This week we invited our friend Miranda to write a guest post for us about a summer trip she took with her husband. I never thought I’d want to go to Southern Utah and Northern Arizona in the summer until I read about their trip!
After returning from a trip with my husband Mark to three amazing national parks (Zion, Bryce Canyon, and the north rim of the Grand Canyon), we were a little sunburned, our mosquito bites were starting to fade, and we were exhausted from getting up at dawn every day to beat the summer crowds and desert heat. Still, we wouldn’t have missed this gorgeous corner of the world for anything!
While the best-known sights at each park were breathtaking – we especially loved hiking the Zion Narrows, thanks to A Week or a Weekend’s excellent advice on what to pack – some of our favorite stops were actually at national monuments. Our $80 annual America the Beautiful pass gave us free admission to the monuments along with the national parks. Quite a bargain!
Since so much has already been written about the main attractions at the national parks, I thought I’d focus instead on five hidden gems of southern Utah and northern Arizona, including two slightly off-the-beaten-path stops at Zion National Park and our favorite discoveries at Cedar Breaks, Grand Staircase-Escalante, and Vermillion Cliffs National Monuments. While these sights and hikes are relatively well known, they are much less visited than the main areas of the national parks.
1. Lower Calf Creek Falls, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. We actually stumbled onto this hike by accident. We’d intended to hike a slot canyon in this national monument, which is right next to Bryce Canyon. Unfortunately, it turns out that July through September is monsoon season, with frequent thunderstorms and rains that wash out roads (and also bring dangerous flash floods to the canyons).
When we stopped at the visitor center in Cannonville, Utah, the ranger told us that the unpaved road to our planned hike wasn’t safe due to recent rains. She recommended the Lower Calf Creek hike. Slightly disappointed, we drove to the Calf Creek Campground instead of one of the canyons – and were so glad we did, as the scenery was spectacular and there’s a cool treat at the end of the trail. Be sure to grab a brochure at the trailhead, as it points out interesting sights along the way.
The six-mile round trip hike took us past dramatic, layered Navajo Sandstone cliffs. We finally arrived at a waterfall and crystal-clear pool. The waterfall was spectacular, much larger and more beautiful than we had expected. Bring or wear your swimsuit; the icy water beneath the falls was so refreshing after the hike through sand and sagebrush. During the hike, keep a lookout for the Fremont pictographs on one of the cliff walls.
2. Taylor Creek hike in Kolob Canyons, Zion National Park. We visited Zion in late July, and by noon the trails near Springdale were packed. After the Narrows hike, we headed for the Kolob Canyons area to escape the crowds. It’s a 45-minute drive from Springdale to the visitor center there.
From the Taylor Creek trailhead, we did a five-mile round trip hike that took us along a creek (just a trickle during our trip) to the stunning Double Arch Alcove. We saw just a few other visitors on our early-morning hike, but plenty of small lizards, birds, and even a toad hopping through the creek.
3. Cedar Breaks National Monument. After visiting Kolob Canyons, we’d planned to circle back through Zion National Park and the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel on our way to Bryce Canyon. But since we’d be heading back that way at the end of the trip, I asked a park ranger for recommended alternate routes. He raved about Cedar Breaks, which only added 20 minutes to our drive, so we decided to be spontaneous and change our plans. We’re so glad we did. For one thing, the afternoon brought baking heat to the lower elevations, but by the time we climbed to Cedar Breaks at more than 10,000 feet, it was so chilly we needed sweatshirts!
Not only was the view from the visitor center spectacular, but we were treated to fields of wildflowers and a lovely little hike to an alpine pond swarming with blue dragonflies. We were a little late for peak wildflower viewing season – early to mid-July – but the flowers were still in bloom. We felt very fortunate to spend a few hours here.
4. Vermilion Cliffs National Monument. After visiting the north rim of the Grand Canyon, we had time to spare, so we drove along the edges of these colorful cliffs on Highway 89A all the way to Lees Ferry, where we dipped our toes in the Colorado River and watched rafters prepare to depart for trips through the Grand Canyon. The rock formations were astonishing, as were the other views along the way.
We briefly pondered some of the hikes at the national monument, including one through a wash full of boulders, but the 98 degree heat quickly changed our minds. We did stop for a fantastic canyon and river view from the historic Navajo Bridge.
5. Petroglyphs in Zion National Park. While planning for our trip, I stumbled across of mention of petroglyphs – Native American rock carvings – in Zion National Park. Apparently, the exact location of the main public site is not widely publicized in order to protect the carvings. I took this as a challenge! With a little research, we were able to figure out the coordinates and print a description of the short hike.
We parked in the unmarked pullout and hiked down to a dry creek bed, then through a brick culvert. A short trail from the creek took us into a pretty little canyon, and there was the park register and information sheets with a description of the petroglyphs. I especially enjoyed the carvings showing bighorn sheep, which we also saw in abundance near the entrance to the Mt. Carmel tunnel.
In the spirit of preservation, I won’t give detailed directions about how to find the petroglyphs. If you’re interested, you’ll be able to locate them with a little online detective work. How’s that for a final secret spot, one that really is a little bit of a secret?
Overall, our trip was amazing, and not too expensive. We used frequent flier miles to get from Portland to Las Vegas, and loyalty program points for nights at Marriott hotels in St. George, Utah, at the beginning and end of our trip. Our best money-saving tip: we mostly got coffee at our motels, and ate energy bars or trail mix for breakfast. Lunch on the trail was peanut butter sandwiches (we stopped at Target in St. George for groceries). I did quickly learn that trail mix with chocolate chips isn’t the best choice for desert heat. Oh, well. It was clumpy but still delicious.
We were initially worried that a trip loaded with canyon hikes would be a challenge for Mark, who is not fond of heights or cliffy trails. However, there were many flat creek hikes to choose from at every park. We even discovered the Tropic Trail, a back way into the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon that avoids the steep trails down into the canyon. While it added distance – about 3 miles round trip, plus whatever distance you decide to hike through the hoodoos – we also had the trail completely to ourselves until we reached the crowded Navajo and Queen’s Garden trails of Bryce Canyon.
We spent eight days at the parks, and didn’t feel too rushed. If we were to plan this trip again, we’d try to go through Capitol Reef and Canyonlands National Parks as well, to make a larger loop – perhaps adding a day or two to the journey. Since we didn’t get to those parks, though, we have a great excuse to go back to one of the most beautiful places we’ve ever been!
Thanks so much for writing for us this week, Miranda! If you have a “secret” hiking spot to add to the conversation, please leave a note in the comments. And enjoy your week or your weekend!
Photo credits: Mark Li and Miranda Doyle