Monday, June 13, 2011

Best of the West's National Parks (Part I)

Exploring the Great American West doesn't get much better than setting foot on one of the many amazing National Parks that generously dot these expansive states. While driving across the trackless desert is still a Kerouacian experience, our National Parks provide some truly great opportunities for those who like to do their exploring with both feet on the ground. Here are some highlights from our experiences 'out West' (this list is collaborative, so you can get Matt's opinions as well as mine, for a change!):

Hoodoos at Bryce Canyon, UT
All-Time Favorite Park: Bryce Canyon National Park, UT
Matt and I were divided on this one - he favors the nearby Zion Canyon - but I chose Bryce because of it's stunning scenery and the wide variety of activities on offer.  The location is a bit remote, but well worth the drive. Technically Bryce is the edge of a plateau, rather than a canyon, but you'll be more interested in the unique scenery than in nomenclature, once you arrive at the park. Tall, slender spires of variegated rock, called hoodoos, create curtain-like projections that stretch out to the horizon.  At sunrise, the rocks are pastel pink, ash white and pale orange, at sunset they glow as if on fire.  It really is enchanting. The only downside is the weather - expect wintry conditions to persist until May, and check their website for the best times to visit. Matt and I pitched our tent on a foot of snow in late April!

Archaeological Site at Canyon de Chelly, AZ
Best Free Attraction: Canyon de Chelly National Monument, AZ 
For the budget-conscious, this location can't be beat.  Located in eastern Arizona, Canyon de Chelly (pronounced shay) offers a variety of attractions, including guided tours to archaeological sites, an impressively scenic drive and an excellent, short day hike down to some well-preserved ruins at the base of the canyon. The Rangers on staff were extremely knowledgeable and - bonus! - we arrived on the site's 'anniversary' which meant free cake, a postcard and a full day of cultural events. Top tip: The Park is located on the Navajo Reservation, which means it observes daylight savings time - unlike the rest of Arizona!

Valley of Fire State Park, NV: Can you spot the Scream Mask? 
Best State Park: Valley of Fire, NV
Okay, this is kind of cheating since it was technically the only State Park we visited, but the site was so impressive that Matt and I both agreed it deserves a mention. We planned to spend only a few hours here but ended up spending an entire day! Only an hour north of Las Vegas, the Valley of Fire State Park might just as well be on another planet.  The park boasts some amazing red rock formations (it derives its name from their vivid color) as well as a few short hikes and even some impressive petroglyphs. Top Tip: You could spend a whole day here, as we did, but if you're short on time, check out the petroglyphs at Atlatl Rock and Mouse's Tank, catch a glimpse of some Petrified Logs and take a picture at Elephant Rock.

View from the Fairyland Loop, Bryce Canyon, NV
Best Hike: Fairyland Loop at Bryce Canyon, NV
We started this 8.2-mile loop in the sunshine and ended - three hours later - in the snow, but every minute was absolutely beautiful. The scenery is stunning; between the multi-colored mineral deposits and castle-like rock formations, this route certainly lives up to its name. It's a fairly straightforward hike, but there is a lot of elevation change (including an almost 1800ft ascent) so it will be a respectable day hike for most hikers. Top Tip: The Fairyland Loop doesn't have the seasonal restrictions of some of the other Bryce routes, but this doesn't mean the trail won't be affected by weather. Portions were extremely muddy and some areas were still snow-covered in late April.  Improper footwear is the leading cause of injuries at Bryce so hiking boots with ankle support and 'lug' traction are strongly recommended.

Grand Staircase-Escalante: A geological smorgasbord!
Best Scenic Drive: Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, UT
Utah's newest National Monument, this scenic drive was a bonus attraction, connecting our visit to Antelope Canyon in Page, AZ, with our visit to Bryce Canyon in Utah. Given the option to take the highway or an unpaved scenic detour, we'll almost always take the detour, and this one certainly paid off. The drive is a sampler of geologic formations, winding past multicolored cliffs, table-topped buttes, towering pinnacles, and graceful stone arches. The two hours we spent driving through the monument were filled with breathtaking photo-ops and stunning vistas. Top tip: The roads through the area are unimproved and were still quite muddy in late April, so don't attempt this route in low-clearance, poor-traction vehicles. There are no gas stations once you enter the monument, so fill up before you set out.

A grand view of the Grand Canyon, AZ
Best Amenities: Grand Canyon National Park, AZ
This isn't really that surprising, given that the Grand Canyon is one of the most visited National Parks in the country.  Ample parking, a huge visitors' center and an excellent, free shuttle system are just some of the features that put the Grand Canyon above the rest.  Add in two well-appointed campsites, two full-service lodges, a General Store (complete with cafe), a gift shop and a mini-mart, and the Park has all your needs covered. You can even buy firewood to kindle in one of the campsites' many fire pits - and the chocolate, marshmallows and graham crackers to go with it.

Sunset at the Grand Canyon - I promise it's there!
Best Infrastructure: Grand Canyon, AZ and Zion, UT
Again, these are two high-traffic parks, so infrastructure is really important.  While the Grand Canyon is vast, Zion Canyon is small and narrow (so small that visitors must ride a shuttle to reach most of the park) so both make use of a great shuttle system to keep visitors moving. Both also boast impressive visitors centers, good parking, well-kept campsites and a whole host of Ranger-guided programs.

Salt at Badwater Basin, Death Valley, CA
Best Variety: Death Valley National Park, CA
This park is so much more than the barren, sandy wasteland I envision when I hear the name 'Death Valley.' Sure, it's home to the lowest, hottest and driest locations in North America - and also the famously salty Badwater Basin and the famously eerie 'sliding rocks' at Racetrack Playa - but there's a lot more to see than these well-known attractions. You can visit the remains of the Harmony Borax Works, for a bit of history, or explore the cool, polished marble walls of Mosaic Canyon on foot. Take pictures from the comfort of your car on the Artist's Drive or get a good workout climbing the shifting sands of the Mesquite Sand Dunes. Top tip: Visit in April when the temperatures are a little cooler - Death Valley also boasts the highest reliably recorded temperature in the Western Hemisphere (134 °F at Furnace Creek on July 10, 1913). In addition, the park is vast and gas prices inside the gates are high so be sure to fill up before you arrive - you'll want plenty of gas to see all this park has to offer!

Mesquite Sand Dunes, Death Valley, CA
Best Value for Money: Death Valley, CA (variety), Zion, UT (views), Bryce Canyon, UT (hiking), Grand Canyon, AZ (legendary)
As you an see, this was a tough category to adjudicate! A lot of the 'value' of a site depends on what takes you there in the first place, so we came up with a few subcategories to facilitate your decision. The good news is that with choices spread across three different states, the chances are even greater that you'll eventually get the chance to visit!

Enough exploring for one post? We've given you the best of the West, but you can check back later for more categories, breakdowns, highlights and letdowns!


  1. Great photos! We're going to Sedona next week to celebrate our 10 year wedding anniversary (a month early). Can't wait to see those red rocks and unparalleled sunsets!

  2. Thanks, Jenn! You know, I've heard great things about Sedona from so many people and have still never been. Guess I'll have to add it to the list - I hope you guys have a great time!