Day by Day Itinerary

During this national park tour, you'll discover the spirit of the West—epic, wild, and rugged, which is at the heart of the American experience. And the national park is a uniquely American concept—begun with Yellowstone, the model for the protection of our national heritage. Discover five national parks—Yellowstone, the Black Hills of South Dakota, Grand Teton, the Grand Canyon, and Zion National Park—as you traverse six Western states. Explore the natural and man-made marvels of the American West, from the rugged faces on Mount Rushmore to red desert rocks and lush green canyons. Join us on this National Parks tour and witness some of the most magnificent, majestic settings on Earth—and enjoy the exceptional value Grand Circle offers.

South Dakota Colorado Expand All
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    Your arrival time in Rapid City will depend on your departure city. When you arrive, you can settle into your hotel and spend the rest of the day at your leisure. Or begin your stay earlier with our optional pre-trip extension in the Dakota Badlands.

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    This morning, enjoy breakfast at your hotel, followed by an orientation briefing about your tour. After breakfast, take a sightseeing tour of Rapid City on your way to visit Crazy Horse Memorial—visit the Crazy Horse Memorial, the world's largest sculpture, now being constructed just 17 miles southwest of Mount Rushmore. Begun in 1948 by noted sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski at the request of Native Americans, the Memorial includes the Indian Museum of North America, the Native American Cultural Center, the sculptor's studio, and a 40,000-square-foot Orientation Center. The dramatic sculpture of the legendary chief astride his horse fulfills the wish of Lakota Chief Standing Bear spoken at the dedication of the statue in 1948: "My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know that the red man has great heroes, too." Here, you'll have an opportunity to marvel at the massive statue, and also visit the studio where Ziolkowski worked without pay until his death in 1982.

    Continue on to Mount Rushmore. Certainly you've seen photographs and films (remember Hitchcock's North by Northwest?) of this famous monument—with the heads of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and Theodore Roosevelt—sculpted out of the solid granite mountain face to commemorate 150 years of American history. But nothing can compare with viewing it firsthand.

    Enjoy an independent lunch on site, and then head back into the Black Hills. You'll spend the late afternoon at leisure in downtown Rapid City. You may visit the Prairie's Edge and admire its Native American arts and crafts.

    This evening, share a Welcome Dinner with your fellow travelers at your hotel.

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    After breakfast, you'll depart Rapid City and travel through the South Dakota and Wyoming Black Hills.

    Continue on to an included tour at Devil’s Tower. Established in 1906, this is our nation’s first National Monument. The tower stands 1,267 feet above the Belle Fourche River—an almost vertical natural monolith; it’s the remnant of an ancient volcano. Known by some northern plains tribes as Mato Tipi (Bear’s Lodge), it is still a sacred site of worship for many Native Americans. You’ll recognize the massive rock as the landing site of the alien spacecraft in the popular film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. From there, continue to Sheridan, where dinner is on your own this evening.

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    This morning, you travel to Cody. Along the way, majestic scenery—ranging from high plains trails to badlands and canyons with magnificent gorges—greets you as you travel through such romantic regions as the Bighorn Mountains and Shell Falls.

    Stop for a unique learning experience at Dirty Annie’s Country Store, a local landmark where you’ll enjoy lunch on your own, and then regroup to learn about the area’s fossils. You might even have the opportunity to look for some yourself.

    Cody was founded by Buffalo Bill Cody in 1896, and is home to the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. Widely regarded as one of America's finest Western museums, the center advances knowledge about the American West through acquiring, exhibiting, and interpreting collections of artifacts and preserving their physical and contextual integrity. It features five internationally acclaimed museums under one roof—the Whitney Gallery of Western Art, the Buffalo Bill Museum, the Plains Indian Museum, the Cody Firearms Museum, and the Draper Museum of Natural History. Your visit here is an excellent opportunity to acclimate yourself to the history and culture of the lands you'll be visiting over the next few days.

    The rest of your evening is at leisure. Dinner is on your own tonight.

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    Today after breakfast, depart Cody for a scenic drive to West Yellowstone, Montana. This relaxed small town serves as a perfect gateway to Yellowstone National Park. During this all-day transfer, you’ll stop en route at Mammoth Hot Springs to enjoy a picnic lunch on your own.

