The great American West is so much larger than you can imagine. We’re talking 11 states (Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana), comprising the largest region of the country, covering more than half the land area of the United States.
Our goal was to explore the deserts, slot canyons and mountains of these massive spaces and to experience the people and places that make The West such a mythic powerhouse.
Well, that sounds good but really, how much could we realistically see, do, learn, experience, and appreciate in a 10-day drive?
The sheer scale of this chunk of the “lower 48” made for truly challenging trip planning, as I worked to figure out just where and when to go to avoid weather extremes ranging from snow to searing heat.
Inspired by reading other traveler’s stories, I ended up designing our ideal trip around the Mighty Five National Parks of Utah (Zion, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef and Arches).
See the Google Maps Link
We’d drive a large loop, starting in Utah, at Zion (B on the map), then drive into Arizona, take in a dry slot canyon tour (C), then a magical carpet drive over to Monument Valley (D), where we’d spend a couple nights.
Then, onward to Moab, Utah (F) and beyond, describing a rough oval route through three western states, to explore some of the most breathtaking settings and geological wonders that anyone can imagine.
We’d be driving through breathtaking scenery across extensive distances, exploring small towns full of character tucked into majestic mountain valleys, hiking along high desert mesas and down in deep canyons, and feeling awestruck at the sight of ancient pueblo people’s homes, and the most iconic land forms and vistas straight out of a John Ford western.
Hittin’ the Trail
Our drive route would start from and return to Las Vegas, an easy flight from our home airport in Atlanta.
We grabbed our trusty SUV steed (we would need it on gravel and rough graded roads I planned to travel) and headed out, first stop an Air BnB in the town of Hurricane, a couple of hours drive northeast from Las Vegas.
Hurricane is a small (14,000 residents) Hidden Gem town, just minutes away from the tourist mayhem “gateway” to Zion National Park, which is the town of Springdale. Hotels, tourist restaurants, tourist buses, and jam-packed parking lots- that would be Springdale. Just sayin’.
Hidden Gem: Kolob Terrace Road
The 25 minute drive to Zion from Hurricane was a lovely one, featuring incredible views of the desert, dramatic red rock formations, and towering mountains. Most important, it was mere minutes to get to my favorite Hidden Gem discovery, the Kolob Terrace road.
We found the beginning of the road in the town of Virgin, UT. From the start, this well paved route provided breathtaking scenery as we drove along, soaking up views of Zion from its western boundary.
The winding, scenic road climbs 25 miles, to over 8,000 feet, and leads to Lava Point, the highest elevation in the park, for marvelous views of the Cedar Breaks area, the Pink Cliffs and the Zion Narrows.
There is no ranger kiosk or Visitor’s Center. The road winds in and out of the park, so we occasionally passed private homesteads and even stray cows when the road left the park boundaries.
No traffic, no buses, no crowds- just the sound of the wind through the grasses and trees enthralled us. Near sunset, we were awed by many wondrous views of golden valleys and the majestic North and South Guardian Angel peaks high in the distance.
We didn’t hike in this area- our focus two evenings was to escape the crowds of Zion, to photograph breathtaking views of the open vistas, and to enjoy the relative isolation of the area. Details of Kolob Terrace road are under Trip Tips, near the bottom of this post.
Zion- The Narrows Hike
Zion National Park is ranked fourth among America’s most visited national parks, ahead of Yellowstone and Yosemite. Over 4 million visitors come to Zion each year, and believe me, it can be a very busy, bustling, mass-tourism experience.
We made detailed preparations to take The Narrows hike, described on the park website as “… one of the premier hikes in the park and on the Colorado Plateau.” Many would agree, this is the slot canyon that all other slot canyons are compared to. Check out our photos (read the captions!) and video to get a sense of our hiking/wading experience, and save yourself the frozen, numb feet!
You’ll most definitely need to be prepared for this 4+ hour adventure though, so see my Trip Tips for how to best plan and prepare for this awesome adventure.
Tune in to my interview on the travel podcast Experiences You Should Have to learn more about The Narrows hike and the lesser-known Kolob Terrace road and the Kolob Canyons section of Zion.
Hidden Gem: Kolob Canyons
40 miles north of Zion Canyon is the Kolob Canyons section of the park. Show your Zion park pass at the Visitor Center to access the five mile scenic drive into this lesser-known and little-traveled section of the park.
Here we drank in amazing panoramic views of narrow parallel box canyons that cut into the western edge of the Colorado Plateau, forming majestic peaks and 2,000 foot cliff walls.
Pristine and primeval, this wilderness area offers a respite from the mass crowds elsewhere in the park, and over 20 miles of hiking trails among the soaring peaks of Navajo sandstone, canyon streams and cascading falls. Details under Trip Tips.
