An intergenerational Southwest road trip
“It’s crazy,” my grand-nephew exclaimed as we approached the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. I heard Aaron say that often over the next several days as the two of us explored the national parks and monuments of northern Arizona and southern Utah.
Aaron, 23, has spent most of his life in Florida, so for him the canyons, cliffs and mountains of the American Southwest were like something from another world.
This was our first adventure together since his bar mitzvah gift 10 years ago — a day-long kayak trip in the Channel Islands of Southern California. I guess that trip made a positive impression, because he started bringing up the idea of another adventure with me during the middle of the pandemic.
I suggested a road trip through the American Southwest, including the Grand Canyon, Canyon de Chelly, Monument Valley, and Arches, Canyonlands and Zion National Parks.
To the uninitiated, it might seem like the American Southwest is all about rocks, and that once you’ve seen one rock, you’ve seen them all. Yet from one place to another, the colors, sizes, shapes and geometry of those rocks change dramatically. The scenery and the experience of Monument Valley, for instance, is nothing like that of the Grand Canyon.
And the sky! Until you have seen a canyon or butte or crazy-shaped monolith framed against a sky as blue as it gets, dotted with clouds as bizarrely shaped as the rocks below, you can’t appreciate why a person as well traveled as I returns as often as possible.
This trip was guaranteed to blow Aaron’s Floridian mind and give me an opportunity to relive some of the most memorable trips of my 30s and 40s.
Thinking back on those trips as I approached my 80th birthday, I remembered how they helped transform my life, especially my self-confidence and self-image, as I backpacked solo for the first time in an unfamiliar and potentially hostile environment.
Though my trip with Aaron would be far less challenging, I hoped that it would be more than just a fun diversion from his job and a life constrained by a stubborn pandemic.
The canyons of northern Arizona
We met in Phoenix, rented a car and drove four hours to the Grand Canyon. After his introduction to the canyon from the South Rim, we hiked a mile or so into the canyon on the Bright Angel Trail.
I wasn’t planning on hiking too far into the canyon, realizing that the farther down we went, the further up we would have to hike to get out. I’m in pretty good shape for a geezer, but why push it?
In any case, our descent came to a halt at the edge of a steep, icy patch on the trail. We had already made our way gingerly down one icy patch, but we figured, why take the chance of a serious fall? The next time I go hiking in the Grand Canyon at the end of winter, I’ll wear crampons.
Our next stop was one of my favorite sites in the Southwest — Canyon de Chelly National Monument in northeastern Arizona, a four-hour drive from the Grand Canyon.
Located on Navajo tribal lands, Canyon de Chelly is a bit off the beaten track, so it attracts far fewer visitors than the other parks in the region. But from an aesthetic point of view, I believe it is the most dramatic and beautiful place in the Southwest.
Unlike the Grand Canyon, which is deeper and more vast, the overlooks in Canyon de Chelly are sheer and the several-hundred-foot drops, with no guard rails, are heart-pounding if you get too close to the edge.
Plus, you are likely to be the only one standing at the rim looking at the rock as it turns orange-red in the rays of the setting sun. At this canyon, there is no jostling for the best view or photo, and no sounds other than the wind pushing you toward the edge of the overlook.
For a different perspective on the towering sandstone cliffs and the verdant valley below, we took a jeep tour through the canyon the next morning with a Navajo guide for a close-up look at the prehistoric rock art and the remains of ancient Pueblo villages.
The canyon has been inhabited by several Native American tribes for millennia, and the Navajos, the current residents, still maintain homes and ranches in the canyons.
Southern Utah’s parks
From Canyon de Chelly, we drove 90 minutes to Monument Valley, which is also on Navajo tribal lands. Despite being relatively close to Canyon de Chelly, Monument Valley is a very different place.
Instead of peering down into narrow canyons, you look up at towering sandstone monoliths scattered throughout a vast, wide-open landscape. It’s easy to see why the legendary movie director John Ford used Monument Valley as the setting for many of his classic Westerns.
The 17-mile loop road through the valley provides multiple opportunities to view and photograph the magnificent sandstone spires, pinnacles and buttes from different angles.
Moab, our next stop, is a 2.5-hour drive from Monument Valley. Surrounded by stunning red-rock scenery, Moab has numerous opportunities for hiking, biking, sky diving, rock climbing, canyoneering, ballooning and off-roading.
Located a short drive to two national parks, Arches and Canyonlands, Moab has many hotels, restaurants and even a couple of decent brew pubs, despite Utah’s strict liquor laws.
Arches and Canyonlands National Parks were our raison d’etre for being in Moab. Arches is famed for its, well, arches. Huge, often delicate red-hued sandstone formations provide great opportunities for stunning photos — as long as you have the patience to wait for the swarms of people on the arches to get out of the way.
Canyonlands was my favorite destination of the trip. The huge, 527-square-mile park is divided into three districts — Island in the Sky, the Needles, and the Maze. We chose Island in the Sky for our one day of hiking because it is the most accessible district, just a 40-minute drive to the park entrance.
Our first “hike,” which was actually just a short half-mile roundtrip walk from the parking lot, was to Mesa Arch. The large arch frames a distant view of rugged rock formations and the snow-capped peaks of the La Sal Mountains — one of the best photo ops of the trip.
Our second hike, a bona fide hike, was the Grand View Point Hike, two miles round trip along the edge of the mesa. The views of the etched canyons hundreds of feet below are expansive and spectacular from almost every point on the trail.
After a brief stop in a very crowded Zion National Park, where the Virgin River flows through a very narrow, long and steep canyon, we headed back to Phoenix for our flights home the next day.
All in all, it was a very successful trip; I was able to introduce a place I care about to a person I care about. The opportunity to share this place with Aaron made the road trip even more special.
I don’t know if the American Southwest transformed his life like it did mine, but from our conversations, it’s clear he’s rethinking his life and career.
We have more adventures planned, including a trip next year to my second-favorite place in the U.S. — the Pacific Northwest. I hope we have initiated a tradition of annual trips to special places until I get too old to travel or he finds someone younger and more interesting and attractive to travel with.
If you go
Non-stop round-trip air fare between D.C.-area airports and Phoenix is about $450 on American Airlines. If you want to cut your driving time by 4 hours (2 hours each way), you can fly into Flagstaff, but there are no non-stop flights, and fares are considerably higher.
A good place to stay in Grand Canyon National Park is Yavapai Lodge, about $230 a night, (928) 638-4001. In Canyon de Chelly, I recommend the Thunderbird Lodge, $125 a night, (928) 674-5842. In Monument Valley, stay at Gouldings Lodge for about $200 a night, (435) 727-3231.
Restaurant options are limited. Often the only (or most convenient) place to eat is in the lodge where you are staying.
Moab is the exception. Since it is a fair-sized town, there are many choices. I recommend the Moab Brewery, Fiesta Mexicana, and the Blu Pig for BBQ and craft beers. I also recommend the Blue Coffee Pot Restaurant, on Route 160 near the Grand Canyon, for authentic Navajo cuisine.
Don is the 2020 first-place winner for travel articles from the North American Mature Publishers Association. To read more stories from Don, go to adventuretransformations.com and click on “Articles.”