    Early this evening, stroll the town of West Yellowstone and enjoy dinner on your own in a local restaurant

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    Spend the day in the first of America’s national parks, set aside originally to preserve its remarkable geothermal formations—there are more geysers and hot springs here than in the rest of the world combined. The thundering falls of the great Yellowstone River have carved out a magnificent canyon.

    Take in the natural phenomena of shooting geysers, and keep your eyes open for bighorn sheep, elk, coyote, grizzly, black bear, and other wildlife, as you spend your day in this park that remains 99% undeveloped—a true wilderness. You also stop at Firehole Falls, Midway Geyser Basin, and the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. You'll also visit Old Faithful, the famed geyser that has been spouting an average of once every hour for 100 years. During the Washburn-Langford-Doane Expedition in 1870, this famous geyser was officially given its name—the first in the park to don its own name. You'll rest here with time to explore on your own, and to enjoy lunch and views of this natural wonder.

    Spend your evening relaxing at your hotel. Dinner is on your own.

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    This morning, depart for your tour of Grand Teton National Park, which is sure to offer awe-inspiring photographic opportunities. Stop and take in the scenery at such favorite spots as Jackson Lake, Mountainview, and Jenny Lake. Lunch is on your own during your time in the park. You’ll also stop at the Chapel on the Transfiguration, a small 1925 log cabin with a commanding view of the mountains—the petite interior invokes the grandeur of the landscape with a picture window behind the altar. 

    Long before the pioneers came west, the rock formations of the Grand Tetons presided over a traditional summer home for the Native Americans. When the early “mountain men” ventured out this way, the area became a destination for hunters and fur-trappers. The first permanent settlers arrived in 1881, establishing Jackson Hole as a cattle-ranching center.

    The skiing industry took off here in the 1930s and Jackson Hole remains a winter sports mecca to this day. In the summer, this year-round resort offers hiking, river rafting, camping, and other outdoor activities. After touring the Tetons, you’ll have a chance to walk about the Jackson Town Square.

    Tonight is at leisure and dinner is on your own. Your Program Director can offer restaurant suggestions.

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    Explore Jackson Hole at your own pace today. One of the world’s most splendid locations, the town of Jackson in Jackson Hole offers eclectic shops, restaurants, and cafes, as well as more than 40 galleries and museums.

    Perhaps you'll visit the National Musueum of Wildlife Art, with a permanent collection featuring paintings and sculptures by more than 100 artists, ranging from early American tribes through modern-day artists.

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    After breakfast, begin your transfer from Jackson Hole to Salt Lake City, site of the 2002 Winter Olympics. En route, you'll stop for lunch on your own. Then, you’ll continue on through open valleys and mountain passes on your way to Utah’s state capital.

    This afternoon, arrive in Salt Lake City and embark on a walking tour of Temple Square. Temple Square contains a monument to Brigham Young and the “Three Witnesses Monument,” honoring the three men who testified that an angel showed them the golden plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated. You’ll marvel at the awesome Tabernacle, dedicated in 1893, and famous for its amazing acoustics and Mormon Tabernacle Choir. The massive Temple with its six spires dominates the square.

    Tonight, enjoy an included dinner at a local restaurant.

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    You'll depart Salt Lake City this morning. En route to Bryce Canyon, you’ll stop at the legendary “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” which got its name from the Harry McClintock song—the colors of the hills reminded locals of the lyrics, and what began as a joke has stuck throughout the years. Enjoy lunch on your own during a stop en route to the park. Bryce Canyon National Park is a collection of natural amphitheaters carved out of pink limestone and sandstone. Here, the force of rivers, rain, frost, and erosion has sculpted a myriad of whimsical rock formations called hoodoos. They are shaped in colorful spires, bridges, and arches that resemble a fairyland. Truly, it’s a photographer’s paradise.

    The Park itself contains majestic ponderosa pines and deep evergreen forests. It is named for a Mormon farmer, Ebenezer Bryce, who was one of the first settlers in the area. You will find it a spectacular place, and the high elevation of the Park gives it some of the best air quality in the country.

    Tonight, you'll join your group for an included dinner at Ebenezer’s Barn, along with a cowboy show.

