Designed to visit some of the most scenic natural attractions and national parks in America’s south-west, this 4,600 mile road trip makes a loop through southern California, Arizona, Utah and Nevada to take in many of the National Parks of the Grand Circle. (Meticulously planneed over many weeks by my wife, I’ve managed to include time for many hikes along the way – but it also has some “cultural stops” like Las Vegas to keep the non-hiking teenagers happy!) The first leg starts in LA and takes us through rugged desert landscapes to Las Vegas, where we spend a couple of days before hitting the road again as we head for San Francisco and the Pacific Coast.
- LA to Pioneertown via Palm Springs (250 miles / 405km) – Joshua Tree National Park
- Pioneertown to Grand Canyon (380 miles / 610km) – Grand Canyon National Park
- Grand Canyon to Lake Powell (145 miles / 235km)
- Lake Powell to Monument Valley (130 miles / 210km) – Monument Valley
- Monument Valley to Moab (180 miles / 290km) – The Arches and Canyonlands
- Moab to Bryce (270 miles / 430km) – Bryce Canyon
- Bryce to Virgin (110 miles / 175km) – Zion National Park
- Virgin to Las Vegas (155 miles / 250km) – Red Rock Canyon
LA to Pioneertown (Joshua Tree National Park)
Driving distance: 250 miles / 405km (approx 6 hours)
Key Attractions: Rock formations, a cool cactus garden and the unusual Joshua Tree on the 56 mile / 90km drive through the Joshua Tree National Park. Allow time for many of the short hikes in the park.
More information and photos: Joshua Tree National Park
Accommodation: The Saguaro (Palm Springs) to break up the trip after along flight, and Pioneertown Motel on the second night.
After the long flight from Sydney to Los Angeles, we have a very short first day, driving from the airport where we pick up our rental car to Palm Springs. Our road trip really begins on Day 2, when we head into Joshua Tree National Park. Entering the park from the south, we take the Pinto Basin Trail, the main road that traverses the national park. (We also purchase our $80 America the Great parks pass here, which gives you access to all national parks – but not State Parks or Navajo Nation parks.)
The drive traverses the national park, with a changing vista of open plains, rock formations and the unique Joshua Tree. We stop at the Cholla Cactus Garden (a dense patch of the teddybear cholla), Arch Rock and Heart Rock, Split Rock, Skull Rock and the the Hall of Horrors. Another short hike to Barker Dam visits one of the only places in the park that has water, with the trail also passing a native American petroglyph site.
We’re now almost at the West Entrance Gate (which is also at the northern end of the park), where we exit the park and head for our accommodation at Pioneertown – about 16mi/25km or a 25min drive. (There is no accommodation other than campsites within Joshua Tree National Park.) Pioneertown was established in 1946 as an 1880s themed live-in Old West motion-picture set. Hundreds of Westerns and early television shows were filmed in Pioneertown, including The Cisco Kid and Edgar Buchanan’s Judge Roy Bean. The Mane Street area is recognised as a historic district by the National Register of Historic Places. The town has the Pioneertown Motel and a couple of restaurants – and is a pretty cool place to stay!
We’re up at the crack of dawn (or just before!) on the following day for a last visit to Joshua Tree… I’m doing the short (but steep) hike up to Ryan Mountain, while my wife and the kids drive out to Keys Point – both offer great views and are particularly spectacular at sunrise and sunset.
Pioneertown to Grand Canyon via Oatman
Driving distance: 380 miles / 610km (approx 7 hours)
Key Attractions: The historic and unique town of Oatman, the iconic Route 66 and and of course the spectacular South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Lots of desert and mountain views on the drive.
More information and photos: Grand Canyon National Park
Accommodation: Clear Sky Resorts – Grand Canyon – Unique Sky Domes which is about 30min from the Grand Canyon entry gate.
Today is a relatively long driving day, as we head east into Arizona and the Grand Canyon. There’s a lot of wide, open spaces as we initially head north on State Route 247 through the Mojave Desert.
