Restrictions lifting, new protocols put into place, vaccinations flowing like tequila shots on a Friday night, a new normal is upon us. The world is emerging again and I took this opportunity by the horns as I’m sure a lot of travelers did too. My first fledge trip post lockdown on the books. Not to faraway lands, this time sadly, but to visit the forgotten gems in our own backyard. With a short list of friends and an even shorter list of desired locations we set off on an eight day road trip to some of America’s famous national parks. This is our story of rediscovering nature post a pandemic lock down and enjoying some views while at it.
Our route was simple, drive in one giant circle that starts and ends with us in Las Vegas. From here our group convened, picked up our rig for the week, and set off on the start of another epic road trip. Destinations were marked as follows:
- Grand Canyon National Park (AZ)
- Horseshoe Bend (AZ)
- Bryce Canyon National Park (UT)
- Zion National Park (UT)
- Valley of Fire State Park (NV)
We left ample time for a wide variety of detours and sightseeing, but this was the meat and potatoes of our adventure. The menu called for a lot of nature with all the hikes, our appetite was ravenous while we salivated at what was on offer.
Pro Tip: Grab a National Park Annual pass if you plan to go to more than three parks in one go, it really pays for itself. Plus, it’s valid for an entire year!
Firstly we needed a rig that would allow us all the room for five adults and SOME creature comforts. I would’ve loved to pick up a campervan, all the rage on social media these days, but with our number this wasn’t a viable option. Instead we scouted a 26 foot RV in the Las Vegas area from a sweet French couple who were kind enough to rent us their rig through Outdoorsy. Enough space to sleep all five, a kitchen that would cook up meals to feed our hiking appetite, and most importantly didn’t hurt the bank, jackpot. It even had a toilet and shower, what more can you ask for? After a quick stop to get all of our supplies we jetted the hell out of Vegas towards Tusayan (273 miles), just a few miles outside of the south entrance into Grand Canyon National Park.
Finding places to stay could have been a huge challenge, especially during the busier seasons but we opted to disperse camp (most of the time) instead. What is disperse camping you ask? Basically it’s like a regular campground, but free, but also has no amenities. You can camp anywhere that is part of BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land for up to a specified number of days (usually fourteen). Please be conscientious of packing out what you brought in and leaving the space cleaner than you found it! I used the website Campendium to find local dispersed camping sites near where we were staying and picked a few prime choices. These are all first come first serve, but we rarely had issues with getting a good spot, or having unruly neighbors. A new location to view the stars at night and a different sunrise every morning, this was the draw.
Pro Tip: If you have an RV like us Campendium also lists dump sites!! Don’t just be dumping your gray/black water anywhere!
Grand Canyon National Park
Waking up a quarter to six, being among the first awake in the park, watching that big yellow ball come up over the horizon and hitting those canyons with its light is just visceral to the senses. Every shade of color man has ever seen, painted, imagined, can imagine, on display before you against a 3,000 foot canyon. I’ve been here a couple of times before and it always amazes me every time. The view is a drug I can’t stop.
My favorite hike in the park has definitely got to be the Plateau Point Trail via Bright Angel Trail. This 13.3 mile out and back trail shows you stunning views of the canyons with its many switchbacks, through the Indian Garden (permitted campground) all the way out to Plateau Point where it truly is breathtaking. You really just have to enjoy yourself on this one because of the grueling elevation change of 3400 feet. Just remember one simple rule: Going down is optional, coming back up is mandatory. You’ll be rewarded with arguably the most amazing view in all of the park, I promise you. Just close your eyes and listen to the sounds of the Colorado River emanating from below, the best music nature produces.
If that one is too daunting, and trust me it can be, the South Rim Trail provides some great sight seeing without all the heavy lifting, or err walking in this case. A few other lookouts you should check out on your way out of the park:
- Pipe Creek Vista
- Grandview Point
- Moran Point
- Lipan Point
From here we exited the east entrance (open again, yay!) and made headway towards Horseshoe Bend (135 miles.) Not technically a National Park, but worth the drop in nevertheless. By now we took the opportunity to assess our supplies even though we have been on the road only about two days. Once you get into the Bryce/Zion park areas large stores become non-existent and things get expensive real quick. Page, AZ provides your last real opportunity to hit those big supermarket chains which we lapped up. The area also provides some of the most epic disperse camping views/backdrops of the whole trip.
