A Spin Through the Grand Circle

Joel Bellman

MONUMENT VALLEY, UTAH—We’re among those Americans who’ve seen a lot more of other countries than we have our own. But this spring, a timely professional conference for my wife in Denver and an open travel schedule gave us a perfect opportunity to blow town for a couple of weeks and hit the road for the first real driving vacation we’ve ever taken after more than 20 years together.

The Southwest is rich in national parks, and seven of the most famous and scenic of the National Park System’s (NPS) 417 units constitute the Grand Circle National Parks, lying within a roughly 321,000-square-mile area located just east of Las Vegas. Imagine sticking a drawing compass into a map of U.S. at the center of Monument Valley, a little southwest of Four Corners, and tracing a circle roughly from Provo, Utah, around through Santa Fe, New Mexico, and just outside of Phoenix, Arizona. Within that orbit lie Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, Arches, Mesa Verde, and the Grand Canyon.

We couldn’t see them all, but having already been to the Grand Canyon, we made plans to visit Zion, Bryce, Arches and Mesa Verde, along with Arizona’s Antelope Canyon and Utah’s Monument Valley.

We high-balled out of LA mid-morning, making Henderson, Nevada, just as the sun was setting (we can’t stand Las Vegas) and, after a tasty barbecue dinner, bunked down for the night. We set off the next morning for Zion National Park and spent the afternoon touring the viewpoints by shuttle and taking a couple of trail walks before continuing on to Springdale, Utah, for a wild game meatloaf dinner at the Spotted Dog Cafe, after which we collapsed into bed at our bed and breakfast.

We headed out the next day to Bryce Canyon National Park. At some 9100 feet, it’s the top of the “Grand Staircase” of cliffs and sedimentary rock formations stretching southwest from Bryce descending through Zion and finally down to Grand Canyon. It was cool and windy up there, but the view was breathtaking as we strolled along the Rim Trail, pausing at Sunrise and Sunset Points to take it all in before continuing on to Rainbow Point at the southern end of the park where you can hike down into the canyon.

Following one of the best travel tips ever from our hosts, we took the 124-mile drive on Utah’s Scenic Byway 12 from Bryce to Anasazi State Park near Boulder, a spectacular route that carried us along the southern edge of Dixie National Forest and through “The Hogback,” a dramatic final stretch from Calf Creek to Boulder Town along a razorback ridge with steep drops into canyons and riverbeds on both sides of the two-lane highway.

From Springdale, we headed southeast to Page, Arizona on the southern shore of Lake Powell, a huge natural reservoir that had once been Glen Canyon before the feds built a dam back in the ‘50s and flooded it with the Colorado River. After a hike into Antelope Canyon X with a Chinese family and our Native American guide, we headed over to Big John’s Texas Barbecue and shared a table with Italian, Israeli and German tourists while a cowboy band played Creedence and the Eagles. The next day, after an afternoon boat tour of the lake, it was on to Monument Valley, the Navajo Tribal Park where director John Ford shot Stagecoach and other classic John Wayne westerns.

Amid all the scenic wonders, here’s the best part: unplugging from the internet helped us reconnect with our Native American forebears and our Old World visitors—each of whom, in their own way, have been gradually restoring our flagging faith in humanity in the New World.


Joel Bellman

Joel Bellman worked in journalism and local government in Los Angeles for 35 years. He now teaches and writes on politics and pop culture. He can be contacted at jbellman@ca.rr.com

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