Day 1: St. George, Utah
Our Southwest canyons adventure begins in the red rock country of St. George, Utah. This evening we meet for an informal welcome dinner at a local restaurant. Our Expedition Leader offers a brief orientation to the history, wildlife and ecology of the Colorado Plateau, which we'll explore in depth in the days to come as we make a grand loop through four national parks and monuments.
Days 2 & 3: Grand Canyon National Park North Rim / NHA Safari Camp
Depart after breakfast and ascend to the Kaibab Plateau, which lies north of the Grand Canyon. This high-altitude tableland is forested in
aspen, spruce, fir, ponderosa pine, pinyon
and juniper, in contrast to the arid lowlands that encircle it. Our first glimpse of the Grand Canyon awaits just before Jacob Lake, where we stop for an exhilarating view of the west end. Near the park, we witness the impact of wildfires over the past decade, including areas of new growth taking hold, perpetuating the cycle of life in a region shaped by powerful elements. Look for bison and elk, which are often on view in the open meadows. Late this morning we reach North Rim Camp, secluded within an aspen grove. Here, we'll enjoy classic tents under the stars, but with real beds, excellent home-cooked meals
and hot showers.
Our intimate tented camp is reminiscent of the African safari camps of old, offering simple yet comfortable accommodations in the silence of wild country. Though we are less than 30 minutes from the park entrance, we enjoy total privacy in contrast to the busy hotels inside the park bounds. With our camp as a quiet yet convenient base, we set out with our Expedition Leader to experience one of the world’s greatest natural phenomena. From the less-visited North Rim, the canyon floor lies more than a mile below us, its depths dissolving into purple shadows as we gaze over the chasm walls. At 277 miles long and up to 15 miles wide, the scale of the Grand Canyon cannot be fathomed except in person. Nearly two billion years of geological history are exposed as the Colorado River and its tributaries cut through layer upon layer of sediment during the uplifting of the Colorado Plateau. We have plenty of time to explore, and our Expedition Leader knows the best trails, overlooks and hidden spots to share. Sunrise and sunset are magical times to gaze over
the canyon and sky, with the changing light altering the colors minute by minute. Once night falls, we scan the dark tableau for glittering constellations, using the powerful telescope at camp for a closer view of the stars.
Days 4 & 5: Zion National Park
We leave our Grand Canyon camp this morning to drive northwest to Zion. As we travel through Kanab and beyond, impressive vistas of the Colorado Plateau unfold, and we admire the varied hues and textures of the layered sedimentary rock. This afternoon we head out for our first encounter with this arresting landscape before making our way to Zion Mountain Ranch, where we settle in to
individual cabins that offer high-end comfort and amenities with rustic Old West ambience
. Zion Canyon's overpowering beauty surely inspired the early Mormon pioneers who named the place after the biblical Promised Land. Its scale and scope is
stunning, with monolithic sandstone cliffs towering 2,500 feet above us. The Virgin River flows fast and clear, carving a deep, multicolored canyon over millions of years and watering the fertile valley floor. Amid the scent of sage and sweet cottonwoods, listen for canyon wrens and watch for golden eagles and prairie falcons in the blue desert skies.
Zion was established as Utah’s first national park in 1919,
though native people have lived in the canyon for thousands of years. The park’s cultural history is a primer on life over the centuries in the American Southwest, and we learn of the influence of ancestral Puebloan, Paiute and Mormon settlers in the valley. Guided by our Expedition Leader, spend two days exploring the secret recesses of Zion Canyon. Walking among giant cottonwoods that provide shade for wild creatures, listen to the tumble of side streams coursing their way to the river where American dippers and phoebes find shelter in the willows along the banks. From secluded trails, we can't help but gaze upward in awe at the near-vertical rock walls, admiring their varied hues of pink, cream and carnelian. Returning to the ranch at night, look up again in wonder at the canopy of brilliant stars overhead.
Days 6 & 7: Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument / NHA Safari Camp
Traveling northeast from Zion this morning, we wind along Highway 12, a U.S. Scenic Byway considered one of the most spectacular drives in the West. Our destination, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, spans nearly 1.9 million acres of America’s public lands, yet it is relatively unknown compared to the Southwest's iconic national parks. Our journey through canyon country would not be complete without visiting it, however, and for many guests, this region may well be the highlight of their trip. From its "grand staircase" of cliffs and terraces to the hidden wonders of the Escalante River canyons, the monument’s scale and remote character provide extraordinary opportunities for discovery, not just for travelers, but for geologists, paleontologists, archeologists, historians
and biologists as well.
As we reach the top of the Kaiparowits Plateau, the land seems to fall away on either side, leaving us following a narrow thread of road atop an undulating sea of sandstone. At Hole in the Rock Road, we leave the pavement behind and continue to our private camp. Set alone under a huge sky, our tented retreat offers silence and seclusion rarely experienced in our everyday lives. All around us are geological highlights to explore, including slot canyons formed by a tributary of the Escalante River. Between the narrow walls, sunbeams penetrate to illumine the sandstone with an ethereal glow. We also wander through Devil's Garden, an intriguing
collection of hoodoos, arches and other sandstone shapes created by the erosive forces of water and wind. These are ancient landscapes, with most of the rock structures in the Escalante region formed in the Middle Jurassic Epoch some 170 million years ago. On one evening, we'll have a paleontology talk with Dr.Allen Titus to learn more about the forces that have
shaped this prehistoric landscape. And after nightfall, we turn again to stargazing, aided by the telescope in camp. Under the darkest skies in North America, the Milky Way is a prominent bright streak across a black velvet backdrop.
Day 8: Bryce Canyon National Park
Retracing our route across the Kaiparowits Plateau, every vista looks new as our vantage point shifts. To the south lies the fairyland of Bryce Canyon, a magical landscape evocative of another world. Its
pink pinnacles, swirling sandstone and natural amphitheaters capture our imaginations with endless geological surprises. We stay at Bryce Canyon Lodge, a classic national park hotel set amid ponderosa pines on the canyon rim. The lodge, on the National Historic Register, is the only place to stay inside the park, offering us ideal proximity for exploration. Meticulously restored to its original 1920s splendor, it is replete with Old West atmosphere right down to replicas of the vintage hickory furniture.
We make our first foray into the canyon late this afternoon, as our Expedition Leader guides us on a walk into its maze-like depths. Rock walls create narrow channels for our wanderings while whimsical hoodoos—rock spires carved eons ago by erosion—rise hundreds of feet into the sky around us. The geologic term "hoodoo" was perpetuated by early geologists who thought the towering spires looked like they could cast a spell on onlookers. At sunset, the hoodoos, arches and fins evoke even more wonder as they turn varying shades of gold, maroon, peach and purple with the sinking rays. In the grand lodge dining room this evening, enjoy a farewell dinner.
Day 9: St. George / Depart
Completing our loop, we return to St. George and leave the red-rock wonders of America’s canyon country behind. Our Southwest desert adventure concludes with a transfer to the airport for departing flights.
Physical Rating: Moderate