The Grand Circle Tour – Day Three – Capitol Reef National Park

Traveling From Bryce to Torrey and Touring Capitol Reef

Again on day three, the journey was part of the entertainment.  Traveling along Utah SR-12 was something special.  It is nicknamed the All-American Road and we were treated to amazing sights and panoramas all along the way.

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This reminded us of a Greek or Roman ruin.
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Rugged Ranch Building

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Utah’s SR-12 – Scenic Byway – The All-American Road

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St Anthony of the Desert Catholic Church in Torrey, UT

 

Capitol Reef is one of the newer national parks.  It was established in 1971 to preserve approximately 378 square miles of desert landscape.  It is about 60 miles long on its north-south axis and is only six miles wide, on average.  The park was named for a line of white Navajo Sandstone cliffs with dome formations that resemble the white domes placed on capitol buildings.

As we approached the park, we did not know what to expect.  However, this time Nature was giving us an abundance of clues that the show was about to start.  All around us were imposing rock formations.  The colors were varied, but were decidedly more reddish than Bryce and Zion.  Below are some sights we encountered at a scenic overlook between the Capitol Reef entrance and the visitor center.

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Stefan – The Capitol Reef Greeter

After a quick stop at the visitor center to secure a map and some advice, we decided to stay in our vehicle and take the Scenic Drive.  We headed out on the 10-mile road, passing orchards and campgrounds, while surrounded by amazing rock formations in every direction.  The trek was eight miles on a paved road, followed by a two-mile stretch on a dirt road.  (Strangely, the return trip seemed like an entirely different route as we noticed new things from a different perspective.)  The best part was definitely at the end when the pavement stopped and the dirt road began.  As the park ranger explained to me, “It’s the closest thing to hiking through a slot canyon on foot that you can experience in a car.”  He was not wrong – the canyon walls closed in and the views were fantastic.

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When you spend a lot of time with the rocks, you start to see things.  How many faces do you see here?

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White Navajo Sandstone Dome – Perhaps a “Capitol” Dome

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The Grand Circle Tour – Day Two – Bryce Canyon National Park

The Trip From Zion to Bryce (AKA Hoodoo Heaven)

After a nice buffet breakfast, we headed out toward Bryce Canyon National Park.  We would be staying in Bryce City, which is adjacent to the park.  To get there, we passed through the entrance of Zion National Park and immediately found ourselves on a road with spectacular views all around.  The Zion Park Scenic Byway (SR-9) brought to mind the phrase “Enjoy the journey.”  In Utah, you don’t simply drive from point A to point B, the trip itself is part of the show.  The winding road took us through incredible rock formations and we had to make several stops at overlook points to take in the beauty.  The road rose and fell as we traversed several switchbacks and passed through tunnels carved through solid rock.

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Checkerboard Mesa

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Along the way, we also encountered the Dixie National Forest and Red Canyon.  Here we saw rock formations that looked decidedly different than anything we had seen before.  They were starting to look more hoodoo-like (more on that later).

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Sagebrush was growing all along the sides of the road.

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As we approached Bryce Canyon, we did not know what to expect.  The landscape was deceptive, as we had gradually increased our altitude on the trek from Zion.  We were now atop a plateau and would be looking down on the landscape, rather than up, as we were in Zion.  There were no soaring rock walls to tip us off about the beauty we were about to experience.

The road through Bryce Canyon National Park is an 18 mile, out-and-back stretch with multiple vantage points along the way.  The setup was also different from that of  Zion; here we were in our own vehicle, hitting overlook points at our leisure, rather than touring via shuttle bus.

We all agreed that we hit the best part of the park first.  The Amphitheater can be viewed from four different vantage points.  We stopped at both Sunset Point and Bryce Point and were in awe of the landscape below – simply jaw-dropping to experience in person.

The park contains the world’s largest collection of hoodoos and they are spectacular.  We also checked out views from several other viewpoints: Natural Bridge, Agua Canyon, Rainbow Point, Yovimpa Point, Ponderosa Point and Swamp Canyon.

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Natural Bridge, which is technically an arch and not a bridge.

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Doing my best impression of a hoodoo.

 

 

More on hoodoos:  These are tall, thin columns of rock that generally rise from the bottom of a drainage basin.  They typically consist of soft rock that is topped by harder, less-easily eroded stone.  Hoodoos have a variable thickness and are sometimes described as having a “totem pole-shaped body.”  They differ from a classic spire, which has a smoother profile and a more uniform thickness that tapers from the ground up.  We heard many explanations on the origin of the word “hoodoo,” but I settled on the one related to the original inhabitants of the land, the Paiute Indians.  They called the rocks hoodoos, which meant “ancient peoples, who were turned to stone as the result of bad deeds.”  Don’t be a hoodoo.

