Category Archives: Southwest

Road Trip: The Grand Circle

Thanks to all of you who joined me in revisiting my trip around the Grand Circle in honor of National Parks Week. I’d like to give a special shout-out to my new followers: Welcome! You have inspired me to continue on a more regular schedule here. Keep an eye out for upcoming posts on some of my favorite national parks, including Grand Teton and Yosemite, as well as road trips in the Carolina Low Country, the Scottish Highlands, and West Texas.

When last we left the Grand Circle, I was in Monument Valley. I’m afraid there’s not much more to report after that. The drive from Monument Valley back to Las Vegas via the Grand Canyon can only be described as a whirlwind. With four to five hours of solitary driving each day, there wasn’t much time for sightseeing. I arrived fairly late at the Grand Canyon, and then had to leave very early in the morning. Luckily, I did manage to get a cabin at the Bright Angel Lodge, which meant that I was right on the rim of the canyon and could sneak in a sunrise hike partway down the Bright Angel Trail. It was very quiet at that hour but I was so intent on setting up my tripod for some shots that I didn’t notice that a bighorn sheep had come up behind me and was about to knock my tripod over the cliff! An incredible moment, sadly not captured on film.

Bighorn sheep sneak up on you when you least expect it.
Bighorn sheep sneak up on you when you least expect it.

Frankly, I have to say that the Grand Canyon was somewhat of a disappointment after all I’d seen on this trip. Of course, the scale is amazing, but it’s not nearly as pretty as some of the other parks and is a far less intimate experience. But perhaps that is only because I was rushed. This was the second of two abbreviated trips I’ve made to the Grand Canyon and one day I would really like to spend more time there, especially if it involves rafting in the canyon itself and/or a stay at Phantom Ranch.

Mule train down to Phantom Ranch
Mule train down to Phantom Ranch

Of course, I always want more time. While I took ten days for this trip, and it’s very doable in that amount of time, I would suggest a full two weeks to complete the full circle, perhaps adding a few more days if you want to spend any time in Vegas itself. If I had to do it all over again, I would add another night at the Boulder Mountain Lodge, one in Moab in order to properly visit both Arches and Canyonlands, and one at the Grand Canyon.

This is not really because I felt I gave any of these parks short shrift, but rather because the beauty of the Grand Circle is that even outside the main attractions, there are many interesting things to see and do along the way and it’s nice to be able to stop and smell the desert roses. Side trips abound, such as Dead Horse Point State Park, which is most familiar as the scene of Thelma & Louise’s final send-off, and Newspaper Rock, a sandstone wall covered with 1500-year-old petroglyphs (just there by the side of the road on the way to the Needles district of Canyonlands).

Newspaper Rock in black and white (and read all over)
Newspaper Rock in black and white (and read all over)

Not to mention the many picturesque diners along the route. I mean, don’t you want to be able to say you’ve tried a “ho-made” pie? Or any pie, really. I can still taste the enormous slice of banana cream pie I had at the Pine Country Restaurant in Williams, Arizona. That thing was a meal unto itself.

The Thunderbird Restaurant, Mount Carmel, Utah
The Thunderbird Restaurant, Mount Carmel, Utah
Blondie's in Hanksville, Utah, or, as we called it, "The Scary Diner"
Blondie’s in Hanksville, Utah, or, as we called it, “The Scary Diner”

To read the complete Grand Circle series, click below:
Zion National Park
Bryce Canyon National Park
Capitol Reef National Park
Arches National Park
Monument Valley


*Note: This trip was back in the days of my much-loved Pentax K1000. As such, most of the pictures in this Grand Circle series are scans of my printed photos.

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Monument Valley

Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, or Tsé Bii’ Ndzisgaii (valley of the rocks), straddles the Arizona-Utah border and is familiar to anyone who has seen a John Ford western. Among the many he filmed there are Stagecoach (1939), My Darling Clementine (1946), Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), Rio Grande (1950), and The Searchers (1956). In fact, as a lover of westerns, Monument Valley is the main reason I wanted to extend this road trip to take in the entire Grand Circle, even though The Boys flew back to New York from Moab.

