Utah's National Parks - feature photo - Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park

Utah’s National Parks | Zion & Monument Valley

After a couple of months of solo travel, the next phase of my cross-country USA trip was actually group travel. I’d signed up to join a small group camping trip with Intrepid, covering Utah and Yosemite mainly. We started from Las Vegas and also had a few nights back there between the two halves of the trip. The first week focussed on Utah’s National Parks, starting with Zion and Monument Valley. There will be a part 2 post about Moab, Arches and Bryce Canyon coming next!

Utah's National Parks - second feature photo - mountains in Zion National Park

Small Group Adventure

First up, a little bit about what a small group trip consists of. My trip was ‘Utah, Nevada & California‘, a combo of two shorter trips, so we changed group members & leader after the Utah part. There were eleven of us on the Utah trip, along with our leader who also drove the minibus. It had a trailer hooked to the back, filled with our luggage and the camping equipment. We had a few long driving days, plus some early mornings to beat the crowds or traffic.

We weren’t camping every night of the trip, but for those we did (Zion and Bryce Canyon for Utah), it was participatory so we all had to pitch in. Everyone set up and dismantled their own tent, in pairs unless you paid for a single. Then there was a rota system for cooking and doing the dishes. There isn’t much to do in the evenings out in Utah’s National Parks, so it was nice to have the rest of the group to spend time with, usually with a few drinks around campfire. I’m not a frequent camper, but I don’t mind roughing it when it makes sense to do so. Camping is by far the cheapest way to visit the National Parks!

Zion National Park

Our journey started by driving east out of Vegas and crossing from Nevada into Utah. We made a supermarket stop to stock up on a few days’ worth of food and enjoyed the scenery as we rolled through the rocky Western desert. Arriving into Springdale in the early afternoon, we munched on a picnic lunch in the park. Already we were surrounded by tall, red-coloured mountains, a taste of what Zion had to offer. It’s part of the Grand Staircase, a vast swathe of the USA that showcases rock formations through time. The Staircase also includes the Grand Canyon – the oldest – and Bryce Canyon – the youngest – while Zion sits in the middle.

Lower Emerald Pool Hike

From Springdale we walked to the Park entrance (rather than try to get parked inside) and hopped on the shuttle bus to do a short group hike. The Emerald Pool hike was the plan, but our supermarket stop had taken longer than planned so our leader said we only had time for the lower pool. Otherwise, we’d be setting up camp in the dark! We started the hike from The Grotto bus stop (due to a bridge closure elsewhere). I actually think the best view we got came early in the trail, looking down the canyon. The Virgin River flows down the middle, with greenery on the valley floor and the large sentinel-like mountains rising on either side. It was a stunning sight!

We had to climb down through some rocks to see the Lower Pool, which was fun without being too challenging, if you’re reasonably mobile. The pool wasn’t too deep – or very emerald, in my opinion – but had a little cascade sprinkling down from the side of the path. We only had enough time for a quick look before retracing our route back to the bus stop.

Then it was back on the shuttle bus and into the van to head to our campsite. We had to drive up some steep switchbacks, offering amazing views, then through the Mount Carmel tunnel. This 1.1 mile tunnel was blasted through the mountain way back in 1927! On the far side, we passed through mesa rocks until we finally reached camp, nestled on a hilltop amongst the Ponderosa Pines. It was a pretty late night by the time we set up camp and ate dinner, followed by a rather cold night’s sleep…

The Watchman Hike

The next morning, after breakfast at camp, we drove back towards Zion, stopping on the way to take a look at the Checkerboard Mesa with its unusual criss-cross pattern. Once we arrived at the park our tour leader parked up for the day by the visitor centre, instructing us on a meeting time for later. The group split off to explore, a few off to tackle full day hikes – Scout’s Landing (no one got an Angel’s Landing permit) or the Narrows. I was keen to see a few different areas of the park instead of just one, so opted to start with our leader’s offer of a guided hike up the Watchman. She took the rear with the slowest hikers though, so I didn’t actually see her very much!

The Watchman trailhead is right beside the visitor centre, so no need for the shuttle bus yet. The trail slowly winds up the hillside, a series of curves and switchbacks. It only takes a couple of hours to do the whole thing so you don’t get super high. The peak is much lower than the surrounding mountains, but high enough to offer vistas of the surrounding summits. Zion gets narrower as you go further into the canyon, so here at the entrance, we had views of a wide, open plain. Quite the contrast really! The trail does a short loop at the top, then we returned the same way we came. It was a nice hike to get some elevation and great views, without being too long or strenuous!

