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A Life Less Ordinary

Southern Utah’s National Parks – 12-Day Adventure between House Sits

Between our month-long house sit in Rollinsville, Colorado and the next, three-month one in San Diego, California, Mark and I faced a gap of two weeks. Initially, we were on the look-out for a short pet sit, but pretty soon, we realized this would be the perfect opportunity to really test the van life. Longer than one weekend, and for fun, instead of as a means of transportation to get from point A to B. It was an attractive plan for many reasons, including these four: we have always wanted to visit some of Utah’s incredible National Parks, they happened to be en route, we could use a break from our computers (when not?), and, coincidentally, our business partner appeared to have a scheduled vacation within the exact dates we’d be on the road. Now, if that wasn’t the ideal time to relax The Wirie work a bit ourselves!

A window to Delicate Arch

Arches National Park

Not much planning and anticipation went into this camping trip. I checked the map, saw Canyonlands, thought “I guess we stop there,” then noticed a green spot called “Arches” along the way and yelled: “Oh yeah, that’s the famous one in Utah, not Canyonlands. We have to go there!” Now, I don’t know whether you have ever looked at Southern Utah on a map… it is one national park after the next! How exciting! All we had to do was pick and choose, be happy about not doing it all, and not feel rushed! Oh, did I mention that the two biggies, Bryce Canyon and Zion are here as well?

Our selection of Utah National Parks

Anyway, after a full day of driving – Let’s get the heck out of cold Colorado! – we parked Zesty in the desert for free, and entered Arches National Park the next morning. We only devoted one day to this incredible park, which is very doable. The scenic drive is 18 miles long and offers a lot of fabulous views and pullouts. Some of these were closed during our visit mid-October 2017, due to road work. Parking is limited everywhere, as this is a very popular park. Mark and I managed to do most of the hikes and were awe-inspired by the sight and location of Delicate Arch. Total steps: 24,500 (11.1 miles, 143 floors).

Canyonlands National Park

To really get to the bottom of this park, quite literally, one needs to be better equipped than us. Having a 4WD vehicle, motorbike, bicycle or kayak, lets you explore the expansive network of dirt roads and rivers in the canyon. This massive park consists of four regions, of which we only touched the Island in the Sky section. We followed the entire length of the paved scenic road, stopped at all the overlooks, gazed deep into the red and purple canyon and completed our daytrip with three hikes. The Grand View Point trail offered the most stunning scenery. Total steps: 14,400 (6.5 miles).

Capitol Reef National Park

An underdog in the world of national parks, Capitol Reef is quite large as well, but the most popular section – the Fruita historic District and the paved, 8-mile scenic drive – is small enough to visit in one day. Unfortunately, free fruit picking in the orchards ended a few days prior to our arrival, but the weather remained pleasant, the park was not too crowded and we ticked off all the things on our to-do list here. The highlight? A bumpy drive through the narrow canyon to Capital Gorge with Zesty. We figured this was as close as it would get to 4X4ing in Canyonlands. Total steps: 13,500 (6.1 miles).

Bryce Canyon National Park

The clouds rolled in for our three-day visit to Bryce Canyon. It was a relatively long drive to get there, but we were determined to go for a walk upon arrival, late afternoon. We were not in the greatest moods, a bit stressed, and totally unaware of what to expect at the trail head on the canyon wall. That’s when we stumbled across this view:

Needless to say, our jaws dropped, our spirits lifted and we had an amazing 3-mile hike down and back up Bryce’s Amphitheater. The free campground was – unbelievably – within walking distance of the park. The entrance sign was a mere ¼ mile of our spot in the woods. Total steps day 1: 13,900 (6.3 miles).

Bryce Canyon delivered. The viewpoints along the scenic drive were spectacular, but we felt most inspired and entertained on the walks we did. Total steps day 2: 12,900 (5.8 miles).

The morning before we left, we completed the 8-mile Fairyland Loop. Highly recommended. Total steps day 3: 23,000 (10.5 miles).