The Grand Circle Tour – Day One – Zion National Park

Springdale, Utah and Zion National Park

We arrived in Springdale and headed directly to our hotel – the Best Western Plus.  We learned that the hotel had only recently opened for business, so everything was crisp and clean and new.  The town itself was very picturesque with upscale shops and art galleries dotted along the beautifully-landscaped main road.  We could see the imposing mountains of red rock to the east and to the west, reminding us of the purpose of our visit.

Zion National Park covers 229 square miles.  Its most prominent feature is Zion Canyon, which stretches 15 miles long and is up to a half a mile deep in places.  The canyon was cut through the reddish and tan-colored Navajo Sandstone by the north fork of the Virgin River.

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Best Western Plus With Mountains In The Background

After a quick trip to the Switchback Restaurant and Store to secure happy hour provisions for later, we decided to head to the park.  The friendly hotel staff explained that parking inside of Zion was scarce, so they suggested that we take the free shuttle service to the park entrance.  We hopped on the shuttle at stop #4 (directly in front of the hotel) and were at the park a few minutes later.

After passing through the entrance, we grabbed some trail mix and granola bars for a quick, on-the-go lunch.  We then jumped on the courtesy shuttle inside the park and headed to the furthest stop (#9) to reach the Riverside Walk.

The shuttle ride itself was a treat.  Our heads were on a swivel trying to take in the amazing vistas all around us.  At the trailhead, we were intrigued by a rock climber making his ascent up a sheer cliff face.

As we walked along the Virgin River, there were soaring rock walls on both sides.

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Bridge to the Park Entrance
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The Virgin River
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Path Along the Riverside Walk

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Picasso Face

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We saw surprisingly-tame rock squirrels, deer and wild turkeys along the way.

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After shuttling back to the hotel, we enjoyed a short happy hour in Jan and Dawne’s room and then headed out to Pizza and Noodle for a casual dinner.  We all chose the house specialty of Chicken Parmesan, which was delicious.  After dinner, we returned to the hotel, had a final nightcap and retired to our rooms for a much-needed night of sleep.

The Grand Circle Tour – Overview

The Adventure Begins

I recently had the pleasure of taking a trip to the American Southwest with some very good friends of mine.  The trip was planned by our fearless leader, Jan (pronounced “yawn”), who is an extremely organized and regimented Swede.  We needed someone to take charge and he certainly did.  He spent countless hours researching potential routes, points of interest, accommodations, and modes of transportation.

In the months leading up to the trip, Jan would regularly send out emails with suggestions and options and ask for our input.  We would, in turn, respond with, “Sounds great,” or, “Whatever you think is best,” and then carefully file away the emails for future reading.  It is a wonder he did not get frustrated with our lack of input and decide to either go it alone or find other more-engaged travel partners.  Luckily for us, he did not.  He deserves full credit for the bulk of the planning and the ultimate itinerary.

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Jan – Our Fearless Leader

After careful consideration (mostly by Jan), it was determined that we would start and end our tour in Las Vegas and make a big loop (The Grand Circle) covering over 1,600 miles.   We would visit six national parks, multiple state parks and several other sites along the way.  We decided to forgo the use of an RV and rent a minivan, which would be more flexible and practical when accessing the parks.

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The Grand Circle Route – Starting and ending in Las Vegas
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Our stylish Kia Sedona with Plastic New York in the background.  Also available for viewing while in Vegas: Plastic Paris and Plastic Venice.

The other members of our crew included Jan’s lovely American wife, Dawne, and the ever-pleasant Swedish couple, Stefan and Ann.  I always say that you never really know someone until you travel together.  Spending day after day on the road with people can result in some uncomfortable and awkward moments, unless you have similar temperaments and expectations.  Having known all of the crew for many years, I knew we would be a great fit – and we were.

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The Crew

We had so many laughs along the way as we took in the breathtaking scenery and landscapes.  On some days, our plans were pretty nailed down and we would visit a specific national park for the bulk of a day.  On other days, our plans were more open-ended and flexible with only a general direction in mind and a list of potential places to investigate along the way.  On the open-ended days, Jan would typically ask for input and he was usually met with four blank stares.  He would then politely remind us that we had not completed our homework assignments.  This then resulted in four of us frantically searching the internet (when we had coverage) or leafing through travel brochures to find suggestions for the day.

After gathering in Las Vegas (one of my least favorite places on the planet), we headed out in late April, in our trusted Kia Sedona.  The contrast between the man-made, plastic, neon world of Vegas and the sights we were about to experience could not have been more stark.

Note:  Photo credits to all Grand Circle Posts go to Jan, Dawne, Stefan, Ann and me.

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A Preview of the Amazing Sites We Would Encounter – Horseshoe Bend, AZ

 

 

 

 

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