Southwest, All Over Again


Lucky for us Mike's mother has come to see her granddaughters and stay at our house for a month. We couldn't miss this golden opportunity and decided to take a week vacation during spring break, so kids could enjoy grandma and we could enjoy ourselves :-))

Our ultimate goal was to visit as many parks as we could and relax a bit in Las Vegas at the end. So we flew in late night and tried (!) to rent a car. It's a second time in our travel life that existing car reservation is not fulfilled. We desperately needed a SUV to ride in Death Valley but Budget has only Ford Mustang to offer. Thanks god, all car rental companies are located in the same hallway at the Las Vegas airport and so Mike tried all of them and finally found Jeep Wrangler from Hertz. Of course Hertz was expensive but what else could we do? So hopped in Jeep, drove to our one-night stay hotel and landed in a bed for 5 hour sleep. Next early morning we jumped off and started driving to Death Valley. As a side note I need to mention that Mike visited it last December during his business trip and loved it so much that we had to go there again together.

Death Valley is HUGE. And it has so many various landscapes to offer but it is not crowded even in the peak season (mid-spring and fall when it isn't hot yet). Amazingly day temperatures vary from +45F in the morning to +85F in the afternoon. So I was slowly undressing during a day :-) Jeep Wrangler was very useful for unpaved routes and just fun driving. Altogether we spent 2 days in Death Valley staying overnight in a small town Beatty. There are couple of hotels and campgrounds inside the valley itself but they are expensive and often booked much in advance. While Beatty is only 20 min away and has several regular hotels. So these are notable sites we visited during first day:

Actually I have to write more about the last item above. Real 4WD SUV is a must! We had to help a driver to replace a thrashed tire off Toyota AWD SUV. WARNING: The road is one-way, so there is no turning back. It starts off Rt 374 and goes thru a mountain pass, ghost town (not really special) but then the best part is Titus Canyon. It's just like driving on Mars as I could imagine. It's possible to actually arrive to Titus Canyon from the main road in the park and then hike on a one-way road. But the canyon is long, so such hike is not trivial but rewarding...

We stayed at the Stagecoach hotel overnight and then drove back to Death Valley for the second day of fun. The most notable sites are:

We left Death Valley in owe and still have a longing to come back there again. But we had more parks to visit so after spending a night in Las Vegas again we drove off to Utah and Zion National Park. Zion is very CROWDED and it's understatement. We couldn't' drive inside as only shuttles are allowed in the high season. So it's wise to arrive before 10am to the park. Otherwise parking lot is full and you'll have to park in the town nearby, luckily it also has shuttles to Zion. But as one can understand shuttle sucks as you should plan what to take with you (supplies, water, appropriate clothes) and where to go... To be honest Zion didn't impress us much. We expected huge bare mountains but it's actually very green. There are many many hikes which vary in length. So it's possible to spend 1/2 day or 3 days depending on your choice. And it's a second destination in US for climbers. So what's about us? We planned for 1 day and crammed as much as possible into it:

At the end of the day Mexican food sounded fantastic, so we stopped at the Fiesta Mexicana restaurant in Kanab, UT. Huge margaritas and good food. You can't miss it, it's located right on Rt 98. Forgot to mention at that time we were on our way to Page, Arizona. Page has many cheap motels that I don't really enjoy so we stayed at the Days Inn there which is more expensive but serves decent continental breakfast. Our next destination was Lower Antelope Canyon. It's located within Navajo land and one can either buy an expensive tour (many tour operators in Page) or just drive there and get a local guide. So we drove there and bought a standard 2 hour tour. Avid photographers can buy 4 hour tour but I say it's worthless because Canyon is very crowded and it's hard to get good shots (people are everywhere!). So, after parking and buying a tour we had to wait for our guide and truck for a short ride thru the desert. Guides are very friendly and ready to answer all the questions. Unfortunately for us it was so windy, that we practically ate the sand and couldn't use good cameras most of the time inside the canyon. This slot canyon is of course beautiful and you must be there around 11:30-12pm. Sun is high and it's the best opportunity to see sun rays thru the top of the canyon and make best photo shots. We were lucky enough to see this. Anyhow we decided to try Upper Antelope Canyon next time as it should be less crowded or even some remove canyon (but we need to get a special tour for that). Navajo people have many slot canyons but only a few are open to the public...

Our next destination was Bryce Canyon, so we spent an afternoon driving thru Arizona via scenic Rt 89A. It starts south of Page and goes thru Vermillion Cliffs and Kaibab Forest at the end. In summer time it's possible to make turn and arrive to the Northern Rim of Grand Canyon. We were out of luck as the path is closed until mid on May because of the snow... We passed Marble Canyon via Navajo Bridge and then encountered a fallen rock valley that looks very cool. Apparently a family built a house out of rocks and lived there for years surrounded by all that beauty.

