National Parks of Western USA

Our goal was to get down to Mexico from Canada and we figured the best way to do this was to hire a car and chart our own course into the US diaspora via the great National parks of the mid-west. Some 4,000 miles (about 6.000km) later......

With apologies in advance to my US friends, I never really thought I’d end up travelling much in the States for pleasure. Scarred perhaps by its aggressive foreign policies, endless consumerism, mass market chains and just an overt sense of familiarity I suppose, care of the most documented culture that’s ever existed on the planet. It’s easy to forget that the land itself is some of the most stunning you will encounter anywhere.

Too small for the road?

Our goal was to get down to Mexico from Canada and we figured the best way to do this was to hire a car and chart our own course into the US diaspora via the great National parks of the mid-west. Some 4,000 miles (about 6.000km) later after an incredible variety of scenic drives; from the valleys and streams of Montana to the cactus filled deserts of Nevada and Arizona, we pulled into San Francisco. At this point I should probably also point out, that due to an international license expiry on my part, Megumi did all the driving here – goddess that she is – chauffeured through some of nature’s finest spoils.  Along the way we had found a new appreciation for the magnificent geological magician called time, that sculpted this fine land. As well as a new comprehension for the strange look that the hire car guy had given us when we resisted his upgrade pitch for our little sedan to a monster truck. Turns out that’s’ all most people drive out here when they not driving RV’s the size of semi-trailers, towing their jeep or boat along behind. It really does give you an appreciation for the various fuel crises, international conflicts and global economic dependencies forged around the USA. But I could flow forth in a lot of detail about the big side of America and sell short nature in the process. Back to the parks, below is my quick take on ‘em.

1) YellowStone

The magnificent Bison

The first National Park to be created in the US and probably the best of the lot, Yellowstone is an amazing collection of bio-systems. As you drive in from the North, the great plains reveal swarms of Bison roaming the grasses, while jackals and wolves hungrily watch from the cliffs above; Giant elk and grizzly bears (yes we saw one) roam the forests floors; trout swarm in the shallow valley-bed streams and waterfalls work their way through the steep, yellow stoned coloured canyons. Dotted throughout is an endless array of geysers, hot volcanic water spouts, venting earths’ fury in angry bursts of clocklike precision. Splendid, multicoloured thermal streams mesmerize through veiled steam clouds, while sulfuric pours steep the landside in minute sculptured terraces and mud pots bubble away in fantastic patterns. It is a fantastic wonderland and a perfect introduction to the wonders of the great American frontier. The bison casually grazing among the thick yellow grasses and flat streams adjacent to our campsite, was so perfect it lulled us into a false sense of security about the idylls of camping. The inadequacies of our cheap-arse Wallmart tent and backpacking wardrobes were later glaringly exposed when faced with the sub zero temperatures.

2) Grand Teton

Fall colours in the Grand Tetons

This one was just a drive through really on our way south to find warmer climes (or at least buy another blanket). The Grand Teton abuts the southern entrance of Yellowstone and really just serves as an extended exit. (The Yellowstone ticket also covers entrance fee) It does however feature several magnificent, snow covered peaks that provide a perfect picturesque backdrop to explorations of its surrounding lakes and valley floor. A great place for biking, kayaking and horse riding I suppose given the number of folk out there doing exactly that – it also happened to be a great place to spot a moose (wading knee high through another one of those flat rivers) which ticked a box nicely and left not too many American wild animals left on our list to see (just the cats!).

3) Antelope IslandLake Utah

Mirrored reflections of the great salt lake

After working our way through some spectacular scenery care of the stunning, winding backcountry roads in Wyoming, Idaho and Utah we reached Salt Lake City and sidetracked a little, dodging mormons everywhere we went. We were keen to see something of the great Salt Lake since we were here and Antelope Island is joined by a 5 km or so thin land bridge from the mainland across the salt plains. There really was nothing much to see on the island despite the optimistic travel hype, horrible place to have to live even. But the drive out there with flat salt plains either side giving way to mirror-like water coverings reflecting the surrounding mountains and extending for as far as the eye could see, felt impressive. Not quite Bonneville where they set the land speed records, somewhere on the other side, but it did give you a taste of how that would all work. We didn’t stay long.

4) Arches National Park

The stunning contrasts of Arches

Basing ourselves in nearby Moab the adventure capital of Utah we found ourselves in a camp / RV park that would be the rival of most hotels – full RV connections here mean water, electricity, ASDL cable and 100 channels of cable TV, hardly roughing it. The campsite even had wifi. Arches National Park is a network of large deep, red, vein-like rock promontories eroded and carved over time into all sorts of formations, including as the name suggest some 2000 or so naturally occurring arches. It’s a simple drive around to see most of the key sites which sit just a few minutes walk from the main roads, but we decided to do a 5 hour, trek into the “Devils Garden” to get out among the early morning light and more authentic experience. Clamouring over endless red rocks pathways to find the various if predictably named archways and new photographic angles among the vivid red, blue and yellow landscapes, was lots fun. The contrast of the colours made this park one of the most enjoyable.