We eventually meet the historic Route 66 at Amboy, where Roy’s Motel and Café stands as an example of roadside Mid-Century Modern Googie architecture (“a type of futurist architecture influenced by car culture, jets, the Space Age, and the Atomic Age”).
The scenery gets more dramatic as we approach the rust-coloured Dead Mountains, in the southeastern Mojave Desert.
We reach Oatman in time for lunch: “a place that you need to see to believe”. Beginning as a mining tent camp before flourishing as a gold-mining centre, it’s now an authentic and photogenic Wild West town. After the end of the gold rush in 1942 (when the last mine was closed), tourism sustained the town and it’s now a thriving tourist attraction, with historic buildings and wild burros roaming the streets.
We enjoy lunch at the The Oatman Hotel, home to the Dollar Bill Bar where the saloon is covered floor to ceiling in dollar bills. The tradition comes from miners who, on receiving their paycheck, would write their name on a dollar note and stick it on the wall. When they needed some extra cash to pay their tab, they would find their dollar bill on the wall. Ask for a staplegun, and add your own American (or foreign) bill to the wall…
As we continue north from Oatman along the Oatman Highway (part of Route 66), the road twists and turns over the Black Mountains and Sitgreaves Pass. A lookout provides a sweeping view in all directions; from here you can see the states of Arizona, California, and Nevada. A little bizarrely, the lookout also has hundreds of crosses and memorials – the location has been used for over 30 years by people scattering ashes and erecting memorials.
There’s a few more lookouts along the highway, offering great views of the rugged desert and mountain landscape.
We continue though more vast, open country, arriving at the Grand Canyon just in time to catch the sun set. It’s my second visit to the Grand Canyon, and the second time I’ve looked at my photos and lamented that they completely fail to capture the awe-inspiring size and depth of the canyon.
We backtrack slightly to our accommodation at the Unique Sky Domes, about a 30min drive from the Grand Canyon entry gate. A clear night allows some great views of the stars from the patio of our family dome. (The property offers stargazing tours, a Movie Dome and many other activities that unfortunately we don’t have time to do.)
The following day starts with an early morning hike, as my son and I take a lesser-used hiking trail to Shoshone Point. After our hike we take a drive along the Grand Canyon Desert View Drive, so I can take more photos that don’t do justice to the views! A series of lookouts provide slightly different perspectives over the Grand Canyon:
- Duck on a Rock, Grandview Point , the starting point for a trail into the canyon
- Lipan Point, one of the highest points on the South Rim
- Desert Watchtower, or the Indian Watchtower at Desert View.
Grand Canyon to Lake Powell (Page)
Driving distance: 145 miles / 235km (approx 3 hours)
Key Attractions: Allow for a few stops to admire the landscape on the way. Around Page there are boat tours above and below the dam, and multiple slot canyons including the world-famous Antelope Canyon.
Accommodation: Lake Powell Resort provides easy access to the tourist attractions around Page (and many tours leave from here).
It’s a short day today in terms of distance… but there’s some great scenery on the drive. The Little Colorado River Gorge – described as a miniature version of the Grand Canyon – is almost as as spectacular as its larger sibling.
There are two viewpoints along Desert View Drive (US 64), with the second viewpoint the better one. A short walk descends to the rim of the 3,000 feet / 910m deep gorge, with the river visible below. The Little Colorado River, a tributary of the Colorado River, drops from the White Mountains in central Arizona to Lyman Lake over a distance of 340 miles. (At this time of the year the water in the Little Colorado River is brown – in the warmer months the minerals in the water creates a more photogenic blue/turquoise color.)
As with the previous day’s drive, there are vast open spaces, punctuated by steep mountains.
As we approach Page, there’s a great view of the Vermillion Cliffs, steep eroded escarpments which rise as high as 3,000 feet / 910 m above the desert floor.
Just before reaching Page the road traverses Antelope Pass, from where there is a nice view to the west.
