Why go to the Southwest USA?

Regular blog readers will recall my recent adventures with hubby* around Arizona and Utah.  I posted most days, using pretty average photos taken on my phone.

My hubby is an incredibly talented photographer who has finally curated down to his preferred 20 or so pictures from our trip.  His photos are so much better than mine that they deserve their own post.   For those of you who are on the fence about visiting, let’s see if these photos can persuade you.

Thanks to hubby for sharing!

bryce canyon

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arches national park


Delicate Arch at Arches National Park
Delicate Arch at Arches National Park

* note hubby does have a name.  However  he is extremely anti social media and anything remotely resembling attention.   So I have agreed to only ever refer to him on this blog as hubby to keep him firmly under the radar.

Teton Crest Loop Day 4 – Fords, rain and fried chicken

I am pretty sure a horse was either dying or giving birth somewhere in the vicinity of my tent last night!  A truly weird noise, moreso when you are alone in your tent with no humans in a five km radius.   I have adopted a childlike approach to wildlife – I close the flaps on the tent and assume if I can’t see them, they can’t see me.  A bit like the magic elf cloak in the Lord of the rings, I hope the animals will assume my grey tent is just a boulder.

bradley lake

In the end I had no animal encounters last night, and as this is my last night camping I am all good to cook breakfast in bed and have my tent smell like food, so I retrieved my bear canister and cooked while I waited for the sun to come up.  The sun didn’t really arrive, but the rain did.

Job one for the day was fording the inlet, which was a piece of cake…. Hilarious that the path is labelled as closed.

bradley inlet ford

Then I saw no humans for 15km as I wandered passed taggart lake and through the white meadows to phelps lake.

taggart lake

The trail was lovely but a bit boring after a while, there are only so many lovely trees you need to see

valley trail

Lake Phelps was delightful and I finally saw some people and then a whole lot of people.   Amusingly this is one of the few places in the world where you are advised to sing on the trail – it stops you surprising bears, wish I had that excuse everywhere!   I surprised a few humans this morning with my off key melodies!

phelps lake

And that was it, an easy 21km stroll down the valley with a few lakes for the final day to arrive back at the Granite Canyon trailhead.  Most people don’t do this valley section, instead they get a shuttle back to their cars from Jenny Lake, but I think the extra miles were worth it to see Surprise/Ampitheatre lakes, though these could be done as an easy day hike.

Am now in Jackson hole where I have ordered the ‘breakfast special’ of fried chicken and waffles with maple syrup – yes it was on the breakfast menu!  In my defence I have tried to make it healthier by ordering berries on the side.  It was delicious and I could have eaten two.

waffles and fried chicken at cafe genevieve

I would wholeheartedly recommend this trip as an easy couple of days hiking/camping.   The itinerary hit all of the highlights of the park and then some. The trails are well groomed and the Rangers gave great advice – Tripp at the office in Moose was fabulous, ask for him by name

Bradley Lake to Granite Canyon 21km covered.

Additional Info
  • Backcountry campsite permits can be booked in advance on line, or the day before – see the nps website , and you can figure out where you want to camp using the backcountry camping guide. Note that bear canisters are available to borrow for free, but you will need to buy bear spray ($45)
  • Jackson and Teton Village are wildly  overpriced for accommodation.   I stayed in a dorm at the hostel in Teton village which was fine for $40 a night.    Alternatively you can camp at Jenny Lake, Gros Ventre or Colter Bay, for $20-25 per night but there are no advanced reservations.  Details here .  there is some free camping en route to Jackson in the national forest but it is at least an hours drive away
  • Food and supplies are expensive here, stock up before you arrive at the REI in Salt Lake or the Walmart in Idaho Falls or elsewhere en route

Teton Crest Loop Day 3 – Dodging rocks

It is damn disconcerting to be woken up at 10pm, and then midnight, and then 3am to the sound of huge rockslides tumbling down the cliffs when you are sleeping in a flimsy tent in a rocky canyon.   I contemplated getting up and hiking out but the fear of meeting the Bears was enough to keep me in my tent.  I crossed my fingers that Eric’s tent next door would slow the rocks down if they came our way.

the rocky paintbrush canyon

When light finally came it was another sunny morning, and I got up when it was warm enough to leave the tent to unbury my food and cook breakfast (I miss non bear country where you can cook breakfast in bed).

jenny lake

And then I wandered down the canyon to the valley and the String and Jenny Lakes.  Both are lovely, but are on flat paths full of unfit day trippers many who asked how much further they had to walk to the viewpoint (not far!)