Cedar City

Mark and I had a pit-stop in Cedar City to visit our friend Karl. If anyone is interested in my memoir, he is the “other guy” I shared a fragment about in this post. We also appreciated a real bed for two nights, a great shower, and unlimited electricity and internet to catch up on work. Total steps: 4000.

Mark, Karl and cute (and smart) daughter Lilyana

Zion National Park

Then, it was time for the King of Utah National Parks (and its first), at least in the public opinion. Zion is so busy that even towards the end of October, using the free shuttle bus to get around was still a requisite. The sun returned, but the mountains provided almost constant shade. We dedicated about three days to this visit and opted to camp inside the park for full immersion. It meant, we could slow down a bit. A little bit.

The main draw and activity in Zion is hiking, and we did plenty of that. On the day of arrival, after a brief stop and hike in the northern section, called Kolob Canyon, we hiked the steep, and for some, scary, Hidden Canyon Trail, the Weeping Rock Trail and the Riverside Walk. Total steps day 1: 21,000 (9.5 miles, 125 floors).

Day 2 revolved around the most scary and strenuous hike of the park: Angels Landing. This 5.5-mile RT trail goes up, up, up one way, and, you guessed it, down, down, down on the return. After the incredibly steep and dizzying switchbacks of The Wiggles (21 in total), the last part of the hike is utterly daunting, on a physical, as well as a mental level. You climb the vertical face of a mountain, holding on to chains, while staring into the deep beyond. People have died here. Mark skipped this last 0.5 mile, I plowed on, seriously out of breath at times, but having a ball. Almost as invigorating as sailing fast! Towards the end, there were no more chains and you balanced on a not too wide ridge, sheer drops on either side. The view on top was anti-climactic, but the experience was one-of-a-kind. Total steps day 2: 15,900 (7.2 miles, 127 floors).

On our last morning in Zion, we walked to the Lower, Middle and Upper Emerald Pools, connecting to the Kayenta Trail, which brought us to a different shuttle bus stop. Then, we drove Zesty through a tunnel we barely cleared and hiked the Canyon Overlook Trail to conclude our visit to this – in our opinion – slightly overrated and over-crowded park. Total steps day 3: 27,000 (12.2 miles).

Las Vegas, NV

We made a quick stop in Vegas for the night. Just because it was on our way. Our destination the next day was Palm Desert in California to meet some blogging pals for the first time. More about that in a future blog post!

Total Cost:

Apart from diesel expenses, alcohol (hey, we were on a workation!), and money for groceries to make dinners in de camper, we spent $40 for 2 nights in a basic campground inside Zion National Park. All other camping spots were free, and we did not have to pay entrance for the parks (some of these had a $30 price tag) since Mark and I have an annual National Park pass that we have used at least ten times by now.

Have you been to any of these places before? What is your favorite, and why?

59 Comments

  1. What an incredible trip to pass through so many wonderful locations!

  2. All these parks are on my list! Looks fabulous- and like you had decent weather to enjoy them too. I’m glad the van is working out for you- it seems like a great way to explore all these parks.

    • Land travel in a van seems to suit us a bit better than travel on the water right now, Lucy. Both have their advantages, and traveling with one’s own house is the best way to live and explore in our opinion.

  3. You have captured amazing images of your travels, Liesbet, and took me (and others) on a journey through these gorgeous national parks. Looks like your van is the perfect venue for traveling! The US has over 400 national parks and you hit some good ones! I’ve always wanted to visit Bryce Canyon, Zion, and Monument Valley. One of these days!! Missed you in the desert this time, but we will be in San Diego at Christmas time, and I’m sure we can get together right after new Years. We’ll be in touch 🙂

    • Some of these parks have been on the mental list for a long time, Terri. The only other possibility I ever had to “swing by”, we decided to drive up to Alaska for that summer. We will certainly have to go back to do Monument Valley and others, and see these ones more in depth. Looking forward to catching up with you in San Diego later this year or in the beginning of 2018.

  4. Wow, fantastic! We have been to Zion, Bryce and Capitol Reef and loved them all. I didn’t get up the nerve for Angel’s Landing though so we did Observation Point instead which actually has way better views of Zion and the canyon/gorge than Angel’s Landing. I am working on my nerve and want to go back to Zion and attempt Angel’s Landing one of these days. Gorgeous photos, glad you enjoyed your 12 days.