After we check in to Lake Powell Lodge, I head back out to do the very popular Horseshoe Bend hike. The short drive passes Lake Powell, which is an incredible sight. Formed by a dam constructed from 1956 to 1963 on the Colorado River which flooded the Glen Canyon, the lake is the second largest artificial reservoir in the US (after Lake Mead). At the time of our visit, 22 years into the southwestern North American megadrought, the lake is at 22.88% of capacity – the lowest water level since it was filled in 1963. Long term climate modelling suggests that Lake Powell may eventually dry up completely.
After stopping at the two viewpoints over the lake, I make another stop at Glen Canyon Dam. The controversial arch-gravity concrete dam is 1,271 feet (387m) long and 710 feet (220m) high, and like the lake is an impressive sight. Near the dam is the Glen Canyon Bridge, a “marvel of engineering” which was the highest bridge of its kind in the US and one of the highest in the world when it was built. The nearby town of Page, which had a population of 7,551 in the 2020 census, was established in 1959 to house dam construction workers.
I’m aiming to be at the start of the hike to Horseshoe Bend an hour before sunset, where I join hundreds of people making their way to the popular lookout.
The following day we have a couple of tours booked; unfortunately storms and wet weather mean that all the Antelope Canyon tours are cancelled. But our half-day Horseshoe Bend rafting tour is still going ahead… you could easily spend a few days exploring the area, so if time allows try and do one rafting trip below the dam, a boat trip on the lake (to Rainbow Bridge) and either the upper or lower Antelope Canyon.
Horseshoe Bend Rafting Trip
The rafting trip starts with a short bus trip through a tunnel to the base of the enormous dam, where we board the rafts.
Our informative and knowledgeable guide Danny points out key features as we head gradually downstream, with the cliffs of the partly-submerged Glen Canyon towering above us.
There’s one stop along the river at Petroglyph Beach, where a short trail leads to a native American petroglyph panel – and the small beach allows anyone willing to brave the cold water to go for a swim (the water temperature is typically 56-50 degrees F or 7-10 degrees C, but has been warming as the water levels in the reservoir drop).
Just after this brief stop we pass through Horseshoe Bend – which is much more photegenic from the top, than it is from the river!
The rain has been threatening for a while, and the heavens finally open. Within a few minutes, there are waterfalls cascading down both sides of the canyon.
As we reach the end of the rafting trip, we pass the only cave along this stretch of the river, and Danny points out the abrupt change in the geology between Glen Canyon and the Grand Canyon to the south.
We disembark at Lees Ferry, with the Vermillion Cliffs looming in the distance.
From here it’s an hour bus trip back to Page, where the tour finishes.
Lake Powell (Page) to Monument Valley
Driving distance: 130 miles / 210km (approx 2.5 hours)
Key Attractions: There’s only one hiking trail in Monument Valley, but stunning scenery which you can do as a self-drive tour or a guided tour which takes you into restricted areas (and is well worth doing).
More information and photos: Monument Valley
Accommodation: Gouldings Lodge is one of two hotels in Monument Valley; the historic Gouldings Lodge has more facilities (including gas station, grocery store and laundromat). Both this lodge and the View Hotel have a range of rooms & cabins with great views.
It’s a late start today after our morning boat tour, but a very short drive to from Page to Monument Valley. As we approach Monument Valley, we start getting a glimpse of the rock formations which make this area unique. Called Tsé Biiʼ Ndzisgaii in Navajo – meaning valley of the rocks – the valley is characterized by a cluster of sandstone buttes.
We check into the Gouldings Lodge, which has a long history from when it operated as a trading post in 1921 and later hosted Western movie director John Ford and actor John Wayne. Over a few decades many movies were filmed in the area. Although it’s not raining, the area is covered by low cloud and there’s some dramatic views from our hotel room balcony.
