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Utah Canyon Trip - September 2011

Early on a Thursday morning, my good friend Kat -- who had just arrived in Las Vegas from Melbourne, Australia -- and I walked around the block from my apartment to the Avis Car Rental to get the car we reserved for our upcoming road trip. We were the fortunate renters of a nice, red Hyundai Sonata. The Sonata was considerably larger than I thought we were going to be getting when I reserved a “sub-compact” car.

I put on my hand controls and we packed the trunk with our gear. George at Avis was awesome, even after all the paperwork headaches I created for him. We stopped at Trader Joe’s for some “trail food” of Clif Bars, trail mix, granola, and some bread and peanut butter. In the same plaza we decided to grab some lunch at Amena Mediterranean Café and Bakery on Decatur. The chicken shawarma and falafel were way better than Subway, our first thought for food. The whole place was actually very accessible. I even had to check out the restroom and it was completely accessible; always a good surprise.

After a good meal we were on the road heading to the first stop on the trip, Zion National Park. The drive only took about 2 and a half hours from Las Vegas, NV and took us through this great mountain pass on Interstate 15 outside the north end of Las Vegas. Once we got to the park entrance, I asked about getting a Gold Access Pass. I had heard about this cool pass for people with permanent disabilities, that if you are handicapped it is free of charge and the pass is good for the rest of the person’s life. Pam, our ranger at the entrance set us up quickly right then and there at the entrance station and gave me my real card. No need to wait for one in the mail or suffer with a cheap paper temporary one. This gives the owner of the card free access to all the national parks across the entire country and half price camping at a lot of the campgrounds in them.

Right near the entrance and Visitor’s Center, we snagged a spot in the Watchman Campground. Loop D #40 has a spectacular view from all the way around the camp site. We stood in awe of the canyon surrounding us and the wonderful sunny, warm day. This is the best $16.00 anyone could spend. We made quick work of setting up the tent and getting our gear unloaded. The Eureka! Freedom is a fantastic tent! If you haven’t heard about it, the Freedom is the only wheelchair accessible tent on the market. It is a 2-room tent with a high enough ceiling to roll into and there is no floor or threshold in the first room. Also, all the windows have a privacy flap that can be zipped closed or open to the screen and the screens unzip as well, so you can access just about any part of the tent from the outside. The pea gravel that made up the ground of our camp spot was actually fairly easy to roll around on, but I spent most of the time in a wheelie and the knobby Kenda Kobras made it WAY easier.

After the tent was finally up and everything was sorted, we were off to the first trail. We made our way over to the Visitor’s Center to catch one of the buses to the far end of the park. After a quick pit stop in the restroom there, we wandered over to the bus area. I must say, the bathrooms in each spot of the park are very accessible and very clean. And, to my surprise, every bus in the park has a wheelchair lift and each is run by very knowledgeable and friendly drivers.

We made our way to the far end of the park to check out the Riverside Trail as it was listed as a “beginner’s trail” and as “wheelchair accessible”. The guide for the park had said that this trail was easy, but I don’t think they had wheelers pushing their own chair in mind when they wrote that. The trail is paved, however there was a lot of dirt covering it and it was littered with cracks and pot holes along with some pretty serious hill climbs. This 1.5 mile track winds through the canyon with the Virgin River racing alongside it. The river was pretty low this time of year but was still beautiful. The Riverside Trail is a really beautiful section of the canyon and is a very good level of difficulty to start out with and really test your abilities.

If you plan on taking any one of the trails in the park I would suggest even a small backpack with a good amount of water, something to eat (a Clif bar or something small) and some good knobby tires. Oh, and don’t forget your camera. There are too many beautiful spots that you are going to want to capture to go along with the memories.

After a long day of wandering around the park, we drove into the neighboring town of Springdale and sat down for a proper meal at Casa de Amigos. This restaurant is right on the main street and is very close to the park. The food is good, and for a great price-- very inexpensive. Once our bellies were full we went back to the camp site and crashed out excruciatingly early. No person should be in bed by 8:30pm! The moon lit up the canyon walls and made for some very interesting silhouettes all around us. It is so good to see stars! I have been in the city way too long.

Zion National Park and Watchman Campground – rating *****

Day 2-

Overnight it was a bit windy, but nothing blew over or away. It just made for a long, rough night and woke us both up way too early. I guess that is what you get when you are in bed before 9:00pm. We dined on a Clif bar each - -breakfast of champions – and packed up camp. We had to check out of the campground by 11:00am, so after we got the car loaded up we parked it in a spot at the Visitor’s Center and hopped on a bus, this time to the Big Bend lookout. After a sufficient number of oohs and ahhs and some great photos, we hopped another bus down to the lodge where we grabbed a bite to eat and a couple souvenirs.

The whole entire lodge was accessible, from the ramp up to the outdoor seating, to just being able to get around all the inner restaurants and the big gift shop. I had to pick up a patch to put on my pack as I do in all the various places I go. Then we caught the next bus back to the Visitor’s Center to get the car and be on our way to the next wonderful stop – Kolob Terrace Canyon.

