3 states, 2 national parks and 48 hours in the American Southwest.

When I found out my parents were coming from New Zealand to visit me in Arizona, I knew I wanted to show off this beautiful part of the world. But how do you show someone the American Southwest in two days? Honestly, you could probably spend 48 days here and still not feel like you had done or seen it all. However, I only had 48 hours to squeeze in as much as possible.

We planned to start at the Grand Canyon and then make a loop up to Zion National Park in Utah via Horseshoe Bend before heading towards Las Vegas and circling back to Arizona.

The Grand Canyon is about a 3.5 hour drive from where I live, and we aimed to arrive around lunchtime. In traditional us fashion, we planned to leave at 9:30 a.m. so that we would definitely be gone by 10 and we finally hit the road at 10:30.

Right on schedule.

Grand Canyon panoramic view
View of the Grand Canyon from one of the lookouts by the visitor center.

For most of the drive, we traveled on I-40, which is the route you take when coming from Vegas. The road follows old Route 66, but you wouldn’t know it — as the four-lane interstate covers any of the historic road — unless you stop at a gas station along the way. There, you’ll be overwhelmed with anything and everything Route 66. You name it, they’ve got it: mugs, postcards, shot glasses, books, maps — all the kitsch your heart could possibly desire.

The gateway to the canyon

Right before we turned off I-40 to head north for the canyon, we drove through Williams, Arizona — the gateway to the Grand Canyon. 

We grabbed lunch at the Historic Brewing Company, where the food, beer and ambience were all spectacular. My dad and I shared a cheeky float as a sensible way to sample as much of the extensive menu as possible, while respecting that it was only 11:45 a.m. and that we still had a long day ahead of us.

We settled for a float of six tasters, each choosing three but trying all, and a delicious market salad. The float was presented on an old book, which added a unique touch, and I definitely plan on stopping here the next time I’m passing through.

Beer float at Historic Brewing Company in Williams, Arizona

More than an hour later, and 20 minutes behind our already late schedule, we finally left our “quick pit stop for a bite to eat” and headed north for the canyon.

That magnificent canyon

The Grand Canyon is one of those famous places that still manages to take your breath away, no matter how many photos you’ve seen. Thankfully, I’ve yet to take someone there who hasn’t been blown away, and my parents were no exception. 

Our delayed schedule caught up with us here and we ended up rushing our visit in an attempt to make it to Horseshoe Bend for sunset. Before we began our trip, we booked accommodation to stay in Page, Arizona, that night — about 2.5 hours north of the canyon — but we decided on the fly to make it to Horseshoe Bend that evening, and not the next morning.

View of the Delta Bend in the Colorado River at Lipon Point at the Grand Canyon.
View from Lipon Point. Here you can see Unkar Delta, which was once home to ancestral Puebloan people. It’s also currently the site of active archeological study. You’re also looking at the Grand Canyon Supergroup,  a unique rock strata that can be clearly seen from only a few places on the South Rim.

As much as Dad would have loved to stay and wander around the lookouts all afternoon, Mum and I put our pragmatic hats on and ushered him into the car. We planned a brief stop along Desert View Drive — a road you can follow for 40 minutes along the South Rim — before finally exiting the east end of the park.

We stopped at Lipon Point, which is my favorite lookout along this road. Here, not only do you see a completely different section of the Grand Canyon than by the Visitor’s Center, but you also get a great view of the Colorado River, winding through the abyss it has spent years moulding.

A quick photo shoot and a few adorable family pics later, and we were off, chasing the sun.

View of the Grand Canyon from Lipon Point.
Looking the other way at Lipon Point — back up the canyon westward toward the visitor center.

Everything the light touches

As we left the canyon, we wound through the national park and into the Coconino National Forest. Once we hit Interstate 89 — which connects Flagstaff to Page — we were in red-rock country. For the majority of this drive, we traveled parallel to a ridge line of small mountains, all brilliant red in color.

Our on-the-fly plan turned out to be a winner as the setting sunlight brought out the redness of the cliffs, and the blue-sky background made them really pop. As we drove along, into and over these mountains, I couldn’t help but thinking of the Lion King’s iconic “everything the light touches” scene.

On our right, was the carved out cliffside — raw and a deep, burning red. As we looked out to our left, we saw the vast valley, with the crack of the beginnings of the Grand Canyon’s North Rim — the only thing interrupting this expansive plain.

The famous horseshoe

Horseshoe Bend is a beautiful section of landscape where the Colorado River has carved a horseshoe-shaped path through the desert rock. We arrived in time to watch the sun fall below the horizon as we made the 2-kilometer(1.3 mile) walk up and down the sand-dune type hill that leads to the bend’s viewing area.

Horseshoe Bend at Sunset.

Seeing the sun set and then being able to explore the scenery in the remaining light was better than if we had arrived earlier. This way we were still able to enjoy (and take photos of) the bend without having to squint.

Horseshoe Bend is unique in that it is still relatively undeveloped. This is all changing, as there is a two-phase plan to add fencing and more viewing areas, but for now, at least, there are no safety guards to stop you from getting as close to the edge as you like. And it’s a 300-meter drop to the river below.