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    After breakfast, depart for Zion National Park. This park encompasses the crossroads of the Mojave Desert, Colorado Plateau, and Great Basin. You'll see where red desert rocks mingle with crystal rivers, aspen forest, and lush green canyons at this truly unique intersection of life zones. You'll want to pay close attention not just to the landscape, but also the sky—Zion is home to golden eagles, peregrine falcons, and the rare endangered California condor.

    Natural hanging gardens and scenic views of Zion’s most prominent mountain, the Great White Throne, line the path to Weeping Rock, where water seeps down from the cliff and forms a veil of "tears" spanning the rock alcove. Weeping Rock is the most popular of Zion's 14 trails, but the park is a destination for adventure seekers who come to rock-climb and hike The Narrows, an intense river trail that zigzags through glistening canyon walls.

    You'll dine with your group back at the hotel in the evening.

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    Get ready for a spectacular ride along the Kaibab Plateau and National Forest to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Less commercialized than the South Rim, the North Rim is wilder and more pristine.

    Upon arrival, you'll sit down to an included lunch in the Grand Canyon Lodge dining room—where incredible views from its floor-to-ceiling windows are always on the menu.

    After lunch, you’ll explore the North Rim. After spending time at this most marvelous of our country’s natural wonders, ride to Page, Arizona and the Glen Canyon Recreation Area, crossing the Colorado River en route. The canyons, deserts, and spectacular cliffs that you pass on the huge Navajo Reservation are sure to be another highlight of your trip.

    This evening, enjoy dinner on your own.

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    This morning, travel to Lake Powell for an Antelope Canyon boat cruise. Formed in 1963 with the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam, Lake Powell is 187 miles long, with almost 100 major side canyons, and a shoreline of more than 1,900 miles. Your boat cruise takes you through lovely scenery featuring dramatic rock formations soaring out of the water.

    You will have time for lunch at the Lake Powell Resort and a walk around the area. Then enjoy time to relax at the hotel.

    Or, view Antelope Canyon from another stunning vantage point—on land, in a nimble yet safe and comfortable vehicle. Ride to the canyon, where you will enjoy an easy walk through the canyon to see its awesome, natural sculptures of stone.

    This evening, enjoy an included dinner and insightful exclusive Discovery Series discussion led by a local expert on the region's Navajo culture.

    Please note: The Antelope Slot Canyon Experience optional tour is not available on Sundays.

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    After breakfast, you’ll venture deep into Navajo country to the grandeur of Monument Valley. This rugged terrain may remind you of classic Western films. John Ford first used Monument Valley in his 1938 film Stagecoach starring John Wayne, and it appeared in several of his subsequent films. The stunning weathered sandstone buttes and windswept towers co-starred with “the Duke” again in Ford’s 1956 film, The Searchers. Experiencing it firsthand will give you a humbling picture of how vast and timeless this beautiful area is.

    After an included lunch in Monument Valley, travel on to Durango, Colorado.

    Tonight, you can ask your Program Director for restaurant suggestions in town.

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    Today, you’re free to do as you please. Durango was founded as a rail hub to service local mines and smelters. Many of the original pioneer buildings are still in use, and today you might visit the historic districts of Third or Main Avenue for insight into that period of American history. Durango was featured in the classic Western film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

    Or, join an optional excursion to explore the ancient cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde National Park, the first archaeological park established in our National Parks System and designated a World Cultural Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1978. Mesa Verde, Spanish for “Green Table,” offers an unparalleled opportunity to see and experience a unique cultural landscape through the best-preserved archaeological site in the United States. More than 1,000 years ago, these cliffs were occupied by a group of people who built complex stone villages sheltered in recesses and alcoves high along the sheer cliff walls. The area remained occupied for about 700 years. Native tribes have long known of this site—as many as 24 Native American tribes can trace their ancestry to the cliff-dwellers—but the area was brought to worldwide attention when Europeans first beheld them in the 1800s.

    This evening, enjoy a trip to James Ranch, an organic family-run farm and ranch in beautiful Animas River Valley. One of the owners will teach about the farm's history, and you will have the chance to explore the grounds before enjoying a family-style dinner made with ingredients from the farm.

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    Today, you travel through some of Colorado’s untouched terrain aboard the coal-fired Narrow Gauge Railroad, which connects the two Victorian towns of Durango and Silverton. Rolling on the rails through 45 miles of beautiful landscape in turn-of-the-century passenger cars, you’ll get a real feel for travel as it was in the 19th century. Arrive in Silverton late morning.

