The Grand Circle -- originally a loop to the Grand Canyon, Zion, and Bryce Canyon national parks -- covers much of northern Arizona and southern Utah as well as portions of Colorado, New Mexico, and a sliver of Nevada. Unless you have weeks to explore the area and a hefty travel budget, you can’t even begin to see it all. So how do you tackle it on a budget?
1. Divide and conquer: Focus on one specific area within the Grand Circle, such as northwestern New Mexico. Or hone in on a theme, like Native American heritage or iconic Southwestern destinations. You can also develop an itinerary around a specific activity, such as hiking or mountain biking. Alternatively, plan to spend several days in one national park, like the Grand Canyon, so you can truly experience what it has to offer, and then add a few days to your itinerary to see a few nearby sites.
2. Pick a base: By staying in one place and branching out to several sites, you may be able to receive discounts for an extended hotel stay and reduce transportation costs, by making a few shorter trips instead of one long, continuous road trip. You might even decide to rent a vacation home, giving you the option to save money by preparing a few meals yourself.
Several cities make excellent bases. We recommend Kanab, Utah because it's roughly an hour from the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks. Page, Arizona, which sits on Lake Powell and is close to Rainbow Bridge National Monument, Horseshoe Bend, and Antelope Canyon is also conveniently located. Cortez, Colorado is a short drive to Mesa Verde National Park, Hovenweep National Monument and Canyon of the Ancients National Monument.
3. Buy a pass (or not): If your itinerary includes stops at multiple national parks and monuments, purchasing an annual pass can save you a significant amount of money -- some parks charge a $25 entrance fee per vehicle. You can purchase an annual pass online or on your way into the park for $80, allowing you and your passengers admission to all national parks, monuments, and recreation areas for one year. But the annual pass doesn’t always make sense, especially if you're interested in a mix of state parks and attractions as well. Before you buy, do the math.
4. Consider camping: Accommodations run the gamut in the Grand Circle from luxury resorts to campgrounds. Spending the night at a park lodge, like the El Tovar, is one of the more expensive options ($186/night) -- but gives you access to the park during its quieter early morning and late evening hours. (Many of these lodges are usually located near popular trailheads.) Hotels and motels located in the communities just outside the parks are usually a better value than the park lodges, but if you're willing to drive just a little further, you may be able to find even better deals in nearby towns and cities. The trade-off, though, is that you may have to drive further to get to the park, so you’ll likely arrive during the busiest hours of the day. To stay right in the heart of the parks, campgrounds are definitely your most economical option and are offered in the larger parks.
5. Plan your meals: To save money, you want to avoid the park concessions for the most part -- though it's hard to beat the lodge restaurants in terms of dining with a view. We suggest packing your own lunch and tucking in at a picnic table in the park instead. For dinner, dine at one of the local restaurants in a nearby community, like nearby Tusayan in Arizona in the case of Grand Canyon National Park. But be sure to check menu prices before you commit; just because a restaurant is outside the park doesn't mean that it's any cheaper than what you’d pay inside.