Page, AZ and Surprises En Route
From Hurricane, we had a full day to leisurely make our way to Page, AZ. Instead of the faster route via UT-89 directly to Page, we chose to add another hour or more to a two hour drive to enjoy a more scenic route.
Surprise! We stumbled upon The Grand Staircase- Vermillion Cliffs at Le Fevre overlook from AZ-89A, the route to the north rim of Grand Canyon. From some 6700 feet elevation, we could clearly see all the steps of the Grand Staircase, so named for the steps or layered cliffs that begin at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, stretching 150 miles to Bryce Canyon, and rearing above the desert at 3,500 feet in height.
Those striking pink cliffs lend the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument its name, and the Vermilion Cliffs Scenic Highway is simply spectacular to drive, as it winds all along the edge of the cliffs for some 100 miles. Check out my short Out West Road Trip video for a panorama of this spectacular scene.
We were transfixed to witness likely one of the most extraordinary drives in the world. To our left, those massive purple sandstone cliffs rose almost vertically from deep canyons dropping into the abyss, surrounded by vast open spaces. Seriously, this landscape struck us as being other-worldly; simply mysterious, magnificent, and hauntingly beautiful, especially in the clear air of a bright early Fall morning.
Hidden Gem: Cliff Dwellers Roadside Stop
We left the Vermillion Cliffs behind and, along AZ-89A just 10 minutes past Marble Canyon and the Navajo Bridge, right beside the highway was this strange place beside the road with massive red rock boulders strewn about on a baked dirt hillside.
Located between Jacob Lake and Bitter Springs, this place was marked on the map as “Cliff Dwellers”. The giant balanced rocks were carved out in spots and at the base, apparently by ancients and some modern humans for shady shelter and storage spaces. The cliffs directly behind this odd spot certainly looked like they might have served as possible sites for the ancients, back when this bone dry area may have held water.
We took a few minutes to poke around the massive boulders and to wander inside the remains of a rough stone dwelling apparently built by a couple back in the 1930s after their car broke down. Enchanted with the spot, they purchased the land and constructed a unique rock house which they later converted into a roadside trading post.
A couple of Navajo women were set up with wares for sale in the shade, but otherwise there was just the strangeness of the place and the sound of the wind blowing dust devils into us. We took a few pictures and dived back into the air conditioned car, amazed that anything could live out there in that oppressive heat and unrelenting wind-driven dust.
There’s more to this tale! Wish we’d known more when we stopped in. The Story HERE
Hidden Gem: Drive through Glen Canyon to Lees Ferry
Our stop at Cliff Dwellers (and the Lodge up the road where we had lunch) was our introduction to the Marble Canyon, AZ area, popular with Colorado River rafting and fishing guide services. The waitress at the Lodge tipped us off to a place nearby that she and her husband frequented on weekends, Lees Ferry. This scenic spot is the official beginning of Grand Canyon National Park on the Colorado River, located just 8 miles outside of our destination of Page, AZ.
Get a real feel for this spot on the mighty Colorado River- watch my short video. It’s definitely worth a peek!
The drive to Lees Ferry is short but simply amazing. This is the only place within the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area where visitors can drive to the Colorado River in over 700 miles of canyon country, right up to the first rapid in the Grand Canyon. You’ll need to pay the entry fee to the National Rec Area UNLESS you have one of the Park Passes mentioned in my Trip Tips.
Page, AZ- Lose the Crowds Slot Canyon Tour
The primary reason to visit Page was the opportunity to visit a dry slot canyon. My trip planning uncovered the only Navajo company that offers small group tours of the “Secret Lower Antelope Canyon”.
Most tourists think there’s just the “one” Antelope Canyon tour area, where tourist buses park and thousands of people per DAY are led into both the “upper” and “lower” Antelope Canyon. But, know there are slot canyons all throughout the American west, and “Antelope Canyon” is broadly used to describe several slot canyons in the Page area.
We hopped in the jitney-type open vehicle, joined by 8 other people, for a scenic ride through the desert dotted by a handful of Navajo family homesteads. A short and easy walk took us to the entrance of this wonderfully serene and private slot canyon where our guide played as a child.
Here we spent a good hour or more slowly working our way through the slot canyon, entranced by the play of light on the Navajo sandstone and the deep silences of the desert, broken by crows calling in the distance and the sound of sand trickling down from ledges high above.
So magical! And so quiet. It was easy to take as many photos and video rolls as we wanted (check out this short walk-through), undeterred by people stepping into the shot or voices on the video.
This was truly a special place, and I believe, the best way to enjoy a dry slot canyon experience without the hubbub and annoyances of crowds. See Trip Tips for critical planning info!
Page, AZ- Horseshoe Bend
We also stayed our one night in Page, AZ to visit the (now) famous Horseshoe Bend, providing the simply breathtaking view of the signature bend of the Colorado River.
