Itinerary: Las Vegas – Zion National Park – Red Canyon – Bryce Canyon – Grand Staircase Escalante – Dixie National Forrest – Capitol Reef National Park – Canyonlands National Park – Arches National Park – Monument Valley – Canyon de Chelly – Glenn Canyon Dam – Lake Powell – Antelope Canyon – Wupatki National Monument – Flagstaff – Grand Canyon National Park – Route 66 – Hoover Dam – Death Valley National Park
It’s a spring day when we leave for a road trip in the southwestern part of the United States of America. It promises to be a wonderful journey: Las Vegas, Zion National Park, Bryce National Park, Arches National Park, Monument Valley, the Grand Canyon, Canyon de Chelly, Antelope Canyon, Death Valley: all the highlights in this vast part of the USA are on the itinerary of this trip.
In eight hours we fly across the Atlantic Ocean and land for a transfer in Cincinnati, Ohio. Here we enter the United States and so we have to collect our luggage and go through customs. The connecting flight, to Las Vegas, takes another four hours. When we arrive in Las Vegas, it’s 6 p.m. local time. We have been on our way for fifteen hours and for us it is 3 a.m..
A shuttle bus takes us to the Car Rental Center, just outside the airport, where a white Chevrolet Cobalt is waiting for us. From the air we have already seen that McCarran International Airport is located in the midst of the city, on the south side of the most famous part of Las Vegas: the Strip, where the large casinos and neon signs are. So it’s only a short drive to our hotel, Stratosphere, which is on the north side of the Strip and towers over the city with its futuristic tower.
Because we drive to our hotel down the Strip, we immediately get a first impression of Las Vegas. When we get to the Stratosphere, we have to make our way through the casino before we can check in. Once in our hotel room, and actually too tired to do anything, we can’t resist the temptation and take the elevator to the 108th floor of the Stratosphere Tower. From here you have an amazing view over Las Vegas. The warm wind blows around our heads like a hot hair dryer. Fifteen hours ago we left home and now we are high above Las Vegas looking out over a brightly lit Strip.
Las Vegas is one big entertainment complex. The city is in operation 24/7, the casino business is a full-time business. Whether you walk into a casino in the morning or in the evening, you will always find people gambling. The fortune seekers of the evening and night are relieved in the morning by new visitors.
The next morning when we step outside, it feels like we’re entering an oven, as it were: it’s no less than 105 degrees Fahrenheit, or 43 degrees Celsius! Las Vegas is a metropolis in the middle of nothing but desert and its shows. It is extremely hot, but fortunately not muggy or too hot to do anything. We take the Las Vegas Monorail to the other end of the Strip. The monorail runs behind the hotels on the east side of the Strip and is very convenient if you don’t want to walk the entire Strip (measuring one mile) twice in this heat.
Las Vegas has only been around for a relatively short time. The city was founded in 1905 and since 1940 the population has doubled every ten years. Today, 1.8 million people live in the city, which welcomes several times that number of visitors every year. When you see all the neon signs and you consider that the air conditioning in all the buildings is on full blast, the amount of energy Las Vegas uses every year must be staggering.
On the south side of the Strip is the gold-colored Mandalay Hotel with the pyramid and sphinx of Luxor next to it. A little further on, you’re standing between the gigantic MGM Grand, the Excalibur (which looks like King Arthur’s castle) and New York, New York, a recreated Manhattan skyline, including Statue of Liberty, Empire State Building and Brooklyn Bridge. Between the casinos are large shopping malls, where you can escape the heat from outside.
Along the heart of the Strip are the most famous casinos: the Bellagio, Caesar’s Palace and Mirage. Opposite the Bellagio (where the fountains spout up to the beat of Frank Sinatra) a fake Paris has been erected, of course with Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe. A little further on is the Venetian, a huge Venetian-style casino and shopping complex. Inside, gondoliers sail around and St. Mark’s Square has been recreated. Above the classic Venetian facades, the roof is painted in such a way that you have the idea of walking outside at dusk, while you are actually inside. Really, very bizarre.
