A red rock paradise in southwest Utah –Bryce and Zion

By | Category: Travel destinations
This is what lay before me

This is what lay before me

Las Vegas seems a very incongruous launch point for a visit to the vast, magnificent red rock serenity of southwestern Utah’s national parks and forests.  “Sin City” is easily the most impossible contrast imaginable. That was our own experience on our recent six-day, five night escorted group trip to Bryce and Zion National Parks. On this, our first time ever in Las Vegas, we wore our feet out, plodding through the seemingly endless strip, gazing and gawking.  We stayed away from the slot machines – although I did THINK, briefly, about trying one. The next morning, we left the noise, glitz and raucous wildness to arrive at the spectacularly beautiful red rocks of southwest Utah.

our adventure van

our adventure van

On the first morning of the six-day hiking and biking combo tour, our two guides, Seth and Patrick, picked us up early at our hotel in Vegas. We then drove with 9 other group participants in the comfortable coacf for two hours to reach St. George, Utah. We glimpsed our first views of the famous striped red rocks for which this region is known, as well as the unique Joshua trees, a yucca species which only grow in the Mojave Desert of southwest California, Nevada, Utah and Arizona. Named by Mormon pioneers for their upraised “arms,” akin to the prophet Joshua beckoning them to the ‘promised land,’ they would be our first reminder of Utah’s Mormon culture. But other than viewing Mormon meetinghouses in even the tiniest towns, there is really no difference for tourists in this part of Utah – if you want beer or wine with dinner, no worries, it’s on every menu.

Stopping for a brief orientation with our guides in Snow Canyon State Park (named for the pioneer Snow brothers, not the icy stuff,) we reveled in the red, russet and cinnamon-striped sandstone cliffs, peachy-tinged sand and black volcanic lava rock surrounding us. Here, we first saw the types of pretty, lavish picnic spreads Seth and Patrick would be preparing for us.

St George, Utah and these unusual limestone rock formations make climbing challenging

St George, Utah and these unusual limestone rock formations make climbing challenging

One might wonder why folks choose to go with tour operators when they could obviously make trips on their own. On this trip, we saw the advantages first-hand. Sure, one could do research and find hikes and rides and even arrange for shuttles, but with a tour operator– it’s all done for you, and we made new friends as well. After a hot hike, we were presented with silvery trays of fresh-cut pineapple, cookies and cheese and crackers; arriving from a hot bike ride, there they were waiting with chilled scented towels for our faces. Picnic lunches offered such as chicken Caesar wraps, pasta salads, fresh fruit and goodies – and for the diabetic in our group, our guides always had carefully planned options. Aside from the food, Seth and Patrick are certified in CPR and emergency response, and know the hikes and parks intimately, as well as the history and culture of the region. Our van took us directly to where we were going, and bikes were safely stowed on top, while our luggage was moved to and from accommodations by the guides. Meals are off the menu and are in top notch restaurants – no skimping at all, even appetizers and desserts are included. Only one dinner is on your own, as well as alcohol. Austin has done its research and chooses the best places in each venue, as well as the best waitstaff.

After lunch at the scrumptious Xatava Gardens Café in Ivens, we were “introduced” to our bikes. Each was named, such as “Cowgirl,” “Diddlybug,” and “Big Horn” (that one sparked some risqué jokes for its rider.) We cycled on a pleasant bike trail into St. George, a delightful little community surrounded by red rock cliffs where we stayed in an historic B&B with warm hosts and a refreshing swimming pool. St. George focuses on arts and wellness, with many famous spas, art galleries and top quality restaurants aiming for the rather upscale types who frequent and live here. In St. George, we dined at the casually elegant Painted Pony, where the heirloom tomato salad was outstanding, the jalapeno carrot soup sublime and the waiter, John, the most enthusiastic we’ve ever had. “WONderful,” he’d exclaim as you ordered. “YES, good!,” if you agreed to have him sprinkle fresh pepper on your dish.

in the Bryce National Park

in the Bryce National Park

Next morning, we scampered up (some more than others!) the sheer layered white rocks of Snow Canyon’s Timber Creek Trail with its crisscrossed rocks and deep lava caves. We then drove on to the very scenic Dixie National Forest, named for the early settlers who planted cotton in the area. Here, we marveled at Cedar Breaks, where we stopped to gaze at the overlook’s stunning views of “hoodoos: (tall, thin, strangely-shaped spires of protruding rock, formed by thousands of years of water erosion,) arches and “windows” (holes in the rock) on the outer edge of a deep gorge, and drove on Scenic Byway 143, a spectacular road with altitudes reaching 10,200 feet and gorgeous panoramas.