    Continue your journey to Grand Junction after an included lunch in Silverton and a visit to a local chocolate factory.

    Enjoy dinner at a local restaurant tonight.

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    After breakfast, depart on your northward journey to the Denver metropolitan area, traveling through some of the most beautiful mountain scenery of the Rockies. Stop in the international resort town of Vail for lunch on your own, and arrive at your hotel in the afternoon.

    This evening, revisit the highlights of your trip over a Farewell Dinner with your fellow travelers.

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    • Meals included:

    After breakfast, transfer to the airport for your flight home.


Traveler Reviews

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Questions and Answers

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Questions and Answers

Want to know more about one of our vacations? Now, when you post a question, travelers who have been on that trip can provide you with an honest, unbiased answer based on their experience—providing you with a true insider’s perspective.

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Weather & Regional

Before you travel, we encourage you to learn about the region of the world you'll discover on this trip. From weather and currency information to details on population, geography, and local history, you'll find a comprehensive introduction to your destinations below.

Visit our “What to Know” page to find information about the level of activity to expect, vaccination information resources, and visa requirements specific to this vacation.

Currency Cheat Sheet: Submit

What to Know

For more detailed information about this trip, download our Travel Handbook below. This document covers a wide range of information on specific areas of your trip, from passport, visa, and medical requirements; to the currencies of the countries you’ll visit and the types of electrical outlets you’ll encounter. This handbook is written expressly for this itinerary. For your convenience, we've highlighted our travelers' most common areas of interest on this page.

Download the Travel Handbook

What to Expect


  • 10 locations in 18 days, including 5 single-night stays

Physical requirements

  • Travelers using wheelchairs, scooters, walkers, crutches, or other mobility aids must travel with a companion who can assist them throughout the trip
  • You must be able to walk 1 mile unassisted and participate in 3-4 hours of physical activities each day, including stairs


  • 10 full days at altitudes between 5,000-9,000 feet


  • Daytime temperatures range from 65-92°F during touring season
  • June-August are the warmest months
  • Nighttime temperatures can fall to 40-50°F


  • Travel over uneven walking surfaces, unpaved paths, steep hills, stairs, and stone


  • Travel by 55-seat motorcoach, boat, and train
  • 8 days feature 6-10 hours of travel by motorcoach


  • Food is based on the local cuisine


U.S. citizens do not need a visa for this trip.

If you are not a U.S. citizen, do not travel with a U.S. passport, or will be traveling independently before/after this trip, then your entry requirements may be different. Please check with the appropriate embassy or a visa servicing company. To contact our recommended visa servicing company, PVS International, call toll-free at 1-800-556-9990.

Vaccinations Information

For a detailed and up-to-date list of vaccinations that are recommended for this trip, please visit the CDC’s “Traveler’s Health” website. You can also refer to the handbook for details.

Before Your Trip

Before you leave on your vacation, there are at least four health-related things you should do. Please check the handbook for specifics, but for now, here’s the short list:

Step 1: Check with the CDC for their recommendations for the countries you’ll be visiting.
Step 2: Have a medical checkup with your doctor.
Step 3: Pick up any necessary medications, both prescription and over-the-counter.
Step 4: Have a dental and/or eye checkup. (Recommended, but less important than steps 1-3.)

What to Bring

In an effort to help you bring less, we have included checklists within the handbook, which have been compiled from suggestions by Program Directors and former travelers. The lists are only jumping-off points—they offer recommendations based on experience, but not requirements. You might also want to refer to the climate charts in the handbook or online weather forecasts before you pack. Refer to the handbook for details.

Insider Tips


Main Trip

  • Holiday Inn Rushmore Plaza

    Rapid City, South Dakota | Rating: First Class

    Located near historic Rapid City, the Holiday Inn Rushmore Plaza features an eight-story open atrium with cascading waterfalls, restaurant, and lounge. Hotel amenities include an indoor pool, dry-cleaning/laundry services, as well as on-site ATMs and a front desk safe. Each air-conditioned room features a telephone, TV, radio, iron, coffee- and tea-making facilities, and private bath with shower and hair dryer.

    Please note: Select departures feature similar accommodations.