    Ruth

    • Hi Ruth! Mark and I have been hearing and reading many nice things about the Observation Point hike in Zion. He would certainly have preferred that one, since there was no advantage for him (not going all the way) on the Angels Landing hike. It was just a tough climb with no views and no “chain” experience for him. If we ever go back, it will be to hike to Observation Point and maybe do The Narrows.

  5. Wow! I’ve yet to visit any of these parks, but your fantastic photos were the next best thing to being there. I’ll admit, my palms were sweating viewing the photos of you perched on the rocks. My fear of heights would keep me far from the edge. 🙂 Thanks for sharing your amazing trip with us, Liesbet!

    • You are very welcome, Jill. I love providing virtual tours. When I was trying to look over the edge one time, another tourist the age of my mom gasped, urging me further away from the drop-off. She apologized, saying she was a mom. So, I understand those sentiments! 🙂 I hope you will get the chance to visit Arches or Bryce one of these years!

  6. What a great diversion from your work, both The Wirie and the dog and house sitting! We have been to Zion and Bryce, both in the summer when it was super hot and probably much more crowded. Nevertheless, we enjoyed them both a lot – in my case, way more than I expected because that terrain does not really appeal to me. We both did the Angel’s Landing hike, and at certain points I was pretty terrified! I wrote a post about how pleased I was to make it and how my husband’s photo of me ended up with his entire thumb in front of my face! How wonderful that you got to so many parks and got to hike every day during your vacation!

    • It was such a nice break from it all, Lexie, as I’m sure you can appreciate. And, you can relate to my Angels Landing hike as well, which I am happy about. No husband to take any photo of me at the top, though, but I would have been bummed if there would be a finger covering the most important part of the scene! That’s pretty funny! The exercise in nature we received during that trip can’t be beat! And, it is leaving us wanting more… 🙂

  7. Amazing two weeks to some incredibly beautiful places. I love Utah and am always eager for revisits. Great photos of you journey.

    • Being free to roam where you want, Ingrid, is so darn nice! I envy you for this, but I’m glad we got a decent and pleasurable taste of it in Zesty. One day, our RV paths will cross as well!

  8. Yrs, I have been to all those places and have particularly happy memories of the Fairyland Trail. I couldn’t have done Angel’s Landing – too exposed for me – but like a previous commenter we did Observation Point instead. Fabulous pictures!

  9. You hit my favorites! (Actually, just about all the national parks are my favorites 🙂 ). The red rocks of Utah are amazing. I’ve been to all the parks you mentioned, but didn’t stay as long or do as much hiking as you did. I’m fairly good with heights, but I think the Angels Landing hike would have beyond my comfort level. Great pics!

    • It is hard to pick favorites when it comes to the national parks in the US. They all have their advantages and beauty. The ones in Utah do stand out, though, for their natural features and diversity. And, the hiking trails. Like you, when it comes to national parks, I would say: “Bring it on!” 🙂

  10. Awesome sights! Thank you for sharing. We would like to see these parks, but probably could not do the hiking you did.

    • All these national parks have scenic drives that offer a really good feel for the parks and the sights. There are shorter trails as well, so there is basically something for everyone. Hopefully, you will be able to visit any or some of these places in the future!

  11. Hi, Liesbet – You covered an incredible number of steps, and photographed much jaw-dropping scenery. I was glad to be one of your final stops along the way. Greatly looking forward to your next post! 🙂

    • Thanks, Donna. It was very nice to meet you all as well. As for the photos… I took so many. I really tried to select only a few for this post, but it turned into more again. Hard to pick, so it became virtual tour of the parks. 🙂

  12. Totally envious. Have never been to any of these parks but they are so on the list. That blue sky, the uniquely carved landscapes, and mostly free! What is not to love. I feel like the monk overlooking Bryce Canyon is calling me to leave SEA and follow him to Utah 😄. I am especially impressed by your hike to Angels Landing

    • You are witnessing beauty of a different kind, Lisa, which I”m sure you are enjoying as well. You’d love to drive and hike through these national parks, and, I’m sure you will get here at some point. You are a woman of action, following one dream, before starting the next! Happy return to Amandla and a safe crossing of the Indian Ocean!!!