Located just outside of Page, this roadside stop was seldom-visited until around 2018, when social media posts helped drive what are now mass crowds to this major tourist destination. Over 2 MILLION visitors arrived in cars and trains of tourist buses in 2019, making for crazy parking and long lines at the portalet toilets. Not to mention the never-ending stream of people trudging through soft, deep sand up an ancient dune and back down to hike the 1.5 mile round trip to take in the view and snap photos.
A raised platform with railings offered a dizzying view of the 270º horseshoe-shaped bend in Glen Canyon some 1,000 feet below. We fought the crowds on a weekday afternoon; trudged through the soft sand, squeezed through to get our selfie, and returned to the parking lot, where we joined many queued up outside the seemingly endless row of portalets, while being doused with the diesel fumes pouring from 20 or more tour buses idling in the massive (and growing!) parking lot.
You may want to take a look at my Trip Tips below for info before you visit this place, especially if you are traveling during peak tourist season.
Our visit to Page was brief, but we managed to squeeze in two other special places.
Early morning at the Glen Canyon Overlook was a perfect place for a photo op. It was an easy, short hike down a set of rock-carved stairs to the viewpoint, with sweeping views of the river way below, the mesa stretching out to infinity, and the dam just “over there”.
We hopped in the car and drove across the dam to the Visitors Center which was really quite interesting and well worth a few minutes. Their displays are well thought out and rendered, and the rest rooms and water fill stations were clean. Be sure to find the dino tracks out front, to the right of the entry doors!
Monumental Monument Valley
The centerpiece of our trip was Monument Valley. Known for its majestic, free-standing sandstone buttes, this vast desert valley of some 92,000 acres on the border of Utah and Arizona requires at least one full day, and preferably two, to drive around and see those iconic buttes, colossal mesas, and panoramic vistas featured in uncounted movies since John Ford starting shooting westerns here in the late 1930s.
To truly experience Monument Valley requires planning; it’s far from anywhere, over 300 miles to any airport, and at least three hours drive from anywhere in the vicinity.
We chose to stay two nights at The View hotel, where many excursions into this Navajo Tribal Park begin.
From our balcony, we had an unparalleled view to the Mittens and Merrick Butte.
The ease of taking sunrise and sunset shots from our balcony made staying in a top floor room well worth the above-our-usual-budget cost.
Hidden Gem: Mystery Valley Tour
We planned one full day and two nights in Monument Valley. We arrived in time for sunset the first night, and my shots of the Mittens and Merrick Butte from the patio of The View hotel were not disappointing.
Early the next morning our Navajo guide picked us up at The View for our exclusive cultural tour (nobody but we two on a week day).
The three hours in lesser-known Lower Monument Valley, accessed only by Navajo guides, were simply magical. We rode in the back of the jitney-style truck through the vast desert landscapes, the sun casting lengthy shadows in a labyrinth of canyons hiding many ancient Anasazi ruins, petroglyphs, and pictographs.
We had ample time to explore breathtaking arches like the Honeymoon Arch, Skull Arch, and Half Moon Arch.
Strange and fascinating red rock formations, from stacks of giant pancakes to tall spires seeming to have grown from the desert floor, evoked a fantasy Martian landscape, while views of towering buttes in the distance beckoned.
Check out this quick video of our Mystery Valley private tour!
We learned to appreciate how connected the Navajo people are to this land and way of life; they call this area where Paleo hunter-gatherers existed thousands of years ago, the Valley of the Rocks.
Today ten Navajo families live here, without running water or electricity, relying on farming and grazing for income.
Listen to my podcast interview describing Hidden Gems and Losing the Crowds in Monument Valley!
See my Trip Tips for more info on this Hidden Gem Mystery Valley tour!
Scenic Valley Drive
The 17 mile Valley Drive loop begins at The Monument Valley Visitor Center, next to The View hotel. The loop road goes past some of the most popular sites and is the only part of Monument Valley you can visit without taking a tour.
We took a good three hours to slowly work our way over the rough road bed, stopping at each of the 11 places marked on the map we picked up at The View hotel.
Highlights and best photo ops after 3pm were at John Ford point, where we lucked out and caught the “man on a horse” as he rode out to the end of the point. Then Robin got in the scene, LOL.
Artists’ Point was simply stunning. Great distances and far horizons beckoned in the afternoon light and the clear air.
A short, fun video captures the essence of our Monument Valley trek.
I believe it is one Do Not Miss drive to take, but not in the back of an open tourist jitney- you’ll choke on the dust raised by the never-ending stream of vehicles traveling this rough dirt, sand and rock-strewn track.
On To Moab
I call this shot “Leaving Monument Valley”, which I took just 20 minutes up the road from The View as we headed for Arches National Park at Moab, Utah.
