Traveler: Danielle Gervalis
When: May 2016
Where: Las Vegas, Nevada; Zion National Park, Utah; Grand Canyon North Rim, Arizona; Sedona, Arizona
Overall Experience: I used to think I had to travel to an exotic locale to experience natural beauty, unspoiled landscapes, and breathtaking panoramas. Fortunately, that is completely false. America is such a geographically diverse country, we truly have it all and because of our extensive National Park Service (NPS) and their dedicated workforce, it’s poised to remain that way for future generations. My trip to the western part of the USA covered three states and 508 miles over five days. I fit in Las Vegas, Nevada; Zion National Park, Utah; Grand Canyon North Rim, Arizona; and finally Sedona, Arizona. It was both exhilarating and exhausting but I’m so glad I was able to see and hike these rugged terrains. There were times the landscape was so foreign to me, it felt like I was on another planet. I completely understand why the west is romanticized and I’m sure you will too once you see it for yourself (or maybe you are one of those lucky individuals who lives there all year round). Everywhere you look you are stunned by beautiful vistas. You get misty-eyed, it’s that incredible.
The Route: As a born and bred northeasterner, traffic and congested roadways are a fact of life. Driving out west is an entirely different animal. You can go miles and miles and see nothing but scenery all around you. I genuinely enjoyed the journey.
Logistics: I hodgepodged this trip together through a variety of sites depending on which had the better deal, all details are below:
Transportation: I flew into Las Vegas and out of Phoenix via Southwest Airlines. The SUV rental was through Costco travel for $313 for 5 days (must have a membership) and I highly recommend going through them if you will have multiple drivers and different pick up/drop off locations. Costco doesn’t charge extra fees for these things. Expedia would’ve cost $485.
Las Vegas: Since the Las Vegas segment of this trip was only one night, I went the cheap route and stayed at Circus Circus for $58, including free parking. Never has the phrase “you get what you pay for” been so accurate. While the rooms are pretty standard and clean, the check in process is a nightmare with a line that wraps around the lobby. It’s about a mile and half north of the main part of the strip so you will most likely be taking a cab when you go out for the evening because you won’t be sticking around to gamble at the hotel. That being said if you are looking for somewhere to crash that’s safe and has the hotel room basics, you really can’t beat the price.
Zion National Park: I stayed at the Majestic View Lodge for two nights for a total of $417 booked via getaroom.com just outside of the downtown Springdale strip in Utah. It’s on the opposite end of town from the Zion National Park entrance but there is a free bus that comes every 7-10 minutes that takes visitors to and from the park with a stop directly across the street from the hotel. The bus start and end times vary throughout the season so check the Zion Park Newspaper for updated schedules. The hotel rooms are large and rustic and each has a balcony where you can enjoy a cup of coffee in the morning with the beautiful park scenery as your backdrop. The staff are very kind and helpful with making dinner recommendations. The absolute best part of this hotel is the taxidermy museum housed in the check-in building. Do yourself a favor and check this out, it takes 15-20 minutes and it’s well worth your time.
Sedona: Ahhh nothing like the creature comforts of a Hilton. I spent two nights at the modern Hilton Sedona Resort at Bell Rock. The rooms are suites complete with a luxurious shower and fireplace. You will be comfortable coming home to this after a long, dusty day of hiking. The resort aspect is also a nice perk. The outdoor pool, hot tub and pool bar are the only answer after a full day of adventures. The drinks are reasonably priced and the hotel is located within walking distance to a strip of local restaurants and coffee shops.
Las Vegas: I had very limited time in Vegas so I tried to make the most of it and see the strip and casinos instead of going to a show. The strip is probably how you picture it: high energy, crowds of people and flashing lights. You could spend a sweaty evening just walking up and down it, people watching. One must see I can now cross off my bucket list is the Fountains of Bellagio. It’s shamelessly touristy but you forget that as you watch the water seemingly dance to the music. In the evenings, you can catch a show every fifteen minutes. After the fountain show, it was time to hit the Aria Resort and Casino for some insanely overpriced cocktails at the Alibi Ultra Lounge, but such is Vegas. The lounge itself is comfortable and not overcrowded. The service is quick and they have live music at night. After some liquid courage, I decided to timidly try my hand at roulette (still not sure of all rules) and I shit you not ended up winning $120 over the course of 30 minutes. This basically paid for the gas money for the entire trip. Fortunately, Kenny Rogers taught me well and I took my winnings and walked away to the Baccarat Lounge for some celebratory drinks. This bar was much more affordable and the table service was just as good. You also get the added bonus of watching the action on the casino floor.
