Exploring the National Parks in Arizona and Utah
The American Southwest offers some of the most impressive national and state parks in the USA. Filled with iconic natural landmarks that everyone dreams about, the region is the perfect place for a road trip to experience a vast variety of landscapes in a fairly short amount of time.
We decided to fly into Los Angeles. The SIXT branch at LAX has a wide range of vehicles and we picked up the perfect car for our trip: a Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk. We decided to go with an SUV since it was important for us to have four-wheel-drive, in case we had to drive on gravel roads.
Stop 1: The Santa Monica Pier
As it was our first time visiting the City of Angels, we decided to drive to the Santa Monica Pier and explore the city a bit. Santa Monica is located west of downtown L.A. and it offers a beach getaway for the people living and visiting this busy city. It is the perfect place to grab a drink, go to a fancy restaurant and to watch the sunset. As it was our first day we wanted to take it easy and walked around on the beach and took some photos of the famous Ferris Wheel.
Once in Santa Monica, you can either take a bike to the beach, go on foot or in your rental car. The parking fees can get quite expensive but it is one of the hottest places in town! The next day, the real adventure started. After breakfast, we decided to head out to explore the beautiful southwest part of the United States.
Stop 2: Valley of Fire State Park
The first stop on our list was the Valley of Fire State Park, located about 1 hour northeast of Las Vegas. It. was one of the first state parks established by the state of Nevada. We were most attracted to the roads that go through the bright red rock formations whose color comes from the iron oxide in the area’s sediment. You can take the Valley of Fire Highway to get to the park, and then drive on Mouse’s Tank Road to go further into the park.
We decided to visit at sunset as it is less hot and way less crowded; indeed we had the whole valley to ourselves. The road with the best views is located close to the Visitor Center so you can’t miss it! There are some turnouts and parking spots on the road to hop out and take a few quick shots.
Stop 3: Zion National Park
Our next stop on the trip was Zion National Park. It is famous for its massive sandstone cliffs, beautiful landscapes and narrow canyons. The drive into the park is very beautiful and there are lots of places where you can stop to take some pictures on the way. In the US you have to pay a fee to enter a national park and the cost is generally $20-30. We decided to purchase an annual pass that cost $90 as we knew we would visit a lot of different parks on our trip, and it was well worth it.
In Zion National Park, you can find one of the most beautiful and also one of the most popular hikes: The Narrows. There are plenty of hikes where you will walk along a stream or cross a river stream but we walked against the stream up a river. To get to the trailhead you can take a free shuttle bus from the parking lot. The complete hike is about 9.4 miles (15 km) long. As we started late in the afternoon we decided to walk about halfway through the canyon. We stopped many times for pictures and to just enjoy the moments.
It can be exhausting hiking up the river. You can rent hiking shoes and some hiking poles but we decided to hike in our sneakers. If you want to do the complete hike you should consider going in the morning so you have plenty of time. The best thing is that the hike is the attraction itself so even if you decide to walk only a mile or two up the river, you will already be in The Narrows.
Stop 4: Horseshoe Bend
This is one of the most iconic places in the US. If you’re not familiar with the name, it is a horseshoe-shaped canyon in Arizona where the Colorado River flows through. The best views and easiest access are from the lookout. You can park your car and walk for about 10-15 minutes to view Horseshoe Bend from the lookout.
We decided to visit in the morning to avoid the crowds and although it was very early, a few early birds were already contemplating the beauty of this natural wonder. It was such a beautiful moment when we got to see this famous sight with our own eyes. Make sure to bring water, wear good shoes and don’t forget your camera!
Stop 5: Forrest Gump Hill
If you’ve seen the movie Forrest Gump you will likely have seen this view, and if you haven’t it is definitely a place to add to your “must-see” list. The first thing that I would like to mention is that Forrest Gump Hill is basically a two-lane highway in Utah that happens to have astonishing rock formations in the background. There will be quite a bit of traffic during the day but if you are aware and careful you can definitely get a few photos here or simply enjoy the view from the side of the road. There is a pullout area where you can safely park your car and walk to the road. Again, please be aware of traffic and don’t put yourself or others in danger so you will have a pleasant experience.
Stop 6: Monument Valley
Monument Valley is known for its majestic sandstone buttes located in a very isolated area on the border of Arizona and Utah. People come here to hike, take photographs, drive or simply experience the natural beauty. We were so excited to visit and decided to stay in the area for 2 days. We stayed at The View Hotel on the Arizona side of the border. It’s one of the pricier options here, but honestly, you will not have that many options for lodging. If you book in advance you can definitely secure a spot in the hotel or nearby lodge.
The best thing about experiencing Monument Valley is that there is a loop road that you can take through the park to enjoy these beautiful sights from your car. There is one main road that will take you around the different locations and lookout points. In addition to that, the park has two hiking trails that take you to different lookout points. We visited the famous John Ford point where you can stand on the edge of a plateau overlooking the rock formations. It is the perfect place for an iconic photo to show to your family and friends or to share on social media.
Stop 7: Arches National Park
Arches National Park in the southeastern part of Utah was next on our bucket list. This area has a lot of different attractions but the reason we wanted to visit this place is because of the hike to the Delicate Arch. People from all over the world come to see this arched rock. Although the park contains over 2,000 stone arches, this particular free-standing arch has become a symbol of the park and on the top of many visitor’s must-see lists.
To reach the Delicate Arch you must hike on a trail for 3 miles (5 km) that can be a little bit challenging, especially in the hot midday sun. We recommend doing the hike early in the morning or, as we did, in the late afternoon to see the sunset. We did the hike on the weekend and the trail was very busy but during the weekdays it should be a lot calmer. Nevertheless, we saw stunning views on the drive to the parking lot before we even started hiking. Make sure to carry plenty of water, wear good shoes and maybe even bring some snacks to enjoy while you watch the sun go down. After the hike, we drove back to our hotel in Moab, Utah, a small town with a lot of restaurants and shops.
Stop 8: Capitol Reef National Park
Our final destination was the Temple of the Sun rock formation located in the Capitol Reef National Park in southern Utah. It can be a bit tricky to access as you need to drive on a rough gravel road to the northeastern part of the park. If you have 4WD you have nothing to worry about and you can make it in a normal car if you drive slowly and carefully. The good thing about this road is that there are stunning views along the way so you won’t get bored at all.
Once you get to the Temple of the Sun there will be some great photo opportunities. There weren’t too many turnouts to park your car but you are likely going to be alone in this area as it is not as accessible as the other places we visited.
When is the best time to visit the US?
The best time to visit all of these locations is definitely in the fall. There are fewer people and the weather is not so hot. As it can get really warm in the Southwest US it is important to bring a lot of water and stay out of the sun during the hottest hours. Our road trip was just at the end of summer and we had perfect weather throughout the whole trip.
About the Author + Photographs
The text and photographs come from Giulia Woergartner, who grew up in the Dolomites in Italy, Kay Van Huisseling, who comes from the Netherlands, and Espen Valverde who hails from Denmark. You can find more of their work on Instagram at @giuligartner, @kayvanhuisseling, and @espenvalverde respectively.