If you had only four days to pack some adventure into your life, what would you do? And, how much adventure can one actually pack into four days? Faced with a busy job and little time off, an important event to celebrate, and armed always with a burning desire to travel whenever possible — I planned a quick trip to an area where I knew I could get a lot of bang for my buck: the national parks in the American southwest.
This is how it went down: after an easy flight from the east coast to Las Vegas after work, I rented a car, slid into the seat and drove about 2.5 hours northeast to Zion National Park in southern Utah. I checked into a hotel, slept well, awoke early, ate brunch at the Pioneer Lodge Restaurant and less than 12 hours after arriving out west, I stood at the entrance to the park.
That is where I made the first good decision of the trip — purchasing the annual National Park Pass, an $80 investment for passage into any of the national parks in the United States for the subsequent year. I visit Shenandoah in Virginia often enough, so it made perfect sense for me to buy one. In fact, after doing some quick math, I realized that with a car usually costing $25 per pop at each park, this trip alone would virtually cover the cost of the pass, and I’d still have a full year with it before summer’s even begun. Already winning.
And the year of national park adventures started that day in…
Zion National Park, Utah
Regarded as one of the most beautiful parks in the states, Zion has always been high on my list… After going, it stays at the top. It’s impossibly clean, with diverse landscapes making it an ideal place for photography at any time of the day, and the hiking can be as difficult or as easy as you choose. And it’s a place with an incredible history as well. Ancient native people have lived there for centuries. When early American pioneers first walked upon Zion, they were awestruck by the massive sandstone cliffs and vibrant green waters that occupied the landscape. It was so beautiful that they named it Zion and thought it to be a gift from God.
Angels Landing — A Classic Zion Hike
From the trailhead, it is 3.5 miles up the canyon to where the steep climb to Angels Landing begins. At a rise of 1,400 ft., the hike is basically straight up and straight down. Near the top is Scouts Lookout from where the chain-assisted white-knuckle knee climb along the narrow peak begins. Don’t look down! In fact, if afraid of sheer drops, don’t walk up. There are plenty of amazing views at Scouts Landing and the hike to get there is solid.
And what I loved most about this hike is that everyone on the trail says “hi.” It’s good, old-fashioned, west of the Rockies trail culture that I adore… where it’s weird not to say hi.
Perfect for hikers, walkers, athletic strength-trainers (special breed) and adventurers who want to push their physical limits. Discomfort is a likelihood for those who fear heights.
Hiking the Narrows — Up The River Without a Paddle
It is said that in life, the only way to bypass a strenuous experience is to get through it. At the Narrows, this metaphor comes to life. This is river walking at its best.
At Zion Adventure Company, a local sport outfitter, a large sign stands at the entrance showing approximate water temperature, water level, and other weather-related information for that day. The conditions on the day that I went were not ideal, and it took only about two seconds to decide to go anyway. Outfitted in under five minutes in a full-body dry suit for 50$, off I went. (You can go without the suit, though hypothermia is a year-round concern.)
We were virtually alone in the frigid river, save a couple of other brave souls. Such seclusion is just one example of why traveling during off-season has great advantages. I imagine still that this hike is a whole lot of fun even during the crowded summer months, just a different kind of experience.
For about an hour we forged ahead, photographing striated canyons and taking video of our methodical steps into the currents while trying to stay upright and keep our equipment dry. Water temp was around 38F and our gear shielded us well from the cold. Light peeked through the top of the canyons from time to time, casting rays upon the turquoise water. It was so clean, one of the cleanest places I’ve ever been — no trash, no graffiti, no pollution, no noise other than easy canyon winds and the patter of water breaking through the pebbles. To be in the water like that, beneath those sky-high peaks made me thankful for my health, a couple of days off, gear, a camera, excellent company, and this amazing wonder on Earth just a short plane- and car-ride away.
Perfect for hikers, photographers, nature junkies, spiritual souls and river-goers. Discomfort is a possibility for those with claustrophobia and stability problems.
Before you go, check Zion’s official website for park alerts.
Bryce Canyon National Park
About two hours driving from Zion is … Mars? Bryce Canyon looks precisely as I imagined Mars to look like before I learned what was really there (I’m a space geek, remember.)
There is no place quite like Bryce Canyon. Hoodoos — jagged pillars of rock withstanding centuries of erosion — adorn the landscape and touch the sky. We drove straight to Sunset Point after unanimous suggestions named this the top spot to capture shots of a golden forest of stone, otherwise known as sunset. At sunrise, we went to Bryce Point, an about face to Sunset Point. The drop was a punch in the gut each time I looked down, the air thin with altitude, the wind gusts bone-chilling and the skyline, electrifying.
Perfect for photographers, those who want to see incredible, extreme landscapes and breathe high-altitude air. Discomfort is a probability for those who fear heights.
Grand Canyon National Park
I lived in Arizona for a stint and in the west for the first 28 years of my life and when I moved east, this is the one place I always regretted not visiting. Why, how, how could I have missed this easy access to one of the world’s most remarkable natural places?!
The Grand Canyon, all I really have to say is that it’s like a dream.
Perfect for those who love wide open expanses, the sound of the wind, the Navaho nation, hiking, photography, bird watching and drinking in the sunset. Discomfort is a certainty for those who fear heights and sheer drops.
Travel tip: The park is entirely on the Navajo reservation so you need to drive some miles for wine if you want to spike your picnic.
Where I stayed: El Tovar, a historic hotel on the South Rim. This hotel is worth mentioning because not only could I see the canyon from the bed, but I could walk just 20 paces out the door and start my wander along the well-designed trail systems. Watch your step! There are no railings.
Before you go, check Grand Canyon’s official website for park alerts.
My recollection of Sedona falls upon two of its most distinct characteristics: red rocks and the metaphysics. Little has changed since I had last been.
Sedona is not technically a national park but it is surrounded by 1.8 million acres of national forest land, offering plenty of opportunities for hiking and biking nearby. And if you are into more relaxed activities, there are countless galleries, spas and boutique wineries all over town. Curious about the Sedona’s famed metaphysical world? I was, so I opted for a palm reading at the Metaphysical Bizarre. “How did she know that?!” I said as I walked out. I’m convinced that she was a wizard.
As for photography, the area’s vibrant, multi-hued stone formations look different with each minute of passing light. When the sun goes down, Sedona’s favorite Mexican joint, Elote, has authentic eats to fill you up. What a perfect place to wrap up the trip. We had to wait for over an hour, but the heated patio and sangria made our wait comfortable and we made some friends too.
Perfect for those who want to channel deeper meaning, photographers, hikers, foodies, wanderers, hippies and lovers of nature. Heights? Meh. Not so bad here unless you climb to the top of Cathedral Rock.
Before you go, check out Sedona tourism’s official site.