And then we finally arrived back to Utah and spent a night at the hotel in a tiny town called Panguitch. It's nothing special and pretty much has only few motels. The only plus it's cheap and close to Bryce Canyon. So we started off early in the morning and started driving around the park. Bryce Canyon Amphitheatre is breathtaking. Hodoos look like guards from another planet ... Interesting tidbit - Indians believed that hodoos are actually frozen dead people souls, that's why Navajo inhibited the canyon. We started from Bryce Point and then visited Inspiration Point, Sunset and Sunrise Points. One can hike pretty much the whole length of the amphitheatre or can just drive and visit each overlook instead. We've done something in between and it was very rewarding. So the best things to do in Bryce:

Mule ride is so much fun! The downside you have to reserve it at least few days in advance or maybe more in the popular season. I called 2 days in advance in April. Depending on the season the company might offer 2 or 4 hours rides couple of times a day. We took a 2hour ride at 2pm. Once there you can ask for mule or a horse. Cowboys are very helpful and eager to satisfy your every requests. There are really many people, so it takes them 20 min to put everyone in a saddle. So be there at least 15 min in advance. Once everyone is ready each cowboy takes around 10-12 people and adventure begins. We went down to the bottom of the canyon, kind of close to Queens Garden trail at some point, then thru some foresty areas and came back up via a bit different route. It's fun, it's easy, children enjoy it and it is not scary at all. Now I'm inspired to do similar rides in Grand Canyon and who knows where else! Our cowboy was very attentive to kids and even made photos for people who asked for it.

We loved Bryce Canyon very much but a word of caution about their dining choices. Pretty much none. The restaurant at the main lodge is not cheap and bad, So it's better to go out of the park eat nearby and then come back if you have time. But the gift shop was well supplied and all people were very nice.

All excited after the ride we took a long way home i.e. Las Vegas. We've been to Vegas 2 times before and love it so much. This time we stayed at the Mirage and really like our room. I think Mirage renovated the rooms recently as it all looks very pretty and modern. Also our room was huge with flat screen TV and radio with iPhone/iPod plug-in, so we had music all the time. Mirage location is good too, it's close to Venetian and Caesars as well as Paris and Bally's. There are many dining choices and couple of night clubs/lounges. We definitely do NOT recommend the casual breakfast/lunch place Carnegie Delicatessen - food is very average and service slow and just bad. At the same time you urge you to have a nice dinner and cocktails at Japonais. It's a fusion Japanese cuisine, simply delicious !!! Mirage has a nice big pool but we were unlucky this time - it was cold and rainy in Vegas, so we swam maybe 30min and that's it, no sun tan for me :-(

And here are few culinary experiences that are worth mentioning from our trip this time:

Everyone knows there are many shows and entertainment options in Vegas but the best show in my opinion is La Reve at the Wynn. It's an enchanting fairy-tale where I felt like a child being in a dream. It's impressed us on all the levels: high-tech, music, acrobatics and synchronized swimmers, lighting and etc, etc. 'O' by Cirque Du Soleil comes close but La Reve wins also because of a small round hall, all seats are best in the house! Go and see it and then try arguing with me :-)

And the last but not least and really fun experience was a Dueling Pianos at Napoleon's Lounge at Paris. Two pianist improvise based on audience requests; they can play all style of music from blues to rock. I really enjoyed an hour there listening to the music, having fun at their jokes and drinking cocktails... And you can even sing along :-)

Bye-bye Vegas, see you next time ... soon!

Location Hotels Comments
Las Vegas The Mirage Highly recommended, cheaper than Bellagio or Venetian but great (paid $99 in April)
Death Valley Stagecoach Hotel and Casino Beatty, NV - Much cheaper than options inside the park, 20 min away (paid $70 in April)
Antelope Canyon, Monument Valley Holiday Inn Express Page, AZ - decent clean hotel, good free breakfast, go if you hate motels like me
Bryce Canyon New Western Motel Paguitch, UT has only poor motels but this one is decent and I'd call it a normal hotel
Park (click to see our pics) Suggested Time Frame Comments
Death Valley 2 days At least. To drive and visit most attractions and minor hiking only
Zion 1 day Enough for couple of moderate hikes. Can stay overnight if planning to climb or take challenging hikes
Bryce Canyon 1 day Couple of hikes + mule rides, can use 2nd day for seriously long hikes
Antelope Canyons 1/2 for 1 canyon See only Lower Canyon or visit Upper Canyon during afternoon

Created: Friday, May 29, 2009