The Great Southwest Road Trip
My childhood best friend and I wanted to celebrate our 22 years of friendship by starting a new tradition. When we were young, our parents would take us on camping trips around the PNW every summer, but since we had ventured out to live our own lives, we hadn’t been on a trip together. This was unacceptable and needed to change immediately. Initially, we had planned to take a trip to Canada to visit Banff and Jasper National Parks since neither of us had been and we had heard how beautiful and unique the area is. We spent weeks planning this trip, mapping out the route, organizing Couchsurfs and what not. About three days before we were scheduled to leave for Canada, I checked the weather forecast. The highs were around 40 F (4 C), and we were planning to tent camp. Pardon my language, but f*ck that. I am not entirely sure what I had been expecting when I planned a camping trip in March, in Canada… I had obviously been overly optimistic about global warming.
With a wrench thrown into our plans, we had exactly 72 hours to figure out what we wanted to do instead. Early in our planning, Katy had brought up the Grand Canyon. I didn’t think a road trip all the way to Arizona was possible in the 5 days that we had carved out for this trip, so I had dismissed it immediately. Since Canada was out and I didn’t have any other ideas, I started to map out a route to the Grand Canyon from Seattle. It was going to be tough and our schedule would be TIGHT, but contrary to my initial thoughts, it was possible. Thus, the Great Southwest Road Trip of 2016 began to take form.
The Great Southwest Road Trip of 2016
First things first. If we were going to drive nearly 1500 miles to Arizona, the Grand Canyon was not going to be our only stop. There are way too many cool National Parks in that area. If you don’t know me personally, you may not be aware of my competitive nature. Well, I told my coworkers about my idea to change my trip from Canada to the Southwest, and they started throwing out ideas for potential stops along our route. Zion National Park, Antelope Canyon, Horse Shoe Bend, Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, Bryce Canyon. I wrote down every suggestion and started Google image searching each place. Mesmerized by the beauty and uniqueness of each location, there was no way I was going to be able to cut out a single stop. Telling everyone that I was going to see it all, the immediate response was “Ya right, there is now way you can see all those places in 5 days. You would need at least 2 weeks.” Challenge accepted.
The hardest decision I had to make about the route of this trip was whether or not to stop in Las Vegas. For a traveler like myself who loves nature, culture, and off-the-beaten track locales, Vegas is the epitome of everything I hate. I have family who live there, so my parents and I spent a good amount of time there when I was young. When you are too young to go to the Strip, Vegas isn’t so bad, but once you turn 21, all hell breaks loose. On my first adult trip to Vegas, I rode a bull, vomited in a hotel lobby, fought in public with my boyfriend at the time, and swore I would never return. That was until Katy informed me that she, at 24 years old, had never been to Vegas. After a good amount of manipulation, she convinced me to spend 18 hours in Sin City.
Thursday morning at 3AM, we departed from Seattle. 20 hours and one speeding ticket later, we got our first look at the twinkling lights of Las Vegas. Even though we arrived early enough to go out that night, we made the intelligent decision to have a few drinks and go directly to bed. A friend of mine who is from Vegas hooked us up with a promoter who was able to get us on the VIP list for a pool party on Friday at the Cosmopolitan. Having never been to a Vegas pool party, I decided this was an acceptable way to spend the last few hours in the city. Upon arrival, we quickly scoped out a place to sit and observe the craziness. We hadn’t planned on drinking because we wanted to leave by 3PM to drive to the Grand Canyon. We were lucky enough to snatch up a cabana in the pool that was unattended. To put this in context, the guys in the cabana next to us told us that they paid $5k for theirs. Since we have boobs, we paid nothing and no one even bothered to question us. Too many free drinks later, we ended up staying in Vegas until about 2:30AM to sober up.
