After a fortnight in Yosemite, we returned back to San Francisco and flew to Las Vegas to begin a grand road trip from Nevada, Utah to Arizona (covering several national parks between) over two weeks. We took the idea from the Grand Circle tour, although I couldn’t find an official one we ended making our own tour and itinerary. Our stay in Las Vegas was brief, we rented a car and headed North East, crossing states to Utah.
Zion National Park is an incredible place to visit. The whole canyon was carved by the Virgin River millions of years ago which still flows today and continue to erode the rock layers. I had always imagined the canyons would be set in a dry and arid landscape and never thought I see water and lush green vegetation that lines the Zion valley floor. If you visit here, jump on the free shuttle bus which takes you from the start of the park entrance to upper end where you can hike The Narrows (the bus makes several stops between).
Hiking is the number one thing to do here, we did the easy ones at first and walked through the Virgin River but the most challenging of them all is Angel’s Landing; a huge rock face 1765m in height, to get to the top you walk and climb a very narrow path with sheer drops on both sides (you only have a chain to hang on!). The trail is not for the faint hearted and if you have a fear of heights. I attempted it and got as got as far as I could, there is a plateau before the path becomes challenging so you can admire views safely.
GRAND CANYON & BRYCE CANYON
Back on the road again we drove to another town and based ourselves in Kanab. Heavy rain moved in on our first night and it persisted almost much of our stay here (a sign that autumn has arrived). It still baffled me that the surrounding landscapes are mostly desert sees this much rain! Kanab like St George was a great base, with restaurants, shops and reasonably priced accommodation.
Regardless of the weather, we still ventured to the Grand Canyon, if you want to escape the crowds the North Rim is equally spectacular than its southern counterpart but not as busy.
If you ask us what our favourite national park was, it would go to Bryce Canyon. This place is stunning, multiple towering rocks called Hoodoos jut out like spires to form this spectacular sight. You should hear people’s reactions when they first see this place, it was hilarious! This place will keep your camera very busy, we wished we had spent more time here and hiked some of its amazing trails through the rock formations.
Capitol Reef is a lesser known national park, we picked it to break up the journey from Kanab to Moab. Still it was a 4 hour drive and we entered into more remote areas of Utah, long straight roads not seeing a soul for miles. We stayed in a motel in Teasdale for the night, a couple miles from Capitol Reef National Park.
Mormons settled here in the late 1800s, creating the village Fruita – although most of the villagers have moved out, their fruit orchards and some of their buildings remain. The park service allows visitors to freely pick at the orchards (no charge if you eat on site) but if you wish to take any fruit home, an honesty system is in place where you pay a small charge.
ARCHES, DEAD HORSE POINT & CANYONLANDS
Reaching Moab was the farthest point we’ve reached on our road trip from Las Vegas (457 miles away). Moab serves three main parks from Arches, Dead Horse Point to Canyonlands. Due to the pricey accommodation here we stayed an hour further out, near the town of Monticello. I was amazed how developed Moab was, a busy town with many stores and restaurants and bars. As we passed through Moab we used the opportunity to stock up on food at one the big supermarkets before our stay at a ranch near Monticello.
We spent the majority of our time here, there is so much to see! The parks are vast, spectacular and recognisable from the movies that were filmed here.
MONUMENT VALLEY & ANTELOPE CANYON
As we slowly turn towards Las Vegas to complete our circle, there were a couple more places to see. We approached Monument Valley, in a bare deserted landscape the iconic monolithic rocks tower over each other which can be seen from miles.
We continued towards Page, crossing states again to Arizona to visit Antelope Canyon. This impressive canyon slot with it’s sandstone walls have been eroded over time to produce an amazing array of wavy patterns and smoothly cut rocks. You really have to visit this place to admire it’s phenomenal beauty, the photos don’t give it justice!
Antelope Canyon has two parts; Upper and Lower Canyons and can only be visited by guided tour by one of the many tour companies that operate there (ran by the Navajo people). The Upper Canyons are the most popular and the most expensive to visit ($40 for a standard tour) and usually booked up (people make reservations many months before). The Lower Canyon is similar but narrower, it’s less busy and much more affordable ($20).
You can view more our photos in the Canyons Gallery.
- If you intend to visit more than one National Park, get the US National Parks Annual Pass ($80). It covers 2000 recreational sites and it saved us a lot of money on entry fees. The pass can be purchased at the entry points or information centers at each park.
- Book your accommodation and car in advance especially in high season. Airbnb? Click here to get £25/$35 off your booking.
- Opt for self catering places and cook to save money.
- Fill up your car regularly (not when its low) as you enter remote areas, you might not see another petrol station for miles.
- There are other parks and areas of interest near Blanding, Utah (75 miles south of Moab) that’s worth visiting including Indian ruins and an Arches equivalent e.g. Natural Bridges National Monument. They are quieter sites, a nice escape from the crowds of the parks closer to Moab.
- We personally recommend the ranch stay at Canyonlands Lodgings, the owner Jerry has various cabins on offer, in a quiet nature setting. (Airbnb discount above) The night sky here is incredible, often seeing the milky way.
- Some of the parks are State or locally owned which are not covered in the US parks pass e.g. Dead Horse Point and Antelope Canyon – so be prepared to pay.
- Book Antelope Canyon in advance and decide which parts you want to visit (Upper or Lower or even both). In peak season, the Upper canyon is the most popular and usually booked up for standard tours.
- Tour companies in Page (AZ) operate on Utah/Mountain Time even though Page itself uses Arizona time this is due to closeness of the state borders, This is critical to know when visiting Antelope Canyon as it can only be done as a timed guided tour – so always check when booking a tour!
- If you want great photos of Antelope Canyon, book a photography tour (you will need a DSLR or mirrorless camera and a tripod). Standard point and shoot cameras and smartphones won’t capture the rocks that well due to the low light conditions. The tour companies are strict of what equipment is allowed for your tour and the photo tours are only reserved for serious photographers only (no tagalongs permitted).
- The guides that accompany you won’t give much on photography instruction but they will control the traffic flow of people (that are on the standard tours) and allow you to take your photos without any distractions.