From the moment I stepped foot onto the Southwestern states, I sensed a deep connection with the region — from the mighty rivers to the grand valleys and endless deserts, it’s almost like you are watching nature shape itself in real time.
After two shorter trips in 2011 and 2014, we planned the ultimate “canyon craze” road trip in late August of 2017, taking us through many national parks, tribal lands, and cute little towns.
As opposed to our previous trips, where we used Las Vegas as a base, we were lucky to find a flight to St. George, a small town on the border of northwest Arizona/southwest Utah, just a couple hours from Zion National Park. As a bonus, on our flight from Phoenix to St George, the pilot kept us at a low altitude, giving us amazing views of the Grand Canyon!
Narrows is one of the canyons in Zion where it’s possible to hike upstream (“bottom up”) when water levels are low. The high walls and cool water offer a great hike during the summer. It can be tough without special shoes, especially when the water gets deep, so we rented a pair!
On our way back, we took a little break to enjoy the serenity and refuel! These shoes were not absolutely necessary but they kept us safe from hurting our feet or spraining an ankle.
Sunlight doesn’t make it directly to the canyon for most of the trail and the sky is hardly visible. But if you look up, you’ll notice the beautiful contrast between the blue sky, green trees, and the brown rock…
Hiking “Angels Landing” is strenuous due to the steep climb, but the beautiful views of the canyon make it worthwhile. As we headed up in the early morning, we kept stopping after every corner to take pictures of the sun rising above the tall mountains, shining onto the valley below.
Making it to the top (“Scott Lookout”) is an amazing experience by itself, offering 360 views of the park. For those looking for even more adventure, this narrow strip leads to what is called the “Angels Landing”.
We frequently encountered these little cute rock squirrels in the park. This one was snacking on a prickly pear, masterfully avoiding the sharp needles!
Driving through this region is never boring since you keep encountering unique scenery. These natural sculptures are a result of millions of years of erosion. (Rte 9 from Zion to Mt Carmel Junction)
After Zion, we continued south-east and stopped by Coral Pink State Park to see the sand dunes… these were formed thousands of years ago by wind throwing tiny little grains of Navajo sandstone from the hills around.
Our overnight stay was at this remote land right at the border of Utah and Arizona, overlooking the desert that leads to the Grand Canyon. The “glamping” tents are rented out via Airbnb and we were the only ones there that night! After dark, we sat under the stars and chatted with the owners, then went to bed, coyotes howling in the distance. Such a treat!
The main reason we visited Kanab was to see the famous Wave, a rock formation in the Coyote Buttes region that has become increasingly popular after being featured in documentaries (and as a Microsoft Windows background picture!). Visiting this formation requires a permit to the North Coyote Buttes, of which only 20 are granted every day: 10 of them 4 months in advance and 10 of them via lottery the morning of. During the time we visited, around 100 people entered the lottery, so our chances to get a permit was very low. Instead, we opted to visit South Coyote Buttes, where similar formations can be seen and permits are easier to obtain. (wave patterns of Cottonwood Cove)
You do need a serious off-road vehicle and knowledge of the area (few signs, almost no cell coverage) to navigate the buttes. We arranged a full-day tour with Dreamland Safari, which I highly recommend since it allowed us to cover the entire region and hike through several formations that would’ve been off limits otherwise. (White Pocket)
A short drive away is Lake Powell, an oasis of blue water and miles of rugged shoreline, which was a nice change of scenery after a day full of desert adventure. This lake is a major water source for multiple neighboring states.
We took a pleasant boat ride on Lake Powell to the Rainbow Bridge National Monument, known as the largest natural bridge on earth. It was formed by the Colorado River over millions of years, as it found a little crack in the sandstone and started flowing through, until it opened up this “hole”, leaving the top part as a “bridge”. It is sacred to the Native American tribes who have been living in this area since long before the Europeans stepped foot. Since they see it as a spiritual site, the National Park Service is responsible for keeping tourists from getting too close.
Nearby is another masterpiece by the Colorado River… Horseshoe Bend! The river has carved out a u-turn around this solid piece of rock, resulting in this beautiful natural wonder. Taking this picture gave me chills since I had to crawl down on a ledge looking down hundreds of meters below!
Antelope Canyon is yet another art piece carved out by the flooding waters of Colorado River. We visited the upper section which the natives call ‘where water runs through rocks’. It’s an extremely photogenic place and a must-see if you are in the area.
We stayed with a Navajo family while visiting Monument Valley and it was such a unique experience. We slept in a cute little cabin with panoramic views of the valley. Watching the sun rise above the valley was so lovely!
A worthwhile stop on our way north was Newspaper Rock State Historic Monument. This is a rock full of petroglyphs dating back around 2000 years! There are animals, footprints, tools, monster-like figures and squiggly lines all over. It is just mind-blowing to see this first-hand and to try and make sense of what these people had on their mind while drawing these…
Canyonlands NP overwhelmed us with the vastness of the canyons. There are many different spots to hike around the rim and enjoy the scenery.
Moab is a town located between Canyonlands and Arches National Parks so it made perfect sense to base ourselves here. As we did not expect much from the town itself, it was a pleasant surprise to see such a cute walkable place with so many dining options.
Arches NP was the final park on our list. Dozens of different arches can be viewed in the same day just by driving around the park and doing some short trails. The best, in my opinion, is Delicate Arch, which can be reached via a moderately difficult hike. We started in the afternoon to make it there for sunset, when the deep red colors come out more strongly.
Hanging out there while the sun set was so much fun although you should make sure to hike back before it gets too dark.
This concluded our packed “canyon craze” trip… and even though we went through 4 national parks, 2 state parks, Native American reservations of the Ute, Navajo and Hopi, as well as recreational areas in between, we were still not able to make it to a bunch. So, it’s only a matter of time until we start craving some more canyon time and plan our next visit to these special lands.