This now highly recognizable shot (Forest Gump Road is aptly named) simply MUST be taken in the morning, preferably between 9-10:30 am. My shot was taken in the last week of Sep. when skies/clouds added drama.
Photographers will appreciate that this is also a strong starlight-with-car-headlight-streaks candidate location but it can be a busy road, so watch out for vehicles coming over the hill at your back as you stand in the road composing your shot! I set exposure and focus from the side of the road, dashed out, took the shot, and left.
Needless to say, the Instagram Effect has taken hold here- we dodged a group of young German tourists taking turns to sit in the middle of the road, even as 16-wheel trucks approached at full speed, air horns blaring.
Hidden Gem: Moki Dugway
While the national parks served as our key destinations, I found the simply mind-blowing drives BETWEEN Zion and Monument Valley, AZ and the Utah parks to be the most soulful experiences of our 10 days.
Moki Dugway is the name of this amazing, short drive. Find it on my Google Maps road trip route link or Google it. You’ll see that it’s UT-261 near the town of Mexican Hat, Utah. Three miles of woo-hoo, it can be treacherous for towed or heavy vehicles, but our SUV easily tackled this steep, dirt road rising 1,200 feet above the desert floor. We saw eye-popping views of the Valley of the Gods and distant Monument Valley at every turn, and the views from the top from Muley Point are not to be missed.
I hafta say, in spite of articles on the web about the dangers of Moki Dugway’s steep switchbacks, narrow spots and sheer drops with no guard rails, I found the driving on this nicely graded dirt road to be quite safe compared to many I have driven in Costa Rica, on tropical islands, and even in the north Georgia mountains. It’s all about perspective, and the views from this road surely offer plenty of perspective, LOL.
Moab, UT- Arches National Park
It may be popular and crowded but you simply MUST spend at least a day at Arches.
We came back again and again over two days because, well, it’s just that amazing, awe-inspiring, breathtaking, stunning, magical… I’m out of adjectives. The photos speak volumes.
Just look at those red rocks, unique, peculiar and massive formations, the layers of rock and colors, the geology, the sheer wonder of it all. The scale. We felt so small, so humble in these landscapes.
We drove around. We stopped at every formation parking area. And, we tackled the rather daunting hike up to Delicate Arch to capture sunset shots:
This place was crowded, no surprise. Instagrammers with props, costumes and groupies set up, pranced about and giggled. We had to dodge several wildly waving selfie-sticks while squeezing in to get our portrait photo taken by two kind German guys. We reciprocated by taking great shots of them.
My video Out West Road Trip features this scene toward the end, nicely capturing the wonder of this place at sunset.
We hurried to get back down those steep, treacherous, sandstone rocks sprinkled with ball-bearing pebbles and sand, before darkness caught us.
To beat the crowds, we got to the park very early the next morning and headed wayyy up to the “top” of the park to hike the Devil’s Garden trail.
This is another lengthy hike, and we didn’t make it all the way to the “fins” before the heat caught us out. But the scenes along the way were gorgeous.
My Arches short video is well worth a peek- it will whet your appetite to Get Up and GO!
Very few people know much at all about Dead Horse State Park, UT or Capitol Reef National Park, UT, or Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (AZ & UT). These places offer spectacular vastness, beauty, magnificent rock formations, and massive desert scales that boggle the mind– without the tour buses, the crowds, the Instagrammers and selfie-stick wavers.
Dead Horse State Park
Our “fast” 10-day road trip was passing all too quickly, so we by-passed Canyonlands National Park, which we just didn’t have time to explore properly. Instead, we drove about 30 miles from Arches to Dead Horse State Park for late afternoon and sunset shots.
The scenic drive through red rock country from Moab to Dead Horse State Park was a revelation!
Wonderful views of Arches in the rear view mirror and the Henry Mountains and the San Rafael Reef ahead of us were mesmerizing. That dark ribbon of highway stretching out before us was a startling contrast to the desert vegetation, and the rain over the distant mountains seemed to draw us forward.
Dead Horse Point was easily one of the most cinematic views we experienced throughout our trip. As we approached our first viewpoint, I got chill bumps in spite of the heat of the afternoon. Seriously, I understand now why this is considered one of the most photographed scenic vistas in the world.
From the Point, I felt dizzy looking down some 2,000 feet to the goose-neck of the Colorado River.
Our view of those amazing sculpted pinnacles and buttes of Canyonlands National Park in the background seemed to go on forever. Line of sight on a clear day is over 100 miles- just imagine!
Trails along the rim afforded different viewpoints of this seemingly never-ending wonder. I think we spent two hours just walking around and exploring the different views while photographing the rainbows and the rain curtains over distant terrain. What a wonder!