In the evening we head back to the Strip, this time to see Las Vegas Boulevard (as the road is actually called) after dark. The atmosphere on the Strip is very different at night than during the day. As colorless as it is during the day, the Strip is so atmospheric when all the neon lights are on. In my opinion the casino business is a questionable industry and everything you see here is counterfeit and entertainment oriented, but Las Vegas is still worth spending a day to kick off a road trip.
Zion National Park
The next morning after breakfast we leave Las Vegas. We drive onto Interstate 15 North and as soon as we leave the city behind us, we enter the barren, desert-like environment. Bustling Vegas sits amid a dry, barren, desolate plain, with only a few mountains on the horizon and only crossed by the I15. We make two stops: one for lunch and one at the Utah Visitor’s Center. When we enter and I say “good morning”, the employee behind the desk replies: “good afternoon, you’re on mountain time now.” That’s right, Utah is in a different time zone than Nevada.
It’s still well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius). An hour later, the landscape starts to change. The environment becomes more vegetated and mountainous. After St. George we turn right onto Highway 9 towards Springdale. This hamlet (one main road with restaurants and some shops) is located near the entrance to Zion National Park, the first national park we will visit on this trip. At the entrance we first purchase a national park pass. This pass is valid for one year and offers free entry to all national parks in the USA. A lot more advantageous than paying all parks separately.
We drive to Watchman Campground, a campground just inside the park, mainly inhabited by squirrels, where we will stay for two nights. The campsite is beautifully situated between the mountains, but unfortunately there are no showers. We also hear that the weather is going to change: starting tomorrow it will be cooler and there is a chance of rain. The latter would be a shame, but somewhat cooler would be welcome.
Cars are not allowed in Zion, so you cannot drive the scenic drive in the park yourself. A shuttle bus runs every six minutes from the visitor’s center down Zion Canyon. This was done to protect the park and avoid traffic jams in peak season. The shuttle runs back and forth through Zion Canyon in an hour and a half, and you can hop on and off as many times as you like.
Zion is breathtakingly beautiful. Tall rust-brown sandstone mountains rise almost straight up on both sides of a gorge carved by the Virgin River (now little more than a small stream) over millions of years. The canyon is still in motion, due to frost pieces of the mountains break off every winter and occasionally rocks come down. The bottom of the canyon is green and overgrown with trees. The scenic drive takes us past beautiful photo stops with names like Court of the Patriarchs, Weeping Rock and Big Bend. In the midst of these impressive mountains, millions of years old, you feel very insignificant as a human, who on average does not live to be more than eighty years old.
When we wake up the next morning it’s no less than eighteen degrees colder than the day before. We put on our hiking boots and take the shuttle bus to Zion Lodge. From there you can walk a trail to the Emerald Pools, a couple of small, shallow pools. We actually want to walk the short trail (half an hour’s walk), but we unintentionally follow a longer, but also more beautiful route. The trail runs uphill along the rusty brown mountains. Because the sun has now broken through, we soon feel warm, but it’s worth it: the views are fantastic. Along the way we encounter deer and pass two small waterfalls. It is a beautiful walk, which takes about an hour and a half.
Back at the Zion Lodge we sit down for a cup of coffee. When we drive back with the shuttle bus, the sky gets cloudy and it starts to rain. At the end of the afternoon the clouds have disappeared and the sun breaks through again. We drive to Rockville, not far from Zion, where there should be an old abandoned town nearby. Grafton is referred to as ‘ghost town’, but in reality it is little more than one abandoned house-with-porch and an old Mormon church.
The next day is a day with many impressions. We leave the campground by 9 a.m. and drive down Highway 9 toward the east exit of Zion. The road leads through a long dark tunnel, which was built straight through the mountains in the 1920s. On the other side, Zion suddenly looks very different. The eroded sandstone mountains here are made up of thin layers, as if they consist of a large pile of flagstones. A very beautiful environment and if no cars pass by, there is a serene peace.
A little further we exit Zion National Park and drive north via ‘scenic byway 89’. The landscape changes: here grassland and forest alternate. The temperature drops rapidly as we move higher up the Colorado Plateau. The thermometer drops to 6, to 4, to 2 degrees…. Now and then some snow falls from the gray clouds. What a contrast to the 43 degrees in Las Vegas!
