By Aidan Goldstraw
Nothing can prepare you for the Grand Canyon. It’s so utterly iconic and familiar, even to those who have never been within a thousand miles of it, that when you see it for the first time in person it feels somehow unreal.
It’s almost as if someone has been and painted a backdrop on a canvas. Only after several moments does your mind clear sufficiently to convince you that yes, you really are standing on the edge of one of the true wonders of the world.
The canyon (pictured) is almost incomprehensibly vast, stretching out before you. The mighty Colorado river thundering through its bottom (something you’re likely to do yourself if you get too near the canyon’s rim) is a thin, blue thread. That fly buzzing up from Grand Canyon village, more than a mile below, turns out to be a helicopter.
Even the predictable flood of tourists can’t really spoil it, though I dread to think what it’s like in high season. Unfortunately, the new viewing gallery (a giant u-shaped bridge that sticks out several yards above the canyon’s South Rim, hadn’t quite opened when we visited (we were two days too early), so I had to content myself with buying an engaging and sobering book entitled “Over the Edge: Deaths in Grand Canyon”.
Frankly, this should be required reading for anyone going within a mile of the place. Yes, people DO fall over the rim every year and yes, it’s usually fatal. That’s before you get to the dangers of heat stroke, exposure, landslides… Hmm. Perhaps it was actually best that I read this AFTER visiting the Canyon.
Arizona is classic cowboy country - “Aridzona” as Vikki promptly dubbed it - but even these vast open spaces have their contrasts. And by the time we had slipped over the border into Utah and awoke for our first full day in Bryce Canyon it had snowed.
Bryce (pictured) is a fairy castle complex of towering red sandstone pinnacles, eroded into Tolkienesque shapes and shaded with patches of conifers gamely clinging to their precarious slopes. For those of us of a certain age, it may put you in mind of Roger Dean’s artwork for the Yes albums. Bryce is on a smaller scale but is arguably prettier and certainly quieter than Grand Canyon - there’s just one road going up through the National Park and we had it pretty much to ourselves.
The next day saw us heading further into Utah. The home of the Latter Day Saints is certainly not short on scenery - around every corner there’s a spectacular new mountain or valley. You could easily spend a month exploring this state alone and not get bored.
At Grand Canyon and Bryce you spend most of your time looking down, but that role is reversed in Zion National Park (pictured). A narrow road threads its way down and down until you arrive in a valley surrounded by sheer mountains, a sparkling river and lush forest. It’s possibly the closest thing to heaven on earth - Zion has the look of those idealistic landscapes you find in copies of the Jehovah’s Witnesses Watchtower magazine. We loved it - our favourite national park beyond doubt.
Our base was at Zion Lodge, right in the heart of the park, and waking up each morning in these idyllic surroundings was like a beautiful experience. Beware, though - the hiking in Zion is fantastic, but much is of a grade so demanding that only the fittest and most prepared should venture there. One infamous spot, Angel’s Landing, has a path 4ft wide and drop-offs of 400ft either side. With no guard rails. In fact, there was a death there shortly after we got back to the UK.
I was looking forward to winding the trip up in Las Vegas. I’d been before and knew it as a crazy, surreal sort of town but with real charm. Well, either I’m getting old or Vegas is losing its charm. We found it crowded with drunk, aggressive, and loud youths. It was claustrophobic and no longer particularly cheap. If you’re not a gambler, I can now no longer see any point in going to Vegas.
So we were glad to be going home after a couple of days. But we also looked back on nearly three weeks of wonderful, high adventure in this vast and beautiful land. Here’s to the next road trip!