Overview of trip to Southwest National Parks

Arches National Park
Arches National Park

Arches National Park
Arches National Park

In 2010 we decided to undertake another long cross country trip to visit national parks in Colorado, Utah, and Arizona. This turned out to be an over 6,700 mile trip across the US. These pages describe some of the highlights of the trip.

I recommend that you consider a trip such as this at least once. It's a great way to get an appreciation for what the US is like. Some tips if you're planning such a trip. Use MapQuest or other site to help plan your tip. It's very useful to know how much driving you'll need to do to get to all the places you want. Visit AAA and get their books on the places you expect to visit. The books are especially useful when you're trying to figure out where to spend the night especially if you're planning on spending the night in some small town.There may not be a national chain available. Plan on stopping at the welcome center for every state you visit. Get their state travel map and look for information on the area you plan to visit. Ask the people at the desk for suggestions about places to see along you route. When you get to your motel, ask about good places to eat. Make sure up have lots of water to drink while you're driving and stop every couple of hours to stretch you legs. Don't eat you lunch in the car. Get out and relax even if you're eating at a fast food place.

Our trip started with three fairly long days of driving across country from Durham to Canon City, Colorado. The drive crossed several states on the Interstate Highway system. Long trips like this really make you appreciate the interstate system and the 65 to 75 mile per hour speed limit.

Open road interstate highway
The open road

I've driven across country before the interstate system was completed and remember having to wait behind trucks going uphill at 10 mph and going through every town between. But that was easier than the trip that my great grandparents made in covered wagon and on horseback to help settle Colorado.

A car trip across the US, even at interstate highway speeds, gives me a renewed appreciation of the country. The wide variety of the country never ceases to amaze me. We went from the gentle hills and green of the Piedmont region of North Carolina, through the mountains of North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia, then on through the prairie of Indiana, Missouri, Kansas, and Eastern Colorado. Black soil and beautiful farms. We went by the arch in Saint Louis

Arch in Saint Louis
Saint Louis  Arch

Trees become fewer and fewer as you head west. Then we hit the Rockies and discovered trees again. After crossing the Rockies, we begin the descent into the great American desert where annual rainfall is less than 10 inches. The dominant color becomes red. The scenery is dominated by the erosion of red sandstone.

We spent nearly a month visiting in Colorado, Utah, and Arizona, put nearly 6,700 miles on our minivan, and still didn't have as much time as we wanted.

Royal Gorge

Royal Gorge  showing Arkanssas
River and Suspension Bridge
Royal Gorge

Our first real stop was in Canon City, Colorado. From Canon City, we planned to drive to the Royal Gorge (a place I remember from childhood many many years ago) and then head to the Black Canyon of The Gunnison National Park.

Door in Motel showing that John Wayne had stayed here

The motel we stayed at must have been headquarters for many of the movies that were made in this part of Colorado. Many of the rooms had plaques saying who had slept there. Lots of movie stars including John Wayne and Goldie Hawn.

We stopped at the Royal Gorge in Colorado for a brief look. The place has become more or less a theme park so we didn't spend much time there. The huge gorge that the Arkansas River has dug here was well worth the stop.

Monarch Pass

Mine at Monarch Pass

After our brief visit to the Royal Gorge, we headed for Monarch Pass. We stopped to take picture of the mine near the summit. We tried to find more information about the mine, but didn't have any success.

View from the Gondola as we traveled to the Monarch Crest
View from Monarch Crest Gondola ride
View from Monarch Crest
View from Monarch Crest

We stopped at the summit to take the Monarch Crest gondola ride. The gondola takes you from the Monarch Summit parking lot, 11,312 feet, to the Monarch Crest at over 12,000 feet. The day we were there the wind was high and the temperatures low so we couldn't get out of the hut at end of the ride. The view was spectacular even though we had to look through the Plexiglas windows. Would love to go back when the weather was a bit better.

After leaving Monarch Pass, we headed to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. We had most of the afternoon to visit the south rim and most of the next day to visit the north rim. From there we made a quick visit through the Colorado National Monument.

Red cliff in Colorado National Momument
Colorado National Momument

We spent the night in Fruita, Colorado.There was an old car show in Fruita and some of the cars were parked at our motel. Seeing unexpected things like these old cars is one of the advantages of driving across country. From Fruita, Colorado we headed west across Utah to Capital Reef.