Since we had thrown our TIGHT schedule out the window with our second drink, we had to skip the Grand Canyon and drive straight from Vegas to Page, AZ for our tour of Antelope Canyon. Antelope Canyon is an incredible sandstone canyon formed by flash floods over thousands of years. Rumor has it, it was discovered by a 12-year-old Navajo girl in the 1930’s. Since it is on an Indian Reservation, you can only visit the canyon by guided tours. We booked our tour through Antelope Slot Canyon Tours and it cost $48 a person. The tour guide we had was awesome and she not only explained the story of the canyon, but took photos for us of different rock features and pointed out some great spots we wouldn’t have seen on our own. We only toured Upper Antelope Canyon, but you can also tour Lower Antelope Canyon, which I hear is much cheaper. The best times to visit Upper Antelope Canyon are between 10AM-1PM because that is when the light is at its brightest. We did the 8AM tour though, and I didn’t have any complaints.
After our tour, we drove the 15 minutes from Antelope Canyon to Horse Shoe Bend. If you make it to Antelope and don’t visit Horse Shoe Bend, you are crazy. They are SO close together and completely different. The hike from the parking lot to Horse Shoe Bend is supposedly about 1.5 miles round trip, but I don’t really believe it was that far. The bend is created by the Colorado River and it is possible to camp in the canyon if you have enough time. We, unfortunately, did not have time to make it down into the canyon, but there were a few tents set up in the bend and that was cool to see. There were SO many tourists here. We spent about 20 minutes at the bend and never once heard another group of people speaking English. It is incredible to see a site that is relatively unknown to those of us who live in the US filled with foreign tourists. It proves that our country has more to offer than we sometimes believe.
After snapping a few photos, we jumped back in the car heading towards Zion National Park where we planned to camp Saturday night. I hadn’t told Katy about my interest in Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park because I wasn’t sure that we were going to be able to fit it in to our schedule after our over-stay in Vegas. However, about an hour and a half into the drive to Zion, we passed a sign for the park. We turned off the highway and drove about 12 miles down a side road to find it. I really had no idea what to expect, and I have never seen sand dunes, let alone pink sand dunes, so I was pretty excited. Once we arrived, the landscape blew my mind. The dunes stretched out for miles in every direction. The sand was so soft, I took off my shoes and ran barefoot to the top of the closest dune. The childlike wonder I felt while surrounded by sand and nothingness made the short detour more than worth the time wasted. Though the sand was more orange than pink, I was not disappointed in the least.
Soaking up the sun while sitting on the dunes was an excellent way to relax after all the driving we had done earlier in the day. We spent more time than we needed to here because we simply didn’t want to get back into the car. However, after an hour or so, we decided we needed to get to Zion before dark so that we could set up camp. Unfortunately, after arriving in the park, we found that all the campgrounds were full. Not surprising since the weather was perfect that weekend, and I hadn’t thought to reserve a space in advance. I highly suggest reservations if you are planning to visit Zion as the spots are limited and staying in the park would be a very special experience. We were lucky enough to find a spot at a campground right outside the entrance to the park, but I would have preferred to stay inside.
The rock formations in Zion look like someone splattered paint on them. The coloring is due to different mineral deposits in the rock, but it doesn’t seem natural at all. My parents informed me that I had indeed been to Zion National Park before, but I was very young and to their dismay, I have no memory of being there. My parents have this habit of getting upset with me for not remembering the cool things they did with me when I was a child. Disneyland for example. Sorry mom, I was 7. Do you remember being 7?
Anyways, Zion was cool, but not something that I would write home about. Honestly, if I had to cut one park from the itinerary, looking back it would be Zion. I am not trying to discourage anyone from stopping there, but on such a short trip, I wouldn’t have been upset if we’d missed it. If I had had time to camp, hike or rock climb, I would probably change my tune about Zion because the endless climbing opportunities alone would be worth the stop. If you are a climber, get your butt there immediately. These rocks are epic.
