Grand Canyon, Bryce, and Zion: Exploring the National Parks of Arizona and Utah with visits to Phoenix and Las Vegas
“Grand Canyon, Bryce, and Zion: Exploring the National Parks of Arizona and Utah with visits to Phoenix and Las Vegas,” with photographs by Marcia Jacobson, Ithaca Journal, Elmira Star-Gazette and Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin, August 31, 2013, 1D-2D. More photos by Marcia Jacobson at ithacajournal.com, stargazette.com, pressconnects.com
I had visited 89 countries, but as my wife, Marcia Jacobson, a Californian reminded me, I had not been to the western National Parks. Nor had I been to Phoenix or Las Vegas. To correct this significant gap in my travels, we bought a seven-night eight-day Caravan bus tour. I thought about driving the 1000 miles myself, but realized I would see much more by looking out the bus window, especially since I am the driver on road trips. Another advantage of this Caravan tour is that Caravan stops for two nights each at major sights and overnights inside Zion and Grand Canyon.
After meeting in Phoenix the first evening for orientation, we drove from Phoenix to Sedona and then to Grand Canyon. On the drive through the desert, I enjoyed seeing the growing saquaro, the slow growing tree-sized cactus, as well as other cactuses like the prickly pear. We stopped at the Sinagua people’s cliff dwellings known as Montezuma Castle. These dwellings had nothing to do with the Aztec leader Montezuma, but are named for the Pueblo legend that a spirit named Montezuma founded the Pueblos.
With some overpriced art galleries, Sedona as town was a bit disappointing, but the imposing Red Rocks—really sandstone—formations surrounding it are wonderful.
The Grand Canyon as a Transcendent Experience
The sheer size of the Grand Canyon is one reason it is one of the world’s great natural sites. Over 1900 square miles, Grand Canyon National Park’s sheer vastness is overwhelming. Its central feature is the Grand Canyon itself, a huge gorge on the Colorado River; the gorge dates back perhaps to 70 million years, and includes rocks 2 billon years old. If Ithacans and Finger Lake residents think of our gorges magnified thousands of times, they will get some idea of the Grand Canyon’s topography.
Grand Canyon at Sunrise
We arrived at the south rim of the Grand Canyon at 5 p.m. My first view of Grand Canyon from the south rim was a sublime experience, even more awe-inspiring than I expected. The light seems to change very few minutes, making an ever-changing kaleidoscope of already stunning views.
Sunrises and sunsets are especially magnificent. The next morning we awoke at 5 a.m to see a memorably splendid sunrise; on a clear morning, the rising sun’s bright light gradually floods the entire view over the south rim. As the sun moves up into the sky, the light plays on the rocks, often creating a reflected glow first on one rock than on anther. Whether you are looking to the distance, or at the closest rocks, the moving play of light on the rocks is quite stunning. It is as if the setting were in motion or you were watching a film. One readily understands why the 19th century artist Thomas Moran kept painting the ever-changing colors of the Canyon
From Powell Point, Grand Canyon, with the Colorado River
Especially in the morning and evening, we saw elk within a few feet of us.
Once you have paid the Park’s admission price, you are entitled to the free bus service provided by National Park. We spent our second day on the red line bus going to most of the major viewing sites on the south rim, including the Powell Point Monument (John Wesley Powell was the first white man to take a boat through the Canyon) and Overlook as well as Mohave Point, Pima Point, and Hermits Rest, a former rail stop for visitors. We were amazed to find that every view of the vast landscape is different. There is limited signage at the Grand Canyon Park and everyone wanders around the lodge areas looking for their rooms and restaurants. The National Park Service outsources the lodging and restaurants on the South Rim of Grand Canyon and Zion to a company called Xanterra; at the Grand Canyon, even the Xanterra employees seem puzzled when asked for directions.
Our Journey Continues
On our third full day we set out for the Glen Canyon National Recreational Area where we stayed two nights overlooking Lake Powell. One highlight of the drive to Lake Powell was a so-called jeep ride—really an open truck--into Monument Valley Park on Navajo land. The highlights here are the dramatic sandstone mesas and buttes. Many films, especially Westerns, have been made in this area. While at the man-made Lake Powell, we also took a 90-minute boat ride into Antelope Canyon. I am not sure we needed two nights at the Lake Powell resort, although the setting in Glen Canyon is quite beautiful. The trip included a visit to the controversial Lake Powell dam. Despite the fine views of lake and red sandstone, we might have spent less time there and more at Grand Canyon, Bryce, or Zion.
Fairyland Point, Bryce
On the fifth day on the way Zion, we stopped at Bryce Canyon National Park—less than 56 square miles and much less visited than Grand Canyon and Zion but just as wonderful-- in southwestern Utah for several hours, and saw the spectacularly beautiful giant amphitheaters composed of red, orange and white rocks. In fact, Bryce Canyon is not a Canyon at all. The colored geological structures are called hoodoos, that is, tall thin rock spires left standing after frost weathering and wind erosion. The hoodooes reminded me of gothic church spires.
