Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks are reputed to be the most beautiful parts of the vast canyon lands in southern Utah. Two years after we married, Anil’s parents came to visit us in Canada and we had a three-week swing down the west coast of the US and then back through Nevada and Arizona to see the Grand Canyon but as it was summer, we skipped seeing any more of the canyon lands because of the heat.
Over the years, we made three more trips south to Denver to visit family and managed to take in the beauty of the desert and the canyons on the east side of the Colorado River, even spending five long, glorious days cruising Lake Powell on a houseboat. Again, these were summer trips, and though we endured the oppressive heat by jumping into the cool waters of the lake, we didn’t attempt to cross over the Colorado River at Paige, Utah to see what was on the other side.
When we realized that a break in the weather was offering us a chance to see Bryce Canyon and Zion with a dusting of snow, we grabbed the opportunity to see this world-famous scenery on our way down to visit family in Arizona. Weather permitting; we hoped to see the Grand Canyon once again as well.
KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
We left Calgary shortly after our son and daughter-in-law returned from a post-Christmas trip north to Grande Prairie where they celebrated New Year’s Eve with close friends. I’m sure they were happy to have their house to themselves once again, and to relax after the long festive season. We were certainly happy to be on the road again after being relatively confined to the house because of the unusually cold month of December.
Our plan was to drive to Mesa, Arizona with stops along the way at the scenic canyon lands in southern Utah, and then swing east and visit the Grand Canyon for a second time. It had been 38 years since we paid our first visit there in the summer, when we ended up having to camp outside the park in a campsite with only the barest of facilities because we hadn’t realized that the few hotels at the park would be booked solid well in advance.
We had clear skies and dry roads and we settled into the rhythm of long hours of driving; appreciating the Montana and Idaho landscapes covered in snow. They looked completely different from the way they’d appeared on previous drives south. We stopped for a night in each of the states and timed things perfectly so that we arrived at our previously booked hotel at Bryce Canyon just before dark on the third day.
That night the temperature dropped to -20C but we were warm and comfortable in the new resort. As expected, there were very few other guests, and once we learned that the hotel had a ‘Winter Warmer’ rate, we decided to stay for three nights instead of two. This allowed us to take in the spectacular scenery at a more leisurely pace, and we enjoyed the fact that the thermometer rose to almost zero degrees by mid-afternoon.
We learned that during the busy summer months, private cars are not allowed into the National Park itself, and that visitors must travel from one viewpoint to the next on shuttle buses. We reveled in the fact that we were almost always alone at most viewpoints, and when we weren’t, there were never more than a car or two parked beside ours. The quiet of the canyons was almost deafening.
We both loved the contrast of the snow capping the red cliffs at Bryce Canon and thought that the white layers between the blue skies and red rock made the views all the more stunning. True, it would have been wonderful to be able to hike a short way down into the canyon so that we could look up and see the pinnacles towering above us. We did encounter a few hearty souls, but they were better equipped with winter clothing and crampons for their hiking boots.
After two amazing days in and around Bryce Canyon, we set off to explore Zion National Park on our way to the Grand Canyon. I should point out that Bryce Canyon is inappropriately named, as it isn’t a canyon in the true sense of the word. The dramatic scenery is created more by wind than water, after a massive plateau was created when a dry seabed was lifted up by geological forces over millions of years. The edges of the plateau were eroded by wind and small amounts of water from storms and melting snow to form a landscape like no other in the world.
The drive from Bryce Canyon to Zion National Park took less than an hour and a half, and we found ourselves descending nearly three thousand feet. The snow almost completely disappeared and the temperature climbed. The scenery within the park boundaries is very different due mainly to the fact that Zion is a true canyon, carved naturally by water passing through the landscape. We entered the park through the east gate and drove for some distance before passing through a 2-km long tunnel built in the 1920s to give access to the canyon itself.
