Las Vegas might be known for drinks, shows, and sin, but the reason I really enjoy it is that it’s the perfect jumping off spot for some of the most interesting and stark natural landscape in the country. To the east is Death Valley and Red Rock Canyon. To the west is the Grand Canyon. Further north are the incredible National Parks, Zion and Bryce Canyon. This part of the country is spectacular and makes for the perfect roadtrip. For the adventurous and brave, you can even make it to Zion and back in a day.
Last winter I visited Las Vegas for a conference. On the weekend after, I rented a car and took a day trip out to Zion. I had been there before when I was much younger, but I forgot how incredible and breathtaking the views there were. After an incredible trip there alone, discovering how much I love the natural scenery of the west, I decided to have my wife come out this year too. We’re making a longer trip of it, adding in Bryce as well, but Zion is really the highlight. Here’s what I did last year to make the most of a short visit in under a day.
I started off early, picking up a rental car at Enterprise right at 7:00am when they opened. The location in the Westin is right off of the Strip and easy to get to on foot as well as far enough off of the main road to get in and out easily. There’s even a Starbucks inside to get some coffee for the drive. Getting a car early also meant I had a better chance at getting an upgrade, though I ended up with the exact same Nissan Kleenex box on wheels both times. At least it had a USB plug for listening to my own music and keeping my phone charged while I took hundreds of pictures.
The drive out to Zion is only about 3 hours, but the long straight roads with little scenery make it feel a bit longer. I started to long for even gas stations or exits, the road was hard to even separate from the landscape. It’s important to get gas early, long before the warning light comes on as the distance between stops is very long. Halfway there, there’s an awesome canyon that the road passes through on the state border with Arizona.
I took the trip in late fall, toward the end of November. This was perfect as Zion only allows tours on a shuttle bus in the summer season, but allows individuals to drive through in the off-season. The late fall also meant no snow, a real benefit with my car that probably wouldn’t handle it too well on its wagon wheels. The early setting sun leant a yellow glow to many of my pictures and made the canyon feel like more of a blessed, holy place with an illuminating glow filling the valley. Getting there was also very easy with hardly any other cars on the road.
I began my familiarization with Zion by driving the scenic loop. It’s only a few miles, but took me a couple of hours as I stopped at every parking lot to get out for pictures quickly. There were seriously so many incredible views on such a beautiful day. I stopped the longest at Horseshoe Bend, a nearly 180 degree bend in the river that flows through the canyon, making for great pictures.
At the far end of the valley and the turnaround point for the road, I stopped for a short hike along the Riverwalk Trail. It began as a paved trail and followed the course of the river that carves the canyon. It continued further up the mountains, but I turned back after about a mile and a half to make the most of the limited time I had.
I also stopped nearly at the end of the scenic loop at the Emerald Pools, a series of small pools filled with murky green water that drips from the rock walls. This path continues further up the mountain as well, eventually culminating in the Angel’s Landing hike, a famous but intense climb up a rock boulder overlooking the canyon. Instead, I was satisfied with the views from the middle of the walls over the water and down through parts of the valley.
After my short hikes, I hopped back in the car for a quick ride up the canyon and through the park’s long tunnel. At the peak, the scenery completely changes from desert oasis to mountain tundra with a light dusting of snow on the ground and pine trees blowing in the wind. I stopped at the canyon overlook and took the short climb to the overlook along rocky outcroppings and even a few precipitous perches where handholds were needed to get along the rocks. I knew I had to speed up when two elderly women came breezing up behind me and looked eager to pass. To be fair, they were in phenomenal shape and appeared to be exploring all of the national parks.
At the end of the short but tricky trail was an overlook looking down across the canyon and valley far into the distance. The inspiring view was worth a few minutes to just sit and take it all in after finding a spot of solitude away from selfie takers. The fading light painted the valley yellow and green, truly looking like the early paradise the early discoverers of the valley named it for.
As I headed back to the car, I actually ran into a small herd of bighorn sheep crossing the road. I constantly joke to my wife about seeing sheep at every park we’ve been to where more signs seem to dot the landscape than actual wildlife, but here they are real. I had to wait for a while before they cleared the road, so instead I headed further up the mountains briefly to explore the tundra. No wonder Bryce Canyon and Zion have such different winter weather even though they are fairly close in distance. The road appeared to keep climbing up into the trees. Instead of struggling up the hill that the little car could barely make it up, I headed back down into the valley.
I unfortunately had to leave Zion as my day was coming to an end. No trip out west for me is complete until I have a burger, animal style, at In n’ Out, and thankfully there is one between Zion and Las Vegas. I had a little extra time after polishing off the burger, so I made a slight detour to The Valley of Fire, a state park in Nevada with deep red rocky canyons. As the last vestiges of lights faded, the rocks took on an eerie glow. I know it isn’t from the Nuclear testing they once did out here, but it’s hard not to think of it. As my headlights illuminated the red rocks on my way back to the city, I noticed how much of the night sky I could see out here in the dark away from the light pollution of the coasts.
Eventually the lights of Las Vegas, especially The Strip, came into view and I made it back to drop off the car. I immediately missed the quiet solitude of the park and the golden glow it offered. Thankfully, I’ll be back soon this year!