Is 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 last part and the top 3!
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3. Valley of Fire
For more pictures, visit my gallery about the Valley of Fire.
Valley of Fire isn’t the most famous neither the most visited park in the South-West of the United States, but that’s actually one of the reasons why I ranked it at the third place of this list. I didn’t expect much of this relatively small State Park but I was amazed with everything I saw and the day I spent there was one of the best of my entire trip.
What makes the Valley of Fire so beautiful? There are plenty of reasons. First, the many beautiful and surprising rock formations. Can you see the elephant, the piano, the rabbit and the dog on the pictures below?
Second reason, the landscape. The Valley of Fire is made of many rolling hills, and the view from the top of all of them is simply stunning.
Third reason, the two fantastic hikes to the North of the Park, leading to two amazing places: Fire Wave on one side of the road, Crazy Hill on the other. Fire Wave is a 2.6km/1.6-mile well indicated return track leading to a striped rock which almost looks like it has been painted. The wavy white, orange, ochre and red lines are beautiful and if you’re as lucky as me, you might even see some bighorn sheep along the way! Only cloud on the horizon, the Fire Wave Trail is the most popular track of the park and the sight is harder to appreciate when people are walking on the rock.
Crazy Hill isn’t so easy to find, as there is no proper trail going there… which also makes it more interesting as only few tourists head in this direction. From the carpark, stay on top of the rocks, walk south for about 300m/0.2 mile and you should reach it: it looks like a rainbow turned into rocks. Gorgeous!
Finally, last reason that makes the Valley of Fire so special: its roads. Going up and down in the middle of such a beautiful environment, winding around huge blocks of red sandstones, it was a great pleasure for me to drive in this State Park… and it also gave me the opportunity to take some pretty cool pictures!
For more pictures, visit my gallery about Yosemite.
Ranked at the 6th place in this list, Antelope Canyon owns part of its celebrity to Microsoft, that used pictures of this fabulous canyon for its wallpapers. Its rival Apple did the same thing, but with another South-West American National Park: Yosemite.
If you’re a Macbook user, you might recognise the picture just above. I took it from a lookout called Tunnel View, and if you’re coming from Fresno or Sequoia National Park to the South, it will be your very first view over the stunning Yosemite Valley. This is the heart of this gorgeous National Park, where you’ll find the most activities and things to see. Further North, the Tioga Road crosses the Sierra Nevada from West to East but as it climbs higher than 3,000m/almost 10,000 feet, the pass is closed between October and May (opening and closing dates of the road can vary a lot from one year to the next).
Yosemite Valley is famous for its giant rock faces like El Capitan or the Half Dome (pictures above) but also for its waterfalls. The first one you’ll see after you enter the park will be the Bridal Veil Falls to your right. A short and easy trail will lead you from the carpark to the bottom of this 200m/650 feet high fall.
If you think that 200m/650 feet is big, wait until you see the Yosemite Falls… It’s one of the biggest waterfalls in the world, dropping from a total of 739m/2,425 feet (measured from the top of the upper fall to the base of the lower fall, which are respectively 440m/1,430 feet and 98m/320 feet high, with a succession of smaller cascades in between). The best moment to see it is during spring, when the waterflow is at its strongest. Get prepared to be disappointed if you come by the end of summer: there’s almost no water running anymore! Quite surprising for such a huge and impressive waterfall… The easiest way to admire it is via the Lower Yosemite Fall Trail, but you can also climb to the top of the waterfall via the Upper Yosemite Fall Trail: an 11.5km/7.2 miles return trip with a difference of height of more than 820m/2700 feet! I haven’t done it myself because of a lack of time but the view from the summit must be extraordinary.
I did two other hikes instead of this trail. The first one was a short and easy stroll until Mirror Lake, following Tenaya Creek at the easternmost extremity of the valley. A lovely walk with the pleasure of spotting a deer at the end.
The second one was much more challenging. I started with Four Mile Trail (the carpark at the beginning of the track is quite small, it requires to come quite early in the morning) which as its name suggests is… 4 miles (6,5 km) long, but with a difference of height of 1,000m/3300 feet! The view from Glacier Point at the top is fabulous: the entire valley lies below you, from the Yosemite Falls to the left to the Half Dome to the right.
There’s a much easier way to go to Glacier Point: if this very difficult trail is too hard for you, you can simply drive there… but the road is closed during winter.
