This was an amazing trip. We’ve both been to US numerous times and for us driving has always been part of the experience. In 1994 we drove from Boston to Niagara Falls and back. Later we spent many vacations driving around Florida and now recently on the west coast. We had been to Everglades in Florida but we never planned visiting national parks unless they were en route. This all changed when we visited Yosemite in April 2017.
In Yosemite National Park Visitors Center Minna laid her hands on a booklet: Travel Stamps U.S. National Park Series Album & Guide. It is a book in which you can collect a stamp (or actually a sticker) from each National Park of the U.S. We bought our first sticker from Yosemite.
You can buy stickers from National Park visitors centers but you can also order them online. We pasted the Yosemite sticker in the book but it looked very empty so we ordered the Everglades sticker from the supplier. It still looked very empty. We had been planning Route 66 trip to celebrate our 50th birthdays. We started having doubts about driving through midwest so we started plan B. What if we tried to collect as many stickers as we can during three weeks?
We started investigating the map and we found out that there were several national parks in the west which were very close to each other: Zion and Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands and Arches. We realized quickly that we could visit 10 national parks quite easily. Sequoia, Kings Canyon and Channel Islands were not in the original plan. We calculated the distances and noticed that it would be possible to see 8 parks quite conveniently. After Grand Canyon, which was supposed to be the last park, we had 5 more nights to go. In five days we would still have time to visit Sequoia and Kings Canyon or stay around Los Angeles. We had been to LA before so it would be a shame to skip the parks as it would also require another visit in that region. The map below shows that Ventura was really between Kings Canyon and LA so it would have been silly to skip it.
What did we learn then? The Americans don’t, usually, build national parks to boring spots. Zion was amazing, Canyonlands had the vastest vistas, Joshua Tree was exactly the way the hippies saw it in the 70’s. To be honest why would you travel to Europe when you have such amazing sights in your own country?
We also learned to understand a little bit of the concept of Manifest Destiny. Driving through the desert gave us a glimpse of the hardships the pioneers must have faced. The Finnish concept of ”sisu” is not unique. People who crossed the desert in their wagons with all of their possessions with them did certainly have ”sisu” too.
We had one night left and we spent it in Hollywood. We found an affordable, very clean and nicely located hotel just a couple of blocks from Hollywood Boulevard: Hotel Lexen. There is another one in North Hollywood and we drove there first by accident.
Here is a 30-minute-video of the whole trip with some nice timelapses:
We ended up driving to Ventura. My 50th birthday was approaching and there was one more National Park nearby: Channel Islands. Unfortunately America the Beautiful pass didn’t give free access to this one. The visitor center is on the mainland in Ventura and another one in Santa Barbara. There is a private company Island Packers providing boat transportation to the island. The weather was cloudy and we were worried it would rain. We booked the trip when we arrived at Ventura and took the boat next morning. A round trip takes approximately half-a-day. The boat was full of noisy school kids but there is plenty of space on the island. Dolphins played in the wake and it was very exciting to see them follow the wake of the boat. The boat landed at Scorpion Harbor on Santa Cruz Island.
Channel Islands National Park is very different from the other parks we visited. We took a 7 kilometer hike from Scorpion Harbor to Potato Harbor. The vegetation on the island was mainly grass. The most interesting natural wonder on the island is the island fox. It was impossible to be missed as there were plenty of them.
The park itself was a bit of a disappointment after Zion, Grand Canyon and the rest. Even Capitol Reef made a bigger impression. I have to admit that the weather had also something to do with it. Cloudy sky really didn’t bring the best out of the park.
Sequoia and Kings Canyon National parks are practically the same area. They are very convenient to visit on the same trip and we visited both in two days. We left Barstow in the morning and drove all day to arrive at Plantation B&B in Lemon Cove, CA. It is very conveniently located with easy access to both parks. It also served excellent breakfast on the patio outside. Many of the rooms have a private bathroom (some not though) and so did ours. Plantation B&B was an old citrus plantation and each room has a Gone with the wind -theme. We stayed in Belle Watling -room. There is a swimming pool available on the patio but unfortunately we didn’t have time to enjoy it.
