worth the effort. It leads to the very top of the massive Lower Falls, and you can stand right next to the river as it roars into the canyon. Read more about the hike here.

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone - there are hiking paths that run along the rim on either side of the canyon, with several famous viewpoints like Artists' Point, Inspiration Point, and Lookout Point. There is a metal staircase on the south rim of the canyon called "Uncle Tom's Trail" that descends close to Lower Falls as well - this staircase is open summers only due to ice. 

Mount Washburn - I haven't hiked this peak but I know its a popular one in the late summer when the snow clears - read more about it here.

West Thumb Geyser Basin - I really enjoyed this geyser basin because it is right on the shore of Yellowstone Lake, distinguishing it from the rest of the geyser basins in Yellowstone. Some of my favorite hot springs in the park are here, and the views of the lake are pristine. Don't skip this one!

Upper Geyser Basin - Home of Old Faithful, and also an extensive network of boardwalks through a massive basin of other geysers and hot springs. There is a lot to see here beyond Old Faithful - I recommend walking every stretch of boardwalk you have time for - you might be lucky to time one of the other geyser's eruptions, although they aren't as predictable as Old Faithful.

Norris Geyser Basin - There are two mid-length loop hikes here that are both worth exploring; and they tend to be a little less crowded than the Old Faithful and Grand Prismatic Spring areas.

Artists Paintpots - This is a really cool little attraction. It's a bubbling cauldron of mud that is constantly popping with bubbles. The paint pot itself is really small, just a few feet across, but it's a unique sight compared to every other hot spring. Its located a few miles south of the Norris Geyser Basin.

There are many backcountry hikes in Yellowstone - I have not attempted any of them. Due to the park's grizzly bear population and dense vegetation, I didn't feel comfortable hiking them alone. Read more about some of the backcountry hikes here.

A few hyperlapses I shot in Yellowstone National Park. Locations in order of appearance: Old Faithful, Grand Prismatic Spring, the Grand Canyon on the Yellowstone, West Thumb Geyser Basin, and Upper Geyser Basin

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park

Best time to visit: Year Around

Recommended Hikes: the Mist Trail to Nevada Falls, Valley Loop Trail, Upper Yosemite Falls, Half Dome (permit required)

Ideal For: Hiking, Biking, Rock Climbing, Camping, Auto-Touring

Where to stay: in the main valley (camping and hotel)

Park Website - Park Map

Yosemite is one of the country’s most popular National Parks. It’s famous for towering grant walls and powerful waterfalls, most of which are found in the main valley. The waterfalls run at their peak during spring, with maximum water flow usually peaking during May. Summer is best for hiking the higher elevation trails, including Half Dome. Fall and winter bring rain and snow and tranquil scenery, along with smaller crowds. 

Must See Attractions:

Yosemite Falls - You will see Yosemite's most famous waterfall from many different angles in the valley. It can be enjoyed at a distance from meadows and also up close at the base of Lower Yosemite Falls where the river roars and mist flies. The walk to the base of Lower Yosemite Falls is short, flat, and paved, and should be done by everyone who visits. Hiking to the top of Upper Yosemite Falls is awesome, read more about it in the hiking section below. 

Glacier Point - Panorama vistas at Glacier Point show Yosemite Falls, Vernal and Nevada Falls, Half Dome, and the mountains surrounding the valley. It is accessible via car or hike - the drive from the valley floor to Glacier Point takes about 45 minutes, one-way. Hikers can reach Glacier Point via the "four mile trail" from the valley floor. The road to Glacier Point is closed during winter months and into the spring due to snow.

Tunnel View - The most recognized viewpoint in Yosemite Valley, with El Capitan and Bridal Veil Falls framing Half Dome in the center. This viewpoint is open year around and can be accessed from the main valley by driving a few miles up on Wawona Road (Highway 41)

Bridal Veil Falls - Arguably the prettiest of the major waterfalls in Yosemite but also the most fragile. Bridal Veil packs a punch, but it only runs during spring when there is heavy snowmelt. It is the first waterfall to dry out each year and is usually bone-dry during late summer. There is a paved hiking path that leads up to Bridal Veil's base and a parking area near the waterfall.

Vernal and Nevada Falls - Vernal Falls has always been my favorite waterfall in Yosemite and it's a must-see for every visitor. Nevada Falls is upstream from Vernal Falls and it's really cool as well - worth seeing if you are up for a longer hike. Both waterfalls can be seen from high above at Glacier Point, but they are better enjoyed up close via the Mist Trail. Read more about them in the hiking section below. 

El Capitan Bridge - There is a huge meadow at the base of El Capitan. This is a must-see and a great place to sit down and relax and look up at El Cap. During climbing season (not winter), there are often people hanging out here with telescopes that you can look through to see climbers up on the rock. There is a foot trail that runs around the meadow and along the river.

Mirror Lake - Mirror Lake is a nice destination in the spring, but it dries out into a meadow by the end of summer. This part of the valley is right beneath Half Dome, providing a unique viewpoint of the monolith. It's about a 2 mile roundtrip hike to get here from the nearest shuttle stop. Read more about it on the park's website here.

