This post is long overdue, but I thought I’d some of the experiences from my most recent visit to Utah. The Western US is amazing – absolutely mind boggling geology, wide open spaces, and friendly people. The natural attractions are world class and any serious traveler should have a a trip on their list. Planning is my least favorite phase of a trip because it’s hard to find clear, directive advice on what to do and how long to allow – so below I’ll share some specific observations and guidance:
- Southeastern Oregon and Northern Nevada are really, really, really empty. I think I went 400-500 miles between stoplights including a stretch on ‘the loneliest road in America’ (north of Ely, Nevada) – but did pass a camper walking along the highway. It’s actually a little surprising to me how little the landscape and vegetation changed between E. Oregon and southern Nevada – just mile after mile of high desert plains crossed by a small streak of mountains here and there
- There’s really nothing like seeing a beautiful sunrise on a crisp morning where you know you’re the only person around – it’s an experience that’s uniquely yours
- The Washington Post has named Battle Mountain Nevada ‘The Armpit of America’. This is a bold claim and I’ve spent some time in towns that should be serious contenders for an award like this, so I was of course compelled to visit for lunch and test the claim with a skeptic’s eye. But in fact it seems like a really depressing town with nothing to recommend it.
- I camped at Great Basin National Park hoping to hike up to see 4,000 year old bristlecone pine trees and Nevada’s only glacier (did you know Nevada has more glaciers than Colorado?)..but in May the road to the top of the park was still snowed in. I camped around 8,000 feet and woke up to find my water jugs frozen – not exactly the Nevada experience I was planning for. I went just a little out of my way for this park; it’s an easy place to camp and I was treated to a gorgeous sunrise but if you’re time constrained I wouldn’t trade off a day in Utah to see it.
- Two books that helped plan Utah were the Lonely Planet guide and “Photographing the Southwest” – which actually has decent guidance on hiking trails. This was the most scenic leg of the trip and if you weren’t putting it in the middle of a larger road trip you could easily fly in to St. George Utah (or even Las Vegas), rent a car for the week, and drop it off at the airport in Moab/Canyonlands (CNY) or Grand Junction for your flight out. To give you a sense for how to allocate time in Utah I’ve broken out our itinerary by day:
Days 1-3 in Zion National Park
- Zion National Park is absolutely amazing; the Zion river has cut down into the sandstone leaving a steep valley with incredible sights – e.g. the color contrast between red stone and the vibrant green cottonwood trees. Unless you really don’t hike at all, plan 2-3 days in Zion. The marquis hike is Angel’s Landing, a ~3 hour hike that ends by climbing up a knife-edged ridge about 1,500 feet above the valley floor. I highly recommend getting out there early – it’s so much nicer to be the first people up – and later hikers will have to deal not only with opposing traffic passing on that knife-edge ridge but possibly afternoon winds and blowing dust that raise the stress even more.
- Other awesome hikes we did: Observation Point (strenuous, ~5 hour, best views in the park); Hidden Valley (short spur on the way to Observation Point); and Emerald Pools (a little rocky but pretty easy). The Narrows is the other marquis hike in the park – walking upstream in the Zion river as the canyon walls narrow to only a few yards wide and hundreds of feet deep – but we missed it because the river was running too fast to permit hikers
- For a scenic drive, head west out of the main entrance towards Virgin, UT and take Kolob Terrace road up to the mesa – you’ll see postcard views of landscapes, farms, forests, and wildlife. It tops out around 8,000 feet and in May there was snow and black ice on the road (enough to require winching two of us out)
- After crossing over from Nevada I grabbed a private campsite in Springdale, Utah right outside the gates of Zion National Park. As a general rule the national parks (and many state parks) have better and cheaper campsites than the private facilities. If you’re like me and couldn’t get a reservation, show up and do a private campsite night 1 (almost never sold out), then get to the park’s first-come-first-served campsites and snag one around 7-8am after the early risers have left. At Zion this is the South Campground and it seemed like first-come-first-served spots were pretty easy to find until 9-10am
- The restaurants and hotels in Zion don’t have a whole lot to recommend them, but we did get a great meal at Oscar’s; I’d hit it daily if I were there again
Zion Canyon as seen from Observation Point
Day 4 – Bryce Canyon and Cottonwood Canyon road
- From Zion we drove to Bryce Canyon, about 60-90 minutes away. You probably don’t need more than half a day at Bryce Canyon but you should time it such that you’re there starting 15-30 minutes before sunrise or 1-2 hours before sunset. I keep raving about sunrises in the US West but walking up to the canyon rim, seeing the spires coming into view, and watching the sunrise color the hundreds of hoodoos was absolutely best view of the trip. Aside from sunrise/sunset on the rim, walk through Wall Street on the Queen’s Garden or Navajo trail (closed in winter).