Old Ford car in parking lot

The drive to Capital Reef National Park go through some pretty parts of Utah. The scenery is what the western movies lead you expect of the west. Dry low vegetation and red stone eroded rocks.

Capital Reef National Park
Capital Reef National Park

We spent the night in Torrey, UT. We got there rather late because we stayed in the park well after sunset to get photographs and to just admire the view. We were not sure about supper--lady in the motel told us that the restaurants had all closed. But if we were lucky we might find a burger place open. We drove back into town and found a place with a closed sign but with an open carryout window. When we got the the window, they told us they were still open and to come on in. We had a great burger.

Calf Creek Falls
Calf Creek Falls

From Capital Reef National Park we headed to Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. We spent the day there hiking to Calf Creek Falls. From there we drove to our timeshare in Brian Head. On the way to Brian Head we stopped to hike in Kodachrome Basin.

One of the things you need to worry about when you're driving off the interstate, is that much of the west is open range. You're about as likely to find a cow in the middle of the road as you are to find another car.

Cows in open range

We used Brian Head as our headquarters for a week while we visited several beautiful sites nearby.

Red sunset at Cedar Breaks
Cedar Breaks

Herd of sheep on road

As we leaving Brian Head, we dodged a herd of sheep that were being moved to new pasture. Sheep have the right-or-way in this case. After we got by the sheep, we headed to the Grand Canyon for a night at the North Rim to be followed by a couple of days at the South Rim of the canyon.

As we drove to the Grand Canyon we passed by the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument. The cliffs as viewed from the road are impressive. We didn't have any plans to visit it because we didn't have the time nor the 4 wheel drive car that is recommended for the unpaved roads there. So we stopped, got out of the car and enjoyed the view.

Vermillion Cliffs
Vermilion Cliffs

North Rim of the Grand Canyon

The first thing we saw as we entered the North Rim of the Grand Canyon was a lone bison. Bison were imported to the North Rim area by a rancher who planed to develop a herd of cattle/bison cross. The venture failed and the bison were turned loose. The National Park Service has developed a plan to mange the herd to ensure that it does not damage the north rim ecosystem.

Lone Bison Lonesome Bison

One interesting fact is that there is only one place where the Colorado River is visible from the top of the North Rim.

We spent the night at the North Rim Lodge and got up early to catch the sunrise. We then spent awhile exploring the area and headed to the South Rim. There is a couple of miles as the crow flies to between the the North Rim and the South Rim. Unfortunately, we don't fly, we we need to drive. It is a is a 220 mile drive to get from the north rim to the south rim. And the road is not an interstate. The crows have it made.

Navajo Bridge:Crossing the Colorado River

In order to get to from the North Rim to the South Rim you have to cross the Colorado River. This crossing used to happen at Lees' Ferry from 1873 until 1928. In June 1927 construction began for a bridge to replace the ferry. In June 1928 the ferry sunk while transporting men and equipment for the bridge. The ferry was not replaced and the bridge was opened January 12 1929. The bridge was named Navajo Bridge in 1934. The original bridge is still there as a pedestrian bridge. Vehicle traffic uses a new parallel bridge built in 1995.

Sign with history of Lees Ferry
Lees Ferry

Navajo Bridge over Colorado Rive
Navajo Bridge across Colorado River at Marble Canyon

Marble Canyon  Colorado Rive
Marble Canyon

After our stay at the South Rim, we headed to Moab, Utah to visit Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. These two parks are next to each other and are a couple of the jewels of the US national park system.

From Moab, Utah we headed to New Castle, Colorado where by Grandparents and Great grandparents are buried and then headed to Grand Lake, Colorado. From Grand Lake we visited Rocky Mountain National Park and then headed home to Durham, NC.

The Southwest Trip Menu provides links to the places we visited. You'll find more information and photos there.

These are the wonderful places that our parents and grandparents have preserved for us as national and state parks and monuments. All the places we visited were beautiful and amazing in their own way. And preserving them for us was not an easy fight. The words and pictures that are in the pages that the various links lead to don't do justice to the places. I hope that you will visit these special places. Thanks for visiting.