Rocky Mountain States & Canada - Nth Arizona to Vancouver in 6 weeks

Discussion in 'Travel' started by mbrennan, Jun 10, 2016.

  1. Apologies for the prolonged post........ please bear with me.
    My partner and I intend to visit the USA / Canada circa mid May to the end of June 2017.
    We are botanical enthusiasts and adore the flora of Nth America, we find much to see on quieter back roads and avoid crowds if and where possible. The prime reasons for our trip are to see parts of the Rockies (mostlty Pacific side watershed) in spring / early summer growth conditions and enjoy photographing plants in habitat and light-ish hiking around any glorious landscapes and wildlife that tend to happen in this part of the world.
    We would be be flying into SFO via New Zealand to visit an old friend, then taking a flight from SFO or from somewhere in the Bay Area over the Sierra to pick up a hire car closer to our starting point ( these details I need advice upon too)
    With 12 months to organise this trip, I'm planning a 6 week road trip. We have done a pair of 6 week road trips through CA/OR/WA at same time of year back in 2011 and 2014 so we are familar and appreciate somewhat, huge milage, slow back roads, Memorial Day weekend crowds, other major attraction crowds and the lottery of weather conditions and certain places and roads being open/closed - accessible/inaccessible.
    Ideally I'd like to start on the Nth rim of the Grand Canyon and work our way up through Utah into parts of Wyoming, Idaho, Montana and over the border into Alberta and over the Rockies into BC. We try to break up the trip by staying in one place for 2/3 nights then drive a significant distance to stay in another key location for another 2/3 nights etc.
    We would like to visit the Pando quacking aspen tree stand at Fish Lake in central Utah which appears to be a little visited location (not so touristy) Places like the Grand Canyon (Nth Rim only), Zion NP, parts of Canyonlands, Sawtooth Mts, Tetons, Yellowstone NP and Glacier NP we will take or leave as weather / time permits. Then into Canada to see Banff, Jasper, Kamloops and Vancouver with commensurate crowds and then a visit to the Butchart Gardens on Victoria Island at the end of the trip.
    Questions :-

    1) I am dreaming just contemplating this much in 6 weeks? We did 2,800 miles in 6 weeks in 2014 quite comfortably.....
    2) If so (dreaming) - as we are fairly flexible being 12 months out what to drop off the trip to shorten it - Canada at the end of the trip is set in concrete.
    3) What great botanical photo locations have I missed out on in my descriptions here (has to be plenty I suspect)
    4) If we visit the Nth Rim, where best to fly to from San Francisco to rent a car?
    5) Where to stay (either motel room or small/cheap AirBNB house for these locations?
    Any other advice / comments / critisisms are most welcome as I've had to scrimp and save like never before to put this trip together and it may be our last to the USA together so I really want to maximise our time away.
  2. At first, I thought you'll be taking 12 months to do this, but then the 6 weeks came :>). You've touched on so much visual candy (and icons), that trying to pull this off would likely take way longer than your estimate. Allow me to explain; I had roughly 250 "destinations" penciled in for the SW (only)....and this was 2 yrs ago. I had no pressures or deadlines of returning home and it took 70 days + over 11K miles. That said, I've travelled previously to many places in the West, so I had the luxury of bypassing some of those locations....this would be much more difficult for you. I mean you may easily find some interesting spots (and there are plenty), that can easily divert your attention....hmmm, and there goes the time :>).
    Sounds like a massive quest....and good thing that you are starting on it iron out various wrinkles. If that was me, I'd rent a van and that would take care of the ride/lodging in one shot....and less expensively too. Oh, and this is super important, when you do rent a vehicle, try getting all the fees up front (ON PAPER)....I've heard of several instances where all sorts of bs charges were added on when the person arrived to pick up the vehicle. No doubt you'll be dealing with a "drop-off charge", even if it's the same company.