Useful Info:

  • Yosemite is one of the country's most popular national parks and it will almost always be crowded. Lines at park entrances, stores, and shuttle stops in the park can be long, especially on weekends during spring and summer. Try to get inside the gates as early as possible in the morning, lock down a parking space, and then use the shuttles to get around. Do not move your car midday when it's crowded, you will struggle to find another parking space.

  • Yosemite is home to black bears - proper food storage is required at all times.

  • There are two large general stores and food court areas in the main valley, one at the Yosemite Lodge and one in Half Dome Village (formerly known as Curry Village). They sell a wide variety of things that you might need.

  • During winter months, Yosemite is only accessible from the west. Highway 120 runs from the park towards Nevada on the east, but it closes for winters when there is snow. If you are planning a visit from the east, make sure Highway 120 is open. The park's western entrance on Highway 140 is open year-around.

  • A trip to Yosemite can be combined with a trip to nearby Sequoia National Park. Read more about Sequoia here.

  • Shuttles run year-around in Yosemite - use them to avoid the hassles of parking. There is no charge to use the shuttles - it is included with the park entrance fee.

  • Wilderness permit information for Yosemite can be found here.

Where to Stay:

If possible, try to stay in the main valley. There are 3 reservable campgrounds in the main valley - they can be reserved online in advance here, here, and here. The campsites go on sale on the 15th of each month for a booking window 5 months in the future, and they can sell out within minutes for peak season weekends. Weekdays fill up slower but still sell out well in advance - book as early as possible.

There are also primitive cabins right near Half Dome Village (formerly Curry Village) that can be reserved online in advance here.

There are two hotel in the main valley, called the “Yosemite Lodge” and the "Majestic Yosemite Hotel" (formerly known as the Ahwahnee Hotel). They are expensive and the rooms are not fancy, but the location is unbeatable. This is the best option if you are unwilling to camp.

If the above options are sold out, there are a few campgrounds in the park high country along highway 120. There are also private campgrounds and cabins outside of park boundaries. 

Hiking in Yosemite

Yosemite Hiking Map

The Mist Trail - One of the best hikes in the park. The first section is paved and consistently uphill for about a mile before Vernal is first visible. The trail then becomes a massive set of stone steps that ascend all the way to the top of Vernal Falls This a great endpoint for the hike, but you can also continue on to see Nevada Falls which is further upriver. Be prepared to get wet from the mist when the waterfalls are running strong. Read more about the hike here.

The Valley Loop Trail - There is a huge loop trail that goes from one end of the valley to the other with plenty of options for customization. It is usually flat and shady and wanders through forests and meadows that offer stunning views throughout. You can take this trail to see Mirror Lake, Upper Yosemite Falls, El Capitan, and Bridal Veil Falls. I really like the El Capitan section. It's also a good way to escape the crowds and possibly see wildlife. Read more about it here.

Upper Yosemite Falls - This is a grueling hike to the brink of Upper Yosemite Falls. At the top, there is a narrow staircase that you can walk down to a viewpoint of Yosemite Creek barreling into the valley below. Seeing the river churn over the cliff is unbelievable and it’s worth the effort you put into the hike. However, the hike probably isn’t worth doing when the falls are dry. Read more about the hike here.

Panorama Trail - There are two routes which run from the valley floor up to Glacier Point which can both be seen on a long loop hike. The Panorama Trail is the longer of the two legs, and the Four Mile trail is the shorter. During summer, you can take a one-way shuttle up to Glacier Point and hike down to the valley if you want to avoid the uphill portion. I recommend the Panorama Trail over the Four Mile Trail if you are trying to choose which route to hike down.

Half Dome - The ultimate Yosemite hike. It is a punishing 15 mile round-trip trek with a final summit up the side of Half Dome, assisted by metal cables attached to the rock. This hike is only open during summer months. PERMITS ARE REQUIRED to hike Half Dome and park rangers will check for your permit once you get near the cables. Permits are issued through an online lottery two days in advance of the hiking date.  For complete information, click here. To read more about the hike, click here.

Off the Beaten Track

One cool spot to go that isn't marked on the map is the base of El Capitan. The trail head is easy to miss but there is a small parking area on the right side of the road as you drive towards the park exit.

Nevada Falls - flowing strong after the first big snow year in half a decade (May 2017)

Zion National Park

Zion National Park

Best time to visit: Year Around

Recommended Hikes: Angel's Landing, the Narrows, Hidden Canyon, the Subway, Kanarra Falls

Ideal For: Hiking, Backpacking, Camping, Canyoneering, Rock Climbing, Biking

Where to stay: Campgrounds in or near the park, towns of Springdale or Hurricane, UT

Park Website - Park Map

Zion is the most popular national park in Utah and many would call it their favorite in the country. The main canyon is the highlight of the park - it features towering sandstone cliffs that converge to form a massive slot canyon called "the Narrows". Zion is year-around destination - winters are cold and summers are hot.