The valley is accessible by private vehicle, but there are parts that are off-limits if you are not on a guided tour, so I opted for one organized by Goulding’s Lodge & Trading Post, which, until The View finally opened shortly after my trip, was the only place you could stay in the immediate vicinity of the park.

Sentinel Mesa, West Mitten Butte, Big Indian, Merrick Butte, and Castle Rock from John Ford Point
Sentinel Mesa, West Mitten Butte, Big Indian, Merrick Butte, and Castle Rock from John Ford Point
A quiet moment at John Ford Point
A quiet moment at John Ford Point
Elephant Butte
Elephant Butte
Totem Pole
Totem Pole

In any case, it was a good thing I didn’t drive myself within the park, as the road (and dust) was probably worse than that on the worst African safari ever. But it was worth it to finally see all these iconic formations for myself.

"Our Lady of the Mitten"
“Our Lady of the Mitten”

Unfortunately, I ran out of film at the end of the tour just at sunset.*
I decided to wait to buy more until I was on the road again and then kicked myself when I realized that the sunrise view of the valley from my room at Goulding’s was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen.



*Note: This trip was back in the days of my much-loved Pentax K1000. As such, most of the pictures in this Grand Circle series are scans of my printed photos.

Arches National Park

“Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread. A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself.”
—Edward Abbey

By the time we got to Arches National Park, we had been on the road almost a week. So, it is perhaps not surprising that we found ourselves with a slight case of “park fatigue” and didn’t love it as much as expected. It didn’t help matters that Arches was crowded (at least compared to where we had been), especially with too many kids who were clearly bored out of their minds with all the walking.

I can’t imagine what this park is like during the summer, as even in mid-October we would arrive at viewpoints and not be able to park. At Devils Garden, we walked for close to a mile from our car to the trailhead. With over a million visitors a year these days, not to mention the intense desert heat, I’m stunned that they apparently still haven’t developed a viable shuttle system.

The boulder on top of Balanced Rock is more than fifty-five feet high.
The boulder on top of Balanced Rock is more than fifty-five feet high.

Devils Garden is at the end of the park road and the road is not a loop, so, depending on the sun and any photography needs, you may be better off heading there first and then winding back to see the other viewpoints on your way out of the park. There’s a reason this section of the park is so popular—it has more arches than any other. The full loop hike is 7.2 miles and quite strenuous in parts, but there are several shorter options.

Tunnel Arch, Devils Garden Trail
Tunnel Arch, Devils Garden Trail
Pine Tree Arch, Devils Garden Trail
Pine Tree Arch, Devils Garden Trail
Landscape Arch, Devils Garden Trail
Landscape Arch, Devils Garden Trail
Skyline Arch is located just south of Devils Garden.
Skyline Arch is located just south of Devils Garden.

Another popular spot is the Windows Section, with two of the most photographed arches in the park, the North Window and the Double Arch (featured above), both easily accessible from nearby parking.

The larger opening of Double Arch is over one hundred feet high.
The larger opening of Double Arch is over one hundred feet high.
The North Window's opening is approximately fifty feet high and almost one hundred feet wide.
The North Window’s opening is approximately fifty feet high and almost one hundred feet wide.

The only popular feature you won’t see pictured here is Delicate Arch. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to make the rather strenuous hike up to it, and, while we did drive to the Delicate Arch viewpoint, I just couldn’t get a good shot of it.

Finally, another reason we didn’t visit as much of Arches as we should have and (Shock! Horror!) didn’t even see Canyonlands, is that we decided to pamper ourselves and stay at the swanky Sorrel River Ranch and Spa, which was well off the beaten path from Moab and both parks. If you know me at all, you know I’m a completist and it nearly killed me to leave Canyonlands off the list, but the foot massages after all that hiking may just have been worth it.

Looking out from the front of the Sorrel River Ranch
Looking out from the front of the Sorrel River Ranch
Looking towards Arches from the Sorrel River Ranch
Looking towards Arches from the Sorrel River Ranch

Note: If you are visiting Arches, I recommend taking along a copy of Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, an account of Abbey’s time as a park ranger at Arches in the 1950s and his consequent ruminations on environmentalism, solitude, and wilderness.