Red Canyon and Bryce Canyon
While on Highway 12 (which leads to Bryce), we pass Red Canyon. Here the rock formations are colored red. Very different than in Zion, very special to see how the landscape can change so much in just an hour’s drive. After taking pictures, we continue to Bryce National Park. Unlike Zion, where you look up from the valley floor, in Bryce you find yourself at the top of a canyon rim, looking down on a bizarre spectacle of eroded rock formations.
At Sunrise Point, we have our first look at what is called Bryce Theater. It is an incredibly impressive view. The soft stone in the rocks has worn away so much soil that vertical stone pillars have been formed, called ‘hoodoos’. In addition, you can look for miles and miles over the Colorado Plateau from the various vantage points along the canyon rim.
The other viewpoints, such as Agua Point, Natural Bridge, Rainbow Point, Swamp Canyon and Fairyland Point, also offer breathtaking views. Rainbow Point is the highest point in Bryce National Park, at over 3000 meters. The most beautiful point, in my opinion, is Bryce Point, from where you have a beautiful panoramic view of the entire Bryce Theater. While snow and sun alternate, we let the impressive view sink in.
Late afternoon we exit Bryce and drive to Tropic, a boring town a little further (not much more than a few motels, a supermarket and a gas station). Because the environment here is too cold for camping, we sleep at a motel tonight.
Grand Staircase Escalante, Dixie National Forrest and Capitol Reef National Park
The next day is a day full of contrasts. Our first stop is the Grand Staircase Escalante Visitor’s Center. This is a national park located on the Colorado Plateau, which has primarily been turned into a park in order to preserve it as it is. It has therefore hardly been made accessible to tourists. The two unpaved roads that lead through the area are not recommended for a normal car. But ‘scenic byway 12’, or Highway 12 North, runs alongside it (and between Escalante and Boulder through it) and that’s where we’ll be going.
The first part of the route is largely barren and desolate. Only where the soil is fertile due to the proximity of a river is some vegetation. As we drive further, the weather gets worse. After Boulder, the road runs through the Dixie National Forrest. The higher we get (Boulder Mountain, the top of this mountainous area, is at more than 3,000 meters) the temperature drops below freezing and the world around us turns white. There is a good ten centimeters of snow here! Because of the snow shower we hardly see anything.
When we arrive at Torrey, we have left the snow behind and the weather has cleared up a bit. We turn right onto Highway 24 East. After a few miles you will automatically enter Capitol Reef National Park. What a contrast: in an hour you drive from a snow-covered forest to a rust-brown colored landscape with beautifully sculptured rocks.
After Capitol Reef, Highway 24 leads us to Hanksville. After the red rocks of Capitol Reef, we are now in the middle of a landscape that is more reminiscent of a moonscape. Alternating light grey, light yellow and light brown mountains of sandstone and limestone. A vast, but desolate environment. In Hanksville we take the 24 North towards Green River. The road here is one you’d expect in this part of the US: an endless straight two-lane road, going hill after hill, with nothing at all on either side. Mile after mile just some mountains on the horizon, an improbable expanse. What we see, however, is only a (by American standards) small piece of southern Utah and Utah is only one of the fifty states in this immense country.
Canyonlands National Park and Arches National Park
From Green River, where we spend the night, we drive east on Highway 24, then turn off onto Highway 191 toward Moab. There is little to see along the way, except vast plains. Around noon we arrive at the exit that leads to Canyonlands National Park. However, the entrance to the park is still a good 25 miles away. Canyonlands is Utah’s largest national park and consists of a vast area where the Green River and Colorado River meet.
The area between these two rivers is a high plateau, called ‘High in the sky’, with several vantage points from where you have a fantastic view over the lower basin of the two rivers and the impressive cliffs that separate the plateau from the canyons. For the other parts of the park you either need a four weel drive or be an experienced hiker who wants to explore Canyonlands for several days, but we are not, so we stick to viewing the canyons from ‘high in the sky’ .
From Canyonlands it is not far to Moab, a strategically located town, right between Canyonlands and Arches National Park. Moab therefore relies on tourists. It’s also the first town of significance we encounter since Las Vegas. The weather has improved a lot and the forecast looks good. So after two days in a motel we go camping again.
