The National Parks of Utah
The southern half of Utah feels like a time warp—thanks to the prehistoric rock formations at five absolutely breathtaking national parks.
We'd decided to splurge on Bryce's own historic lodge for a night. Our room was bland, but had a lovely balcony with rough-hewn logs for a railing. Unfortunately, dinner at the lodge was pretty awful. Everything was salty, my salmon managed to be both pink and dry, and by the next morning I felt queasy. Perhaps it was just due to opening-night jitters--we did happen to come on the first day of the season.
- Bryce Canyon LodgeBryce Canyon National Park, 888/297-2757, brycecanyonlodge.com, from $125, dinner $16
- Capitol Reef National Park435/425-3791, nps.gov/care, car pass for Scenic Drive $5, otherwise free
- Bryce Canyon National Park435/834-5322, nps.gov/brca, weeklong car pass $20
Day 4: Bryce Canyon to Grand Junction
At Bryce, the altitude ranges from about 7,900 feet to more than 9,100 feet. With the lingering effects of dinner, I wasn't up for too much activity. So Stew and I drove out to the end of Bryce's scenic road and stopped at each overlook. The best were at Agua Canyon and the rock window called Natural Bridge.
Four parks down, one to go. By the time we got to Zion, we had just enough time to take the park's most rewarding short hike, the half-mile-long Canyon Overlook Trail. Private cars are no longer allowed on the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive north of the visitors center, so after we finished our hike, we caught the free shuttle to the Riverside Walk trail, which leads to the Narrows. The Narrows is a 16-mile trail that doubles as the bed of the Virgin River. (Only the first mile is accessible without a permit.) Hikers have to check with the visitors center before setting off, as flash floods can send a wall of water racing down the trail, between the 2,000-foot-high canyon walls.
Attempting the Narrows at twilight was our final act of ill-advised bravado. We made it only around the first bend before the frigid water rose to our knees. We snapped a couple of quick pictures for bragging rights and hightailed it back to the car.
Down the road from the park gates, we checked into a spacious cottage at the Canyon Ranch Motel and immediately headed for the outdoor hot tub. Fifteen minutes of soaking restored our circulation. We then finished off the evening with some of the best Mexican food I've ever tasted in the States, at the Bit and Spur Restaurant and Saloon. We ordered potato, poblano, and chorizo soup, and a couple of sweet potato tamales topped with shredded pork and salsa.
The next morning we zipped back across the state. And as we neared the border, a flock of tumbleweeds playfully chased our car toward the state line of Colorado.
- Canyon Ranch Motel668 Zion Park Blvd., Springdale, 435/772-3357, canyonranchmotel.com, from $69
- Bit and Spur Restaurant and Saloon1212 Zion Park Blvd., Springdale, 435/772-3498, sweet potato tamale dinner $16
- Zion National Park 435/772-3256, nps.gov/zion, weeklong car pass $20
Finding your way
This trip can just as easily be done in reverse by flying into Las Vegas, a two-hour drive from Zion. The parks are open year-round, but outfitters and most lodges are only open for business April through October. Early spring and early fall are the best times to beat the crowds. And even though this is the desert, it's the high desert: Daytime temperatures in the 70s plummet to the mid-30s some nights, and there's still plenty of snow at higher elevations. To save money on entrance fees, consider an annual National Parks Pass. It's only $50--$15 less than the total cost of the entry fee