Road Trip West

When I look at a map of all the places I’ve been, it seems like I always gravitate toward the western part of the United States. It’s not that I don’t like the East Coast, but there’s such a wide variety of landscapes out west, that travelling in that part of the country always seems more appealing. I’d rather spend the day in a national park and not have to fight traffic/pay for parking in big cities. This particular trip west included visiting six national parks, a couple of national monuments, five states and over 2,000 miles driven – here’s a recap of the six days my friend Jenny and I spent in the four corners region.

Day 1: Denver/Boulder

Jenny and I both arrived in Denver by 8 AM. Our flights went smoothly (for once) and we took a super shuttle to pick up our rental car offsite. Once we had the car, our first stop was the beautiful Denver Botanic Gardens where we spent the next couple hours admiring the Chihuly exhibit. After the botanical gardens, we headed downtown to see the various public art sculptures scattered in the area, check out the state capitol and eat lunch at Illegal Pete’s , a local Chipolte/Qdoba type place but with many unusual options. I had a potato burrito, which was pretty delicious.

While taking pictures of the capitol, we got yelled at by a homeless woman who accused us of being “terrorists because a lot of people died there.” Neither of us are really sure what all that was about but we just kept walking. Once we’d seen the downtown Denver area, we drove southwest of the city to see the famous Red Rocks Amphitheater. I’ve always wanted to see a concert there and while we didn’t get to do that, it was still worthwhile to see the unique concert venue and actually get to walk around and go down on to the stage.

We then drove back toward the airport area to check out some sunflower fields that I read about online, which turned out to be a highlight of the day. The sunflowers looked amazing with the mountains in the background and we got some really pretty pictures. From there, it was on to Boulder for dinner and to look at the flatirons, a specific type of mountain that is a symbol of the city of Boulder.

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Day 2: Rocky Mountain National Park

Before entering the park, we stopped at the famous Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, CO. If you are a Stephen King fan, this is where, after staying in room 217, he famously penned The Shining and Pet Semetary. The hotel is rumored to be haunted. We snooped around, snapped a few photos and were on our way.

Most of our day was spent in the park – we took a short, chilly hike around Bear Lake, then drove the scenic route up to high elevations where we saw a marmot and antelope. We also crossed the Continental Divide. From there it was on to Grand Junction for the night.

Day 3: Arches National Park, Canyonlands and Four Corners

In order to avoid bigger crowds and extreme heat, our third day started at 3:30 A.M. It was two hours from Grand Junction to Arches National Park, so we got up and got going with the goal of making it to our hiking trail to the Delicate Arch at sunrise. The trail was not easy – most of it was uphill on a sheet of rock. It also wasn’t clearly marked, so we accidentally wandered off and arrived at the arch with no real way to get to it unless we backtracked. It was one of the coolest parts of the trip though, so even with the extra mile or so, it was definitely worth it.

Canyonlands National Park was nearby, so we went ahead and saw that before lunch at the Peace Tree Cafe in Moab. Even though it was a pretty park and had another really cool arch, I would say that it didn’t live up to the rest of the parks on the trip. Should you visit? Yes. Will you want to go back? Probably not after you’ve seen the Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon.

Once we were done in that region, it was about a 2 hour drive to the Four Corners National Monument. At Four Corners, Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico all meet and share a border. It’s the only location in the United States where four corners meet! The location is remote, but if you ever find yourself in that part of the country, it’s a fun stop to add to your itinerary. After taking jumping photos and buying souveniers, we shared some Navajo fry bread.

After a the scencic bypass through nearby Monument Valley, the just over two hour drive to Marble Canyon Lodge ended up taking an hour longer than anticipated because the main road had slid off and was closed, forcing us to detour. We finally arrived well after dark and skipped dinner simply because the area was so remote and there wasn’t anywhere to eat.

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Day 4: The Grand Canyon and Zion National Park

We left Marble Canyon Lodge just a little before 8 AM and made the two hour drive to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. It was sunny, but very windy and a bit chilly. We also finally got something to eat and ate breakfast at the lodge restaurant. After picking up a few things at the gift shop, we did a short hike right there behind the lodge that gave us some pretty views of the canyon. The next few hours were spent driving through the park and hiking a few trails at different points just off the road. Each view was different and pictures really just don’t capture what you see in person.

By mid-afternoon, we were on the road again to Zion National Park. This is the one place we visited on our trip that I wished we had more time or even a few days. It was very busy and more touristy than I remembered from a vacation years ago with my parents but the park itself is still magnificent. We hiked up to the Emerald Pools and even though the water levels and waterfalls weren’t gushing, it was still pretty and worth the couple of hours it took to hike up and back. By the time we finished the hike, it was getting dark and the moon was out, which looked really cool next to the towering rock landscapes.

Our dinner that night was at the Zion Pizza and Noodle Co – highly recommended if you ever visit the park. Then it was on to St. George where we stayed overnight.

Day 5: Bryce Canyon

First thing on the agenda was to drive west to Nevada to get a picture next to the Nevada state sign! This was an unplanned activity on our agenda, but the border wasn’t far and we figured we might as well while we were close by. After getting our photos, it was on to another national park.

Bryce Canyon National Park is proof that all canyons do not look the same. People probably go there expecting a smaller Grand Canyon and yes, it is a smaller canyon but it looks completely different! We did more hiking along the rim to different viewpoints and each one gave a different perspective of the canyon.

Once we’d finished hiking and sightseeing at Bryce Canyon, it was time to head to Salt Lake City. Just outside the city, we made a quick stop at the real life house from the movie UP, which is located in Harriman, UT. Unfortunately tours have to be pre-arranged, but we still got some cool photos of the outside. Then it was time for dinner (the best food of the entire trip) at The Red Iguana in Salt Lake City. It was amazing Mexican food and I seriously could have eaten there every single night.

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Day 6 & 7: Salt Lake City & Flying Home

Our morning started out in downtown Salt Lake where we stopped to visit the state capitol, then walked around the grounds and gardens of the Mormon Temple. We weren’t able to see the inside of the temple since we aren’t Mormon and the temple isn’t open to the public. Upon further research, Mormon temples are only used for ceremonial purposes – marriages, baptisms and endowments and don’t have actual Sunday services. We were however, able to listen to the organ (that accompanies the Mormon Tabernacle Choir) recital in the special building next to the temple.

After the recital, we grabbed lunch then made our way to Antelope Island and the Great Salt Lake. Everyone talks about how awful the lake smells and how bad the brine flies are, so I was expecting the area to smell like death, but honestly it didn’t smell all that bad at all. The flies were kind of gross – they covered the muddy beach and would swarm around your feet and legs as you walked, but once you got out into the water, they went away. The salt is so thick in the lake that you float instead of sinking down into the water like you would in a freshwater lake. It’s a really cool feeling – I was tensed up, expecting to sink, but I just bobbed along like a pool noodle. It was actually pretty relaxing. The salt dries very quickly on your skin, so when you get out, it feels weird and almost crackly. Once we’d gotten our fill of floating, we rinsed off the best we could in the public showers, then took a hike up a trail to see some 360 degree views of the lake. The Great Salt Lake was our final stop, so it was back to Salt Lake City where we drove by the Olympic torch from the 2002 winter games then grabbed Cafe Rio for dinner.

Wednesday was a travel day – Jenny’s flight left in the morning and mine in the afternoon. I had a brief layover in Vegas which I thought was cool since I had never been there before. You could see the strip as you were landing and taking off and I imagine it looks really neat at night.

I arrived back home at 11 p.m. and it was back to work and post-vacation depression the next day.

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