Petrified Forest (and Painted Desert) National Park: Two amazing landscapes in one, the painted desert and petrified forest showcase some incredible features of Arizona’s eastern desert. The painted desert is an area where erosion has exposed layers of earth of many different colours. Some parts of the desert are many different shades of red, while others are blue and purple. On the long drive through the park we got to experience so many different landscapes and, with clouds constantly passing overhead, waiting a few minutes would result in all the colours shifting. Further on, when we were hiking the Blue Mesa, we found ourselves in the middle of a rain/hail storm. While windy and cold, the effect of the storm on the colours was surprising. The oranges and blues and purples became more vibrant, even in the subdued lighting.
Progressing through the park, we came across more and more petrified wood. Millions of years ago, a unique sequence of events caused massive trees to fall into a river and become completely saturated with water. Then, as time passed, the biological matter in the tree was replaced with various minerals causing the entirety of these trees to become magnificently coloured rocks that look like tree trunks. In some parts of the park, they were pretty much everywhere. The area’s Indigenous peoples even used to build with them. We finished the day cold and wet, but in awe of the amazing power and beauty of nature.
Las Marias: Following our trip to the painted desert, we were tired and hungry. It was Sunday and so many area restaurants were closed, but we stumbled into Las Marias, a small Mexican restaurant in Winslow, Arizona. What a surprise. The food was super-affordable and amazingly delicious.
Walnut Canyon National Monument: We wanted to ensure Ben’s parents got a better look at cliff dwellings, so we headed to Walnut Canyon National Monument just outside of Flagstaff. A unique site with hundreds of dwellings, many of which are located on a kind of island in the middle of the canyon. We descened from the visitors center and walked a narrow path around the island, peering into some dwelling and stepping into others. Along the way, we were also treated to some very nice views of the surrounding canyon walls worn into spectacular patterns by the wind.
Sunset Crater Volcano and Wupatki National Monuments: On our way to the Grand Canyon, we decided to stop at Sunset Crater National Monument while the weather was good (it was supposed to rain), but the weather held, so we continued to the adjoining Wupatki National Monument. Sunset Crater features a fairly recent (but extinct) volcano that is part of a larger range of volcanic activity in the Flagstaff area. The San Francisco Peaks (the remains of a former stratovolcano) are just north of Flagstaff and were regularly visible on our hikes in the area. Peaked with snow, they are the highest point in Arizona and look a little lonely. Sunset Crater Volcano was much smaller, but boasted an impressive lava field upon which we were able to walk and explore – very cool. Driving north we were presented with several impressive pueblos. The Wukoki pueblo was interesting in that is was three stories high and built upon a large rock outcropping that gave it a expansive view of the surrounding countryside.
Bonus: Homolovi State Park (a nice campground out in the middle of the desert with little in the way of shelter, amazing views, and some ancient ruins to explore)
The Grand Canyon and Zion
The Grand Canyon: Everything we had done since Ben’s parents arrived had been a kind of buildup to our visit to the Grand Canyon – viewed as the climax of this segment of the trip. Ironically, we were so busy getting settled at the campsite that we didn’t get to see the Grand Canyon until the day after we arrived. But the next morning we walked down from the campsite to the edge of the canyon and spent several moments just absorbing the sight. It is truly spectacular and really hard to even conceptualize in person, never mind describe with words. It is massive (ten miles across and disappearing into the distance in both directions), it is beautiful (so many colours, peaks, and valleys), it is amazing. We spent much of the day walking along its edge, obsessing over all the different views, rock formations, and the small glimpses we got of the Colorado River, far away at the bottom. The Grand Canyon, unsurprisingly, has a unique geological history – the result of millions of years of compounded sediment, raised up as the Colorado Plateau, and then eroded by the Colorado River.
