We were familiar with Zion and Bryce National Parks, but Becky and I had always wanted to see more of Utah. Bec especially wanted to see the Grand Canyon. We had heard about The Grand Circle of National Parks, and after getting a book and a map from Amazon, decided to do this trip for our vacation this year.
We put the trip on the calendar and didn’t do much about it for six months. Becky and I both had a busy year in our respective careers. About a month before the vacation I thought, “Well, I probably ought to do something and plan this,” so I rented a Jucy Van, which we had seen on another vacation. It’s this cool minivan with a rooftop tent and a kitchen in the back. It was only $500 for the week and it gave us the flexibility to do some car camping or stay at hotels along the way.
Day 1 of Our Grand Circle Adventure
I really did want to plan this trip better, but I didn’t. I told Bec this was going to be an old-school college road trip adventure. She was uneasy with this, but she was too busy to do anything about it. When Saturday morning came, we literally started planning our trip as we were driving to Las Vegas to pick up the van rental. That’s right, no planning whatsoever – not even one advanced reservation of anything.
That’s right, no planning whatsoever – not even one advanced reservation of anything.
We picked up the van about 11am and started up the 15 freeway. Since we had been to Zion and Bryce, we decided to bypass these parks and get as close to Arches National Park as we could.
After 12 hours of driving, we got to a small town called Green River and checked into a roadside motel for the night. We were less than 50 miles from Arches National Park.
Arches National Park
We checked out of our hotel in the morning and got to Arches by 10:00 am. It was absolutely beautiful. It was just what you think of when you see giant rock arches in pictures. We did a small hike, then visited the various exhibits throughout the park. There were no backcountry hiking opportunities, so we enjoyed the views and took a lot of pictures. The next time I go to Arches, I want to visit in the afternoon when there are fewer people and we can see the sunset against the red rocks. Canyonlands was the next stop in our Grand Circle adventure.
Canyonlands Island in the Sky
By early afternoon we decided to head down the road to Moab for lunch, then on to Canyonlands National Park. Now Canyonlands is actually two parks in one. One section is called Island in the Sky. There’s another section south of that called The Needles. You can’t get from one to the other. There’s no road access or river access so you have to drive out of the park and drive about 80 miles to get to the lower part of the park.
We stopped at Island in the Sky. We just drove into the park not knowing what to expect. We took the first dirt road to the left and found ourselves in a huge expansive canyon with sheer rock faces that dropped off 2000 to 3000 feet. There was a four-wheel drive road that you could drive down into the canyon 100 miles and get to the banks of the Green River. Note to self: Someday go back there with a four-wheel drive and do that.
We scrambled around and enjoyed the views before deciding to go back outside the park to find somewhere to camp for the night. We asked a ranger on our way out where a good place to stay was. He said Cowboy Camp a couple miles up the road was perfect.
We drove there and luckily for us we found Cowboy Camp. There were extra spots and they filled up just after we arrived. We met a young couple who wanted our spot when we left, so instead of making them wait, we just invited them to camp with us. These millennials were the polar opposite of who Bec and I would normally be comfortable with, but the wilderness has a way of connecting people. We had a great time around the campfire that night. Side note: While digging a cathole in the backcountry suits me fine, Bec is not used to backcountry bathroom accommodations.
While digging a cathole in the backcountry suits me fine, Bec is not used to backcountry bathroom accommodations.
She was a little surprised at the spartan conditions of the bathrooms and made a pretty funny video about it…
More of Canyonlands Island in the Sky
We got up early and drove back into Canyonlands to see the rest of the park. There was one particular arch that had 3000 feet of vertical exposure as you walked through it. It was one of the most amazing views I have ever seen. I think it was more beautiful than the Grand Canyon. It was just absolutely stunning. I think that view was worth the whole day of being in that park.
We did all the Canyonlands things we could at Island in the Sky, including a three-mile hike to the top of a mesa where there were some ruins from Native Americans. Then we decided to head out to lower Canyonlands.
The only way to get to the lower part of Canyonlands National Park is to drive 70 miles, so we headed out by noon. We stopped from time to time for cows. Yes, Utah is full of open range cattle. After one stop, Bec shot a funny video of our cow friends…
We drove to a small town called Monticello and checked into a local roadside motel and ate lunch at Subway. From there we drove into the lower part of Canyonlands National Park called The Needles.
By the time we got to the park, it was late afternoon. There was literally no one left in the park. The ranger was gone. Everyone was gone. We had the entire park to ourselves. We saw the famous Newspaper Rock with petroglyphs dating back to 2000 BC. After exploring a lot of the park we found a trail that took us through a series of “mushroom” rock formations where people all the way up until the Mormon settlers lived. There were natural shade and water springs out of the rocks. It was quite beautiful. At sunset, we headed back to the hotel to rest up for more of our Grand Circle adventure in the morning.
