Las Vegas, Day One:
With sunshine on my shoulders, a glow on my cheeks, and a bounce in my step, I arrived in Las Vegas before noon on a warm September Friday ready for adventure. I met up with two friends who, like me, decided to come out to Vegas a few days ahead of a work conference to squeeze in some personal time in which we planned to celebrate a birthday (all three of us), have a boys’ weekend (the two of them) and explore two national parks (just me).
We bee-bopped our way through the airport with the unbridled hope and excitement of three thirty-somethings about to have an adults-only excursion in Sin City. Rental car keys in hand, we cranked up some tunes (Queen – “Don’t Stop Me Now”), and whipped through a gas station for some important provisions (alcohol), before heading to The Strip.
Moments later, we rolled into the secluded porte cochere of the Waldorf-Astoria, parked our Nissan Sentra at the valet stand between a pair of Lamborghinis, and hopped out toting two cases of Miller High Life, a couple of Pacifico tall boys, and a bottle of Mezcal. The gazes of the two Lambo owners tumbled from on high, slid straight down their noses and splashed onto the pavement at our feet.
We grinned, tossed the valet a tip, and headed for the pool.
Las Vegas, Day Six:
My limp, lifeless corpse lay slumped across a table in the lobby of the Las Vegas airport next to nine and a half abandoned Wendy’s chicken nuggets and an empty Diet Coke. It was sometime between eight in the morning and three in the afternoon, and I’d already missed two separate flights on account of corpses being not so great at moving with any sort of speed or agility.
Every drop of moisture was gone from my body, save for that precious bit of Diet Coke, which seemed to be the only thing sustaining my basic organ functions. With every blink, a lining of sandpaper on the inside of my eyelids dragged itself in agonizing slow motion across my eyeballs. Deep inside my nostrils, the burning stench of cigarette smoke was rooted in my nasal passages while my ears reverberated with the ringing sounds of slot machines that were so loud I couldn’t tell if they were coming from real life or just playing on an endless loop in my head.
I prayed for sleep or death, whichever one would end my suffering the fastest.
In the days between my rose-tinted arrival in Las Vegas and my near-death departure, I did manage to enjoy a great many adventures, several of which took place in an ice bar, and none of which I will ever share publicly with anyone except the people who were there to bear witness.
But, there are two major exceptions: The Grand Canyon and Zion National Park.
Anytime I have the chance to grab a quick visit to a National Park while on a work trip, I take it. That’s how I got to see Yosemite for the first time in January 2018, and make my second trip to Rocky Mountain National Park last September.
So as soon as I heard I was headed to Vegas, I mapped out a quick weekend road trip that would take me straight from the airport on Friday morning to Bryce Canyon, and then on to the Grand Canyon and back through Zion on my return trip to Vegas that Sunday afternoon. That plan was modified, however, when my friend decided to celebrate his birthday in Vegas on Friday night. I opted to drop Bryce Canyon from my agenda, stick around for the party, and then head out first thing Saturday morning for the Grand Canyon.
I would say it’s still a toss-up as to whether or not I made the better choice. It would’ve been a lot to get up at 4:00 AM on the East Coast, fly across the country, jump in a rental car, drive four hours into the desert, and then go for a hike. Twenty-five-year-old me probably could’ve done it. Almost-thirty-five-year-old me would’ve needed a nap at the very least. Still, making that cross country trip, spending a night out in Las Vegas, and then driving to the Grand Canyon with a hangover the next morning was also a bit of a struggle.
A scenic drive through the middle of nowhere, also known as Utah
My eyes seemed to blink just once late Friday night and suddenly it was Saturday morning and I was in the drive-thru line at Dunkin Donuts purchasing a gallon of cold brew to fuel my day’s journey.
It is about a four-and-a-half hour trek from Las Vegas to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. While planning my trip, this did not seem that far. However, I always forget that driving out west is a much different experience than driving on the East Coast. I’m used to taking a four hour trip at 90 miles an hour on the interstate, passing through one city after another with ample opportunity for pit stops and plenty of things to see along the way, which always makes the trip go by quickly.
But out in the Nevada desert, once you get outside the Vegas city limits you quickly realize you’re very much in the middle of absolute nowhere. Miles and miles go by while the distant mountains on the horizon seem to stay the same size. After about an hour on Interstate 15, I passed into Arizona and the drive got a little more scenic. The road winds through a little canyon there, following the twisted current of the Virgin River, before crossing into Utah near St. George. I got off the interstate on the north side of St. George, heading east on Highway 9 through Hurricane.
If you decide to take this route, you should know something that I didn’t: Hurricane is the last noticeable slice of civilization that you will pass through from that point until you reach the Grand Canyon, which is about another two hours down the road. After turning off 9 onto Highway 59, it’s a long, winding trip across farm fields and dry river basins until you reach Fredonia, Arizona.
Two very fun facts about Fredonia: The town’s name allegedly means “the land of free women” and in 1964, Barry Goldwater gave the Fredonia High School graduation commencement speech.
You understand now why I said Hurricane is the last real sign of civilization that you will encounter on your trip to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.
