Whirlwind Southwest: Bryce, Zion, Death Valley, and the Grand Canyon

A roundtrip loop counterclockwise from Las Vegas, through the National Parks of Arizona and Utah, with a side trip to Death Valley and the edge of California

Whirlwind Southwest
Whirlwind Southwest

This one was unusually short, but not by design: we just so happened to find ourselves with about 60 unaccounted hours at the end of a recent business trip to Las Vegas, and we decided to see how far we could stretch those hours.  So we popped on over to the Enterprise counter at the Tropicana, picked up a cherry red Mustang convertible ("Anything worth doing is worth overdoing" -- Mick Jagger), and headed out into the desert.

The Hoover Dam
Hoover Dam Damn Jokes
Cue 20 minutes of "dam" jokes
About an hour east of Vegas, the Hoover Dam straddles the border between Nevada and Arizona, and taps into the mighty Colorado River to generate 1.21 gigawatts of power per second.  Just kidding.  That's a Back to the Future reference.  I have no idea how much electricity it generates, but there sure are a lot of power lines everywhere (and some massive utility poles that hang at improbable 45 degree angles over the sheer drop below).  It's a pretty impressive structure, considering work on the project began in the 1930s.  There's a visitor center, and a few strategic viewpoints for picture taking and general ogling, but it's hard to spend more than an hour here.  (Okay, I looked it up: 4.5 billion kilowatt-hours per year.)

Route 66 and Kingman, Arizona
Mr. D'z, a Route 66 staple
We headed down to Kingman, another hour southeast, for lunch at Mr. D'z Route 66 Diner, which is just as kitschy as it sounds (in a good way).  I got a killer root beer float, and afterwards, we stopped at the Kingman Visitor's Center in the historic Kingman Powerhouse building across street.  From there, we originally had the notion to drive along Route 66 to the Grand Canyon, because honestly, is there anything more road trip-y than that?  Unfortunately, traffic (coupled with the whole "time is of the essence" situation) forced us down to Route 40, the modern interstate.  From there, it's 2.5h to Grand Canyon Village and the Southern Rim.

The Grand Canyon
We weren't exactly dressed for canyoneering, but we wanted to do more than just stand at the edge and gape (and you could honestly spend quite some time just standing and gaping).  So, we headed to the South Kaibab Trail and shuffled our way down to Ooh Aah Point.  The name was apt.  After taking in the grandeur, we headed back (the uphill portion taking considerably longer), having spent maybe 1.5h down in the canyon.  Supposedly, experienced hikers can make it clear down to the bottom of the canyon and then hike back up to the North Rim (which, as we got back into the Mustang, looked psychotic to the naked eye).

Ooh Aah Point South Kaibab Trail Grand Canyon
Trying to figure out why they named it Ooh Aah Point
Page sits at the edge of Lake Powell (technically a reservoir), a monster body of water that cuts through the desert and stretches into southern Utah.  It's about a 2.5h drive from Grand Canyon Village.  It was dark by the time we got into town, and we ended up staying at the Holiday Inn Express Page for 20k IHG points, worth 2.1 cents/point here (a terrific value for IHG points).  

Bryce Canyon
Giant Tumbleweed Hits Car
Look at all the pretty, harmless tumbleweeds in the distance!
The next morning, we set out on the 2.5h drive north from Page over the Utah border to Bryce Canyon.  En route, we saw giant tumbleweeds for the first time, and learned that if a giant tumbleweed inexplicably traveling perpendicular to the highway smashes into your car, it explodes into a million little pieces.  It could have easily landed inside the car, instead of on the windshield, at which point I probably would have screamed and swerved off the road.  A quick Google search confirms that "car v tumbleweed" really is a thing that people living out West have to think about.  We, on the other hand (having averted minor disaster), pulled into Bryce Canyon in one piece.

