The Grand Circle Tour – Final Post

It is said that all good things must come to an end and sadly, our Grand Circle Tour did as well.  It was an amazing trip, covering three states, over 1,600 miles, six national parks, multiple state parks, and so many other points of interest along the way.  We were in awe of nature’s beauty and felt honored to be able to experience landscapes that took literally millions of years to be created.

It was a humbling experience.  For anyone who is overly impressed with themselves or their worldly accomplishments, I suggest standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon.  It might serve to put things back into perspective.

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The Grand Circle Route – Starting and ending in Las Vegas

As we traveled in our trusty Kia Sedona, we were treated to a constant and ever-changing display of nature’s beauty.  The panoramas were dramatic and diverse and never failed to deliver unexpected surprises throughout the trip.  As the journey came to a close, a few thoughts came to mind:

  • The U.S. system of national parks is an amazing treasure available to everyone – whether you are a U.S. citizen or not.  The National Park Service should be proud of the wonderful work it does today, as well as its long tradition of service.  The NPS has ensured that these natural wonders will be protected and preserved for future generations to enjoy.  Take advantage of it.  Consider an annual pass or a lifetime senior pass if your plans include multiple parks.  (Our passes paid off after three visits.)

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  • Our trip was definitely an “overview” trip.  We barely scratched the surface.  You could easily spend a week or more in each of the national parks and not run out of things to do.  The parks are vast areas with numerous hiking trails allowing closer inspection of sites, time permitting.  Staying multiple days in one park might allow you to catch that perfect sunrise or sunset or get up close and personal with your favorite arch or natural bridge.
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Sunrise over the Grand Canyon.
  • For our itinerary, traveling in the minivan and staying in hotels was the right choice.  Parking in the more popular parks at scenic overlooks was much easier than it would have been in an RV.  For a trip covering fewer parks and fewer miles, an RV might have been the right choice.

 

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The Crew and our Kia minivan atop the Moki Dugway.

 

  • Being prepared for a flexible itinerary and changing weather conditions was a huge plus.  We carried small backpacks with us in case our “limited” hiking turned out to be not-so-limited.  We suggest carrying water, fruit, granola bars, trail mix, etc.  We also suggest having a fleece and a waterproof jacket.  We experienced warm and sunny days with temperatures in the 70s and 80s, but we also experienced snow and freezing rain with temperatures in the low 30s.
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Snow near the Utah-Arizona border.
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Threatening weather as we approached Monument Valley.

 

  • We really loved the mom-and-pop, family-owned businesses like Austin’s Chuck Wagon in Torrey, UT and the Stone Lizard Lodge in Blanding, UT.  They really went out of their way to make us feel like they appreciated our business.
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Austin’s Chuck Wagon in Torrey, Utah.
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Historic cabin at Austin’s Chuck Wagon.
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No extra charge to watch the hummingbirds at the Stone Lizard Lodge in Blanding, UT.

In closing I would like to offer up these two extremely important tips:

  • Always close the hatch to the minivan securely to avoid launching flying duffel bags into oncoming traffic.
  • Always close the door behind you to prevent uninvited guests from joining the party.

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This was my first attempt to document my travels in a blog format.  I hope you have enjoyed the photos and the commentary.  My hope is that this information will inspire others to travel to the American Southwest and assist them with their travel planning.  I always read and appreciate comments and suggestions.

A huge thanks to Jan for planning and organizing the trip.  Many thanks to Dawne, Stefan and Ann for providing so much entertainment and so many laughs and memories along the way!

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The Crew

 

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Thanks, Jan!

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.

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Front of the Stone Lizard Lodge
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Entrance to common room where breakfast was served.
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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.

 

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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.

 

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

 

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

 

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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.

 

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

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

 

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

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Ominous weather looming in the distance.

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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.)

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Original cabin used in the John Wayne film “She Wore A Yellow Ribbon.”
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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.