Must-See Attractions:

The entire main canyon is a must-see. All the shuttle stops are cool and worth jumping off at if you have time.

Angel's Landing - one of many signature rock formations in the main canyon. The best place to enjoy Angel's Landing from the canyon floor is at shuttle stops 7 and 8. The hike to the peak of Angel's Landing is outstanding - read more about it in the hiking section below.

the Narrows - A slot canyon of monumental proportions. The Narrows in its entirety is 10 miles long, with sections of canyon that are just 30 feet wide and 1,000 feet high. Hiking up the river is the best hike in the park - read more about it in the hiking section below.

Shuttle Stop 8 - the "Big Bend" shuttle stop offers views of vertical sandstone cliffs in every direction. There is a short trail between shuttle stops 8 and 7 that is incredibly beautiful and tranquil. This is the best place to see Angel's Landing and the Great White Throne from the canyon floor. 

Useful Info:

  • Highway 89, which runs from the south entrance to the east entrance of the park, goes through a 1 mile tunnel with low clearance - oversize trailers and RVs require escort which is available throughout the day, but not at night. Read more about it here.

  • The main Zion canyon is accessible via shuttle ONLY for nine months a year. Visitors need to park their cars near the visitor center or in the town of Springdale and use the shuttles to access the canyon attractions mentioned above. There is no charge to use the shuttles - it is included with the park entrance fee. Parking fills early every morning.

  • Flash floods are lethal in all of Zion's slot canyons including the Narrows and the Subway - the park monitors storms and closes the Narrows when there is flash flood potential. Cell service is non-existent in deep canyons and flood water can rise fast. Check at the visitor center for the latest information.

  • You can rent water shoes, hiking sticks, and bikes at stores just outside the park's south entrance. Biking the entire length of the Zion Canyon is a great way to spend the day.

  • Drinking water is available throughout the main canyon and at the visitor center in Kolob Canyon, bring your water bottle to fill up.

Where to Stay:

There are two campgrounds in the park, the "Watchman" campground can be reserved online in advance here - book as early as possible. The "South" campground is first-come-first-served. Cars can  line up to enter the South Campground as early as 5 AM.

There is a private campground just outside the park's eastern boundary called the Hi-Road Campground (Zion RV & Campground). This is a great option if the Watchman and the South campgrounds are full. The campsites are small but right next to the park, and they have showers and laundry. Their website is here.

There are hotel options in Springdale and Hurricane. Springdale is a tiny town just outside the park's southern boundary - the options here are more quaint and more expensive. Hurricane is a larger town about 30 miles from the parks south entrance that has budget hotels.

Hiking in Zion:

Angel's Landing - The must-do hike in Zion. Angel's Landing is a challenging hike with a steep summit ascent, assisted by chains bolted to the rock for support. This hike is very crowded, especially on the steep sections near the summit. Get an early start to avoid the traffic jams! Read more about the hike here.

the Narrows - The crown-jewel of Zion National Park. The Narrows are closed whenever the Virgin River is flowing at 150 cubic feet per second (click here for current water-flow levels). This happens throughout the spring months as winter snow melts off and occasionally in summer, fall, and winter during major rain storms. Fall and winter are great times to hike the Narrows with reduced crowds. Summer is the most popular time to hike the Narrows but beware of huge crowds and potential monsoon rainstorms. Tough, water-proof shoes are crucial and hiking poles or a walking stick are really helpful. Waterproof suits are required if hiking during the winter. You can rent all Narrows gear at stores near the park entrance.

Hidden Canyon - this is a gem of a hike. The trailhead starts at the Weeping Rock shuttle stop and climbs mostly on paved switchbacks before reaching a short section with a huge cliff drop-off and chains to hold onto. After this section, you can climb back into Hidden Canyon which is a quiet oasis compared to the rest of the park. If you walk all the way to the end, you'll find a small arch. I am a big fan of Hidden Canyon and I highly recommend it! Read more about the hike here

Observation Point - This is a really popular hike to a viewpoint high above Angel's Landing. The hike is long for a single viewpoint, but there is some cool scenery on the way, especially near Echo Canyon. Read more about it here.

the Subway - Day-hikers can access the lowest tier of the Subway with a long hike for which permits are required (reserve online here). Permits are available for the spring through fall months but they are very limited. Do not attempt this hike with shoes that can't get wet - hiking in the creek is often the easiest route. Read more about the hike here.

Kanarra Falls - a really cool slot canyon with a photogenic waterfall. Kanarra Falls is outside the Zion park boundaries but its close to the Kolob Canyons section of the park. You can see Kanarra Falls and catch the Kolobs for sunset in a single day. The hike is partially in a creek so bring shoes that can get wet. Read more about the hike and finding the trailhead here. Beginning 2019, a permit is required to hike Kanarra Falls. Click here for more permit info.

 

the ascent of Angels Landing in Zion National Park, Utah
the "Wall Street" section of the Narrows in Zion National Park, Utah

the Subway formation in Zion National Park, Utah.

the hike to Hidden Canyon in Zion National Park, Utah