  • Comfort Inn & Suites, Sheridan

    Sheridan, Wyoming | Rating: Limited Service First Class

    Located within a 15-minute walk from the downtown attractions of Sheridan, the Comfort Inn & Suites offers all the amenities to make your stay comfortable and relaxing. Each air-conditioned room include wireless Internet access, safe, satellite TV, a refrigerator and microwave oven, and coffee- and tea-making facilities.

    Please note: Select departures feature similar accommodations.

  • Holiday Inn at Buffalo Bill Village

    Cody, Wyoming | Rating: First Class

    Situated in the heart of the Buffalo Bill Village Resort, the Holiday Inn features an outdoor pool, health and fitness center, laundry/dry cleaning facilities, and high-speed wireless Internet access. Each air-conditioned room includes a cable/satellite TV, telephone, coffee- and tea-making facilities, refrigerator, and private bath.

    Please note: Select departures feature similar accommodations.

  • Best Western Desert Inn

    West Yellowstone, Montana | Rating: Superior First Class

    Located within walking distance of the west entrance to Yellowstone National Park, Best Western Desert Inn is also near many of the area’s historic sites, including Grizzly Wolf Discovery Center. Hotel amenities include an indoor, heated swimming pool, and each air-conditioned room features a refrigerator, microwave, coffee- and tea-making facilities, satellite TV, Internet access, and private bath with hair dryer.

    Please note: Select departures feature similar accommodations.

  • Snow King Resort Hotel

    Jackson, Wyoming | Rating: First Class

    At the base of Snow King Mountain in Jackson, Wyoming, the Snow King Resort Hotel combines rustic styling with mountain views and modern amenities, including an on-site restaurant and lounge, barber and salon, outdoor whirlpools, sauna, day spa, heated outdoor pool, and a seasonal ski shop. Each air-conditioned room features a TV, complimentary high-speed Internet, coffee- and tea-making facilities, and private bath.

    Please note: Select departures feature similar accommodations.

  • Hampton Inn Salt Lake City

    Salt Lake City, Utah | Rating: Moderate First Class

    Located near many of the city's main attractions, including Energy Solutions Arena and Temple Square, the Hampton Inn Salt Lake City features a fitness room and swimming pool. Each air-conditioned room includes complimentary high-speed Internet access, a TV, and private bath.

    Please note: Select departures feature similar accommodations.

  • Best Western Bryce Canyon Grand Hotel

    Bryce Canyon City, Utah | Rating: Moderate First Class

    Located a short drive from Bryce Canyon, the Best Western Bryce Canyon Grand Hotel offers convenience in both its location and amenities. Each air-conditioned room features a TV and wireless Internet access. The hotel lobby, complete with exposed wood beams and a cozy stone fireplace, provides an excellent place to sit down and relax.

    Please note: Select departures feature similar accommodations.

  • Courtyard by Marriott

    Page, Arizona | Rating: Limited Service First Class

    This Limited Service First-Class, 153-room hotel offers sweeping views of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Lake Powell, and is within walking distance of Glen Canyon Dam and Antelope Canyon. Hotel amenities include two restaurants, a fitness center, and swimming pool. Each room features a TV, high-speed Internet access, coffee- and tea-making facilities, and private bath with iron and hair dryer.

    Please note: Select departures feature similar accommodations.

  • Best Western Plus Rio Grande Inn

    Durango, Colorado | Rating: Moderate First Class

    The Best Western Plus Rio Grande Inn features a fitness room, pool and hot tub, and lounge. Each air-conditioned room includes complimentary wireless Internet access, satellite TV, coffee- and tea-making facilities, and a private bath with hair dryer.

    Please note: Select departures feature similar accommodations.

  • DoubleTree by Hilton Grand Junction

    Grand Junction, Colorado | Rating: First Class

    Located in the heart of the Western Colorado mountains, the DoubleTree Grand Junction is a comfortable home-away-from-home. Your room features air conditioning, satellite TV, a telephone, and coffee- and tea-making facilities.


  • Holiday Inn Rushmore Plaza

    Rapid City, South Dakota | Rating: First Class

    Located near historic Rapid City, the Holiday Inn Rushmore Plaza features an eight-story open atrium with cascading waterfalls, restaurant, and lounge. Hotel amenities include an indoor pool, dry-cleaning/laundry services, as well as on-site ATMs and a front desk safe. Each air-conditioned room features a telephone, TV, radio, iron, coffee- and tea-making facilities, and private bath with shower and hair dryer.