Horseshoe Bend has a $10 entrance fee to get beyond the gates, which isn’t entirely terrible as long as it goes to up-keeping the area. Once parked it’s a short mile walk towards the bend mostly through dirt and sand. Be weary as there is NO SHADE near the bend and in summertime it can get quite stifling hot. Shade shelters are on the path.
We spent an afternoon here taking in the views from the myriad of vantage points, some walkable, some climbable, choose your poison. Normally it gets really packed around sunset, but it also doubles as a great picnic spot so it makes sense. We cracked open a few beers and soaked up the setting sun on yet another beautiful day on the road. Horseshoe Bend is extremely photogenic so get your best pose on and camera gear ready, sunrise is worth the extra effort in getting up.
There are various hikes around the area you can do, take in a helicopter tour, or if you are really lucky, snagged a time slot to visit Antelope Canyon nearby, we weren’t. For my gang Horseshoe was enough as we made way to our disperse camping site not too far past the UT border.
Waking up to a slight crisp in the air while be in the desert has been probably one of my favorite ways to emerge after a long restful sleep. We clammer onto the roof of our RV to watch the sky lit up in the usual deep hues color the desert sky as sizzling bacon from the galley below waft their way up the vents. Mornings like these are what makes life memorable. With no time to waste we packed up, cleared camp and made way towards Bryce Canyon National Park (140 miles.)
Bryce Canyon National Park
The drive to Bryce Canyon National park boasts some of the most scenic views you can see on this trip. I would highly recommend sitting by the window or any window as much as possible when making the trek from Page. Before you actually enter BCNP you’ll drive through Red Canyon which offers an equally stunning view. Make sure to head off on the turn about and soak it in before entering the park area or take a photo under some of the arches!
The last time I was here in November 2020 the air temperatures steadied around 28 degrees with fresh snowfall on the ground. At night it dipped well into the single digits making sleeping in a campervan a tad bit hairy. This time around, September 2021, it was a warm 70 degrees during the day and just a smidge above freezing at night, perfect otherwise. Bryce hosts a variety of trails that allows you to take in all the canyon valleys, but no other attraction is better known than its greatest collection of hoodoos on earth. What’s a hoodoo? In a non-scientific explanation from yours truly they are giant rock spires shaped by nature over the millennia.
Take to the Rim Trail that will leave you skirting the edges of park, allowing you to peer down into the depths below. For a better time I’d suggest heading down the Navajo Loop Trail followed by a quick jaunt through the Queens Garden Trail. It makes for a the perfect way to see all the slot canyons and hoodoos. For the final trail do make your to Bryce Point. A different perspective of the park is offered here, one that I didn’t get to see last time during winter as parts of this trail was closed off. Don’t worry there’s a shuttle to take you back to the visitor’s lodge if your feet are too weary to keep going.
Our stop in Bryce was short, only for the day, as we moved to pack up the rig and get things sorted for our next destination. First things first we had to dump the tanks. The beautiful part of RV camping is the actual camping, the less desirable bits are dumping the gray (not so bad) and black water (pretty bad) tanks out. They don’t glamorize this bit on social media, I mean who wants to see you dump a poop/pee tank? But a las it’s all part of the experience, a sometime too smelly experience. Please dump responsibly, there are plenty of dump stations out west and plenty near the park. This was my PSA for this blog post.
Before heading to Zion from Bryce (87 miles) we made a pitstop at Mossy Cave just a few miles outside of the park. I heard there is a waterfall and that’s all I needed to hear. The trailhead is quite short, less than a mile, making it really easy to trek. During the spring months the waterfall can be raging with melting snow from the north, but since we came in middle of September it was ticked back a few notches. Plenty of things to explore and hills to climb, a cave to wander into. After a quick dip under the water we bid it adieu for the the grandiose next stop that is ZION.
Zion National Park
Arguably my favorite out of the lot and for good reasons. If you’ve ever been to Zion you know what awaits when emerging from the Mount Carmel tunnel. After a mile of being in total darkness the first light that shimmers through your windshield presents the ever breathtaking valleys of the park. Surrounded on all sides, deep in the bosom of the canyons there is nothing more and nothing less than 360 degrees of wonderment. My companions all shared in the same affect, that we have arrived.
Zion was to be our last major stop on this trip as we planned a few days to explore the park and its trails on offer. Before you plan your trip here are few IMPORTANT details not to glance over:
- There are significant trail closures: Hidden Canyon, Observation Point, Weeping Trail Rock Trail still closed due to rockfall (at time of publishing)
- Starting April 2022 permits will be required for Angels Landing hike (more information on the lottery)
- If driving through the Mount Carmel-Zion tunnel and your rig is larger than 7 feet 10 inches (2.4 meters) in width and/or 11 feet 4 inches (3.4 meters) in height or larger is required to have a tunnel permit.