On our second day, we descended into the canyon. Our initial hope was to get a permit to camp at the bottom, but the campground by the river is in high demand and is completely full within days of becoming available for online reservations. And the canyon is so large and deep that you are told not to even try hiking to the bottom and back in the same day because you will not make it. We made it about half way down before turning back. While we thought about going further, as soon as were were walking up hill again, we all agreed we had made the right decision. The hike itself was a nice break from the all the gift shops and tour busses on the rim. While beautiful and breath-taking, the canyon is a tourist trap of sorts, and hiking into the canyon is really the only way to escape the people. Afterwards we celebrated with beer, ice cream, and showers.
We spent our third day driving east along the rim of the canyon (through small flurries of rain, snow, and hail) and stopped often to take in more amazing views. Every stop offered something new and breathtaking to absorb. Finding views that showed more of the river gave us a better sense of just how deep the canyon is.
Zion National Park: We hadn’t planned the last few days of Ben’s parents’ visit ahead of time, but, following many recommendations, decided to take the long way around the canyon and visit Zion National Park. We entered the Park from the eastern entrance which is not the main entrance most people come through, but is the grandest way to enter the park. We descended thousands of feet to the Virgin River valley through spectacular rock mountains on a small twisting road through tunnels and sharp switch backs beside steep cliff faces. Camping in the park is limited, but we found space in Springdale, a town that has sprung up just outside the southern entrance to the park. The south-western part of the park is the most popular and where most of the hikes start from. Much is accessible via the free park shuttle and we spend a lot of time riding the shuttle, learning about the park, and getting off at different stops to walk some of the shorter and easier trails.
Unlike the Grand Canyon, Zion is a much more engrossing and interactive experience. You can explore so much more without committing to a multi-day hike, and some of Zion’s mountains, canyons, and cliff-faces are also impressive. The two most popular hikes (neither of which we did) are the Narrows (where you hike up the Virgin River canyon in the water (because you are walled in by sheer cliffs on both sides) and Angel’s Landing (where you walk up a narrow path way with thousand-foot drop-offs on both sides, only a chain to hold onto, and dozens of other hikers pushing past you or getting in your way). The narrows was closed, and none of us felt like pushing through the crowds to risk Angel’s Landing (have we mentioned that Ben has been hiking mostly in loafers… so silly). While eating lunch on the first day we were treated to a rare sighting of a California Condor. We definitely want to return to Zion and more broadly, Utah. It was so beautiful, and there was so much more to do.
Bonus: The drive from the Grand Canyon to Zion National Park (a long but beautiful drive, part of which cuts through the Navajo Nation which includes rolling hills, impressive gorges and amazing rocks)
Las Vegas, Nevada
The drive from Zion National Park to Las Vegas: Ben’s parents were flying out of Las Vegas so, for better or for worse, we were gonna be there for a couple of nights. But first we had to get there, and while part of the journey involved some sprawl, much of the drive (through northern Arizona and through the Lake Mead Recreational Area) was really beautiful.
Veggie House: Despite the garish entertainment and casinos, Las Vegas does have some great food. Veggie House is a vegan Chinese restaurant in Chinatown. The food was really good and really fresh and Ben had one of the best desserts of his life there – uncharacteristically, he was fully against sharing.
The Bronze Café and The Center: The Center is an LGBTQ community centre in downtown Las Vegas and is a really nice space which also has an amazing café. Mostly vegan, the sandwiches were really yummy and the desserts were half-price so we got lots!!
Writer’s Block: A pretty amazing bookshop/book publishing house we came upon which has a wonderfully curated selection of books, a great philosophy section, and the ability to adopt fake birds … not sure about that one. Also, there was a big fluffy bunny.
Downtown Container Park: Completing our impressive experience in downtown Las Vegas (which is not where the big casinos are – because they are technically outside of the city of Las Vegas), we visited an urban container park. Similar to the development we stopped at in Albuquerque, this had a much nicer vibe, a larger variety of shops and restaurants, and an awesome playground in the middle. Ben bought some cactus jerky which was an experience. Oh, and by the entrance to the container park is a giant mechanical praying mantis that shoots fire out of its antennae (that’s characteristically made appearances at Burning Man).
Bonus: The Hoover Dam (lots of tourists, but it’s still pretty impressive), basking in 35 degree weather by a pool (because really)