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Colorado River Canyons

Sunrise Mountain and Lake Mead Park

Just minutes from Las Vegas is a different world. A world of sandstone rocks in reds, browns, and whites.jagged mountains high above a broad plain.and the Art Deco engineering masterpiece of Hoover Dam.

So if you need to chill after too much neon, cigarette smoke, and noise, head out to Lake Mead National Park.

We did our hiking early, starting with a brief walk at Sunrise Mountain, just outside the park on Lake Mead Boulevard. Then doing a short hike at Wetlands and about half the four-mile trail at Bluffs, and ending by 10:30 a.m.—which was a good thing, as the temperatures were only in the high 80s by the time we finished, but shot up in the afternoon as high as 107°F at times.

Sunrise is the first place that really shows the striations in the rocks, each representing a different era in time. The light play is wonderful here; we had seen it the previous evening, and it looked quite different in the early-morning clear blue sky.

Wetlands is a short trail down to a polluted stretch of river (sings warn not to go in), but it's very pretty. Walk through a slot canyon, heading back toward the bridge that carries the main road. After about 15 minutes, you'll come to a green, lush area right along the river, very pretty. Some of the rocks look like animals; one looked like a gorilla wearing glasses.

The Bluff trail is quite different, although very close to Wetlands. Enter through a well-marked path between Campsites 72 and 74 in Las Vegas Bay Campground—a heavily irrigated area full of incongruous flowering trees. Narrow-leafed, so they take less water, but still rather startling in the desert. Very quickly, it'll turn to wide-open vistas, and stay that way for some distance on the cliffs above the river. We hiked about half an hour in and back, past an earthquake fault that had split rocks, several caves, and great views of the lake.

From there, it's a short, pleasant drive to Hoover Dam, just outside the park on the Arizona/Nevada border. We came in from the Nevada side, passing the first parking lot because we didn't know how far we were (it turned out to be quite close), then passing the parking garage because we didn't want to pay seven dollars to park. So we kept going, and in about half a mile, we were on the Arizona side, which offered several no-charge parking lots. Then we walked around for about an hour, enjoying great views of the river, the dam, the hydroelectric power infrastructure (some of it at crazy 45 angles off the side of the cliff, the tourists from all lands (I heard Hebrew, Chinese, what I think was Swedish, and some other tongues)—and yes, the lovely air conditioning at the cafe. We did not take the tour, but we felt we got a lot out of our self-guided exploration.

Then, to end our visit to the park, we stopped at Boulder Beach. This was very beautiful, but it smelled bad and the sand burned. However, we put up with it because the water was deliciously cool. And then, after about six hours in the park, much of it in temperatures well above 100°F, we were ready to spend a few air conditioned hours on the Vegas strip.

Valley of Fire State Park

Heading north the next morning on Interstate 15 toward Utah, we exited for Valley of Fire State Park, some distance to the east and highly recommended by several locals. (There's also an entrance via Lake Mead, but we felt that would add another hour to an already long driving day, and would also require backtracking the entire length of the park once we'd arrived. Instead, we entered on the west side and exited on the east, which connected us farther up I-15 toward Utah.)

This amazing park is home to an astounding assortment of very bright red-rocks sandstone formations against a much starker landscape of whites, blacks, and browns, which make the red ones stand out even more than if they were in a similarly colored landscape. Many of these rocks are at a very human scale, and right alongside the road with easy access. It is, so far, the most gorgeous desert rock formation collection I've seen in my life—because the high red formations are hither and thither, contrasting eye-catchingly with the surrounding more muted colors.

A surprising number resembled animals or people; the locals call that kind of formation a "hoodoo," and one Native American legend says they were once a group of misbehaving people, who were turned to stone as punishment. We saw shapes that evoked, in my mind at least, an elephant, a gila monster or iguana—from a slightly different angle, that one also looked like a 40s-era streamlined passenger train)—and one that I dubbed Mr. Spock because it had a face that looked like Thomas Jefferson but with pointy ears, a crowned king and queen kissing. Oddly enough, I didn't see the elephant in the formation on the east edge of the park called Elephant Rock—but I saw one in an unnamed rock near the more spectacular western side.

While small in comparison to the enormous national parks in the area, this park was able to contain all of its visitors easily. White Domes and the Visitors Center were crowded, but everywhere else, only a few people at a time were exploring any particular area.