We needed to move on but if I had it to do over, I’d stay and shoot starfields from this International Dark Sky Park.
Tune in to my interview on the travel podcast Experiences You Should Have to learn about Hidden Gems and Losing the Crowds at Arches Nat’l Park and Dead Horse Point!
Hidden Treasure: CAPITOL REEF NATIONAL PARK
A lesser-known national park, Capitol Reef is simply huge. Massive. Gargantuan. Again, I was taken aback by the sheer scale and size of the landforms- the cliffs, canyons, domes, and bridges that make this ever-changing landscape so picturesque and, sometimes, just a little daunting.
Here we felt very small indeed, lost among the ravines, cracks, folds and the towering buckle in the earth’s surface named the Waterpocket Fold. Extending almost 100 miles, this Great Wall is really hard to envision and difficult to get your head around when you are next to it.
The rock layers on the west side of the “wall” are some 7,000 feet higher than the layers in the east. It takes an aerial to appreciate the scale, or better yet, stop at the Visitor Center and check out the topo 3D model on display. Just. Wow.
We drove the 12 mile scenic road, which made us wish we had more time to spend in the park. We ogled Capitol Dome, a majestic white sandstone formation that kinda resembles the U.S. Capitol building. Toward the end of the drive were mind boggling, massive monoliths that had us dropping our jaws. Again.
Then there was the drive to Capitol Gorge trail head, a rough sandy track that led down, down and forever down into more narrow and twisted canyons until it felt like the walls were gonna squeeze shut on us. Truly a trippy drive, but well worth it!
We managed to squeeze in a hike to Hickman Bridge, an arch way up and back among rocks and hills and steep inclines. If I had it to do over, I would have picked a different hike, especially after being at Arches!
This was a butt-kicking hike in the sun and heat of mid-day. We made it through the dangerous rockfall section unscathed. Robin did hafta dodge some yellow jacket bees along the way- never fun, those nasty buggers.
No mass tourism here but spectacular scenery, geology, history, petroglyphs- Capitol Reef NP has it all.
Hidden Gem: Town of Torrey and the Old Schoolhouse
The gateway to Capitol Reef, Torrey is a tiny (pop. 240) charming, old westernish town snoozing in a lovely little valley. A general store anchors the main, tree lined intersection in town where the tinkling of the nearby Sand Creek dominates the soundscape.
Here we stayed one night at the historic 1914 brick schoolhouse, which offered wonderful views of Capitol Reef from our 3rd floor room. Check out my short video of this unique BnB.
Hidden Gem: Scenic Byway 12
This was truly an uncovered wonder! The scenes we witnessed as we drove between Torrey and our next destination of Bryce Canyon National Park had us pulling off the road on several occasions, particularly as we approached the town of Escalante, Utah.
Driving through valleys and high mountain passes, we felt the cold air and high winds signaling the rapid approach of Fall.
We stumbled upon a really great little museum built around the ruins of an ancient Anasazi village site.
Near the excavated village was a thoughtful reconstruction of the dwellings some 200 desert people had built and occupied from around AD 1050-1200 .
You can learn more about this Hidden Gem here.
Hidden Gem: Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument
You may have heard of this monument being reduced by almost 50% in 2017 via a presidential proclamation, which opened up nearly half of what were nearly a million acres to private development of oil, gas, coal and resorts, golfing communities, towns, cities, highways…
This area is so rugged and remote, it was the last area in the continental U.S. to be mapped, and today remains some of the wildest, most dramatic terrain you can find in the Lower 48.
Within its boundaries are ruins and relics of several hundred Native American sites, and an unbroken record of fossils spanning 30 million years. Paleontologists from all over our planet come here to study, and the Bureau of Land Management describes the monument as a “… diverse geologic treasure speckled with monoliths, slot canyons, natural bridges, and arches.”
The terrain along route UT-22 that we took through just a tiny portion of this monument was so amazingly varied that we were constantly oohing and ahhing- “Look over there!” “You see that?”
The colors of the sandstone formations contrasted elegantly against the backdrop of threatening skies. Our brief ride along rural roads of this vast and pristine back country tantalized, even as we returned to Scenic Byway 12 to make our way to Bryce Canyon for an afternoon visit.
Blown Away- Bryce Canyon National Park
A cold wind storm blew us into Bryce Canyon around mid-day on this, our last day of National Park visits. To put it simply, I was almost exhausted by the richness of colors, textures, the scale of the scenery, and the jaw-dropping views to the horizon all around.
Photos try to do Bryce justice but it is hard, so hard, to fully capture the essence of the feeling any human will get, standing in this dramatic and heart-stoppingly beautiful landscape.
We shuffled along the walkway with hundreds of other visitors, all trying to keep our feet as the wind threatened to blow everyone off the top of the canyon rim.