Upper Emerald Pool Hike

After hiking at different speeds, a few of us regrouped at the visitor centre. I proposed returning to the Emerald Pool trail, this time to reach the middle and upper pools, and a couple of people decided to join me. This time we tackled the trail from the other side, getting off the shuttle bus at the Sand Bench Trail. We followed this across the Virgin River then turned right to head upstream, steadily ascending as we did. The path was a nice mix of shade and sun, and we passed a few horse-riding groups along the way. As we got further along the trail, the elevation offered more and more impressive views, sweeping along the river and valley in both directions, the mountains enclosing us on all sides.

We reached the middle pool, a wide, shallow section that overlooks the lower pool. Here, we stopped for a lunch break, pulling out what we had packed at camp that morning. It made for a lovely view, sitting on rocks in the sunshine, admiring the mountains! The upper pool wasn’t too much further, but this was the steepest part of the climb, up slippery sand slopes and rocky stairs. Luckily, the steep canyon walls provided shade during the hottest part of the afternoon! The pool itself sits right up against a wall, tucked away behind foliage and cool in the shade. Normally waterfalls feed it, but this late in the year they’ve pretty much dried up. Spring is the time to see them! We completed our hike by heading back to the lower pool and following the same trail as yesterday.

Brew Pub & Canyon Overlook Trail

We had a little time to spare before meeting the group again, but not enough to go any further up the valley. Instead, we caught the shuttle back to the visitor centre. We thought we had earned a drink with all our hiking and headed to the Zion Canyon Brew Pub, just outside the park gates. A cold beer under the warm sun, with gorgeous desert mountain scenery all around… no complaints here!

On the way back to camp, one of our group had suggested the Canyon Overlook Trail. Our leader had never done it before, but it was only a 20-30-minute hike, and the group was happy to check it out. The trailhead is almost immediately after you exit the tunnel and parking is limited, but we squeezed in! The trail curves around mountain sides, over large, smooth rocks. It ends on a large plateau and as you approach the edge (very carefully!), a huge vista opens up before your eyes. You end up looking down on the road we’d just driven up, tight switchbacks up the sides of the canyon, with the green valley nestled in between. I think our guide was more than happy to start recommending this to her future groups, as it really was stunning!

Monument Valley

So, technically Monument Valley is neither a National Park nor is it in Utah. It’s actually a Tribal Park inside Navajo Nation, which straddles four US states. Monument Valley is in Arizona, if we’re being pedantic about it. But the Navajo self-govern inside their nation so the state doesn’t matter all that much. The nation is the largest indigenous reservation in the USA, allowing the Navajo tribe to preserve and practice their culture and customs.

Glen Canyon & Navajo National Monument

The drive was a few hours from Zion but we broke it up with some sightseeing en-route. First up was Glen Canyon, whose dam creates a large reservoir, Lake Powell. It’s one of the biggest reservoirs in the USA, and from atop the canyon, we had great views of the bright blue water. The canyon isn’t quite as dramatic as the Grand Canyon, but it’s yet another fantastic rock formation in this corner of the world. There’s a visitor centre next to the bridge and dam, which has exhibits on local wildlife and the construction of the dam.

Continuing on, we stopped again to set up a picnic lunch at the Navajo National Monument. After eating under the shade of the trees, we had time for a short hike. Passing through the small shop, we followed a trail along the top of a plateau, surrounded by desert scrub. The reason it’s a monument, and what we were going to look at, are the cliff dwellings. Tucked in a hollow of the rock face, you can spot the ruins of an ancient town where the indigenous Puebloan people once lived. Built of stone bricks in the 13th century, the people likely abandoned it around the turn of the 14th century. The dry, desert climate has kept it remarkably well-preserved and even though we were looking from a great distance, it was very impressive how much we could see still standing!

Jeep Tour

Arriving into Navajo Nation, we drove through flat desert landscape, dotted with various small towns, until we approached signs for Monument Valley. Then out of the desert, great, red rock mesas rose up before our eyes, like giants standing sentinel over the Navajo Nation. Pulling into the visitor centre, we grabbed our overnight bags, locked up our van and hopped into the jeep of our Navajo guide, Cody. Bumping and rolling over the sandy roads through the dunes, we embarked on a magical couple of hours exploring the valley. There’s no electricity or running water in Monument Valley and only a small population of people live here full-time. Getting to experience it with a local guide gave us so much insight into the history and culture.