Canyon of the Ancients National Monument
We got an early start for the drive to Colorado where we had hoped to reach the Canyon of the Ancients. The Waze app on my phone took us on a road to nowhere, so we lost a few hours of the morning before getting back on track. Unlike a lot of the places we visited, there wasn’t any check-in or ranger station, just a small sign on the side of the road. We passed it initially, then backtracked. We decided to take a seven-mile hike where there was a series of Native American ruins. The scenery was beautiful and the ruins were quite fascinating.
Our next stop on the Grand Circle was Mesa Verde, one of the most famous sites of Native American ruins. Unfortunately, the one thing we wanted to see there was a tour that required an advanced ticket purchase. We did see some pretty amazing ruins underneath the rocks and took a lot of great photos. It is a long way to get through the park to the ruins. It’s 15 miles through windy roads and up elevation, but it was worth seeing the ruins.
From Mesa Verde, we drove a number of hours to Navajo National Monument back in Arizona. We arrived in the early evening and found a great campground in the park. In fact, it was one of the nicest campgrounds I’ve stayed at and it was free!
Navajo National Monument
The next morning we took a tour of the ruins of Navajo National Monument. The tour is only three miles, but the hike descends steeply down 500 feet to a lush, forested canyon where the ruins are.
The ruins here date back to 1300 AD. What’s interesting about these ruins is the people who built them only lived there 50 years. They left behind their tools and grain in the storage rooms. Some think there was a drought, while others think they destroyed the local environment to the point it could no longer sustain the 150 people who lived there. Nobody knows for sure.
We hiked the steep trail out and drove toward our next stop: Grand Staircase Escalante. We stopped in Page where we found hoards of people who were there to have drinking parties on houseboats. After lunch at Taco Bell and a quick trip to Walmart, we couldn’t get out of there fast enough. Our next stop on the Grand Circle was Grand Escalante Staircase.
We stopped in Page where we found hoards of people who were there to have drinking parties on houseboats.
Grand Staircase Escalante
I expected Grand Staircase to be a big park with an entrance, but it was just a vast desert with tiny regional ranger stations. We passed one and decided to turn around and get a trail map. I’m glad we did. I asked the nice ranger lady for a map and she asked us what we wanted to do. I said, “Can we find a slot canyon nearby?” She immediately gave us some instructions. Five miles down the road there was a turnoff where a dirt road took us to a slot canyon called “The Wire.” We started hiking in the late afternoon in the heat of the day. I had hoped to get into the shade of the canyon quickly, but the trail went on for miles in the exposed 95-degree heat.
I had hoped to get into the shade of the canyon quickly, but the trail went on for miles in the exposed 95-degree heat.
After a mile, we turned back and drove to a campground at the border of Arizona and Utah. A nearby mountain gave us nice shade in the late afternoon, so we set camp. As evening approached, we made a fire and had some burgers before turning in for the night.
We got up early so we could get into the canyon before it got too hot. “The Wire” was everything I had hoped it would be. It was just beautiful. It didn’t take a long time to get to the slot canyon with walls rising 100 to 200 feet above us.
The slot went on for miles. We eventually had to turn back when we reached a mud-flooded area. The mud was deep and like quicksand. Neither one of us had the stomach to push that hard, so we headed out.
Next stop: The Grand Canyon. Bec and I had not been to the Grand Canyon. I have wanted to do the Rim to Rim hike for a number of years but I haven’t had a chance yet. We arrived at the North Rim by late afternoon and it was everything I thought it would be. The views were stunning.
We enjoyed the views and hiked around a bit. There wasn’t a whole lot of hiking to do unless you were going to go down into the canyon itself and we weren’t ready for that. Looking across the Canyon gave me a better sense of what the Rim to Rim Trail would be like. It was sobering, but I can’t wait to do it!
We just decided to head back to the town of Hurricane, which is near Zion, and we figured we’d stay there for the night.
The next day we got up and did one last adventure in a place called Cedar Breaks, which looks a lot like Bryce National Park. It’s a huge natural amphitheater with some amazing rock formations. The interesting thing about Cedar Breaks is that it’s at 10,000 feet. Most of the week had been relatively warm and even hot on our last day but this was cold. In fact, there was snow on the ground at 10,000 feet. It was a nice respite from the heat we had experienced the week before.
We had some extra time so we saw some movies and had a nice dinner. We saw Solo and Infinity War; neither movie impressed me. I’m not much of a superhero fan and Solo was pretty lackluster. Oh well. The popcorn was good and it was nice to be in a little air conditioning and relax.
Our Grand Circle adventure had come to an end. We were up at 6:00 am, we got a quick breakfast and drove across the featureless desert home. From Hurricane, UT, the drive along Interstate 15 is pretty dull. We turned in our van and got home on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. The traffic was pretty light. We ended up having two more days to decompress before heading off to work again.
I think on a scale of 1 to 10 this trip was definitely a 10. It was beautiful. It was cheap. There were new things to see and places to play every single day. We got to see Utah in ways that we had never thought of before. We definitely want to go back and explore a number of places that we really didn’t get enough time with on this trip. You definitely should take this trip!