Teenagers are hard to impress – perhaps now more than ever. In the war for their attention, take them somewhere no amount of pixels on a smudged screen will ever live up to.
The startling landscapes of Southern Utah and Northern Arizona are enough to straighten any neck. Autumn is the ideal time to visit. By sacrificing four days of school at Thanksgiving, you can carve out time for a 10-day, 1,300-kilometre circuit that gets the best of the southwest and the expanding physical abilities of teens.
Here’s an itinerary of hiking and biking that will have your teenagers craning to see what’s around the next very gradual bend in the desert road.
Leave Las Vegas
Flights to Vegas are cheap and plentiful. Planes never stop delivering willing fools to the Strip, a slow-moving eight-lane thoroughfare to nowhere. So Vegas is both easy to get to, and easy to leave. Grand Canyon Village awaits a five-hour drive east.
Disrupt the stream at Hoover Dam
Break up the longest drive of the route with a stop at the canyon-spanning arch of concrete known as the Hoover Dam. The Depression-era dam controls the flow of the Colorado River and helps make life possible in the southwest. A 270-metre high pedestrian walkway beside the overpass bridge half-a-kilometre downstream offers great views of this testament to human ambition. The bleached upper walls of the reservoir beyond are a reminder that engineers aren’t in charge in the end. Drought and increased demand for water have lately kept Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the U.S., just one-third full.
Step off the South Rim of the Grand Canyon
The colourfully crenellated Grand Canyon was formed by water, wind and time. It’s that last factor – time – that lands with terrifying impact after walking up to the rim to behold the immense space left behind by six million years of erosion. The void that starts at your toes is almost 2 km deep and 15 km across. Our planet abounds with beautiful scenery. There are lots of tropical beaches (some with WiFi), but no physical setting has more profound lessons to teach impressionable minds.
Grand Canyon visitors leave knowing this: No matter the stream of our daily distractions, we exist on a planet shaped by ancient and elemental forces. Seeing my 13-year-old daughter abandon the attempt to capture the moment with a selfie and instead struggle to take it all in felt like a small win. In real life, as they say.
Our group of six adults and six young teens had packed along tents and sleeping bags, baggage that would shave four nights’ worth of roofed lodging expenses during the trip. Pitching tents in Mather Campground put us near the trailhead for an early start on Bright Angel Trail. This signature Grand Canyon Trail follows steep switchbacks for 6 km before straightening out for the run to Plateau Point, where you can finally catch a glimpse of the otherwise hidden Colorado River. It’s an out-and-back hike that drops 995 metres over 10 km (one-way), so pick your turnaround point accordingly.
For a less immersive experience, or for better views of a setting or rising sun, the South Rim Trail is 21 km of mostly paved trail that stays level at the rim on either side of Grand Canyon Village. Shuttle buses let you pick your portion. Park access is US$35 per vehicle. Campsites are US$18 per night and require a reservation.
Straighten up at Horseshoe Bend
Two and a half hours east, Page, Ariz., is a good overnight stop before a double-barrelled day trip itinerary. Before the morning sun gets too strong, head just west of town to the lookout over Horseshoe Bend (US$10 per vehicle). The 800-metre access trail ends at the top of a sheer 300-metre sandstone cliff, the outside edge of a 180-degree bend in the river. It’s the best place to drink in views of the blue-green Colorado River, which drains so much of the Rocky Mountains.
Shimmy through (part of) the longest slot canyon in the world
An hour’s drive north and east, the Wire Pass trailhead offers a side-entry into Utah’s Buckskin Gulch. At 25 km in length, Buckskin is among the longest slot canyons in the world and a good alternative to the nearby but more crowded (and expensive) Antelope Canyon.
Hiking a slot canyon couldn’t be further from the expansiveness of Grand Canyon sightseeing. A narrow ribbon of sky unfurls three storeys overhead at the top of two sculpted, undulating sandstone walls that are often near enough to touch with either outstretched hand. It’s as intimate an experience as being in a cave – except it’s bathed in warm light.
Day-use permits are US$6 per person and can be bought at the self-pay kiosk at the Wire Pass trailhead. Check the weather before you go. Slot canyons are conduits for flash floods. Abort in the event of recent or expected rain between Wire Pass and Bryce Canyon. For guiding options, contact ROAM Outdoor Adventure.
Behold Bryce Canyon National Park
Topping out at 2,750 metres in elevation, the rim of Bryce Canyon is the top step of the Grand Escalante, the 160-kilometre-long staircase of tiered rock layers descending into the Grand Canyon. At this height, the sedimentary rock is subjected to freeze/thaw cycles 150 days of the year. This has accelerated uneven erosion of the calcium-carbonate-rich rock. The result is an otherworldly landscape of rock spires and pinnacles known as hoodoos, some many storeys tall, some as thin as a tree trunk.
Combine the Navajo Trail and Queen’s Garden Trail to make a five-kilometre hike that drops down into Bryce Amphitheater to marvel at the largest collection of hoodoos on Earth. The park entry fee is US$35 per vehicle .
There’s a distinctly religious theme within Zion National Park, with many peaks that make up the valley walls being referred to as temples. It’s an apt notion for a setting that demands reverent wonder. Situated like an altar rising a thousand feet straight up from the centre of the valley, Angel’s Landing is a promontory that can only be reached by careful footsteps along a narrow fin of rock. It’s so precipitous there are cables and railings in place to keep hikers on this side of the afterlife. To keep numbers in check, only groups that have won a permit lottery are allowed.
It would be a sin to not spend a few days in Zion. Driftwood Lodge has an airy outbuilding layout centred on an outdoor pool. The onsite restaurant does a good job of standard bistro fare, even if the views from the patio will make it hard to notice what’s on your plate.
The tiered desert topography surrounding Zion seems purpose-built for mountain biking. Red Bull holds their annual Rampage free-ride event here, but that doesn’t mean you have to commit to 20-metre gap jumps. Hire through Zion Guide Hub for a mountain bike tour of the sandstone benches just southeast of the park boundary. The trails will accommodate a wide range of skills and ages, and the sparse, knee-high vegetation doesn’t impede the views that are sure to distract you from the twisting desert singletrack ahead of your front wheel.
The trip’s over, IRL
Zion is two hours from Las Vegas. If the idea of ending the trip camped under the stars in the desert instead of in a hotel off the Strip appeals, book a site for US$20 at Red Rock Canyon, 20 minutes from the airport.
Some of the writer’s expenses were covered by Utah Tourism. It did not review or approve the story before publication.