AMERICA’S West packs a punch when it comes to national parks, writes Sarah Beyer.
When you’re as much of a fan of national parks as I am, it’s hard not to be in awe of America’s western states. Spread throughout this area is a huge concentration of national parks exhibiting some of the most striking and varied landscapes you’ll find. Utah in particular is a state that you don’t want to miss, with parks as iconic as Arches, Zion and Bryce.
Zion National Park
Zion is a national park lover’s paradise. Its soaring cliffs and verdant valleys offer walks to suit any fitness and ability, with vertigo-inducing and adrenaline pumping drop-offs along the cliff face, such as the famous Angel’s Landing or Hidden Canyon Trail; as well as leisurely strolls amongst the trees along the Virgin River like Riverside Walk and Lower Emerald Pools.
The best way to enter the park is from the east side, through the Zion-Mt Carmel tunnel. This long, one-way tunnel winds its way through the cliffs itself, with windows every now and again offering a taste of the vistas to come. A hot tip though — one of the best views of the park is offered by the Canyon Outlook Trail, which starts just before the eastern entrance to the Mt Carmel tunnel and offers a jaw-dropping outlook.
The best way to see Zion is via the park shuttle, and it’s free to ride (once you’ve paid your park entrance fee). The shuttle takes visitors throughout the park and can be hopped on and off as much as you like.
To really make the most of Zion, it’s best to allow at least two days. You can stay in Springdale, the town right outside the western entrance to the park, but make sure you book early, particularly in summer.
Bryce Canyon National Park
After Zion, head to Bryce to see a completely different landscape. While Zion has lush valleys, Bryce Canyon is famous for its red rock pillars, called hoodoos. These tall spires were formed over millions of years as rainwater seeps into the rock, froze and then thawed, weakening sections until they crumbled away. There are a number of lookouts around the top rim of the naturally formed amphitheatre, but the best way to get up close to these bizarre structures is by hiking down into the park. There is a range of walks that differ in length and difficulty, including ones that are suited to children. You don’t want to miss a sunset over the hoodoos so make sure you stay overnight near the park. If you happen to visit in winter, you can also experience some unexpected activities for the desert — snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.
Arches National Park
When you think unusual rock formulations and Utah, chances are you probably think of the incredible arches of Arches National Park. Although perhaps an unimaginative name for the national park, there is nothing unimaginative about its landscapes. You will definitely recognise the outline of Delicate Arch (which is on the license plate of Utah registered vehicles), but there are over 2,000 arches in the park.
It’s a 29km scenic drive from the visitor centre to the far reaches of Arches. It’s best to drive all the way out first and then meander your way back slowly. Start with a hike to Landscape Arch, the second longest span in the world, along an easy, relatively flat trail. As you head back along the road, make sure to stop at the Windows, one of the most scenic parts of the park with a large concentration of arches. There are two lookouts to view Delicate Arch, and you can also hike up to it in two to three hours, along a more difficult trail.
When the day is done, stay in Moab. From there you can explore neighbouring Canyonlands National Park, or else head off on a 4WD, white-water rafting or mountain biking adventure, with plenty of operators based in Moab.
Utah is full of many different types of canyons but one that you should definitely visit is a slot canyon. There are many throughout the state, but one of the most spectacular of these slot canyons is located just 10 minutes over Utah’s border in Arizona.
Antelope Canyon is split into upper and lower sections and on Navajo land. You’ll need to join a tour to visit but it’s well worth the expense. Knowledgeable Navajo guides take you through the canyon, with its narrow walls formed by flash flooding over many years.
The sandstone curves have to be seen to be believed and will be a highlight of any trip. The guides will also take a photo or two of you on the tour with your camera, ensuring you have a few happy snaps of you and your travelling companions, as well as hundreds of the canyon walls.
Things to note
By far the best thing to do if you’re planning on visiting a couple of national parks is to buy an annual pass. At US$80 per vehicle, you only have to visit three before you get your money’s worth (as most parks cost US$35 to visit). After that, it’s like every visit is free!
Utah is a Mormon state which means that they can be quite strict when it comes to alcohol. Make sure you take your ID (drivers license should be fine) with you when ordering alcohol. And just think of the ego boost it will be when you’re asked for ID (even if you’re a long way from 21).