    Flying into Vegas wouldn't be a bad idea, since the flights are not too expensive (from SF) and then stay at Page, AZ....many interesting places are nearby like Antelope Cyn, Wave, Zion, N. Rim, Bryce, etc.
    On the other side of the spectrum, the cost of gasoline in Canada is substantially more than in that might be a consideration. Vancouver Island is wonderful and I can easily spend a week there (and have in the passed)...tho I try to stay away from Victoria or large cities. Just to comment on Butchart Gardens; it is a huge place....lots of tour buses roll in there....and with influx of people, it can get little crazy. By the way, you can order a video online and they will send it you can watch at ease and without having to elbow anyone :>). The gardens are some distance from Victoria. I've been there many times and from my experience, it's not even possible to see this place in 3-4 hrs....too many wonderful distractions.
    Unless you go into some high elevation places (+bad weather) like Cedar Breaks (hint hint), Bryce or CDN Rockies, you shouldn't encounter any snow....tho most of the white stuff will likely still be on the nearby mountains.
    Yep, it's a big trip...and it will require big planning. Also, be mindful of US or Canada, since this may effect your lodging. Make reservations ahead of time.
    Anyway, I'm just scratching the surface....till you can figure out the totem pole of locations and their importance to you.
  3. Sounds like a great road trip. A bit ambitious with regard to time but doable. The North Rim opens around May 15, and the northern parks should be opened with snow cleared in June. Glacier's Going to the Sun road may not be plowed until late June and hiking trails in Grand Teton, Yellowstone, and Glacier may be blocked with snow into June. If you are willing to camp, you can usually find a campsite at/near many of the venues you identified before the summer crowd start in late June. Regarding hiring a car, I don't know how pickup in the US and dropoff in Canada will work out. Also be aware that most airport authorities tack on a significant tax to daily car rental fees so choose an off-airport pickup location accordingly. Good luck with planning.
  4. If you are heading to Fish Lake from the Bryce area, go up on Route 12 via Escalante, Boulder, and Torrey. Spectacular scenery. Excellent hikes in the Escalante area and lots of green along the waterways. Last fall, we camped for three nights each at Kodachrome Basin and Escalante State Park and should have planned for additional time in the area.
  5. david_henderson


    I could write for days on this but I can't since I've just had an eye op and I can't stay at the computer long yet. But just a few points for now and I might be able to return in a day or two.
    • This trip is do-able and in fact looks good. The basic mileage beginning to end assuming an effective start from Las Vegas runs about 3000 miles- plus whatever you do on your "non-journey days". If you do as you say and alternate travel/vacation days you can do your basic trip in 15 200 mile travel days leaving you 27 days where you don't need to move hotels/ make any miles closer to Vancouver. Your total mileage will I'd guess be around 6000. We've done a lot of road trips in the USA- 20 at least I'd guess- and on average we run about 1250 miles a week, photographing as we go and indeed that's why we do it. We also average twice the miles that our shortest route would require, for backtracking, diverting to good photo. spots, multiple visits to a great location and so on. So nothing special about your trip except that it lasts a long time. Naturally enough the 200 mile "journey days" will vary a bit, but mostly you'll have a bit of time in those days to do something beyond drive/eat/sleep.
    • Be careful about the way you plan your air travel and car hire together. There are some places where you could leave from /drop off that will result in a rental drop-off charge that can be considerable. Other combinations of start/stop points don't seem to attract them. Think carefully before booking flights out of Canada- which are often more expensive than the equivalent in USA. If I wanted to fly from London UK to Vancouver now I'd fly to Seattle and drive. You're also likely to get a better deal on car rental drop-off if you begin and end in the same country.
