30 Nov 48 Hours Discovering the Magical Parks of Utah
I’ve developed a fond appreciation for brief vacations. If nothing else, it proves that you can still enjoy and experience a great deal that a city has to offer without spending an extended period of time there. I’ve spent 24 hours in Amsterdam and 36 hours in Savannah and didn’t feel like I sacrificed anything in the process. When I managed to find an exceptional fare from Atlanta to Salt Lake City for $139.00 RT via Google Flights, I knew that I had to book it.
While I enjoy touring cities with the best of them, nothing makes me feel closest to the Creator than experiencing the Great Outdoors. I have a poster of the Petroglyphs in Monument Valley in Utah hanging in my office. After looking at it for five years, I decided that there was no time like the present. In fact, I booked the trip for early November which happened to be during the off-season, but thankfully the parks were still open.
My first order of business was to order an annual park pass for $85.00 (including shipping; it arrived in less than a week) from the nearly century-old National Park Service. The passes are free for park volunteers, members of the military and the disabled. Citizens 62 years or older can get a lifetime pass for $10.00. UPDATE: The price for the Senior lifetime pass is increasing sometime during 2017 to 80.00!! If you meet the age criteria, do not delay in purchasing this pass!!
After a little research, I learned that Monument Valley was over 6 hours away from Salt Lake City. Keeping in mind my abbreviated time there, I had to make a difficult decision and remove it from my itinerary. Bryce Canyon National Park was a little over 4 hours away, which seemed a bit more manageable for two people who weren’t fond of driving. Since we arrived in SLC in the late afternoon, we decided to spend the night there and drive out to Bryce Canyon at first light.
We stayed at a wonderful downtown hotel, the Crystal Inn Hotel & Suites, which I can’t recommend highly enough. Only a 10-minute drive from the airport, it was on par with most mid-sized, branded hotels, very clean and the breakfast was exceptional. Of the three hotels that we stayed, it was the best, by far.
We hit the road at 6 am with every intention of making it to Bryce Canyon by 10:30 am. I can’t tell you how picturesque the drive is down I-80; add the entire catalog of Sirius radio to the mix and the time seemed to pass very quickly:
We arrived at the gates of Bryce Canyon National Park a little after 10 am and the ranger told us that the fee for the both of us (since we were in a car) was $30.00. Luckily, we had the annual pass, so we were quickly ushered in. The great thing about the pass is that it covers up to four people in one car. Score!
It began to snow as soon as we reached Bryce Point, which added to how special and glorious this scenic beauty turned out to be. It solidified my belief that this country has so much to offer and I was so glad that I decided to focus on enjoying nature this time around.
In all honesty, there’s not much to do within the immediate vicinity after enjoying a day at the park. There is literally a subway sandwich shop, a Mexican restaurant, and a locally owned hotel/restaurant called Ruby’s outside the park (that I would avoid eating there at all costs but do check out their extensive souvenir shop) and that’s it.
It was getting late and darkness fell around 5 pm so we decided to grab sandwiches and turn in for the night at the Best Western Plus Bryce Canyon Grand Hotel which definitely earned my seal of approval. We planned to get up early to eat breakfast and get back on the road to check out a state park called Kodachrome Basin that was located a little over 30 minutes away in Henrieville.
We arrived around 8:30 am, I will admit that I began to doubt Google maps for a moment because it seemed as if we were driving aimlessly but eventually, we saw the entrance sign and made our way to the main office. The park manager, Jon, was very helpful and gave us great tips for maximizing our time there. The entry fee was 8.00 per car.
Kodachrome was very compelling but relatively small, so we ended up leaving a little earlier than we had planned. Luckily, the snow had subsided so we began to make our way to our next stop, Zion National Park. It was two hours away but for some reason seemed much longer. It’s entirely possible that we were experiencing driving fatigue, but suffice it to say, we were happy when we finally reached our destination.
Once we made our way to the entrance gate, the ranger cheerily informed us that the fee was $30.00 per car. After zipping out our annual pass, I had to reflect that we would have paid $60.00 out of pocket (for both National Parks) if we didn’t have it. The pass only cost $85.00 and we had another 11 months to use it at the other 400 national parks located throughout the country! It will more than pay for itself.
Whenever I enter a park, the visitor’s center is the first stop on my list. I was a little surprised when the ranger said that it was 12 miles ahead. Usually, it’s just beyond the entrance, but okay. Let me warn you that getting to the center can be treacherous if you aren’t used to driving down corkscrew-like roads. At one point, we drove through a tunnel that was hollowed out in one of the mountains to make room for a road. Having experienced the horror of driving from Phoenix to Sedona, it wasn’t as traumatic as it could have been. It’s doable, just take your time because there are not many barriers on the side of the road to protect you from falling off.
Finally, we reached a spot that was completely level and as luck would have it, that’s exactly where the Visitor’s Center was located. Let me pause for a minute to mention how kind, helpful and knowledgeable every ranger that I came into contact with was. No matter how silly you may think your questions are, they will quickly put you at ease. They are a major asset to the park service.
While we visited during the off-season, I was absolutely astounded at the number of people who were there. It was almost impossible to find a parking spot, but we happened to see someone pulling out and made haste to get it before someone else could. We couldn’t help but notice white shuttle trams frequently passing by. The rangers told us that the trams were free and they would take you back up the way that we came, allowing people to get out to take photos or to go hiking. Eventually, they could catch the next tram coming back. Due to the lack of parking space, you also have the option of parking in nearby Springdale and catch the tram to the park.
Speaking of Springdale, it was located outside the park’s exit right beyond the Visitor’s Center. It was a lovely, small town whose economy was pretty much reliant on the park. Unlike the entrance to the park which was pretty desolate and heavily forested, Springdale was a lovely surprise. There were restaurants (check out the Spotted Dog Cafe), a small theater, lots of mom and pop shops and a couple of grocery stores. We decided to support the local businesses before checking into our last hotel, the Quality Inn & Suites Montclair, located 2 miles outside of the park’s exit.
The hotel was an obvious revamp of an older motel. The room was updated but it couldn’t overcome the various noises coming from outside our door. The price was great, but I would not recommend it. After sampling their mediocre breakfast the next morning, we made our way back to Salt Lake City….at least that was the plan.
We realized that our flight didn’t leave until 8:50 pm, so we had a little time on our hands. Google maps indicated that there was another state park that was roughly 45 minutes east of Zion National, right past Springdale. Sand Hollow State Park was a very small, picturesque park that was worth the $10 entry fee. We noticed that most of the people there had motor boats on trailers but only saw one boat in the water. It was still early yet, so maybe they just hadn’t gotten around to unhitching them.
We ended up walking around trying to take everything in because we were surrounded by intoxicating views on all sides. Sometimes, it’s best to imprint memories in your head rather than spend your time snapping photos. After an hour or so, we made our way back on the road using the nifty Google app to lead us back to Salt Lake City. In retrospect, I think that we got a lot done in the limited time that we had. Four parks in four days. Not bad. I’m looking forward to challenging myself to do something like this at least once a year. Well, maybe more than just once……
Are you a fan of The National Park Service? How many have you visited thus far and which were your favorites?