That was only the beginning of the hike. From Glacier Point, I followed Panorama Trail until the top of the very impressive Nevada Fall (181m/593 feet high) with a succession of other incredible views over the park. From there, I walked back to the valley via Mist Trail, following the Nevada Fall and the Vernal Fall (97m/318 feet high) and finally took a free shuttle back to the carpark. In total, the hike was 23km/14 miles long, with a difference of height of 1,200m/3400 feet. It was very hard and I would only advise it to experienced ramblers, but it was one of the most beautiful hikes I ever did!
If that’s still not enough for you, there’s one more trail awaiting in Yosemite National Park: the Half Dome Trail. Yes, you can climb to the top of this incredible monolith, overlooking the valley from its 2,700m/8860 feet high summit! For safety reasons, only 300 people per day are allowed to climb to the summit. Winners will be chosen by a random draw so you will have to count on your luck. I haven’t tried it, too scared by the last part where you have to help yourself with cables directly on the rock, with a declivity of 30%… so if you had the opportunity to do this extreme trail and stand on top of the Half Dome, let me know how it was in the comments!
And the winner is… Zion National Park!
For more pictures, visit my gallery about Zion National Park.
I only spent a day and a half in Zion, a gorgeous park in the South-West of Utah, which was too short to explore it entirely but more than enough to fall in love with its incredible landscape, and make it the favourite part of my trip. It is a real paradise for hikers, as many tracks enable you to explore it. The most popular is called Angel’s Landing Trail… which I won’t describe here because I didn’t try it. It’s not just a physically challenging track, it’s also a very dangerous one. The last part until the summit is on top of a cliff edge, with 400m/1,300 feet of emptiness on both sides! Not something anyone afraid of height (including me) would want to try, and even if you’re not, be super careful: 8 people died on this track since 2004.
Instead of Angel’s Landing, I chose to climb to Observation Point: a 13km/8-mile return trail with a difference of height of 660m/2200 feet. The first part is probably the hardest: during the 2 first kilometers (1.2 mile) you’ll gain 250m/820 feet! And the remaining 4.5km/2.5 miles aren’t much easier, apart from the last section which is almost flat. Another very difficult hike but a fabulous reward if you manage to get to the end: the view from the summit with the entire gorge below is breathtaking and unforgettable.
There are two main sections in Zion National Park. The first one is Zion Canyon, a deep gorge sculpted by erosion from the Virgin River, where you’ll find the previously mentioned hikes (and many others). From March to November, vehicles are forbidden inside the canyon and you’ll have to take a free shuttle starting from the visitor centre to explore it. It’s a good way to preserve the environment and not having to build huge carparks in the park, but with the drawback of getting quickly full on peak days. You’ll just have to be patient on these occasions…
The second section is along the scenic road UT9, connecting Zion to the East in the direction of Bryce Canyon via the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel. If you’re visiting successively Bryce and Zion as many other tourists do, this road is the shortest itinerary. Be careful if you’re driving a big RV: vehicles over 4m/13 feet high or 12m/40 feet long aren’t allowed to take this narrow tunnel. You’ll notice that within the boundaries of the park, the road is red, so it fades into the background. Coming from Zion, it winds and climbs slowly, offering a superb view over the Great Arch (picture on the right). Just after the tunnel (or just before if you’re coming from Bryce Canyon), leave your vehicle on the small carpark by the side of the road and take the 1.6km/1-mile return Canyon Overlook Trail. There are a few steps at the beginning, but nothing compared to the difficulty of Observation Point. The view over Zion Canyon at the end is once again truly fantastic.
I did this short trail twice, once in the late afternoon and once in the morning (morning is better as the sun is behind you) and on both occasions I had the chance to admire a group of bighorn sheep gambolling on the cliffs, with such extraordinary balance. On the second day I even saw two of them directly next to the road, seemingly posing for the tourists and almost creating a traffic jam!
Shortly after leaving Zion National Park, to the right of road UT9, open your eyes wide and you might see a herd of bison on the vast grassy plains!
So, did I convince you that Zion was the most beautiful park in the South-West of the United States? Let me know in the comments which one you would have chosen! Have also a look at the rest of the list with parks ranked from 17th to 13th, from 12th to 8th and from 7th to 4th.
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