I’m up fairly early the next morning for a hike along the Wildcat Trail – as almost all of the area is Navajo or private land, there’s only one walking trail in the area. It can get busy (and has no shade), so an early start is recommended. By the time I finish my hike, the clouds have lifted, and there’s a panoramic view of Valley Drive and the main rock formations from the Visitor Centre.
On our second day we have a four-hour Dreamcatcher Tour which takes us through some of the restricted areas of Monument Valley. We jump into an open safari-style vehicle, which initially heads down the Monument Valley Drive.
We stop at a few vantage points over the rock formations, which our guide provides some information on, including the Mittens and Merrick Butte, Elephant Butte, the Three Sisters before stopping at John Ford’s Point (named after the director John Ford).
From here we soon leave the Valley Drive, taking one of the unsealed roads that are closed to the public. There’s more spectacular buttes and rock formations, including “Big Hogan” (a cave with a natural arch eroded in the sandstone) and Sun’s Eye (a site with native American petroglyphs).
There are more photo opportunities as we drive back the same way to our dinner location, where we enjoy a meal of burritos under the stars.
Monument Valley Drive
I’m up early again the following day, our last day at Monument Valley… everyone else prefers to sleep in, so I take the opportunity to catch sunrise and do the 17-mile Valley Drive loop. I make it to the Visitor Centre carpark just before sunrise, joining a small group of photographers waiting for the sun to make its way above the horizon.
The first few miles are the same route as yesterday’s afternoon Dreamcatcher Tour, but the buttes looks very different in the morning light. I pass the first three stops again: East and West Mittens and Merrick Butte, Elephant Butte, the Three Sisters.
There’s almost no-one else on the dirt road, and the morning light is still great for photography as the route goes past The Hub and a bit further a lookout providing a view over the Totem Pole and Yei Bi Chei to the east.
More features along the road include Mushroom Rock, a short side-trip to the Artist’s Point lookout, The Thumb and The Window before the end of the loop.
I stop at John Ford’s Point on the way out, where the loop finishes and the route goes back the same way I drove in.
Monument Valley to Moab (Arches National Park)
Driving distance: 180 miles / 290km (approx 5 hours via Valley of the Gods)
Key Attractions: Vantage point from the Forrest Gump movie on the way out of Monument Valley, and the route via Valley of the Gods (unsealed road) adds at least an hour but is well worth doing. Moab is the gateway town to Arches National Park and Canyonlands, which offer a wide variety of hikes and mountain biking trails, and lots of great views from the roads through the parks.
More information and photos: Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park
Accommodation: There are lots of accommodation near Moab; we stayed at Wingate by Wyndham. For something a bit different have a look at Moab Under Canvas, which is a short distance out of Moab.
Although the direct route between Monument Valley and Moab is only about three hours, the scenic drive via Valley of the Gods adds at least an hour – but is well worth the detour. There’s more iconic views looking back towards Monument Valley as we head north on Highway 163 towards Moab.
Along the highway is a vantage point back towards Monument Valley made famous by the movie Forrest Gump (the exact point being 37°06’09.5″N 109°59’21.1″W), where after running for more than three years Forrest abruptly stops and decides to go back home.
There’s more interesting scenery as we continue north, crossing the San Juan River and leaving “civilsation” behind.
We pass Alhambra Rock on the left and Mexican Hat (a hat-shaped rock which you can see from the main road) on the right. A dirt road gets you a bit closer to Mexican Hat, but it’s not really worth making the short detour.
The highway continues to cross large open expanses, with a steep mountain range looming ahead of us.
Valley of the Gods Drive
Just after Mexican Hat – 38 miles or 61km from Monument Valley – we turn onto Highway 61, which takes us into the Valley of the Gods. On the way we make a short detour onto the intriguingly named Moki Dugway: I later learn that “moki” is a local term for the ancient Puebloan people who inhabited the Colorado Plateau hundreds of years ago, and “dugway” means a roadway carved from a hillside. The Moki Dugway Scenic Backway is a dirt road where the blacktop turns into a dirt road that “drastically switches back and forth down the side of a cliff at an 11% grade”. My wife is rather unimpressed by the vertiginous drop-off at the edge of of the twisting road… but it does offer great views of the San Juan River Canyon and Valley of the Gods.