- On the way out of Bryce stop at Ruby’s Inn for lunch as you won’t have many options if you’re continuing east. The buffet is so-so but my BBQ pork sandwich hit the spot
- On the strength of the photography book’s recommendation we spent the afternoon driving down Cottonwood Canyon road (4×4 or rental car + tow strap recommended) and were rewarded with spectacular views – in particular Devil’s Garden, the Cockscomb, and Cottonwood Narrows – all are very close to the road. If you’re feeling adventurous you can put your 4×4 in low and try the VERY steep and narrow Brigham Plains road spur a few miles into the cockscomb
- Kodachrome State Park sits at the paved end of the road and was the nicest campground we stayed at during the entire trip – highly recommended if you can reserve ahead of time.
- Note that you’re still in the high desert and the altitude provides cold temps at night – we got a hard freeze at Kodachrome in mid May
Day 5 – Slot canyons on Hole-In-Rock Road + Capital Reef at sunset
- Continue driving east to Hole in Rock road (again, rental car or 4×4 + tow strap recommended) where you’ll find an unmarked turnoff for the Peek-a-boo and Spooky slot canyons. These are incredibly narrow canyons cut into the rock after rainstorms…as in, so narrow you’ll need to leave your backpack behind. Don’t bring a watch, fancy clothes, or anything else you’re afraid of having abraded as you slide through dusty sandstone. I would strongly recommend a plastic bag for your camera as without it you’re virtually guaranteed to hear grit in your zoom lens/focus ring after spending a few hours in the dust.
- If you’re a reasonably serious photographer, try to find a small tripod (light is low and you’ll want small apertures for DOF), use a UV or polarizing filter on your lens (no lens changes in the canyon!) and seal your camera in a clear plastic bag with a hole cut for the end of the lens (use a rubber band around the lens hood/barrel to keep the bag sealed). The aforementioned photography book gives tips on the best time of day to shoot each canyon (e.g. around mid-day may be best as the canyons are so steep and narrow that morning/evening light won’t penetrate)
- Dave navigating Peek-a-boo canyon:
- When you emerge from the slot canyons in early afternoon, head for Boulder Utah and have dinner at the epicurean Burr’s Trail Grill. We were treated to a mind blowing preparation of polenta, the best gourmet burgers of the trip, and a slice of moist Devil’s food cake cake the size of my head..all a very pleasant high quality surprise in a town of 250 people.
- Time your departure from the restaurant to pass through Capital Reef national park during the 1-2 hours before sunset. There’s more traffic and bigger cliffs on the west side of the park but for my money the most interesting formations are actually on the eastern end after you cross the Fremont river. Seeing the diversity of shapes and colors in the cliffs made me consider going back to school to become a geologist.
- Given the diversity of formations at Capital Reef, a serious photographer could spend a week or more there (a major fraction of the photography guidebook is devoted to this park). Alas we were on a schedule and had to see it in transit
Looking back at the cockscomb formation from Brigham Plains Road
Day 6-7 – Moab and Arches National Park
- Moab is the big town in eastern Utah – filled with adventure tourists and yippies who’ve moved there for the rock climbing, mountain biking, view, etc. You’ll have quite a few options for shopping/eating/sleeping. We camped in town at “up the creek” campground because we weren’t early enough to get a reservation at our preferred location – Dead Horse Point State Park
- Arches National Park is right outside Moab and almost everything in the park is close to the road (read Edward Abbey’s classic Desert Solitaire for a sense of the park before the road was built!). This means that relative to Canyonlands or even Zion there’s a huge number of casual tourists at most of the sights in the park.
