Fall Break: National and State Park Road Trips

BY: LAUREN D’SOUZA

(Note: The following article was originally posted on the CMC Forum on October 14, 2015. With the permission of the author, it is reproduced below to fit the Hixon Center’s theme of Outdoor Recreation for the month of October.)

As an Arizona native, I have self-proclaimed authority over state and national parks in the American Southwest. My dad is a desert nature enthusiast, to put it lightly, and my family has explored every inch of my beautiful home state since we moved there 26 years ago. For those of you not from this area, you should know that the Southwest has some of the most beautiful desert landscapes in the world—breathtaking canyons, dazzling waterfalls, tranquil forests, you name it.

Given that Claremont is so close by, road trips to Arizona and Utah are entirely possible—especially over this four-day fall break. So, please do yourself a favor and cancel your pre-existing plans to head a few hundred miles northeast of Claremont this upcoming weekend.

There, you’ll get to see some of the most breathtaking places in the world and enjoy fall in the Sonoran Desert, which in and of itself is a truly unparalleled phenomenon. Since Northern Arizona is at a higher elevation than the valley of Phoenix, temperatures should hover around 60-70º.

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Below is a list of the slightly lesser-known destinations in Arizona and Utah that I, in my large albeit incomplete knowledge of the Southwest, recommend. All of these trips have options for day hikes if you’re interested in backpacking or camping, but they also offer scenic drives and lookouts if you prefer to just visit.

The Antelope Canyon in Arizona. Photo: Lucas Löffler, Wikimedia Commons

The Antelope Canyon in Arizona. Photo: Lucas Löffler, Wikimedia Commons

ANTELOPE CANYON, PAGE, AZ: 515 miles; 8-hour drive. Located in North Central AZ, near the border of AZ and UT. Hours: 8 am to 5 pm, two-hour limit (each) in upper and lower canyons. Fee: $8/person.

Antelope Canyon is the first place in Arizona I recommend—yes, even over the Grand Canyon. I’m sure you’ve seen photos of Antelope Canyon since it’s one of Apple’s “nature” photos on the pre-loaded desktop pictures. Antelope is known for being a slot canyon, meaning that it has circular openings at the rim of the canyon that let in heavenly beams of light which run all the way down to the ground like a cathedral. The Upper Canyon is ethereal, with smooth, curvaceous walls that converge and diverge hundreds of feet above the ground. Lower Antelope Canyon is a similarly breathtaking sight with plenty of tightly wound pink and purple rock formations. Antelope Canyon is located on Navajo territory, meaning that a Navajo guide, which provides details of both the rich history and geology of the gorge, is required in order to explore the canyons. Although it is quite a distance from Claremont, clocking in at around 8 hours of efficient driving, the route passes through Las Vegas, where you can stay the night and enjoy the city before continuing on to the canyon.

West Fork of Oak Creek Canyon. Photo: Albert Herring, Wikimedia Commons

OAK CREEK CANYON, SEDONA, AZ: 453 miles; 7-hour drive. Located in Central AZ. Hours: all day, every day. Fees: none, but you may have to pay for parking at some trailheads.

Oak Creek Canyon, located just ten minutes north of Sedona’s beautiful red rock hills, is a wonderland of greenery. In my high school AP Environmental Science class, we drove from Phoenix up to Oak Creek Canyon and observed what is known as the Arizona transition zone. The transition zone is the ecological area that divides the Sonoran Desert and other low-elevation areas from the Colorado Plateau and other high-elevation areas. Oak Creek Canyon, as part of the Mogollon Rim, is a naturally beautiful combination of saguaro cacti and palo verdes, which are characteristic of Southern Arizona, and pine trees, which are characteristic of Northern Arizona. Oak Creek Canyon offers plenty of day hikes, ranging from a slow and easy hike down AZ SR 89A, which follows the western fork of Oak Creek Canyon, to a rocky, challenging, and isolated hike called the Wilson Mountain Trail, which allows you to summit the red rocks and rewards you with the most picturesque views of the Mogollon Rim’s verdant landscape.

Mount Humphreys Summit, Photo: Jonathan Fox, Flickr
Mount Humphreys Summit, Photo: Jonathan Fox, Flickr

MOUNT HUMPHREYS, FLAGSTAFF, AZ: 456 miles; 7-hour drive. Located in North Central AZ, 1 hour north of Flagstaff. Hours: all day, every day. Fees: none.