Favorites (in the order we explored them) included:

  • The Beehives, right by the road and easy to climb on
  • Atlatl Rock, which was shaped like a100-foot tall old man's face, and even featured stairs going up the cliff to view a series of 4000-year-old petroglyphs
  • Numerous caves in the cliffs above the visitors center
  • White Domes, with a moderately easy 1.25-mile loop trail that offered stunning views of white and yellow rock formations as well as the dominant red, along with a chance to walk on the remnant of a vintage movie set (lots of movies have been filmed in the vicinity).

We were less impressed by the petrified logs, which are fenced off and not particularly attractive, and Rainbow Vista, which, while very pretty, was less eye candy than many other parts of the park. And we had to turn back when we attempted the short trail at Mouse's Tank, because the temperature had passed 100°F and, too recently off our 40-minute hike at White Domes, I started feeling dangerously overheated. There were several other attraction points we chose not to visit, because we did have to get all the way to Cannonville, Utah by nightfall. As it was, we spent nearly five hours exploring this little-known treasure.

The parts of Nevada we were in had been extremely dry. There was plenty of vegetation, but mostly various kinds of scrub creosote and sage, low to the ground and without much moisture in the leaves; very few even reached the height of a person. We also saw a good variety of birds, insects, and a few small mammals like kangaroo rats and chipmunk-like, furless white squirrels. Outside of heavily irrigated areas, I don't think we saw a tree.

Red Rock Canyon

If you only have a few hours and don't want to travel too far from Vegas, this is your park. The scenic 13-mile driving loop (no exit until you've completed the circuit) offers several different ecosystems, including the beautiful Calico formation of bright red sandstone topped with white, and a very pleasant and nearly deserted mile-long flat trail out to the cliffs of Oak Creek Canyon, which rises in a big mountain just beyond that section of trail. At Willow Creek, you can see a small group of prehistoric handprint pictographs.

We hit this park on our way back from Utah, and perhaps we were jaded. It was certainly pleasant, but not as glorious as the others we experienced on this trip. However, it's about 15 minutes from downtown Las Vegas, and that's important.

From Zion past Bryce

Crossing first into Arizona and then into Utah, we stopped for cold drinks at 25 Main Café & Cake Parlor in the small, artsy town of Saint George, where I had a very good and quite substantial ice coffee and Dina ordered—it was actually delicious—a house special smoothie of kale, spinach, pineapple juice, banana, and I'm not sure what else.

A few miles farther north, we exited I-15 at Route 9, drove through Hurricane and Rockville—and then the drive started to get VERY nice as we neared Springdale, just outside the gates of Zion National Park.

After the unrelenting dryness of Nevada, Utah, a mix of semi-arid and true desert, is a lot more green. Along the rivers, deciduous trees grow in profusion, with real canopies. And everywhere you look, tall mountains, red-rock canyons, gorgeous open spaces—dotted with green, at least in springtime.

Springdale is also much more in harmony with the landscape than many Western towns. Earth tones and good landscaping provide the setting for a variety of hipper tourism businesses, particularly art galleries and outdoor outfitters. At Sol Foods, the larger of Springdale's two organic groceries, where we stocked up for dinner with organic spinach, deli salads, huge and juicy cucumbers, quality cheese, and even a bar of fair-trade chocolate.

And then came the awesomeness of Zion. If Valley of Fire is the most beautiful red rocks landscape I've seen, the western end of Zion is the most dramatic. Route 9 enters near the bottom of an enormous canyon, whose walls soar nearly 2000 feet up, and are topped by mountains that take it another 2000 feet. Colors tended more toward rose-pink and whitish brown, with less of the deep vivid red that characterized Valley of Fire. This jaw-dropping view changes moment-to-moment along Route 9, as it switchbacks its way up from 3920 feet at Springdale to 5700 at the east entrance, going through two narrow tunnels on the way. It's hard not to believe in God when looking at this landscape.

If this is merely the state highway, I am very eager to see the Mount Zion Canyon Scenic Road, which is only accessible by shuttle bus, and some of the hiking trails we intend to explore later in the week.

Just east of Zion, we turned north along Highway 89, a pleasant, tree-lined road with glimpses of various canyons along the way, and then east again on Route 12 Scenic Byway, which starts by traversing gorgeous Red Canyon. Viewed from the road, this bright red feast for the eyes didn't have the amazing shapes of Valley of Fire, or the contrast between redlands and non-redlands, but it was still a terrific drive, particularly since we hit it just as late afternoon was beginning to transform to early evening. We were well before sunset, which is very late at the far western edge of Mountain Time and only five weeks before the solstice. Still, everything glowed, bathed in the long golden rays of light of the fading day. We made it to Cannonville just before dark and enjoyed our picnic feast in our hotel room—a delicious end to a spectacular day.

