Discovering Utah – Zion, Bryce Canyon & Monument Valley

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This blogpost is the second of a series telling the tales of my road trip through the American South West. If you’ve missed the previous one, feel free to catch up: here’s Arizona.

 

You might know Utah as one of the most conservative states in the US (it’s the state of mormons), but I will always remember it as the region where I saw some of the most breathtaking landscapes ever. Green trees, grey deserts, red rocks, rainbow-colored water… for a gal from tiny Belgium like me, it was an amazing experience to drive and walk through that nature for several days.

zion sunset

Our first stop in Utah was Zion, one of the country’s most popular parcs and, as we’d heard, a true heaven for hiking freaks (not really our profile, but we still loved it). We completely fell for its charm as soon as we arrived: surrounded by mountains, wooden cabins, trees, in the silence of the valley (I guess that’s the perks of low season), we were feeling like adventurers, ready to go explore this whole new type of nature.

zion overlook

On our first day, we had planned to go on a few easy hikes. The first one, the Canyon Overlook Trail, is a short walk (less than an hour roundtrip), perfect to warm up our legs and have a first overview of the park from one of its highest overlooks. On the way there, we passed in the Mount Carmel Tunnel with our car. The tunnel was dug in the mountain to link the two parts of the park and features huge ‘windows’ that offer a breathtaking view on the valley (beware if you have fear of heights, and keep your eyes on the road)!

After that first encounter with the park’s trails, we were ready for some more serious hiking – actually, we went on for a secret hike…

zion secret trail

If you know me a little, you know I don’t really do improv. I like to be prepared, and there’s a good reason for that. And that reason is not that I love annoying everyone with a military planning filled with must-sees (that’s just an extra ;)), no; when you’ve done research, you can get away from the tourist traps and go for the real interesting stuff, that’s not on all the brochures at the visitors center. Like this secret trail (ok, it does have a name – the Pine Creek Waterfall trail), where you won’t spot many other hikers and will have to make your own path between the rocks, the water and the dead trees, but that will reward your hard work with a quiet and charming moment by a little waterfall. The water is cold, but it’s the view that counts!

I discovered this thanks to this blog and I’m very happy we followed the advice.

After a quick lunch break, we ended our day with one last hike, all the way to the Upper Emerald Pools (the Lower and Middle pools were closed due to a landslide, shit happens), another nice walk up the mountains (don’t forget your camera because the views are indescribable) leading to a whole bunch of water pools, all the way to another waterfall – a bigger one. The roundtrip took us about 1h30.

zion angels landing

For our second day, we had decided to get to the serious part: Angels Landing. This hike is know all around the world because it is long, intense and hazardous. After an hour walking on the steepest road I’ve ever been on, you arrive at the start of a climbing route in the rocks. That moment when you think you’re almost there and you realise you haven’t even started yet. Angels Landing is a half-secured ‘path’ in the rocks, sometimes you can hold on to an old chain, sometimes you’ll find a few steps, but most of the time you’re just standing a few centimeters away from slipping and dying in the river. It might sound dramatic, but the rumours are true and I just want to make sure no one underestimates it: if you have fear of heights, don’t even bother. And if you want to accept the challenge, you’d better get some decent shoes, water and sunblock. I’ve seen people having to go back before they got to the ‘serious’ part because they came in flip flops (I know 🙄). Personally, even though in the end, I’m happy I faced my fears and did it, if I’m being honest I have to tell you I had a few breakdowns on the way and cried a couple times, because I genuinely thought I wouldn’t survive. And still now, I kind of can’t believe ‘only’ 7 people have died on this trail since 2004.

Spoiler alert: this is the view FROM THE TOP (I climbed all this way, so let me have my moment please ^^)

zion angels landing

It’s beautiful, but since I didn’t dare getting closer to the edge, I’ll probably never know how much. I did make new friends while I was sitting: as I was trying to calm my peaking anxiety, these little chipmunks ran all around me and kept me entertained.

angels landing chipmunk

In total, it took us 4 or 5 hours. Again, don’t underestimate it! There are no toilets on the way, no water fountains, no food stalls. So be prepared and act safe. You’ll live a unique experience (definitely because there’s no way I’m doing that ever again :P).

The same day, we also went to check out Weeping Rock, which is literally a weeping rock at the end of a mini-trail, very chill and accessible to all types of non-athletes as well. It was very impressive too!

