Being from Kentucky, most family vacations I took growing up were East-Coast based: Savannah, Georgia, the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, Hilton Head Island in South Carolina. I have to admit, I am an East Coast fan through and through. So, when I got married and my husband was determined to travel west, I was on board, but a little anxious. Having never traveled beyond the St. Louis Arch, I was wading into new waters. Once we booked a trip and landed in Utah, though, all apprehensions melted away. While I still love the view of my Bluegrass rustling on the rolling hills of Kentucky, the red rocks of the west have a majestic beauty unto themselves. For those like me who are born and raised in the Eastern half of the US and have not ventured beyond the Gateway to the West, I have outlined the beginner’s trip I would advise you to take, the trip that will introduce you to the vast, grand, jaw-dropping vistas that exist in the American Southwest.
1. Fly into St. George, UT, and stay in Springdale. On our trip, we planned to visit a couple of states, but decided to begin in the state where “Life is Elevated”…Utah. From touching down in St. George, we drove about 50 minutes to Springdale, a quaint, outdoorsy paradise which was one of the entry points to Zion National Park (our main attraction of the trip). Springdale offered several Mom & Pop-type restaurants for those ravenous hikers after a day in the park, as well as plenty of gear-stores for those looking for hiking boots, hammocks, and hydration. While the sidewalks were brimming with families, young couples, and singletons alike, Springdale was devoid of the typical “touristy” gimmicks, which is always a plus for me.
2.Explore as much of Zion National Park as time allows. We were able to spend two full days in the park, which gave us plenty of time to explore. The nice thing about Zion is it is a very manageable park. Unlike some of the other larger National Parks, a few days was plenty of time to really experience Zion. Here are a few of the highlights of our trip that I would recommend:
*Rent wading gear and walking sticks to hike through the Narrows. This is one of the most famous hikes in Zion. It requires you to hike through the Virgin River, which runs through canyons in the park. We didn’t hike the entire length, but we spent several hours in the river and packed snacks so we could rest on the banks along the way and eat. Hiking through a river with massive red-rock canyon walls jutting up all around you is an experience I would not skip out on while at Zion.
*Hike to see the view of Zion Canyon. This will require you to drive up the mountain a bit, then park, then do some light hiking, but the view of the canyon is worth it! I would recommend going in the late afternoon/early evening so you can get the best views of the sunlight slanting through the red rocks of the canyon.
*Explore the paths to the Emerald Pools. This was a fairly easy hike and could be done with children. There are Upper and Lower Pools of emerald-tinted waters (the lower pool was fed from a small waterfall from the upper pool). Once we got to the Upper Pool, there were many families lounging with lunch and kids splashing in the pool. This hike takes you through some paths in the middle of the canyons, which is another great vantage point of the park.
*Take a ride on the Park Shuttle. While the line to get on the shuttle was quite lengthy, I would still recommend taking a trip on the bus at least once. I would especially recommend it if you want to hike the Narrows, as that is at the opposite end of the park from the Springdale entrance, and the shuttle took us right to the trailhead. But, the shuttle was also nice to get some historic insight of the park from the narrated tour playing on the speaker, as well as allowing us to see some parts of the park that we didn’t hike such as the Court of the Patriarchs, a mountain chain named for Patriarchs from the Old Testament: Abraham, Issac, and Jacob.
*What we didn’t do: Angel’s Landing. This is possibly the most iconic hike in the park. With a beautiful view of Zion Valley, it is a hiker’s favorite. But, it has VERY narrow paths and steep, steep drop-offs. We hiked the beginning portion, but didn’t go to the end. Even though we did not get to the famous Angel’s Landing point, I would be remiss to write about highlights of Zion and not mention this iconic hike.
*Overall, I was so pleased with the way we spent our time in Zion. Between the overlook of Zion Canyon, the Emerald Pools, & the Narrows, we experienced the park from the peak, middle, & valley of the canyons.
3. Drive from Springdale to Page, Arizona (and head out early). Once our fews days were spent in Zion, we hit the road for Arizona. We planned to visit the Grand Canyon while we were out west, along with some other stops in Arizona, as well. We left Utah EARLY in the morning, like 4:00 or 5:00 AM to get a head start on the drive. It took about two hours to get from Springdale to Page, and the early morning drive across the desert landscape was one of my most memorable parts of the trip. The roads were so bare. It felt like we were the only ones left on the planet driving through such unique landscapes, so different from what we were used to back home.
4. Spend time in Page, Arizona. Before we went to the Grand Canyon, we stopped in Page, just outside of the park. We went to two different spots in Page before heading on.
*Horseshoe Bend is a beautiful, unique river that winds into a horseshoe shape. It is one those spots you have probably seen photos of in waiting rooms or as computer screensavers, but it is actually quite awe-inspiring to see in person.
*Antelope Canyon is a slot canyon that is located on protected Navajo Land. You actually have to reserve space to go on a guided tour of the canyon with a Native American guide. (We called and booked this a few days in advance). Our tour started with a walk to the canyon entrance. Once we got to the entrance, we climbed down into the canyon (slot canyons are underground-you wouldn’t even know they are there)! Once in the canyon, the sandy floor and red rocks are highlighted by the sunlight streaming through slits of openings in the ceiling of the canyon. With tight spots and gorgeous rock formations, a tour of this canyon system is high on the recommendation list for a trip to Arizona.
5. Visit the Grand Canyon. We couldn’t travel all the way from Kentucky and not see the Grand Canyon. It was what you would expect: breathtakingly grand. While the rim of the canyon is a bit more of a tourist attraction than Zion, we still had a good time walking along the rim, hiking down into the canyon just a bit and grabbing lunch and some ice cream at the shops in the park. While I have heard this expression many times before, I would most definitely echo it now: the Grand Canyon is truly a sight every American should try to visit at least once.
6. Visit some surrounding towns. After exploring the Grand Canyon for a full day, we thought we would venture out to some towns around the area. We ended up in Flagstaff, AZ – a cute town to get lost in for an afternoon. We got pictures with iconic Route 66 signs, walked around the downtown area, grabbed lunch at a local pizza place, and drove through the Northern Arizona State campus. Being the book-lover that I am, I always enjoy finding local bookstores when I travel. Flagstaff was no exception. On our way out for the day, the trip was topped off with a visit to Starlight Books where I purchased a copy of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon.
7. Drive back to Utah for the flight home. While it would be argued that ending the trip in Arizona would lead to flying home from Arizona, this is not the choice we made. We actually booked our returning flight out of St. George, which meant another two hour trip back across the desert. Again, I would highly recommend this. We took a different route then the drive we made to Arizona, so we were able to experience even more of the gorgeous southwest landscape from simply driving back to Utah for our flight home.
*So, a trip to the southwest, specifically Utah and Arizona, should be something everyone adds to their travel plans. Especially for us southeastern natives, experiencing the unique landscape and sights so unlike what we see everyday makes this trip one that is well worth it. And one you will be thinking back on for years to come.