Utah and Arizona have some of the best-known national parks in the US – but their lesser-known state parks are equally spellbinding. Take a road trip through the landlocked American states of Utah and Arizona and there’s a high probability that you’ll lose count of the number of times you find yourself stopping in your tracks. The views are immense and the sheer number of outdoor activities is mindboggling. But therein lies the problem: unless your trip is open-ended, you’ll undoubtedly return home feeling disappointed that you haven’t allowed more time in each place.
That’s how I felt last year, following a month-long family holiday driving a motorhome through America’s south-west. For years, I’d longed to visit, photograph and hike some of the country’s most iconic national parks, and those in the neighbouring states of Utah and Arizona topped that wish list. So we mapped out a circular route that started and finished in Las Vegas, Nevada, and integrated Utah’s Mighty Five national parks – Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands and Arches – and Arizona’s Grand Canyon and Antelope Canyon along the way.
By the end of the trip, what we found was that every one of those national parks lived up to – or, indeed, surpassed – our expectations. But the biggest surprise was that there were plenty of state parks and reserves we’d known nothing about that were just as spectacular. And they weren’t nearly as crowded or expensive.
That’s not to say that visiting any of the parks was overly costly; the average national park entry fee is a reasonable AUD$53 per vehicle. But entry and camping fees to state parks often cost a fraction of that price.
One tip that will save hundreds of dollars is to purchase an America the Beautiful national parks membership pass. Costing about $120 and valid for 12 months, the pass allows entry for up to four adults (children under 15 are admitted free) to more than 2000 federal recreation sites, including national parks, national wildlife refuges and lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management. They can be purchased online or at most park entrances.
So, now that it’s been determined that every park on the map is worth stopping to see, what are some of them? And what will you find when you get there?
More than 80 per cent of Zion National Park is designated wilderness country, but most of its 4.5 million annual visitors confine themselves to the 24-kilometre-long Zion Canyon – home to some of the tallest sandstone walls on Earth. Some of the gnarliest day hikes are also found here, including Angels Landing and The Narrows.
You could confine your hiking in Bryce Canyon to the many viewpoints along the rim trail above Bryce Amphitheatre. In that case, what you’ll find is uninterrupted views over a heavily wrinkled bowl that is best seen in the warm light of sunrise or sunset. Better is to follow well-worn walking trails weaving between brittle hoodoos (also known as fairy chimneys or earth pyramids) that look like they could crumble at any moment… but won’t.
Follow the Scenic Byway 12 from Bryce Canyon to Torrey, just outside Capitol Reef National Park. The route links two national parks, three state parks, a national recreation area, a national monument and a national forest.
Capitol Reef is the most remote of Utah’s five national parks and consequently receives fewer visitors than the others. It got its name from the great white rock domes that resemble the Capitol Building in Washington DC, and a sheer 150-kilometre-long cliff barrier that early prospectors referred to as a reef. One hike not to be missed is through the Grand Wash, passing between 250-metre-high canyon walls that are just five metres apart at their narrowest point.
Further east, the Goblin Valley could easily double as an alien planet in a Star Wars film. Kids will have a ball at this state park, scrambling over countless mushroom-shaped rocks that, together, are surely the weirdest sight in the American West.
Canyonlands is the largest national park in Utah and is split into three sections bordered by the Green and Colorado Rivers. Island in the Sky, a rolling plateau high above the desolate valleys, is the most heavily visited of these and it’s here you’ll find the photographer’s favourite, Mesa Arch. Other highlights are a meteorite crater called Upheaval Dome and the otherworldly vistas from the Green River and Grand View Point overlooks. Off-roaders will want to tackle the 150-kilometre White Rim Road.
More than 2000 rock arches have been catalogued in Arches National Park – the highest proliferation in the world. Delicate Arch is the signature landmark regularly seen on numberplates. And you might recognise Double Arch from when it was used as a backdrop in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. But as well as arches, there are sandstone towers, fins, hoodoos and precariously balanced rocks.
Its remote location, far from any town or city, allowed the Natural Bridges National Monument to become the first International Dark Sky Park. Here you’ll find three rock arches inside White Canyon, but without anything like the tourist crowds filling up Arches National Park. All are easily accessible on foot.
Further south, the soaring buttes and mesas of Monument Valley have formed the scenic backdrop for numerous Hollywood westerns and was the inspiration behind the landscapes illustrated in the Road Runner cartoon series. Now preserved inside the boundaries of the Navajo Nation’s reservation, it straddles the Utah-Arizona border and to see it properly, you’ll have to book a tour.
A cheaper alternative is to savour that quintessential American West landscape from lookout points along Highway 163 and then visit the Valley of the Gods – often described as a “mini Monument Valley”. You may as well stop between the two at Goosenecks State Park. When we visited, the sight of the serpentine San Juan River cutting a path through rocks that are hundreds of millions of years old prompted six burly, ponytailed bikers to launch into a philosophical argument over our planet’s geological evolution.
In Arizona, Page is the gateway to the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Lake Powell, the nation’s second-largest man-made lake. Six kilometres south of the lake’s Glen Canyon Dam, the Colorado River snakes towards the Gulf of California in Horseshoe Bend State Park, where red rock cliffs 350 metres high frame the sinuous waterway.
Just east of Page, Antelope Canyon is one of nature’s masterpieces. Entry into the slender slot canyon is via a metal stairway that descends into a fiery labyrinth illuminated by shafts of light from above. Tours to the canyon must be booked in advance, with tripods allowed only on photography tours in the Upper Canyon.
And finally, the Grand Canyon stretches for 450 kilometres from end to end, following the course of the Colorado River. The classic view into the canyon is from the South Rim, where numerous walking trails descend to the riverbanks a mile below. The North Rim viewpoints are not so busy, though the road there is usually blocked by snow from November until mid-May. Scenic helicopter rides from Las Vegas typically land inside the West Rim, where a glass-bottomed Skywalk extends out over the canyon.
Take me there
Fly: Flights to Las Vegas travel via Los Angeles, San Francisco or Dallas Fort Worth. Qantas has return airfares from $1810 (ex-Syd) and $1794 (ex-Melb).
Drive: Cruise America campers and motorhomes sleep up to seven people and cost upwards of $45 per day (low season). See cruiseamerica.com
Ski: From late December to mid-April, take your pick from 18 winter resorts in Utah (15) and Arizona (3). Brian Head and Arizona Snowbowl are two second-tier resorts located on or near the national parks route we took, though serious powder hounds will prefer the bigger, bolder resorts in the Wasatch Mountains east of Salt Lake City.
Explore more: nps.gov; stateparks.com; freecampsites.net