"Live a good life, and in the end, it's not the years in the life, it's the life in the years."

A winter drive to visit the Southwest parks

By on December 30, 2015 in Articles, Outdoor Fun, Sports & Recreation with 0 Comments

By Karen Keebler

For years my husband Andrew and I talked about how wonderful it would be to get into our car and head to the Southwest to explore the national parks and do some hiking.

Well, last winter, we decided to stop talking about it and made our plans to go.

We planned to take 13 days for our trip, so with our cooler full, our bags packed and our itinerary in hand we set out for our big adventure.

Our first stop was at the Arches National Park, in eastern Utah near Moab.

A series of switchbacks led us to the top of the hill. Once on top, the park opened up to a vast landscape of bright rusty colored rock formations, columns and arches. The contrast of the bright orange rock against the clear blue sky was brilliantly beautiful.

After checking out some of the popular rock formations like the Courthouse, Sheep Rock and the Three Gossips, we drove nine miles to check out Balanced Rock where we found a great picnic area to have lunch. This park does not offer food, water or lodging facilities, so we were happy to have our cooler with food and water with us here.

We found that most of the trails in the park were an easy to moderate hike and after exploring the park for six hours, we were ready to call it a day and head to our hotel in Moab.

The next day, we drove north of Moab to visit Canyonlands National Park.

After making our way through the beautiful open fields of sage brush, we stopped at the Islands in the Sky visitor center.

As we drove along, we checked out seven viewpoints that had about five to six miles distance between them. Each overlook provided an awe-inspiring view of the vast canyons that stretched out as far as you could see. The sheer cliffs dropped at least 1,000 feet before dropping another 1,000 feet. We felt like a tiny speck in the grand comparison of it all.

Next stop was Cortez, CO, where we spent the next three days exploring our third national park, Mesa Verde.

From the research we did, we knew that we wanted to take a guided tour of the Balcony House since the other tours were going to be closed when we arrived.

We went straight to the visitor center and paid four dollars each for the tour that we arranged to do the next day. The road into the park is steep, narrow and windy. Trailers and towed vehicles are not allowed, however I did notice an area near the park entrance where you could leave them.

It takes about 45 minutes to drive to the top of the hill to access the ruins.

Our first stop in the park was the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum. We were just in time to catch the 25-minute orientation film about the ancestral Pueblo people. The museum had exceptional displays of artifacts and dioramas.

Just outside the museum we took the half-mile trail (round trip) that descended 100 feet in elevation down to view the Spruce Tree House. This house is the best preserved cliff dwelling and was built around the 13th Century.

We were able to walk through parts of the dwelling and talk to the very knowledgeable park ranger.

The Balcony House tour we took the next day was exciting and not meant for those afraid of heights like myself, however not wanting to be the only person in our group of 40 to chicken out, I did it anyway.

We made our way down a pathway where we climbed a 35-foot wooden pole ladder that led into the Balcony House. It was amazingly well preserved and makes one ponder at how hard these people worked to create their little villages with tools made of rock and sticks.

Upon exiting the Balcony House we had to crawl through a two-by-two-foot hole in the rock and ascend up a steep trail, so the key for me was to just not look down.

Another fun trail to take in this park is the petroglyph trail. The trail is 2.4 miles long and gives great views of the canyons, has fun rock steps and rock crevasses to skirt through that lead to the canyon wall where you’ll see a large panel of petroglyphs.

It was time for us to head west to visit our fourth national park, Bryce Canyon.

Just outside of Page, AZ, we were able to take the Lower Antelope tour. The tour guide led us out to a big crevice that had several steep steel stairs going down into it. Once at the bottom, it was an easy flat walk along the bottom where in every direction you could see the sandy swirls and grooves artistically carved out by mother nature herself… it was absolutely stunning.

Once back on the road, we decided we had a little time to stop and check out Glen Canyon and Lake Powell. We had a lovely lunch at the Glen Canyon Marina where we had an excellent view of the lake. It actually reminded us a little bit of our own Lake Roosevelt, without the huge monument-like rocks along its banks, and thought this would be a fun place to come back to and rent a houseboat.

Driving on to Panguitch, Utah, where we spent our last four days, turned out to be a good location. It was just a few miles to scenic Hwy. 12 that leads into Bryce Canyon. I have to say, out of all the parks we visited on our trip, this park was the only one that took our breath away upon first glimpse.

As we stood looking at the Queens Garden, one of the viewpoints in the park, the morning sun made the orange and white hoodoos glow. There are 14 viewpoints in the park and they are all breathtaking and unique.

Our favorite hike in this park started in the Queens Garden. The 2.5-mile trail descended down into the pine trees where we were able to get fantastic views of the bright hoodoos mixed among the pine trees and blue skies. We came out of the crater-like area via the Wall Street trail that made us look like a speck of dust moving our way through huge slabs of rock.

The last national park we visited was Zion.

We were glad to have been at the entrance by 8 a.m., because it took us half an hour to go through the long tunnel and switch backs that led to the bottom of the canyon where the park entrance is located.

We parked at the visitor center and were amazed it was already almost full.

Using the map we received at the entrance, we picked out the trails we wanted to do first. There were shuttles that go throughout the park constantly, and using them was very easy.

The park is surrounded by sheer cliffs with the Virgin River running through the valley of the park. We planned ahead and brought along our own water shoes and sticks because we wanted to hike the “Narrows,” which is where you hike up the narrow corridor while in the Virgin River.

As we made our way up the river, the water was never deeper than our knees and there were plenty of sandbars where we were able to cross back and forth. This was a good hike to do in the heat of the day.

Later on, Andrew hiked 1,400-feet in elevation up to Angles landing. It was too steep and high for me. He said the view up there was fabulous.

Chatting about all the parks on our two-day drive home, we could really not pick a favorite and thought that each park was really unique and special in its own way.

Karen Keebler loves to hike and explore new trails. She has been guiding clients on their driving trips for 10 years at the AAA office in Wenatchee.


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