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Rugged Road Tripping In Utah

Five National Parks in five days and each one awesome. Neil Sowerby rides tall in the saddle

Written by . Published on August 28th 2012.

Rugged Road Tripping In Utah

It sounds very Thelma and Louise, but we were in danger of Canyon Overload on the second leg of our 2,500-mile South West States Road Trip. We actually got within 30 miles of Dead Horse Point where the gals finally drove over the edge. A detour was tempting but, hey, weren’t five National Parks in Five Days enough – Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Arches and Monument Valley? All were amazing. And the Grand Canyon to come...

Monument Valley Built On A Massive ScaleMonument Valley is built on a massive scale (above and below)

Buttes Dwarf Riders In Monument 

UTAH means Mormons to most folk. Salt Lake City and The Osmonds’ dazzling teeth. A hard place to buy booze or gamble in – so an antidote to the neon Babylon of Las Vegas. Utah was where we were headed. Not in a penitent mood after Sin City. Just in search of a different kind of amazement. A rolling backdrop of jaw-droppingly epic landscapes. Eat up the miles, breathe in the freedom.

All the mythic stuff that’s written into the contract of a road trip, Utah promised that and more.

Easing out of sprawling Vegas in the air-con bubble of our hired Mustang, I slipped ZZ Top’s Tres Hombres into the CD slot and put some weight on the accelerator. The Utah borderline was two hours away.

Magnificent %26#34%3BPatriarchs%26#34%3B In ZionMagnificent – Patriarchs in Zion

Highway 95 rolls north through an arid, cactus-dotted landscape, skirting the Nellis Airforce Base, High Desert State Prison and Las Vegas Speedway, new rave home of the Electric Daisy Carnival. There might be a rattlesnake in every gulch. Let’s get the hell past here was our only thought.

Day One destination was Zion. As the name suggests, the promised land for the early Mormon settlers, who believed they had entered the ante-room of heaven and renamed every crag in sight after a Patriarch. The only Native American name that remains in the National Park is the Temple of Sinawava. It’s at the end of the shuttle bus ride that spares the half-mile deep canyon from traffic intrusion in high season.

Zion offers a lovely variegated mountain landscape with delicacy in the rock formations and lush foliage in the stream-fed upper reaches. The better easy walks all have watery destinations – The Emerald Pools, Weeping Rock, the Riverside Walk, but the challenging Narrows hike beyond the latter is out of bounds when storms threaten flash floods.

Walter's Wiggles, Part Of Angels LandingWalter's Wiggles, a testing climb up to Angels Landing

Zion’s iconic walk is the astounding 2.5 mile Angels Landing Trail, which narrows to a 5ft wide ridge with 1,000 ft drops before it climaxes in a chain-assisted rock climb. Caution got the better of me much lower down when I turned back at Walter’s Wiggles – 21 dizzying stone-buttressed ziz-zags.

Sunset Over Springdale's Wood-Fired Pizza JointSunset over Springdale's wood-fired pizza joint

Our B&B, Cliffrose, was near the park entrance in “feeder town” Springdale. Like so many Utah settlements, with so much space about, it is rather strung out – but very charming. From the porch of its wood-fired pizza parlour we caught a magnificent sunset that washed the surrounding peaks in orange pink.

Our second Canyon, Bryce – 77 miles east of Zion via switchback roads and tunnels – is no stranger to orange pink even before sunsets and sunrises. Hewn out of sandstone by erosion, this otherworldly wonder has been described as “like a cave without a ceiling”. The dominant geological feature is the hoodoo or “fairy chimney” – a tall thin spire of rock, alternately soft and hard, that protrudes from a desert basin.

Magnificent BryceSpectacular Bryce Canyon is quite unworldly


Millions of hoodoos make up the 56-mile long seahorse-shaped canyon, some of them up to 10 storeys in height. They resemble fantastical animals (a famous one is shaped like a poodle). Whole formations call to mind Gothic choir stalls or chess pieces.

Underground undermining goes on, too, as Utah prairie dogs, native only to this era, burrow out intricate networks of chambers to breed and hibernate in. It’s not easy to find a human lodging inside the Park. There’s just the historic Lodge, a mite grim. We stayed just outside in a “cowpoke-themed” settlement with the absurdly aggrandized title of Bryce Canyon City.

Driving across the forested plateau of the park, there’s no clue to the abyss slicing through it until you reach one of the rim vantage points. There are several, each with a car park and a different aspect, the busiest being Bryce Point.

Bryce, Down Into The Navajo LoopBryce, down into the Navajo Loop

To avoid the crowds we drove over early next morning to Sunset Point and took the Navajo Loop Trail 500ft down into the baking Canyon through the narrow rock defile known as Wall Street. From the inside looking up it’s even more of a showstopper. Echoes of distant thunder added to the eeriness of the experience.

It was the start of an amazing Day Three. Ahead lay Capitol Reef with its own towering, bizarrely shaped buttes – and deer-haunted orchards planted by the doughtiest of early Mormon setters. But this day was about the journey – the great road trip experience that is Highway 12. Designated as one of America’s Top 10 Scenic Routes, it lived up to the billing.