We checked in and drove to Sequoia National Park main entrance which was just 30-minute-drive from our B&B. The drive from the park entrance to the park itself was an experience in itself. Generals Highway had tight turns and some roadwork which made our progress very slow but the scenery was perfect.
At this time of the day parking was problematic. We parked at General Sherman Trailhead and walked to the biggest tree of the park. It rained a bit because this area is more than 1000 meters above sea level. It is also cooler than Lemon Cove area.
It was Memorial Day weekend and restaurants were quite full in Three Rivers when we got back from the park.
The next morning we drove along Dry Creek Drive from Lemon Cove through Badger to Grant Grove Village where Kings Canyon Visitor Center is. Kings Canyon is actually much more interesting compared to Sequoia. Sequoia has bigger trees, which Minna said look like the trees the kids draw, and Moro Rock but Kings Canyon has very a beautiful valley with rapids and waterfalls. Kings Canyon also had less visitors during our stay.
Kings Canyon Scenic Byway took us to the far end of the park. First section of the road descends to the bottom of the canyon and then the road follows the river. At the end of the road we took a small hike around Zumwalt Meadow. The snowmelt from the mountains made the river flow rapidly and it was full of fish (see the fisherman and the fish by the walk bridge in the video below).
Kings Canyon was supposed to be the last National Park of our trip. We still had 2 more nights before the flight would leave and we had planned to spend those nights in Los Angeles. But we had been to LA before, Minna even on this same trip.
At first our plan was to drive from Chicago to Los Angeles and follow whatever there is left of Route 66. However, the national parks of the southwest seemed more tempting especially when we considered the drive through midwest possibly a bit boring for the first couple of days.
So we decided to enjoy Route 66 in small pieces starting from Williams and driving through Ash Fork, Seligman, Peach Springs, Hackberry, Kingman and Oatman to Topock. Then we drove through Needles to Barstow. We had originally planned to drive through Amboy and Bagdad but it started to be late and National Trails Highway was closed between Mountain Springs Summit and Essex. This was a big disappointment as this part of the route would have had some very nice abandoned gas stations. We ended up taking I-40 from Needles to Barstow in the dark.
There were very nice old neon signs along the route but Williams and Seligman had commercialized Route 66 so they had a lot of Route 66 memorabilia stores with brand new Route 66 items on sale. I was not looking for anything new but authentic pieces of the Mother Road. The section from Kingman to Topock was clearly the most interesting and authentic part of the Mother Road we drove this time. Oatman was just plain weird with donkeys and all and if we’d known better beforehand, we’d stayed over for a night there.
The three mandatory stops along this leg of the journey I’d recommend are Hackberry General Store (authentic Route 66 memorabilia, licence plates etc), Cool Springs Station (there was actually an old dude playing the blues on the front porch when we arrived), and, of course, Oatman.
Oatman is an old mining town but now a popular Route 66 destination of the gamblers across the state border. As soon as we arrived we thought that we should’ve stayed over. The main street looked very peculiar and there were wild donkeys walking around. I opened the window to take a picture of a donkey and it immediately pushed its head into the car. I was like ”What the hell” but then I noticed a sign which said ”Burro food”. Apparently they were not that wild anymore.
We arrived at Barstow at night, had some sleep and continued crossing Mohave desert in the morning. 330 kilometers ahead and a possibility to visit Sequoia National Park in the afternoon.
P.S. Suddenly, on the way from Barstow to Lemon Cove, we saw lines of Jumbo Jets in the middle of the desert. We hadn’t planned this beforehand so it was merely an accident that we happened to drive by Mojave Air & Space Port.
