Explore exhilarating landscapes, ancient civilisations and boundless outdoor activities. With national and state parks, Navajo cliffs and famous monuments, this Utah roadie is definitely a joyride, writes Ivy Carruth.
We’re in Las Vegas for one night only before we hightail it to Utah’s vermillion-hued topography. There are four of us, each ready to command our own separate and unique vehicle. “My word! Look at the size of that BEAST!” I blurt as we pass Cruise America, where a not-so-tiny army of RVs gleam in the omnipresent sun-glare of Sin City. Like soldiers, they rest in a formation that speaks of readiness. Thankfully, we booked ahead through DriveNow, because campervans are in hot demand.
Our plan is to meet at 9.30 at a petrol station by the interstate, where we can easily begin our campervan convoy up I-15N. Except it takes longer than anticipated – much, much longer – as there is all manner of [very important] minutiae to take note of while collecting our ride. We learn how to hook up to power, how to use the water pump and how long our showers should be (three minutes). We learn how to empty our sewage and use the generator. Hot tips here: Record the walk-through on video; use your phone. When you’re out in no man’s land, you don’t want to be mixing up which end of the hose connects to the sewer and which one connects to the tank. Also, you can pay in advance not to have to empty your own muckety-muck if that’s something that you might find a worthwhile expense – like me.
A few hours behind schedule, we meet up. The first few things in the itinerary are shot, but that’s the beauty of making our own way; it really doesn’t matter. We take some more time to compare our respective rides. Maree’s is sleek and urbane; it wouldn’t be out of place ferrying around the Prime Minister. Shelley’s is more in the style of Euro-backpacker-chic; its agility and nimbleness winning out over comfort and good looks. Mine is the one I called “the beast”. At almost eight metres long, it’s as big as a sizeable New York City apartment (and fitted out as nicely as one) and sleeps six. Jocelyn’s is similar to mine if a few years older and with a smart interior layout and TV. We settle on our place in the convoy with nimble Shelley up front, the Prime Minister next, my Manhattan sublet third and bringing up the rear, Jocelyn’s comfy caboose.
Snaking our way into Utah is a breeze, and the scenery gives way to scrubby grey brush before turning to amber, mandarin and rust. Utah is home to five national parks and 43 state parks, so even if you’re not in one, you’re near one. We’ve only got a week, so we’ll get to far fewer than that, but not for lack of trying.
Our first stop is Snow Canyon State Park, only two hours from the Vegas strip. We’ve booked e-bikes to explore. Having never been on an e-bike, I’m secretly lacking some enthusiasm, but when we actually hop on these two-wheeled magic carpets, they practically propel themselves. We tear through the beauty of carmine escarpments, wind in our hair and smiles that won’t stop. It’s hot, around 32C, but the breeze is a liberation. We see rattlesnakes coiled, their cautioning clatter an auditory reminder when we inadvertently get too close. We also happen upon a dinner-plate-sized Mohave Desert Tortoise, which leaves even the ranger a bit open-mouthed since they’re critically endangered. The desert is thrumming with neon wildflowers and insouciant welcome; this is a must-see and will become my favourite stop on the journey. Don’t miss the trail markers that point out prehistoric petroglyph sites.
After a solid night’s sleep and a quick brekkie at “Jocelyn’s dinette”, we journey an hour further up I-15N to one of America’s most beloved National Parks, the mighty Zion. Visited by more than five million people annually, the queue for entry was still unexpected, especially after the ease of Snow Canyon’s admittance. If you want to conquer the infamous Angel’s Landing, you’ll need to apply for a coveted permit via lottery on the day prior to your aspirational trek. Last year, about 200,000 were issued. The closest you can get to Angel’s Landing without a permit is Scout’s Lookout, which is still quite arduous. We chose the supremely accessible Pa’rus Trail (5.6km return) instead and make our way down to the historic Zion Lodge for icecream.
Two hours northeast of Zion, Bryce Canyon National Park is much less slick and produced than Zion, Bryce is laid back and has a more Western Americana feel to it. We’re feeling excited because we’ve booked into a two-hour guided horse riding tour that will take us 300 metres into the canyon’s pristine alpine forest and out again. Our guide is quite obviously not a morning person, and some of the horses are mules, but we have a terrific time, and I’d recommend it as the easiest way to appreciate the majesty of the canyon. Bryce marks one end of Utah’s Scenic Byway 12, which was named second in the world’s 10 most beautiful highways. Number one? Milford Road, New Zealand, of course.
The next day we amble slowly along the Twelve and make our way up toward Capitol Reef National Park; it bookends the other end of the Byway. We stop for photos, bakeries and hikes. The panorama changes dramatically from the reds of the canyons and mushroom-esque hoodoos to fields of Pinyon Pine and patches of snow. It looks like a Christmas movie here; we rug up. When night falls, its velvet void is blacker than a raven’s feathers. Capitol Reef was designated an International Dark Sky Park in 2015.
We have only a few more days left on our trip before we make the drive back to Vegas, so we hurry to make the most of them. At Natural Bridges National Monument (200km drive from Capitol Reef), a 15-kilometre loop is self-guided. Owachomo Bridge is the most accessible, and the oldest of the three landmarks, and the hike to the bottom takes just 20 minutes for some stunning up-close angles. Edge of the Cedars State Park, on a prehistoric Puebloan (Anasazi) architectural site, is a scant hour away and uniquely impressive. Examples of archaeoastronomy hint at a culture well aware of celestial influences, though they lived in stone huts and underground kivas – visitors are encouraged to explore the ruins.
Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park (3 hours southwest) is like travelling to Mars, and it’s fitting that this is our last day. The setting for countless John Wayne movies, Monument Valley crosses the Utah/Arizona state lines and is managed by the Navajo Nation on whose land it sits. The (seemingly) desolate landscape of flat desert is punctuated with sudden monoliths that seem to spring from nowhere. There are 11 numbered stops, but don’t miss the Mitten buttes and John Ford’s Point. You can enter and drive yourself, but a guided tour is the better choice so you’ll know what you’re seeing and its geological and cultural significance. This is one of the most photographed and visited sites in Utah, so there may be a wait. Bring water, a hat and most definitely your patience.
And just like that, it’s finished. A six-hour drive back to Vegas is at the other end of breakfast, but I’m not even dreading it. Far from being an arduous slog, the driving was the highlight of many highlights on this trip. The cab was a front-row seat to a spectacle of scenery. Mule deer. Slot canyons. Sublime spans of stone like a ribbon curving skyward. Utah, I’ll be back, and I’m bringing a beast.
For more to do, see visitutah.com