Exploring Bryce and Red Canyon

The next day, we again got an early start and arrived at Bryce Canyon by 9 a.m. The day was deliciously cool, mostly in the 60s and 70s, and we set out on a two-and-a-half-hour expedition from Sunset Point down the Navajo Loop to the canyon floor, then back up to Sunrise Point (very close to Sunset) via Queens Garden—so named because the largest hoodoo bears a resemblance to a certain statue of Queen Victoria.

Bryce could be called Hoodoo Central. Tens of thousands of them fill the canyons and subcanyons, jammed in like—and colored similarly to—the terra cotta soldiers of Xian, China. It felt like it could be the perfect place to film some fantasy movie involving alien castles, or at least Oz. My favorite hoodoo was one that looked like Snoopy off to fight the Red Baron, in his sunglasses.

One thing I hadn't realized was that many of the hoodoos look like more ordinary cliffs and buttes from the side; many of them go back some distance, in rectangular lock shapes—but see them from the front and something completely different emerges.

From there, we decided to see a completely different part of the park, so we retrieved our car and headed out to Rainbow and Yovimpa Points, in the far southwest corner of the park. The 13-mile drive there is studded with scenic overlooks, though not much can be seen from the road. We stopped at several that offered sweeping views of not just the canyon but the plains and mountains behind it, including one way in the distance that was still snow-capped despite the recent heat. My favorite was the Natural Bridge overlook, which was a very large arch below us, very close to the road.

Following a picnic lunch, we walked the short distance to Yovimpa, then picked up the Bristlecone Pine trail, with pine and spruce forests, and of course the bristlecone pines clinging dramatically to the cliff edge, for thousands of years at a time.

Much of the park is accessible by shuttle bus, particularly the main parts, around Bryce Amphitheater. However, the bus service out to Rainbow Pont is very sporadic, and it's a long walk back—so if that's part of your plan, you may want to derive.

The day was still young, about 2:30 p.m. at a time of year when there's still light in the sky at 9 p.m. So we decided to take in Red Canyon, as well, since we'd liked it so much as we drove through it the previous day.

Arriving much earlier this time, we didn't have the amazing color we'd seen the day before, but this time we were able to hike right into the formations, and see their numerous hoodoos, most of which are not visible from the road.

On the advice of the rangers, we chose the Pink Trail, an easy 35-minute loop up a gentle slope, with 13 points of interest marked off on the trail and on an accompanying brochure. This offered great views of formations near and far, including the two "totems" atom pome of the high cliffs, which actually resembled a pair of backpackers from certain angles. Other trails go as much as nine miles, so serious hikers should consider this little gem. No admission charge.

There's also no admission charge to the part of Bryce called Mossy Cave, accessible from a parking lot on Route 12. Even though we'd already done three pretty good hikes, we stopped and had a look. This was not so much a hike as a walk, on a mostly flat trail a very short distance, and then your choice of a waterfall or a spring-fed café. They're in close proximity and we did both, spending no more than 25 minutes on the entire walk.

Our last activity was a stop at Bryce Canyon Coffee Co., 21 N. Main Street in tiny Tropic. After four hours of hiking, we pampered ourselves with espresso and pastries, and enjoyed chatting with Bowdie and Echelle, the young couple who recently opened the place. They even offered the option of almond milk.

Escalante National Monument

A third of four national parks in Southwest Utah is Escalante National Monument, a rugged wilderness that's significantly larger than Rhode Island and may even be bigger than my own state o Massachusetts. In other words, it's huge. (The fourth, Capitol Reef, was too far for this trip. Like Moab and Canyonlands, it will have to wait for another time.)

However, much of Escalante is either inaccessible other than through dirt back-country wilderness roads, or inaccessible entirely. Our little rented Yaris would not be up to the task. We needed something accessible by passenger car, and relatively easy. So, like many others, we chose the lovely, easy and convenient Calf Creek Trail, located right on Route 12 between the hamlets of Escalante and Boulder.

Three miles each way, this trail runs mildly up and down (a bit more up than down, and most of it fairly flat) through the bottom of a very lovely canyon; oak, box elder, sage and what I'm guessing is tarragon line much of the trail. There's a small red-rock hill to climb near the beginning, some pre-Colombian Fremont culture petroglyphs, and, at the trail's end, a spectacularly beautiful high waterfall tumbling over a multicolored cliff. It took us about 3-1/2 hours of actual walking, round trip, plus an additional hour hanging out at the falls.