Truly. Take in my very short video– it may come closer to helping you understand what you can experience just by getting out of your car and walking a quarter mile or less.
Now do you see why any description of Bryce Canyon will seem over the top? That’s because it is, just that.
We ran out of time to hike, and it was way too cold and windy anyway. But, if I ever make it back to Bryce, I can only hope to be in good enough shape to get in some of the many hikes within this cathedral of canyons. <sigh>
Hidden Gem: Hatch, UT and Ranch Hands Bunkhouse
The berg of Hatch is 30 minutes from Bryce Canyon NP, and a world away from the big truck stop-like tourist mecca at Ruby’s, and the typical tourist jumble of businesses and chain motels that we had to thread through as we made our way to the Bryce Canyon entry gate. What a mess. In my trip planning I planned to avoid staying in that mix.
The windstorm practically blew our car doors off when we arrived at our cozy “bunkhouse” Air BnB on a working ranch in little ol’ Hatch (pop. 133, elevation 6,900 feet).
What a cozy little cabin! We were ready to settle in before darkness and the temps dropped into the 30s.
Here we could relax and enjoy watching the ranch horses graze along the Sevier river far below. Luckily, the porch was situated in the lee of the howling wind.
This was my last night to attempt to photograph the stars in a Dark Sky environment, so I braced myself and the camera and braved the waves of sand, grit and dust outside.
I’m so glad I did- just look at that shot of “the hanging road”, which many native American tribes call the Milky Way. Just stellar!
After so many days and nights in the throbbing heart of the great American West vastness, the quiet, the serenity, and the solitude were quickly overshadowed by the hurry-up craze of getting into Las Vegas, returning the car, checking into a motel near the airport, flying back home, unpacking, doing laundry. Yeah, the whole trip seemed a dream. A sweet, wistful, incandescent state of mind.
This trip has gifted me a visceral understanding of the untouched wild, the vast spaces, and the unparalleled beauty that our American West not only promises, but still delivers. Even today, with housing and resort developments popping up, with natural resources continually being pulled from the land and waterways, with pollution and political divides and so many, many viewpoints on how to best use, yet sustain our wild areas… Yeah. It’s complicated. But. I gotta go back, if I can. We only scratched the surface, and I think, no- I know I left a piece of my heart somewhere among the red rocks, the towering mesas, the endless canyons of soulful silences, and those far, far horizons.
Lynn’s Trip Tips
U.S. Park Passes: You will save a LOT of money if you buy, ahead of time, either the America the Beautiful annual pass ($80.00 for 1 pass, good for all persons in a shared vehicle) or a Senior Pass ($20.00 annual pass). Considering the cost per vehicle per initial entry (good usually for 7 days) is between $20.00-$35.00 at national parks, the pass will pay for itself after just a couple of visits to national parks, monuments, battlefields, and even state parks (the Hidden Gems in the USA.)
Get The Info:
The Narrows hike, Zion National Park.
Get to Zion early- park outside the park in the little parking lot at the Zion Outfitter store. A short walk takes you into the park, where you can catch the earliest park shuttle to the last stop, the Temple of Sinawava. Read up on the descriptions of the walk, it will be some distance before you get your feet wet but once you do, be prepared for cold, rapidly flowing river water. Protect your phone and camera- not a few people slip and get quite wet! Hiking poles and layered clothing will help greatly.
Hike up the Virgin river for at least 2 hours to get to where the walls really soar overhead. By then the crowds will have caught up to you and you’ll have to thread your way through them all the way back to the shuttle stop!
We had our own neoprene socks, footwear and hiking poles, a small dry bag and waterproof phone bags. You can spend a lot more money (and time) at the Zion outfitter buying these items.
https://www.citrusmilo.com/zionguide/zionnarrows.cfm Best description and tips!
Zion- Kolob Terrace Road. Google this for directions and other visitors’ descriptions. The road is well paved, although the road through Black Canyon and Lava Point is considered a backcountry road suited for high clearance vehicles. The open vistas and relative isolation of the area make this a favorite for many, as it leads to Lava Point, the highest elevation in the park.
There are ample turnouts and overlooks- but watch your speed! The road winds in and out of the national park and park rangers are lurking around those turns and downhill runs.
Views along this road are excellent for late afternoon shots and star field or moonlit night shots.
Back country hikes in the Kolob Terrace area: https://www.citrusmilo.com/zionguide/terrace.cfm
Kolob Canyons. No tour buses call at this little-known Hidden Gem of Zion, located at Exit 40 on Interstate 15, 40 miles north of Zion Canyon and 17 miles south of Cedar City. Pay your park fee at the Visitor Center (or use the same pass you purchased for the Main Zion Canyon), then enjoy the drive as it climbs 1,000 feet in 5-miles to the Kolob Canyon Viewpoint, which you will likely have virtually to yourself. There are a few hikes in the area- Google or ask at the Visitor Center.