jenny lake trail

After a few miles of flatness I headed up the steep slope from the Lupine trail head to Surprise and Ampitheatre lakes at 3000m to get some stunning views of the Tetons from the east side.  The highlight of the day was overtaking several groups of twenty something day hikers with small packs, while I am lugging a full 12kg (damn bear canister).

surprise lake

The lakes were lovely so I had a late lunch and chatted with some locals.  This was my official destination for tonight but it was too early to stop so I decided to risk getting in trouble with the Rangers and hike onwards a to Bradley lake to chop off some mileage from tomorrow and to sleep at a lower altitude.

ampitheatre lake

I was stopped in my tracks by this sign…..

After I while I realised that the English translation was “path open provided you are willing and able to ford a river”.  Ok then.  But I will save the river to the morning as the camp site is just before the river.

Have chowed down on a big dinner, eating most of the food I have left as am hungry and feeling a bit crap.  Partly from the altitude and partly from too much sun (managed to leave hat and sunscreen behind as thought it would be cold, not so!)

bradley lake with the sun setting behind the mountains

6.40 pm and in my tent ready to snore, hoping no one shows up to kick me off the site given I don’t have a reservation

Last day tomorrow, which is probably just as well as my armpits are offending me, and what I thought was gas leaking from my cooking canister was actually my socks!  Thank goodness I hike solo!

From Holly Lake to Bradley Lake via Surprise and Ampitheatre Lakes

Total distance = 36km; Ascent = 1100m

Teton Crest Loop Day 2 – Lakes and lakes

To my surprise and delight I was warm enough in my tent last night though it was between 5-10 degrees below zero.  I had three layers of merino on top, two on the bottom, my divine down booties (a new and much loved post Sweden purchase), a down jacket, two pairs of gloves, woolly hat and two buffs, and of course my sleeping bag which is rated to minus 7 degrees.  I got so hot I had to take the booties off.    However I didn’t sleep much given the altitude, but I did get to see the most glorious stars from the tent and an amazing sunrise

sunset lake

Today started off slow – I am not moving that fast at 3000m and with a really heavy pack – those bear canisters weigh a tonne.   I wandered around the basin for a while and checked out the gorgeous lakes
Then it was up past sunset lake to the first pass of the day – hurricane!  There was a blizzard a week before but thankfully there wasn’t much snow left and you could find the trail.  The reward for getting up to 3500m was a gob smacking view of the three boobs right up close

the view of the tetons from hurricane pass

And below the pass the stunning schoolroom glacier and lake

schoolroom glacier and lake

After that, a lovely meander down the south fork of the cascade canyon, along a lovely gushing river and then back up the north fork of the cascade canyon to the inappropriately named solitude lake.  The lake was lovely but busy

solitude lake

After that a lung busting 600m up to the paintbrush divide where I caught my last view of the Tetons from the west side

last view of the east side of the tetons from paintbrush divide

I am camping tonight at the lovely Holly Lake a little way down the paintbrush canyon.  I arrived early but can’t really go further as I don’t have a permit for the campsites further on.  Am cooking up Mac and cheese for dinner!  Hopefully will get some more sleep tonight.  I also have company tonight, Eric from California just showed up to pitch next door, so hopefully if we have nocturnal bear visitors that will head for his tent

Holly lake at sunset

From Alaska Basin to Holly Lake via the Hurricane Pass and the Paintbrush Divide 

Total distance = 22km; Ascent = 1600m

Teton Crest Loop Day 1 – Bears and boobs

With hubby safely returned to his natural urban habitat after our Utah adventures, I headed up through the beautiful wide open spaces of Idaho (resisting the temptation to visit the potato museum) to the Teton National Park (named by early French settlers as the mountains look like boobs – trois Tetons = three boobs).

The plan was to spend four nights in the backcountry but I was a little bit worried by the recent snowfall, the forecast of subzero temperatures (minus 10), and of course the Bears!!!  This was my first foray into bear country

The ranger reckoned I would be OK and gave me bear canister for my food (very much like the expression ‘don’t shit where you sleep’, in bear country you don’t eat where you sleep).  

hmmmm, I’m not so good at following rules

I went for a run that afternoon and broke all the rules on this sign!  But I did manage to get some bear spray before I hit the trail for real!   