The next day we go and see Arches National Park. Erosion, water and extreme temperatures have done their work in what is now Arches for thousands of years. But where these natural elements have led to a deep canyon in Zion and the typical ‘hoodoos’ in Bryce, here stone arches have formed. Hence: Arches. The most famous, called Delicate Arch, has even become the state symbol of Utah and is featured on every license plate in the state.
The park is busy, for families a visit to Arches is an outing on this Memorial day weekend. To get to Delicate Arch, you have to overcome a 4.5 kilometer climb (we see Delicate Arch from a slightly greater distance), but the other arches are also impressive: Double Arch, North & South Window, Turret Arch and Skyline Arch. We also walk the 1.5 kilometer trail to Landscape Arch, which with a span of 100 meters is the largest natural stone arch in the world. Actually, this is Delicate Arch, but due to a mapmaker’s mistake long ago, the two arches changed names.
With the sun high in the sky and the temperature above twenty degrees again, we leave Moab the next morning. We drive south on Highway 191. To our left are the snowcapped peaks of the La Sal Mountains, but otherwise it’s a long, uninspiring road, interrupted only by the roadside villages of Blanding and Monticello. At Bluff we take the exit onto Highway 63. This road will take us to the border between Utah and Arizona. And right on that border, just after you enter the Navajo Indian reservation, is one of the most famous and photogenic places in the United States: Monument Valley.
This classic image of the ‘wild west’ is the result of thousands of years of erosion of the Colorado Plateau, leaving only the freestone rock formations. The reddish-brown formations stand as true statues in the otherwise barren desert-like plain. Monument Valley is actually not a valley at all, but flat land.
Because Monument Valley is located in Native American territory, it’s not a federal government national park, but a Navajo Tribal Park. You can enter the park with your own car and you can drive in the entire valley via the bumpy dirt road. Monument Valley is a must see for anyone traveling in the southwest of the USA. The monuments in the midst of the vastness of this country are amazing to see!
At the end of the afternoon we pitch our tent at Goulding’s Campground, where we have a spot with a view of Monument Valley. There is no better place to set up your tent.
Canyon de Chelly
The next morning we cross the Utah-Arizona border. In Arizona, it’s officially an hour earlier than Utah (because Arizona doesn’t have daylight saving time), but the Navajos are joining Utah, making this part of Arizona a different time than the rest of the state. Confusing…
There is not a cloud in sight as we drive down Highway 63 to Kayenta. Kayenta is little more than a number of trailer homes where Navajos live, some gas stations and a McDonalds. We are on our way to Canyon de Chelly and choose to drive there via Highway 59. It’s a quiet part of Arizona, or rather: Navajo Nation, as the Native Americans call their reservation. Flat land with every now and then a house or a trailer with a pickup and some cattle. That’s how the Navajos (or ‘diné’, as they call themselves) live today. On the one hand they uphold traditions (every family owns a traditional ‘hogan’ and alcohol is prohibited), on the other hand they have adapted to modern American society (i.e. they use cars and cell phones).
Via Highway 191 we arrive at Chindle, at the entrance of Canyon de Chelly National Monument. After Zion and Canyonlands, the valley in Canyon de Chelly is not that special in itself, or are we suffering from canyon fatigue? What is special about Canyon de Chelly, however, is that the bottom of the valley is still inhabited. 700 years ago, the ancestors of the Pueblos, an Indian tribe that later (for unknown reasons) moved away, lived here, after which the Navajos took their place. Some Navajo families still inhabit the valley and are self-sufficient. The Navajos call the valley ‘Tsegi’, hence the corruption ‘Chelly’.
A road along the south side of the canyon leads to several lookouts. It’s by far the most quiet park we have visited so far. At the end of the afternoon we pitch our tent at Cottonwood Campground at the entrance of the park. There are no showers, but the overnight stay is free.
Glenn Canyon Dam, Lake Powell and Antelope Canyon
The way back from the Canyon de Chelly via Kayenta, Highway 163 and Highway 98 towards Page shows once again how vast this area is. Panoramic views and a drive of almost three hours with hardly any traffic along the way and only a single inhabited place. It’s a long drive with little of interest along the way. Once we arrive at Page we have left Navajo Nation – so the clocks go back one hour again.