    • Where to stay? I like photographing landscapes and so a good part of my day is before breakfast and after dinner. So I tend to prioritise staying close to where I intend to photograph, pretty much irrespective of accommodation type. So long as there's enough space, WiFi, and access to a restaurant I'll prioritise location first. I also always book all my rooms early , well before the trip starts, as the last thing I want to do is arrive at a location in great conditions and have to look for hotels and restaurants or go shopping.. I don't know whether all that's important to you or not? Increasingly I find myself staying in mid-range chain hotels (eg Hampton/Hilton Garden and such like) . I used to like B&B but they're often cluttered and fussy and often couple wanting to be paid way before arrival with inflexible cancellation, whereas US chain hotels don't usually ask to be paid till you arrive and offer a lot of flexibility if you need to change your plans. I don't know AirB&B at all but aren't they agents rather than principals and so the precise t&c might vary?
    • I think you have a potential problem in the belief that you can just decide pretty much last minute to turn up at a western NP and expect to find accommodation. The places in or close to the park get booked up very early. If you're happy to stay a way outside the parks you might find it easier but there's always going to be a degree of uncertainty. I've booked lodges in Yellowstone six months in advance and still found restricted availability. I'm not sure you can make flexibility work in the popular locations/periods and it certainly isn't the way I do it.
    That's all I can do right now.
  6. Your plan will require about 500 miles of relocation driving a week, which can be done in a day - devoting one day in seven to that type of driving seems quite feasible to me. Even better if it's broken into 2-3 segments per week. I think the advice about renting a car in one place and turning it in at another is good - most companies charge a premium for doing so, and I expect that if the start and end locations are in different countries, the added cost could well be a problem. This deserves thorough research before making a decision.
    Las Vegas would make a good destination to fly to from the bay area to start your adventure. As a major tourist location, there's an enormous number of flights to Vegas, and you have 3 airports in the bay area to choose from. You should be able to find a flight that fits your budget and schedule. The North Rim is an easy 5.5 hour drive from Vegas.
    You may already know this, but the North Rim of the Grand Canyon isn't open year round. The north side gets only about 10% of the park's total visitors, not enough to justify the cost of keeping roads clear of snow and the facilities staffed in winter. It closes in October and reopens in May. The park publishes the dates on their website for the canyon, but I don't know how far in advance the dates are made public. That's something you need to watch if you want the North Rim to be your starting point. Another option would be to fly into Vegas and go first to Zion (2.75 hour drive) and maybe some of Escalante, and then the North Rim - that would make the rim's opening date less crucial to your planning.
    A possible plan altering factor - crowds. Yellowstone and Grand Teton suffer from too much popularity. I last visited Yellowstone in mid-May, 2012 for 2 weeks, and the park was uncrowded on weekdays, but filled to overflowing on the weekends. After Memorial Day, the park filled and stayed full the entire summer. Now I read from fellow photographers that bus-based tours and the general popularity have the park crowded all the time, so much so that a few I know have abandoned a planned 1 or 2 week stay and gone home (within the last 2 weeks!) Based on all this, I suggest you examine the possibilities of starting in Yellowstone instead of at the Grand Canyon - the earlier you get there the better the crowd condition will be for you.
    I agree that snow is unlikely to cause any real problems. Even in Yellowstone, you might see a segment of the park get a few inches of snow, and in May their snow removal vehicles will probably be in Glacier NP - the only remedy is to let the snow melt. But that will only affect a part of the park and probably for only a part of a day, not something that could spoil the visit.
    One radical proposal - divide the trip into 2 major segments. Fly from SFO to Jackson WY to minimize the crowds in Yellowstone and Grand Teton, and then devise a loop south from Grand Teton to see Utah (Zion, Escalante, Canyonlands) and the North Rim with the goal of ending in Jackson, WY again, to turn in the car. Then Fly to Canada (Banff), rent a car and travel across Canada to Vancouver. This gets you to Yellowstone earliest to help with the crowd issue and avoids turning in a car in another country. It leaves out Glacier NP, which I suggest is a reasonable idea - the only road that crosses the park is the famous Going to the Sun Road, which may be open at the very end of your schedule, but it may not be open until July, and the park can't predict the opening date very far in advance. Something to consider, at least.
