We flew from the East Coast to McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas to begin our whirlwind week of hiking and national parks. While we contemplated doing Utah’s ‘Big 5’ which consists of the national parks Bryce Canyon, Zion, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and Arches, we decided that after our last adventure slogging hundreds of miles in Alaska, we would try to curtail a bit of driving. Not to worry…we still crammed in as much as possible in our week! We chose late November which was an ideal time to visit. The days are still warm in the 50-60 degree range while the crowds really thin out. As a bonus, you can get great lodging deals while hotels await the Christmas rush and most establishments start putting out Christmas lights quite early which puts a little magic into the nights. The best part though is that the Zion park shuttle suspends service after Thanksgiving before resuming at Christmas, so you can drive your own vehicle into the park to explore.
While we were eager to get out to Utah and start stretching our plane legs, we meandered through some sites along the route that are worth a look. Our first stop was at the Hoover Dam, an overcrowded tourist prerequisite, but an engineering marvel that neither my husband nor I had seen. It took some creative angles to get a few snaps free of tourists but I still think it’s worth a 30-60 min stop to admire the massive dam. Sitting around 30 miles outside of Las Vegas, it’s easy to drive to view the massive concrete dam that harnesses the power of the Colorado River. It’s a good idea to arrive early as it gets very crowded. Our second stop was Valley of Fire State Park. We chose to drive there via Lake Mead National Recreation Area. Here you can buy an annual Parks Pass for $80 which is good for one vehicle and garners admittance to any of the national parks for one year. Definitely worth the small investment if you are going to do a few national parks as we did. We didn’t find anything spectacular about the Lake Mead area as it wasn’t boating season though the drive takes you through some beautiful red rocks on your way to Valley of Fire.
Valley of Fire
Valley of Fire is a state park filled with thousands of acres of red rock sandstone formations. It’s only a $10 entrance fee and the park is open from sunrise to sunset. We spent several hours doing a scenic drive and a few very short hikes. You certainly could spend a full day but here are a few highlights if your time is compressed. If you were really short on time, the main road, Mouse’s Tank Road, curves its way through some of the best sites to see without ever leaving your car. The can’t miss stops without leaving your car are Elephant Rock, located right near the entrance, and The Beehives. The few short hikes we would recommend are Pastel (or Pink) Canyon, the Fire Wave and White Domes. Pastel Canyon is comprised of walls of undulating pink sandstone which make beautiful photographs. We actually kept walking through Pastel Canyon to reach the Fire Wave but you could also do the marked trail for the Fire Wave which is a a 1.5 mile out and back hike from your car. The Fire Wave itself is a massive rock formation consisting of alternating swirls of red, white and pink resembling a giant ocean wave emanating from the earth. Finally, White Domes is a quick 1.25 mile hike that takes you through a fun short slot canyon.
Cedar Breaks National Monument/Dixie National Forest
That was about all we could squeeze into a first day so we rested up at a hotel in St. George, Utah before our next packed day. On Day 2, we got an early start as we planned to see Bryce Canyon before ending our day in Kanab. From St. George, we traveled to Cedar Breaks National Monument, a half mile deep geologic amphitheater sitting at 10,000 feet. Many describe it as a mini Bryce Canyon. It is surrounded by the Dixie National Forest comprised of miles of ponderosa pines and aspens. In the summer, the wildflowers are rumored to be magnificent and there are a few hiking trails to explore. In the winter, travel to the monument might be impossible as Highway 148 can close from snow. It does sit only 3 miles from the Brian Head Resort, a ski locale and many cross country skiers travel there via their skis! It was pretty snowy when we visited though the road was still passable so we didn’t complete any hikes but we did stop at the overlook to peer into the amphitheater which was a beautiful mix of red stone and snow.
Bryce Canyon National Park
From Cedar Breaks, we journeyed 60-90 minutes to Bryce Canyon. Bryce Canyon National Park is a series of natural amphitheaters carved into a high plateau. Bryce has the highest concentration of hoodoos, irregularly eroded spires of rock, found anywhere in the world. This is another destination where you could easily fill a day. We chose a half day which afforded us time to drive the main 18 mile road and stop at the 4 most famous viewpoints, Bryce Point, Inspiration Point, Sunrise, and Sunset Points. In the summer, a shuttle is operational to reduce congestion, but our November visit gave us the luxury of traveling on our own schedule. Hiking trails abound throughout the park but I would recommend the trail that is the most popular trail in Bryce, the Queen’s Garden to Navajo Trail loop. It a 3 mile loop that descends down into the canyon getting you up close to the marvelously strange hoodoos. You can depart from either Sunrise or Sunset point. When ending at either, it’s a short 0.5 mile hike back to the other to get to your car. It’s a fairly steep descent but with a distance of only 3 miles, relatively easy to complete. We stayed at the Park until almost sunset where the reddish hoodoos seem to glow a fiery red in the dipping sun. The amphitheaters themselves are massive and it is difficult to capture their grandeur in mere photos. Absolutely worth a visit.