- IMHO, one day is enough for Arches NP. Start by being at Dead Horse Point State Park 30 minutes before sunrise and watching the earth rotate to illuminate the bends of the colorado river through Canyonlands National Park (2nd best sunrise of the trip!). Be sure to bring $10 cash to pay your parking fee on the way in even if there’s no ranger in the booth – they show up at 7am and make a beeline for the overlook parking lot to write tickets for anyone who didn’t behave honorably. After sunrise cruise back to Arches NP and do whatever hikes interest you (they’re all short). Head into town to grab lunch (nothing really stood out; the local brewpub is decent as is Eklecticafe). A couple of hours before sunset grab your camera, head back to Arches NP, and make the short climb up to the Delicate Arch viewpoint (follow the dozens of other people carrying tripods) to watch the most famous stone arch in america luminesce in the warm tones of sunset with the snow covered La Sal mountains in the background.
- Crash at Deadhorse Point State Park (if you were able to get a reservation) for the night
- Spend the next day or two doing whatever interests you around Moab – the town has dozens of outfitters who’ll set you up for rock climbing, mountain biking, 4×4 tours, etc. If nothing else, cruise out Potash Road just north of town to see climbers hanging on the side of the road and do some off-roading (search for “poison spider mesa” trail) or just take the road out to the gravel section past the potash mine for views of the Colorado river cutting through red rock. I found the town itself underwhelming; like so many places dominated by tourists the restaurants and service were a little flat with few bargains to be found…but you’re not in Moab to hang out indoors, right?
Sunrise at Deadhorse Point State Park near Moab
From here you can continue driving the “Grand Circle Route” through Cortez, Colorado (Mesa Verde National Park) and Arizona (Monument Valley, Grand Canyon, etc.) or turn in your rental car and catch a flight home from Canyonlands (CNY) or Grand Junction (GJT).
I’d do this trip again in a heartbeat.
Just another mountain view – near the metro station in El Golf.
I came to Santiago with low expectations (“nothing to do there…don’t spend more than 24 hours”) but was very pleasantly surprised. Buenos Aires is very European, but it’s a European influence from 1880-1950. Santiago’s European influence feels more 1970-present. Walking around El Golf near my hotel there were Starbucks, Brooks Brothers, TGI Fridays, etc. Parts of Vitacura felt almost German – Bauhaus buildings, porsches, contemporary furniture stores, etc. Presumably Chile’s trajectory of rapid economic expansion since the 1970s brought expats and foreign influence at the same time as Argentina was relatively stagnant and unattractive for foreign investment.
Santiago just feels more vibrant than Argentina; walking around BA, Mendoza, or Rosaria (Argentina) on a weekday gives the sense of pretty low asset and labor productivity – storefronts not open for business, equipment idled, people moving slowly or without purpose, etc. Santiago has a sharp contrast between the high rent European neighborhoods and the rest of the city but it’s still noticeably more active. Or perhaps my impressions were skewed positively by getting gorgeous weather in Chile after a week of rain and clouds in Argentina.
As with Buenos Aires it seems the Southern Cone’s days as a cheap weekend getaway are over. You can get by on $30 per day but to get out and have a good time you’re spending $150/day – cabs and meals are a little cheaper than Texas (especially on the high end) but not much.
I’ve kept my perfect record of encountering youth protests on every visit to South America – tuition hikes in Chile (2011), something undetermined in Mendoza (2011), socialist party rally in Cusco (2007), and cracking down on crime in BA (2006). I’ve never really felt threatened but I wish I spoke a little more Spanish to understand the context of what I’m walking through and when to GTFO.
Specific travel suggestions:
- Take the free walking tour of the downtown area that meets at the Plaza de Armas around 9am (check google). It’s great to get your bearings and the tour guides are quite engaging (because they work for tips!)
- Consider taking a bicycle tour of neighborhoods beyond downtown. TripAdvisor has some suggestions (but TripAdvisor is really getting AstroTurfed these days, so do your diligence)
- The W Santiago is fantastic if you’ve got points to burn…but be sure to get out of that neighborhood to get a feel for what the other 98% of Santiago looks like
- Cabs are really expensive ($15 for a ~10 minute ride) but the metro is awesome. Figure it out quickly and save your money
- The university area (Bella Vista) has a really coo vibe (a little gritty – but high energy). I love walking down the street and seeing all the sidewalk cafes with folks sharing liter bottles of beer at lunch. The single best corner for budget food in South America might be at Constitucion and [ ]. There’s an amazing sandwich bar (‘sangucheria’), a good casual chilean place (Galindo), and a higher end seafood place – plus others nearby that look promising as well.
