Famed for its huge natural diversity, ranging from thriving pine forests in rugged mountain valleys to colourful spires and intricate slot canyons, to sandstone cliffs and vast desert, Utah certainly has the ‘wow factor’ when it comes to the great outdoors! With such a varied and interesting landscape, you are spoilt for choice when it comes to deciding where to explore and spend your time.
Having visited ‘The Big Five’ national parks on our last trip to Utah in 2011, we decided to return to two of our favourites, namely Bryce Canyon and Zion, before heading west into the state of Nevada for the final leg of our road trip.
With great weather and the chance to hike some new trails it proved to be a good choice. Read on to find out more about our last few weeks in the USA, before heading back to Blighty!
One of our favourite spots in Zion National Park standing on ‘Observation Point’.
It’s nowhere near as large or as deep as the Grand Canyon. Nor does it have the soaring mountain peaks that line the walls of Zion Canyon. However, Bryce Canyon, situated in southern Utah, offers something unique to every visitor in the form of its striking pink hoodoos.
In its simplest form, a hoodoo is a rock column with a strange shape. The shape is the result of weathering processes on different layers of rocks. The layers wear away more quickly or slowly depending on what they are made of. A hoodoo’s thin sections are made of softer rock that wears away faster than its thicker, harder sections. Water and gravity are the natural forces that carve hoodoos. First, water flows into the rock through breaks and cracks. It dissolves some rock, causing weathering. The water freezes and thaws, weakening the rock and breaking it into smaller pieces called sediment. After weathering, erosion occurs. Rain and runoff pick up and carry away the loose sediment. This causes holes and cracks in the rock to grow larger. Gravity causes the weakened rock to fall, and the oddly shaped hoodoo is left standing.
Unusual and colourful rock formations known as hoodoos, found in Bryce Canyon. These cannot be seen elsewhere in Utah at neighbouring national parks.
The result of weathering processes on different layers of rock, eventually, water and gravity will bring whole hoodoos crashing down.
Though rare, hoodoos can be found in various parts of North America and around the world. The Cappadocia region of Turkey is known for this kind of rock formation. Similarly in France, they’re known as demoiselles coiffées (‘ladies with hairdos’), and a number of them are found in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence. You can even find hoodoos in Taiwan, where they appear along the coast of the Wanli District.
When you first arrive at ‘Fairyland Point’ in the mouth of Bryce Canyon National Park, you are met by a singular sight. Mounting up from the floor of the canyon, row upon row of pink-limestone spires catch the afternoon sunlight, which are both beautiful and impressive. The first time we visited Bryce Canyon during late autumn in 2011, we were also treated to an extra spectacle – the hoodoos were covered in a dusting of crisp, white snow. (The only downside to this was that several walking trails leading to the valley floor amongst the hoodoos themselves had been closed due to safety reasons. This meant we could only enjoy them and take photographs from the top rim.)
The striking colour of the hoodoos is made more intense in the afternoon sunlight.
Formed over time from many different layers of sedimentary rock, it is minerals deposited within different rock types that causes the hoodoos to have different colours throughout their height.
At Bryce Canyon, hoodoos range in size from that of an average human to heights exceeding a 10-story building! A number of the fins and hoodoos have been named for castles – Fairy Castle, Queen’s Castle, and Oastler Castle. Another is thought to look like a giant pipe organ. At the end of one trail, an area named the “Queens Garden”, there is also a hoodoo said to look like our very own Queen Victoria.
Entering ‘Bryce Canyon Wilderness Area’. This time we were able to hike down to the valley bottom to see the hoodoos from a different perspective.
As the weather was so good during this second visit to Bryce Canyon, we decided to hike the ‘Fairyland Loop Trail’, an 8.3 mile round trip route that is classed as ‘strenuous’.
The Fairyland Loop Trail, in our opinion, is one of the best way to see the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon. It takes hikers from Fairyland Point on the rim, down into the amphitheatres and labyrinths, among the hoodoos and spires, and through deep, stone canyons of pink, white, and orange. The hike is long, dropping close to 900 feet into the bottom of the valley, then circling wide around the massive base of Boat Mesa. But it is well worth the effort as you will experience an entirely different Bryce Canyon from the canyon floor, whilst hiking around the hoodoos and looking up.
