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