The Canyons – Grand Circle Trip
In a journey to unknowns, through barely traveled roads, with only a dream in mind, and the best friend for company, we set out to look at mother Earth at its best – the spectacular canyons of the American south-west. In this journey through historic crossroads and beautiful formations, we drove more than 3,500 miles for 8 days with Tom Petty and Pink Floyd-on repeat.
In the drive through 9 states, hikes up the mesas, drive in river gorges, unpaved country roads, we met some amazing people, tasted aboriginal cuisine and pinned memories for a lifetime. We started this 3,500 mile trip from Austin, TX and ended in Indiana crossing TX, NM, AZ, UT, CO, KS, MO, IL, and IN.
Itinerary and Travelogue
Day 1 | Austin, TX to Clovis, NM | 500 Miles
We loaded up the trunk of the sedan, and bid adieu to Austin which was my home for the summer, 2012. Apprehensive about how the car would endure the 3500 mile long drive, we set out for the greatest adventure of our lives so far. Loaded with caffeine, we charged for about 500 miles on the first day, taking advantage of the close-to-zero traffic and great weather. In an apparently uneventful day, we managed to enter New Mexico, and stopped for a night in a small motel in the little town of Clovis, NM. Had Mexican food for dinner, and called it a day pretty early.
Day 2 | Clovis, NM – Albuquerque, NM – Aztec Ruins – Farmington, NM | 540 Miles
On the Saturday morning, loaded with continental breakfast, and coffee (well, could not spot a Starbucks around), the drive to Albuquerque, NM began. We reached the town around noon, and found a nice place for lunch on the historic Route 66. We knew that the
Route 66 would be with us for a major period of the drive, but this was probably the only spot en route, that had any touristy value. Route 66 was laid in 1926, and ran from Chicago, IL to Santa Monica, CA through MO, KS, OK, TX, NM, and AZ, a 2300 mile long endeavor. The city of Albuquerque, NM, though a historic city, did not have a vibe about it. Rusty buildings, and lower than expected pedestrians on the main street was disappointing. Apart from the historic (and often referred to as ghostly) KiMo Theater, the downtown did not have much to offer.
So, we decided to focus on the later part of the day, which was to check out other national parks along the way. We did some research on the go, and decided to swing by the Aztec ruins in Aztec, NM. We reached towards the end of the day’s hours, but managed to take a close look at the ruins in the park. There was a self-guided tour available, and all you had to do was to walk along the designated trail. Intriguing aspects of Aztecs’ lives were
depicted in the rooms that were built thousands of years ago. Skillful stone masonry, wood roofing, and other architectural structures apart, the great Kiva, the subterranean structure that housed major events in Aztecs’ lives, were literally enlightening. Further details about the Aztec Ruins National Park can be found here. It is a must visit for anyone interested in the history of the native civilizations of the area.
At the end of a busy traveling day, we decided to stop at the nearest small-town of Farmington, NM. An early start of the next day was looming!
Day 3 | Farmington, NM – Four Corners – Monument Valley – Kanab, UT | 300 Miles
Poetic literature often associates beauty with greenery, ice-capped mountains, or serene water bodies. But our rendezvous with some of the most barren lands in the area rendered those definitions of natural beauty, incomplete. On our way to the Monument Valley, UT, from the Travelodge in Farmington, we encountered numerous Mesas and Buttes in the Colorado plateau. With elevation slowly increasing, the human habitations were becoming scarce with every mile traveled.
As we entered the Navajo habitats, we came close to a distinct point of interest: The four corners monument. A part of the Navajo Nation parks, the area is very remote, but once you get there, it is a serene environment with nothing other than square miles of open barren land surrounding it. It is the only place in the USA where four states Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado meet. Spend a few minutes with the local Navajo artisans to check out their handmade jewelry, crafts, and traditional food. Nothing extravagant on display, but if you must, it is better to buy from these places compared to larger visitor parks so that the money goes to their families.
