Stepping up to the edge of the precipice, there is nothing but air in the spectacular abyss known as the Grand Canyon. The shackles of months of coronavirus isolation seem to vanish in an instant. Glancing back, my 18-year-old cousin Charlie stands frozen five steps behind me with terror gripping his face. “You’re afraid of heights,” I say rhetorically. Charlie nods slowly yes with his eyes transfixed on the Grand Canyon. “Travel is about challenging yourself to do things you’ve never done before. Come take a look.” Charlie steps forward shaking and hesitant, but he steps forward. With that, our adventure in the time of coronavirus has begun.
After months of frustrating coronavirus isolation, the natural wonders in and near Southern Utah are calling. I invite Charlie to introduce him to these natural wonders and the great outdoors. With few reservations and a Prius stuffed with camping gear, we depart with masks in hand.
After a long drive and hours past dark, we arrive at Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park outside Kanab. Kanab was a major center for filmmaking including stars like John Wayne, Frank Sinatra, and Jimmy Stewart during the “Golden Era” of Westerns. The Little Hollywood Museum has a collection of these original old movie sets to explore. Charlie doesn’t know who John Wayne is until I show him a photo. He has only seen Wayne in a movie once with his dad. This revelation makes me feel really old.
An hour and a half drive from Kanab is the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. The North Rim only has one-tenth the visitors and is considerably cooler than the South Rim. It also features a wild buffalo herd that Charlie is excited to photograph. We are surprised on arrival that the parking lot is empty. Thanks to coronavirus we almost have the Grand Canyon to ourselves! We hike along the rim to Bright Angel Point taking in the spectacular vistas. After getting over his fear of heights, Charlie confides, “the infinite expanse makes me giddy”. We return to Coral Pink Sand Dunes in time for a sublime sunset hike.
Page, Arizona is a little over an hour drive from Kanab and includes striking scenery. The blue waters of Lake Powell suddenly appear, contrasting starkly with the Southwest’s ubiquitous red cliffs. Just on the outskirts of Page is Horseshoe Bend. Charlie proclaims it, “the most spectacular view that I have ever seen.” That’s not saying much with his total lack of experience. But, he still might be right. Horseshoe Bend is popular despite coronavirus, and it is a challenge to social distance.
We arrive at Monument Valley to find the road blocked with a Navajo police officer guarding the entrance. We U-turn and stop nearby at a roadside stand run by a Navajo mother and her daughter to buy earrings for Charlie’s sister. On expressing our disappointment about Monument Valley, the woman replies “Just go 20 minutes up the road to Valley of the Gods, it’s the same thing.” Valley of the Gods is exactly the Southwest adventure you might imagine in your mind’s eye, a bumpy dirt road with awesome scenery. A little sketchy at spots, but my Prius makes it.
Leading up and out of the Valley of the Gods is the Moki Dugway, a steep dirt road of switchbacks with breathtaking scenery at every turn. We arrive at Natural Bridges National Park to another empty parking lot. We drive around to the park’s namesake natural bridges without encountering anyone. I tell Charlie, “Enjoy it! You will never experience national parks like this again.” A coronavirus silver lining!
The ancient cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde National Park are in southwest Colorado. This is a detour, but I really want Charlie to see them and the high elevation will be a reprieve from the oppressive summer heat. The deserted park allows us to sense the intrinsic isolation and imagine what it would be like to live here 1000 years ago. This is enhanced by wildlife encounters including deer and horses.
We arrive early to Arches National Park to avoid crowds and the heat of the day. It is still by no means empty, but it only has one-third the visitors of my last visit. We enjoy a hike with an East Coast psychologist and her son, who we meet as he is comically making sand angels. The boys are the same age and immediately strike-up a conversation that continues enthusiastically the entire hike.
Canyonlands National Park is on top of a high butte causing it to be considerably cooler during the heat of the day. The monumental pillars to be seen from these overlooks are breathtaking. Dead Horse Point State Park sits on the same butte offering similarly amazing views.
We head west on scenic byway Highway 12. It is more beautiful than we expect including Boulder Mountain that rises into pine forests that overlook the stark red deserts of the southwest, surrounding it in all directions. We continue on and hike in Capitol Reef National Park to an arch on our way to Bryce Canyon National Park, where we arrive late in the day. We catch the last rays of sunlight gracing the tops of the giant red sandstone pillars for which Bryce is known and we also enjoy walking under a sizable waterfall. We return early the next day to hike to Queen’s Garden with the beauty of Bryce Canyon on full display. These sandstone pillars were named “hoodoos” by the original inhabitants. Their pastel colors are still stunning, despite my many visits.
The scenic drive through Red Canyon has a red sandstone tunnel and it leads to Zion National Park. Zion’s gigantic cathedrals of stone always impress. We also get lucky seeing both Big Horn Sheep and a California Condor.
Our long coronavirus confinement is a distant memory as we celebrate our 8 days of scenic wonders simply with a swim and rope swing in the heart of Zion.