Along the Border of Arizona and Utah - a Perfect Place to Get Lost.
When I set out on my third road trip through the desert I wanted to see everything that I had missed or skipped over on previous trips (spoiler: this simply isn't possible). I had a google map pinned with locations along the Arizona-Utah border... but then they started migrating - one in New Mexico, some up near Salt Lake City, a few peppered into Nevada... if you're going to go that far you might as well sneak one to two into California and if the weather is bad why not head down to Mexico! And so I sat, a map filled with hundreds of places to visit and things to see, overwhelmed. I reeled it in, broke it into something I would be able to accomplish within seven days and hit the road with my friend Ryan. It was his first road trip in the southwest and our first international trip together after spending a year climbing the Canadian Rockies together. We were determined to make the best use of time.
where to go
This is a mix of everything I have seen and loved on my journeys through the desert. I have a habit of flying in and out of Phoenix so that is what this map reflects. It covers over 1,500 miles (2,400 km). As for time, my recommendation would be to plan on spending a solid three weeks on these roads and leave some flexibility in your schedule because, if you're anything like me, plans change when you fall in love with an area. If you really love driving, this route could be done in two weeks but you would be treating your time as a checklist instead of savouring the experience - in my opinion.
Note: if you click on the map it should give you my google map of the area.
what to do
It would be hard for me to head to the border without a night spent in Sedona - I think that wether you believe in energy vortexes or not, most people who have visited this area can agree that there is something special about it. Over the years some of my favourite hikes in and around Sedona are: Cathedral Rock(go for sunrise- we were two of three people up there, and the parking lot is tiny), Devil's Bridge (very busy), the caves at Soldier Pass, Brins Mesa trail and exploring anywhere off of Schnebly Hill Road.
2. Monument Valley
As somewhere that I had been looking at images of for years, I fully expected Monument Valley to be a little bit over-hyped. That was not the case, this little slice of heaven requires a $20USD access fee and that gives you the ability to enter the park and drive the 17-mile (27 km) dirt road loop* (a 2-3 hour trip if you're stopping even remotely frequently). Ryan and I popped into the visitor centre, and made our game plan before heading out into the valley. Knowing that we wanted to shoot sunset in the area (and a good 5h before such time) we slowly made our way around the 17-mile loop, stopping often and (with the weather creeping up just below 100°F) seeking shade when possible. As the sun set lower I wanted to return to John Ford's Overlook, and so we did. Sipping coffee as the light turned a golden hue we waited for the tour busses to clear (and the man on his horse to head home for the evening) and took some photos before racing back to the visitors centre for our sunset mission.
*Note that extensions to the 17-mile loop of Monument Valley are accessed by tour groups only.
Moab is a place that has always intrigued me - my perception of it before visiting was something of real-life Neverland from Peter Pan. A place where people highline above canyons, skydive at will, climb red rock walls, base jump from cliff edges, and ride all-terrain vehicles along seemingly endless paths through the desert. It was everything I had imagined and so much more... and I have not began to scratch the surface of the possibilities of this Mecca.
4. Canyonlands National Park
For some reason coming to Canyonlands didn't really interest me before this trip. When Ryan suggested multiple times that we go I sort of shrugged it off and changed the subject. That was until my good friend Abbie Hearne suggested this spot for sunset and I was blown away. For such a relatively small park known primarily for it's Mesa Arch at sunrise this National Park delivered on so many levels.
note: with all of the national parks in the southwest it is really worth purchasing an Interagency Pass from the first park that you visit. For $80USD "[a] pass is your ticket to more than 2,000 federal recreation sites. Each pass covers entrance fees at national parks and national wildlife refuges as well as standard amenity fees (day use fees) at national forests and grasslands, and at lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. A pass covers entrance, standard amenity fees and day use fees for a driver and all passengers in a personal vehicle at per vehicle fee areas (or up to four adults at sites that charge per person)." It is worth it.
5. Arches National Park
Wanting to avoid the crowds, Ryan and I skipped over the ever popular (read:busy) Delicate Arch (although I do want to see it on another trip through the southwest one day) and ended up at Double-Arch for sunrise... well "sunrise" - we didn't get the dynamic colours in the sky we were hoping for this morning but managed to be two of four people in this area when the sun decided to finally peek up above a layer of clouds sitting along the horizon.
6. Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument
One of my favourite places on the planet. This photo was from a trip taken in late 2016/early 2017 during a road trip with Quin - I had no idea what to expect and this National Monument seemed to blow my mind around every corner. If you ever have the opportunity to spend some time in this area I would highly recommend it. I am currently in the process of planning a much longer trip to the area with a focus on the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.
7. Zion National Park
I visited Zion National Park twice within a three month span... and those two visits could not have been more different. The first was on the above mentioned road trip with Quin with a lot of snow on the ground and minimal people in the park. We decided to visit Observation Point instead of the ever popular Angel's Landing half because of crowding issues and half because the slippery snow on the ground isn't an idea condition for that particular hike (in the first photo you can actually see Angel's Landing just to the right of my right shoulder). Observation Peak was quiet and the snow brought a very peaceful element to the park.
A few months later on a solo road trip my Zion National Park experience could not have been more different. Poor planning on my part brought me to the park in the middle of American spring break and the park was more reminiscent of Disneyland than the peaceful outdoor space I was hoping for. With a shuttle dropping off visitors at most of the trailheads I opted to run the road before sunrise and try to have Angel's Landing all to myself first thing in the morning. This was likely the best way for me to have done it, I laced up my running shoes and just before 3am ran the 3.4 mile (5.7km) road to the trailhead and began my hike. I made it to the top before sunrise and brewed a cup of coffee waiting for the sun to peek over the canyon walls. It was that tranquility I remembered of the park. I had the summit to myself for a few hours before hearing the first shuttle bus of the morning arriving so I made my way to the chained section before having to share them with ascending traffic.
8. Page, Arizona
I have to admit that I have never visited Antelope Canyon. I tried once but the permits were sold out for the day and I didn't see enough value in delaying my plans an additional day to make the trip. I have always had a slight affinity for border towns. I like to think that they are a little bit of the best of both worlds. I had seen images of the iconic Horseshoe Bend for years and don't think that I ever fully grasped the magnitude of this place until I visited it myself.
9. Grand Canyon National Park
This was the first US National Park that I ever visited; it was also where I went on my first backpacking trip. I think that this place will always hold a very special place in my heart and I can't imagine any southwest road trip complete without a stop here.
my very first backpacking trip... and the first, and quite possibly the last, time that I used poles hiking
With dozens of hiking trails both within and just outside of the city of Phoenix it is easy to spend a few days exploring the area before catching a flight home.
where to stay
Under Canvas Moab and Zion
We broke up all of our camping on the trip with a. visit to Under Canvas in Moab with my friends at The Glamping Hub - with a king size bed (and even a bonus tipi for Ryan!), a hot shower (thats a lie, at almost 100 degrees I definitely opted for a cold shower this time) as well as a constant flow of fresh coffee and s'mores by the campfire. I could not have imagined a better way to spend a few nights on our road trip. These luxury glamping tents are located essentially everywhere you would want to spend a few nights freshening up on your road trips this summer including Zion National Park, Glacier National Park, Yellowstone National Park and, of course, Moab.
We took advantage of a new moon and a few comfortable beds to wake up in the middle of the night and practise our astro-photography skills. One of my favourite things about the places I get to visit is the darkness of the skies. We sat out here killing any chance at a good night's sleep basking in the glow of the stars and appreciating just where we were in the world.
Bureau of Land Management (BLM)
If there is one thing that I love about the United States more than Canada it is their access to public lands. With a quick search on the internet or the opening of an app (avenza maps) you can find public land (and public land restrictions) all over the United States.
I have spent many nights camping in these areas and this trip was no exception. We found a cozy campsite nestled in the trees outside of Monument Valley, a pullout on a dirt road on the outskirts of Sedona and, surprisingly the most difficult to navigate, a campsite near Moab.
In Canyonlands National Park I had quite the conversation with a Park Ranger regarding BLM land and dispersed camping. In particular; people refusing the follow Leave No Trace Principles, she even pointed to one area on the map that had effectively turned into a vat of human excrement because people refused to pack out their poop (why are people so willing to pick up after their pets but not themselves). She went as far as to discourage us from utilizing the dispersed camping and hinted at those lands becoming less accessible and more restricted in the (very) near future.
TLDR: Don't be gross! Pick up your poops!
I did a solo road trip last year up to Zion and this was my parting point from my friends. For under $20 you can camp along the shore of Lake Powell just north of Page, AZ. I spent the night in this spot with Holly and Elizabeth and just as the sun began to set and we started our fire (something I am not very used to given my typical camping locale), I met two strangers who have grown into some of my good friends and constant sources of inspiration - Matt and Renee Hahnel.