    Please note: Select departures feature similar accommodations.

Flight Information

Flight Options to Personalize Your Trip

You can choose to stay longer before or after your trip on your own, or combine two vacations to maximize your value.

  • Extend your vacation and lower your per day cost with our optional pre- and post-trip excursions
  • Choose our standard air routing, or work with us to select the airline and routing you prefer
  • Make your own international flight arrangements directly with the airline, applying frequent flyer miles if available
  • International airport transfers to and from your ship or hotel, including meet and greet service, are available for purchase
  • Stay overnight in a connecting city before or after your trip
  • Request to arrive a few days early to get a fresh start on your vacation
  • Choose to "break away" before or after your trip, spending additional days or weeks on your own
  • Combine your choice of Grand Circle vacations to maximize your value
  • Upgrade to business or premium class

The air options listed above may involve additional airfare costs based on your specific choices.

Or, when you make your reservation, you can choose our standard air routing, for which approximate travel times are shown below.

What Makes This Trip Unique

Exclusive Discovery Series Events

  • Navajo culture discussion. Participate in a fascinating discussion on the region's rich culture, led by a local expert.
  • James Ranch visit. Enjoy a visit to a family-owned farm in Colorado, and enjoy a family-style meal here with farm-fresh ingredients.

Enjoy the opportunity to visit 3 UNESCO World Heritage Sites

  • Yellowstone National Park
  • Grand Canyon National Park
  • Mesa Verde National Park

Discover the spirit of the American West

  • Visit 6 states and 5 national parks on one trip.
  • Ride the Durango & Silverton Narrow-Gauge Railroad, following the path of settlers before you, and learn how this narrow-gauge railway has been steaming its way through the Rocky Mountains for 125 years.

10 Reasons to experience America's Majestic National Parks—in the words of our travelers

The best endorsements of our discovery-rich vacations come directly from those who have traveled there. From rugged desert rock formations to majestic, roaming wildlife, here are some of the memorable experiences travelers have shared from our Zion National Park, Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone tour.

Scenic landscapes
"This was my first trip in the U.S. after five trips abroad, and I must say the scenery took my breath away. You can never imagine how beautiful things are until you see them up close and in person. Travel books do not do them justice."
An 8-time traveler from East Meadow, NY

Program Directors
"The thought of a 2900-mile bus ride was daunting. However, the insights of our imaginative guide, Tim, augmented by his amazing DVDs and entertaining daily contests, made our 18 days though America's National Parks an adventure full of awesome sights and happy trails."
An 11-time traveler from Burlington, NC

Antelope Slot Canyon Experience optional tour
"The Antelope Slot Canyon was amazing for its spectacular views of light playing off the natural stone sculptures, and laughter was abundant on the bumpy ride that gets you there through Navajo desert land."
A 3-time traveler from Agawam, MA

Yellowstone National Park
"I would recommend an early morning while at Yellowstone to catch the sunrise. The quiet, misty lake is a memory that lingers."
A 29-time traveler from Oswego, NY

Durango & Silverton Narrow-Gauge Railroad
"The train ride from Durango to Silverton, with the color of the fall leaves and the mountain streams, was awe-inspiring."
A 3-time traveler from West Deptford Township, NJ

Bryce Canyon National Park
"The most awesome part of the trip was seeing Bryce Canyon. The hoodoos are spectacular and were the highlight of my trip."
An 8-time traveler from Basking Ridge, NJ

Cultural discoveries
"The added extras made this trip really great, such as stops at unique shops, lectures by local experts, and opportunities to experience extra options such as hearing the Mormon Tabernacle Choir rehearse, and watching Native Americans craft jewelry. We would recommend this trip highly."
A 12-time traveler from Elizabeth City, NC

Grand Canyon National Park
"The North Rim of the Grand Canyon is beyond belief in its grandeur and size."
An 18-time traveler from Mankato, MN

The Dakota Badlands pre-trip extension
"If I must choose a favorite place on this trip it would be Badlands National Park. I had never, ever seen anything like this barren yet exquisite landscape. Prairie dogs living in Prairie Dog Town were delightful. And each day after that was just as exciting and merry."
An 8-time traveler from Charlottesville, VA

"Elk, eagles, big horn sheep, and bison galore. One was walking in the middle of the road and our bus had to go very slow so as not to scare or hit it. We got some great pictures."
A 6-time traveler from Los Angeles, CA

For reservations and information about our Zion National Park, Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone tour, call us toll-free at 1-800-221-2610

The Lesser-Known Names of Yellowstone

The men who helped make the world’s first National Park a reality

by Philip McCluskey, for Grand Circle

Hayden’s survey, along with Moran’s sketches and Jackson’s photography, captured the imagination of the nation ...