Much of it was built by Civilian Conservation Corps workers during the Great Depression era as a sort of job creation scheme. It offers a kaleidoscope of scenic wonders – from juniper desert solitude to the pine and aspen-cloaked altitude of Boulder Mountain. In all its changing technicolor textures, it’s like a dramatic geological library representing 200 million years. Dinosaur and fossil-rich pickings for the paleontologists.

Lunch Stop-Off - FolksyOur lunch stop-off in isolated little Boulder

You can’t not stop at the viewing points. Each corner brings something new. We gawped at the tilted terraces of the Grand Staircase, riven by the Escalante River. We resisted the temptation of recommended detours – the six-mile hike to Lower Calf Creek Falls or the contorted landscape of the rugged Burr Trail. I couldn’t see our suspension coping with the likes of Box-Death Hollow Wilderness, Hell’s Backbone and Muley Twist Canyon.

Highway 12 has its own spectacular section, called the Hogsback. Cliffs drop precipitously on both sides of the road as you twist 1,000 feet down into Boulder. Until 1940 this remote outpost only received its mail by mule and its still officially classed as a frontier community. It seems to attract creative pioneers these days. Hence the civilised hipster surrounds of the Burr Trail Grill where we lunched.

Torrey SchoolhouseTorrey Schoolhouse is a sophisticated oasis in this corner of Utah...

Night three we spent in a homespun old logging settlement called Torrey. Our lodging was a fabulously converted schoolhouse with a zen-inspired garden run by a psychologist in exile.

Red-Hot Dining In Torrey....As is Torrey's Cafe Diablo despite serving rattlesnake (below)

Rattlensake Patties - They Tasted Just Like Pit Viper!

As with the rattlesnake patties I dined on at Cafe Diablo down the road that evening (yes, rattlesnake tasted just like pit viper!) Utah is full of surprises.

Hot Rod Dawg, TorreyHot Rod Dawg on Torrey's Main Street

The Native Americans called it this area the Land of the Sleeping Rainbow. Capitol Reef is superficially less spectacular than Bryce or Zion. The park’s centrepiece is the 100-mile long buckle in the earth’s crust called Water Pocket Fold, which once was a major obstacle to settlers heading west. To explore this reticent wilderness you really have to go off-road.

We only had time to linger in the plentiful Fruita orchards planted in the 1870s and investigate the petroglyphs, rock art figures carved high into a cliff by the Fremont people 1,000 years ago. They are easily viewed from the Highway 24 roadside.

Iconic Delicate ArchIconic Delicate Arch is one of many such spectacular formations in the Park

Arches National Park

Much more upfront was our Day Four destination – the Arches National Park. It boasts the highest density of or rock arches anywhere in the world – more than 2,500 in a 116 sq mile area, the biggest being the 290ft Landscape Arch. So many are accessible on  little walks, too. A lovely place to visit.

In sapping 40º heat, and lugging plenty of water, we embarked on the 3-mile footslog to see the most famous, Delicate Arch, which is used as the symbol of Utah. The final section is along a cliff-hugging ledge but you are rewarded with a geological formation of rare beauty.

Nearest town to Arches is the buzzing Moab, where every second business seems tied in to outdoor pursuits and there’s a sense of un-Utahlike hedonism in the air. Though it’s still not easy to buy wine in the stores, there’s always the jolly Moab Brewery.

Colin Fryer Outsde His Red Cliffs LodgeColin Fryer outsde his outstanding Red Cliffs Lodge

We stayed 12 miles away at a wonderful dude ranch with winery called Red Cliffs Lodge in an idyllic spot where the claustrophobic Colorado River valley finally opens out.  The red rock surroundings are eerily familiar if you are a cowboy movie buff. Rio Grande, starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, was the first of many classics filmed here. That was in 1948, when it was a working ranch. The most recent was The Lone Ranger re-make. We missed Johnny Depp and Co by a mere fortnight. The early Marlboro ads also originated here.

Dude Ranch At Red CliffThe riding stables At Red Cliffs where John Wayne, below, rode tall in the saddle

Movie Memorabilia At Red Cliffs Lodge

The legacy is celebrated in a movie museum downstairs at the Lodge, the cherished project of Colin Fryer over 20 years. He fought to create the adjacent Castle Creek winery, whose excellent reds accompanied our steak dinner on the terrace overlooking the river. The ranch part offers three and a half hours’ trekking on excellent horses for $75, which is terrific value, and the cabin accommodation is smart (and scenic).

The Long Road To Monument ValleyMonument Valley dominates the surrounding badlands

Our final Utah stop-off (shading over into Arizona) was even more recognisable. The buttes and spires towering over 1,000ft, the stark mesa tablelands rising sheer from the drab plains. Is that a Stagecoach puffing up dust against this staggering backdrop? Yes, Monument Valley.

The Navajo Indians’ homeland was the obsessive setting for John Ford’s westerns, most featuring John Wayne, who looms over this territory like some benign, drawling ghost.

