This trip was huge. Not necessarily lavish or long, just so full of wide-eyed wonder. So large-scale that it included all forms of geology. Red arches and rocks with holes, lithic ancient signage in caves, desert trails, sweltering mirages and black tar roads, aqua rivulets and hidden blue lakes, spruce forests below snow-covered peaks… Everything in 110 degree heat, under the bluest of skies and the freshest of air.
We drove close to 2000 miles in little more than a week (map only shows Zion to national parks towards Vegas, does not show one-way journey from Vegas or miles in and around Vegas). We. saw. so. much. It was beautiful and exhilarating to the point of being so overwhelming that 3 continents and 4.5 years later I still get goosebumps from just drawing a map of our tour. That is why it has taken me so long to even begin this travelogue. No, I don’t remember every detail but I remember how I felt.
And for you, dear reader, I will try to re-create that feeling without letting the details mar the beauty.
This is one trip you want to take even if you don’t want to go anywhere else in the southwestern part of this great country. All due respect dear Grand Canyon, and you Death Valley National Park but combining all of your beauties still cannot compare with what Utahn national park trip had to offer.
If you know my style of travel, you know that for trips to be enjoyable they have to be full-bellied and super yummy. So this vacation started at the Paris bakery in Las Vegas NV, right after we got our rental cars.
For the pastries and sandwiches and hot coffee, we set out for Zion national Park, UT.
The roads was straight, the scenery getting prettier as we crossed a tiny stretch of AZ to enter UT- the drive overall pretty uneventful. As we got close to Zion we saw that not only did the color of the soil change, but the color of the paved road did as well. I’m not sure of the engineering reason behind it, but the aesthetically this was the way to go. It created such beautiful symmetry and a sense that now we were entering this whole different world that sang and danced with primary colors instead of the everyday industrial shades we encounter.
Zion was beautiful to say the least. And plenty easy! Our hotel was right by the entrance of the park and was very well-appointed. The entrance town of St. George was a cutesy place with shops and restaurants that had something to offer everyone. You could drive into the park, soaking in the scenery or walk (long walk). The drive especially the road that goes out through the east (Mt. Carmel Highway) is a very scenic drive. But not everyone enjoys driving. If you are so inclined, you could always take the nice shuttle buses inside the park, where you could hop on/hop off at leisure. And thus save enough energy hopefully for the hikes that lay ahead. Or if you feel like it, just sitting in the buses for the whole journey gives a good view of the park too.
Try to catch the sunset colors on the rocks if you can. Darkness descends quite suddenly; since the high structures are so close to you, the sun dips behind much before the real sunset.
Utah has so many beautiful national parks that it’s hard to decide which ones to go first. So instead of driving east into Bryce Canyon, we drove north and then east on Interstate 70 towards Arches National Park.
If you think it’s all rocky and dry, you are mistaken, because all the beautiful structures of stone bridges, gigantic arches and monuments with windows later, there’s the living Nature that animates it. Colorful flowers adorn this beautiful national park in the heart of Beehive State.
Windows, holes and of course arches- a panorama of the Arches National Park.
Some balanced rocks…With these two pictures, lets do a Utah geography 101. Despite the names of the national parks, Mother Earth’s evolution has it’s own way of making statements- monuments are liberally scattered throughout all the national parks, not just limited to Monuments Park. The structures on the right of the above panorama are called hoodoos, also highly prevalent in Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef National Parks. Balanced rocks are just that rocks balanced on top of other rocks in rather precarious ways, often leading to an arch or window formation (see Canyonlands photo below).The “windows” in this picture is a hollowed out rock with holes in adjacent dimensions like 2 windows in a room. Bridges are plentiful throughout the state and canyons have spawn wherever rocks have been split to make way for snaky green streaks of water to gush through.
Now, I live in a pretty historically important city- Cambridge. And I have been to many archaeologically renowned and historically profound places in Europe and Asia, but something about Utah’s parks puts all that to shame. Maybe just the fact that this is not man-made history we are talking of. Standing there, these vistas transport you instantaneously to a time when extinct animals roamed these very grounds, where cavemen scribbled lithographs on the rocks. They hunted and fed and learned- more primal and essential than the empire-building, architecture, the freedom-fights and/or genocide. This is History where Nature was one of the players. Often the winner.
That said these geographical wonders have not always been the same. They are anything but stagnant. Evolving with time, the holes have gotten bigger, rocks have cracked to create canyons and rocks sculpted by the wind to create hoodoos. Did you know that with erosion and climate changes, these structures are always changing? Even today- arches are collapsing and rocks tumbling down. Hurry up and go see them before they are all back to dust.
Getting back to our route, next was Canyonlands National Park, But before we could go there, we took a short detour to Dead Horse Point State Park.
It is said that erstwhile cowboys used to bring their old horses, you know those slowing down due to age and push them down the canyon here to kill them. A cruel, horrible story which could very well be more than urban legend. I wonder what forms of protection against animal cruelty existed at that point. Today, there is a salt mining area right next to where once loyal horses were left to die.