Minna had booked accommodation in El Tovar Hotel well in advance. Even if a bit pricey, staying within the park had several benefits: the hotel was right on the edge of the canyon, you could take the early buses around the park without queuing at the entrance and the overall the ”Twin Peaksey” atmosphere of the lodge. Another thing that needs to be booked well in advance is the dinner at El Tovar.
In the morning we took a bus to Hermit’s rest and hiked about 8 km back to Mohave Point from where we took a bus back to the village. The bus rides are included in the park pass. The path followed the edge of the canyon and included The Abyss: 900 m drop from the edge to the bottom of the canyon.
Here’s a three-minute-video of the hike (plus some footage from Mather Point).
One of the exciting perks of staying on the edge of the canyon was the possibility of viewing the canyon after dark. I tried to take some pictures of the stars but my lense was too wide so no milky way shots. However, you could see to the North Rim and the lights of the Grand Canyon Lodge on the other side. I could also see the campfires of the hikers of Bright Angel Trail in the bottom of the canyon.
Next leg of the journey took us to Route 66. We saw some authentic towns and lots of Route 66 memorabilia on the way to Barstow. The next two days would be spend driving 1000 km to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in California.
We were about to start one of the most amazing rides in the world: From Cortez, CO, to Page, AZ. While still at home I went through some of the preplanned legs of the journey zooming in to the Google maps marking some of the interesting spots. For example, this is how I found the Forrest Gump Point on the map. A memorable scene in which Forrest’s ”runnin’ days was over”. Here’s a funny recreation of the scene.
Most of the area here was Native American country. The first interesting stop after we left Cortez, CO, was Four Corners National Monument. This is the only place in USA where you can have all you limbs in 4 states simultaneously. And people really want to do this, even Minna did. There is a fee to enter the site. Basically it is just a parking lot with Native American crafts for sale.
We had booked accommodation in Page, AZ but we didn’t take the shortest route. To see the Forrest Gump Point from the right angle you would have to drive there from north. We drove to Bluff through Red Mesa and then took the US Route 163 towards Monument Valley.
Before arriving at Forrest Gump Point we took right and entered a gravel road. I don’t remember why we took the turn but we probably saw the name of the road somewhere: Valley of the Gods Road. We drove a couple of hundred meters and saw a dead cow by the road. It was very hot so I expected it might not be very pleasant to walk to a shooting distance but this we too good of an opportunity to be missed. I took some fresh air in the car and stepped out. I was a bit afraid if there would be some animal eating the corpse but I had to take a picture of the cow. The smell was bad but not unbearable. When I came back into the car Minna claimed that my clothes started to smell like a dead cow already even though I had been out for just a couple of minutes.
Later I found out that Valley of the Gods would have been worth a visit as it had also served as a filming location. We didn’t drive any further because we had to get to Monument Valley.
We had concerns that we would miss the exact spot where Forrest stopped running as Monument Valley could be seen from many parts of the route. When we got to the right spot, we saw that it cannot be missed. The roadside was full of cars and people were taking pictures in the middle of the road. And so did we. It is one of the quintessential views of America.
And then to the place where the westerns were made. It is truly an amazing place. The best view to the valley is from the hotel parking lot but if you’d like to see a little bit more, take drive 17-mile-long Monument Valley Loop Drive with your SUV. High clearance vehicle is strongly recommended. John Ford Point is located on Loop Drive.
We stayed in Best Western View of Lake Powell, without the view of Lake Powell. Before we checked in, we drove south from Page and managed to get to Horseshoe Bend at sunset. The cliffs were full of people taking selfies on the edge. Apparently not everyone always survives. There were no rails to prevent people from falling down but they had started to build some to save the rescue persons efforts.
There was one more sight in the area: the slot canyons. The most famous one is the Antelope Canyon but Minna had read that it is also very crowded. Canyon X tours had very good reviews so we booked it. The tour was shorter than some of the other tours but there was plenty of time to see the whole canyon. The slot canyons are on Native American grounds and they are all run by the family who owns that particular part of the land. Canyon X had very nice service and we heard some interesting stories from the lady who drove us down to the canyon. We certainly recommend Canyon X tours.