The next 100 odd miles approaching Monument valley from south, through highway 163 was like a John Denver song playing in repeat mode; Mesas, serene valleys, and country roads. Remember the scene from Forrest Gump where he runs across the country through these very roads with Monument Valley in the background? The entire stretch of highway 163 approaching or leaving the park, it is a vista you’d fail to erase from memories. After multiple stops to capture the panorama, we entered theMonument Valley national park, also a part of the Navajo nation parks and recreation areas. Further details about Monument Valley can be found here.
Our aim was to put icing on the cake by setting foot in the charismatic Antelope Canyon in AZ by the end of the day. But alas, not everything may go as planned, since the weather Gods intervened with a heavy downpour that flooded the canyon bed. We were disappointed to reach the canyon through Page, AZ, yet it was something that we did not mind paying another visit, another time.
Rather than wasting precious time, we headed for the Horseshoe Bend. It is conveniently located on Rt 89 (although I hear that a landslide in early 2013 closed that approach road). An extremely tiring hike taking close to 90 minutes, one-way, was unplanned, but
rewarding. The sand on the hike path may seem like a nuisance, but it is a walk through history. From pre-historic times, the biggest sand dune in the region went through a lot of weathering, resulting in sand stone layers known as ‘ergs‘. As seen in the photo here, it is a fantastic view to witness a vertical drop of a whooping 980 meters, and a 270 degree turn by the Colorado river. You need a wide angle lens to capture the entire canyon bend in the picture. The iOS panorama mode does the job too! But the mighty Colorado river has eroded through the sandstone from millions of years to get to this natural bend, and may be in the near future (in geologic time scale), we might witness a natural bridge where the river abandons the circular bend altogether.
Anyway, after a thousand pictures and dipping in the serenity of the spectacular Horseshoe Bend, our tired, dehydrated souls sought the comfort of a bed and warmth of dripping hot water from the shower. So we started driving, again, to search for our hotel in Kanab, UT, Shilo Inn and Suites, a less than standard hotel in the small Mormon town. In spite of being a relatively famous town for the shots in a number of Hollywood movies, the town remains closed for businesses on Sundays(!). We managed to not find a decent place for dinner, and found it hard to locate even a gas station that was open on Sunday. Who knew?
Day 4 | Kanab, UT – Zion National Park – Bryce Canyon – Moab, UT | 300 Miles
Monday morning threw no jitters as we left the town right at dawn to hit the curves and tunnels en route to Zion National Park. We had half a day, so went straight at it after
whizzing past the entrance using our NPS card. Through the visitor center, we walked and hiked through the mesmerizing landscapes of this huge national park. We walked through rivers with ankle high water, hiked to top of the canyons, drenched in emerald pools and sipped the beauty of the flora and fauna around barren yet beautiful landscape. Our favorite POIs were the lower and upper falls, emerald pools, checkerboard mesa, the narrows, and the main canyon. Honestly, one can spend 2-3 days easily and hiking every day all day, yet to cover all the spots. Half a day was crazily below average time people spend here. Nevertheless, we will cover the geology and the environmental tales of Zion in a separate post.
For now lets focus on the next spot – Bryce Canyons. We had a little bit of lunch and headed to Bryce Canyons National Park, a mere 50 minutes drive. But boy, what a drive it was. Surrounded by a landscape that drastically changed every 15 minutes. We went from green river valley to rocky cliffs to barren country side in a matter of minutes. Until we crossed the famous natural ‘bridge’, we had a feeling we are lost and going in the wrong direction. After entering the park, it seemed to be a different world, at least compared to Zion where we were just less than an hour ago.
From the visitor center to all the POIs, it seemed extremely touristy and the paths are all paved. Not many wilderness trails exist probably for obvious reasons – that the landscape is dangerous with steep cliffs and nothing to hold on to, and sharp drops to the bottom of the canyons. The highlight of this park has to be the ‘hoodoos’ which are best viewed at sunset. The red and orange hues come out swinging at the dying lights of the day. The gorgeous structures are actually formed by wind corrosion and not water weathering. The Bryce Canyon is not really a canyon, but a inverse dome where the bottom layer of rock is weaker than the top layer. Therefore with time, the bottom layer gets corroded faster than the top layer, and creates these fanciful ‘hoodoos’.
