To celebrate a good friend’s birthday, she wanted “to go on an adventure.” I thought that may have meant a long hike or day trip to the mountain, so naturally I signed up. I quickly learned when she said adventure, she meant “Adventure is out there!,” and a trip would ensue. I couldn’t be more grateful to join her on this journey.
Zion National Park and Utah have awed me with their desert wonder for years, but I hadn’t created an opportunity to go. I think it was the powers that be stepping in and making it happen for me, along with my friend’s perseverance/love of instagram, and quickly an itinerary began to unfold. Zion, the Narrows, and Antelope Canyon were the top priorities, and anything else that fell in between would be gravy.
A few things to know about traveling to these sites:
- Annual National Park pass – If you’re spending more than 3 days in Zion (or any National Park), get the annual pass. At $25 per car, do yourself a favor, save money, AND get inspiration to visit another National Park or monument during your trip. Within 100 miles of Zion, you could choose to also visit Bryce Canyon, Arches, Moab, Monument Valley, or many other places your pass will cover.
- Permits – Many of the high volume attractions in and outside of the National Parks and monuments require a special permit. Don’t be caught unawares: do ample research ahead of time. We really wanted to add The Wave to our itinerary, but securing a permit would have taken months, so we opted for alternatives.
- Plan for the time of year – Late fall/early winter traveling was great for us as there were far fewer crowds (fewer, not non-existent) and more temperate climate, though still down to the low 40’s at night. The desert is deceptive and not always hot. Make sure to pack plenty of layers of the non-cotton variety and bring a rain jacket even if there’s no rain in the forecast. While flash flooding is most common in August, it is no joke and it’s best to be prepared. One other consideration for traveling in shoulder season: many campsites and attractions are closed or with limited service. After mid-October, most of the campsites were first come, first served, so be prepared with a backup plan. Which leads me to…
- BLM is your friend – If you’re choosing to camp or RV you’re way through your SW tour, you have save a lot of money by leveraging the local Bureau of Land Management. You can legally park on any BLM Land for free, so if it’s dark and you’re running out of options, know you have some friends at the BLM.
- Hydrate – Wait, I just finished saying that the temperature was moderate in the shoulder season?? Well, even when it’s cold, the air is so dry you can dehydrate quickly. Carry water with you!
- Go by campervan – If you’re not local, renting a car is pretty much the only (convenient) way to see the local sights. I can’t recommend highly enough the Escape Campervans. We were able to cover a lot of ground, eat, and sleep within the comfort of our lovely “Minecraft.”
- Resources – I typically don’t enjoy travel books, but the Lonely Planet Zion and Bryce Canyon guide book was incredibly handy. Many areas in Zion, Southern Utah, Northern Arizona and Eastern Nevada have very little cell service, so I was grateful to have a book with physical addresses of restaurants, outfitters, and things to do.
Day 1 – Zion National Park (UT)
I regret the little time we had to spend in Zion, but between a day dedicated to hiking the Narrows (Day 2 itinerary), and driving around to soak in the car-side views, we were very happy with the surrounding terrain. If you have limited time in the park, one great (relatively) easy hike is the Canyon Overlook Trail. At a whopping 1 mile roundtrip, it’s a leisurely walk that most people can accomplish without being in tip top shape. The views over the valley are stunning and expansive – a beautiful place to rest and stare at the the Great Arch, Sentinel, and Towers of the Virgin.
There are three hikes I wish we had time to do during our visit, including Angel’s Landing (closed due to trail repairs), Emerald Pools (same deal), and the Watchman. Luckily, we stayed at the Watchman campground, which was conveniently located inside the gate (a great way to save that $25/day National Park fee if you’re not getting the annual pass) and had a great view of the mountain each day.
Day 2 – The Narrows (UT)
Likely one of the two most famous attractions in Zion National Park, the Narrows is an astonishing 16 mile “trail” wading through knee-deep water while staring up at 100 foot canyons. You can either do the full 16 miles via the permit-only top down route, or the 5-7 mile bottom up route, that does not require a permit. You will always be around people for this excursion – there’s no avoiding it – but you will find quieter moments along the route in the off season. A few recommendations:
- Do some inner thigh workouts! Hiking upstream against water running 70 feet per second, you’re likely to experience some serious fatigue. Save yourself some soreness and include some adductor exercises to your exercise routine before the trip.
