For the past several summers, my wife, Molly, and I have been so fortunate to be able to travel overseas to European and Scandinavian countries, along with Australia and New Zealand.
These visits have all been most interesting, educational and satisfying in every way, however our friends would always question, "Why would you leave Flagstaff in the summer?"
In early 2012, we made an early decision to "rough it" in Flagstaff this summer (that's an oxymoron) and instead take trips of no more than 500 miles.
Utah's Zion and Bryce National Parks easily met that criterion.
Starting on May 29, we headed that way for six days.
It was a decision we shall always hold dearly; it was one memorable experience.
ZION: THE HEAVILY VISITED PARK
We reached Zion Canyon National Park after an approximately five-hour drive, a route north from Flagstaff on Route 89, cutting over on 89A (the Scenic Byway) just north of Page, through Lees Ferry, paralleling the Vermilion Cliffs, reconnecting with 89 at Jacobs Lake, reaching Route 9 at Mount Carmel, Utah, and into the park, a distance of about 275 miles.
As we arrived at the park's east entrance, our mouths opened wide and frequently as we viewed the massive cliffs, towering and sheer rock formations exposing thousands of feet of white-to-orange Navajo sandstone, called "checkerboards."
We slowly meandered our way through the park to the adjoining small tranquil town of Springdale. There we met our friends, the Conners, from Las Vegas.
Our hotel accommodations were excellent. Although a lodge is available in the park, reservations need to be made well in advance of arrival.
Campgrounds also are available. The same is available in Bryce, but one needs to make reservations far in advance.
After checking into the Best Western motel and eating lunch, we then boarded the park's free shuttle, which took us directly back to the park and the visitor's center.
There is no need to drive your car into the park for sight-seeing; these propane- fueled shuttles conveniently take visitors through the park's interior, aided by a descriptive audio explaining the surrounding area and stopping at the various venues from where hiking trails begin.
Our shuttle took us to the farthest shuttle stop, the Temple of Sinawava.
From there, we went on a 2-mile round-trip walk along the Virgin River.
The trail is paved, easy and accessible to all hikers, wheelchairs, etc.
In that connection, this walk is not exclusive; many other visitors, families, couples and disabled joined us in animated and enthusiastic conversations.
We were told that Zion is the most visited national park in the country -- somewhat surprising since we always were told that the Grand Canyon held that honor.
While this trail was user-friendly, there are others, much more strenuous and challenging, that are available to backpackers who seek fewer crowds and more adventures.
WATERFALLS CASCADE FROM ABOVE
We were more than satisfied with the paved trails, notwithstanding the crowds. Its wealth of experiences and scenic sights at Zion were more than comparable to any national park in the country.
Our weather was textbook, light winds and moderate temperatures. This weather prevailed throughout the trip.
Speaking of the Virgin River, only 150 miles in length, our mouths watered as we savored placing our fly into some wily trout's mouth in such perfect waters. Regretfully, violent winter and spring flash floods essentially destroy these game fish each year.
Taking the shuttle back to the visitor's center, we stopped at the park museum, where there was an assortment of exhibits, geology, history, etc. A film is also available describing and bringing together all of the features and history of Zion.
By late afternoon, somewhat tired and hungry, we returned to our motel, another Best Western, enjoyed a good dinner and babbled incessantly about Zion and its many wonders.
Prior to motoring over to Bryce the next day, we decided to again return to Zion and take the Lower Pool Trail, a 1.2-mile plus round trip that was well-paved and could even accommodate wheelchairs with assistance.
Its beauty is accentuated with small waterfalls cascading from the rocks above, missing us hikers completely. Photo opportunities there and throughout the park are never-ending.
Zion offers it all to a tourist -- incredible scenery, ample and accessible hiking trails, depending on one's fitness and skills, cycling and mountain biking, swimming and tubing, watching wildlife, a children's Junior Ranger Program and almost anything a family needs for a pleasurable vacation.
BRYCE: AN AWE-INSPIRING SIGHT
Leaving Zion around noon, we drove eastward on Route 9, connected to Route 89 and continued north to its intersection with Route 12 (a continuing Scenic Byway) and onto Bryce Canyon National Park, an overall distance of about 70 miles.
We must admit that the drive approaching the park was an experience totally unlike that of entering Zion.
Seeing a tightly-grouped series of motels, restaurants and gas stations at its entrance, there was no indication or reflection of what Bryce looked like or what it offered.
Our attitude began to change, traveling on a road only bordered by a mass of aspens and pine forests.
After a few miles, we did stop along the way at a turnout allowing a peaceful picnic in the pines. Yes, there was wine to be shared.
From there, it took about 30 minutes to drive to Rainbow Point at 9,115 feet.
From Rainbow Point, we worked our way back, stopping at the scenic overlooks and turnouts with minimal onlookers. All in all, there are 13 such overlooks, all providing extraordinary views of the canyon below.
Each view is unique, each breathtaking, each having you stand there gaping endlessly at the beauty below you.
It, also, was our first view of the "hoodoos." What? They're a rock foundation, essentially cone-like, that extend to various heights in the canyon. Hoodoos are fascinating to see; Bryce is full of them.
Shuttle service, like at Zion, is available and efficient. Since cars were an option, we decided to use our own vehicle.
As the afternoon passed and sunset neared, the views became most visually stunning when rainbow-striped rock formations were ablaze with color, an awe-inspiring sight.
At each, we simply stood there, taking an overabundance of pictures, muttering collectively and continuously, "Oh, my goodness!" This was nature's beauty at its ultimate.
FOUR SENIORS TO THE BOTTOM
Looking down to the canyon's floor, we agreed that we would want to walk down the next day.
At the Sunset Point overlook near the park's entrance, we saw a small number of hikers cautiously making their way down the various switchbacks to the bottom. Therefore, with our optimism and energy on high, we committed to the trek downward the next morning.
Finally checking into our motel, we enjoyed a brief rest, walked leisurely across the road to the restaurant, and moved out smartly to a fine rib-eye dinner. Yes, we needed our protein for the next day; we would be traipsing down the mountain with full intent to make the down-the-canyon hike.
The next morning, we drove over to Sunset Point for our downward climb via the Navajo Loop Trail. Surprisingly, it was a bit crowded with tourists, but those numbers diminished as the climb began to take its toll, as many elected to reverse their walk and return to the top.
Totally committed, we continued downward, finally reaching the bottom.
After a short rest, we struggled up the other side of the trail, more switchbacks, more rest stops, more wondering if this hike was really worth it.
At its end, it was, although we four senior citizens unanimously agreed there would be no more hiking for the day.
Walking back to the car, we came upon a park ranger giving a lecture on Bryce, its geology, its environment, its history. It was the perfect finale to our day at the canyon.
The day ended with another satisfying dinner and early to bed.
The Conners made their fond adieu back to Las Vegas.
Making this journey brings us to the realization that the area of the country we cover, Southern Utah, is exceptional for its natural beauty and its easy access for all.
The following quote from Rachel Carson expresses our thoughts completely: "Those who contemplate the beauty of the Earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts."
Gene and Molly Munger are both retired: Molly from 28 years at NAU, and Gene from 35 years at Shell Oil Co. Gene moved to Flagstaff 15 years ago and says, "It's the best move ever for me."
An overview of Bryce Canyon.
Photo by Molly Munger
View from on the trail in Zion Canyon.
Photo by Molly Munger
Molly and Gene Munger with Bryce in the background.
Molly and Gene Munger on the trail in Zion.