Grand Canyon National Park
It’s easy to see where the name of this canyon comes from, as it is seriously big. Indeed, with a depth of 1600m and a width of 16km between the north and the south rim, it is really hard to appreciate its gigantic size. We spent our first day there walking on the paved trail along the south rim, and although we were there in the low season, during the week and under a cloudy weather, we were surrounded by tourists. With more than 5 million visitors each year, Grand Canyon is the second most visited park in the US.
We couldn’t get a permit to camp at the bottom of the canyon near the Colorado river (there are only a few places available each day and you often need to book 4 months in advance), so we only went for a hike halfway down the next morning. As soon as we started it, we were speechless. The feeling of vastness and immensity actually gets stronger as you descend into the canyon. We kept thinking “This is the best hike I’ve ever done!” and felt lucky to be able to do this. When we reached “Skeleton Point”, we listened to the rangers’ advice and turned around to go back up (there are signs everywhere saying you shouldn’t attempt to go to the bottom and back up in one day). On our way back to the south rim, it started to get hot and the number of hikers and mules went up a lot, which made us glad we were able to enjoy the morning’s cool air and solitude. If we have one advice to give to someone who plans on visiting this park: don’t stop at the already impressive view you get from the rim, hike down, it’s really worth it.
The next morning, we got up even earlier to be able to see the sunrise at one of the view points along the rim, before taking the road to Page, Arizona.
Lower Antelope Canyon
Right next to the town of Page, Antelope Canyon is located inside the Navajo reserve. To visit it, you need to pay an entrance fee to be allowed on the reserve, and book one of the several guided tours offered by members of the community. We spent an hour and a half in this very narrow canyon made of Navajo sandstone sculpted by erosion and it is a true paradise for photographers. Our guide pointed out the many different shapes recognizable among the orange stone formations (can you spot the “Indian Chief” in the second picture ?). This canyon is mostly known for its dream-like rays of light, but we couldn’t observe them as the sun is way too low already at this time of the year. One of the drawbacks of this fantastic place is that it is becoming increasingly popular and the resulting high number of visitors doesn’t go well with the fairly small size of the canyon.
Just a few kilometres from Antelope Canyon, Horseshoe bend is another interesting thing to see on the Colorado plateau. After walking for about 15 minutes, you reach a viewpoint above this bend in the Colorado river in the shape of a horse shoe (you probably guessed that part). A nice short stop on the way 🙂
Zion National Park
Zion, in southern Utah, is also one of the most visited parks in the US (more than 3.5 million visitors each year), and we understand why. The park lies in the valley of a canyon exhibiting colourful rock formations and a surprisingly lush vegetation, which is partly due to the Virgin River that goes through it. There are two hikes for which the park is mostly known: Angels Landing, which ends with the ascent of a ridge arriving at a viewpoint overlooking the park, and the Narrows, a 23km hike in the water inside a narrow canyon. As we wanted to avoid the crowd of people who come all year-round to try these popular hikes, we got up early and took the first available bus to start Angels Landing before dawn. It was pretty amazing and fun to climb the final ridge, and we remained speechless in front of the view at the top. This hike was really different from all the others we’ve done during this trip and will remain etched in our memories. While going back down, Clement twisted his ankle and ended up being barely able to walk an hour later, which made us go back to our tent and rest for the remainder of the day. This also helped us in deciding what to do next: we thought it best not to attempt the Narrows on the following day and went directly to Bryce canyon instead.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Another canyon, once again completely different from the others ! The main attraction is located at the centre of the park : a natural amphitheatre filled with Hoodoos (orange coloured rock formations that kind of resemble hundreds of totem poles put next to each other). After a day of rest, Clement’s ankle was in working condition again, and we were able to get back to our usual hiking habits. The hikes in this park are organised in a network of short ones that visitors can combine as they wish. It took us several hours to explore some of them and as was the case for the Grand Canyon, you really need to go down into the canyon to truly appreciate the size and beauty of the landscape. Another hike we will remember !
The park was fairly empty compared to its neighbours, which might have been caused by the freezing temperatures (-5 degrees Celsius). Trying to prepare breakfast with freezing water was complicated to say the least 🙂
Fortunately, the park was not in winter mode yet, and we got to attend two ranger’s talks: one on the night sky and the formation of the stars, the other on the “Soundscape of the Hoodoos” (it seems everywhere we go, work catches with Clement).
Capitol Reef National Park
Although it probably doesn’t deserve a lengthy stay, we really enjoyed the few hours we spent inside this park. Following the advice from one of the rangers, we walked in one of the gorges of the park (narrow canyon with sand at the bottom) and drove the scenic route. Upon leaving the park, we stopped to see ancient petroglyphs (drawings carved in the rock, contrary to pictograms which are painted).
Arches National Park
We were eagerly waiting for this park, famous for its rock formations shaped like fins and it numerous natural arches. We were not disappointed and had a great time our 2 days there.
On the first day, we did two different hikes: “Devil’s Garden” which gave us the opportunity to see seven different arches and walk from fin to fin, and “Delicate Arch” which brought to a single but amazing arch (possibly the most popular one, which is also used on some adverts by the state of Utah).
After having obtained the necessary permit, we spent our second day there inside “Fiery Furnace”, a maze of sandstone fins and boulders. There is no pre-determined path there, you need to find a way in and how to get out by yourself. While doing so, you also need to be very careful of the vegetation: to be able to grow in the sand, plants need a kind of support that takes decades to grow with the help of micro-organisms. Walking on this biological crust means destroying it and with it any chance of growth. Luckily, there are enough rocks and sand washes to be able to enjoy the place without disrupting the nature too much. We explored a lot of dead ends, came across arches, had fun getting a bit lost, climbed up fins, climbed down gorges, and got lost again.
Even though the rangers try to discourage visitors when asking for the permit (as they do not offer ranger-guided tours from October to March, they strongly advise to go with a private guide), we do not regret at all our choice to have gone alone !
Canyonlands National Park
Many thanks to Uschi for recommending this place ! This enormous park comprises 3 parts : “Island in the sky”, “The Needles” and “The Maze”, which are separated from one another by the Colorado river and the Green river (its main tributary). As The Maze is only accessible with 4 wheel drive vehicles, we only did the two other.
Island in the sky : Our day in this upper part of the park was quite calm and relaxed. Although it rained most of the day, we got lucky and the sun shone again from mid-afternoon, giving us a chance to see these unusual landscapes : cliffs leading to a plateau, which itself then plummets to another plateau and so on, forming this amazing canyon.
The needles : We drove for an hour and a half to get to this part of the park, which gives a direct access inside the canyon. Once again, the name is fairly literal, since most of the landscape is covered by rock formations shaped like needles. With very few visitors there, we felt like we were completely alone most of the time and thoroughly enjoyed the impressive viewpoints. In just a few hours, we hiked through fields of these gigantic “needles”, crossed arid plains, walked at the bottom of a canyon barely wider than our shoulders, and got lost in the bed of a dried up river. We had a blast !
End of part 2. The rest in a bit !