Horseshoe Bend, AZ and Page Area. If I had it to do over, I’d sign up for a private tour to Horseshoe Bend, vs dealing with the crowds and the hike from the main visitor parking fee area. I can highly recommend these folks: https://horseshoebendtours.com/ If you do it yourself, the parking lot and trail head are located off U.S. Hwy 89, approximately 5 miles (8 km) south of the Carl Hayden Visitor Center. The hike to the overlook is 1.5 miles (2.4 km) round-trip over sandy terrain. There is a hill that challenges some hikers. There is no shade, so avoid hiking during the hottest part of the day. Horseshoe Bend itself is in the park, but the parking lot is on city land. The City of Page requires visitors to pay for parking at the Horseshoe Bend trailhead- $10 per car. National Park Service passes do not apply for the parking lot.
Mid-morning is likely the best light of the day for photography but afternoon light on an overcast day works well (that’s when we visited.)
Secret Lower Antelope Canyon. We went with https://horseshoebendtours.com/ , who told us over 2,000 visitors are “run through” the big Upper and Lower Antelope Canyon tours that most tourists sign up for. Our tour guide’s family runs this business, where they severely limit the number of visits/day and the number of people on each visit. They have private access to the “secret” canyon on land where they all grew up. The ride out and back from the canyon was very enjoyable, with many photo ops along the way. The walk from the truck to the canyon was easy and short, and the canyon itself has a wonderful sandy bottom. Go online to see their calendar- do choose the 11am canyon only or the combo Horseshoe Bend and slot canyon tour- the light will be best for photography! And do bring your full tripod, no worries, you will have ample time for timed exposures.
Monument Valley. Here’s a great link for tips: https://www.earthtrekkers.com/ultimate-guide-monument-valley/
Photo Tips Monument Valley: The iconic Mittens and Merrick Butte sunset and sunrise photographic angles date from Ansel Adams’ time (the hotel wasn’t here then!) and many a professional photographer can be seen shooting from the restaurant patio at The View hotel. The top floor offers the best balcony views “right there” of the Mittens, and is perfectly convenient for those staggering sunrise images of the backlit icons.
Scenic Drive: Sunrise and sunset are the best times of day to shoot the various rock formations. Late afternoon light is perfect for John Ford Point and Artist’s Point. Many possible angles, so leave lots of time to frame your shots! You may need to pay the man to ride his horse out onto the end of the point at John Ford Point for that iconic man-on-horse shot. He wants $5. But if you hang out, he rides out there every half hour or so anyway. He keeps his horse in a tiny corral at the parking area at John Ford Point.
Mystery Valley Tour: https://monumentvalleysafari.com/tours/mystery-valley-scenic-cultural-excursion/ Best time for photography for the entire tour is afternoon, but it gets crowded. We made do with our private early morning trip, even if the canyons where Anasazi ruins lie were in deep shadow. Experienced photographers will not be daunted and will appreciate the opportunities the light affords. The arches are amazing, be sure to work all angles. We got to climb up into one of them for some amazing shots.
Starlight photos: drive down the loop road to get away from The View parking lot and hotel lights. Pull off near the “Elephant” formation for great starlight shots with the Mittens or the Elephant in the foreground. Scout other angles from this loop road when you drive it during the day. The campground at The View may offer good angles without light loom from the nearby hotel.
Lynn’s Trip Planning
My trip planning needed to hone in on just where and when we would spend a 10-day, self-drive vacation in the deserts, slot canyons and mountains of these massive spaces. I wanted to focus on high deserts, hiking and photography, so the Southwest appealed. I chose to visit in late September of the year, to avoid both the high heat of summer and the first cold nights creeping through the high mountain passes.
We also tend to avoid revisiting places we’ve been. We’ve hiked the Rockies in Colorado, and the red rocks of Sedona Arizona. We visited the Grand Canyon, seen ancient pueblo ruins in New Mexico, trekked up and down California, hiked in Oregon (Crater Lake!) and got chilled in Seattle, Washington. For now, I took those states off the list.
I specialize in the off-the-beaten-path and finding Hidden Gems. But. Based on our travels since The Great Recession of 2008, I knew in this world of hyper-tourism, THIS trip would prove very challenging to my trip planning indeed.
I stumbled across tales of road trips designed around hitting the Mighty Five National Parks of Utah (Zion, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef and Arches). After a lot of delving, I sketched out a self-drive itinerary from Zion NP in Utah to Page Arizona, where we’d take in a private slot canyon tour. Then on across stunning deserts and mountains to Monument Valley, where we’d spend a couple nights. Then onward to Arches NP, Capitol Reef NP, Bryce NP, Zion (Kolob Canyons), and eventually back to Las Vegas.