We ended our day in Kanab, UT. We stayed only 2 nights in Kanab but if you are looking for a basecamp for your explorations, Kanab is a good bet. It is close to Bryce, Zion, the northern rim of the Grand Canyon and Coral Pink Sand Dunes National Park. Many filmmakers have chosen to shoot here giving it the name, “Little Hollywood.” We traveled to Kanab to try our luck at the lottery for The Wave. The Wave is an iconic sandstone formation that looks like a magnificent ocean wave rolling through the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness.
The Wave Lottery
A few words about the lottery…1) Good luck 2) Don’t expect to get a permit. The Wave is fragile so only 20 hikers are allowed to hike the 6 miles to it daily. Half of the daily permits are awarded in advance through an online permit system. The other 10 hikers must wait in line at the Kanab Recreation Center for a 9 am drawing to be awarded a permit to hike the following day. We cleverly thought that we stood a good chance if we went on the Friday after Thanksgiving as that day they were drawing for Saturday, Sunday and Monday permits given that it was a holiday weekend. Well, we arrived in frigid temps at 8 am and were quickly joined by hundreds of other hopefuls. I did a quick calculation and surmised our odds were about 3%. After you complete the application for your group, you are assigned a number that gets put into a bingo style metal ball. At 9 am, the drawing commences and the ranger selects groups until the 10 hikers for the day are chosen. Completely random. There is absolutely no strategy you can employ. We were not among the lucky, though we couldn’t possibly feel bad as there were people there who have been trying for 10-20 years to get a spot. Truth by told, I think we found an amazing substitute…more on that below.
After striking out at the lottery, we made a stop at Horseshoe Bend and ended our day with a hike, Wire Pass to Buckskin Gulch. Horseshoe Bend is in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Here the Colorado River created a 1000 foot deep horseshoe shaped bend before continuing on. It meets the Grand Canyon 9 miles downstream. There is a 1.5 mile paved path from the parking lot (cost $10) to the bend and it is swarming with hundreds of tourists. We were unable to get an early start after our time waiting for the lottery in Kanab so we didn’t spend much time here as it was quite busy. From Horseshoe Bend, it is 7 miles to Antelope Canyon. Unfortunately, during 2020, this was closed so we found a superb alternative. Given the crowds and the requirement for a tour guide for Antelope Canyon, I think Wire Pass is a much better option.
Wire Pass is a short drainage the joins the much longer Buckskin Gulch. It is an incredibly narrow slot canyon that is very neat to hike through. The trailhead is located off US 89 on House Valley Rock Road which is unpaved but fairly well maintained. There is a self service station to pay the $6 fee for entrance. From the trailhead to Buckskin Gulch is an easy 3.4 mile out and back though once in Buckskin Gulch you could travel up or down canyon as much as you’d like. We went about an hour and a half before sunset which meant we had the trail essentially to ourselves in early December though we hiked fast chasing daylight. As with any slot canyon, watch your weather forecast and if even a little rain is a possibility, do not attempt it for fear of flash floods. This slot canyon was really incredible, uncrowded near sunset, and a must do.
The next day we planned on visiting White Pocket. White Pocket is an awe inspiring alternative to The Wave. There is currently no permit required for visiting. You do, however, NEED a high clearance 4WD vehicle. Coyote Buttes are the best known formations in the Paria Plateau in Vermilion Cliffs National Monument. The Plateau is a remote 20 mile by 20 mile sandy area and both The Wave and White Pocket are found here. White pocket is a 1 square mile area of incredible windswept sandstone in brilliant red and white formations. It’s remote location naturally limits the number of visitors as it’s a 15 mile drive in deep sand off the above mentioned House Valley Rock gravel road which should take about 90 minutes of deep sand off roading. There is an alternate route that is 12 miles off House Rock which has even deeper sand.
We made a reservation with Xpress Rent-A-Car in Kanab for a high clearance 4WD drive Jeep. Our plan was to drive up with all our camera gear, a flowy dress and take some killer photos. Well….DO NOT EVER TRUST XPRESS RENT-A-CAR IN KANAB. They alleged that we never made a reservation so had no car for us..despite talking with them to confirm and giving a credit card payment the literal day before. Finally, after much arguing, they ‘found’ a car for us but when we transferred all our gear to it…it wouldn’t start. The worst part for us is they never even offered so much as an apology. Not one word of apology despite their clear error. Thus, we left with no car at almost noon from Kanab.