 

zion cabins

There are two main options for staying:

  • sleep in the park, in one of the facilities of the Zion Lodge. They have hotel rooms and cabins, which is the arrangement we picked. It’s expensive (we went off season and paid over 200$ per night), but it’s cosy, typical, charming and it allows you access to the park after hours, as well as the permission to drive everywhere with your own vehicle instead of the shuttles. You can also book a camping spot, but make sure you check the weather before and that you handle the reservation on time, because these sell out several weeks/months in advance.
  • sleep right outside the park, in the little traveler’s village of Springdale. It’s really close, it has a few restaurants and stores where you can buy everything you need, and it’s waaaayyyy cheaper than the park’s official hotel – without necessarily being less charming. We spent our first night in the Zion Pioneer Lodge, a basic but clean and comfortable motel with adorable employees and a pretty nice view on the mountains. I really recommend it to you, it is conveniently placed near a decent pizzeria, has a huge parking and is very reasonable in terms of price (I think we paid 75 euros for a room with two double beds).

 

After Zion, we were exhausted and all we could think about was the bed awaiting us at our next motel, only 20 minutes away from the park. But… as we were looking at the map, we realised we were only an hour and a half away from Bryce Canyon, which was originally on our wishlist but got bumped because we didn’t think we’d have enough time. It was already 4p.m., but we wanted to try and get there before the sunset. After all, we didn’t come all this way to sleep, we came to live and see everything (note the optimistic thought process of the first week 😁)

bryce canyon snow winter

And it was a very good decision! Even though we could only spend one hour there before it became dark, even though we only got a tiny glimpse, we were lucky enough to see the sun set on a snowy Bryce Canyon. This might be only 1,5 hour away from Zion, but the climate is completely different! While Zion was getting ready to welcome hundreds of Spring Break visitors, Bryce was still closed for the winter for a few more weeks, and most trails were closed because of the bad weather.

We eventually drove back to our motel in the dark, praying we wouldn’t hit any animals (I’m not joking, we saw so many on the side of the road and even had to stop for a train of cows who wanted to cross the highway). A nice warm bath, a long night of sleep and a decent breakfast managed to charge our batteries again and got us ready to hit the road again. Next stop: Monument Valley!

monument valley

Un paysage que vous reconnaîtrez sûrement puisqu’il a été le cadre d’un nombre incroyable de films, clips, shootings et autres constituants de notre inconscient collectif. Monument Valley est un territoire navajo, cela implique donc des installations relativement rudimentaires sur place (pas de routes goudronnées par exemple, encore une fois nous étions contents d’être en 4×4), mais comme c’est un site touristique assez prisé dans le coin, les gérants ont eu la bonne idée d’y construire un hotel (The View) avec vue sur les ‘monuments’.

Et depuis peu, une flopée de petites cabanes ont poussé à côté du terrain de camping (où vous pouvez également séjourner), et c’est l’option que nous avons choisie (car le prix était le même qu’une chambre d’hotel et que nous avions envie d’être à notre aise, au calme, seuls.

monument valley view cabins

J’aimerais vous parler du coucher de soleil magnifique auquel on a eu droit mais les mots me manquent, tellement c’était impressionnant. Assise sur mon balcon avec un verre de vin d’ice tea (l’alcool est interdit sur les territoires navajo!), j’avais le sentiment d’être incroyablement chanceuse et privilégiée. Le lendemain, je me suis réveillée avec la lumière du jour qui venait à nouveau se poser sur les plaines de l’autre côté de ma fenêtre.

monument valley

Après 1h de photos et un petit déjeuner maison (‘cuisiné’ dans la cabane, qui ne s’est d’ailleurs pas vraiment avérée être équipée donc n’espérez pas vous lancer dans des oeufs-bacon), nous sommes partis à la découverte du parc. La visite s’articule autour d’une grande boucle qui sillonne parmi les monuments, avec des points de vue partout pour s’arrêter et prendre des photos (ou tout simplement admirer les merveilles que la nature a mis à votre disposition).

monument valley portrait

La boucle prend entre 1h30 et 2h à parcourir (dérapages contrôlés et poses sur les rochers compris :p) mais il y avait peu de monde, une bonne raison de s’y aventurer en se levant (d’autant plus que la température peut grimper très vite après 11h).

monument valley portrait

Bon, alors, vous me croyez maintenant qu’on s’en met plein la vue en Utah? La prochaine fois, je vous parlerai du Colorado – l’état voisin aux paysages presque opposés!

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