Horseshoe Bend in Page, Arizona

I get my fear of heights from Mum, and although I was able to get fairly close to the edge — determined to see the river below and snap a few good pictures — she hung decidedly back, begging Dad and I not to get too close. Unfortunately, I don’t think she ever got close enough to see the full curve of the river below. Due to the nerve-racking heights, combined with an onslaught of mosquitos and none of us having the forethought to put any repellent on before we left the car, I don’t think this was her favourite adventure of the trip.

Horseshoe Bend in Page, Arizona

Nonetheless, it was impossible not to be in awe of the beauty that surrounded us. And although Mum may have not made it to the edge, I know she’s glad she went. Even if it was just to see the sun set over the hills in the distance and watch the desert around us shift from a vibrant red-orange to a soft dusty pink.

Page in winter

From Horseshoe Bend, it was less than a five-minute drive to our hotel, which suited us perfectly, as we were all pretty knackered from our long day.

In the summer, Page is a bustling hub of tourists and adventure lovers. But in the winter, as we found out firsthand, the city switches into off-season hours. We found one of the few open food establishments near our hotel, scoffed back some Chinese buffet and hit the hay.

Looking at Lake Powell and the Glen Canyon Recreation Area just outside of Page, Arizona.
Lake Powell and the Glen Canyon Recreation Area just outside of Page, Arizona.

Before lights out, we laid out a tentative plan for the next day: Drive two hours to Zion National Park, spend the day exploring the park via scenic drives and a hike or two, then drive three hours to Las Vegas for some good food, drink and Vegas shenanigans. We had to be up by 9:30 a.m. to get our free breakfast and wanted to leave by 10:30 at the latest. Although we were out of the hotel on time, a shopping detour to Walmart meant we weren’t on the road until after 11.

Right on time.

Into the cliffs

Although the Grand Canyon is predominantly viewed from the top-down, in Zion National Park the perspective flipped. Here, we drove into the valley, and therefore were able to get up close to the beautiful rocks, cliffs and river that make this national park so stunning.

As we entered the park from the east, the road changed from regular grey to a deep burgundy/brown, and before we knew it, we were suddenly amongst the cliffs. We followed the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway as it wound through the mountains, carving a road westward towards the center of the park.

The 35 mph speed limit not only suited the twists and turns of the road, but also allowed us plenty of time to take in the breathtaking scenery towering around us. We also discovered there are plenty of places dotted along the road to pull over to take photos, and barely 10 minutes into the park, we pulled off to explore.

There were two main features of the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway that we read about before arriving at the park; the hairpin corners of the road and the two tunnels that lead you through the cliffs.

The first tunnel, although not the longest, was actually my favourite of the two. Because it’s shorter, it does not have the same concrete structure of the longer tunnel and therefore the roof shows the raw underbelly of the red hill you’re driving through.

The longer tunnel  is 1.7 kilometers (1.1 miles) long and is dotted with large peepholes along one side that grant a sliver of a view at the surrounding mountains and valley. Unfortunately, there were a couple of cars behind me as we drove through, so we had to maintain a semi-reasonable speed (still less than 30 km) as we passed by. As we exited the second tunnel, the valley of the park unfolded in front of us, backed by the multi-colored cliffs.

Although we thoroughly enjoyed all of Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway, the section after we emerged from the second tunnel and wound down the hairpin curves to the bottom of the valley was definitely the most breathtaking portion of the drive.

My family is huge Tour De France fans, and these tight corners made us feel like we were on our own tour — although we traveled at a much slower pace. We marveled at the speed those cyclists take these types of turns at and shivered at the thought of how easily something could go wrong, all the while, trying to look around and take in everything.

Into the canyon

When we finally made it to the intersection of Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway and Zion Scenic Drive, we’d already spent almost two hours in the park, taken hundreds of photos and hadn’t even made it into Zion Canyon yet.

We turned onto the scenic drive and followed the road along the Virgin River through the base of the canyon, gaping at the rising cliffs above us.

View from Zion Scenic Drive of the Court of the Patriarchs in Zion National Park.
View from Zion Scenic Drive of the Court of the Patriarchs. According to Wikipedia, the Court of the Patriarchs is a set of sandstone cliffs that are named for biblical figures Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

We passed the Court of the Patriarchs — four famous pinnacles in the hillside near the start of the canyon — and made our way to the parking lot at the trailhead for the hike to the Emerald Pools.

We chose the Emerald Pools hike because of the flexibility it offered as there are three different stages depending how high and how long you want to hike for. In our planning, we identified that even the longest option should still fit our timeframe.

The climb to the top pool wasn’t too difficult, but it still managed to get our hearts pumping and breath heaving by the end. Although the pools weren’t as rich emerald in color as I was hoping, and the waterfalls were more of a slight shower rather than a thundering force, it was still a beautiful hike.

The middle pool was my favourite, as it offered not only a beautiful look into the canyon and across to the cliffs on the opposite side, but it also showed a brilliant reflection of this perspective in the pool.

When we finally made it back down to the river the sun had left most of the canyon by now, so we quickly drove to the end of the scenic drive before making our way out of the park and toward Las Vegas. Not at all tired, and ready to party the night away.

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