    I envy you your trip. Hope the both of you have as much fun as the trip looks like!
  7. Yes, it's doable.
    I assume that you visited the South rim of the Grand Canyon on a prior tour. If not, you must not miss it. Go early in your trip and you'll miss the ridiculous crowds that start at Memorial Day. The most iconic views are from the South rim. Pray for angry skies and dramatic scenes in the canyon. On the drive up from the South to the North rims, you'll go through the Painted Desert and a beautiful drive down to the rim through aspen. They'll have their new leaves at that time of year and they'll still quake for you, just not golden.
    You're not really seeing the Rocky Mountains, but the Tetons are pretty spectacular. Even though it's a generous schedule, you still can't do everything. I don't see where you can go wrong. The earlier the better. Snow adds interest, so don't avoid it. Get a 4wd SUV for your steed.
  8. Many thanks to all responders thus far.
    We have noticed that the US appears to be so heavily geared up for 'summer holidays' and that's when the crowd numbers swell at most touristy places. In our previous trips we have very often been delighted to find ourselves two of a just handful of people or often the only people at so many truly beautiful locations - saying to each other that there are 300 million people in this country but we are the only people right here, right now or words to that effect. In Australia we have a vast empty outdoors and only 8.3% of the US population - but never have we been so often alone in beautiful places as we have in the USA.
    That said, our two day visit to Yosemite Valley in late June 2011 had daily attendance figures of 22,000 and 25,000 which blew our little minds a bit. We also drove the Tioga Road over the Memorial Day weekend of 2014 and found it the perfect dichotoma of nature and automotive snarl. Only 2 days later (Tuesday after Memorial Day Public Holiday we visited Lassen and were so surprised to find it largely devoid of tourists. My point to all this is that we are aware and accept that weekends are more crowded and the further into summer we go, the more busy everything gets.
    Maybe we should be looking to start our 6 week trip 2 weeks earlier ie close to the beginning of May and finish mid June?
    In past trips, visiting places like Yosemite, Sequoia, Lassen, Crater Lake and Olympic NP, we have stayed in places well away from the park boundaries and have been happy to drive an hour or more both ways each day. Just to visit such majestic places is an honour. Having to get a motel room an hour away from the park gate is no biggie for us. However, as I'm very keen to do some low angle sun photography myself this trip, we might have to fork out for more expensive accommodation closer to the location in one or two choice places - this will have to be booked early,early,early........ I get it.
    Many thanks for the car hire tips - we will take the trouble to check if airport pick-up and drop-offs are more costly and will look into USA/Canada drop off issues. Last time Enterprise Rentals said they were OK with this ....but we never made it to Canada.
    I had a friend visit the Grand Canyon in mid May 2015 via Las Vegas ( I assume this is the South Rim) and he said it was 5-7 people deep by 10am in most places. From what I read here and elsewhere on he must have visited on a weekend and was simply too late in the day. If we have to fly to Vegas then yes, a look at the south rim makes sence.
    We are Australian plant lovers who crave rain and moisture. We love snow, even if it meant places like Crater Lake were closed on our first trip. I'd never experienced clean, dry powder snow until I drove over the shoulder of Mt Hood in a snow shower with no need for the windscreen wipers! A 4wd hire vehicle? Why not, I use one every day for work........ extra opportunities might eventuate.........
  9. Regarding May visits to Grand Teton, roads are closed until May 1st. I used to visit Jackson Hole yearly for the Memorial Day celebrations, but outside of town, hiking was often limited by snow (post-holing up the the crotch is no fun) and boggy conditions on many trails in the valley. Trails up into the mountains were usually blocked by snow. On the plus side, the wildlife is still in the valleys and close to the roads. My last pass through Yellowstone in early June was in a snow storm. I would recommend setting the southern half of your itinerary as the starting point.