Zion National Park: Hands down, Zion is incredible. Think of all the adjectives related to stunning and it will check all of those boxes. Not only does the town run a free tram to get you to the park, there is a free, convenient tram that will take you to multiple drop off points throughout the park. There is so much to do and see here that it would be impossible to cover in a month let alone in the two days I spent there but I’ll give you the highlights of the hikes I tackled:
Angel’s Landing: This trail gets its name from Frederick Fisher who explored the area in 1916 declaring, “only an angel could land on it.” It’s a 5 mile round trip hike which takes about 4.5 hours with a peak elevation of 5,785 feet. The awesomeness of Angel’s Landing is not a secret. The trail will be BUSY, so you may want to make this an early morning hike. The trail is well maintained but STEEP with some serious sheer drop offs. Make sure you know what you are getting into as it can be dangerous. While you don’t need to be in Olympic condition to complete this hike, it is uphill and ranges on the more difficult side.
You will traverse up 21 switchbacks, called “Walter’s Wiggles” named after Zion’s first superintendent, which brings you to the Scout Lookout area which is a large rest point with gorgeous canyon views. The faint of heart should stop here. The last ½ mile is the world renowned Angel’s Landing Trail. It’s narrow and scary and seriously awesome. There is an anchored chain that you will hold onto for dear life as you cross the ridge, peering down as you unintentionally kick rocks over the edges. However you will soon reach the trail landing and be thrilled with the expansive views of Zion. You will feel like you are on top of the world. It’s truly incredible. If you can’t make the hike, the NPS has you covered with their virtual Angel’s Landing Hike. Bless them.
Emerald Pools: A mostly easy and breezy 3 mile round trip hike that takes you through the lower, middle and upper pools. The trail is a popular, heavily used hike in Zion, as it’s accessible to all levels of hikers with the upper pool being the most strenuous. You will be grateful for the mist from the waterfalls as you are hiking and the dips of shade. You aren’t permitted to swim in the pools anymore but that doesn’t make the hike any less memorable. This is a great hike to start with so you get a sense of the magnitude of Zion.
The Narrows: The 8th and final shuttle stop (Temple of Sinawava) will take you to one of the most photographed treks in the national park system, the narrows enables you to walk in the Virgin River through the sandstone canyon wall gorge. It’s also a very dangerous area to get caught in a flash flood. I was unable to complete this hike due to the high water level but hope when you visit you the weather and water level will be agreeable. Zion National Park has an excellent FAQ on the equipment needed to complete the hike and where to check the conditions listed. If you find the conditions aren’t good that day, you can still get to the Narrows entrance via the Riverside walk. It’s a wheel chair accessible 2 mile round trip pleasant walk along the river where you will see lots of greenery, trees and friendly squirrels.
Grand Canyon: This is a must-see that lives up to the hype. It’s better than what you expect and you will feel humbled standing on the rim’s edge. The Grand Canyon stretches for outward for miles, it’s truly an impressive natural wonder. The blue skies seem to intertwine with the red rocks, dotted with green trees into a limitless landscape. When you visit the north rim, you will drive through 14 miles of meadows and forests from the entrance to actual parking area. There are less crowds so you have more opportunities to experience the Grand Canyon in solitude, which I think it calls for.
There is a short easy trail to the rim called the “Bright Angel Point Trail”. Once you are feeling reposed, the trail will take you back to the Grand Canyon North Rim Lodge which has an immense viewing deck attached to the restaurant and lobby.
The icing on the cake is the Roughrider Saloon which has tasty cocktails you can sip while sitting on their front porch rocking chairs or bring them to the viewing area to relax while you watch storms roar in the distance of the canyon. Might just be my favorite thing in the world to do.