- Take the funicular (or hike) to the top of Cerro San Cristobal to get a fantastic view of the city. You can eat in Bella Vista at the bottom of the hill, walk it off by spending the afternoon on the hill, and descend to eat again in the same great neighborhood.
- Beyond Santiago, Valparaiso is a coastal city and UNESCO world heritage site about 90 minutes away which offers a nice 1-2 day side trip, and Villerica (lakes district) and patagonia look awesome if you had enough time to make a second leg down south.
I’d like to go back and spend more time there, although I’m not sure when it’ll happen.
Ice in the water, Kenai Fjords National Park
- Driving (first) and then riding the bus through Denali; almost hitting a moose and her calves; seeing grizzlies and caribou near the road
- Braving the mosquitoes at Wonder Lake to bushwhack across spongy tundra, almost run into another moose, and realize that even if sunset is technically midnight it never really gets dark
- Taking a shower and drying our gear out at the Sheraton after a couple days camping in the rain. Finding pizza and beer at Glacier Brewhouse in Anchorage
- Hiking Bird Ridge just outside Anchorage on the Seward Highway; watching one of the world’s highest tides go out of the Turnagain arm – with incredible mountain views, blue skies, and black bear + bald eagle sightings on the trail
- Kayaking through Kenai Fjords National Park; listening and watching glaciers as they calved small icebergs into the water we paddled through (something dropped every 5-10 minutes!!). Pulling the kayaks up on an empty beach in the park to camp for the night and cook steak fajitas
- Climbing the trail up to the Harding Icefield – the massive (300-1000 square miles) ice field that feeds all of the glaciers in Kenai Fjords National Park. Recovering from the hike in Seward with savory crepes from the Belgian chef at Le Barn Appetit
- Relaxing at the Anchorage Museum’s excellent exhibits on native people and the transformation of Alaska into a natural resource economy (gold, then fishing, then oil)
- Go flight seeing over Denali. The park is generally overcast and visitors might only see the mountain on a few days out of the summer. Had it been clear I’d have booked a flight seeing trip in a second
- Go backcountry camping. I’m a sissy – tents and sleeping on the ground are fine, but hiking around all day’s more fun without 35 pounds on my back. In any case much of the terrain we did walk on was either wet, rocky, or spongy so allow plenty of time to keep a safe pace if you’re going off trail
- Go fishing. The fishing is amazing, but none of us are passionate about it and we decided to put the funds to work somewhere else
- See Wrangell St. Elias National Park (beautiful, remote, and just a little too far away for us to justify driving to on this trip) and cross the Arctic Circle (again, would have been too much time in the car)
- See brown bears feeding on salmon at Brooks Falls (books up a year or more ahead of time, requires another $1k or so in airfare from Anchorage)
- The weather is hit and miss. We had an awesome time kayaking but if it’d been raining we probably would have done a day cruise instead of kayaking for 2 days. If you’re OK with risking things you can defer making reservations until a day or two before the trip and adjust your plans based on the weather
- Get the books Milepost (for driving) and 55 Ways to the Wilderness In South Central Alaska (for hiking)
- Pack some decent rain gear and binoculars in addition to the usual hiking/touring kit
From reading Wikipedia on the 8 hour (!) domestic flight. My favorite sentences:
- Alaska has a longer coastline than all the other U.S. states combined.With the extension of the Aleutian Islands into the eastern hemisphere, it is technically both the westernmost and easternmost state in the United States, as well as also being the northernmost.
- Mount Shishaldin [an occasionally smoldering volcano that rises to 10,000 feet (3,000 m) above the North Pacific] is the most perfect volcanic cone on Earth, even more symmetrical than Japan’s Mount Fuji
- Alaska is tied with Hawaii as the state with the lowest high temperature in the United States [100 degrees, recorded 8 miles inside the arctic circle in 1915]
- At the height of Russian America [i.e., pre-Alaska Purchase by the US], the Russian population reached 700.
- The oil and gas industry dominates the Alaskan economy, with more than 80% of the state’s revenues derived from petroleum extraction
- The state capital, Juneau, is not accessible by road, only a car ferry
- In 2009 there were 6,000 Jews in Alaska (for whom observance of the mitzvah may pose special problems)…In 2010, the local Muslim community broke ground on the first mosque in the state