There is a support town in the form of Springdale where lodgings, restaurants and plenty of gear rental can be had if you find yourself lacking in any of those areas. We opted to disperse camping a bit outside of the area to be away from crowds, but also to stargaze at night in the desert. As for gear, especially if you are hiking The Narrows, it was basic since the weather was still relatively warm. I highly suggest getting trekking poles or a large stick as mine was immensely helpful. There are also plenty of other things to do in the national park area like rock climbing/repelling (permits may be needed inside the park), fat bike rentals, or electric rentals just to get in, out and around.
Note: if you are coming from the east you will need to pay the entrance fee for the park (good for seven days) to go through the tunnel even if Zion is not your final destination.
With the closures there were still PLENTY of hiking, nature and glorious views to be had. Our agenda consisted of the Emerald Pool trails, The Narrows and of course Angels Landing. The first can be categorized has a typical half day hike, depending on how many stops you take and how long the on the trail you want to be on, so no fuss or muss from here. The other two were the reasons why we made Zion the last stop, a topper cherry on a great ice cream sundae.
The Narrows draw in a lot of hikers and for good reasons. Not often do you get to hike between slot canyons that boasts a river running through it. Fortunately we came during the warmer months meaning we didn’t have to adorn water gear. Instead compression shorts, tank tops and water wading shoes worked perfectly fine. The trail is long so you always have the option to turn around once you’ve had your fill. To do the entire hike you must apply for a permit so do so if this is your plan. If not then be prepared to wade through at least waist high waters and have tons of fun doing it. Make sure to look up as often as you can because at every different bend the sun hits the slot canyons high up providing spectacular colors!
We have all seen imagines from this infamous hike, Angels Landing, the two feet wide rock that you have to traverse across, the more than 1,000 feet drop on either side, the chain links that you find yourself holding on for dear life. Is this rock climbing or a hike you find yourself asking the person next to you in line. When you make it to Scout Lookout exhausted and tired from the 20 plus switchbacks (curse you Walter) your jaws will certainly hit the floor at what lays before you. Seemingly like a snake rising up from the earth with people all vying for a good footing. Of course if you’re me then you’re rearing at the bit to get to the last part.
While the hike itself is tougher than the average the views at the end makes it worthwhile. Crack a beer while you’re here and just enjoy all of what Zion is, nature in her glory!
I don’t think I ever had to tell people that I am with to have their wits about them on a hiking trail but please be mindful of the people around you and especially your footing! Since 1987 fourteen have fallen off of the trail, so please exercise caution.
Side Hike: make a stop over at Canyon Overlook Trail. Incredibly worth the hike up to see all of the valley from where you emerge from the Mt. Carmel-Zion tunnel. Parking is VERY limited so get there as early as you can and enjoy!
From here we moseyed towards Valley of Fire State Park (134 miles) our final stop just outside of Las Vegas. You ever wondered what it feels like to be in the heart of a desert while it’s 100 degrees outside? Come here for a night to find out! There’s also disperse camping sites outside of the park as well!
A few trails that I wanted to show the lads were closed due to the extreme heat we decided to park at one of the RV campgrounds in the park, hooked up and blast the air-con for our final night altogether. Good food being cooked in the camper, sightings of rams atop the canyons, tequila flowing from cups filled oddly enough with more ice than spirits, not much was left to be desired. Stories of the trip was shared amongst good friends after a great time.
The next morning we all packed up, emptied the tanks and made our way back to Vegas. Bittersweet can’t begin to sum it up. By trip’s end our eight days on the road blew by faster than an F5 tornado. The experience, my second, left as much of a lasting impression as my first. Putting into words is a futile attempt. Nothing can explain the visceral feeling when you get to be out there in the world again exploring new trails with some old mates. The countless nights spent stargazing, those early morning wake up calls with Folgers brewing. Long hours spent on the trail looking maniacally in every direction, drenched from the scenery.
From boondock campsites, desert heat of a hundred degrees to freezing temperatures eight thousand feet above sea level. From emptying of black tanks, the crack of luke warm beer cans at the end of the trails. From the five am alarms to watching the sun creep lower behind the horizon. Thank you, my friends, my mates, my confidantes.
Until next year 🙌 — because there’s always that next trip!