Mule Deer at Zion
Still in Southwestern Utah, we next arrived at the 229 square mile—larger than Bryce and much small than Grand Canyon--Zion National Park at about five o’clock in the late afternoon. With its huge sandstone walls that over look the park and diverse habitat—1000 species of plants--Zion is remarkably beautiful. It has far more vegetation than the other parks we visited, and we saw mule deer and wild turkeys in our first walk across from the lodge. Later in the evening, we learned from a park ranger something of the geologic history of Zion and its narrow, deep sandstone canyons. We were told that, because of the US government sequester, there were fewer rangers on the premises of all the National Parks.
The Narrows, Zion
Hiking in Zion was one of the trip’s best experiences. We walked on the Emerald pool trail and the Narrows trail, among others. It was quite thrilling to see the diversity of age, ethnicity, language, culture and even fitness and body types on these relatively easy and populous trails. Indeed throughout our Park travels, we met people from every socio-economic group in the US and visitors from many countries, including many young people. We enjoyed the heterogeneity of those forgetting political strife-- which in many countries takes violent form—and sharing the world’s natural beauties.
Our final drive from Zion to Las Vegas began with some wonderful red rock scenery on the Colorado Plateau—the site of our entire trip since leaving the desert area of Phoenix--before we entered the Mojave Desert some miles from our final destination, Las Vegas.
We had done a tour of Costa Rica with Caravan. Caravan tours are an excellent value, perhaps the best I know of in the industry for the places they visit. Their tours go to relatively inexpensive places like the National Parks; they take a great number of trips to the stops they service; and they take more guests than most companies, in our case 45.
A short tour cuts down mutual antipathies that can develop during longer group travel, and a larger group means that you can keep your distance from those whom you know are not a good mix. Most of the group knew the two basic rules of group travel: 1) say good morning b) be on the bus on time.
One way Caravan keep their prices down ($1295 per person for this tour) is to take less expensive rooms than in the main lodge or rooms that don’t face the water as at Lake Powell. The rooms at Grand Canyon, Lake Powell, and Bryce were hardly elegant. All the rooms in which we stayed did have air conditioning.
Our Grand Canyon room was in a kind of subsidiary to the Maswik lodge. We had an antique TV with few channels, no internet, and we had to walk on unmarked paths and streets to the Canyon. The Grand Canyon has more luxurious accommodations than where we stayed, namely at the El Tovar Hotel. But, stressing affordable housing and inexpensive camping, the National Parks do not feature elegant five star hotels rooms.
The Lake Powell resort has a little nicer furnishing, with a somewhat better TV with more channels, and free Wi-Fi but no safe. The best room was at Zion with a big flat screen, free WI-FI, and period furniture.
Caravan provided for all breakfasts and three dinners were included; most of the included and optional meals were adequate and a few quite good. One does not visit the National Parks for gourmet food, and you should not expect quality bread products at breakfast or dinner. For not included meals, there were alternatives ranging from inexpensive to moderate. Our best dinner in terms of food, service, and atmosphere was at our expense at the Grand Canyon’s El Tovar restaurant. By big city standards, the prices for this experience were quite reasonable.
Before we began our tour of the National Parks, we spent a couple of family days in the summer heat of Phoenix, where my brother has retired. The Phoenix Art Museum has a strong varied collection but not many world-class International items. Another day we visited the former state capital, now a museum. During our first visit to a state capital, we always try to learn about the state’s history.
After a brief bus tour of Las Vegas our tour ended. But we stayed an extra three days on our own. Could anything be more different from the natural wonders of our National Parks trip than the flamboyant gambling citadels of the Las Vegas Strip? The major hotel-casinos have the motif of major world sites such as Paris, New York, Monte Carlo, Venice, Bellagio and Egypt. Each has an enormous space on lower floors catering to every conceivable gambling impulse from slots and blackjack to roulette, craps, poker, and more exotic games. We also visited Fremont Street, the center of the downtown area where the original casino area was built.
We used Marriott rewards coupons for our three nights at the Marriott Residence Inn close to the strip and adjacent to the Convention Center. Because the extreme heat made substantial walking—which we usually love—difficult, we needed the 3-day bus pass costing $20 each. We wasted lots of time negotiating the Strip on a bus where stops could be better marked and where traffic slows progress to a crawl.
I was surprised that at least on weekends, the city didn’t close the Strip to automobiles. Thus I recommend staying on the Strip to save time and to get the full experience. Las Vegas is not doing that well at present; hotels discount rooms in the hopes customers will gamble, eat at overpriced restaurants, and buy tickets to cruise ship quality shows. Be advised not to book shows online before you visit because shows rarely sell out and large discounts are available. You will be able to get lots of freebees—including gambling money-- if you go to time-share sales pitches; you will be hustled frequently to do that. We passed.
Our highlights included Cirque du Soleil's R-rated Zumanity with its breathtaking acrobatics-- some erotic--sprinkled with less than nuanced adolescent sex humor. Even better was the musical review Vegas! The Show. Also fun are some free shows and exhibits, such as the wildlife habitat at the Monte Carlo, the fountains at the Bellagio and circus acts at the hotel called Circus Circus.
Because we did shows at night we didn’t have time for the more upscale restaurants—sometimes just grabbing a pizza-- although we did eat a small well-presented lunch at a the Bar and Bistro at the Arts Factory, a collection of nice galleries in the developing art district, an area worth a visit.