The American Southwest

Do you recall the old cowboy movies? One where the heroes seem to roam the great outdoors of sand and desert? Well, one can say that the south western part of the continental US does look a little parched. And if viewed from the air high enough, it would be an enormous brown spot. But this is also where a great number of natural beauties call home. And we wanted to see them up close so much, that we decided upon a road trip.

The thing about independent road trips is that you get to decide where to go and how long to stay. The south western US is one of the best places to explore on your own. Be prepared for long drives though!

Starting out from Las Vegas, our drive took us eastwards at first before making a sharp left to the north towards the south rim of the Grand Canyon. Continuing on a northeasterly route we drove through Monument valley and snug into the town of Moab. This was our home base to explore a vast expanse of national parks before we headed up over the “top” and back down to Bryce NP. We made a super quick jab at Antelope canyon before returning to the city of sin (that story here).

Southwest US drive map
The black line was our drive itinerary

In this essay, we will show a sample of the varied scenery that can be enjoyed from the many national and state parks of Arizona, Utah and Colorado – that is collective known to the locals as the “south west” or the 4 corners. And first up, it is surely to the place that they say,

Oh it is surely grand!

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Now where the resident squirrel?

It could be said that this is one of the most important points for tourists to stop – that is the Grand Canyon. Do you know that it is generally at an elevation of between 6,000 to 7,000 feet? It is thus cooler at this elevation even though it may be blazing sunny! So remember to bring along a jersey or coat especially in the early morning when you view sunrise or in the late evenings after dinner.

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This river carved out the canyons?

Amazingly this structure spanning was carved out by a seemingly benign river over millions of years. One would not have believed this if one had not seen the great plateau that runs for as far as the eyes can see. The elements of nature have indeed great powers to sculpt and fashion out enormous works of art over the eons. Remember that the Grand Canyons run in a north easterly direction and that part of the Grand Canyon is where less tourists venture to – the Canyon Lands national park. You can only get there by driving around Grand Canyon, a distance of about 360 miles (approximately 580km). Of course you may try to trek it through on foot… More about that later on.

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Yet another way in which you can enjoy the scenery of the Grand Canyon is from the air.

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Come fly away, come fly away with us

Many options exist for you to take to the air like a bird. Most depart from Las Vegas, but you can choose to do so from any part of the region as there are numerous local air strips to cater to your desires. Nominally, most flights take about an hour and can easily cover most of the Canyon. If you are more adventurous, you can even land (if you are on a helicopter trip) and do a quick hike through the many canyon crevices and streams. Most people have champagne meals like breakfast etc instead.

Some of the most beautiful landscapes can only be seen at certain times of the day – such as sun rise or last light. And that makes staying out here a must. For our journey we stayed at the south rim’s Yavapai lodge.

Nature built bridges and arches

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The elliptical window

Now we had driven through monument valley (story here) and reached Moab in the late evening. After a good rest we headed up to the first of many national parks in this area – Arches NP. It is located in what is called a  “high desert,” with elevations ranging from 4,085 to 5,653 feet above sea level. Hence, most of the vegetation we found here were cacti.

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Strong arch indeed

Now there is so much to see in just this one park. Did not hike to the Balance rock, but admired it from afar because we were conserving our energy for a hike to Delicate arch. Now to get to the arch one has to get on the 3-hour trail. We did not. Instead we opted for the hour-long one, to see the arch from a distant. Sigh. If only time was not a constraint and we had allotted it more time! The thing about not being up close to the arch are in the photos!

Due to the long periods of time during which nature had with sculpting out this region, great and delicate structures are frequently found such as this Landscape arch spanning just over 290 feet across. It is the longest natural arch in the world. If you think this is awesome, check out our other story on Canyonlands NP here.

Many of these spectacular views are just a short hike from parking and well worth the effort of a short walk, though some that we described above will need some investment of time and effort. Well signposted trails aid you to reach the destination and probably other hikers you run into you shouldn’t won’t get lost…

Inspirational some canyons are

One of popular stops would be at Bryce Canyon, easily a day’s trip from Las Vegas. There are numerous motels and hotels dotting the peripheral of the national parks and you will not be without creature comforts throughout the road trip. In fact we did quite a bit of shopping here, spending (too long) a time in the little curios shops buying rocks to bring home! Yeah, there sure were lots of beautiful specimens of amethyst and agate for sale. The ‘power of the force’ was too strong and we succumbed!

Anyway the park is distinctive due to its geological structures, called hoodoos formed from wind, water, and ice erosion of the river from lakebed sedimentary rocks. The rim at Bryce varies from 8,000 to 9,000 feet (2400 to 2700 m), so we are even higher than Grand Canyon. Even the wind feels a little chillier here when it blows through. The red, orange and white colors of the rocks are really beautiful and provides a great background for photos due to the hues. This is especially accentuated at sunset or sunrise.

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Magnificent is the word

Now one NP that we did not intend to stop did awe us.

This was Zion NP. At 15 miles (24 km) long and up to half a mile (800 m) deep, it was created in 1918, with the park being renamed Zion from the original name of Mukuntuweap National Monument – which was quite a mouthful.

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Picturesque is another

At the foot of the park, we were greeted by a beautiful vista of the mountains and river. What a peaceful place to complete our 2,700km sojourn through the southwest of the US.Indeed each national park will in itself be more than a full day’s exploring. Thus, we are more like “dragon flies touching water” (蜻蜓点水) the Chinese saying for skimming the surface and not exploring in depth. In all, we visited 6 parks in the space of a week and used the “America the Beautiful” Pass. Make you purchase ahead. It will save you a lot of money from paying at each NP you visit.

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Memorable is the final one

And did we mention that we made a quick jab at Antelope canyon too? Tip: for road trips is for you to ensure that you have adequate petrol at all times as stations to refuel may be far and between. Remember to pack some snacks and water as well, since there is not likely to be supermarkets just around the corner!

As you will probably guess, the bright days (it can be cloudless and painfully glaring) can effectively make sightseeing harder during the late mornings and early afternoons. One way to get around this is to do the bulk of the driving during the day and so the sightseeing in the early morning or mid afternoon onwards. Alternatively good sun shades will come in handy.

We only spent a week on this road trip and this short article will not do it sufficient justice. You must thus consider to do this trip too! Tip: have more than one driver, it really helps with the long drives! Whatever your plan, these Canyon Lands await you and will sure to awe you when you set your sights on it.

This journey took place in October 2008

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