The Grand Circle Tour – Day Seven – Goodbye, Utah – Hello, Arizona (Mother Nature Takes Center Stage)

We awoke to overcast skies and occasional light rain in Blanding, Utah.  We were staying at the quirky Stone Lizard Lodge, which turned out to be a great place.  At first glance, it did not look like it had much to recommend it.  It appeared to be a non-descript, single-story motel on the side of the road, with parking directly in front of the rooms.

As it turned out, we really enjoyed our stay.  I love mom-and-pop type places that really go that extra step to show you that they appreciate your business.  There was a nice, well-maintained garden out back where guests could sit and relax.  We also noticed several bird feeders around the property that were successfully attracting swallows and hummingbirds.  The simple rooms were immaculately clean and were even decorated with some local art.  My room was a whopping $115 per night.

Jan 55 - Copy

Jan 77 - Copy
Front of the Stone Lizard Lodge
Jan 88 - Copy
Entrance to common room where breakfast was served.
Jan 1
Hummingbird feeding on the front side of the property.


We started out the day with a hearty breakfast, consisting of homemade sweet and savory pastries as well as several other offerings.  We could not help but meet several other hotel guests due to their close proximity at the very compact group table.  Everyone was very pleasant and eager to share their travel stories and recommendations.  I think I spotted Stefan stealing food off another guest’s plate, but I was not entirely sure.

We were anxious to explore southern Utah after visiting the wonderful visitor center in Blanding the day before.  A very friendly and knowledgeable lady had provided us with several brochures and more than enough options to fill our day.  She was obviously very proud of her state and all that it had to offer.

Mother Nature Takes Center Stage

Our overall plan was to head south towards Arizona and hit several sights along the way.  As we drove, the altitude increased and the temperature continued to drop.  Rain turned to sleet and then to snow, with some fog mixed in for good measure.  Not exactly the weather we expected in May, but we pressed on.  We spotted several cows and calves along the way and had to slow down a few times to avoid hitting them as they wandered into the road.


Calf on the side of the road.

Natural Bridges National Monument

After an unplanned detour to the town of Hite to get gas, our first stop was Natural Bridges National Monument.  It is not an official national park, but it is run by the National Park Service, so our annual park pass covered the admission.  An eight-mile loop runs through the park with viewpoints along the way to see Sipapu, Kachina, and Owachomo natural bridges.  We didn’t see much of Kachina, because Mother Nature was pelting us with sleet and rain, but she did allow us fantastic views of the other two bridges.  Before leaving the park, we stopped at the visitor center to view a short film about the history and geology of the park.


Sipapu Natural Bridge
Sipapu is the youngest (and thickest) of the three natural bridges in the park.
Close-up of Sipapu Natural Bridge


Owachomo Natural Bridge – the oldest (and thinnest) of the three bridges.
Close-up of Owachomo Natural Bridge.


We ran into some hard-core travelers having lunch in the parking lot of the visitor center.  We were intrigued by their van, which had a customized extension that doubled as a table and a storage bin.


Stefan bonding with our new friends, who were enjoying a stand-up lunch.

The Moki Dugway

We then headed south on SR-261 in search of the Moki Dugway.  Once again, we found that the journey was part of the entertainment.  The paved road turned into a three-mile stretch of gravel switchbacks with an 11% grade.  We suggest you find another route if you have a fear of heights.  However, the narrow road afforded sweeping views of the Valley of the Gods and the distant Monument Valley.  It was originally built in the 1950’s as a mining transport route.


A distant rain shower viewed from atop the Moki Dugway.
View across to the Valley of the Gods.
The winding switchbacks leading back to the paved road.
2Jan 3
The Crew atop the Moki Dugway.

2Jan 5

Back on the pavement and heading south.

Goosenecks State Park

Next up, we hit Goosenecks State Park, which allows a panoramic view of the meandering San Juan River 1,000 feet below.  The desert landscape reveals 300 million years of geological activity.  The lighting was not the best for photography, but we could not help but be impressed by the awe-inspiring views.  We were surprised at the scarcity of guardrails as we peered cautiously over the edge.  We thought it was a great value for the $5 entrance fee.


Jan 7
Dawne, Ann and Stefan and one of the rare guard rails at the park.


Monument Valley

Our final area to explore was Monument Valley, made world-famous by the many western-themed movies filmed there.  We grabbed an order of the local specialty, fry bread, from a road-side stand and snacked on that as we drove through the flat terrain.

Jan 9

All around us, the landscape was dotted with imposing monolithic red rocks (monuments).  The valley is the perfect area to sharpen your landscape photography skills.  Again, the weather was not cooperating fully.


Mexican Hat Rock just outside of the town of Mexican Hat
Approaching Monument Valley.


Ominous weather looming in the distance.


Goulding’s Lodge and Trading Post

We also stopped at the Goulding’s Lodge and Trading Post, but decided that the touristy place was not on our list of favorites.  We did find the original cabin from the John Wayne film “She Wore A Yellow Ribbon,” which is free and open to the public.  (You can complete the cabin tour in approximately three minutes.)


Original cabin used in the John Wayne film “She Wore A Yellow Ribbon.”
eJan 11
Swedish Cowboy spotted in the gift shop at Goulding’s.


After a full day, we crossed into Arizona and checked into the Kayenta Monument Valley Inn.

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.

3Jan Bryce 2
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.

The Grand Circle Route – Starting and ending in Las Vegas
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.

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.

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