Our Monument Valley Driver, Navajo DavidOur excellent Monument Valley driver, Navajo David

Monument Valley - Be UpstandingMonument Valley - be upstanding

It is possible to drive the 17-mile dirt tracks inside the Navajo Tribal Park in your own vehicle, but it’s a bumpy, dusty ride. Do as we did and book an off-track vehicle tour from Goulding’s Lodge outside the Park. Ours lasted four hours. The ticket includes entrance to the Park and saves hassle.

You get the usual vantage points for the rock formations named for what they resemble – Elephant Butte, the Bear and Rabbit, Eagle Rock – and drop in on the locals’ jewellery stalls... but it offers much more, especially after you leave the public areas.

Navajo Weaver Susie YazzieNavajo weaver Susie Yazzie

Commentary from our Navajo driver David conveyed vividly the native heritage and we got to visit a 100-year hut or hogan and watch a Monument legend nearly the same age, the rug weaver Susie Yazzie, carding wool. This tribal spokeswoman even appeared in the  Ford films.

Scenery Sure Makes A Guy HungryScenery sure makes a guy hungry

Native American HeartlandFlag flies over this Native American heartland

We left as a sensational sunset lit up the sandstone surrounds. Then the dark dropped suddenly like a curtain and there was just us on a lonely desert road for 60 miles. A couple of bars lit up the night in spooky old Mexican Hat (named after a rock formation that looks just like... you guessed it). We spent the night in a strung-out township called Bluff. New Mexico was calling next.

Fact file

Getting there:
Virgin Atlantic flies twice a week direct from Manchester to Las Vegas (and daily from London Gatwick to Las Vegas) and is offering return Economy fares from £723 per person. For further information contact www.virginatlantic.com or call 0844 2092 770.

We booked our American car hire through Dollar in the UK:  www.dollar.co.uk.

Staying there:
Cliffrose Lodge & Gardens, 281 Zion Park Boulevard, Springdale, UT 84767 http://cliffroselodge.com.
A lovely alternative where we lunched and visited its quirky museum is the aptly titled Majestic View Lodge, 2400 Zion Park Blvd Springdale, Utah 84767. www.majesticviewlodge.com.
Bryce Canyon Grand, 30 North 100 East Bryce Canyon City, UT 84764. www.brycecanyongrand.com.
Torrey Schoolhouse B&B, 150 N. Center Street, Torrey, UT 84775. www.torreyschoolhouse.com/bb.
Red Cliffs Lodge, Hwy 128 Mile Marker 128, Moab, UT 84532. www.redcliffslodge.com.
Desert Rose Inn & Suites, 701 Main Street, Bluff, UT 84512. www.desertroseinn.com.

For essential tourism information on Utah: http://www.goutah.co.uk.

Monument Valley tours, visit www.gouldings.com.

Eating out (pick of our Utah dining):
Flying Monkey, 975 Zion Park Blvd, Springdale. Wood-fired pizza.
Cafe Soleil, 205 Zion Park Blvd, Springdale. Casual, breakfasts, good coffee.
Cafe Diablo, 599 W Main Street, Torrey. Stylised South-Western cookery (inc rattlesnake).
Robber’s Roost Books & Beverages, 185 W Main Street. Boho coffee and book retreat.
Burr Trail Grill & Outpost, cnr Highway 12 and Burr Trail Road. Organic tarts and fabulous burgers. Great beer choice for Utah.
Red Cliffs (see Staying There) Fine steaks washed dow with their own Outlaw Red on a terrace overlooking the Colorado River.
Moab Brewery, 686 Main Street, Moab. Vast and highly recommended menu. Choice of their own microbrews.
Goulding’s Lodge Stagecoach Dining Room. Good sunset views across to Monument Valley and good value tacos and the like.
San Juan River Kitchen, 75 E Main Street, Bluff. Organic raw materials for deft Mexican American cuisine.
Coffee good at Bluff’s Comb Ridge Coffee, let down by distracted service on our visit! Handily across road from Desert Rose, which doesn’t do breakfasts.

Park entrance fees:
National Parks charge an entry fee of $12 an individual or for a car $25, valid for seven days. If you are park-hopping, as we did it makes sense to buy for $80 an America The Beautiful annual pass, which provides entrance and standard amenity fees for a driver and all passengers in a personal vehicle. You can buy them at the first park you reach or via http://www.nps.gov/findapark/passes.htm. At each entrance you are given a park guidebook.

Manchester Airport parking:
Neil Sowerby left his car park in T2 Long Stay. Here are all the options:

VIP Valet – drop and collect your car right next to the terminal and get fast tracked through security. Your car is parked on site.Meet and Greet – drop your car off with staff next to the terminal and collect on your return. Your car is parked on site.

Multi-storey car park at T1, 2 and 3 – ultra-convenient multi-storey car parking right next to the terminal. Park and walk under cover to reach the terminal.

Long stay car park at T1, 2 and 3 – ground surface car park offering free, regular 24 hour bus transfers direct to the terminal.Shuttle Park – secure parking at great rates for cost-conscious travellers. Free, regular 24 hour bus transfers direct to the terminal.

JetParks –  low-cost parking option run by Manchester Airport, fully manned 24/7, parking from £2.99 per day. Visit www.manchesterairport.co.uk/Shop/MAN/Parking.

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