From an offroad stop, we hopped on our bikes, and were soon rudely shocked by an impromptu, unseasonal hailstorm – thankfully short, but cold and stinging on our thighs. Within moments, the sun was back, along with a glorious rainbow, which we all stopped to photograph. Cycling down through tiny towns and the expansive Panguitch Lake, we arrived in Bryce National Park, and the very cozy, recently renovated, Lodge at Bryce Canyon, the only lodge within park limits.

Bryce National Park

Bryce National Park

We were saddened when the morning began with heavy rains, indeed, in other parts of Utah that day, flash floods in low-lying places caused deaths. But our guides knew to wait for our morning hike, and after an hour sitting by the fire in the warm lodge, the skies cleared and we were off to the lookout point of the rim, starting off on our descent into the canyon. Astonished by the immensity and otherworldliness, we gazed in wonder at the orangey-red pinnacles and bizarre hoodoos, with the misty clouds from the morning rain enveloping them, bright green pines glistening with dew in between the towering spires. Indeed, the unusual rain made the extraordinary scene even more beautiful. WE wanted to take photos at every turn.

Bryce seemed like something out of a fantasy film – shapes so strange, so exotic, so impossible, that we found it hard to believe they were real. In fact, ancient Native Americans believed the hoodoos were formerly people, made into stone by a god punishing them for misdeeds. Famous formations such as Queen Victoria, flanked by Squirrel Playing Piano didn’t require imagination to see their namesakes. Exquisite turquoise and black Stellar Jays flew about, adorable chipmunks scurried below, and the fragrance of vanilla emanated from the bark of the Ponderosa pines. Rivulets of water gurgled between the hoodoos, and the whole day was blissful. What must the early settlers who “discovered” this place have thought when they first set eyes on Bryce?

in The Narrows in the Zion National Park

The Zion National Park

Next day, we were off to Zion National Park, cycling in the cool morning air through Red Canyon. The enormous red cliffs and monoliths of Zion are more majestic and imposing than those of Bryce’s somewhat delicate formations. The canyon walls are dramatic and the hikes here can be quite strenuous, such as that to Angel’s Landing. This hike is one of the top-rated hikes in the world but is quite harrowing. Most of the journey is safe but steep, with incredible views increasing with the quick ascent on the narrow switchbacks.  Many stop hiking up at Scout’s Landing – fearing the ascent to Angel’s Landing, which most accomplish with the help of a heavy chain cemented into the ground.

Zion is also famed for the bucket list Narrows Hike, named one of American’s best adventures by National Geographic. Indeed, hiking the Narrows was one of the week’s highlights. It involved a full day of walking and wading along and in the Virgin River, into the sheer walled canyons of the aptly-named “Narrows,” at times in water chest-high. Seth and Patrick rented us neoprene booties and socks, which not only kept our feet warm in the cool water, but also ensured our safe footing on the underwater boulders. We couldn’t imagine how others were faring who didn’t have the booties, socks nor the very useful large wooden poles we were given to help us navigate our steps through the currents, boulders and holes. We were amazed that out of our group, no one fell or had a mishap – in fact, the experience was fun and exciting, with eye-popping canyon scenery.

The Narrows

The Narrows

The six day trip into red rock country ended with a three-hour drive back to Las Vegas with its manmade monoliths and megahotels. I had decided that I would, in fact, spend whatever change I had and try a slot machine – just for the fun of it. I had a quarter and a penny, and found the first slot machine at the airport to try my luck. But what was this? No coin slot? I asked the woman monitoring the machines and she laughed. “Oh, they say 1 cent, or 25 cents, but you have to start with a dollar bill. No more coins.” Well, that did it. I just was NOT going there – gambling is just not my game. Red rocks, hiking and nature are.

If you go:

Las Vegas has direct flights from the UK via British Airways (Heathrow)  and Virgin Atlantic (Gatwick) all year-round.  Virgin also offers a seasonal service from Manchester which has an all year-round serivce on Thomas Cook. Norwegian starts a Gatwick-Las Vegas flight from October 2016 and Thomas Cook also operates a seasonal service from Glasgow and Stansted.

Weather in Southwestern Utah is erratic. At Bryce, high temps range from an average of 2 celsius (December) to 25 (July,) while lows can plummet to -10 in the winter months and there is snow at Bryce. At Zion, temperatures can soar to 32 in mid summer, and go down just below freezing in winter. It does not snow in Zion. Rainfall is heaviest in summer months, and needs to be carefully monitored for flash floods. Most tour operators hold trips from May to late September.

Free shuttles: Free shuttle buses run in Zion from mid-March to late October, and on weekends in November, providing access to all trailheads. A volunteer-run free shuttle runs in Bryce from Mid April to early September (check for times.)

 

All images ©  Mark Rush Photography

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