- If going in the off season, invest in the waterproof pants and thermal socks/shoes. The neighboring town of Springdale has a number of outfitters that will rent out gear for approximately $45 per person – a small price to pay to prevent hypothermia.
- Bring waterproof all the things, including a backpack, jacket, and cell case, plus plenty of water and food. This isn’t a commercial route, which means all natural and NO RESTROOMS outside of the bus drop off. There’s an informational video waiting for you at the outfitters, but if you don’t go the gear route, make sure to bring along your own poo bags (yes, for yourself), and be prepped to hike it in and out.
Day 3 – Antelope Canyon, Horseshoe Bend (AZ)
If you’ve used a computer in your lifetime, it’s pretty much guaranteed that you’d seen a screensaver of Antelope Canyon. The sandstone walls have been filed down to smooth walls and many turns show off caricatures images. On clear, sunny days, 12-2pm is the prime time to snag shots of light beams coming into the slot canyons, but even on cloudy days (like when we went), the canyons are stunning.
Antelope Canyon lives on Navajo land, so you will be required to book a tour. Our guides were knowledgeable and efficient with our time in the canyon, which means take all the photos you can as quickly as you can – there’s no down time. If you’re a professional or aspiring photographer, these canyons will be a winning experience, but I would also recommend touring the lesser known slot canyons close by that 1) don’t require a paid tour, and 2) have far fewer tourists around.
To finish our day in Page, AZ, we headed over for a sunset view of Horseshoe Bend. Turns out about 1,000 of our new best friends had the same idea. The view is beautiful no matter what time of day, but if you go for sunset, make sure to leave a little extra time to get to the overlook, about 1/4 of a mile from the parking lot.
Day 4 – Buckskin Gulch (AZ)
I’ll be honest, I kind of don’t want to tell you about this place. I want to keep it all to myself, and dream about the raw, rustic, and QUIET slot canyon trails, until I can return for a longer visit. At the very least, I’ll give you a peek into the experience.
I learned later after our trip that Buckskin Gulch is the longest and deepest slot canyon in the southwest, but along with its beauty are plenty of potential dangers. As with any desert travel, make sure you have sufficient water, food, appropriate clothing, and maps to assure the safest journey. Now that we’ve established the safety-first aspect, let’s get to the overview!
An hour and a half south of Hwy 89 (approx. 1 1/2 hour drive) are two separate entries to Buckskin Gulch: Buckskin Gulch Trailhead and the Wire Pass trailhead. The first had less car traffic and is a guaranteed 12+ mile hike, while Wire Pass is more popular due to its closer access to The Wave, Paria Canyon – Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness, and the Colorado River. As with many protected areas in the southwest, the Wave and other areas within Buckskin Gulch require certain permits, some months and months in advance.
My friend and I opted for the Wire Pass trailhead, and loved our mid-afternoon tour. Between the fading sun, fewer people, and seasonal flora, every turn was a pleasant surprise. I think next time I’ll need to go big for the 12 mile hike, but so appreciate my first taste of this raw, beautiful slot canyon.
Day 5 – Valley of Fire (NV)
Move over, Las Vegas Strip! You may offer a lot of lights, bling, and cha-ching, but I’m more interested in the 150 million-year-old rock formations 50 miles to your northeast. I’ve likened the Valley of Fire State Park to a lava flow that comes to life each night and reshapes itself before the next day. Across the 40,000+ acre park, hikers and rock climbers alike can enjoy stunning arch formations, elephant look-a-likes, long (and short) hiking trails, with views of wildlife and 2,000 year-old-petroglyphs. Two of my favorite things about this park were the incredible sunset we had from our campsite, followed shortly by the unobstructed stargazing view. Whether spending the night or the day touring the park, this is absolutely an itinerary item I’ll add to my next Vegas trip and recommend to anyone else going to Sin City.