The American West
The American west is a captivating place, it is very vast, and if you want to experience it well, you need several trips as each season adds different flavors and challenges, here are the itineraries I've done so far.
Las Vegas > Zion > Bryce Canyon > Page > Grand Canyon
Zion is a spectacular and intimate place given how compact it is and accessibility to hiking trails, etc. It is only approximately 2 hours from Las Vegas and the town of Springdale is at stone throw distance from the park’s entrance. Springdale has great options for lodging and food. Now for points to hit inside the park:
- Angel’s landing: a 4-6 hour hike round trip, strenuous, mostly incline, and not only physically challenging but psychologically too. I skipped it at the time but plan on doing it once I return.
- Emerald pools: easy hike, nice waterfall you can walk right under, head to the upper pool as well, check conditions to know the water-flow.
- Canyon overlook: easy hike with a few scary parts (narrow pass with cliffs below) but worth arriving to see the canyon towards the west.
- Junction Bridge: no hike, just park and walk over. Be prepared to share the bridge with many others to enjoy the views looking south with the Virgin River under you.
- Human history museum: I never made it inside the museum (you should); head towards the back looking west, the view is great with the West Temple towards the left.
- Checkerboard Mesa and the entire drive towards the east entrance is almost an entirely different park, different climate, different topography and landscape.
Next time I plan on hitting: The Narrows, Observation point, Angel’s landing, Kanarraville falls, the Subway.
1.5 hours from Zion, Bryce is a very unique canyon, the rock formations called Hoodoos are formed but rainfall since the stone is very porous, creating a unique feel and atmosphere almost other-worldly. The town of Bryce is only a few minutes away and has a few hotels and restaurants available, there is almost nothing else nearby outside the town itself. I liked Bryce because you can hike down and get really close to the hoodoos and experience the park in a different form instead of just watching from above.
Sunset point, sunrise point, inspiration point are all great and close to the hoodoos, Bryce point is more of a 360 degree panorama experience, as you see all of the other points from afar. Do not miss the opportunity to head down into the trails; queens garden, fairyland and peekaboo. The hikes, while easy, do require considerable uphill/downhill walking on gravel so bring good traction shoes.
When you drive from Bryce to Page, after the town of Kanab (on US 89) you’ll see a rock formation on the left (north of the road) called Pariah (Paria), it is off road but any car can make it (we saw a Toyota Corolla make it through no problem). It is quite a site to see, all of the minerals are exposed and it looks like another planet.
Canyon Overlook #1
The town of Page is host to 2 main attractions: Horseshoe Bend (open to public) and the Antelope canyons formed by water flow overtime; lower and upper antelope canyons are similar but you will get 2 different experiences, and if you have the time, you should experience both.
- Lower Antelope: less crowded, not rushed, enjoy and really breathe in the place, there are no light shafts, slightly wider spaces, you will go up/down stairs. $.
- Upper Antelope: insanely crowded, you will be rushed at every turn, tight spaces, no stairs, light shafts at certain times of the day (the most popular times and obviously, most crowded). $$.
- Horseshoe Bend: a very popular spot where the Colorado river flows around a cliff in the canyon shaped like a, you guessed, horseshoe. The photos do not do it justice, I (and most photographers) used a wide angle lens to capture the 180 degree view in front of me so you can see the entire composition, but in real life, the area is massive, and if you want to see the river underneath, you need to walk up to a 1/2 mile high cliff and poke your head out, not for those afraid of heights, like me...regardless, it must be experienced. The hike is easy but moderately uphill/downhill on sand, bring water.
On Next: the rest of grand Staircase-Escalante, which has a multitude of different spots scattered across the land, there are some less accessible points, like Lower calf creek falls, Zebra slot canyon, Devils garden, Peek-a-boo and zebra slot canyons, Buckskin gulch, the Wave, Vermillion cliffs.
Page is also next to Lake Powell, which has lots of water activities, you can rent a boat, jet-skies and zip in and out of the canyons via the different river routes.
Horseshoe Bend Flare
Opening. Antelope Canyon.
Denver > Moab (Canyonlands & Arches) > Monument Valley
You can do this itinerary different ways, you can add Canyonlands and Arches after visiting Bryce or Page, but it will be a good 3-5 hours in between depending which route you go, and there are other stops; Olijato (Monument Valley), Goosenecks state park, Mexican Hat if you go after Page, or, Capital Reef National Park if you go after Bryce. I decided to do the Denver route to save time (direct flight, short weekend) and crossed the Rockies within 5 hours before getting a quick roadside nap and hitting Moab at sunrise.