We head back down the steep Moki Dugway, to where the Valley of the Gods road starts. It’s a A 17-mile dirt road which winds through the valley, and while a 4WD is recommended you can get through in a 2WD vehicle if you have a bit of clearance (unless it’s been raining). The road is pretty rough, but it’s well worth doing this drive – it’s much less crowded than Monument Valley, and offers some spectacular scenery.
If you’re driving clockwise (as we are), the most unusual rock formations are on the second half of the route, when you go round the narrow but imposing Castle Butte, and past Battleship Butte, Frankin Butte, Rooster Butte and Setting Hen Butte (the last two not really looking at all like chickens, in my humble opinion!).
There’s a small amount of water in one of the larger washes we cross, which would have been from the rain a few days ago.
Toward the end of the drive there’s a great view over Valley of the Gods, with many of the distinctive rock formations and buttes of Monument Valley visible in the distance.
Once back on Highway 163, there’s plenty more dramatic scenery as we head towards the town of Bluff.
Bluff is nestled between sandstone bluffs and the San Juan River, near the Trail of the Ancients Scenic Byway – there’s lots to do here, including tours that visit some of the many native Americaan sites. It’s an area I’d like to come back and explore – we don’t have much time today but we do make a short side-trip to the impressive Sand Island Petroglyphs Panel. The images that span thousands of years, and include handprints, horned animals, hunters and a Kokopelli playing a flute.
In the town of Bluff is Bluff Fort, built in 1880 by Mormon pioneers seeking to establish a mission on the San Juan River (the first Anglo community in southeastern Utah). Seventy families consisting of around 250 men, women and children travelled from Escalante in south central Utah-in October 1879, with the aim of establishing a mission at Montezuma on the San Juan River. Expecting the journey to take six week, after six months through incredibly tough terrain over 260 miles in what has been described as “one of the most extraordinary wagon trips ever undertaken in North America , they stopped 20 miles upriver of their intended destination and established what is now Bluff City.
After Bluff we head north on Highway 191 through more open country (and the occasional rock formation).
Our last stop is Wilson Arch, which is right next to Highway 90 just outside Moab.
One of the most accessible arches in the area, Wilsons Arch was named after Joe Wilson, a local pioneer who had a cabin nearby in Dry Valley. A very short (5-10min) hike takes you up the rock formation.
The arch is 91 feet (28m) long and and 46 feet (14m) tall, and was formed by water entering superficial cracks, joints, and folds in the Entrada Sandstone which then froze, gradually resulting in a series of free-standing fins. Many of these fins collapsed, and others survived as arches. The arch is pretty impressive: I think equally as spectacular as many within the Arches National Park.
Arches National Park drive
Arriving in Moab mid-afternoon, we’ve got just enough time for a drive through the Arches National Park. (There is a timed entry system being trialled in 2022, but you can enter after 5pm without pre-purchasing a ticket.) I’ll add that you could (and should) spend an entire day here, so this is just an initial drive before we explore the park more over the next day and a half! The Arches National Park Road heads steeply up into the park, with a few spots along the road where you can safely stop for a photo down into the valley, before reaching Park Avenue.
The road passes the Courthouse Towers, a series of spires (or isolate monoliths) that tower 300-700 feet (90m-215m) up from the desert floor. They includes Baby Arch, Three Gossips, Ring Arch and the Tower of Babel.
Just past Balanced Rock is the Garden of Eden, which has a fascinating assortment of rock formations including Adam and Eve and the Devil’s Golf Ball. A a short walk between two rock spires leads to a nice vantage point over the park – or for ever better views, you can climb the 100-foot-high Owl Rock.
Our destination for today is Wolfe Ranch, just off the main road, where Luke and I are hiking out to Delicate Arch to catch the sunset.