5) CanyonLands & Dead Horse Point

Endless canyons of the Colorado

Around Moab, there are 3 or more other national parks spread along the winding paths of the Colorado river canyons full of opportunities for treks, rafting and panoramic canyon views of the Colorado. All are quite stunning, but the views from Dead Horse Point was perhaps the highlight of all the different perspectives of the Colorado canyons that we got to savour, including the Grand Canyon itself. As ever though, the camera just wasn’t up to the task, there is simply too much to try in take in amongst this scenery. With more time, we would have loved to have explored these more from the riverbed.

6) Bryce National Park

The overwhelming intricacy of Bryce

One of my absolute favourites, the drive from Moab around to Bryce National Park is simply stunning, with each new corner revealing another natural wonder from multi-coloured canyon walls, ancient petroglyphs to finally the unique orange, pink and white wonderland marvels of the Bryce set of Amphitheatres. Sunrise and sunsets here, reveal a whole new set of subtle colour shades but the millions of hoodoos are simply too much to take in for any camera – try as we might. We spent the night here camping which gave us a good opportunity to explore the park at first light and sunrise.

7) Zion National Park

The walls of the Zion canyon

Set along a deep set gorge, Zion is a rock-climbers paradise. The drive in is especially spectacular, passing alongside huge sandstone cliff walls and then tunneling through into the actual valley itself. You can’t drive into the park, so you have to park and take a train which stops off at the various key points along the way, many launching points for numerous longer trails and treks. I found this to be a little too packaged to my taste – unfortunately creating accessibility sometimes ruins the exoticness of the experience. At the end of the canyon there is a small river that winds it way through steep canyon cliffs. You can wade along the riverbed for several kilometres into the canyon itself, which is a great experience. Barefoot, the river stones are hard on the feet though, so we only got 1 km or so in.

8) Monument Valley

Monuments to the Gods indeed

Probably my favourite of all the parks we visited. The stunning landscape of the Monoliths manifesting themselves from the desert floor is a familiar site from numerous classic Western films, but it is a very sacred place in person. You can feel the powerful energies at work here. Complementing the landscape, the parks full immersion and intrinsic attachment to the Navajo Native American people really resonates here. This is much more than a national park – it is a complex cultural canvas, a spiritual union between earth and man.

Monument Valley is located inside Navajo nation, so everything is owned and operated by the Navajo people here. It does make it expensive hotel wise (ie no competition), but as you drive around the 18 km of dodgy dirt roads (thank god for hire cars), winding your way at 5km an hour through each of the impressive monuments you have plenty of time to reflect on appreciate that each of these hold a particular ceremonial and ritual significance to the Navajo people and their mythology. Boasting names such as ‘Rain God Mesa, Thunderbird Mesa, Elephant Butte, Spearhead Mesa or Totem Pole – you feel yourself entering this ancient dreamscape and the energy of the place captivates the imagination. Of course the entire park is surrounded by Native American craft markets on all fronts and souvenir shopping is almost impossible to avoid. None of this stuff is made in China though, it’s all authentic, an absolute rarity during our US experience.

9) The Grand Canyon

Just 1 tiny corner of the Grand Canyon

Had to do this one of course and while it didn’t disappoint I think we were almost canyoned out by the time we got there. The Grand Canyon is so vast and hard to comprehend in a single view that it is almost impossible to photograph. We only visited the South side, the most popular side of the canyon and camped just the one night here. It was a really pleasant campground, as all of them were in the national parks – pleasantly spaced, each with its own grill for a campfire. We would have liked to trek down to the floor of the canyon and camp, but this would have required booking months in advance.

The canyon itself is a 25km or so stretch with numerous viewpoints spaced every few kilometres along the way, highlighting new views or perspectives. Our highlight though was not the canyon views as good as they were, but in actually spotting a wild Lynx roaming across the road.

10) Sequoia National Park

In awe of trees!

The last park we visited as it turns out. The giant tree’s here are very impressive, the Sherman tree is supposedly the biggest tree by mass in the world and anywhere I have ever seen giant tree’s there is a peace and special energy to the place. They were not nearly as big as I was expecting though, the giant redwoods of Yakushima in Japan are much more impressive in their setting and also energetically compelling I think. We didn’t get to see the Northern Califormia redwoods so its hard to compare. It was by now a freebie though. We had acquired 8 national park entrance tickets which qualifies you for free National Park membership.

As we were working our way through the park, the temperature plummeted and rain suddenly became hail covering the road in white powder. We stopped for a while, but since it was unrelenting decided to make a run for it before the roads closed – neither of us felt like being forced to camp in snow / hail. Unfortunately though, the weather meant that we had to forego Yosemite National Park, the other major park that we were really keen to see.