I didn’t get off to an auspicious start, as with my usual crap urban navigation skills, I couldn’t find the trail head in Teton village.  I had wanted to leave the car there as it was safer.  But after 5km of wandering past McMansions, and meeting multiple construction workers who didn’t know where the trail was, I gave up and drove to the trailhead at Granite Canyon.   

granite canyon trail

For the first seven miles I didn’t see anyone and was worried I would run into a bear at every corner.  I contemplated holding the bear spray in my hands and going around every corner like a cop in a cheesy 80s sitcom but suppressed the urge (I felt less bad about this two days later when I ran into a guy doing precisely that).  I eventually encountered some humans –  a couple and then two guys, so no longer think I am completely nuts to be here. 

Marion Lake

After 15km, I reached the gorgeous Marion lake, and then shortly after traversed the Fox pass at 3000m to arrive at the Death Canyon Shelf which stretches above a deep canyon for 5km.  This was where my permit allowed me to sleep tonight (long story, camping here requires permits which can be a pain but means it isn’t overcrowded or overused).   

the back of the Tetons from Mt Meek Pass

It was too early to stop so I continued over the Mt Meek pass and found a divine campsite 6km on at mirror lake!  I cooked a lovely dinner and have now put every item of clothing on that I have and am in my tent hoping no bear comes to visit.  Still at 3000m so have a bit of a headache but the view is worth it.

the beginning of the sheep steps (the snow line at the bottom of the cliff) to Alaska Basin

From Teton Village to Alaska Basin via the Granite Canyon

Total distance = 32km; Ascent = 1600m

the view from my tent at Alaska basin

Arches National Park at rush hour

Stupidly I ignored my own advice and we headed up to Arches National Park when we arrived in Moab at lunchtime.  It was like a nightmarish cross between buying  a new kitchen in ikea  and trying to shop on Oxford street on Christmas Eve – a positively vile and overcrowded experience.  We gave up after an hour of bumper to bumper traffic, slow moving tourists and crowded carparks and made a plan to return in the morning at 6am

Instead, we drove up the Potash rd to hike to the spectacular Corona Arch!   Not too many hikers and a lovely walk.

Corona Arch
We diligently got up the next day at 5.50am, fuelled up on the free biscuits and gravy and cinnamon buns in the hotel and arrived in the park at the Windows viewpoint at 6.50am.  I was less than amused to see 40 cars and a tour bus with a breakfast buffet laid out already occupying much of the room in the carpark.  A quick stop to see Double Arch and we headed to the next stop….


Double Arch
We went next to Landscape Arch (the header photo) and managed to get in to see it before the 100 or so people behind us – quite lovely and as long as a football field

Skyline Arch
Finally, we climbed up to the delicate arch – obligatory tourist photo below.   There was a queue to get under the arch and take your photo…… hmmmmmmf! by the time we got back to the carpark it was overflowing with cars and there was a queue to wait for people leaving.    By this point I had had enough of other people, so we headed out of the park (around 10am) and were bemused by the one mile line of cars waiting to come through the visitors entrance

Delicate Arch
So, if your idea of a great national park experience is to drive (in a long queue) from viewpoint to viewpoint (waiting to get a carpark), getting out occasionally to walk a 500m loop to see something and then scuttling back to the car, then Arches is the perfect national park for you!   Honestly, while there are lovely things to see – I would not come again!

Additional notes
  • we stayed in Moab – as was with hubby, we stayed at the Holiday Inn.  However there is ample free BLM camping with nice sites up to the Potash Rd
  • Moab was the first good food we had had in a while – we loved the eggs benedict at the Jailhouse cafe, the two pigs and cow burgers at the Spoke, or even better the cheese burgers at Milts, the icecream at Crystals cakes and cones and the Moab ribbon pie at sweet cravings 

Behaving like a Bandit – Needles in Canyonlands

If I was a bandit hiding from the law (especially pre drone and heat sensing technology) I would head straight to the Needles in Canyonlands! The terrain is bizarre, endless numbers of sandy canyons interrupted by giant red rock formations needling straight up from the ground.

You could hide out (or get lost) in these canyons for days. This park gets my vote as the loveliest national park so far – not the stunning views of Bruce or the fear inducing climbs of Zion, but endless lovely trails looping around the canyons with very very few people on them!  The Rangers were the friendliest to date also!