After seeing the slot canyon we started the next leg of the journey. Our next destination was Grand Canyon village 223 km away from Page, AZ.
Right after we left Moab we had another americana moment. We saw a huge rock which had a text Hole ’n the Rock on it. A couple of Danish origin had lived here and the husband had excavated 50 000 cubic feet of sandstone from the rock over a period of 12 years. I wonder if this featured in Sam and Max Hit the Road computer game.
Our next accommodation was booked in Holiday Inn Mesa Verde Cortez, Colorado. The distance from Moab to Cortez is 183 kilometers so it was merely a 2.5 hours drive. We had burgers in J. Fargo’s, I should’ve stuck with the burger. The nacho plate starter was just too much. A junior league baseball team had placed their orders just before we arrived.
The next morning we drove to Mesa Verde National Park. The first stop was Park Point Fire Lookout. There are two sections of the park: Wetherill Mesa and Chapin Mesa. We didn’t visit Wetherill Mesa at all. Long House in Wetherill Mesa required tour tickets and all tours had been sold out already.
We were not the first Finns in Mesa Verde. Gustaf Nordenskiöld had explored Mesa Verde in the 19th century. There is even an excavation site named after the Finnish-Swedish scientist. Times were different back then and there were no laws about what can be done with the artifacts. Apparently some of his findings are still in the National Museum of Finland.
Cliff Palace is possibly the most famous site of the park. You can see it from two places without a tour ticket. You can get very close to it by driving along Cliff Palace Loop. If you drive along Mesa Top Loop you can see it directly from the front. It’s really amazing how the native people here managed to live on the cliffs considering that the water and possibly also the food was available in the bottom of the canyon. They must have spent big portion of their time climbing up and down the walls of the canyon.
On the way out of the park, very close to Morefield Campground, we saw some cars parked by the roadside. People had stepped out of their cars and were pointing to the other side of the road. We parked the car also and we were told that there were two bears 150-200 meters away from us. And yes, this became one of the highlights of this trip. We saw a cub and its mother. I started taking pictures but they were too far to really get a good picture. ”Why don’t you change the lense?” was Minna’s reaction. The situation was so exciting that I had completely forgotten the telezoom lense I had in the car and I managed to take a couple of pictures of both bears. We had never seen a bear in the wild before. I wonder if the bears came from the campground.
Utah State Route 12 is one of the state’s scenic byways. Near Boulder we were at the highest and coldest point of our journey (2926 m above sealevel and 6 degrees centigrade). The views were magnificent and diverse. First we drove through the winding road across rocky desert and soon we passed the birch wood forests similar to the ones in Finland.
We were also following the footsteps of some famous outlaws. Minna had booked a room at the Torrey Schoolhouse. Its Saturday night dances used to have famous visitors. Butch Cassidy is said to have attended the parties. Robbers Roost, the legendary hideout of Butch Cassidy’s and Sundance Kid’s Wild Bunch gang, is also nearby.
On arrival in the evening we had dinner at Cafe Diablo in Torrey. They served Rattlesnake cakes for startes and because we had never tasted a snake before it was an obvious choice for us. We booked a table beforehand but on the same day just to make sure we would get something to eat. It was just 1.4 km from Torrey Schoolhouse to the restaurant so we decided to walk. I know that walking is a bit frowned upon in the USA. Without street lights or sidewalks it can be also a bit dangerous. But mainly it feels really weird when no one else is walking. Some kids actually shouted something at as from a moving vehicle.
The Torrey Schoolhouse had very nice rooms and breakfast was included in the price. As it was run by the owner and her son the breakfast was organised at a set time in the morning for all guests. We had breakfast with a French diplomat couple and a British couple. The French diplomat was very interested in tanks and had even visited the Parola Armour Museum in Hämeenlinna, Finland. It turned out that all guests in our table were either going to the same direction as we were or coming from that direction already. All of us were visiting the same National Parks. We all shared some tips and moved on.
