Wednesday, June 15, 2011

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

In Best of the West (Part I), I covered the major highlights of our thirteen-site National Park odyssey. I explained why Bryce Canyon is my all-time favorite, why Zion has a great shuttle system, and why you should camp at the Grand Canyon if you're craving s'mores. These tips might be enough for the casual, armchair traveler, but if you want the nitty gritty details of the West's great National Parks, you've come to the right place. Read on to find out more about our favorites and get details on a few newcomers.

River Crossing in Echo Canyon, Zion National Park
Best for Walkers: Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks, UT
It's official - Utah is a great place for hikers! Bryce Canyon was home to my favorite hike (the Fairyland Loop, detailed in Part I) and Zion was the site of Matt's (Observation Point via East Rim), so it's hardly surprising that these two win our most 'foot friendly' award. Both parks boast a variety of hikes that cater to walkers of all ages and abilities. From two mile hikes, to hikes you'll still be feeling two days later, these parks have it all. All routes within Zion Canyon are reached via the free park shuttle, making them extra backpacker-friendly. The sheer volume of trails at both locations means you could explore for days and never hike the same trail twice! Top Tip: While none of the trails are really 'technical,' some are quite physically demanding (Zion's Angel's Landing trail, for example, has a cliff's-edge portion with chains to hold as you climb) and many will be closed seasonally or affected by adverse weather.  Be sure ask about current trail conditions at the visitors center before you lace up your boots.

View from Observation Point, Zion, UT
Best for Bikers: Zion National Park, UT
Matt and I didn't travel with bikes, but at Zion we wished we had. The canyon is so narrow that visitors are required to ride the park shuttles, leaving their cars in the parking lot and creating excellent road conditions for bikers. The views through the park are stunning and gazing through the smudgy shuttle windows really doesn't do them justice. Top Tip: For those whose bike of choice is a mountain bike, there's the Par'us Trail - a car free alternative to some portions of the main road.

Delicate Arch, Arches, UT
Best for Drivers: Mesa Verde National Park, CO and Arches National Park, UT
I was tempted to label this category 'Don't Even Attempt it Without a Car,' but I know there are a lot of people out there more crazy and dedicated than I! The sheer size of these parks makes them a natural choice for drivers, but both have very different things to offer. For history, Mesa Verde is an excellent choice. Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings dot the hillsides and there are so many sites that it would take forever to see them on your own two feet. The attractions at Arches are geological in nature.  There's the famous Delicate Arch (you'll recognize it from the Utah license plate) which you can - and should - hike out to see, but there are many more that you can view from the comfort of your own vehicle. Top Tip: Don't miss the view from the Cliff Palace overlooks at Mesa Verde, and make the short hike out to Landscape Arch at Arches - sometimes it's nice to get out of the car for a while.

Grand Canyon - I've hiked down there!
Most Challenging Hike: Grand Canyon National Park, AZ
Hiking at the Grand Canyon can be as easy or difficult as you want to make it.  In the three times I've visited, I've encountered all kinds of hikers, from the folks who never stray from the perfectly level, paved, and manicured Rim Trail, to the crazies who cheerfully schlep all of their worldly belongings into the bottom of the canyon on their backs, completely oblivious to the fact that they'll be carrying those same belongings out - and up - the next day. The most important thing to remember about hiking the Grand Canyon is that what goes down must eventually go back up. Matt and I like a challenge, so we picked the hardest, steepest hike that didn't require an overnight stay at the bottom - the South Kaibab Trail. The trailhead guidelines said to allow nine hours - we finished in just over three, but it was hard. The day was hot and we probably should have had more water. I've hiked at least a portion of every other trail at the Grand Canyon and I'd recommend the South Kaibab, as long as you're properly provisioned. Sometimes a bottle of water and a few Road Trip muffins just isn't enough. Top Tip: If you're really looking for a challenge, check into getting a backcountry permit from the Backcountry Information Center.  For a small fee, you can camp in the canyon overnight and explore trails beyond the heavily traveled day hikes.