Wall Street Bryce Canyon Utah
Wall Street.. get it?
Once in the park, we took the Navajo Loop Trail down into the canyon, hiked through Wall Street (pictured), then turned around and went back up past Thor's Hammer (the park's signature hoodoo).  It was about 2h total, and was a great Bryce Canyon overview for anyone who doesn't have time to set up camp (figuratively/literally) and spend a day here.  It also wasn't particularly rigorous -- I saw plenty of retirees, and more than one hiker with a baby carrier in tow.

Now is probably also a good time to add that parking and admission were free at this point, as we picked up an "America the Beautiful Pass" on the way into the Grand Canyon the previous day.  If you're planning on seeing even just a few National Parks over the course of a year (let alone on a single trip), the pass pays for itself.

Virgin River snaking through Zion
The Virgin River snaking through Zion

Zion is about 1.5h southwest of Bryce, and most people enter the park through the Zion-Mt. Carmel highway and tunnel (a scenic drive in its own right).  The narrow, mile-long tunnel bores through the mountains and drops nearly 1000 feet in elevation, and claustrophobic riders (or those who remember that old Stallone movie Daylight) might get a little squeamish.  

Once in the park, we meandered from the visitor center on the Pa'rus Trail (paved the entire way) along the serene Virgin River, eventually stopping at Canyon Junction Bridge and heading back the way we came.  The rugged beauty of this place was fully on display, and you really get a sense of why they reverently named this place Zion.  Fun fact: President Taft originally wanted to call it Mukuntuweap National Monument, so to quote Richard Lewis in Robin Hood: Men in Tights -- "It's a good change.. it's a good change!"  All told, we spent about 2h in the park before heading back to Vegas.

We drove another 2.5h into the sunset and made it back to Vegas by nightfall, settling in our room at the Mandalay Bay.  Our accommodations here were a holdover from the end of the prior business trip, and everything was mercifully comp'd.  We had already been in Vegas for several days beforehand, and were more or less Vegas'ed out at this point.  After a good night's sleep and a big breakfast, we continued west towards California.

Death Valley
The drive from Vegas to Death Valley is another 2.5h west, and after initially traversing some mountainous terrain around Red Rock Canyon, it becomes truly barren and devoid of life, aside from the gnarled Joshua trees that dot the landscape.  It's desolate and beautiful, and really freaking hot (more on this below).  As you turn south into California, you pass through Death Valley Junction, a real-life ghost town consisting of mostly abandoned/dilapidated buildings surrounded by the desert on all sides.

Zabriskie Point Death Valley California
A view of the void, from Zabriskie Point
Once in Death Valley proper, we stopped at the Furnace Creek Ranch for lunch, and to escape the heat.  They call it Furnace Creek for a reason -- the highest temperature ever recorded on the entire damned planet (!!!) was right here, in 1913, at a slightly balmy 134°.  (When we were there it felt like a cool 100°, 105° tops.)  You can continue from there to Badwater Basin, officially the lowest point in all of North America at 282 feet below sea level -- as you can see, this is a land of extremes.  Overlooking this bleak landscape is Zabriskie Point, an elevated clearing in the desert that offers truly unforgettable, panoramic views of this beautiful wasteland.

We lingered in the desert for some time before our heat-adled brains yearned for the Mustang's AC and the open road.  After another 2.5h in the car, we were back in Vegas, shaking the sand out of our socks, and ready to call it a trip.

Arizona Highway Vista Sunset
See you, space cowboy...
This was effectively a National Parks loop from Vegas, with a day trip to Death Valley thrown in for good measure.  As noted above, buy an "America the Beautiful" pass at the first National Park you visit, as park hoppers will find that it pays for itself very quickly.  Not much else to add here, aside from the fact that if we had an extra day, we probably would have stretched ourselves a little further east, seen Arches, and spent a night in Moab (or thereabouts).

Point redemptions
20k IHG points @ 2.1 cents/point =
$210 in free travel!

Guide used:
Eyewitness Travel Southwest US and National Parks
Eyewitness Travel:
Southwest US and National Parks

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