Southern Utah’s picture-perfect parks
From Canyon de Chelly we drove 90 minutes to Monument Valley, which is also on Navajo tribal lands. Despite being relatively close to Canyon de Chelly, Monument Valley is a very different place. Instead of peering down into narrow canyons, you look up at towering sandstone monoliths scattered throughout a vast, wide-open landscape.
It’s easy to see why the iconic movie director John Ford used Monument Valley as the setting for many of his classic Westerns. The 17-mile loop road through the valley provides multiple opportunities to view and photograph the magnificent sandstone spires, pinnacles and buttes from different angles.
Moab, our next stop, is a 2.5-hour drive from Monument Valley. Surrounded by stunning red-rock scenery, Moab has numerous opportunities for hiking, biking, sky diving, rock climbing, canyoneering, ballooning and off-roading. Located a short drive to two national parks, Arches and Canyonlands, Moab has many hotels, restaurants and even a couple of decent brew pubs, despite Utah’s strict liquor laws.
Arches and Canyonlands NPs were our raison d’etre for being in Moab. Arches is famed for its, well, arches. Huge, often delicate red-hued sandstone formations provide great opportunities for stunning photos – as long as you have the patience to wait for the swarms of people on the arches to get out of the way.
Canyonlands was my favorite destination of the trip. The huge, 527-square-mile is divided into three districts – Island in the Sky, the Needles and the Maze. We chose Island in the Sky for our one day of hiking because it is the most accessible district, just a 40-minute drive to the park entrance.
Our first “hike,” which was actually just a short half-mile roundtrip walk from the parking lot, was to Mesa Arch. The large arch frames a distant view of rugged rock formations and the snow-capped peaks of the La Sal Mountains -- one of the best photo ops of the trip.
Our second hike, a bona fide hike, was the Grand View Point Hike, two miles round trip along the edge of the mesa. The views of the etched canyons hundreds of feet below are expansive and spectacular from almost every point on the trail.
After a brief stop in a very crowded Zion National Park, where the Virgin River flows through a very narrow, long and steep canyon, we headed back to Phoenix for our flights home the next day.
All-in-all, it was a very successful trip. I was able to introduce a place I care about to a person I care about.
The opportunity to share this place with Aaron made the trip even more special. I don’t know if the American Southwest transformed his life like it did mine, but from our conversations, I know that he is rethinking his life and career.
We have more adventures planned, including a trip next year to my second favorite place in the US, the Pacific NW. I hope we have initiated a tradition of annual trips to special places until I get too old to travel or he finds someone younger and more interesting and attractive to travel with.
If you go
Non-stop round trip air fare between San Francisco and Phoenix is about $350 on American Airlines. If you want to cut your driving time by 4 hours (2 hours each way), you can fly into Flagstaff but there are no non-stop flights and fares are considerably higher.
A good place to stay In Grand Canyon National Park is Yavapai Lodge, about $230 a night, (928) 638-4001. In Canyon de Chelly, I recommend the Thunderbird Lodge, $125 a night (928) 674-5842. In Monument Valley, stay at Gouldings Lodge for about $200 a night (435) 727-3231.
Restaurant options are limited. Often the only (or most convenient) place to eat is in the lodge where you are staying. Moab is the exception. Since it is a fair-sized town, there are many choices. I recommend the Moab Brewery, Fiesta Mexicana, and the Blu Pig for BBQ and craft beers. I also recommend the Blue Coffee Pot Café, on Rt 160 on the way from the Grand Canyon to Canyon de Chelly, for authentic Navajo cuisine.