It was a short drive from Torrey to Capitol Reef National Park. We got our first view to the park from Panorama Point and Gooseneck Overlook. Then we drove further towards Capitol Gorge. We didn’t need a four-wheel-drive but a high-clearance vehicle was really necessary here. On the way to Capitol Gorge we saw an uranium mine. Radioactive materials were used for health purposes. Once they found out it’s not good for you the mines were closed.
The main attraction of Capitol Gorge is Pioneer Register. It is a rock wall with engravings of the late 19th century Mormon pioneers. The names and dates were still very clearly visible on the wall.
Next we drove back to Fruita village. The village was an oasis in the middle of the desert. Unfortunately it was not the fruit season. The fruit trees in the village are available for the tourists and they can pick free fruit from them. There are also some Indian petroglyphs in the village. We parked the car and took a hike to the Hickman Bridge before we left. The next leg of the journey would be 238 km from Capitol Reef National Park to Moab, Utah. It is possible to visit two national parks from Moab: Arches and Canyonlands.
When I was a kid my dad bought a lot of Reader’s Digest books. One of the most memorable was the Natural Wonders of the World. It had amazing photos and I must have read it a dozen times. One of the pictures I remember well was a picture about rock formations shaped like a tower. It was Bryce Canyon, Utah. Just a few hours of a very scenic drive from Zion and we were on a gate to another national park within a day. We had read that the sunset would be spectacular so we entered the park before checking in to our motel.
We stayed in Bryce View Lodge which was a basic motel close to the park entrance and also close to the few restaurants in town. It was late already so we picked up take-away pizzas from the Canyon Diner. The funny thing about the town was that all commercial establishments were Ruby’s something. There was a Ruby’s Restaurant, Ruby’s Horseback riding, Ruby’s Inn and General Store. Even the Canyon Diner was Ruby’s. It would have been interesting to see her.
In the morning we went back to the park. We drove all the way to Rainbow Point and walked the Bristlecone Loop which was an easy hike but exotic pinewood forest for us Finns. The trees were completely different from the Finnish pinewoods. On the way back we stopped at Natural Bridge and basically everywhere where there was a photo opportunity not to be missed.
The main attractions here were around Bryce Amphitheater which was close to the Visitors Center. Again, Minna had carefully pre-planned the visit so we headed towards Sunset Point. We had planned to take the Navajo Loop Trail. We had read that it was recommended to walk the loop clock-wise. We started the descent and noticed that there were a lot of people walking towards us and we thought what a bunch of suckers, taking the hard way. There was an interesting zig-zag towards the bottom of the canyon. When we got to the bottom, the ranger advised that the Wall street had been closed due to falling rocks and we had to turn back. The zig-zag was much harder upwards. Everyone who went down, had to come back the same way. Who’s the sucker now?
Next leg: Distance from Bryce Canyon to Capitol Reef National Park: 214 km.
There used to be an old bridge in my hometown of Suonenjoki, Finland called The bridge of Zion. It was a place where the churchgoers used to sing hymns. The bridge was dismantled long time ago and a new one was built. They still call it by the same name but it’s not the same bridge.
The Zion Canyon though has had many names depending on who inhabited it. Eventually the government decided that all the native American and Spanish names were too difficult to pronounce so they named the National Park, then National Monument, Zion.
I did not even know about this place before one of my colleagues visited it a year ago. I saw the pictures on the Facebook and as we had started planning this trip it was a natural stop right after Las Vegas. Of course Death Valley would have been even closer but we thought that this would not be our last trip to this area so Death Valley could wait. We left our daughter at the Las Vegas airport and the two of us started the serious business of visiting the rest of the 10 national parks we had in our plan.