The drive to Kolob Terrace Canyon took us on a bit of back tracking, but was a gorgeous drive, well worth the extra mileage. After a quick stop there we headed back through Zion and out the Tunnel Drive. This section was absolutely breathtaking, from the waterfalls all over to the fun switchback road up the mountain. There were quite a few killer tunnels on the way to Bryce Canyon. It took us 3 hours to drive to Bryce Canyon National Park where we grabbed a camp site in the Sunset Campground, loop B. The new Gold Pass gets us half price so it was only $7.50 for the night. We set up the tent, which was way easier this time and then took a ride to the General Store for a few odds and ends. The park is very easy to get around, and quite accessible. Then we decided to drive to Bryce Point with the remaining light of the day. This lookout is beyond amazing! The main look out was totally accessible but the path off to the side is pretty brutal. It was paved but a very steep hill and lots of pot holes. I would only recommend taking the side trail if you have someone to catch you if you do happen to get out of control.

Back at the camp site we made our way around to get the rest of the gear out and grab a bite to eat. The site was a bit hilly from where you park your vehicle to the spot where we put the tent, but not too treacherous. Daylight ends about 8:00pm and we are already feeling sleepy. The nights are chilly – car temperature says 50 degrees. We bundled up, dressed warm for the night and tucked tight in our sleeping bags. I sure love my Karrimor bag!

Bryce campground – rating ***

Day 3-

We woke up freezing! It had rained most of the night and was definitely colder than 50 degrees this time. We made haste in packing up the camp once again and headed out. We drove to a bunch of different look out points along the road, but none as good as Bryce Point. The drive around was fun and we got to see all sorts of different angles of the canyon. The canyon was littered with these orange and white stone spires all over. They looked so much like orange creamsicles. It was really an amazing sight.

After a few hours we headed towards Page, AZ and after another 3 hour drive we stopped at the Page Campground and got a spot for $18. This wasn’t a National Park so no cool Gold Pass discount. We just put up our tag on the post claiming our spot really quick and headed to Monument Valley straight away. We had to stop at Goulding’s Trading Post for cash as they didn’t take card at the ranger booth and then into the park we go. We took off on down the dirt trail through the valley. It had given warnings of a bit of wash out areas, but who cares, it’s a rental car! The Sonata took it on like a champ. I definitely got a lot of strange looks from other drivers out on the trail for bringing a sedan out in the muddy, rutted trails, but I felt confident in my own off-road driving abilities that I wasn’t worried one bit.

The valley is incredible. It was so amazing to see the flat land with these giant rock formations still standing tall in the middle of nowhere. The red clay that covered the ground as far as the eye could see was now piled on the shiny, red Hyundai. On the drive back to Page we caught a breathtaking sunset, so much sky on the horizon in front of us. Another proper meal for dinner at Fiesta Mexicana in downtown Page, then back to camp to set up tent in the dark, which didn’t go too badly. We had power now, so I got to charge my phone finally. It is amazing how attached some people become to their phones these days. The bathroom at the campground was not so accessible. After making the trek up a hill I got to the door that was up a large step and had a security code to enter, which we were given when we checked in. Once inside there was little room to get around and no capper stalls at all. Not cool…

Page campground – rating **

Day 4-

After a much better night’s sleep, we packed up camp for the last time and headed to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. We stopped off at Starbucks in Page on the way out for some wake up juice and set off on our last leg of the journey. I have to say Highway 89A is a fantastic drive! It is very curvy, beautiful, and very fun to drive on. The North Rim Lodge was accessible but the lift to the Sun Porch was broken. The front desk lady said “We have maintenance men with good, strong backs”. I figured what the heck. They helped me down the stairs to the Sun Porch level and said to just holler when I am ready to go back up. The view from Sun Porch was indescribable. Looking out over the enormous canyon really is a humbling experience. Seeing a little bump on the horizon that happens to be a mountain over 25 miles away helps to put things in a bit of a different perspective.

After a good picture taking session and some chill time, we headed back out and drove the route from Cape Royal lookout to Port Imperial lookout. Port Imperial view point had the best view out of the different ones. Once we made a few small stops along the way for photos, we gassed up in the canyon at the only spot for gas in a long stretch, right in the canyon park itself. We took the drive back up into Utah and drove through St. George again and onto the 15 again back to Las Vegas.

Once we got back into the lights and bright of the Sin City we stopped at the House of Stilla for some Korean food and back to the house to unpack the car and get some sleep in a real bed. Oh, and a shower that was, well, magical! A hot shower was another one of those luxuries forfeited on this trip so I was a bit filthy.

Day 5-

Back in Las Vegas now, and rested up after a memorable trip, we got up early so I could bring Kat to the Greyhound Bus station for her lovely 10 hour ride back to Santa Barbara, CA. We first brought the car down to a car wash and rinsed off all the mud. Couldn’t leave any evidence of the torture we put the poor car through along the way when I brought the car back to Avis. I dropped Kat off at the bus station and made my way over to the Avis agency. I ended up having a long talk with Dennis, the manager at that location. Then a quick push around the block to the house and time to relax…