To our great benefit, men and women over the ages have worked tirelessly to set aside and maintain millions of wilderness acres in our country, protected as national parks for all to enjoy.
As children and later as a couple, Karen and I have visited many of America’s national parks including Rocky Mountain, the Grand Canyon, Sleeping Bear Dunes, Yellowstone, Mesa Verde and Grand Teton. Recently, we planned our latest trip to include five breathtaking parks in Colorado and southern Utah. Our iPhones are now literally full-up with the photos of the most astounding sites and landscapes we’ve ever seen.
The National Parks Lifetime Pass
Going back though, we were fortunate to visit Rocky Mountain National Park in the winter of 2017, during a ski trip to the Winter Park, Colorado area. When we stopped into the Visitor’s Center on arrival, the ranger on duty informed us of the special National Parks lifetime pass offer for those of us 62+, for just $10! A single day pass at most parks can run $15 or more. We bought two in case we ever travel separately. Unfortunately, that limited time offer is now over, but the $80 lifetime pass to all parks in the US is still a great bargain.
On to our latest travels… we flew into Denver to visit our son who lives in Boulder for a few days, then off to our first national park, Colorado National Monument, just west of Grand Junction, Colorado. One of the lesser known national parks, the Monument should still be on everyone’s list.
Colorado National Monument
Far from a single monument or statue, the park is 20.000+ acres, nearly 32 square miles of amazing canyons, land formations, spectacular views and hiking paths.
We can thank a gentleman named John Otto who worked with the communities of Grand Junction and Fruita, Colorado to convince President Taft to designate this land as a national park in 1911. The Rim Drive through the park will take your breath away as you navigate the switchbacks along sheer cliffs overlooking rock formations such as Independent Monument, the Kissing Couple and the Coke Ovens.
On to Utah!
Our travel line-up for the coming week in Utah included Arches National Park in Moab, Capitol Reef in Torrey, Bryce Canyon in its namesake town and finally, Zion National Park in Springdale, Utah. It was a week of exploring quaint towns, local restaurants and motels and some of the most astounding scenery and landscapes in America.
Arches National Park
Just north of the marvelous little town of Moab, Utah, Arches National Park will treat you to 2000 natural stone arches, hundreds of soaring pinnacles and balanced rocks and massive fins carved into this sprawling red-rock landscape over millions of years. We spent a full day driving and hiking the park and continued to marvel at nature’s work. The Landscape Arch was the most dramatic and was a great reward for a long scenic hike into the wilderness.
In town, we stayed at the Red Stone Inn and enjoyed an affordable, rustic and very hospitable stay. There are many restaurant and shopping options in Moab, and we particularly enjoyed the food and beverage selection at Moab Brewery. Check out the incredible local art and jewelry at Moab Made.
On the way out of town the next morning we were treated to real dinosaur tracks preserved for millions of years in an old stream bed in the rocky hills north of town. The site is called Cooper Ridge Dinosaur Trackways. Google it when you get to Moab for directions. I’m still amazed these tracks could survive in this harsh terrain when so many billions of tons of rock and sand had been eroded away to create the surrounding canyons across the millennia.
Capitol Reef National Park
Our visit in Capitol Reef was the shortest of the trip as we were on our way from Moab to tour Bryce Canyon the next day. The park cannot be shortchanged however as it is another incredible display of cliffs, canyons, domes and bridges carved into the many colors and layers of rock in what’s called the Waterpocket Fold, a geographic landform that extends nearly 100 miles. Just outside the park we enjoyed discovering ancient Native American cliff carvings or petroglyphs dated back to 600 – 1300 AD.
Bryce Canyon National Park
We stayed the night before our expedition through Bryce Canyon in the little town of Hatch, Utah, which was fun but a bit past our destination. In hindsight, we could have stayed at several good local motels right in the town of Bryce, but then we would have missed the memories of breakfast at the Galaxy Diner and our stay at the classic old Bryce Zion Inn, right out of Route 66 days.
Our visit to the park is so difficult to describe. The canyons and land formations are “other-worldly”. Who knew what a “hoodoo” was? Reportedly the largest collection of these towering rock pillars in the world, Bryce Canyon will leave you in awe of Mother Nature’s ability to sculpt the land. The park road along the canyon’s rim provides easy access to parking and a short walk out to the many grand vantage points and trails. For those braver souls, hiking paths down the cliff-sides will take you to the bottom for a look up at this remarkable display.
Don’t miss a meal and a rest break in the lobby at the Lodge at Bryce Canyon in the park.
And then there was Zion National Park
Continuing our theme of interesting lodging options, we can thank AirBnB for finding an RV for “glamping” in Hurricane, Utah. Nothing against the many great hotels along our journey, but we can stay at a Holiday Inn Express anywhere we go. We decided to look for more local and interesting options. The RV was well equipped, surprisingly spacious and made for an enjoyable and certainly more affordable stay.
Karen had visited Zion five years earlier with friends, but unfortunately timed their trip during the government budget shutdown when all national parks were closed when they arrived. They were only able to drive through the outer edges of the park and not get out of their car, so she was anxious to get back for a full tour.
Unlike Bryce where you travel the top of the canyon, Zion takes you up the bottom of one the most breathtaking rock-walled canyons along the Virgin River you will ever see. During most of the year, the road is closed to public traffic and the excellent bus system provides convenient and scenic access to all stops along the park road.
The two most famous hikes in Zion are Angels Landing and the Narrows. We navigated both, though I will admit we didn’t make it to the summit of either. To reach the top of Angel’s Landing requires a final climb along a harrowing cliff that includes a chain to keep you from toppling over the edge. Our joy of living kept us from this final ascent, but many make it to the top every day! The Narrows includes an upper stretch of actually hiking in the river up the steep incline of the canyon… truly spectacular. Again, dining at the Zion Lodge in the park is highly recommended.
So much to do.
In addition to countless options to hike these glorious parks with trails for all ability levels, there are also guided park ranger and jeep tours, mountain biking, horseback and other means of exploration, depending on each individual park. There are guided ranger tours, historical and geologic displays and a host of other tourist activities in all the surrounding towns. Who doesn’t enjoy a good Gift Shop!
What’s next on our travels to America’s great National Parks?
On our long drive back to Denver to fly home, we had the road atlas out to plan our next national park adventures. High on the list will be a trip to the state of Washington to see Olympic and North Cascades, and then another trip to Alaska someday to see the majestic Denali National Park. A third trip may find us in Maine exploring Acadia National Park.
So many parks. So little time!