If you decide to hike this lesser walked trail, then after your initial descent into the canyon, you really only have to contend with the strenuous ascent to get back out. Remember this is almost 900 feet to get you back to the top. The rest of the trail sticks to the bottoms of Fairyland and Campbell Canyon for the majority of your journey.
Posing in front of the hoodoos during our hike along the Fairyland Loop Trail.
Some of the hoodoos are enormous close up.
During this hike we had much of the trail to ourselves, only passing a handful of other hikers.
Be mindful that if you choose to hike down into the canyon it can be very hot, especially between midday and 3pm, the hottest part of the day. Make sure you drink plenty of water before setting off and have enough supplies to see you through to the end of your hike as there isn’t anywhere inside the canyon to top up with water.
We felt very privileged after our hike to have witnessed such an amazing phenomenon. Of course, the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon continue to erode and change. Wind and rain removes approximately the thickness of a sheet of paper from them each year. Although this does not seem like much, it means that Bryce Canyon will look significantly different in years to come. We’re glad that we got to see them while we had the chance!
After spending three nights in Bryce Canyon, it was time to break camp, pack up the car and head to the sandstone spectacle of Zion National Park. Famed as a geological wonder, Zion is filled with rare wildlife, slot canyons, and winding rivers, with undulating slickrock, lush hanging gardens, and cascading waterfalls all waiting to be explored by the outdoor enthusiast. Designated as a ‘National Park’ in 1919, not only is Zion Utah’s oldest national park, but with nearly three million visitors per year, it is also Utah’s most heavily used park. This did not deter us, as we know how magnificent this place is. We just hoped that we’d manage to secure a campsite without having pre-booked one in advance.
A beautiful and shapely rock mountain that happens to ‘face’ the valley from the South and glows at sunset – ‘The Watchman’ is the most photographed icon in Zion National Park.
Luckily, arriving at Zion National Park on a Friday around 11am, we managed to secure a campsite in the Watchman Campground for the weekend. (It was booked out from the Monday, so we had to pack up camp and move.) We had actually planned on staying for 5 nights, which we did; however we had to change tent pitch 2 further times as only single nights were available.
Enjoying a well deserved glass of wine! With the tent set up, it was time to enjoy Friday night, our designated ‘Party Night’!
Having secured a spot for 3 nights to start with, we set up camp and wandered over to the Visitor Centre. Here we checked out all of the ‘goodies’ for sale – we have taken to collecting National Park Postcards and badges of some of the popular trails we’ve hiked. We also had a wander into Springdale, the gateway town to the national park, which we knew from our previous trip had a couple of supermarkets and liquor stores where we could stock up with supplies. Then it was time for a bit of relaxing at camp. Hiking was not on the agenda today! It was Friday, which we designated our ‘Party Night’, and Wayne got to work building a fire ready for a BBQ feast that evening!
Wayne excels himself and produces a fantastic feast like always!
Unfortunately, the rest of the weekend was quite literally a wash out. Heavy rain and thunderstorms prevented us from doing any walking, so instead we headed into Springdale to ‘Blondie’s Diner’ (a fantastic, family-run traditional home-style cafe), to treat ourselves to a good old fashioned extra large burger and fries. We also caught up with some blogging using the free wi-fi at the Pioneer Lodge Internet Cafe, the first cafe on the right that you come to after entering Springdale from Zion. They have comfy sofas to sit on, and made us a good cup of tea! (And no one seemed to mind that we made it last for quite a while as we uploaded photos to our blog!)
Fortunately, the weather improved after the weekend, so we grabbed the chance to hike up to ‘Observation Point’ again. This was one of our favourite places from our first road trip in the USA back in 2011, as from this point you are able to look down the entire Zion valley.
Setting off on the trail leading to ‘Observation Point’. We knew what to expect this time!
You don’t have to go up very far to start enjoying wonderful views across the canyon.
‘Observation Point’ is an 8-mile round trip that will take you approximately 5 hours. The reward for your efforts of spending a few hours trudging up the steep mountainside however is that you are presented with one of the best viewpoints offered by one of Zion’s classic trails. This hike is not for everyone though! The path is challenging; complete with dizzying drop offs and eye popping scenery looking down into Zion Canyon.
