Road Trip USA: The Wild West

 @MarkJohansonIBT
on February 28 2012 8:57 AM
  • Grand Canyon
    Proposition 120, the Arizona Declaration of State Sovereignty Amendment, would have removed the Grand Canyon and other parks from federal control if it had passed Tuesday. Reuters
  • Zion
    A breathtaking view from the Angels Landing trail looking northward to the Narrows, Zion National Park, Utah (wikimedia commons)
  • Painted Desert
    The Painted Desert (wikimedia commons)
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View Road Trip: Wild West in a larger map

Fly In: Flagstaff Pulliam Airport, Arizona

Fly Out: Cedar City Municipal Airport, Utah

So much of the United States is eaten up by highways, supermalls, and subdivisions ... and then there's the Wild West. Carving a 10-mile-wide snake a mile deep in the earth, the Grand Canyon churns your adrenaline; the Painted Desert proves that barren doesn't always mean bleak; the Navajo Nation shows that America is no New World; and the road to Zion confirms that the Wild West is as wild as ever. Pack a healthy dose of adventure and a gallon of testosterone because this trip across the border from Arizona to Utah is sure to challenge your body, mind, and spirit.

Day #1: Grand Canyon

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A tourist holds her arms up to feel the wind coming up from the Grand Canyon on the Skywalk at Grand Canyon West (REUTERS/Jeff Topping)

Arrive in Flagstaff

Fly in to the Flagstaff Pulliam Airport, strap on a cowboy hat, grab your SUV, and venture out for a tour of the Wild West.

Grand Canyon Village (80 miles; 1 hour, 40 min)

Settle in at Grand Canyon Village and head out to explore the awe-inspiring landscape. Nearly five million people see the one-mile -deep Grand Canyon each year. Most of them view it right from their car at overlooks along the South Rim (including Grand Canyon Village, Hermits Rest, and Desert View). The South Rim is the most accessible part of the park and is open all year long.

Spend the Night at El Tovar Lodge

El Tovar lodge opened at the end of the railroad line in the early 1900s and was considered one of the most elegant lodges west of the Mississippi. Today, the lodge is equally as impressive with 78 rooms located steps away from the Grand Canyon's South Rim. Enjoy breathtaking views over dinner in the dining area or relax to the sound of the piano in the lobby. Either way, when you enter El Tovar hotel you step back in time and experience a wonderfully rustic western retreat that's been rated the best hotel in the area for a century.

Day #2: Grand Canyon to Zion

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The Painted Desert (wikimedia commons)

Helicopter Tour of Grand Canyon

Wake up and watch the sun rise over the canyon before taking to the skies to see the landscape from a bird's eye view. The Grand Canyon overwhelms the senses with its immense size: 277 river miles long, up to 18 miles wide, and a mile deep. Several tour operators fly over from Las Vegas, but the best helicopter tours leave from the Grand Canyon National Park Airport just south of Grand Canyon Village. Be prepared to fork over about $200 for the helicopter tours or opt for the cheaper airplane tours with Grand Canyon Airlines ($100-$120).

Scenic Drive through the Navajo Nation to Zion National Park (251 miles; 5 hours)

It may be a long road to Zion, but think of it as a scenic tour of the Wild West. Drive through the dramatic Painted Desert and onto Navajo Nation, the largest Native American jurisdiction within the United States. Cross into Utah by the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and wind your way into Zion National Park. Make sure to pack some snacks before you head out into this remote region and save plenty of time for photo ops.

Spend the Night at Desert Pearl Inn

Nestled beside Virgin River and the majestic cliffs of Zion National Park in Springdale, Utah, the Desert Pearl Inn makes the perfect base for exploring the natural beauty of the area. Native stone walls and sun-hued stucco are framed by beams of old-growth Douglas fir and redwood reclaimed from a 100-year-old railroad trestle that once spanned the Great Salt Lake to blend in with land. Whether you are soaking in the pool or relaxing on the private balcony, the Desert Pearl Inn is both soothing and affordable.

Day #3: Zion to Cedar City

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A breathtaking view from the Angels Landing trail looking northward to the Narrows, Zion National Park, Utah (wikimedia commons)

Explore Zion

Zion is like a sandcastle gleaming on the edge of the desert. Massive rock walls shoot up toward a brilliant blue sky as you walk among the towering cliffs or challenge your courage in a small narrow canyon. The unique sandstone cliffs of the park range from cream to pink to red. Drive or take the shuttle through Zion and make stops for quick hikes to the Three Patriarchs, Weeping Rock, and Emerald Pools.

Scenic Drive through Dixie National Forest (75 miles; 1 hour, 45 min)

Head out in the late afternoon for a scenic drive through the two-million-acre Dixie National Forest. Wind along the Markagunt High Plateau Scenic Byway (US Highway 14) - famous for its stunning views of crowded aspen forests, towering mountains, and serene lakes. It's less crowded than nearby Bryce Canyon and sits over two thousand feet higher, making it a photographers dream.

Stargazing at Cedar Breaks National Monument

The clear, dry desert air makes for great cosmic opportunities and Cedar Breaks National Monument is one of the best spots around with some of the nation's darkest night skies. Even if you can't make it to the free monthly star parties, any clear night will offer a stellar show. Breath the fresh air, gape into the sky and enjoy the solitude of the Wild West before you're forced return to the busyness awaiting back home.

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