Thursday, July 12, 2018

My American Southwest Roadtrip (Part 1)

For quite some time, seeing the national parks of Southern Utah has been on my travel wish list.  Last month, I was able to check them off as I explored Utah's Mighty Five and several other notable sights in the Four Corners region.  It was a road trip that was a feast for the eyes and the senses.  It was really more incredible than I ever imagined.

Day 1 - Arrive Las Vegas, NV | Drive to Bryce, UT

How I got there:  I flew nonstop from Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport to McCarran International.  There I met up with my aunt, uncle, and my uncle's brother who had flown in from Charleston, WV.

What we did:  We picked up our rental car at the airport and drove 245 miles (4 hours) to Bryce Canyon NP. While en route to Bryce on Hwy 12, we passed through Red Canyon, which is part of Dixie National Forest and is often overlooked by visitors who are simply driving through to Bryce. Much to my surprise (and delight, I might add), we drove through two tunnels that had been blasted into the red sandstone back in the 1920s.  The tunnels were to serve as gateways to "Utah National Park" (what Bryce Canyon was originally named). Anyone who has watched the Disney animation, Cars, will quickly see where the filmmakers may have gotten some of their inspiration for the scene where Lightning McQueen and Sally drive into the mountains, passing through several sandstone tunnels.

After checking into the hotel and grabbing a quick bite to eat at the diner next door, we entered the park and made our way to the canyon rim for our first view of Bryce Canyon and its famous hoodoos.  My first impression of the hoodoos - I found them creepy.  But, despite their creepiness, the formations are really quite fascinating and almost "other worldly."  I've never seen anything like them before in my life.

Where we stayed:  Best Western Ruby's Inn in Bryce, UT
Where we ate:  Canyon Diner in Bryce, UT. *Please note that I don't necessarily recommend this place just because I've included it in this post.  Just know that dining options in Bryce are limited, so you gotta do what you gotta do.

Day 2 - Bryce Canyon NP | Drive to Torrey, UT | Capitol Reef National Park 

What we did:  We were up early (this became a recurring theme for the trip) and back in the park before the rangers arrived to man the entrance gates.  Starting at Sunset Point, we descended into the hoodoos via the Navajo Loop Trail for a closer view of the mysterious rock formations.  

The trail led us down a series of switchbacks and through a section known as Wall Street, a narrow canyon with high rock walls.  

After reaching the canyon floor, we opted to continue along the Queen's Garden Trail instead of finishing the Navajo Loop (which leads back to the canyon rim).  This trail is known as the Queen's Garden & Navajo Combination and most hikers (from what I've gathered) do it in that order whereas we did it in reverse.

Some of the park's most spectacular formations can be found in Queen's Gardens, including the formation for which the garden is named - Queen Victoria.  

After a final ascent, we arrived back on the canyon rim at Sunrise Point (1/2 mile from Sunset Point, where our hike originated).  The Navajo Loop/Queen's Garden Trail is a heavily trafficked, well marked 2.8 mile trail (Sunset Point to Queen's Garden to Sunrise Point back to Sunset Point), that has an elevation change of 623 feet. We didn't encounter many other hikers on the trail until our final ascent to Sunrise Point, where we met a steady, increasing stream of hikers descending into the canyon.  

After our hike, we drove further into the park to see Natural Bridge, which is just as its name implies - a natural bridge.  It is easily seen from the roadside overlook and is frequently visited based on the ease of accessibility.  I especially liked how the reds of the canyon walls contrasted with the deep greens of the ponderosa pines framed below.

Upon leaving Bryce Canyon, we drove 2.5 hours to Torrey, UT, a little town that serves as the gateway to Capitol Reef National Park.  

We ventured into Capitol Reef in the late afternoon with one objective - to hike to Hickman Bridge.  Named after Joseph Hickman, a local school administrator, legislator, an early advocate for the Capitol Reef area, Hickman Bridge is a large, natural bridge that spans 133' and stands 125' tall.  The trail is approximately 2 - 2.5 miles roundtrip and has an elevation change of 400 feet.  It is rated as moderate as it contains a mix of steep and level sections.  I found the trek to be a bit hard due to several factors:  me not having acclimated to the higher elevation (5300 - 5700 feet above sea level), the hot, late afternoon temperatures (90F+), and that much of the trail is exposed to the sun and offers very little shade overall.

By the time we reached the sandstone bridge, several rainclouds had rolled in which provided us with some much needed respite from the relentless sun.  This made the hike down much better.

At the end of the hike, I purposely walked straight off the trail into the waters of the Fremont River to cool my hot, dusty feet.  Had I had a towel to sit on in the car, I really think I might have submerged my entire body in the river because I was that hot and sweaty and the water felt great.

Where we ate:  Slackers (lunch) and Red Cliff (dinner) in  Torrey, UT
Where we stayed:  Broken Spur Inn in Torrey, UT

Day 3 - Capitol Reef NP | Drive to Moab, UT | Arches NP

What we did:  Again, we were up and at 'em early to beat the heat.  Given that this park isn't as well known as the others in the Mighty Five, we never really entered any crowds during our time there.  By 7:30 am, we found ourselves driving on a dusty, unpaved road deep within the park en route to the Capitol Gorge trailhead.  The trail is an easy, flat, 2-mile roundtrip trail that follows Capitol Wash.  

During the trek, hikers are treated to several historical inscriptions, a.k.a "pioneer signatures," or, as I like to call them, "Wild West Graffiti."  

On our way out of the gorge, we encountered a big horned sheep grazing by the side of the road. The animal  seemed absolutely unfazed by our presence and eventually crossed the road right in front of our vehicle.  