Cliff Dwelling at Mesa Verde, CO
Best Archaeological/ Historical Site: Mesa Verde National Park, CO
A lot of sites claim historical interest but Mesa Verde really delivers. As a wannabe anthropologist and sometime volunteer archaeologist, I enjoyed our visit to this park - even if we only saw a handful of the rumored 4000 Ancestral Puebloan sites in the area. The park is vast and the drive to all the interesting bits is lengthy, but worthwhile. Some of the sites must be accessed through guided tours, for which you'll pay a small fee, but the best preserved cliff dwelling, Spruce Tree House, is free of charge and only a short walk down from the top of the cliff. During our visit, Rangers were on hand to answer questions and explain the history of the site.  Top tip: Visit the Chapin Mesa Museum before you head down to the Spruce Tree House to get an understanding of the historical context.  The sites are opened seasonally so check availability online before you visit.

Writing on the wall, Valley of Fire State Park, NV
Best Petroglyphs: Valley of Fire State Park, NV
In a similar vein, the southwest is full of areas with evidence of native drawings.  After two weeks, Matt and felt pretty comfortable identifying some of the symbols - or making up our own alternatives, which was often a lot more entertaining! We drove out of our way to visit Petroglyph National Monument in New Mexico, but actually thought Valley of Fire was a much better choice.  You can view drawings up close at Atlatl Rock, or look for those scrawled high overhead as you hike out to Mouse's Tank. Runner up: Another interesting site is Newspaper Rock, located within the Petrified Forest National Park, but since this park ranked as one of our least favorites, Valley of Fire gets the 'official' endorsement.

Inside a Kiva at Mesa Verde (because it's more interesting that a photo of a lizard)
Best Wildlife: Mesa Verde National Park, CO
I realize this category is completely subjective - a lot depends on the season, the weather and even the time of day. It also depends on what kind of wildlife you're hoping to see. We encountered countless lizards, a few deer and even a snake on our hike at Mesa Verde...which, for some, might just make it the worst place for wildlife!

Antelope Canyon - even more amazing in person!
Best Photos: Antelope Canyon
Okay, so this one's not a National Park.  It's not even a State Park, but it is a stunning place that everyone should visit. Antelope Canyon is one of the world's most famous slot canyons - you've probably seen pictures without even realizing it. Sadly, I can't take pictures like those, but the fact that my photos came out at all is a tribute to just how impressive this place is.  It's also a tribute to our Navajo guide who gave us pointers on shooting in such a unique location. Top tip: The canyon is on Navajo land, so you'll have to pay for a guided tour. These tours can be a little rushed so if you want extra time, ask your tour agency if they do an extended photographers tour.

Blue cheese at the Grand Canyon - have I mentioned how much I love blue cheese?
Best Food: Grand Canyon, AZ or Bryce Canyon, UT
Well, I am a food blogger after all, so we knew this category would come up eventually. The Grand Canyon wins a mention for the sheer variety of options. Several restaurants, a cafe, the grocery store, and the mini-mart ensure that all your gustatory needs will be met during your visit. The situation at Bryce is almost the reverse - there is a restaurant at the lodge, but it's a little too pricey for someone sleeping in a tent (in snow, no less!) to afford. I'm sure their food is excellent, but Matt and I wouldn't know.  Instead, we whetted our appetites - significantly increased after hours of hiking - at Ruby's  Inn, just a short drive from the park's main entrance. The Ruby's complex really has a corner on the market since it's the only food, lodging and gas within several miles of the park. Thankfully, they still produce quality service and their buffet is a great remedy for hiker's hunger - I'm sure they lost a few dollars on us that evening!

I know I've given you a lot to chew on (pun intended), so we'll make this a three-part series. Check back for some of the not-so-great aspects of our epic National Park adventures.


  1. I can't believe you hiked South Kaibab in three hours! I'm getting ready to go on a Grand Canyon guided hiking trip and South Kaibab is a trail that’s offered as a trip. I am working with the people at Just Roughin' It to determine what trail and length of trip will be the best for my skill level, because I'm definitely not completing a trail in three hours ;) You mentioned you’ve done a lot of Grand Canyon hikes, have you hiked Havasu Falls yet?

  2. Hi Katie - sounds like you're planning a great trip! I haven't hiked Havasu Falls, but I have done a few other Grand Canyon hikes. I liked the Bright Angel, but I think South Kaibab was a little cooler because it starts off so steep. Of course, no matter what trail you choose, the experience will be awesome!!!!