Want to get out there into the world-famous National Parks of America, find yourself in some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet - but feel a bit cash-strapped and/or short of time?
Once you’ve got your ESTA travel authorisation sorted, here’s what you can do if you have just 10 days to spare…
First of all, consider your season. Did you know that whilst November in Britain is pretty much guaranteed to be dull and wet (not to mention short on evening light), over there in the South West of the USA they are basking in sunny days long enough - and cool enough - for all your best sight seeing and most challenging outdoor pursuits? With the high season long gone, accommodation is also considerably cheaper, and the most popular, scenic highlights are pleasingly quiet. And remember, this is dessert territory, so if you were planning for an early winter trip now, for example, the probability of rain is given as 0%.
So let’s start with a windy autumn day in Manchester, hop onto a 10-hour Virgin flight, leaving at lunch time and arriving at a very civilised 4pm in Las Vegas. Cost? £370 return when booked a few months in advance. It’s a good idea to get your online ESTA authorisation around the same time – given that this trip is for pleasure, and lasts for less than 90 days, as a British citizen you are eligible to apply for ESTA, avoiding the need for a US visa.
Once in Vegas, it’s worth wandering around for a day or two, even if it is just to marvel at the hugeness and gaudiness of this spectacular playground for grownups. Betting the house on red is optional, but who knows if on a lucky day you might not fund the whole trip this way? And yes, there are some truly jaw-dropping hotels with prices to match on The Strip, but why not stay a few blocks away? There are plenty of decent, low-cost alternatives in the nearby suburbs too. Try the lovely gated communities of Henderson, for example, or Boulder City (commute time 22 minutes) with its gorgeous lake and mesa views.
After a couple of days of Vegas lifestyle, you should be nicely acclimatised to the differences in time and in portion size, and ready for an unforgettable road trip. Nip back to McCarran airport to pick up a rental car for the week ahead. First stop, 170 easy, beautiful miles later - Zion National Park. At this time of year, you are much more likely to be lucky enough to stay in its much-praised, traditionally styled lodge, the only accommodation within the National Park. If you do, you’ll be sent a permit allowing you to drive through the Canyon itself, which is otherwise only open to shuttle buses. If you can’t stretch to the £180 nightly rate for a two double-bedded cabin, then you’ll do considerably better in nearby Springdale, where you will also have a greater choice of places to eat. Stay at the lodge if you can though, the beauty and solitude of your environment at the beginning and end of each day will take your breath away. You’ll certainly never eat at a restaurant with such amazing views of those towering red cliffs either.
If you were organised enough to collect your rented wet suit in Springdale the day before, then you will be ready bright and early for taking on the extraordinary river walk that is The Narrows, listed in Conde Nast Traveller’s Best 13 Hikes in the World. Trek as far as you like upstream, sometimes in waist deep water, as the light and water play on canyon walls providing you with spectacular scenes and side canyons round every corner. Go as far as you like, just allow time for your gentle downstream return to the Temple of Sinawava at the end of the Riverside Walk path, where you started. Horseback and bike hire are other options for exploring this stunning park, or hire a guide and be shown some of the lesser known wild places.
Next come the hoodoos! Utah’s extraordinary stone formations in and around Bryce Canyon, 86 head-turning miles further on, have been likened to a petrified stone forest. These goblin-like figures are the result of Nature’s ongoing battle with the 40-million-year-old rocks - some of these skinny, mineral rich multi-coloured spires are the equivalent of ten storeys high. Their alternating hard and soft rock layers erode at different paces, making for some truly unique and splendid scenery, best seen from short walks like The Rim, the Navajo Loop and the Queens’s Garden trails. This area is at a chilly 10,000 foot elevation, but to make up for some very cold nights and sparse population, you can expect the sort of star-filled night sky that you could usually only see through a good telescope.
There is a wonderful little short cut from here, located at Canonville, which takes you to the Glen Canyon Recreational Area around Lake Powell in Page, Arizona. This back road route to Page is a mostly unpaved scenic track called Cottonwood Canyon, which is home to the intricate, double-arched stone formation of Grosvenor Arch. The Kodachrome Basin State Park is down here too - so named by National Geographic for its intensely colour-rich chimneys and cliffs. You’d be insane, however, to try this 46-mile dirt road towards Page if there was even a whiff of rain in the preceding days or in the forecast. The whole area quickly becomes a swirling impassable slick, where you might remain stranded and alone for days. Nevertheless, in fine conditions the route is magical, and many travellers happily report wonderful trips along here.
By driving the longer, sensible three-hour route to Page, your journey will still provide you with beauty on all sides. However you get there, once in Page, you should stop a few days to take in some of the area’s highlights. The extraordinary Upper and Lower Antelope Canyons will have you busily camera-clicking to catch the shafts of light hitting the colourful and exquisitely shaped walls. You may feel the same urge when peering down from the giddy overlook onto Horseshoe Bend, taking in the Colorado River as it meanders along to the Grand Canyon.
In Page, you are near enough to Monument Valley to consider a visit to the iconic Buttes and Mesas, which are the backdrop of many a favourite Western film. Flying over by helicopter has to be the quickest and most glamorous, if not cheapest, way to achieve this, and would also allow you to be back in time to spend the afternoon on the great Lake Powell itself, with its 90 side canyons, 2,000 shore miles of twisted red rock and the lovely Rainbow Bridge.
Leave Page to go on to Kanab, less than 2 hours away. You will then be nicely situated to take advantage of the guided day tours on offer. Now you are in the territory of experiences that qualify as Bucket List. For the few people lucky enough to win the online lottery (which is the only way to get a permit to enter either The Wave or South Coyote Buttes), a guide to help you get the most of these areas will guarantee you a day which may well be up there with the best of your life. Tour agencies may also queue for you to try for one of the additional, highly sought after permits that are given out each day. Even without a permit, you will hardly feel that you have drawn the consolation prize with time spent anywhere in the Paria Canyon and Vermillion Cliffs areas, White Pocket being a popular back-up choice.
With another day to spare here, you can take a bumpy jeep trip to the lesser visited but equally spectacular North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Here, the views from Toroweap Overlook will show you just what it is that causes that faraway look in people’s eyes when they tell you about their visit to the Grand Canyon. And as 90% of Grand Canyon Visitors go to the South Rim, you are quite likely to be enjoying all of this in splendid isolation. With this as a suitable finale to your sight seeing road trip, the next stretch of driving will take you the 150 miles back to Las Vegas airport, where you return the car.
This sensational trip is just one of a whole host of ways in which you can spend 10 days in the USA, going it on your own and setting your own space. And whatever you choose to do, you can visit the USA without the need for a visa thanks to the Visa Waiver Programme. To do so, you just need to apply for ESTA online before your trip. Once approved, your ESTA will allow you to travel to the country for up to 90 days at a time, and will remain valid for two years. Thanks to the simplicity of the Visa Waiver Programme and the hassle-free process of applying for ESTA, there’s little excuse to not go on a trip of a lifetime such as this.
So, your journey over and a camera full of photos, now you’ll just have to decide whether to hop straight onto your flight home, or take one last punt at the table …
Travelling to the United States? Do you have your pre-planning checklist in order? Visit our ESTA Guide for more information about obtaining your travel permit. We'd love to hear from you. Send us your comments or questions for travel assistance.