Moab, Canyonlands and Arches
Moab, is a nice small town with lots of energy and plenty of lodging, restaurants and outdoor activity guides/vendors to leverage if you need to. The town sits right next to the 2 national parks, literally, which is very convenient. There are some nice features around Moab outside of the Park perimeter you can explore, like Corona Arch; moderate-strenuous hike, Aprox. 30 min each way.
Very similar to the Grand Canyon but not as, um, Grand, however, I liked it much better than the Grand Canyon, here's why, it is smaller and much more approachable, intimate, interactive while still having some great vistas and features. Here are the places to see:
- Mesa Arch: I got here right at sunrise, it is a spectacular spot and specially at that moment. Get there early since crowds start arriving shortly after. short 5 min hike.
- Green River overlook: aprox. 2 mile easy hike on sand roundtrip.
- Grand view point/overlook: either just park or do the short hike to the overlook south.
- White Rim overlook: aprox. 1 mile easy hike.
- Shafer canyon overlook: almost no hike, however, if you see the dirt road underneath and want to take it, you have to go to the entry point just before Island In the Sky visitor center, it is a scary yet spectacular drive down into the canyon (see why I like it better than the Grand Canyon?). Once down you can try Gooseneck overlook, Musselman Arch.
The entrance to Arches is not even 2 miles from the town of Moab, you zip right up and you are on the mesa within 5 minutes. The park is smaller than Canyonlands and the first thing to see the is Park Avenue Overlook, a narrowing canyon you can walk down into and experience the canyons slowly meet each other at the end, quite an easy hike on relatively paved surface. Other worthy spots include:
- Balanced Rock: no hike, but you can walk up close to the rock on unpaved surface.
- Double Arch: easy hike, and you can walk up to the arch if you choose to on unpaved terrain, there are multiple paths. While it can get crowded, there is plenty of room to move and enjoy. However it is always better to get there early as there are several features in the vicinity: Parade of Elephants, North Window, Turret Arch, Cove Arch, Garden of Eden, Owl Rock.
- Delicate Arch: thee most emblematic arch of the Park and the entire Moab general area, if not in all of Utah. It is a strenuous hike, first on paved terrain, then uphill rock, uphill sand, for perhaps 1 hour each way. If you take it slow it should be cake, get there early to beat the crowds and bring water. As an alternative you can get there before sunset and leave after once the crowds have diminished, the walk down will be in the dark so bring a flashlight or use your smartphone to show the way. Once there, you will have to deal with crowds and a steep decline that forces you to stay in a relatively narrow half-moon shaped path towards the arch itself. Some people can be careless around you so have some patience. All things aside, this is must do.
- Broken Arch: easy hike on sand terrain, mostly flat.
- Fiery Furnace and Sand Dune Arch: quick hikes in sand terrain, mostly flat.
- Devil's Garden: there are a few spots to see after you park, easy hikes mainly on sand surface with some short up/down parts. To the North: Landscape Arch, Wall Arch, Navajo arch, Double O Arch, Devil's Garden, Pine Tree Arch, Tunnel Arch. To the South: Amphitheater, Tapestry Arch.
Balanced Rock Stars
Monument Valley (Olijato)
Monument Valley is part of the Navajo Nation, and on the way there (~3hr drive) from Moab you can stop at Mexican Hat, Natural Bridges and Goosenecks State Park. There are a few ways to explore Monument Valley, you can get to the visitor center and enjoy the view, or head down on the dirt road in your own vehicle (roll up the windows, lol), or take their tour and support them.
Make sure you head down towards John Ford Point as well and beyond; Three Sisters, Totem Pole. While it can be time consuming to get there by sunrise (you can stay at the View hotel or camp), you should enjoy sunset (I did not and fully regret it), but also, this is a great spot for stargazing so if you have the opportunity to be there at night, definitely do so, even for a few hours.
Pink Monument Valley
Denver > Great Sand Dunes > Black Canyon > Aspen > Rocky Mountain National Park
Colorado really blew my mind, it is beautiful beyond words, diverse, multifaceted, easy for mobility, the seasons really shine through, the people are fun and welcoming, they are really serious about beer, and how can they not? The beer is amazing! Colorado can bring out the adventure bug in anyone, just watch out for that altitude sickness.
Great Sand Dunes National Park
The sand dunes is an incredible space, depth is deceiving as you drive in and see the massive dunes so small in the distance and then become this mammoth area 5 miles square. unlike other parks, there aren't many features to this one, however it is a giant sandbox and you can enjoy many different ways. You can sandboard down the dunes (they rent boards), hike them and camp on top (permit needed), cross the river and surf it, provided there is enough water and force to allow you to. Photographic opportunities abound, specially at the top where you have plenty of areas left uncrossed by footprints.