Entry to Arches National Park is $10 per car for seven days. If you are completing the Grand Circle, I recommend getting the annual parks pass, which is $80. The pass is good for a full year and can be used to cover the entrance or other fees at over 2000 federal recreation sites.



*Note: This trip was back in the days of my much-loved Pentax K1000. As such, most of the pictures in this Grand Circle series are scans of my printed photos.

Capitol Reef National Park

It may seem that Capitol Reef is the neglected step-child of the five national parks in southern Utah, and I suppose in many ways it is. In fact, I’m not sure I had even heard of it before I started researching this Grand Circle trip, which was well before I began my parks project. However, one of the reasons we decided to include it was to stay at the Boulder Mountain Lodge in Boulder, Utah (B on the map above), one of ten great budget lodges on a list I had from my favorite travel magazine ever, Budget Travel, which is sadly no longer in print but still exists online. Not only do I highly recommend the lodge, and especially the restaurant, the Hell’s Backbone Grill, but this part of the trip proved to be a lovely interlude between the twin juggernauts of Zion-Bryce and Arches-Canyonlands. In short, there are a number of reasons to travel the almost 300 miles between Bryce Canyon (A) and Arches National Park (E).

While we spent two delightful nights at the Boulder Mountain Lodge, which included chatting politics with the chef-owners of the restaurant (it was October 2008 after all) and enjoying the fruits of their on-site organic farm, I think we all wished we had factored in more time here. Boulder, Utah is just under two hours from Bryce Canyon on Highway 12, or Scenic Byway 12, a gorgeous road through the heart of the biggest national park in Utah that is not a national park, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. At nearly two million acres, Grand Staircase is enormous, and, yes, for this reason it is stupid that it’s called a “monument” but let’s just all hope that one day it grows up to be a real park. [Side note: There is a long history of presidents using the Antiquities Act of 1906 to immediately protect lands that are later granted national park status.] While Grand Staircase is more of a backcountry park, there is a relatively easy 5.5-mile round-trip hike that takes you out to Lower Calf Creek Falls, a lovely spot for a picnic. There are sandstone cliffs, pictographs, and various flora and fauna to keep you entertained along the way.

Staircase 01

Staircase 02

Staircase 03

Staircase 04

A fun drive to take, if your car can handle rougher terrain, is the Burr Trail Road, which starts in Boulder, winds through Long Canyon, and eventually ends up at a side entrance to Capitol Reef National Park. While you probably don’t want to go that far, it’s a beautiful drive that eventually opens up to an excellent view of the Waterpocket Fold, the 100-mile-long wrinkle in the earth that is Capitol Reef. The park itself is best entered from Highway 24.

The Waterpocket Fold is a must-see for any geology fans. I highly recommend buying the recording at the Capitol Reef Visitor Center (C), which provides you with a guided audio tour of the geological features along the 25-mile Scenic Drive. Seeing the various rock strata on full display is actually far cooler than I thought it would be.

NP_Capitol Reef_01

NP_Capitol Reef_02

In addition to looking at rocks, you can also walk among them. With proper planning, you could easily do the entire Grand Wash Trail, which runs from the Scenic Drive out to Highway 24, or simply walk the Grand Wash Canyon part of it and retrace your steps back to the Scenic Drive. At the end of the Scenic Drive is another short walk to some petroglyphs. During harvest season, you can “pick-your-own” in the Fruita orchards, left by Mormon settlers and now maintained by the National Park Service.

Entering Grand Wash Canyon and feeling very small. Note: Always check for flash flood warnings.
Entering Grand Wash Canyon and feeling very small. Note: Always check for flash flood warnings.
I found the "desert varnish" on the walls of Grand Wash Canyon to be extremely beautiful.
I found the “desert varnish” on the walls of Grand Wash Canyon to be extremely beautiful.

Last, but not least, this route contains a little-known gem that was recommended to us to break up the 150-mile trip from Capitol Reef to Moab, which is a long stretch of fairly dull landscape. Goblin Valley State Park has a bit more notoriety now as the scene of a viral video showing Boy Scout leaders knocking over one of its 20-million-year-old hoodoos.