    Also be aware that the August 21st, 2017 eclipse track goes through GTNP so there may be a frenzy of lodging bookings next year. May, and the first half of June have never been busy times but next year may be an anomaly.
  10. Matthew, vacationing among other vacationers here can wear out v. quickly. Most people here set their vacations during Summer so they can be with their children (+ weather) = massive traffic. Anyhoo, you add international tourism....and you have a mess on your hands. Those that want some quiet, nature contemplation and not having to rub elbows with others, they tend to pick off season for traveling. But, over the years, and this is my personal observation, many older folks wised up to this and there seem to be a substantial increase in motorhome/trailer traffic in Sept/Oct......after kids returned to school. Ha, there is a reason why I tend to stay away from Yosemite Valley (last 15 yrs+) while millions flock to it. Indeed, popularity of a place, such as South Rim, it's possible to remove the pleasure from experiencing such wonderful place like the GC. It got to the point that I just go to the North Rim now.
    I totally agree with you on Lassen. When I used to live in Calif, I'd mention this Natl PK and I'd get a quizzical stare. People, as the law of averages go, can be geographically challenged, and those that are familiar with the park usually live within 100 miles from it. As to Crater Lake, I have no idea on their policy, but I went there in March (yr ago ?)....just after a snow dump and although the park was not officially open, but one could drive in and be near the lake at any time of the day or night....the roads that lead to other parts of the lake were closed.
    Allow me add something to what I said previously. First, you could check out Canyonlands, Arches, Zion, Bryce etc. and keep checking when N. Rim doubt the info center in Kanab would know (+ other info places). Sometimes GC (N. Rim) doesn't close as scheduled and it was still opened first week of Nov...this was in 2014. But, that doesn't help your situation much, since you'd be awaiting the opening. Second, there are a sizable number of wonderful state parks, such as Valley of Fire (about 50-60 miles from Vegas) Goblin Valley, Coral Pink Sand Dunes, etc that could occupy you.
    Third, I think you can spend more quality time by concentrating mostly on Utah....and then the rest of the time in Canada. The bottom line is, that you have to choose what's important to you.
    Anyhoo, enjoy your trip and let us know how things are progressing & post some shots from the journey. I intend to do Tetons/Yellowstone for minimum of 10 days...little bit later in the year.
  11. stemked

    stemked Moderator

    As a biologist and having done a similar trip in Australia ( 5 months though) I wish you all my best. There is a small desert in BC, I was there as a kid, but it might be a very different place to go.
    Make sure you hit some alpine areas, maybe Mt Edith Cavel in Jasper. I could spend a life time in Jasper myself. Spring flowers are spectacular in Jasper and with a little hunting might find nice Calypso Orchids.
    IMHO its pretty ambitious.
  12. If there's any way to start in April, I'd advice that. Not only will crowds be reduced, but you'll experience spring at its fullest in many places. Still, as mentioned, then you need to makes sure that places, like the North rim, are open for the resulting dates. I've been to the South rim and North rim in September and the South rim in November and crowds were no problem at either time. I think you'll have similar luck in April through the third week of May.
    Almost every place you mention are best seen at dawn and dusk. I've you're going to stay an hour away, then plan on an early rise and an afternoon nap.
  13. The issue of crowds in Canada is much the same as the US; once the kids leave school the roads fill up. Do remember that the further north you go the slower the sunrise and sunsets are. Also as we approach the summer solstice the daylight lasts and lasts; here in Victoria the sunrise for today was at 5:12 and the sunset at 9:18pm. It's possible to cover a few miles on foot, get some fine images and be done by the time families have finished breakfast and washed the kids. The same holds in the evening. A tripod, a remote release and you're good until you need a flashlight. As others have said, drop-off charges can be significant and harsh over an international boundary. Perhaps plan Canada and US as separate segments. In your planning I wouldn't ignore motorhomes. The daily charge is high but frees you from restaurants and Vancouver-Calgary or reverse is so heavily traveled drop-off charges should be moderate.

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