We then drove to House Valley Rock Road and had a quick discussion on what to do. We knew we couldn’t make it in our AWD low clearance Suzuki and we were familiar with the forums mentioning a minimum of 2K for a tow should our vehicle get stuck. We were due at our next reservation in Zion the next day so our options were to 1) drive back another day but Xpress is really the ONLY rental place in the area and we refused to be at their mercy with their battered unreliable Jeeps 2) skip it but we feared that White Pocket could go the way of The Wave and eventually require a lottery system…or 3) hike it.
Well, of course, we chose to hike it. I will sum up the adventure as saying it was both entirely worth it and utterly miserable! We parked at the end of the 12 mile deeper sand road that leads to White Pocket, rapidly changed out of our ‘nice’ photo ready clothes into warm hiking gear, dug our headlamps out of suitcases, shoved snacks and plenty of water into our packs and started hiking. We hiked 24 miles roundtrip finishing the hike at 10 PM. It wasn’t the elevation that make the hiking miserable as it was a gradual undulation from start to finish but hiking the 24 miles in deep sand was difficult, monotonous and not how we planned to see White Pocket. It took us about 4 hours to slog the miles to White Pocket. We followed the 4WD sandy track with not much scenery finally reaching White Pocket with about 45 minutes until sunset. We found it laughable as we saw about 5 other groups dressed in hats and fancy frocks setting up beautifully staged tripod shots as we arrived sweaty, hungry, and exhausted.
The sandstorm swirls were magnificent though and we spent every daylight minute we could exploring the area, taking what photos light would permit. Many formations were comprised of deep reds layering with white creating graceful curves along the rock walls and it was utterly beautiful as the sun set over the Pocket imbuing a faint pink hue to the entire area.
Now…the awful part. Once the sun set, the cold quickly followed and 12 miles in the sand was staring us down. We were prepared with headlamps, hats, mittens and just started trudging through. Fortunately, we had the benefit of a nearly full moon also helping to guide us down. The first 4 miles down were actually quite serene as we silently made headway. As the fatigue and chill set in though, the last 8 miles down were a mental feat. We made no stops trying to just push through though with 2 miles to go, we broke out the emergency Snickers bar which was our lifeline to get through those last 2 miles. I admit, I think I shed a few tears of relief when we finally arrived at the car and could strip off our sand logged hiking boots and compression tights. The final insult was there was not a food establishment anywhere, including fast food, that was open past 10 PM in the area leading us to consume way more trail mix than one should and each eating 1.5 breakfasts each the next morning!
Zion National Park
Our journey into Zion after our hike was pretty unique as before arriving at our accommodations in Springdale we drove through Zion in the dark and we could make out the looming massive shadows of the cliffs illuminated by the moon waiting for us to view them in their grandeur in the morning.
We chose to stay at Cliffrose Lodge by Hilton in Springdale which is the closest accommodation to Zion you can secure. They had a great off season rate and the hotel was immaculate with a great outdoor dining area, 2 hot tubs with views of Zion and parking was easy right outside your hotel door. We often stay at hotels no more than a night or two as we move to the next locale, but it was nice to have 6 nights in one spot to get to unwind a little at the end of long hiking days. It felt luxurious!
After our 24 miles of sandy slogging the day before, we took an unplanned lazy day to explore Springdale the following day. The town sits right outside of Zion and is a eclectic mix of adventure outfitters, restaurants and small shops selling souvenirs, outdoor gear and rocks and gems. I imagine it must be buzzing in the summer but was pleasantly quiet during our visit. Throughout the summer and over the Christmas season tourists must use the shuttle to limit the number of vehicles in the park. However, November 30th, the shuttle service halts and you are free to drive your personal vehicle into the park to explore. One tip I’d suggest though is to stock up on water, sports drinks, snacks, etc before arrival as the few small grocery stores are exorbitantly expensive. We can’t recommend too many restaurants as visiting during the pandemic, many were closed and we restricted ourselves to take out or rarely patio dining, though we did find The Whiptail Grill and Anthera, the patio dining at our own hotel, to be quite good.