The series of switchbacks that descend to the canyon floor were almost as much a marvel as the tunnel and the surrounding mountains. We drove the length of the canyon as it became progressively narrow and then parked the car to stretch our legs and take the short hike to the canyon’s narrowest point. Unfortunately, we were forced to turn around because the trail was closed due to falling ice from the cliffs high above our heads.
We returned to our car, but walked along the river just a short distance from the trail and enjoyed the fact that it wasn’t much more than a gurgling stream this deep in the winter. We could see the swathe that it cuts through the canyon when spring brings melting waters down from the surrounding mountains.
It wasn’t long after leaving the park gates that we left the mountains behind us and drove though a high barren plateau travelling almost parallel with the Utah/Arizona border. Shortly before we crossed over into Arizona, we caught glimpses of the massive man-made Lake Powell. The lake was created by damming the Colorado River near Paige, Arizona, to provide water for irrigation and electricity for the two neighbouring states.
We carried on, stopping only for gas because we wanted to reach the village at the south rim of the Grand Canyon before dark set in. The speed limit was relatively low once we entered the park itself, the road was narrow and it was important to avoid wildlife at dusk. It was quite dark when we arrived at the village and it was then that we learned that we had to drive south for 5 miles and leave through the south gate to locate our hotel, just outside the park gates.
To our surprise and dismay, when I arrived to check into our hotel, I learned that I had mistakenly made the booking for the previous night, the same night that we had stayed comfortably cozy at Bryce Canyon. We had already been charged for a ‘no-show’. There must be some jinx following us all these years, bad luck for accommodations at the Grand Canyon.
Fortunately, we had booked with the same hotel chain all the way along our route from Canada and they kindly reversed the charge for the previous night. It does ‘pay’ to be a ‘frequent flier’ with an international hotel. I was so relieved that we treated ourselves to a lovely dinner in the hotel’s restaurant, topped off by a glass of fine Argentinean Malbec.
We set off early and braved a cold wind in order to admire the Grand Canyon from the various viewpoints along the south rim. We drove back towards the east gate, this time stopping to see the views we had missed in the twilight the evening before. We finished our visit off by touring the Desert View Watchtower just inside the park gates. It was lovingly constructed in 1932 by architect Mary Colter incorporating influences from the ancestral Puebloan peoples of the Colorado Plateau.
The Watchtower has recently undergone a major renovation to rescue it from possible collapse and to preserve the famous murals painted on the inside walls by the well-known Hopi artist Fred Kabotie. The three-level structure was striking on the inside and the murals were an added delight. I cringed to see a large gift shop on the main level, but no one seemed to mind that I took photos of many of the beautiful locally made handicrafts on display.
We climbed back into the car for the last leg of our long journey to Mesa, a suburb of Phoenix. We continued through snow-covered landscape and encountered blustery winds and a small amount of falling snow near Flagstaff. Just south of the town, we began our dramatic descent out of the mountains and into the arid desert. We left the snow behind and before long the winds brought a flurry of mini-tumbleweeds across the highway. It was an unforgettable sight – thousands of rolling balls of dried plants blowing across the wide highway, passing under the wheels of our car. They looked like alien life forms invading planet earth; and then they were gone.
The last hour of our trip took us along the edge of the Tonto National Forest, and we admired the thousands of huge Saguaro Cacti growing on either side of the highway. When one thinks of a national forest, one seldom envisions a sea of cacti sprouting from what appears to be a wasteland of barren rock. I was reminded of a quote I read at a visitor’s center in Utah:
“When one of us says, ‘Look there is nothing out there’, what we are really saying is, ‘I cannot see’. “ Terry Tempest Williams
I’ve long loved desert landscapes, and we both look forward to the coming ten days in Arizona, enjoying the scenery and our time with my maternal aunt Audrey, in her new home tucked away at the eastern edge of the city of Mesa, within a mile of the Tonto National Forest. We are her first visitors from Canada and I’m confident she’ll want to show us around.