From Fredonia, Highway 89 rolls south into what quickly becomes a lush forest, occasionally broken up by sweeping emerald meadows. After hours of brown desert landscapes (which are still gorgeous in their own right) this was a welcomed, but unexpected change in scenery. Also unexpected was how quickly the temperature began to drop.
It had not occurred to this Florida girl that the warm September temperatures I left in Las Vegas would not follow me up into the plateau of Arizona. At the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, the elevation is just over 8,200 feet above sea level. Apparently I did not pay a lot of attention in geology or geography in school because I was not expecting such a high elevation. By the time I arrived at the Visitors’ Center, the temperatures were in the mid-fifties. Suddenly, my t-shirt, jeans, and flip-flops were decidedly insufficient for this adventure.
Climate change leads to wardrobe change
After changing into my sneakers and buying a hoodie off the sales rack in the gift shop, I began wandering around the North Rim campus. I chose to visit this part of the Grand Canyon (versus the South Rim, which is closer to Flagstaff, but about equidistant from Vegas) because it would keep me closer to Utah’s National Parks, and also because I’d heard the North Rim was much less crowded than the South. Though I can’t compare the two, I did find the North Rim to be pretty quiet and peaceful, even on a gorgeous fall Saturday.
In addition to the aforementioned Visitors’ Center and gift shop, the North Rim campus includes the Grand Canyon Lodge, a campground, a restaurant and an old saloon that serves both coffee and adult beverages. I would definitely place the Grand Canyon Lodge as a solid #2 on my list of old NPS lodging establishments, just behind Old Faithful.
The Lodge at the North Rim includes an assortment of lovely little cabins tucked in a shady grove of trees, but it’s the views from inside the main lodge that make it such an incredible place. The second you walk through the front doors, your eyes are drawn right past the lobby to a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows that look more like a painted mural than an actual, real-time view of this natural wonder. A wide stone porch off to one side is populated with rocking chairs that call out to you to come, sit, relax, and absorb this breathtaking sight.
Always remember: One-way, downhill hikes always turn into one-way uphill hikes upon return
I passed through the patio and would’ve lingered in one of those comfy chairs, but there were none available (and also I was on a time crunch to get my hike in and get back on the road before dark). Instead, I followed a path from the porch to the trailhead for Bright Angel Point. This mostly paved trail follows a ridge line about half a mile from the lodge out to its namesake lookout post. Along the way, you have almost completely unobstructed views of the canyon on each side of the trail.
As I started out toward Bright Angel Point, I had every intention of hiking the whole bit, less than a mile round trip — easy! The first part of the path is a nice downhill slope loaded with lots of little step-off spots for grabbing some great photos. I FaceTimed my parents, my sister, and my niece, showing off the views and letting them know I had survived both my night out in Las Vegas and my long trek deep into the wilderness alone.
After a while, I started to notice that everyone passing me on their way back up the trail was huffing and puffing. Even the folks who looked like they belonged on fitness magazine covers were red-faced and wheezing. It was then that I realized a long, slow, downhill trail going one way becomes a long, slow, uphill trail upon return. Not to make excuses but…I already had blisters on my feet from walking some ten miles back and forth along the Vegas Strip the day before, not to mention that lingering hangover mixed with a bit of jetlag.
I decided to turn back, but not before stopping at a little spot with a flat rock that made for a lovely bench with a stunning view. There’s a reason why they titled this canyon as grand. You can’t capture it in pictures, but the depth and scale of it is staggering. Something else you can’t grasp from photos is the richness in the colors of each layer within the canyon. It’s not a big brown pit, it’s a stack of individual sheets painted sienna and copper, cinnamon and chestnut, umber and mocha. Each one is distinctly different from the next, forming a vibrant gradient all the way from the cerulean sky to the emerald banks of the Colorado River.
After sharing my moment with nature, I started back up the trail and instantly became one of the huffers and puffers. That steep grade was no joke, especially for a flatlander that far above sea level who was maybe still sweating out a bit of brown liquor. I made it back to the trailhead, took one last walk around the lodge, and collapsed into my rental car.
I spent another two hours on the road, driving back through the forest (and the metropolis of Fredonia) on my way to Kanab, Utah. If you’re looking for a hotel to stay in between the Grand Canyon and Zion National Park, Kanab is pretty much your only choice. There are an assortment of roadside mom-and-pop motels (not an option for a single girl traveling alone, thanks), a cowboy hostel (hard pass), and a smattering of franchise hotels. I selected the Hampton Inn, which was brand new and quite lovely.
I’m sure there are a handful of great local eateries in Kanab, but I was so exhausted by the time I hit my bed at the hotel that it was all I could do to muster the energy required to order from Pizza Hut and stay awake until it was delivered to my room.
On to the next: Zion National Park
After a night filled with the kind of deep sleep that can only be brought about by pure physical exhaustion, I awoke on Sunday with renewed energy, ready to tackle the last stop on my brief National Parks tour: Zion. I didn’t know what to expect there, which turned out not to matter much, because the place was so spectacular there’s no way I could’ve prepared myself for an immersion into such a unique natural encounter.