s there a place on Earth with more natural wonders than the South-West of the United States? I can hardly think of anywhere else with a bigger concentration of treasures: dry and deadly deserts, extraordinary canyons, huge waterfalls, stunning rock formations and even the biggest trees in the world! It was a great challenge for me to rank all these beautiful places as I enjoyed them a lot, but I tried anyway and here’s the result, with my 17 favourite State or National Parks in the South-West of the United States. This is the third part, from rank 7 to 4.
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For more pictures, visit my gallery about Canyonlands & Arches.
The natural wonders of Canyonlands National Park in Utah were created over thousands of years by erosion, caused by the Colorado River (once again) and the Green River. There are different sections in Canyonlands, quite far away from each other. I’ve only been myself to the section called “Island in the Sky” so I won’t be able to introduce you to the other ones (the Needles and the Maze), but that was enough for me to be overwhelmed by the extraordinary sight that I found even more impressive than the Grand Canyon. Grand Viewpoint Overlook might be the greatest view in the South-West of the United States!
Canyonlands National Park can easily be explored with a car, driving from one lookout to another, with easy trails leading to them from the different car parks. Don’t miss the Mesa Arch, a 40m/130 feet long natural arch overlooking a 400m/1,300 feet deep canyon, but also the view from Green River Overlook and the 1.6km/1 mile trail leading to the previously mentioned Grand Viewpoint Overlook, from which you’ll see at the same time the Colorado River to the South and the Green River to the North. A breath-taking sight!
6. Antelope Canyon (+ Horseshoe Bend)
For more pictures have a look at my gallery about Antelope Canyon & Monument Valley.
Another famous image of the South-West of the United States: Microsoft even used a picture of this fabulous red slot canyon polished by erosion for an official wallpaper. There are actually two different canyons: the Lower and the Upper Antelope Canyon. If I had visited only the Upper Canyon, I probably would have ranked Antelope on my personal podium, but because of the Lower Canyon I decided to downgrade it to rank 6. Here’s why.
Both canyons can only be visited with a guided tour. They are located in a Navajo reserve, so you’ll have to pay the entrance to the reserve first (8$) and then pay for the tour… which usually includes the fees for the reserve. Booking is highly recommended, at least a week in advance during the peak season (spring and summer). I visited the Upper Canyon with the company called “Antelope Slot Canyon Tours by Chief Tsotsie” and it was really awesome. We were a dozen people and our old indigenous guide was highly interesting, friendly and funny. The tour begun at their office in Page from where we were carried in the back of a truck on a bumpy track until the entrance of the canyon. Then we slowly walked all the way through the canyon, with many stops for explanations and pictures. Taking photos in such an environment isn’t easy as it’s dark and it’s quite hard to capture the incredible red and ochre colours of the canyon on the camera, but the guide knew the ideal settings for the most common kind of cameras and smartphones so he was able to help everyone taking the best pictures. Once we reached the end of the canyon, he played music for us on a traditional instrument and talked for a few minutes about how erosion created this place, and then we walked back through the canyon but without stopping this time. An unforgettable moment.
The Lower Canyon doesn’t compare unfavourably to the Upper. It’s actually longer and deeper which makes it even more impressive. The problem wasn’t the canyon itself but the tour. There are two options for guided tours: Ken’s Tours (the one I chose) and Dixie’s Tour. But so many groups were visiting at the same time that the entire canyon was packed with people following each other. It was noisy, very difficult to take pictures of the canyon without other tourists on it, we sometimes had to wait for another group to move on and sometimes had to suddenly hurry up, while our guide, a young man in his 20’s was constantly shouting “Come on! Let’s go! We have to move!”. Luckily the sight of the canyon was still extraordinary so at some point I simply decided not caring at all about other people and enjoying it the way I wanted. It was still an extraordinary visit, but if I had to come back to Page again, I would only explore the Upper Antelope Canyon.
Not far from Page and Antelope Canyon, heading to the South towards Flagstaff and Phoenix, you’ll find the gorgeous Horseshoe Bend, once again carved over thousands of years by the Colorado River. A brief but unmissable stop for a world-famous image.
5. Bryce Canyon (+ Red Canyon)
There are many places in the South-West of the United States where you can have the impression of being on a different planet, but Bryce Canyon is probably where that feeling is at its greatest. The view over the hundreds of hoodoos (columns of soft rocks topped by a much harder and less easily eroded stone, also called fairy chimneys) in the Bryce Amphitheatre is one of the most fantastic sights of the area, especially at sunrise.