Our first foray into Zion hiking was the famous Narrows hike which involves hiking in the narrowest part of Zion Canyon. You hike in the Virgin River upstream through the narrow gorge between towering canyon walls. At some spots, the river is only 20 feet wide. We’ve heard this hike can become very crowded in the summer due to it’s popularity but due to the chilly water, there were very few other hikers the entire day. We geared up the day before at Zion Outfitters where we rented canyoneering shoes, neoprene socks, and a canyoneering dry suit with pants with a bib and dry top. It was still cold at times despite wool socks under my neoprene socks (a must in December in my opinion) and hand warmers. The 10 miles roundtrip (which is the furthest you can travel without an advanced permit) passed by very quickly as it was such a unique type of hiking. When we hiked, the river was flowing about 50 cubic feet per second and the water temperature was 40 degrees. Above 70 CFS tends to be very challenging which fortunately we did not have to trial! The section before you must turn around is called Wall Street and it is amazing to be in such a narrow canyon with such monstrous walls surrounding you. We did have to wear our dry suits and wade through chest deep water a few times holding our packs above our heads which added to the adventure! Though it felt like a short day, we actually were out there about 6-7 hours! Definitely needed a warm up hot tub after that! Another must on the Utah hiking checklist.
Emerald Pools/Watchman Trail
There are many other hikes to do in Zion. The day after our relatively strenuous Narrows hike, we had a more restful morning driving Kolob Terrace Road to Lava Point for some spectacular overlooks. We then drove back into the main section of Zion and did the Emerald Pools hikes which are a few easy short hikes (lower, middle, upper) up some of the massive cliffside to see a stream trickling over the canyon walls to form a few small pools. Worth the quick hour to see. We concluded our day with another relatively short hike, The Watchman Trail, a 3 mile out and back with a decent elevation gain. We timed this one for sunset to watch the sun beam into the canyon forming a soft glow on the canyon walls as it descended. We also had the luck of seeing a small group of mountain goats as we ascended.
Our final hike in Zion was the following day. Instead of Angel’s Landing as we’d planned, we chose the East Mesa Trail to Observation Point. I’ve hiked Angel’s Landing previously and it is spectacular with a fear inducing final ascent that involves gripping chains to prevent plummeting to your death off the steep drops on either side of the trail. We were slightly nervous with the pandemic about being unable to distance from others properly and gripping a likely virus laden chain. Thus, we chose the East Mesa Trail. The other route to Observation Point, the East Rim Trail has been closed due to a large rockslide that buried the trail near Weeping Rock. The East Mesa Trail though is a relatively flat approximately 7 mile out and back that ends with a gorgeous view of the entire Zion Canyon. You are actually much higher than Angel’s Landing and you can see the miniature hikers in the distance
Coral Pink Sand Dunes
That afternoon, we drove out to Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park which is an enormous park of thousands of acres of pink hued sand created by the erosion of Navajo sandstone. ATVs are welcome to roam the dunes and you can get a day pass to the park for $10. We opted to rent a sandboard and sled which cost $25 each. One thing for which we were unprepared was the wind. The massive dunes are created by the wind and we were pelted with sand during our entire time there. It was incredibly fun though testing our balance boarding down the dunes….though after hiking all morning, our legs felt the burn hiking back up the dunes after each run. Be prepared to shake sand out of every bit of clothing you have and to find gritty pockets of sand between toes, in ears….EVERYwhere post visit!
We ended our time in Utah with one final hike in a less traversed part of Zion, Kolob Canyons on the Taylor Creek Trail. A fairly easy 5 mile hike with a gradual 500 foot ascent that takes you past 2 historic cabins en route to the end point, Double Arch Alcove. The Alcove is a cave like reddish dome which makes for great photos. The trail crisscrosses the stream often so be prepared for soggy boots or some creative leaping from side to side to avoid getting wet.
With miles of hiking accomplished, we wrapped up our time in Utah. We’ll be back one day to try our luck at The Wave again and maybe one more try at White Pocket with a little more time for photos!
This was an affordable trip. Our splurge would have been our 4WD Jeep day rental to travel to White Pocket, which would have totaled over $200 for the day..though unfortunately, we were unable to actually rent the Jeep. I would highly advise splurging on the Jeep though, because White Pocket was magnificent. We had limited light by the time we arrived, but photographers spend hours there capturing the sandstone swirls in various light. You could also purchase a tour to visit with DreamLand Safari if you didn’t want to drive in the sand at all.
White Pocket. I truly think it may go the way of The Wave and eventually require a permit. It’s too magnificent to miss!
- Stock up with hiking snacks and gallons of water before your arrival in Springdale. While we didn’t find restaurants to be pricey, we did think grocery stores were pretty overpriced.
- Rent a Jeep and go to White Pocket!
- Try your luck at The Wave…but have a backup plan as you likely will not get a permit.
- Wear clothes that are easy to shake out if you visit the sand dunes and consider good eye protection for the sand that the wind whips around (we even saw a few people wearing ski googles! but sunglasses at a minimum are a must!)
- Rent the gear for The Narrows…you won’t regret the small fee instead of ruining your hiking boots and clothes.
- Consider visiting Zion after Thanksgiving when the shuttle closes and private vehicles can enter the park.