We stayed for a few days, hubby under duress trying out camping for the second time since we got together 17 years ago (suffice to say the first outing ended in a hotel after one night).  I love camping, especially in the back country!  It’s quiet, you are outside, and there is nothing to worry about!  Hubby is less persuaded and wasn’t entirely ecstatic this morning, after his night in a huge luxurious borrowed tent, sleeping on a top of the range thermarest – he reckons it was like sleeping on a plank.  Oh well!  There are no hotels here and he signed up for one more night 🙂

The hikes are all splendid and interconnecting, so depending on how energetic you are you can do as much or as little as you like.

At a minimum I would recommend hiking out to the Chesler Park viewpoint and doing the Chesler park loop (18k round trip).  This includes a stunning part called ‘the joint trail’ which is a 500m section traversing a narrow crevasse.

You can camp in the park, in nearby BLM campgrounds, or the the privately run needles outpost. All the sites were more or less the same. We stayed at the outpost as they took advance bookings rather than first come first served. They also had an overpriced shop and paid showers. Water is free at the visitors centre so stock up there versus paying in the camping.

Pleasant detours – Grand canyons and Monument Valley

Given we were in the vicinity, we popped by the Grand Canyon.  We first visited 16 years ago, and have been a few times since, and it hasn’t changed much.  It’s still stunning and there are still way too many people.   But I would still recommend going, and applying my standard advice of ‘go early and go further’, ie hit the trails by 7am and head out on a long hike and that way you will see very few people*

canyon from the south kaibab trail at dawn

I had a lovely morning running the 16 mile loop trail from the South Kaibab trailhead to the Bright Angel campground on the Colorado river, and then back up to the rim on the bright Angel trail (1500m down and then back up).  The Rangers recommend against trying to do it in one day (including posting graphic signs on the trail of people barfing to try to dissuade you) but if you are fit it is an easy day hike or a great run.   You don’t see as many people as you would expect, though you start to hit crowds in the last 2-3 miles uphill.  One day I am keen to try the rim to rim to rim where you add an extra 28 miles to my itinerary by visiting the north rim also – but given it is a 12-14 hour mission, I am looking for company so let me know if anyone is keen

the barf sign

We also had a lovely stroll along the rim from the village to hermits rest – given most people take the shuttle buses everywhere, you will have the path to yourself, especially at 8 am.  The canyon views are stunning!

canyon from hopi point

Heading out to the canyonlands national park, we also stopped over at Monument Valley, which is worth the $20 entrance fee (which goes to the Navajo nation :-))  to drive around the valley, especially at sunset.  It is a few hours drive from the Grand Canyon and another few hours from there to Canyonlands

west mitten butte, monument valley


– we stayed at the budget maswik lodge at the Grand canyon.  I’ve stayed at the El Tovar and the Bright Angel lodge before and neither is worth the premium

– at Monument Valley we stayed in a tipi at the Tipi village, run by the delightful Bob – highly recommended

*Side note – where are the people?

While I think the US national parks are overcrowded with 4wds and Rvs, there are surprisingly few people in what is described here as the ‘backcountry’ (what we would call the bush in NZ).  Maybe it is because they don’t like walking much, but as a percentage of population you will see way fewer people on most long trails here than you would see on comparable trails in Europe or NZ.   If you like hiking, definitely come to the US, just make sure you do the longer tougher trails and you will likely have them mostly to yourself

monument valley

In the White Pocket

We are still in the under-rated Vermilion cliffs national park – a fantastically surreal landscape of reds and pinks and whites – which most people drive past without exploring on their way from the Grand Canyon to Zion or Bryce.  Today we headed out on the rough 4wd road to White Pocket, a stunning area for which no permit is required (yet!)

hiking across the rocks

Apparently no one knows how this pocket of landscape was formed – swirls of red and white, bizarre ‘brain like’ rock surfaces, odd shaped cliffs, yellow ‘oyster’ formations and the odd ‘pocket’ of water. 
hubby taking a lunchtime nap at the oyster

We spent a good four hours wandering around and could have happily spent longer – the light in the evening and at sunrise would have been spectacular 

the brains
We hired a photography guide with a 4wd to take us there as we didn’t have the right car and the maps aren’t helpful at identifying the best places to go.  It was expensive but worth it for us as we didn’t have a 4wd and the  guide was good.  We booked through grand circle tours who were pretty disorganised so I would advise going direct to Gary at yrag@kanab.net who is a fine art photographer and guide

If we were doing it again, I would take a 4wd and a tent and stay overnight to take advantage of the evening and morning light.  There is no water and no facilities, but ‘no trace’ camping is allowed

chilling in the ‘oyster’

Two amusing notes on Utah

– without fail, anyone you meet who isn’t a Mormon will let you know that within 30 minutes. Some people let us know they were not of the ‘predominant faith’ before they told us their names!   If someone hasn’t told you they aren’t Mormon and you are in Utah, assume they are

– liquor licensing laws here are quite amusing.  You will find booze easily in places that serve food, but lots of places, including taverns and grocery stores, are only allowed to sell relatively low alcohol ‘near-beer’.  

