Las Vegas & Southwest National Parks

     This trip turned out to be one of my most ambitious road trips (2500 miles in 10 nights).  We arrived in Las Vegas, NV, after 1 AM in the wee hours and immediately picked up a rental car and drove to St George, UT, a distance of over 100 miles. Late the next morning we set out for Zion National Park, one of Utah’s gems.  Massive, sheer, sandstone cliffs rise from the floor of the canyon. It is the Grand Canyon in reverse — instead of looking down into the chasm, the visitor is always looking up. Cars were not allowed in the Zion Canyon Drive area so we were forced to use the shuttle bus system, which was fairly efficient.
    Dramtaic formations, such as, the Three Patriarchs (Photo #4), Angel’s Landing, the Great White Throne, etc greeted us at every turn of the 6.5 mile scenic drive. We walked several trails, Weeping Rock and Lower Emerald Pool, and stopped at all the significant sights for photos, etc. After lunch we drove (in our car) the Zion-Mt Carmel Scenic Drive, which traverses the southern edge of the park, through its unusual tunnel and into a much different-looking landscape. This area is characterized by smooth, sculpted, conical mounds interspersed with evergreens. This area used to be sand dunes, and we could actually visualize the swirling sands, blown by the wind, hardening into these unusual formations.
    The next day, we headed north to Bryce Canyon National Park via a drive along scenic State Route 89. Bryce is totally different from Zion, impressive majesty replaced by fanciful, delicate spires of rock (known as "hoodoos"), even though both are the result of the same types of erosive forces. Nature’s handiwork is certainly varied.
     We stopped at the Visitor Center for a map and proceeded to drive on the park roads to all the various scenic overlooks and trailheads.  All the viewpoints offered variations on the "hoodoo" theme and all were spectacular. We were particularly impressed at Bryce Point (Photo #1), Rainbow Point, Sunset Point, and Surise Point. We walked several trails, the most memorable being the Queen’s Garden Trail, which allowed us to walk amongst the hoodoos and to see them from a totally different perspective.
    On our way back to St George, we stopped at the Kolob Canyon section of Zion. This area is miles from the major park land so is much less crowded. The 5.5 mile scenic drive offered spectacular views of the red sandstone cliffs.  
    Our last day in St George was another excursion, this time to Capitol Reef National Park (Photos 2 & 3), which showcases a distinctive geological uplift known as the Waterpocket Fold. We drove the main park road which winds along the fold and walked several trails, among them the Capitol Gorge Trail which, besides the scenery, has numerous chiseled "graffiti" left by pioneers.
    We left Utah and drove south to Page, Arizona, the gateway to the Glen Canyon Recreation Area, a man-made lake created by the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam. On our first morning here, we headed down to the Wahweap Marina to board a boat which took us to Rainbow Bridge National Monument (Photo #5). Rainbow Bridge is the largest natural stone arch in the world. It is fairly inaccessible, so is typically reached by boat.  It is about a 3 – 4 hour round trip and reservations should definitely be made in advance during the summertime or school vacations. The boat ride was very pleasant, with multicolored sandstone cliffs lining the water. The National Monument is on sacred Indian ground so visits are short and people are asked not to wander beyond the arch.
    The next day we went on our longest excursion of the trip, all the way to Colorado. On the way we stopped at one of the true highlights of this magnificent trip, Monument Valley (Photo #6).  The varied and interesting sandstone mesas and buttes create one of the most unforgettable landscapes on the planet. Older visitors inevitably remember these scenes from many of the "western" movies from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. This attraction is also on Indian tribal land, and a permit must be secured before driving along the unpaved road which winds through the area.
    From here we continued eastward into the southwestern corner of Colorado to visit Mesa Verde National Park, the quintessential ancient, southwestern US Indian site.  Our journey to the park took a long time so we reached the Visitor Center (which is not at the park entrance but several miles into the park) with little time left before the park closed. We booked the last tour of the day which would begin in about 15 minutes, then raced the 10 -12 miles on windy park roads to our meeting place. Our tour took us to Cliff Palace (Photo #7), the largest and most popular of the cliff dwellings. We descended on steep paths and many stairs into the alcove which is still well-preserved despite being about 1,000 years old.  Our Ranger-leader was extremely informative about the structures within the community. Perhaps most interesting was the information that this society mysteriously disappeared about the year 1200 AD, and no one has been able to satisfactorily explain why. We then returned to Page late in the day.
    Our next and last stop was Las Vegas, Nevada, the gambling and entertainment Mecca of the USA. The remainder of our first day in town was spent checking out The Strip, that broad, busy boulevard lined with exciting and incredibly elaborate hotels and casinos. We stayed in the Paris Hotel (Photo #8), which was convenient to many of the most famous of the venues, such as, the Bellagio, the Venetian, and Caesar’s Palace.  Later that evening we journeyed to the old part of town to meet some friends. We were mesmerized by the neon fantasia known as the Fremont Experience (Photo #9) and we toured some of the original Vegas casinos.
    The next morning, we headed south to Hoover Dam (Photo #10), the most popular excursion from the city. What a marvel of engineering! We took the Hard Hat Tour which was fascinating. We returned via a scenic drive through the Valley of Fire State Park which showcased picturesque sandstone landscapes, and also drove through Red Rock Canyon, a rugged gorge with multicolored sandstone walls. That evening, we saw Danny Gans, one of Las Vegas’ premier performers (advance tickets are a must).
    Our final excursion, on our last full day in Las Vegas was to Death Valley National Park, in Eastern California. This park is absolutely huge, larger than the state of Rhode Island and difficult to see in one day, but we did the best we could. Notable sights within the park include Badwater, the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere, Zabriskie Point (Photo #11), with great views of multicolored sandstone, mountains and the broad valley which gives the park its name, and Scotty’s Castle (Photo #12), an opulent and unusual ranch house in the middle of nowhere. A detour along Artist’s Drive was another highlight. This park may well have some of the most magnificent scenery in the entire country.
    We returned to Vegas, sampled a few more of the famous hotel productions, and left the next day for home.
     Lessons learned:
           1. Distances in the West are great, so, even though the highways are good, be careful about trying to include too many places in any excursion. We also do not tend to include driving within a national park, for instance, in our calculations. These distances may also be significant (and may include fairly low speed limits) — we found this at Mesa Verde and Death Valley.
           2. Attractions that highlight Western scenery, but have not been designated National Parks, tend to be much less spectacular than those the Federal government has chosen to preserve for all ages. So feel free to skip second-rate places, such as Red Rock Canyon (near Las Vegas) or Valley of Fire State Park, because it is merely more of the same. They are geared more for people who have never seen this type of landscape.


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