There is a steep and slippery pathway to go to the floor of the ‘canyon’ or dome to be with the hoodoos. It is a tough climb back but definitely a must since at various levels, the photo-ops and the panorama changes vividly. Even though it has a lot to offer, one day here should be enough for a savvy hiker to complete.
After a tiring day, we headed towards Torrey, UT which is close to our next stop – Capitol Reef National Park.
Day 5 | Torrey, UT – Capitol Reef – Arches National Park – Moab, UT | 150 Miles
Not a single park in our agenda deserves a half day, but still we pushed on for two more natural wonders. First on the list – Capitol Reef National Park. Possibly the largest of all the parks we covered in this trip, the name of the park comes from the famous whitish domes that resemble the US Capitol building. The primary attraction here is the Waterpocket fold which is a faultline in geologic terms representing a collision of two plates 70-80 million years ago. The structures that we see and feel awestruck were formed due to million years’ of weathering. Viewing the faultline from the scenic overlook is a fascinating experience.
Another interesting experience while in this park was to drive into a river gorge, infamous
for flash floods upon sudden downpours. While it requires a 4×4, we went in with a sedan and parked at a safe distance before venturing on foot to the gorge. As seen in the picture here, I used Rupsa as a scale to show the enormity of the gorge. Imagine a river flowing through this slot canyon! Humbling indeed that we appear so small when compared to the wonders of nature.
Talking about humans, we found traces of petryglyphs (symbols and letters imprinted on
rocks), in various parts of the park signifying the presence of ancient aztecs and their villages. There are a number of hiking trails that take you to the arches, canyons and overlook trails for impressive photo ops and bit of exercise.
After about 5-6 hours in the park, we headed out to Arches National Park near Moab, UT. Just about 100 miles away, it awaited another surprise for us. A park full of arch like structures with the center eroded making it see through! Natural wonders are like McDonalds in this area, only that the flavors and taste differ so significantly. We drove through the park first just to scale the area and to prioritize our hikes. This is a popular park and a lot of visitors actually stay overnight camping. We heard that the starry nights are fascinating because of the lack of air and light pollution.
There are tens and thousands of arches of various kinds here. The popular and our favorite ones are – delicate arch, double arch, window/ventana arch, and turret arch. The geology behind the formation of the arches is intriguing. Million years ago, this land was under the sea indicated by the discovery of fossils of oceanic creatures, mollusks, shells. Once the seas receded, the large basin covered with thick salt beds was covered in turn with large rocks carried in by the streams and rivers. The salt levels being lighter, pushes up the rock layer to create higher rock formations from the valleys. After groundwater dissolved the salt layer, the top layer collapsed into wall like structures. After 100-150 million years’ of weathering, these tall wall like structures took shape of these arches which are made of soft red sandstone. These arches are not permanent structures; new arches are being formed every day while old ones collapse.
The hike to the Delicate arch is a strenuous one, but extremely rewarding. The other arches have their own charm with various structural intricacies, and variation of grandeur. One can easily spend a week here just soaking in the charm of the delicate natural wonders.
Day 6 | Moab, UT – Canyonlands National Park – Denver, CO | 150 Miles
Running from one national park to the other would tire you out right? Nope. If you are in good physical shape, the sheer variety of the natural wonders and their splendor would be able to keep you going. An overnight stay in the quaint town of Moab, UT, we ventured out to the last one in our list – Canyonlands National Park.
This one is a humongous park with three different sections – Island in the sky, The Maze and The Needles. The Maze and Needles are not accessible from the Island in the sky. Our POI was Island in the Sky and the primary spots – Green River Outlook, Upheaval Dome and Grand View. From the Green River outlook, we could see the entire river valley with the canyons and the bends of the river.
Geologically, the two mighty rivers – Green River and Colorado River flowing together in the park has created the three segments and the entire landscape of this area. There are not many paved roads for normal cars but if you have a 4×4, lot of off-roads are available to explore the canyon and the river banks.
After spending about 5-6 hours in the park, we headed out to the mid-west, Denver being the first stop.
A shame that we had to cover all these splendid parks in only a week, but to our credit we stayed fit and finished strong. We are going to hit these parks again for slightly longer time at a later time. Hope to update this travelogue with a lot more scientific and picturesque logs at that time.