Visited September 2016

stripey rocks

The worlds longest slot canyon – in the Buckskin Gulch

The Buckskin Gulch is rated as one of the most lethal hikes in the US – it’s the longest uninterrupted slot canyon in the world.  It runs for 11 miles and in parts is so narrow your shoulders touch the sides.  Any hint of rain and you should absolutely not start hiking – the logs and debris you see wedged in between the rocks 50 metres above your head are more than sufficient evidence of the power of the flash floods that torrent through these walls.

My ‘top five global day hike’ list is getting reshuffled again, as this is a must do!   Some people overnight in the canyon (permits required and available in advance online), but it is a relatively easy 16 mile day hike if you leave your car at White House campground (the end of the hike) and organise a shuttle to the start at wire pass (most operators in Kanab will do this for you). A permit is required for day use but can be bought at the trail head.  

Hubby in the Gulch

Better would be to leave your car at wire pass, hike the canyon in one direction the first day, camp at White House and walk back to your car the next day (requires two day permits).  It may sound bonkers to walk the same trail twice but it genuinely looks different coming in the other direction and the light changes how the rock looks constantly throughout the day
me in the gulch…. bottom right

We were mesmerised by the light on the walls and the fact that the canyon looked different as we turned every corner. Like much of this region it is hard to do justice to the landscape with the camera, so you really need to come see for yourself. I have never seen anything like this anywhere in the world (for those of you who have been to Petra in Jordan, it is just like the canyon leading up to the treasury BUT instead of only running for 100m it goes for miles, has no tourists and is redder, so yup, I have never seen anything close to this in my life!)
The walk is pretty easy for most of the trail.  In the early section from wire psd there is a 2m drop that you need to navigate down by wedging your back against the wall.  In later sections, including the notorious ‘cesspools’, you may need to get up to chest deep in stinky mud (really stinky sewage smelling mud, hence the name).   None of this is difficult, but go prepared.   The only other people we saw in the gulch we met at one of the stinky water areas where everyone was clubbing together to gather big rocks and throw them in the water so we could have some stepping stones.    

There is also no water in the gulch or at wire pass trail head, so pack accordingly.   

Side note – getting to the wave 

If you are coming to the area it is worth trying to get a permit to visit Coyote Buttes North a.k.a ‘the wave’.  You can apply online three months in advance, and the odds are about 1/300 for the ten permits available.  Another ten permits are available for walk ins at the visitor centre in Kanab the day before, where your odds are better (depending on the season but we were 1/90).  The process is fair and easy, you turn up to the ranger station between 8.30-9.00 to complete an application and they run a lottery (using the old fashion wooden bingo balls in the cage) to see who gets to go.   We sacrificed getting to do the whole buckskin gulch in a day to try and get permits and were unsuccessful, but it was worth it to give it a shot.   Several people were there for their 5th or 6th lotteries, and apparently the record is a German couple who attended 38 consecutive lotteries before being successful.  What the hell you would do in Kanab for 38 days is beyond me….

We did contemplate trying to find our way their without a permit but a) part of me respects the Parks decision to limit visitors to protect the area, and they run a fair process and b) part of me didn’t want to be busted by the Rangers and pay the $1500 fine 

the wave (credit travelmint.com)
Additional notes

We stayed in Kanab as a base to visit the buckskin. We had booked the cheapo sun n sand, but the dodgy owner claimed to have lost our reservation. So we ended up sleeping in a basement room at the barber shop motel for $78 per night as all other options were $250 per night. Kanab has plenty of accommodation but is wildly overpriced and touristy! If you have a tent you can camp anywhere on BLM land for free provided you are 500 feet from a road.  

Vermilion Cliffs en route to the Gulch
Everyone in Kanab recommends Escobars for Mexican food.   I don’t think any of them have been to Mexico – worst and blandest Mexican I have ever eaten!  I don’t think this is the fault of the Mexican owners, more a problem of them catering to local taste buds.   Instead go and eat at Rocking V cafe where the bison steak and key lime pie are stonkingly good 

Visited September 2016