Zion National Park
Plunging canyons, deep green forests, bright yellow cottonwood trees, cascading waterfalls and soaring pink sandstone cliffs draped with ‘hanging gardens’ of wildflowers: the sheer variety of terrain makes Zion one of the most awe-inspiring national parks in the USA.
The best base – both as a place to stay, and for explorations into the park – is the gateway town of Springdale just below the park’s southern entrance and visitor centre. During peak season (March – November) shuttle buses run up and down the length of the park’s centrepiece, Zion Canyon, making eight stops at various trailheads and landmarks on the way. The service is free (included in your park entrance fee) and you can jump on and off as often as you like. Outside of this period, you can drive your own vehicle.
Zion Canyon is the starting point for several short and longer walks of varying difficulty, making this the best option for daytrippers looking to get away from the roadside and into the wilderness. Even the shortest hike offers views that are simply overwhelming. We recommend the mostly flat two-mile round-trip Riverside Walk along the Virgin River to the mouth of the Narrows canyon; the lush and misty lower Emerald Pools trail which passes beneath two waterfalls, and the brief (half mile) but much steeper Weeping Rock, with its trickling streams of water drizzling onto hanging gardens of moss and fern. All of these can be extended into much longer and more challenging hikes for those with more time and stamina.
If you do have a car, continue east along the dizzying switchbacks of Zion Park Scenic Byway (Highway 9) as far as the Canyon Overlook trailhead, immediately after you emerge from the mile-long tunnel. This one-mile round-trip hike follows the ridge above Pine Creek and leads to one of Zion’s most celestial views.
For further information on hiking, climbing, camping and other things to do in and around Zion NP, visit the Zion National Park website. The drive from Las Vegas to Springdale is around 2hrs 30mins, and you’ll lose an hour as you cross from Pacific Time to Mountain Time at the Utah state line.
Lake Powell and Page
Have more time? Continue to the Lake Powell region along Highway 89. This starkly beautiful drive skirts the Vermillion Cliffs of Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument – a colossal (we’re talking 1.7 million acres) multi-hued sequence of terraced cliffs and canyons spanning eons of time. In about two hours, you’ll reach the southern extremity of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Lake Powell, the man-made result of the flooding of Glen Canyon to build the Glen Canyon Dam in the early 1960s.
Long and wispy with dozens of canyon offshoots, Lake Powell stretches 186 miles from north to south. Although the vast majority of the lake sits within Utah, most recreational opportunities are centred around Wahweap Marina and the small town of Page, just over the border in Arizona. The area attracts more than two million visitors each year – an incredible number given the region’s remoteness – and even with 1,800 miles of shoreline, more than the entire west coast of the USA, it can still be hard to find total solitude in peak season.
To watch the sun go down as the lake fades from a rich sapphire blue to a shimmering rose gold is to understand its allure in an instant. Despite being man-made, the rare combination of rugged sandstone plateau and life-giving water seems either like a mirage or a miracle, with the otherworldly desert light casting eerie reflections on the lake’s surface. Depending on your preference for speed or serenity, the best way to experience all this is to get out on the water. Houseboat rentals are the most relaxing; powerboats and waterskiing offer more of a thrill. And you can’t beat a kayak for venturing further into narrow side-arms than any motorised vessel can reach.
Want something effortless? The best bet is a guided boat trip. The Rainbow Bridge tour covers some 50 miles of the lake and lasts about six hours, including a short hike to Rainbow Bridge National Monument – the largest known natural stone bridge in the world. The Antelope Canyon tour is a shorter but equally atmospheric journey through four miles of silent, twisty canyon, famous for its bottle green water and contrasting Navajo sandstone walls.
Other than Lake Powell itself, visiting the land-side of Antelope Canyon is one of the major reasons for a trip to Page. Located at Lake Powell Navajo Tribal Park on the Navajo Reservation, this much-photographed geological wonder is divided into Upper Antelope Canyon and Lower Antelope Canyon, with the former being accessible at ground level and the latter requiring some climbing along metal stairways and ladders.
The beams of sunlight that pierce the canyon’s floor are more common in the Upper Canyon, but only visible between early spring and late summer when the sun is high in the sky. Photographing inside the canyon requires real skill (and definitely a tripod) due to low light levels and constantly moving crowds, but there are special photography tours if you’re serious about getting good shots.
As the canyon is part of the Navajo Nation, all tours must be accompanied by an authorised guide. Led by Chief Tsosie and his guides, Antelope Slot Canyon Tours offer trips (including a 2hr 30min photography tour) at different times of day, to take advantage of the changing colours and light.
Still in Arizona, the other highlight of a trip to Page is the half-mile hike to the overlook above Horseshoe Bend, a u-shaped curve in the Colorado River about five miles south of the Glen Canyon Dam. Drive out of town on Highway 89 for about four miles, and you’ll see a sign and car park on your right. The route is short, but the terrain is very sandy and rocky so wear decent walking shoes. There’s also no railing or fencing of any description and it’s a long way down – 1,000 feet to be precise. You’ll need to get fairly close to the edge if you want to capture the full curve of the river in your photos (you’ll also need a wide-angle lens) but bear in mind that this is sandstone, and therefore extremely fragile. Avoid any overhanging rocks and consider lying on your stomach for an extra sense of security!