After camping in Zion and recharging with our first real night of sleep in 3 days, we got on the road early, heading towards Bryce Canyon. Before embarking on our journey, I knew that Bryce Canyon was going to be the highlight of the trip and it definitely did not disappoint. We drove into the park Sunday morning and headed right for Bryce Point, which is called the amphitheater. It is essentially a huge gorge filled with hoodoos. Hoodoos are naturally forming rock pillars. Through thousands of years of erosion, the pillars are formed and reshaped from the sandstone buttes. They look really phallic, which is funny but only because I have the emotional maturity level of a 5th grader. You can also view the Wall of Windows from Bryce Point, which you can see on the left side of the photo below. They are a cluster of sandstone arches that on an overcast day cannot be seen at all. We were fortunate enough to have amazing weather and were able to view the arches. The second photo below shows a closer look.
After Bryce Point, we followed the road through the park to Rainbow Point. It is about 10K feet in elevation and you can see for miles in every direction. Definitely not to be missed, even though the drive from Bryce Point to Rainbow Point took about an hour. Along the road to Rainbow Point, there are probably about 10 viewpoints. Due to our schedule, we didn’t stop at all of them but each offers a unique view of the valley below and if you are not in a hurry, I highly suggest stopping at every point possible.
After spending a few hours exploring Bryce Canyon and wishing we had days to spend hiking through this park, we decided we either needed to find a camping spot or get back on the road. Since we had missed the Grand Canyon, which had been the inspiration for this trip in the first place, I was dead set on seeing it. Thus, we embarked on a 6 hour journey from Bryce Canyon, backtracking from Utah to Southern Arizona. We arrived at the entrance to the Grand Canyon right as the sun was setting on Sunday night. A friend of mine has a goal of watching the sunset over each of the World Wonders and as soon as she told me about it, I knew I needed to make it a goal of mine as well. Many people had told me that the Grand Canyon would be the least cool thing we saw along our trip, however, I completely disagree. The Grand Canyon really is grand, and if you haven’t been, seeing it at sunset is absolutely necessary. We entered on the South Rim and watched the sun set from the Desert View Watch Tower.
This trip was one for the books. Never before have I spent so much time in the car or seen as many beautiful places in such a short time frame. After this trip, Katy and I decided that every year we would take a road trip somewhere else in the US. I love international travel as much as the next person, but sometimes it is just as amazing to explore in my home country. The US really has so much to offer, and after 3000 miles, I can officially say that the Southwest US is an incredible place that everyone needs to experience. Plus, you can see most everything in 5 days, so why not? And to all the haters who said it wasn’t possible, drinks are on you!
Seattle to Las Vegas: 1116 miles (17.5 hours)
Las Vegas to Grand Canyon National Park: 270 miles (4 hours)
Grand Canyon National Park to Antelope Canyon: 112 miles (2 hours)
Antelope Canyon to Horse Shoe Bend: Approx. 5 miles (15 minutes)
Horse Shoe Bend to Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park: 101 miles (2 hours)
Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park to Zion National Park: 28 miles (40 minutes)
Zion National Park to Bryce Canyon National Park: 71 miles (1 hour)
Bryce Canyon National Park to Seattle: 1105 miles ( 16.75 hours)
Total: 2808 miles and 44.25 hours of drive time
Road Trip Tips:
- Book campgrounds in advance
- Buy a case of Red Bull from Costco/other wholesale stores
- Stock up on non-perishable snacks i.e. Teddy Grahams, Cheezits, muffins, grapes, oranges, celery, carrots
- Make sure you really love the person/people you are going with so you don’t kill each other
- Watch out for bunnies
- If you get tired, sleep in your car in a truck stop
- Bring a large memory card for your camera or have ample space on your phone for pictures
- Don’t drop your phone in the pool in Las Vegas (or any other body of water)
- Don’t forget LOTS of water or your sun glasses
- Download music/playlists onto your phone because there is no radio signal for most of this drive!