At Page we visit the Glenn Canyon Dam. This dam, almost the same size as the much more famous Hoover Dam, was built in the canyon of the same name through which the Colorado River flows. The construction of the dam, disputed because of the environmental value of the Glenn Canyon, created Lake Powell, a large reservoir in the middle of a beautiful landscape. Lake Powell National Recreation Area is now one of the most popular water sports areas in this part of the USA. The dam itself supplies the surrounding area with electricity and freshwater storage.
At the campground in Wahweep, the marina on Lake Powell, we take some time to relax and read with a view of the lake.
Near Page, on Highway 98, is Antelope Canyon Navajo Tribal Park. The Indians earn good money here (entrance 26 dollars) from a not so well-known, but no less beautiful gorge. Antelope Canyon is very different from the major canyons we have seen so far. It’s a very narrow gorge, which you can only enter on foot and with some scrambling. The sunlight enters the narrow gorge from above, creating a fantastic light. The walls have soft lines and, together with the beautiful light, this results in very beautiful photos.
You can only visit the gorge with a guided group, but we soon lose that group, so that we have plenty of time to take pictures. By the time we get to the end of the canyon, we’ve made dozens of them. At home, just find out which ones are the most beautiful.
Next we drive to Horseshoe Bend, just off Page on Highway 89. Here the Colorado River bends over 180 degrees – hence the name ‘horseshoe bend’. A one-mile hike takes you to the top of a high, steep cliff, from which you can see the Colorado below. If you’re careful that the wind doesn’t blow you off the edge of the cliff, the view down is fantastic.
Wupatki National Monument and Flagstaff
Highway 89 from Page to Flagstaff is long and boring. Nothing but barren desert-like emptiness. We turn off at Wupatki National Monument. A winding road takes us past a number of ruins of old pueblos, settlements of the Wupatki Indians. Very little is known about the Indians who lived here: they built houses (hence the ruins), but we have no idea what language they speak or why they moved away.
Perhaps the departure has to do with the slightly further located Sunset Crater, the volcano that provided a large part of the area with a thick layer of volcanic rock. The soil around the volcano is dark anthracite grey: small grains of solidified lava and volcanic dust.
At the end of the afternoon we are in Flagstaff, a somewhat larger town that flourishes thanks to its location: at the intersection of the old Route 66 (now Interstate 40) and Highway 89 and along the Santa Fé Railroad. Because the nights here are quite cold and a normal bed would be nice for a change, we spend the night in a motel on the outskirts of Flagstaff.
We spend the next day in Flagstaff and explore the historic town center. Flagstaff is an old wild west town dating back to the 1800s. A number of buildings (from the days when cowboys on horseback invaded the saloons here) are still standing, giving Flagstaff a bit of that wild west vibe. But the center is only small and you can see it in an hour.
Grand Canyon National Park
Descriptions of the Grand Canyon range from “a huge crack in the ground” to “North America’s greatest natural wonder.” About seventy million years ago, the Colorado Plateau was formed, pushed up by colliding tectonic plates. Until about five million years ago, the Colorado River flowed across that plateau, and since then it has gradually eroded the soil and created the Grand Canyon as it is today. The canyon walls exposes strata that date back to 1,840 million years! Impressive and fascinating, 446 kilometers long, 26 kilometers wide at its widest point and 1.6 kilometers deep. Hard to imagine if you haven’t stood on the edge of the immense canyon yourself.
We decide not to approach the Grand Canyon via the popular south entrance, but via the east entrance at Desert View. From here, the east rim drive leads to Grand Canyon Village, the heart of this national park. The top of the cliff consists of coniferous forest and every few miles there is a viewpoint over the canyon. Desert View, Navajo Point, Lipan Point and Grandview Point are all worth a visit, but the most beautiful spot is not mentioned on the map you get at the entrance of the park, nor is it indicated along the rim drive.
Shoshone Point is a one mile walk from the road and is an oasis of calm in the busy park. At Shoshone Point you have a panoramic view of more than 180 degrees over the Grand Canyon. Here you get a good view of the vastness of the canyon, you can see the north rim on the other side and the Colorado River deep down in the canyon. We believe this is the best place to enjoy the grand canyon’s stunning beauty in silence.