Canyonlands greeted us with more “windows”. The hikes to these monuments were rather short and easy enough to be accomplished in 110 degree sun.
As evening descended, the “needles” of Canyonlands made amazing silhouettes against an ombre painted sky.
We were now running on 5 days without seeing any sizable body of water. Not counting the rivulet in Dead Horse Point. Suddenly out of nowhere was this little oasis like area near Monticello UT, as we drove South on 191 from Canyonlands.
Next deroute was at Natural Bridges Monument. As the name suggests,Three majestic natural bridges were formed by erosion by gushing water. Ideally viewed in the trails they can also be seen from an overlook, Named “Kachina,” “Owachomo” and “Sipapu” in honor of the Native Americans that once made this area their home.
As we trudged our way to Capitol Reef National Park we crossed beautiful monuments like these
Capitol Reef was a relief to our eyes. After days of only looking at the red desert soil and rocks, we were parched for some greenery. Capitol Reef was almost zen-like in it’s paved trails Caterpillars and not unicorns, are magical creatures. And even if you live in less fantasy that I do, you will have to agree that they are some of Nature’s most optimistic souls. So much hope in such little bodies. I had to take a picture of our host caterpillar at Capitol Reef.
Right around there we had to cross the Colorado River in a barge, car and all. Further south this very river widens to become the electric blue Lake Powell which jewels in the stark rays of the sun- the color that competes with the clear blue skies of Utah. You wait in your cars for the ferry to take you to the other side and while on the ferry, you can go out and stand near the rails. For those of you who want to enjoy the water views and vistas of red rock and blue water, but don’t want to spend a couple days on it, this is an inexpensive and very efficient alternative to a cruise or a house boat.
I remember one thing even after so many years, the drive afterwards. Gas stations are sparse, grocery stores hard to come by. For miles the desert stretches and now that you’ve seen water once you are really thirsty for some blue-greens but guess what you are in this stretch for the long haul. I remember the mirages on the onyx roads and how my companions dozed off in the sultry long drive while I kept driving on, mentally making note to buy a better pair of sunglasses and add to our water supply.
Once we settled into our hotels, we set out to drive through the park. This seemed like one of the bigger parks in area, or maybe we were really tired. It definitely was one of the hotter days. Who knew that the sun would descend and send shivers up our spines with a zappy quick temperature drop?
Some hoodoos at Bryce Canyon right before sunset. What we loved about Bryce and all the other parks was that they were for everyone. You didn’t need to be a class A athlete to be able to enjoy them. No matter what your hiking abilities are from zero to hike-across-grand-canyon, you would get the thrill! The beauty was perceivable in all the senses. In our drives we went up and down in altitude and maybe I am tuned this way, but I can feel pressure difference in my head. I can feel the air getting rarer. I am sure you can too smell fresh cool air and hot burning roads. The smell of pinecones and snow left over from last season. The smell of fauna that grows in the cracks of rocks that never see the Sun.
After more drives through the park, it was time for us to get moving. As we drove out, we went through cliffs on one side and spruce and pine trees on the other and we knew it was time for Dixie National Forest. We could feel the temperatures drop a good twenty degrees as we wound our way through the pine forests, sniffing in the fresh air and looking at faraway snow-caps, every now and then, red rocks and hoodoos reminded us that we weren’t that far from it all.
The trip was almost over and we drove towards Las Vegas. After a frenzy of delicious buffets and dizzying views of Vegas from Stratosphere needle, we flew back to Chicago, our home then.
1. Carry water and lots of sunscreen
2. Travel during Spring or Fall months for moderate weather, but June wasn’t terrible either
3. Buy a National Parks pass, instead of paying an entry fee every time at every park.
4. Buy some bread and candy and stash in your car or backpack because convenience stores are few and far between.
5. Dress in layers and wear very comfortable shoes, preferably close-toed and with nice sole-grips. Don’t forget your sun glasses!
6. Extra camera batteries and memory cards would be nice. You will thank me.
7. Stay as close to the parks as possible. The towns would be more lively and in each you will get a better feel of the park. Here is where we stayed:
a) Best Western Coral Hills for Zion
b) we stayed at Sleep Inn for Canyonlands (rooms were okay, location average, but you could probably stay closer)
c) Best Western Ruby’s Inn for Bryce (too big and unmanageable, the service isn’t always nice either, their rooms are good but their buffet is pretty lame; also beware of prejudicial attitudes from certain employees if you look/talk like a minority)
d) Sandstone Inn in Torrey (nothing memorable, except nice location and decent stay overall)
e) Canyonlands Motor Inn in Monticello (kind of nasty rooms, no coffee etc. not a good stay at all)
8. If you are like me, you will want a AWD or 4WD vehicle, we rented a Corolla and at times when passing between high wind zones between hills, I felt like we would fly away.