The maintained path zigzags its way up the steep mountainside beside familiar reddish Navajo sandstone before venturing through Echo Canyon, a deep gorge filled with water gnawed sandstone pockets. Near the top of the trek you will see white rock; this layer is known as the Temple Cap formation. Beyond Echo Canyon, walls drop sharply, giving way to spectacular views.
Winding your way up the steep path toward the promontory of Mount Baldy and heading towards the East Rim Junction, the scenery changes .
There are drop-offs at the higher elevations. Wayne tries his best to stay away from the cliff edge of the trail!
The top of ‘Observation Point’ is home to several savvy ‘trail bandits’ whom we grew to love on our JMT thru-hike! (We did not feed this little guy; he had raided someone’s unattended pack!)
Quite possibly my best and most dangerous ‘sitting on a rock’ pose ever!
One of the most awesome views you will ever see!
At the trails end, looking down into the canyon there is a spectacular display of stone sculptures contrasted by the bluest of skies – thanks to the clean air of southern Utah. At the end, the West Rim Trail can be seen to the right as well as lofty Angels Landing, which covers much of the white rock of Cathedral Mountain. (Something we have still not dared complete after reaching ‘Chicken Out Point’.)
The Virgin River forms a lush river valley below, where water skirts around Angels Landing and the Organ, forming Big Bend. A little farther down canyon the Three Patriarchs stand at attention. On the left is the East Rim, Cable Mountain, and Great White Throne. With good weather and perfectly clear skies, far down the canyon you may even see the Watchman and get glimpses beyond the park of Canaan Mountain.
Hiking through one of the incredible slot canyons on our way back to camp.
After another exciting and enjoyable stay at Zion, our road trip would soon be coming to an end. But not before we hit the ‘tourist trail’ and enjoyed a little bit of respite. After all that camping and hiking, we needed to treat ourselves to a mini-holiday before heading home (and ultimately back to work).
So having experienced the delights of Nevada before, exploring the vast reaches of Death Valley, as well as the impressive Valley of Fire State Park, we decided to head there again. This time however we decided to ditch the tent, opting for a bit of glitz and glamour by way of Las Vegas! Our budget didn’t stretch to a luxury stay at the Bellagio (more’s the pity). But with so many motels in competition for business, we managed to get a double room with en-suite and breakfast, just a 5 minute walk from ‘The Strip’. This cost us around £30 a night, (approx $45), which in our opinion was a complete bargain! After our initial plan of staying for 3 nights, it was a ‘no brainer’ to extend this to 5, making the most of a shower, TV, bed and of course, a must-have item for any woman – a hairdryer!
Cheesy, but a good ‘memento’ picture for the mantle piece!
Hitting the Las Vegas Strip and making the most of ‘happy hour’!
Las Vegas by night is a very different experience compared to walking around in the day!
Love it or hate it, Las Vegas is a great place to party, spend some money and go on a shopping spree! It’s also perfect for ‘people watching’ as you really do see all sorts walking ‘The Strip’!
Using our wily ways, we were quick to make the most of ‘happy hours’ and freebies in several of the Casinos, whilst restricting ourselves to a mere £5 each for gambling on the slot machines! It was a great way to end our trip and psyche ourselves up for returning to the ‘real world’.
We have already said that after a summer hiking 700 miles and spending more than 100 nights camping and sleeping in a tent, we are more than ready for our next holiday to be of the 4* variety!
But we’ll see. The great outdoors has become very much part of our soul and spirit for life. As we have to resign ourselves to and prepare for settling back into a ‘normal’ routine to earn some money, I’m sure it won’t be long before we’re planning our next adventure… and buying a new set of trail runners. Watch this space!
As TrekSnappy, both myself and Wayne would like to say a huge thank you to everyone who has followed our journey and supported our efforts! If you have taken the time to read our blog, you may well feel like you’ve experienced the entire adventure with us – that’s our intention.
We will always respond to questions and offer advice from our first-hand experiences, so if you want to find out more to help you with planning your own adventure, then please don’t hesitate to get in touch!