After spending the night at Mather Campground we go and view the Grand Canyon at Yavapai Point. From there we walk to Mather Point, the two most visited spots in the park. At second glance, the Grand Canyon is equally impressive. The western part of the south rim is not accessible by your own car, shuttle buses run on this part. That way we also get to Maricopa Point and Hopi Point. We take a load of photos again. Satisfied, we return to the campsite.
Route 66 and Hoover Dam
We leave Grand Canyon National Park on Highway 64 heading south. At Williams we turn right onto Interstate 40, only to leave this highway a little later. Just after Ash Fork, more or less parallel to the I40, is an authentic piece of Route 66. The legendary road, also known as the ‘motherroad’ or ‘main street of America’, is no longer the main east-west connection, a result of the construction of new highways. But some parts have been preserved and it is still possible (partly via the new freeways and partly via the old road) to drive the entire route of the old ‘US 66’ from Chicago to Los Angeles.
We drive just a short stretch of Route 66, from Ash Fork to Kingman. On the radio, country has given way to oldies. It may not be the most interesting stretch of Route 66, along the way you will hardly come across anything worth mentioning (except for the usual motel and gas station). Only in the hamlet of Seligman and in Kingman is the legend of Route 66 exuberantly kept alive. There are ‘historic route 66’ signs everywhere, motels, diners and shops have named themselves after the road and you can buy Route 66 souvenirs everywhere.
From Kingman we drive north. The environment becomes drier and barer again and at a certain point the thermometer of the car shows 40 degrees. And then you know it: we are near Las Vegas again. Before we get there, we stop at the Hoover Dam, next to the Glenn Canyon Dam the second dam in the Colorado River. Here too, a large reservoir has been created at the front of the dam: Lake Mead National Recreation Area. Despite the weekday afternoon, it is quite busy at the dam. It’s warm and the wind blows hard when we walk across the dam.
We drive back to Las Vegas and spend the night in a motel on the north side of the city. On television I witness Barack Obama (finally, after six months of primaries) secure the Democratic nomination for the presidential election in November. His speech after today’s primaries is as inspiring as ever. For the first time, a black candidate will have a serious shot at the presidency of the United States of America. It’s a historic night.
Death Valley National Park
What can you say about Death Valley? It’s huge. It is very hot (40 degrees during our visit, which is not even extremely hot for this area). It’s very dry. And yet it’s definitely worth taking a (half) day (if you are in the area) to visit Death Valley National Park. It already starts with the road to Death Valley: long straight roads that continue as far as you can see. First some cacti and yuccas along the road, but gradually less vegetation. Death Valley itself sits between two mountain ranges and is not only the warmest, but also the lowest point in North America.
The mountains on the east side of the valley look as if they have been painted, in shades of brown, beige and red. The plain between the mountains is desolate. The wind has free play and regularly causes sandstorms. The bottom of the large, empty plain is so dry that the top layer is cracked. A few miles to the south is an area called Bad Water Basin. The plain here is colored white as a result of salt deposition. It’s a surreal, moon-like environment.
In the course of the afternoon the wind starts to blow hard. So hard, that camping becomes a difficult affair. So does the lack of a campsite within an acceptable (driving) distance. So we spend the night in Las Vegas again. We end our road trip in the Southwestern United States where we started: in the gambling, wedding and entertainment city of Las Vegas. The contrast with the vast nature of the past weeks and with the small hamlets along the way could not be greater.
It confirms once again what the United States is: a country of extremes. Here you will find the largest cities and the most beautiful nature, the busiest crowds and the emptiest emptiness. The most beautiful and the ugliest, the best and the worst, there is nothing you won’t find in the USA. We also experienced some extremes on this trip: 43 degrees in Las Vegas and then snow and zero degrees on the way to Bryce. Lush greenery in Zion and bare rock in Monument Valley, the peaks of the Colorado Plateau and the depths of Death Valley.
Four states (Utah, Arizona, Nevada and California), 11 National Parks and 2,230 miles (3568 kilometers) on the road. Our journey is over. It was a fantastic trip. We saw what we wanted to see, more than that. The weather cooperated (except for a few days) and the surroundings were impressively beautiful!