The villages on either side have some attractions, too. In Boulder-the last place in the US to receive its mail by mule train, and the home of the first person to walk the entire Spanish Trail since 19th-century explorer John Fremont—the Hell's Backbone Grille has been written up in the New York Times, and offers an intriguing New Cuisine menu with lots of goat cheese, arugula, and so forth, and several vegetarian options. Although it was pricy, we were eager to try it, as we hadn't seen a restaurant we wanted to eat in since leaving Vegas. Unfortunately, we got there around 3 p.m.; they stop serving lunch at 2:30, while dinner doesn't start until 5.

Just west of the Calf Creek trailhead is the amazing Kiva Koffeehouse, a large round log building with a friendly atmosphere, scenic views and great coffee, with a definite health consciousness.

Escalante proper offers several art galleries (including the must-see no-name gallery on the eastbound side of 12 just past the Circle D restaurant. Owned and operated by photographer Tracy Hassett and his beader wife, this shop not only offers Hassett's luminous canyon photos but also a great selection of exquisite and for the most part very reasonably priced Navaho and Hopi pottery and jewelry). Also a small but very well-curated natural foods grocery called the Mercantile, with tons of vegan, wheat/gluten-free, and supergourmet options. There's also a small natural foods market in Boulder, but we didn't choose to stop there.

Zion

After one more drive through Red Canyon in early morning light (almost as beautiful as late afternoon), we arrived at the eastern entrance to Zion National Park by 10 a.m. I have to take back what I wrote earlier about Zion being majestic but not as beautiful as Valley of Fire. It's amazingly beautiful AND amazingly dramatic. Almost everywhere we looked was spectacular, with height differences up to about 5000 feet (nearly a mile). Not only did it hold up spectacularly well even after seeing Bryce and Escalante, but I found the eastern side considerably prettier than I'd remembered it from a few days earlier.

If you're a backcountry hiker, you could easily spend several days here, as long as you had enough water. We're not quite that adventurous, so we chose a series of short hikes.

And we were lucky enough to get cool, cloudy weather for most of the day, even a bit of rain. The sun finally burned off the "morning" fog around 5 p.m., just as we were finishing our final hike of the day.

We found that we could do anything marked "moderate" or "easy," and that the times on the Park Service information materials tended to be quite a bit longer than our actual times, especially on the paved trails. So we were able to squeeze in three good hikes.

First, the Canyon Overlook Trail, one of the few places it's possible to park a private car (as opposed to stopping for a few minutes to snap photos at one of the many pullouts along the way). The lots—one for each direction of traffic on Route 9—are small and fill quickly, but there's also rapid turnover, since the hike is short. This was an easy hike of about 40 minutes round trip, to a grand panoramic vista of the road as it exits the tunnel, and the canyons that it runs through. One thing I noticed as we walked was that plants were growing in the far corner of a cave-like overhand, where they weren't ever going to get much sun. But they did get water, dripping from the cave roof, and that apparently made them viable.

Speaking of plants, the park is quite lush in many places. Lots of gamble oak, juniper, various pines, cacti (especially prickly pears, in flower in May with beautiful lotus-like blossoms of pink, red, or yellow), horsetail, aster (in purple, white, and yellow varieties) and even a marsh plant that could have been cattails.

Then we drove through the long tunnel and most of the way across the park, to the Visitors Center. The parking lots were all full, but I circled through them anyway. I was just about to give up and park in Springdale, outside the park, when someone pulled out and I was able to grab the last parking spot. From there, we hopped the shuttle bus up the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive (closed to private cars), all the way to the last stop, the Temple of Sinawava—which is indeed scenic, though no more so than Route 9. There, following a quick picnic that enabled us to separate from all the other people who'd gotten off the same large-capacity bus, we followed a lovely paved (and mostly wheelchair-friendly) trail along the very pretty Virgin River, with mountains towering above us in the narrow canyon. We fast-moving New York City natives did the round trip in about 40 minutes.

Getting off the bus again at the Grotto, about halfway back down the canyon, we embarked on our most challenging hike of the day: a two-hour explore of the Emerald Pools area, starting by walking the mile-long, easy, Kayenta Trail, veering off on the moderate half-mile spur (1 mile round-trip) Upper Emerald Pool Trail, and then returning through an unnamed but very pretty pool on the way to the Middle Emerald Pool (which was closed) to the Lower Emerald Pool Trail.