The planned loop would take every part of 10 days and cover 1,600 miles- more than the vertical length of the USA lower 48, and more than half of its width.
Trip planning was tricky. I didn’t want to spend more than 2-3 hours driving between destinations. That made it tough- the distances between our chosen places to visit (and stay) were significant. This made planning the route to reduce time-in-car tedious, and of course selecting a place to stay near our chosen HQ for a night or more meant careful consideration as to grocery stores and other resources.
Once the rough “short hops” driving loop was sketched out, I could really dig in to uncover those Hidden Gems stops along the route that few took the time to explore. I wanted to bake in a bit of time between known destinations for discoveries, which truly panned out! Just some of the Hidden Gems we discovered:
Kolob Terrace Road UT, Grand Staircase-Escalante in two states, Vermillion Cliffs Nat’l Monument AZ, Cliff Dweller’s Stone House weird rocks, and Glen Canyon National Rec Area, both near Lee’s Ferry AZ. Also Dead Horse Point UT and the drive to it, Utah Anasazi State Park Museum, and countless pullouts and 360-degree panoramic scenes from desert mesas, mountain passes and high desert plateaus.
I also like to uncover special places to stay- the unusual, the quirky, the very quiet or scenic, and certainly off the main tourist routes. Each place we stayed was unique in some way, but the two outstanding examples of Hidden Gems were the 1914 school house in the dusty little western town of Torrey, Utah (see the video) and the “Ranch Hands Bunkhouse” on a working ranch way out in Hatch, Utah (see the video). Each was well worth a quick video!
This trip took almost as long to plan as my trip to New Zealand! That’s because of the vast distances, reduced options for places to stay (if you don’t want to camp), deep dives into suitable hikes based on the heat, the amount of time we had at a given location and how much driving we’d have to do after hiking. Then there was trying to plan for sunrise and sunset shots at known locations- being at the right place the right time of day is absolutely critical. I wanted to max out any photo opportunities, and the results I think show that my planning efforts paid off nicely!
Finally, or primarily, I dug in to plan the best way to visit popular and extremely crowded national parks like Zion and Arches. Details like parking the car, catching the park shuttle, what to bring in a daypack, footwear for hiking up a river in waist-deep water, layers for a 40-degree temperature change across 3-4 hours, packing in ample water- yep, a lot to consider.
In a nutshell, my top five tips for planning a trip of this complexity are:
1.Know before you go. Climate change is affecting formerly somewhat predictable local and regional seasonal weather patterns. I worked out the very best 10-day schedule based on daily and nightly temps (desert and mountain elevations), and availability for key places to stay. Key to my planning, I absolutely HAD to book us into The View Hotel in Monument Valley- it was the only choice for many miles, outside of camping, for staying at the center of activities. Two nights here were way beyond our typical price point but oh so worth it for the most amazing views and access. Thus, availability dates for this hotel served as a centerpiece of my trip planning.
2. Rent an SUV, not a car. While major interstates, state roads, and many National Park main roads are well paved, it doesn’t take much to get off-road in such remote desert and mountainous areas. Scenic roads like the Moki Dugway and Kolob Terrace Road change from paved to graded gravel and loose sand. The 17-mile scenic Valley Drive at The View hotel in Monument Valley, AZ is a must do, but you will absolutely want to get up off those layered sandstone rocks, deep potholes and football-sized rocks that make up the dirt road. And if you plan to hike any of the lesser-known trails and slot canyons, you will most certainly be traveling down dirt or deep sandy roads that vary in the quality of the graded surface.
3.Plan flexible activities. I had Plan A, Plan B and Plan C options for each major stop (National Parks) based on vagaries of weather, water height in The Narrows at Zion, and potential flooding of slot canyons due to the onset of monsoon season. I gathered details of short, long, and really tough hikes at the national parks and other hikes in little-known slot canyons out in the desert between our destinations, and to get away from the crowds. This allowed us to select based on how tired we were at any point, and the weather forecast (we caught several wind storms during our trip and those would have been No Fun to be caught in during a lengthy hike!)
4.Plan for food, water, and special foods. The distances we traveled were vast, with few towns in between. In major towns, we easily topped off with gas and grabbed a bite to eat (Subway sandwich shops were the most consistent in quality, unlike in the south, just saying). We carried gallons of water in the car, and a large Styrofoam cooler with ice, snacks, and beverages. We knew ahead of time what was where, and where the big gaps in all services appeared along our route.
5.Don’t count on cell service or WiFi. Forget consistent service, you are in the endless terrain of the deserts and canyon lands. WiFi may not be available even where advertised. Download any maps you’ll need before your trip or when you do have WiFi. Or, buy a state road map and mark it up. Old School still works, just saying.