Even if the view from the different lookouts above the Amphitheatre is stunning, the best way to explore Bryce Canyon National Park is to hike down into the valley, to see the hoodoos from a different perspective. There are a few different trails, adapted to different levels of fitness (even though they all require a good enough form as they imply climbing back up to the edge of the canyon at the end). I started at Sunrise Point on Queens Garden Trail, kept going on the Peekaboo Loop Trail and finished at Sunset Point via the Navajo Trail. It was a long and difficult hike but well worth the effort in the middle of such an exceptional environment.
If the difference in altitude of these trails scares you, you can take part in a horse-riding guided tour, or simply walk on the Rim Trail. It circles around the Amphitheatre via the different platforms overlooking it and is much easier because it’s mostly on flat grounds. Between May and September, free shuttles are in service in the park, which makes it possible to hike one way and take a shuttle back to the starting point.
Sunsets are a bit disappointing in Bryce Canyon as the Bryce Amphitheatre is opened to the East and quickly shaded, but sunrises are extraordinary and watching the first rays of sun enlighten the hoodoos is a fabulous sight. Ironically, the rangers at the Visitor Centre advised me to watch it from Bryce Point instead of… Sunrise Point. It was extremely cold on this early morning of April (the park is over 2,000m/6,500 feet above sea level, highest point at 2,778m/9,114 feet) but what a beauty…
Finally, even if the most interesting part of Bryce Canyon is around the Amphitheatre, don’t miss also the Scenic Drive to the South, with access to many beautiful lookouts such as the Natural Bridge or Rainbow Point at the end of the road, the highest point in the park.
Just before arriving at Bryce Canyon National Park if you’re coming from the West (the direction of Zion National Park), you’ll drive through Red Canyon, which could be considered as an introduction to Bryce Canyon. The landscape is similar with many red hoodoos pointing to the sky, but just a bit less impressive than the Amphitheatre. It is crossed by the Scenic Drive 12, on the side of which you can easily park to take pictures. There’s also a Visitor Centre and the short Hoodoo Trail (0.5km/0.3mile) next to it is a very nice stroll that I recommend.
4. Highway One/Pacific Coast
It was extremely hard for me to make a top 3 of my favourite places in the South-West of the United States without including the iconic Highway One between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Officially named “California State Route 1”, this scenic road follows the Pacific Coast over almost 900km/more than 500miles and a huge part of this itinerary is absolutely stunning.
The coast is beautiful as soon as you leave San Francisco and Santa Cruz is a lovely city (pictures above), but the most stunning section is South of Monterey. Point Lobos State Park is the first unmissable stop of this part of the road. It costs 10$ per vehicle but it’s possible to leave your car on the side of the road next to the gate: the entrance is then free for pedestrians. There’s a trail circling all around Point Lobos; based on your level of fitness it can be done within half a day. One of the highlights of the park is its very rich fauna: birds, seals or sea lions can be seen everywhere along the many lovely coves and beaches. My personal favourites: Cypress Cove, Hidden Beach and Gibson Beach at the southernmost extremity of the park.
Very shortly after Point Lobos, the road starts being truly exceptional. You’d want to stop everywhere to take pictures! It’s not considered as one of the most beautiful roads in the world without a very good reason… One of the famous spots along the way is the very photogenic Bixby Bridge, but every corner and every bend of the road offers a brand-new sight always more and more spectacular.
If it’s very hot and sunny, you can hike under the shade of sequoia trees in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. The trails are nice and relaxing but not that extraordinary so it’s a stop that can easily be skipped, especially as the entrance costs another 10$. A little bit further, McCay Cove in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park (don’t get confused with the similar names!) is one of the best panoramas of the entire coast: a perfect and unspoiled beach (it can only be watched from above, walking on it is forbidden), overlooked by tall cliffs with a small waterfall to the left. Gorgeous!
Unfortunately, during my visit in May 2018 I had to do a U-turn shortly after Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park as the road was closed because of a landslide. It’s quite common in the area so check the road conditions prior to your visit if you don’t want to get stuck. One sure thing: if you’re driving between San Francisco and Los Angeles, follow the coast!
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