Mountain-biking and more hiking
The following day my son’s doing a mountain biking tour with Bighorn Mountain Biking (which I highly recommend), so I take the opportunity to do a couple of hikea. After dropping Luke off at Navajo Rocks, a newer riding area north of Moab just north of Moab, I visit the Intestine Man petroglyph site.
The second hike combines a couple of trails in the popular Windows Section of Arches National Park.
In the evening we’re booked on a half-day Canyonlands tour, which explores some of the incredible canyons and buttes carved by the Colorado River and its tributaries.
Our private 4WD tour heads north out of Moab, before turning onto Route 279 which follows the Colorado River through Meander Canyon.
The sealed road turns into the Potash Road and then the unsealed Shafer Canyon Road (also called the Shafer Trail) as it passes a balancing rock (Elvis Rock) and potash evaporation ponds.
After the potash ponds, the road enters Canyonlands National Park and reaches Thelma and Louise Point, a viewpoint 900 feet (300m) above the Colorado River and 1000 feet (335m) below Dead Horse Overlook. This is the location where the last scene of the movie Thelma and Louise was filmed, where they drive their car off the cliff.
The next viewpoint (Gooseneck Overlook) where the river makes a 180-degree arc over a distance of four miles is even more spectacular.
There’s more incredible scenery and rock formations as we continue along Shafer Canyon Road before it reaches the junction with White Rim Road which constructed in the 1950s by the Atomic Energy Commission to gain access to uranium deposits in the area.
Shafer Canyon Road now continues directly towards an enormous cliff, before winding up the Shafer Canyon Switchbacks to reach the Shafer Canyon Overlook.
After enjoying the sunset views, we head back to Moab, on sealed roads again.
I’ve got time for one last hike before we leave Moab, leaving before dawn to explore Landscape Arch (the longest natural rock arch in the park) and Double O Arch in the Devils Garden area, via the Devils Garden Trail.
Moab to Bryce (Bryce Canyon)
Driving distance: 270 miles / 435km (5-7 hours)
Key Attractions: Take the slightly longer and more scenic route via State Highways 24 and 12. This passes through Capitol Reef National Park (which has a few hiking trails and a large petroglyph panel) and takes State Route 12 via Escalante, recognised as National Scenic Byway with spectacular views. Bryce Canyon, the destination, has the largest concentration of hoodoos (irregular columns of rock) found anywhere on Earth
More information and photos: Bryce Canyon
Accommodation: We stayed at Under Canvas Bryce Canyon for something a bit different. If you can get accommodation within the park at Bryce Canyon Lodge it has the advantage that you can easily walk to the main lookouts and trailheads.
After two hours at Moab, we’re hitting the road again as we make our way to Bryce Canyon. We’ve got most of the the day for the drive, with the aim of getting to Bryce in time for sunset. There’s lot of big, open country again with a few interesting sites along the way. Out of the car window we spot an odd structure near Green River in Utah. It’s Golden Ratio, a “high-concept art in the form of a 44-foot-high pile of giant concrete cubes”, built by world-renowned Australian artist Andrew Roger. The 53 enormous blocks used to make the sculpture are said to be arranged in a Fibonacci sequence (0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8…).
A bit further is Kathline Rock View Area, a roadside stop between Goblin Valley and the Henry Mountains which provides a view of the Henry Mountains, Boulder Mountain, and Factory Butte.
The small town of Hanksville at the junction of State Routes 24 and 95 doesn’t have any restaurants (a little unfortunate as we are getting hungry), but there are a few interesting rock shops.
The scenery gets dramatic again as the road passes through Capitol Reef National Park. We stop here to look at the Fremont Culture Petroglyphs, and I hike up the steep trail to the Hickman Bridge, a large natural arch.
