I'm gingerly poking my trekking pole into the milky opaque waters of the Virgin River that I'm standing in, up to my knees. I nudge it into a hold and steady myself for the next step forward. Concentrating on every move may sound tedious, but the setting is surreal.
My brother and I are half an hour into the coolest hike we’ve ever done. It’s slow going, but this is no ordinary trail. In fact, ‘trail’ is a bit of a misnomer. Deep in Zion National Park, we’re hiking up a river, along a route known as The Narrows, Bottom-Up. And yes, it’s every bit as ”Indiana Jones” as it sounds.
The Narrows isn't exactly a place you stumble upon. To reach the trailhead we took the shuttle to the east side of the park, travelling through the jaw-dropping Zion Canyon. We disembarked at the last stop: Temple of Sinawava, where vertical walls some 914 meters tall form a natural amphitheatre.
From here, the 1.5-kilometer, gently graded Riverside Walk trail led us to The Narrows trailhead. Where the pathway ended, families and tourists gathered on the sun-lit riverbank. To have ventured as far would satisfy most Zion day-trippers. But for me, the trail’s terminus only marked the gateway to an adventure in which the destination remained concealed.
With the river’s banks all but reduced to narrow slivers, there was no way forward without diving right in.
Two hours pass and I stop to take stock of my surroundings. The water, once milky brown, now runs aquamarine. Where sun beams manage to find their way to the canyon floor, the Navajo sandstone walls are cloaked in a golden hue.
Craning my head way back, I catch just a small glimpse of blue sky overhead. The rest of my peripheral view is consumed by canyon walls that soar nearly 460 meters.
I feel small; humbled.
What’s around the river bend? Who knows? The urge to find out compels me forward.
The landscape, the intrigue – it all blends into an intoxicating and sublime adventure; one that stirs a sense of discovery reserved for the imaginative minds of children at play.
All this, and it’s just day one of our Mighty 5 road trip.
Utah's natural beauty
Utah’s Mighty 5, of course, refers to its five first-class national parks: Arches, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands and Zion. Most of the parks lie just a few hours from one another, a driving factor that qualifies Mighty 5 as one of America’s premier road trips.
Which park is the best? It’s a cruel question to force me to answer. I’ve made the pilgrimage twice and worshipped each park for its own unique features. What I will admit, though, is that it seems almost unfair that one state should be so well endowed with supernatural beauty.
Beauty, though, is only surface deep. More significant and much harder to describe are the visceral feelings evoked when travelling through Utah’s striking landscapes. It is something that glossy brochures did not prepare me for.
The simple fact of the matter is: you can’t stand on the precipice of Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park without feeling dangerously alive. You can’t admire Delicate Arch without appreciating the handiwork of Mother Nature. You can’t lay beneath the Milky Way in Natural Bridges National Monument (the first certified International Dark Sky Park) without considering the awesomeness of the universe. And you certainly can’t hike up a river canyon without feeling like a real-life treasure hunter.
These are the type of travel experiences that can’t be purchased for the price of admission. They’re uniquely Utah, and the reason I keep going back.
8-Day Road Trip Itinerary
Day 1: Salt Lake City to Arches National Park
Delicate Arch | Lyndsey Marie
Driving time: 3.5 hours
Adventure in Arches National Park picks up where 300 million years of patient erosion has resulted in unbelievably dramatic landscapes and landmarks that look more sculpted by giant mythological beings than the processes of time. Dedicate time to the Arches Scenic Drive, reserve a tour through Fiery Furnace (in advance) and be rewarded by the 2.5-kilometer Delicate Arch hike.
Day 2: Arches National Park to Canyonlands National Park
Mesa Arch | Andrey Grinkevich
Driving time: 2 hours
Travel Dead Horse Mesa Scenic Byway to Dead Horse Point State Park for a dizzying view some 610 meters above the Colorado River as it winds its way into Canyonlands National Park. Check-out Mesa Arch, a relatively easy 30-minute jaunt that leads to an arch perched right on the edge of towering sandstone cliffs (especially beautiful at sunrise) and find time to hike the three-kilometer (roundtrip) Grand View Point Trail to the southernmost edge of the “Island” with expansive views of the complex canyon system.
Day 3: Canyonlands NP to Monument Valley
Driving time: 2.5 hours
Trail of the Ancients Scenic Byway runs through Monument Valley and picturesque historic towns of Monticello, Blanding and Bluff.
On arriving in Monument Valley, consider stopping by the Goulding Film and Cultural History museum at Goulding’s Lodge in Oljato for an introduction to the area. Take a guided tour through Monument Valley Tribal Park to get up close and personal with incredible landforms. At Newspaper Rock State Historic Site, you’ll find North America’s prehistoric past on display at one of Utah’s large petroglyph panels.
Day 4: Monument Valley to Capitol Reef National Park
Driving time: 3.5 hours
As you leave the Monument Valley area, travel further along Trail of the Ancients National Scenic Byway to Natural Bridges National Monument, home to three of the world’s five largest sandstone bridges. The central geologic feature at Capitol Reef National Park is the Waterpocket Fold, a bulging uplift of rainbow-hued sandstone “reefs” and canyons. Several easy hiking trails and a 40-kilometer scenic drive are found in this area.
Day 5: Capitol Reef NP to Bryce Canyon National Park
Driving time: 2.5 hours
Take the Scenic Byway 12, which is an experience in itself. Stop and hike to Calf Creek waterfall or visit Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument before making your way to Bryce Canyon National Park. Here, you’ll find a series of natural ampitheatres sunk into pink cliffs and filled with delicate red rock hoodoos. The most brilliant hues of the park come alive with the rising and setting of the sun. Summertime offers a myriad of walking/hiking trails and a 60-kilometer scenic drive overlooking incredible vistas. Bryce Canyon Lodge, a National Historic Landmark, is open April through November.
Day 6: Bryce Canyon NP to Zion National Park
Driving time: 1.25 hours
Travel from Bryce Canyon National Park on Mount Carmel Scenic Byway through amazing scenery and Long Canyon to S.R. 9 and into Zion National Park. Once there, do Emerald Pools, a relatively easy five-kilometer signature hike.
Day 7: Zion National Park
When in Zion, The Narrows is a must-do. Red rock canyon walls reach into the sky above as you splash and stroll through the river’s cool waters. Next (and not for the faint of heart), Angels Landing rises nearly 150 meters from the canyon floor to its final viewpoint. Many people consider the views here to be some of the most spectacular in the world. But be warned: only those who are physically fit and not afraid of heights should attempt this hike, and it takes between three and six hours to complete.
Day 8: Zion NP to St. George
Driving time: 1 hour
By now, you’ve seen and explored the best of what Utah’s natural beauty has to offer and it’s time for a change of pace. Spend some time in St. George, a place with big city amenities but a small-town charm. Explore the area’s ghost towns and historical buildings, or opt for a round at any of its 12 golf courses. To truly relax after days of activity, Red Mountain Resort, Movara, Green Valley Spa and Deep Canyon Spa are great options to consider.
This article originally published in Canadian Traveller's America Yours to Discover 2017 special issue. Subscribe today: https://www.mypassionmedia.com/Store/Canadian-Traveller-Magazine
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