Sedona: Sedona is a funky town surrounded by an outdoor lover’s paradise. The different sites are pretty spread out so unless you are booking a tour, you will need to rent a car to get around. I was here to hike the red rocks, however it’s also a world renowned area for spiritual energy/vortex (I don’t know what else to say about that except if that’s what you are into, you are in the right place).
I started my red rock tour with the aptly named Bell Rock and hiked as far up as I dared to go. I would describe it almost as an adult jungle gym, you can really climb anywhere your abilities and structure allow you to go. Hiking around the different areas really allows you to get different viewpoints especially as the sun creates shadows across the park. The trails are very well marked and you will see other hikers walking along or practicing yoga. Next, I went to Cathedral Rock which is a more impressive geological rock formation. It can get crowded so try to get there early or you will be waiting for a parking spot. The hike to the top of the trail and back on average takes less than 3 hours including breaks for pictures. The views are spectacular and it’s well worth more than one visit. It is in full sun so you will be hot and sweaty, be sure to bring plenty of water and wear sun protection.
The last hike was to Devil’s Bridge, which is actually an arch created by wind and weather erosion. It’s a 2 mile hike round trip from the Devil’s Bridge parking area, it’s a combination of flat sandy areas and a steep climb up natural stone steps.
I realize it’s only 2 miles but for some reason this hike seemed like the biggest pain in the @ss. I guess it’s because it was the last one of the day and I was exhausted but determined to see as much as I could. So onward I went and it was brilliant. Once you get to the arch/bridge, you start feeling a combination of fear and adrenaline to walk across. It is a LONG way down. Your palms get a little sweaty but your nervousness is overcome by how giddy you become from the gorgeous view. It’s a popular hike so there will be other people forming a mini line so each person can get their own personal picture in the middle of Devil’s bridge.
When you’re on the road out West, you must stop at “In-N-Out Burger.” It’s delicious fast food that is a perfect meal following a night out in Las Vegas. Get the animal sauce.
Zion National Park:
With the perfect location at the entrance to the National Park, the Zion Canyon Brew Pub will please your palette with a large selection of local beers and sandwiches. This place really hits the spot for a mid-day stop and with quick service you can be back on the trails within an hour.
The Bit and Spur Southwest Grill is a casual and affordable dinner spot which has a lovely outside seating area where you have a view of the sandstone mountains and tons of little hummingbirds flitting around the hanging feeders. They have a great margarita menu with a variety of flavors and a Tex-Mex style menu. I recommend selecting something from the local flavors section.
Hunting for your morning coffee? Check out Deep Creek Coffee. It’s a charming coffee shop with baked goods and breakfast sandwiches to go. They have a parking area and free Wi-Fi so you can post your hiking pictures while enjoying one of their bold brews.
Within walking distance to the Hilton Sedona Resort at Bell Rock, there is a fantastic Italian restaurant called Cucina Rustica. I cannot say enough great things about my experience there. The ambiance is beautiful, they have an extensive wine list, and they aren’t snotty if you ask for the cheapest bottle they have, and the food is done to perfection. Whether you love seafood or pasta, you will eat something you love here.
In downtown Sedona try 89 Agave Cantina an excellent Mexican restaurant with a variety of lunch time specials and drinks. It’s a lively place decorated with Dia de los Muertos murals. My favorites were the grilled street corn and carnitas tacos.
Good to Know:
- When planning your trip, make sure to check the National Park Service site for seasonal opening dates and trail status. The Grand Canyon North Rim opening day isn’t until mid-May.
- While the Zion tram to get to the park is convenient, if you feel like driving you can park at the entrance for $10. Additionally, there are a few stores at the entrance where you can buy snacks and extra gear if you forget anything. They also rent wetsuit items for the Narrows hike.
- If you aren’t from Utah, you will find they have strict rules about alcohol. For example, you can’t just order a drink at the bar, you have to order food with it. Things in Springdale tend to shut down pretty early as well.
- If you are driving in(west)/(east)out of Zion, take Highway 9. It’s a completely different perspective of the park and an absolutely amazing ride.
- Make a playlist as you may not have service while driving to get Pandora or Spotify
- Get some trip inspiration by following the Department of the Interior on Instagram @usinterior who runs the NPS