There’s more stark, desert scenery before we turn onto Boulder Mountain Road (State Route 12, recognised as Utah’s Scenic Byway 12 and also an All-American Road) which climbs up to Boulder Mountain Pass – a high mountain pass with an elevation of 9,606ft (2,928m) above sea level. Built in the 1920s, the road was only paved in 1985 and since then has attracted an increasing number of tourists: “State Route 12 is ensconced on most travel guides as a must-see tour through mountain forest and slickrock canyon.”
Along the road are a few signposted lookouts (Homestead Overlook and Heritage Overlook) – and due to the high elevaton it’s the first time on our trip that we’ve seen signs of the leaves changing colour.
Another spectacular section of State Highway 12 between Boulder and Escalante is known as the Hogback: it passes multiple lookouts that provide views across the Escalante Canyons and Lower Calf Creek Canyon.
Powell Point Vista is another nice lookout next to State Highway 12, which provides a view from the Table Cliffs Plateau over the Grand Staircase and Bryce Canyon National Park region. There’s another 15 miles or so of scenic driving, before the distinctive rock formations of Bryce Canyon come into view as we enter the park from the east.
Bryce Canyon Sunset
We make it with plenty of time to do the easy Rim Trail hike along the top of the rim.
We find a spot at Sunset Point to watch the sun set, and the colour gradually fade out of the thousands of hoodoos below us.
Kodachrome State Park
As I’ve been to Bryce National Park before, I’m keen to explore the nearby Kodachrome State Park. Although the scenery isn’t quite as breathtaking as Bryce Canyon, Kodachrome State Park saw about 20,000 visitors in 2020 – compared to just under 1.5 million for Bryce! The Panorama Trail loop passes some of the park’s signature features, including the Ballerina Spire and Indian Cave.
On the way back, I make a quick stop to exlore the short trail to Mossy Cave in Bryce National Park. It’s located in Water Canyon, which is unique due to the presence of water that comes from an irrigation ditch from the East Fork of the Sevier River carved by Mormon pioneers from 1890-1892.
Bryce to Virgin (Zion National Park)
Driving distance: 110 miles / 175km (2-4 hours)
Key Attractions: More great scenery on the (relatively) short drive… allow a bit of time for a hike in Dixie National Forest, and stop for lunch at the famous Thunderbird Restaurant: “home of the ho-made pies”. The last part of the route is a spectacular drive through Zion National Park.
More information and photos: Zion National Park
Accommodation: We stayed at Zions Tiny Oasis, a tiny house which is perfect for two but a bit cramped for a family of four – but the kids loved the outdoor spa and the property has great views. I’d highly recommend getting accommodation within the park at Zion Lodge if you can, as this enables you to drive into the park and explore the trails before and after the shuttle operating hours.
Today is another short driving day as we head from Bryce Canyon to Zion National Park – although there is a lot to see along the way. We’re still on Utah’s Scenic Byway 12 as we leave Bryce, passing more hoodoos and driving through the Red Canyon Arch.
We make a slight detour to Panguitch City, described as “one of the great historic towns of the West” and the official start – or end – of Utah’s Scenic Byway 12. It’s a bit of a pointless detour – there are a few historic-looking buildings amongst many more shit buildings, and a handful of gas stations. We continue south from Panguitch on Highway 89, stopping again at Orderville. This small town (with a population of just 577 in the 2010 census) has a few places selling rocks and fossils, including the The Rock Stop where we enjoy a very good coffee. The town also has the Thunderbird Restaurant, Home of Utah’s famous “Ho-Made Pies”. The restaurant was built alongside a dirt road in 1931 by Fern Morrison and her husband Jack, and legend is that when Jack made the first home-made sign for the restaurant, he ran out of space to spell out all the words, and shortened it to the folksier sounding “HoMade”.
Zion Park Boulevarde
We’re soon at he east entrance of Zion National Park, where the scenery starts to get pretty spectacular. At the first lookout (the Checkerboard mesa view area) we see a handful of bighorn sheep, who are attracted to the Checkerboard Mesa Canyon by the pools of rainwater.
There’s non-stop view from the road, as it descends through the national park.