Lonely Planet recommended a small B&B called Under the Eaves in Springdale and we had booked it well in advance as it was a very popular one and it was a very small town after all. The price included a breakfast in a nearby cafe. The room was very small and the floor was squeaky. However the host was very nice and the breakfast was huge. We left our luggage at arrival and went immediately to the park. We had booked one night in Springdale so we had basically 24 hours to visit the park. There is a free shuttle bus service from the town to the park so there is no need to take your car.
Minna had again planned everything in advance. the plan was to drive through the canyon, see the Narrows and either climb the Angel’s Landing trail or Observation Point Trail.
The first afternoon we took the shuttle bus to the end of the park through the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. The last stop was the Temple of Sinawawa. From there we took the Riverside Walk to the Narrows. The Narrows is a narrow part of the Virgin River in the canyon and you have to walk on the river bed as there is no trail by the river. The canyon is very deep there and there is not much sunlight in the afternoon which means it is also very refreshing to walk in the cool water.
We had also read about the Emerald Pools and the frogs living there. There was still some time before dark so we returned to the Grotto shuttle stop and climbed the easy Emerald Pool Trail to the Upper Emerald Pool. It was like an auditorium in the canyon and you could hear the croaking of frogs echoing from the walls. I don’t think we even saw any frogs but the sound they made was amazing. You can here the sound if you will watch the video in the end of this post.
We walked down from the Upper Emerald Pool to the Zion Lodge shuttle bus stop and took a bus to the village. I was dark already and we had not made any dinner reservations as we didn’t know when we would be back in Springdale. Many of the restaurants close at 9:00 pm but luckily Casa de Amigos was open until 10:00 pm. We still had a big decision to be made.
We had been watching videos from Youtube about the Angel’s Landing trail. We knew that people had fallen down from the trail and died. Even earlier this year a 13-year-old girl died when climbing the Angel’s Landing trail. Luckily another colleague of mine had visited Zion just a couple of weeks earlier and she recommended Observation Point. You could actually see the Angel’s Landing below Observation Point, there were less hikers and it was a safer but longer hike.
The recommendation is to leave as early as possible in the morning because in the afternoon Observation Point Trail has little shade from the sun. We had not managed to go grocery shopping in the evening as we barely managed to get dinner. So we bought some apples, water and sandwiches for the hike. We also had huge breakfast in the nearby cafe. This means that we didn’t really leave early. On the way up it wasn’t a problem but in the afternoon it got really hot when we came down the trail.
We took the shuttle bus to the Weeping Rock stop and started climbing. I was really difficult to estimate how long it would take because we didn’t even recognize our destination from the bottom of the valley. We just climbed without understanding to which of the peaks we were heading. At first the trail was zigzagging along the mountainside and we could see the bus stop below. We felt like we didn’t progress a lot. Then the trail went behind the mountain and it didn’t really make it feel any shorter. Of course I managed to follow the trail on my phone so I had an idea how many meters we had walked. The problem was that sometimes the phone lost GPS connection so it didn’t record accurately. The return trip was 12 kilometers and elevation gain 640 meters.
The view was really worth the climb. Observation Point has the best view to the valley and even the Angel’s Landing was way below it. We had some rest and then we started the descent. The return trip always feels shorter. However, this time the sun was against us. There was no shade and it became very hot in the afternoon. Lots of water and a hat is mandatory.
Zion National Park is an amazing place and the whole park is very well organized. We left Zion through the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway as we headed towards the Bryce Canyon National Park. We also had a very interesting experience when passing the Zion-Mount Carmel tunnel. There was only one lane open in the tunnel so they stopped all cars and let them go through in batches. Because we were the last car from our batch to get in, we got a kind of relay run baton from the ranger which we had to hand over when we got to the other end of the tunnel. This was an indication that we were the last ones to come through so another batch of cars could start coming through from the other end of the tunnel.
Distance from Zion to Bryce Canyon National Park: 193 km.
Here is a 6-minute video about the Narrows, Emerald Pools and Observation Point lookout.