National Parks

Mesa Verde is our last national park stop on the trip. This was one of the few places I knew I wanted to visit before we left for our trip. Thousands of years old stone houses tucked into cliff faces, encompassing the history of a whole population that disappeared mysteriously at the peak of their civilization hundreds of years ago – how could I not want to go!


As a little girl my family took a spring trip through the South West. Bryce Canyon National Park was on the itinerary. We drove through and saw the park, but with a gaggle kids under the age of 13, there wasn’t a lot of hiking included. Looking at the canyon from afar, I was so enchanted by Bryce that I made point to remember the name and promised myself that as an adult I would come back and hike into the canyon. Here we are.

Considering that I had been planning this for years, you can imagine that I wasn’t going to be happy with a jaunt down just any old trail. Luckily the hiking map noted a trail with the title “The best 3 mile hike in the world” — decision made. This trail encompassed Queen’s Landing and the Navajo Trail. I was slightly skeptical at first. The canyon was beautiful from the top rim, but nothing uber breathtaking yet (I have high standards at this point in the trip).

We walked the ½ mile across the rim to the beginning of Queen’s Landing and my problem was solved. The canyon opened up into a beautiful expanse of sky, red dirt, hoodoos, and plateau, and the trail seemed to lead right down into the center of it all. Up, down, around a hoodoo, through a carved doorway, across a dry creek bed, and you were at the other side on the Navajo trail. The huge expanse had suddenly become a tight, super steep canyon filled with small switchbacks and vertical sides. This part of the trail is known as Wall Street, although it was nothing like the Wall Street that I left in NY. Of the two, I think this is one I prefer.

If you were thinking of visiting beautiful Zion National Park, you’d be making a wise decision to go. Just make sure you check a calendar. If it is a UEA day (Utah Education Association day – a.k.a. all the kids are out of school) prepare for a spectacle. Imagine if the National Park Service and Disney went into a joint venture; that is what you would encounter.

We arrived at Zion late enough in the season, we figured it would be wide open and deserted, ready for us to explore in solitude. One problem, we never checked the Utah Department of Education calendar. We arrived on a Thursday to overflowing campgrounds, parking lots full of buses and (no surprise!) RV’s. Kids of all ages were everywhere. I, as a Virginian who never heard of getting out of school for something other than Chicken Pox or a national holiday, immediately said, “shouldn’t these kids all be in school?” — apparently not on a UAE day.

Slightly disgruntled at losing my idyllic weekend in Zion, I forged ahead, imagining that the shear cliffs and cold water would keep the kids in check. Instead I encountered Mom’s carrying newborns in their arms on trails that seemed to drop off hundreds of feet, toddlers blatantly passing me on slick rock staircases, and elementary age kids playing in the 50 degree Virgin River. I had just busted into tears after walking 20 feet across an ankle deep portion of the river while attempting to begin the Narrows trail, and here these kids were mocking me by swimming in it.

Eventually I gave in and decided I had to embrace the experience. At a cliff side spring, I relished in one little blonde pig-tailed girl’s exclamation, “this is awesome, awesome, awesome! The most awesome, awesomest thing ever!”. As I went to bed that evening, curled up in my tent pitched at the bottom of a mesa in a campground nestled behind the Quality Inn, I had to agree. Awesome.

Somewhere in my US travel research I came across a little snippet about this supposedly beautiful valley covered with petroglyphs and within a stone’s throw of Las Vegas. The place was Valley of Fire State Park. The land was used regularly by the Anazai Pueblo Indians until the 12th century AD and in 1935 became Nevada’s first state park. Needless to say, I was intrigued and had to see it.

We ventured off of highway 15, into a nice but fairly standard looking desert landscape. Up and down miles of hills and dips, around a few turns, and there it was, the Valley of Fire. Seemingly painted terracotta red rocks began jutting out of the sand, curved and striated by centuries of erosion. The whole landscape changed into something that seemed a little more inviting than it should have been. Perhaps because I knew going into the valley that people had lived and hunted in this area for over two thousand years, I had the sense that I could leave the car, wander around for days, and be fine – I didn’t try it.