Lesson learned: walk the crests! its easier that way, it takes about 1 to 1.5 hours to make it to the top, 45min if you are fit and conditioned to do so. From the top you can explore further and find various patterns to play with. I tried to hike these dunes to the top right after landing in Colorado and I underestimated altitude sickness, after 1.5 hrs I barely made it 3/4 of the way and had to sit down to avoid exhaustion, I found me a pair of nice dunes in the Escape Dunes area, set up the camera and did a few compositions, even after a while I did not have it in me to continue so I called it a night and returned to camp. Before the entrance there's Zapata Falls, if you can do the 5-mile off road drive.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison.
This canyon is 3-5 hours from the Great Sand Dunes, and I recommend taking the long route via CO-149 & US50 since there are a few stops along the way, including: North Clear Creek Falls, Slumgullion Pass, Pine Creek. There are 2 sides of the park, north and south, I chose the South since the main feature, the Painted Wall, can be clearly seen from various points there. The Painted Wall View is great for sunset and Pulpit Rock Overlook for sunrise. This Canyon is pretty stunning given the fact that it is steep and the opposite side is -almost- a stone throw from the various overlooks.
If you head further north towards Moab via I-70 be sure to stop at McInnis Canyon but specially the Colorado National Monument for a spectacular drive across the red canyon.
Ridgeway & Telluride
While I did not have the chance to hit this area, it is on my 'pending' list and should be on yours also, its more remote and less crowded than most areas in the rockies, specially for Fall colors, but it can add to your drive time considerably if you are planning to head back to the rockies. Spots to see: Owl Creek Pass, Molas Pass, Upper Ames Falls, Blue Lakes Trailhead. If you head south further you can check out Mesa Verde National Park and Canyons of the Ancients; two great archeology sites. West of the Ridgeway is Uncompahgre National Forest.
Maroon Bells & Aspen Area
There is a good reason the ultra-rich chose Aspen as a remote hangout, its absolutely gorgeous, compact and convenient. Snowmass Village can be a more affordable base (or even Basalt) if budget is an issue or you are simply out of luck with lodging in Aspen since its limited. While super popular in winter for skying, fall and summer can be busy as well.
On the way from Ridgeway or Gunnison over to Aspen, there is one particular stop worth trying, I say trying because due to timing I had to skip. Crystal Mill is just past the town of Marble, you'll need all wheel drive and enough clearance for the 5 mile off road just past the town. McClure Pass is nearby as well. From there, Aspen is a quick 2 hour drive, and the main spectacle is the Maroon Bells area, perhaps the most iconic image of the Colorado Rockies. The Aspen Chamber has plenty of resources to learn about transportation in town and to/from the Maroon Bells since there are constraints and rules.
Be sure to spend time in the Maroon Bells, do not just arrive and leave, there are plenty of trails to explore, even before the parking area you can park and walk into the deep yellow aspen forests and get lost! (well, don't).
On the other side of the bells, south of Marble/Crystal, you can also check out: Lost Lake Campground, Kebler Pass, Crested Butte and Ohio Pass for great fall colors (if in season) or spectacular views regardless of time of year.
Rocky Mountain National Park
Depending where you are in the west Rockies, there are a few ways to enter the Rocky Mountain National Park, from the Southwest via I-70 & US40/US34 or from the Southeast/East via I-70 & CO-7 or US36, either way there are a few spots to stop and check out. One the West side of the park, check out: Grand Lake, Adams Falls and follow the trailhead up about 3/4 mile looking towards East Meadows DCZ for spectacular sunrise views. Head up 34 towards the continental divide and stop at Fairview curve viewpoint, Milner Pass, Alpine Visitor Center, Gore range overview, Tundra communities trailhead, Forest Canyon, Beaver Ponds. Once you have exhausted all the fun and views up top, there are other photo and hiking ops in the valley/meadows on the east side of the ridgeway.
Once on the east side, be sure to see Chasm Falls, be aware that while the drive to the falls is short and on a dirt road, there is no return, and you must advance 9-miles on a dirt road all the way up towards the Alpine Visitor Center, which can add almost 2 hours of drive time. Bear Lake Trailhead and surrounding spots like Nymph Lake, Alberta Falls, Dream Lake, Lake Haiyaha are awesome spots to take in and spend some time around. Due to popularity, there is bus transportation to the bear lake area. Morraine Park may be a feature-less area, however you can have panoramic views of the rockies from here, and if you enjoy wildlife; elk, deer, bears and even moose are known to roam the area.
While not part of the park, Estes Park is a neat little town with plenty of lodging, shopping, groceries, entertainment, etc. Eat at: Inkwell & Brew for Coffee/tea and Cider, Pepper Fresh Mexican Grill, Cafe de Pho Thai, Donut Haus. For a curated list of brewers go here.
Great Sand Dunes Moon