Mount Humphreys, the tallest peak in the state with an elevation of 12,600 feet, is the type of mountain that will make you forget you’re even in Arizona. It’s covered with snow from November until about early May and is always extremely gusty with an intense windchill, so if you’re planning on summiting the peak, be prepared for cold weather. There are two main trails that can get you to the top, according to the U.S. Forest Service website: the Snow Bowl trail, which is the easier and more popular trail with an elevation gain of around 3,300 feet, and the Weatherford trail, which is more challenging, longer (18 miles round-trip), and steeper (elevation gain of 4,600 feet). The views on Humphreys Peak are tremendous – since you’re at the highest point in all of Arizona, the whole state is at your fingertips. To the north, you can see the North Rim of the Grand Canyon; to the east, the White Mountains, Show Low, Pinetop, and Holbrook, which resemble East Coast forests; and to the south, the South Mountain, Camelback Mountain, the greater Phoenix area.

Bryce Canyon. Photo: Moyan Brenn, Flickr
Bryce Canyon. Photo: Moyan Brenn, Flickr

BRYCE CANYON, BRYCE, UT: 496 miles; 7.5-hour drive. Located in Southwest UT. Hours: all day, every day. Fees: $30/vehicle.

Despite the name, Bryce Canyon is not actually a canyon carved from water erosion, but rather a collection of huge red, orange, and white weathered rock amphitheatres. The most unique features of Bryce Canyon are geological structures called “hoodoos,” which are tall, independently standing, and interestingly shaped rock structures that exist because of both frost weathering and erosion from rivers and rocks, according to theNational Parks website. You’ve certainly seen hoodoos before—think of advertisements for Visa or some other seemingly irrelevant company, in which an adventurous climber poses atop a stack of precarious red boulders and tells you to “Live life on the edge.” There are several hiking options in Bryce Canyon. My recommended easy, moderate, and hard hikes are as follows; Rim Trail from Sunrise to Sunset Points, about one mile round-trip, is an easy, scenic hike along the rim; the Hat Shop Trail is a moderate four-mile hike with an elevation change of 1,400 feet that will take you to some of the most fantastic hoodoo formations in Bryce Canyon; and Peek-a-Boo Trail, which is a steep and challenging 5.5-mile loop that takes you down to the canyon floor and up through the heart of Bryce Amphitheater.

View from Angel’s Landing Summit. Photo: Diliff, Wikimedia Commons
View from Angel’s Landing Summit. Photo: Diliff, Wikimedia Commons

ANGEL’S LANDING, ZION NATIONAL PARK, SPRINGDALE, UT: 399 miles; 6-hour drive. Located in Southwest UT. Hours: all day, every day. Fees: $30/vehicle.

Zion National Park is a simply breathtaking display of towering pink, cream, and red sandstone cliffs. Angel’s Landing, a 1,500-foot tall sandstone monolith with a trail cut into the rock, is the best way to truly experience Zion. Although the trail seems reasonable at only 4.8 miles round-trip (4-6 hours), it is not for the faint-hearted. The first half-mile is a gradual, sandy incline; then, you enter Walter’s Wiggles, a section of trail that consists of 21 steep switchbacks; and finally, you arrive at Scout Lookout. If you’re afraid of heights or not an experienced hiker, stop your hike here—the views are great! If you feel up to the challenge, the last half-mile of Angel’s Landing is a strenuous section filled with narrow paths, uneven surfaces, slippery footing, sharp dropoffs, and rock climbing (but the NPS has installed grip chains for your safety). If you finish, you’ll be richly rewarded because the view at the top is well worth the effort – rolling valleys of spruce and red sandstone cliffs with the beautiful Utah clouds as the backdrop.

View from Rim Trail East of Mather Point. Photo: Grand Canyon National Park, Flickr
View from Rim Trail East of Mather Point. Photo: Grand Canyon National Park, Flickr

BONUS: SOUTH RIM, GRAND CANYON, AZ: 457 miles; 7 hour drive. Located in North Central AZ. Hours: all day, every day. Fees: $30/vehicle.

Everyone in the world must see the Grand Canyon at least once in their life. The reason I put the Grand Canyon as a “bonus” is that I believe the best way to experience the Canyon is at the North Rim. The North Rim is quiet, beautiful, secluded, harder to get to, cooler (temperature-wise), and has the best gorgeous lookouts and hikes. Unfortunately though, since the North Rim receives both frost and snow during the colder months, it is closed from mid-October to mid-May. So, if you have an inkling to visit the Grand Canyon over fall break, the South Rim is the place for you. The South Rim is still incredibly beautiful, with gorgeous lookout points and some very difficult trails that dive right into the canyon. That being said, we’re only seven hours away from one of the seven natural wonders of the world – don’t let your time at CMC pass without seeing it!