Cody stopped at various viewpoints, allowing us time to hop out of the jeep, take photos and soak in the scenery. He would explain the names and the associated legends of the formations. And he’s got some good photography tricks up his sleeve! He pointed out shapes and certain angles, such as the hole that forms the eye of an eagle, or the petroglyphs tucked away in one corner. We certainly wouldn’t have spotted it all on our own! The sun was gradually setting throughout the tour, lighting up the rocks in shades of red and orange, fading into pinks and purples as dusk settled in. We even got a full moon twinkling just above the iconic buttes.

Overnight Navajo Experience

Our experience didn’t end at sunset though. As night fell, we drove to a small clearing, where a few other groups joined us for dinner and entertainment. We tucked into “Navajo tacos”, made with fried bread, a staple of the local diet. Then Cody donned his regalia while another local picked up his drum and began to sing as Cody danced around the fire. They explained the stories and meanings behind the different dances too, such as which animal it embodied. Plus, they got some of the audience up to join in too – a few of our group members got “married” during one.

After the dancing was over, the other groups left the park, while we got to stay. We headed to our sleeping quarters for the night, where we had a choice of staying in a hogan – a traditional Navajo hut – or sleeping under the stars. The hogan looked a bit snug for all twelve of us, so most of us opted to sleep outside. The full moon meant we couldn’t actually see as many stars as you’d hope.

But, I ended up waking up around 4am or so – normally, that would be super annoying, but the moon had dipped low enough for the stars to shine. And wow! Growing up in the countryside, I’m used to seeing starrier skies than you get in the city, but it’s been a while since I’ve seen this many, this bright. It did get super cold and honestly, I didn’t sleep well at all, but that was true in Zion as well. And it was worth it to spend a night in Monument Valley, an opportunity not many people get!

Sunrise in Monument Valley

We were up before dawn the next morning to watch the sunrise. It was a bit of a scramble and a race in the jeep to get to our viewpoint in time, with some sleepy starts, but we made it! Standing amongst the sand dunes, light slowly crept across the sky, with pink tinging the horizon and the rocks glowing red around us again. The pre-dawn might have been the prettiest part actually! Then the sun emerged from the horizon, blazing across the desert and casting dramatic shadows on the rocks.

Once we’d drunk it in for long enough, we headed to another picnic table spot to enjoy breakfast (with much-needed coffee). Then it was time to leave the park again, whizzing past the mesas en-route, before bidding farewell to Cody back at the visitor centre. Monument Valley has been on my wish list for a long time and it certainly didn’t disappoint. It’s a beautiful, magical landscape in its own right, but hearing the stories and culture from a local guide gave it an extra dimension of mysticism and wonder!

Forrest Gump View & Goosenecks State Park

We weren’t quite finished with Monument Valley yet, though. As we drove out of the park, heading along Route 163, we pulled over at the Mile 13 marker. Turning around to look behind us, a breathtaking view of the mesas sits along the horizon. And if it looks familiar? That’s because it was used in the movie Forrest Gump, in the scene where he stops running. Between this and the square in Savannah, I inadvertently hit a few Forrest locations this summer!

We were heading back into Utah again, east towards Moab, but on the way we also stopped at Goosenecks State Point. The name comes from the sharp bends of the canyon here, following the meandering river as it snakes back and forth on itself. Which, apparently, resemble goose necks! You might think all these rocks and canyons would start to get repetitive, but it’s astonishing how unique each new location is. Our drive then continued on the theme of tight bends, as we followed Moki Dugway up sharp hairpin bends, with a steep drop into the valley below us. Thankfully our driver guide has made this journey many, many times before!

Utah’s National Parks – Part 1

Our journey through Utah’s National Parks was nowhere close to finished yet, but departing from Monument Valley was the halfway point. It was certainly nice to have someone else in charge of the driving and the planning, and just be able to soak it all in! And there was so much to soak in. As I said, despite this part of my USA trip being a seemingly endless stream of rock formations, they’re all so different. Where Zion is vast mountains creating a canyon filled with lush greenery, Monument Valley is all dry desert and solitary mesas and buttes dotted throughout. I was already awestruck by it all, and we still had a few more parks to go!