The views driving from the trailhead back to the park entrance were quite impressive. 

In the late morning, we started our 170-mile drive (approximately 3 hours) to Moab, UT.  Once inside Arches National Park, my first scenic view actually contained no arches at all, but it was still pretty none-the-less. 

From there, we made our way to The Windows (which is comprised of the massive North and South Windows) and to Turret Arch.    To see these three arches, visitors walk along on a gravel path that slowly increases in elevation.  The round-trip distance is approximately 1 mile. 

Double Arch is located not too far from The Windows, but given the time, we opted to skip it.  We then drove to the Delicate Arch trailhead to begin our trek to see the famed arch that graces most Utah license plates. 

I would love to tell you that the hike to Delicate Arch was a pleasant one, but I can't.  It was miserable - it was 100 degrees (I'm not kidding), it was an uphill climb, and we were directly exposed to the sun throughout much of the trek. 

But, I must admit, when it was all said and done, when I finally came around a bend in the trail and saw Delicate Arch for the first time, the tremendous sight was so worth the miserable hike.  I honestly had no idea how large or magnificent this arch would be.

Where we ate:  Eddie McStiff's (I know! What a name!) in Moab, UT (dinner)
Where we stayed:  Best Western Plus Greenwell Inn in Moab, UT 

Day 4 - Canyonlands NP | Drive to Cortez, CO | Mesa Verde NP

What we did:  At 8:00 am, our guide from Navtec Expeditions picked us up at our hotel for a half day tour. On UT 279 (Lower-Potash Colorado River Scenic byway), we stopped along the Colorado River to view some very cool petroglyphs.

At some point, we left the main road and started our 4x4 adventure.  Bouncing along the unpaved, rocky road, we came upon several ponds full of vivid blue water surrounded by chain link fences.  Our guide explained that this is part of the harvesting process for potash, a potassium-containing salt frequently used in fertilizers.  From there, our guide negotiated the high clearance 1998 Toyota Landcruiser, the only make and model in the fleet, over large rocks and along narrow passages in our path and we entered Canyonlands NP.


Throughout the tour, whether en route to the park, in the bottom of the canyon, or while climbing the sheer sides into order to make it to the top of the plateau, the landscape appeared truly otherworldly, almost like something I'd expect to see on Mars. 

Our drive from Moab to Mesa Verde National Park was 125 miles and took around 2.5 hours.  During the drive, we left the vivid red rocks and earth that we'd grown accustomed to as the landscape turned into a mixture of browns and greens.  I ended up sleeping most of the way and missed the moment when we crossed the state line making Colorado the 34th state that I've visited.

That evening, we went on a twilight tour of Cliff Palace, which is the largest cliff dwelling in the park and probably the most well known.  Getting to Cliff Palace requires participants to descend several sets of stairs and stone steps; leaving the abandoned dwelling requires visitors to climb five 8-10 foot ladders up the side of a steep cliffside. 

Although the loop is only about one quarter of a mile long, it is categorized as strenuous due to the steps and ladders.  It might be difficult for people who are afraid of heights.  For those not scared of heights, negotiating all the steps and ladders is worth it in my opinion, for you are rewarded with a close-up encounter with ruins that date back to 1200 A.D.

Where we ate: Far View Lounge in Mesa Verde NP (dinner)
Where we stayed:  Far View Lodge in Mesa Verde NP


Of all the places we saw during the first four days of our trip, seeing Delicate Arch up close and personal was my favorite experience.  Please join me again next week for Part 2.  

Have you visited any of these parks?  If so, which one was your favorite?  

Linking up with:


  1. I love the Southwest. Nothing like the color you see or the people you meet. Gorgeous images. Great trip!

  2. This trip is on my list! I actually have the itinerary and where I'd stay all planned - we were supposed to go in April but had to push it off.

    Love your pics so much and dying over the heat/sun.

  3. I have always wanted to visit Bryce Canyon and these photos make that whole area look pretty amazing! Pinned.

    1. The area was visually stunning! Be sure to check back next week for part 2!

  4. So many lovely places and glad you finally got to visit. Sounds like the heat was a bit of a killer on some of these treks. These parks are on our travel list as well but we have not gotten a chance to explore Utah yet!

    1. Yeah, the heat was killer! I'll give it credit, though, at least there was no humidity. But, despite it being a "dry heat," it was still HOT! Utah has some amazing parks! Hope you get to explore them soon!

  5. This is the roadtrip of my dreams! Was hoping to do it this fall, but will have to "settle" for DC-NOLA along the southern east coast. Not a bad one either :) #theweeklypostcard

    1. Your DC-NOLA trip sounds interesting, especially in the fall. Nice weather, warm colors. :)

  6. What a great roadtrip through the beautiful Southwest. Living relatively close, I have visited all of these places and love them! Though I never considered going to Moab and vicinity in the summer, hiking to Delicate Arch in 100 degrees must have been brutal... the first time we hiked it we got rained and hailed on ;), it made the rocks a bit slippery, but no matter the weather, the hike is always worth it. Your photos are stunning! Thanks for sharing your adventure on #TheWeeklyPostcard

    1. The southwest is beautiful and I'm always mesmerized by how different it is from where I live on the east coast. Hiking to Delicate Arch was brutal. We didn't want to hike to it that late in the day, but given our itinerary and time constraints, that's the only time we had to do it. I can't imagine dealing with a slippery slope and hail while hiking to DA! Whew! Thank you (re: my photos) and thanks for reading!

  7. On a recent visit to SLC, we only had enough time to squeeze in a trip to the Great Salt Lake and Antelope Island. I would have loved to visit Bryce Canyon and the other sights. I enjoyed your post. #TheWeeklyPostcard


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