Just before the very long Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel is the short Canyon Overlook trail, which provides sweeping views over Zion from the lookout at the end.
After the hike we continue through the tunnel: the 1.1 mile (1.8km) long Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel was built between 1920 and 1930, and when opened on 4 July 1930 it was the longest tunnel of its type in the United States. After the tunnel the road descends steeply through a series of switch-backs, with views back up to the Great Arch.
At the bottom of the valley, Zion Canyon Scenic Drive – which goes to to Temple of Sinawava – is closed to private vehicles (a shuttle runs for most months of the year), so we head out of the park through the South Entrance. Another half an hour of driving via the town of Springdale gets us to our accommodation at Zions Tiny Oasis in Virgin, on Kolob Terrace Road.
I’ve got just enough time before it gets dark for a quick trip a bit further up Kolob Terrace Road to the Cave Valley Petroglyph site, which is at the base of some low cliffs. It’s a bit tricky finding the site, and I’m back just in time to catch the sun set on the drive back.
Although it’s a bit of a drive from Zions Tiny Oasis to Zion National Park, the quirky accommodation is in a secuded spot and offers some great views – and the kids loved the outdoor hot tub!
We’re heading west to Las Vegas, but we first continue further up Kolob Terrace Road, which follows the Kolob Terrace over 24 miles from Virgin to Lava Point, one of one of the highest points in Zion. From Lava Point you can hike the 15 mile / 24km West Rim Trail down to Zion Canyon, which I did a few years ago.
As the Kolob Terrace is in the middle of Zion National Park (between Zion Canyon and the Kolob Canyons) you get some great views over the expanse of Zion National Park.
We return the same way, stopping in the town of Virgin. The small town (with a population of 596 in the 2010 census) was referenced in Michael Moore’s 2002 film Bowling for Columbine for the fact that in May 2000 a law was passed requiring every homeowner to keep and maintain a firearm – except for “the mentally ill, convicted felons, conscientious objectors and people who cannot afford to own a gun”. Along the highway is Fort Zion, a gift shop which also serves ice cream and has a petting zoo, and featrus some replica Wild West forts and buildings.
Although it’s a slight detour, we head north to have a look at the Kolob Canyons area. There’s a Visitor Centre at the start of the Kolob Canyons Road, and a friendly ranger suggests the Taylor Creek Trail as being the best one in this area – but I don’t have time today to undetake this 5-mile (8km) return hike. Even if you’re not hiking, there are spectacular views from the scenic drive up the canyon.
A lookout about half-way up the drive provides a view up to Paria Point, a 7,802 foot (2,378m) high peak.
A little further up the road, one lookout with signage point out a hanging valley, and another providehas a view of a large cave at the base of one of the peaks.
At the end of the Kolob Canyons drive are sweepings view of the major Kolob peaks: Horse Ranch Mountain, Paria Point, Beatty Point, Nagunt Mesa, Timbertop Mountain and Shuntavi Butte. The short Timber Creek Overlook Trail (1.0 miles / 1.6 km return) offers even better views of the mountain range.
Virgin (Zion National Park) to Las Vegas
Driving distance: 155 miles / 250km (3-4 hours)
Key Attractions: Not a lot of attractions along this drive, which is mostly through featureless desert before the highway reaches the sprawling city of Las Vegas.
Accommodation: We stayed at Paris Las Vegas – but there’s no shortage of accommodation options in the City that Never Sleeps!
Today’s drive is not particularly exciting, as we cross more large and featureless plains, until the city of Las Vegas comes into view and we swap the desert for a (brief) dose of “civilisation”!
While Las Vegas is not known for its hiking trails, Red Rock Canyon is a hiker’s paradise. Having done a few hikes here before, I pick the relatively short Ice Box Canyon trail which is definitely not the best trail – but offers a bit of shade on a fairly warm day.
We’re just past the halfway mark on our US road-trip, with a few days in Las Vegas before we hit the road again for our return leg to Los Angeles via the Pacific Coast.