The man most often associated with the founding of Yellowstone National Park is Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th president of the United States. It’s understandable; after all, Grant was the man who signed Yellowstone into existence in March 1, 1872, enshrining this two-million-acre plot of land as a “public park … for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”

That day marked the creation of the world’s first national park—and the beginning of a new era of conservation, wildlife protection, and tourism that has since taken root all over the world.  It’s not hard to see why this place was chosen. Yellowstone is geologically fascinating: There are more than 10,000 thermal features in the park, including geysers, mud pots, and fumaroles (fissures that emit steam from under the Earth’s crust). The park is also home to scores of mammal species such as bears, bison, moose and mountain lions. And of course, it is a stunningly beautiful landscape of grasslands, rivers, mountains, and waterfalls that has left visitors in awe for more than 140 years.

And while Grant can certainly be credited with officially designating the wilderness as a protected natural playground, he is far from the only one responsible for making this first great American park a reality.

After hundreds of years in which Native Americans were the sole visitors to this region, John Colter was the first person of European descent to explore it. Colter was a mountain man who was part of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and spent the winter of 1807-1808 discovering the area now known as Yellowstone on his own. In spite of brutal conditions (including temperatures that often dipped to 30 below zero), Colter made his way hundreds of miles through the unforgiving wilderness. When he returned to civilization, he told stories of geysers and gurgling cauldrons. Many dismissed his descriptions and playfully called the region “Colter’s Hell.”

After the Civil War, interest in the American West grew, and other people began to see that the area Colter described was more paradise than purgatory. One of them was Nathaniel P. Langford. While he lived a fascinating life during which he was a tax collector and a Montana vigilante, Langford was better known as a member of the famed Washburn–Langford–Doane Expedition to Yellowstone in 1870. He was an active proponent of the idea of national parks—so much so that he would say his first two initials stood for National Park.  Langford was chosen the park’s first superintendent, and Mount Langford, in the park’s Absaroka Range, is named after him.

While tales of the explorations of this region certainly piqued the interest of Americans, it is difficult to imagine Congress taking the unprecedented action of creating a national park without the members of the Hayden Geological Survey.

The survey’s leader was Ferdinand Vandiveer Hayden, a geologist and physician who served as an Army surgeon during the Civil War, eventually rising to be the chief medical officer of the Army of the Shenandoah.  After the war, he was named the geologist-in-charge at the United States Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories, and in 1871 was assigned to do a survey of Yellowstone.

Though dozens joined Hayden on the expedition, two men stood out (in addition to Hayden himself) for the impact they would have. They were not geologists, but artists: painter Thomas Moran and photographer William Henry Jackson.

Moran was an illustrator who was recommended to Hayden by the financier Jay Cooke, who spoke of the artist’s “rare genius.”  Moran joined the team and drew 30 different places along their route, which captured the true beauty of the region and later the admiration of Americans. His career took off: Today, one of Moran’s paintings, The Three Tetons, can be found in the Oval Office of the White House. The painter was forever linked with the park, and he embraced the connection: he even signed some of his paintings “TYM” for Thomas “Yellowstone” Moran.

Jackson was recruited by Hayden after he’d taken photographs of scenery along the Union Pacific Railroad.  As an artist in a relatively new medium, in a place that hadn’t seen cameras before, Jackson was able to create stunning photographs of scenery most of the world had never seen. As it had with Moran, the Yellowstone expedition launched Jackson’s career—one that would continue for another 70 years until his death in 1942.

Hayden’s survey, along with Moran’s sketches and Jackson’s photography, captured the imagination of the nation and the attention of its legislators. It wasn’t long before Congress passed a law to make Yellowstone the first of many national parks, and for the bill to find its way to U.S. Grant’s presidential desk.

On that day in 1872, President Grant did indeed make history. But he was merely the last in a long line of intrepid men who helped make it happen.