During my three day stay in Las Vegas, I decided to visit two of the most famous North American national parks – Grand Canyon in Arizona and Death Valley in California. They were a huge contrast from the busy and posh Vegas, and were an integral part of my US experience. While one day is more than enough for the famous casino and party city, even if you’re keen to visit every single hotel on the Strip, the parks are so huge (and so far away from the city) that you could easily spend a few days there and still have lots left to explore.

Grand Canyon

Tour companies offer one- or two-day trips to South or West Rims of the canyon, each a bit different to suit everyone’s taste. For example, the South Rim tours are usually the cheapest, while the West Rim tours include a skywalk (at extra cost) and a visit to a local Native American village. Most companies also offer a helicopter tour for an additional fee.

I visited the South Rim, and the tour included a stopover at the Hoover Dam and Lake Mead. We also passed the Colorado River. At the canyon, we were given three hours to walk around, most of which was spent just walking along the edge of this never-ending, breath-taking natural wonder, reading about its history along the way and admiring the views. There were also a couple of points to climb down for a challenge and a more Instagrammable view.

Empty off-season roads in Death Valley // Edita Pileckyte

Death Valley

Also unbelievably huge, the Death Valley national park offers a range of unforgettable sights. The most famous one is the Badwater Basin, the second lowest point in the Western hemisphere, consisting of salt deposits. Another impressive place is the Artist’s Palette – a range of dunes made of colourful sand. Besides that, you can find sand dunes, rocks, trees, and some short vegetation in the Valley if you know where to go. I didn’t manage to see the whole park in my one-day tour, especially since it took a while to get there from Vegas. On the plus side, we came back to Vegas rather early which allow ed us some time to explore the city.

Guided bus tours: yay or nay?

Before going to any national park, it’s important to decide whether you’re renting a car or booking a tour, since there’s usually no chance of reaching them by public transport (or the hassle is real). The biggest disadvantage of the tours is the price (e.g. $200pp for Death Valley), which is much more expensive than a rental car and the park entrance fee, especially if you split the cost among a group of travellers. Also, the tours don’t give you enough time to explore the area at your own pace or stop anywhere you want (and longer trips with overnight stay naturally cost even more).

However, having a guide is handy since you not only get to hear interesting facts about places you’re passing by but also don’t have to worry about getting lost or experiencing problems with the car, which, for example, can spontaneously stop working in the extreme heat in the middle of the desert. In my case, the weather in Grand Canyon happened to be much different from hot and dry +40oC in Vegas – it was rainy, windy, and you could see lightning bolts in the distance. And though I couldn’t complain – I was at the freakin’ Grand Canyon with a double rainbow in the sky – I have to admit I was relieved knowing my bus will take me back to my accommodation safely. If I had drove there by myself and wandered somewhere far away along the narrow paths, getting suddenly caught in such a storm in the middle of the Canyon would not have been fun. Finally, the tours also supply unlimited bottled water that comes in handy in the heat as well as modest breakfast and lunch.

Overall, I’d say the guided tours are safer and more reliable than going on your own and might be worth the extra money but they won’t allow you enough time to explore everything in your own time as you’ll always be on a tight schedule, with no flexibility. But if you’re confident enough to opt for a rental car, make sure you’re well prepared and have GPS signal!