  13. What an amazing area to explore Liesbet! I have never been here and if I was to ever explore it I would love to do it on horseback and camp under the stars. The photographs are beautiful ☺💖 xxx

    • Your way of exploring nature’s beautiful landscapes sounds very special and intriguing, Xenia. We saw horseback tours in some parks and we actually met a couple who brought their own horses and explored Bryce Canyon that way. They were camped next to us (also for free), with their dog and two horses, and we had a nice evening at our camp fire together. 🙂

  14. What a great trip! Utah is so incredible – one amazing park after another. You could spend a lifetime there and still not see it all. Scott did the full Angel’s Landing hike. I chickened out before the really scary bit and waited for him.

    • Haha. Maybe you sat and waited at the same spot Mark did. 🙂 And, I”m sure Scott returned quicker than I did. Up to that last 0.5 miles, the trail was pretty exhausting as well, don’t you think? Well done on almost making it to Angels Landing at the top! I’m glad you got to experience these parks as well. Did yo visit with Scamper?

  15. Liesbet this is amazing! From a selfish standpoint I would love to see a detailed itinerary in some future post ” Two weeks in US national Parks on the cheap” You two have so much knowledge and experience. Incredible photos, especially of Bryce. What a good idea to have the park pass which sounds like it has been paying itself off over and over.

    • There are so many topics I could write and am interested about, Sue, and I surely wish I had more time and energy to do so. I contemplated giving a quick overview post this time and then writing (and posting photos) about the several parks separately afterwards, but that would mean I’d write about this trip for months to come, while real and current life continues to be exciting in different ways. I also would love to write blogs about how to save money, about house and pet sitting, about our past sailing adventures, about the book I’m attempting to write, the sights in this city, and so on. Yeah… no lack of topics, but, here in San Diego, my priority has to be my memoir, or it might never happen. 🙂

      Now that we are in the US full-time and hoping to do some road trips, a national park pass comes in very handy. I think we got our money back after two or three parks, especially since we had company visiting Yosemite NP earlier this year.

  16. You missed Grand Staircase Escalante! Next time!

    • Hi Marie! Yes, we did. On purpose. We did have to make some choices and hope to visit Escalante another time! Was that your favorite in Utah?

  17. Hi Liesbet! Thom and I have only been to Bryce Canyon and Zion. Both of them are incredibly amazing and your photos brought back many great memories. We didn’t do the Angels Landing hike but did a couple of the less strenuous ones and still enjoyed the parks very much. So glad you got to see them. I think everyone should take the time if they get the chance. ~Kathy

    • It looks like you did the biggies in Utah, Kathy. Good for you! There are so many amazing hikes everywhere that offer a good view into the canyons and the parks. Angels Landing didn’t provide spectacular views, so if that is the goal, many other hikes did a better job. The chain experience can also be had on another hike, as we realized the day before. The parks in Utah are of a special kind, and we are happy to have finally experienced some of them. I think they are on many people’s lists.

  18. Your photos are absolutely incredible and its great to see them because this is a part of the world that I have only heard about but not experienced. Such dramatic scenery! The only thing I can think of that comes close to this, was in Northern Argentina, but not as dramatic. Those pathways with sheer drops on either side ~ that sounds nightmarish to me.. haha.. but otherwise amazing!!! Glad to hear you guys got to take a deserved break.

    Peta

    • Hi Peta! Northern Argentina sounds like an attractive area to visit as well. Maybe Zesty will get us there one of these years. Those sheer drop-offs are not everyone’s cup of tea, based on people turning around when getting there, or waiting for their other halves. 🙂 Or, based on some of the comments here, which were similar to when I posted about our challenging hiking experiences in Acadia NP last year. I do hope you both get to visit Southern Utah one day – it’s the American West at it best. 🙂

  19. Wow, fabulous photos, Liesbet! I am glad that you and Mark had a chance to have a bit of a vacation in such a beautiful area. I’ll bet you enjoyed having Zesty as you home base while touring the parks.

