As I have told readers of this column in previous articles, our family takes an annual summer vacation with the goal of seeing a new region of the United States each time. Last year, we took the kids to Washington D.C., Virginia, and the North Carolina/Tennessee mountains. The year before, it was to the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia. Prior to that, we traveled to the NFL Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio; Gettysburg; New York City; the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY; and home again. But our favorite trip was the 1999 trip to Colorado, southern Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico. This was a 16-day driving trip that I had feared might be a little too ambitious, but turned out to be a fantastic journey to the most beautiful part of our country. I am writing this down in the hope that some families might consider taking this trip, because, unfortunately, many Americans will never know or understand just how spectacular and scenic the southwestern United States is, and in particular, the southern portion of Utah. We visited five national parks in Utah alone, each wonderful in its own way. The following is the where to go, what to see, where to stay, etc.
To begin with, you need to do a little homework. We found that the best source by far for a driving trip to the southwest is “The Rough Guide to the Southwest”. Rough Guides are great for finding the best hikes, the best drives, as well as the best and most reasonable places to eat and stay. They print them for several areas of the country, but this is their best. If you are a member of AAA, I also recommend their tour guides and maps. AAA discounts prevail throughout the region, and can save you a lot of money on motels and meals. Finally, National Geographic publishes a great guide to the National Parks, which includes the best hikes for every level of hiker, and driving tours that help you see the best stuff and thereby make the most of your national park experience.
The trip began with a two-day drive from Fort Wayne to Denver, Colorado. The first day took us along Interstate 70, through St. Louis, and on to Kansas City, Missouri. The second day was spent traveling to the outskirts of Denver. It’s a bit of an endurance drive, but by trading off between drivers, it is easily covered. For those who can afford to fly to Denver, and thereby avoid four days in the car traveling to and from the southwest, you can easily rent a car in Denver and begin the trip from there.
Day 3 is where the adventure began. We drove north from Denver, through Boulder Colorado, with the goal of Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s about a two-hour drive to the eastern entrance to the park. All we did was drive through the park, but what a drive! The park consists of incredibly beautiful, domed granite monster mountains, some of the highest in the United States. You must travel a two-lane road that can be a white-knuckler at times, but provides great views and vistas throughout. The road allows you to enter an otherwise impenetrable natural wonder, travel along the pinnacles of these mountains, and, in two hours, truly appreciate just why everyone loves the Rocky Mountains. Unlike most national parks, which must be explored to appreciate their special features, this drive is all you need to do.
We drove out of the park, rejoined Interstate 70, and spent the night in Vail, Colorado, at the Sitzmark Lodge, which was right in the heart of Vail’s charming village, and, in summer, not unreasonable in price.
The next day, the trip really got going. We continued on along I-70 to the Utah border, then another 44 miles to the turnoff, on Hwy. 191, to Moab, Utah. Moab is a booming tourist destination for outdoor sports. Mountain biking, whitewater rafting, hiking, and rock climbing enthusiasts congregate here from all over the US and from Europe. However, for the rest of us who simply want to take some short hikes and enjoy the scenery, Moab is also perfectly located between two fantastic national parks: Arches and Canyonlands. We stayed at the Aarchway Inn, which was brand new in 1999; had nice, clean rooms, a great pool, free continental breakfast in the morning, and was reasonably priced.
We began by going to Arches, which is just a couple of miles away, and easily accessible. Arches is a wonderful place, full of great landscapes, as well as an amazing array of natural stone arches, some large, some small, and most easily reached after a short walk. The National Geographic guide was very helpful in telling us where the best hikes could be found, and how strenuous we could expect those hikes to be. Suffice it to say that Arches is a must see, whether you have the stamina to take short or long hikes, or merely want to see the scenes from the window of your car. I strongly suggest taking some of the hikes to view the arches up close; most of the hikes are short and easy, and the additional scenery that opens up away from the road is well worth the effort. Arches was one of our favorite places on the trip.