Kayenta offered great views of the canyon and the river. The hike to Upper Emerald was satisfying, because we had to work; the trail felt very much like the forested Eastern mountain trails we hike at home in and near Massachusetts, except for the soaring sandstone slabs rising up seemingly to infinity. However, the view when we arrived was disappointing; a much better view was actually about a third of the way back down the spur. Yet many of the walkers were getting their pictures taken at the pool. the unnamed area in the middle was lushly green, and I enjoyed it a bit more. The Lower Emerald Pool was a great big ledge underneath a series of waterfalls, with good scenic overlooks as well, and quite a bit of fun. From there, it was a quick and scenic walk to historic Zion Canyon Lodge, where we had the option to return to the Grotto, but chose to simply get on the bus. The Lodge, incidentally, had one of the more creative and vegetarian-friendly menus in the area, with an emphasis in both the meat and vegetarian options on locally sourced foods. Prices were high and reservations were strongly encouraged, so we didn't choose to eat there—but it looked great.

Unlike some parks I've been to, Zion is on a pretty deep sustainability path—to the point where signs at the lodge and the Visitors Center explain several of the environmental reasons why they won't sell bottled water. Several of the buildings are also designed with environmental considerations in mind.

We finished our excellent first day at Zion with an excellent meal at Thai Sapa, just a few steps outside the Springdale gate at 145 Zion Park Boulevard. This all-organic Asian fusion restaurant—Thai means "great" in Vietnamese, and Spa is a tribe found in northern Vietnam—had outstanding food, big portions, and moderate prices. Owned by a Vietnamese woman and her American husband, it offers an assortment of Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese, and Indian dishes, as well as original creations like "Thai-jitas," bringing in a Mexican element. The menu also specifies which dishes can be made vegan and which contain fish sauce—very welcome information for vegetarians and vegans. We tried the Thai-jitas and a yellow curry, both with tofu, and both superb. Charlotte, our waitress, told us that every item is organic and much of it is locally sourced. No MSG or GMO soy products here!

Our final day in the area was a Saturday, so we went to the weekly Springdale farmers market for a scrummy breakfast of homemade scones and locally roasted coffee, tasted artisan honey and cheese, bought some fresh veggies for dinner, and enjoyed the mountain backdrop before catching the shuttle bus into the park.

A beautiful sunny May Saturday makes for a much more crowded park than a cloudy Friday. The road leading into the park was backed up, and many of the buses we rode both to and inside the park were packed with standees. And the trails wee well-populated.

This time, we chose two hikes marked "strenuous." Both, however were well within our abilities; the 40 minutes or so per day of low-altitude hiking that we typically do at home more than prepared us well for these high-altitude extended hikes (about two hours each, at our moderate pace). In the morning, we hiked to Hidden Canyon (finishing with the short, steep spur to Weeping Rock), and in the afternoon, Scout's Lookout (most of the way to the notorious Angel's Landing, probably the most challenging of the park's especially popular trails). Both of these were extremely scenic, both gained quite a bit of elevation—850 for Hidden Canyon, and probably about 1000 for Scout's Lookout (hard to know exactly, because the brochure lumps it in with Angel's Landing). Hidden Canyon's best views were looking up at the steep rock faces; the Scout's Lookout trail had good cliff views also, but the real stunners were the views from the top of a switchback section of trail to the valley below. Oddly, the summit was not the best view for either of these trails.

Scout's Lookout concludes with a long series of sandstone stairs, and then a flatish stone plateau with the Angel's Landing trail continuation only a few hundred yards away. It's so steep that it's rated for a whole hour to do 1 km/ 0.6 miles each way. Despite all the hype, this trail looked no harder than many we do at home in the Northeast United States. If we'd done Scout's Lookout in the morning, we definitely felt we could have reached Angel's Landing. However, after already hiking three hours of steep trails, and watching the time and the rapidly moving in gray clouds, we thought it best not to try.

Stunning scenery, great hikes, wide diversity of habitat, and consideration for its visitors: Zion National Park has it all. If you asked me to choose one park from all we've visited in the US over the years, Zion would get my vote.

Costs (as of May, 2013):
National Parks and federal lands year-long entry pass, $80 (covered Lake Mead, Zion, Bryce, Escalante, and Red Rocks Canyon—individual cost would have totaled $69, and we'll use the pass again on at least one other trip, in the fall)
Valley of Fire State Park, $10.

Shel Horowitz's latest book is Guerrilla Marketing Goes Green. He continues to edit Global Travel Review, which he founded in 1997.


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