    Jude

    • Thanks, Jude. Zesty, and any small camper, is just perfect for road trips and park visits like these! It was also a good test to prepare us for full-time van living in the future. 🙂

  20. I’ve been to Utah, but not to its national parks, sadly. Must rectify that one day. Even so, it’s an incredibly beautiful place. Glad you took the time to see so much of it. The hike with the chains looks fairly terrifying.

    Love the photo with the monk. The colors are breathtaking!

    • It is hard to combine work and pleasure, jh, especially in Utah! I hope you will be able to return one day for some outdoor adventures.

  21. Incredible locations and absolutely stunning photos, Liesbet. Looks like the trip of a lifetime to me. You certainly made the most of your time. Many thanks for sharing. 🙂 🙂

    • It was a very special trip, Jo, especially since we had never made it to this spectacular area in the US before, and, because we have not had a real vacation in … ever (together).

  22. Wow…sounds like Utah is the place to go for some stunning National Parks. You had an action packed time. I long to do a road trip in the US and particularly visit some of these amazing NP. Thanks for the beautiful photos😄

    • Hi Gilda! Thanks for swinging by here and leaving a comment. I hope you will be able to do a road trip in the American West in the near future. In my opinion, this is the most spectacular (and probably popular) region of the US. So much to see and do!!!

  23. Liesbet, this is a great photo essay of these parks. We’ve tent camped in Arches, Bryce, and Zion and were awed. These National Parks out west are so spectacular, and unfortunately, because of distances, etc. many folks never get to see them. It’s not like you can just drop by most of them, and it takes real planning visit. I don’t know if you’ve been, but another one that I would add to this list is Yellowstone. It’s the most popular National Park in the US, so camping there takes planning (and some chanting the mantra as well as tolerance of close neighbors) but it’s unique in America and worth the effort. In addition to summer camping, we were there in January and did a snowcat trip into the park to see the geysers and buffalo, and it was fabulous. ~James

    • James, we lucked out that this string of parks was “on our way” between house sits in Colorado and Southern California. Otherwise, we still would not have made it there in over a decade of travel. 🙂 Yellowstone is high on my list, especially now that we have experienced the three beauties you guys camped in. One needs a long time to do Yellowstone NP justice, though, and then there is the right season to visit… We don’t like the cold, nor the crowds, and I feel we will have to pick one or the other. Our hope is to visit one year in late spring or early fall. Your winter trip over there must have been spectacular as well!

  24. Hi Liesbet,
    Sorry to be so delayed in reading and replying to your post.

    I love the Arches and would go there in a heartbeat. I would, however, totally avoid Angels Landing because I’m sure my heart would stop beating!! You’re much more courageous than me.

    Las Vegas- been there for an entire week when I was speaking at a reading conference. Interesting, but the week felt like a month.

    • Yeah… Vegas is a “special” place. Not really our thing, and one evening of strolling the Strip is enough. This was actually the second time I was there. The first time, 12 years ago, my parents flew into Las Vegas from Belgium for a road trip visit. The one reason I would ever go back is to see a show of Cirque de Soleil. Unfortunately, and once again, it did not fit into the budget. If only my birthday would have been a month earlier. 🙂

  25. Bryce Canyon is an oft overlooked gem for sure! For me, the best part of Zion is hiking the rivers and slot canyons, but I agree it’s too crowded and not as stunning as the others. Arches is mind blowing for sure. Part of what I love about Utah is the diverse landscapes. It is a big place with high mountains and forests in the north, salt flats in the west, and those stunning red rock deserts in the south. Glad you had some fun.

    • You live in one amazing state, Ryan. Nature-wise anyway. 🙂 I love, love, love the diverse landscapes and facets of colors, whether it is in the foliage or the rocks. We had a great time and would enjoy going back, for longer and more.

  26. Omg, I had to pick my jaw up from the floor after viewing these most awe inspiring photos. What a gift to be able to visit some of these most beautiful places of God’s creation. 🙂 x

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