The next day, we had a fabulous time. We started with a raft trip down the Colorado River. At this point, the Colorado is pretty calm, though there are some fun rapids to maneuver through. There are a number of white water raft companies, most of them listed in The Rough Guide. We used a company called Adrift, which charged $24 for kids and $29 for adults for a ? day trip. They take you by bus from their headquarters in Moab, and, after a very short orientation, you are on the water and heading down the river. The water is warm enough to swim in, and the rapids are unthreatening but fun. The scenery is unbelievable, full of buttes and vistas that remind you of the great John Ford western movie scenes. We were in a raft with two people from England, a family from New York, and a couple from Germany. We all had a great time. Near the end of the trip, since everyone wears life jackets, we were encouraged to jump into the river and let the water take us over some fast moving but gentle rapids. It was a blast, and finished off what was a great family experience.
After returning to the hotel and changing clothes, we headed over to Canyonlands National Park. This park is much larger than Arches, and has several different parts to it. The best viewing is near the Moab area, however. A half hour drive or so got us into the park area known as the Island in the Sky district, and we were amazed at the lack of people. Hardly anyone seemed to be in the place, so we wondered if the park was a bit over-hyped. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Canyonlands has a feel of the Grand Canyon to it, because of the amazing erosion caused by the Colorado River. Its vistas stretch for 50-100 miles over eroded valleys. You are at the top, looking down over this incredible region, and the views are breathtaking, as are the multiple colors of the rock, from tans to browns to pink and red. It was here that we began to realize what an incredible part of the world southern Utah was.
Once again, we used the National Geographic Guide to tell us where to go, and what hikes were the best. Our favorite hike was about a mile and a half round trip in length, and brought us through a small forest of stubby, fragrant pines to a beautiful, wide arch known as Mesa Arch that stood at the edge of a drop-off almost a thousand feet down. There were no fences; no warning signs. Here, you are on your own, so little children need to be watched carefully. For those willing to take this hike, though, it was one of the most stunning views of the entire trip. The Island in the Sky district is one of those side trips where you come back knowing that you’ve just experienced a special place that most people, even those who travel to Moab, will never see. If you get here, don’t you be one of those people, or you will miss one of the great, unspoiled areas on the globe.
The next day, we set out for Capitol Reef National Park, the least visited national park in America. The only reason we saw it was because it was on the way to Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks, and because the drive just past Capital Reef was supposedly amazing. To take this drive, you must retrace your drive up Highway 191 to Interstate 70, drive west for about 35 miles, and then turn south on Utah Highway 24. Capitol Reef was named by pioneers because it was a huge barrier to travel, rising straight up out of the desert and stretching for a hundred miles. Early travelers were reminded of an ocean reef, and thus the name. The park is a maze of twisting canyons, beautiful cliffs and rocks, and massive domes, joined by a strange oasis of beautiful meadows, farms and orchards that the early Mormon settlers carved out of the landscape along the Fremont River. There were several interesting drives that we took on the advice of the National Geographic guide. The highlight for our youngest son was seeing his first coyote, which raced up on an unsuspecting marmot feeding in a meadow, grabbed it, and raced back into the rocks, all right in front of his eyes.
Beyond Capitol Reef lurked the reason we’d come this way in the first place: Utah Highway 12, which The Rough Guide author had called his favorite drive in the entire United States! You access Hwy. 12 in Torrey, just outside the park, and take it all the way to Bryce Canyon National Park, which is a good 100 miles away or more. Along the way, you climb from the relatively barren desert 9,000 feet into lush, green mountains full of pine with a spectacular view of the Utah desert behind you. We stopped several times just to enjoy the amazing views and the fresh crisp mountain air.
From here, you begin a slow downward journey through a region known as the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, a vast area that has to be seen to be believed. This land mass drops steadily downward through a series of incredible canyons, and the views are among the best we saw in the entire trip. At the end of the Escalante area is the Grand Canyon, still a hundred miles to the south of Hwy. 12, but the terrain is similar. There are portions of the drive where you are on a ribbon of a road, atop a thin butte that drops off hundreds of feet in either direction. It seemed that the road, and the narrow dirt berm on either side, was the only thing keeping us from dropping off into the abyss. Being the driver, I could only bear down and try to keep myself from gaping at the incredible views. It’s a “white knuckle” drive, for sure, but well worth the time and effort.
At the end of the drive that day, we pulled into the Bryce Canyon National Park area, another of our favorite places, and this is where I will pick up the story in my next Waynedale News article in two weeks. In the meantime, I hope you take the time to pull out a map and study this region of the country, and the areas I’ve described. You will be staring at a map of America’s greatest natural wonderland.
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