SP_Goblin 00

This state park is hidden in the middle of nowhere, twelve miles off Highway 24 (D). It is a small valley of crazy, random, mushroom-like stones, similar to the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon, but much smoother. I felt as if we had wandered onto the cheap set of an early Star Trek episode. One thing was for sure, the kids we saw were absolutely delighted to be running around and among all these bizarre shapes. I even went black & white for the occasion.*

SP_Goblin 01

SP_Goblin 03

SP_Goblin 02

Entry to Capitol Reef National Park is $5 per car for seven days. The day-use fee at Goblin Valley State Park is $8 per car.



*Note: This trip was back in the days of my much-loved Pentax K1000. As such, most of the pictures in this Grand Circle series are scans of my printed photos, including these black & white images.

Bryce Canyon National Park

Just ninety minutes down the road from Zion National Park is Bryce Canyon. Despite being the scene of an epic birthday meltdown (yes, mine), it was probably my favorite park on the Grand Circle. At one-quarter the size, it is much easier to take in than Zion, which contains an enormous backcountry that most visitors never see. Bryce also has one of the best park lodges there is: While the rooms are spartan, the location on the edge of the canyon between Sunrise and Sunset Points can’t be beat.

As with Zion, we took the approach of driving the entire length of the park road on the first day, making stops at viewpoints along the way and taking short hikes along the rim. This is another park that one can enjoy even without hiking. In fact, it is important to realize that the altitude may mean that even walking short distances may be more difficult than normal. However, the layout and multiple intersecting loops make tailoring a hike for one’s fitness level fairly easy. Note: All hikes begin with descents into the canyon, so you must take care to remember that you may have a steep climb out.

While one can admire the hoodoos from above, it is truly incredible to walk among them.
While one can admire the hoodoos from above, it is truly incredible to walk among them.

There’s not much flora or fauna to be seen at Bryce; this park is all about the odd geological formations. We were stunned into silence by the beauty of Bryce Amphitheater with its curious hoodoos.

NP_Bryce 03

NP_Bryce 04

Of course, this beauty was somewhat marred by the fact that it was f*cking freezing. [Note to self: Visiting a park that sits at 8,000-9,000 feet in mid-October might not be the best idea.] We got up to take pictures at sunrise and, almost an hour later, I could no longer operate my trusty Pentax K1000 due to my fingers being about to fall off.* Good times.

The view from the aptly named Sunrise Point (at sunrise, duh)
The view from the aptly named Sunrise Point (at sunrise, duh)
I'm not sure I could feel my fingers at this point but it sure was pretty.
I’m not sure I could feel my fingers at this point but it sure was pretty.

Even though we stayed only one night at Bryce, being up so early, we did manage to get in a good hike before leaving, combining the Navajo Loop and Queens Garden Trails to make one 3.5-mile loop. Word to the wise: Descend into the canyon via the steeper Navajo Loop Trail rather than the reverse. This trail descends over 500 feet in .75 miles; the featured photo above was taken looking back up and out of this entrance to the canyon.

Wall Street on the Navajo Loop Trail
Wall Street on the Navajo Loop Trail

Once you exit Wall Street, the trail opens up, and you can either loop around and head back up to Sunset Point via “Thor’s Hammer” or continue on to the Queens Garden Trail, which eventually exits the canyon at Sunrise Point.

Along the Queens Garden Trail
Along the Queens Garden Trail
At one point it felt like we were shooting a sequel to Lawrence of Arabia
At one point it felt like we were shooting a sequel to Lawrence of Arabia.
I'm pretty sure I'm so happy here because I know the end is in sight.
I’m pretty sure I’m so happy here because I know the end is in sight.

Just writing this post and looking at these pictures again is making me want to go back.

Entry to Bryce Canyon National Park is $25 per car for seven days. If you are doing more than one park, I recommend getting the annual parks pass, which is $80. The pass is good for a full year and can be used to cover the entrance or other fees at over 2000 federal recreation sites. For example, I can use mine to visit Muir Woods, which is just over the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco.



*Note: As I got prints from both sets and scanned them, I am not sure which photos are mine and which are by The Boys. You should assume the better ones were taken by The Boys.