The Top 10 National Parks in Western USA You Can’t Miss – Part 2
In the first part of this article, we looked at five of the top national parks in Western USA: Yellowstone, Crater Lake, Yosemite, Death Valley and Joshua Tree. Now our grand tour rises to the Colorado River Basin, a high plateau on the western edge of the Rocky Mountain chain, for some breath-taking and unique landscapes that also lay claim to planet superlatives.
I was standing beside what was allegedly the world’s second largest canyon when the fellow beside me humbly asked: “Have you been to the Grand Canyon? How does it compare?” I grimaced; I’d hoped he wouldn’t ask. “Well,” I said, “If the Grand Canyon is a 10, then this is maybe a 2.” Ouch!
Everyone knows about the Grand Canyon, the world’s largest and deepest. And it really is that impressive! The Canyon is a mile (1.6 km) deep, up to 18 miles (29 km) wide and 277 miles (446 km) long. It’s spectacular, though, not only for its magnitude, but also its rock formations, its kaleidoscopic of colours, and for the geologic story it tells. You don’t have to be a geologist to appreciate this place because you’ll quickly become one as you admire the strata and the formations that dispel any doubts about the geologic theories of earth formation.
You can visit the Grand Canyon from many vantage points, but the most famous, and most impressive, is the South Rim in Arizona. It’s also where the majority of visitors gather, and where the commercial establishments have built their infrastructures. If you have the time and are fit, you’ll want to hike down to the bottom of the canyon–and back up–or rent a mule to help you out.
The best time to visit, from the rim, is at sunrise or sunset, when the low angle sun’s rays show off the formations’ magical beauty, and when, frequently, you can catch a thunder storm over the canyon, and maybe even the rainbow that follows.
Delicate Arch is one of the most photographed scenes in the entire Western USA. But it is only one of over 2000 natural sandstone arches within the Park, representing an assortment of arch shapes even the Greeks of old would have found amazing! But it’s not only arches that the winds and waters of time have sculpted. Many other unusual rock formations: towering spires, fins and balanced rocks complement the arches, creating a surreal landscape that keeps you repeating your favorite expressions of awe until those expressions lose their gusto.
The formations are fragile, though, and will eventually yield to the inevitable geologic processes. One never knows when the next formation might collapse, so, if you’ve dreamed of putting yourself into a photo with Delicate Arch, a wait may not be worth it!
Mesa Verde (Spanish for “green table”) National Park is completely different from its Colorado Plateau neighbours. Yes, the rock has been hewn by water and wind over many millennia. But the story is not so much about grand formations sculpted by the forces of nature, but of their use by the ancestral Pueblean cliff-dwellers, who made the Park their home for 700 years. The numerous caves carved out of the cliffs became not only their homes, but their own artisan’s palette. Working in harmony with their surroundings, they chiseled their own architecture and adornments into their homes.
The most impressive is Cliff Palace. At about 150 rooms, it housed as many as 100 inhabitants. Cliff Palace is accessible only by a one-hour, ranger-guided tour, and involves 120 uneven stone steps and five ladders on a 100 foot (30m) vertical climb.
Altogether, the Park protects nearly 5,000 known archeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings. These sites are some of the most notable and best preserved in the United States, though deterioration has caused some of the sites, such as Spruce Tree House to be closed to the public for safety reasons.
There are so many water-gouged formations in the arid, and fragile, range-and-basin region of Western USA that it is surprising how different they all are from each another. Zion National Park contrasts sharply to both Grand Canyon and Arches National Parks. While it shares their gorgeous scenery, marked by steep red rock walls, there is a broader range of mountain and forest trail hikes along the valley of the Virgin River, a river that itself provides superb scenes with its emerald pools, waterfalls, and a hanging garden.
Zion’s big attraction, though, is the narrow slot canyon where hikers test their mettle. With 1000-ft. (305 m.) walls on either side of a canyon that funnels the Virgin River to as narrow as 20 ft (6.1 m.), your hike is along (i.e., in) the river bed, with the most popular hike being a 10-mile (16 km) return hike. During low-water season, you may get no more than waste deep in the water; at higher water, closer to chest deep. Beware, though, flash floods are common in the Colorado River Basin, when water levels can rise dangerously within minutes or even seconds. But Park officials close the trail to hikers at the earliest hint that flash-flooding may occur; with their oversight, the trail is relatively safe. This is one of the great, can’t-miss hikes that should be on every adrenaline junkie’s bucket list.
Despite being the next-door neighbour to Zion, Bryce Canyon National Park apparently received a different set of design guidelines in the master plan. The prominent features here are the multitudes of hoodoos, rock pillars left over from water and wind erosion; in fact, the largest concentration of such pillars in the world. Like their neighbours, though, their red rock colour dominates every magnificent scene within Bryce.
The most noteworthy view is that of “the amphitheater,” a massive sea of red, with the piercing fins and hoodoos creating the impression of a large outdoor stadium, lacking only the crowds. But then, this is not a place for crowds; it is a place for only you to gape at the awesome masterpiece Mother Nature has spread out before you. As in all these special areas, a network of hiking trails will take you all the hidden treasures within the maze of spires.
The many superlatives that are represented in these ten National Parks in Western USA attests to their wonder and uniqueness. It’s why they eventually climb to the top of nearly everyone’s bucket list. It’s why West Adventures put together the Western Kaleidoscope: Lights and landscapes of the American West tour. Three weeks is hardly enough to take them all in but is probably as much time as most visitors can spare. Nine of these ten parks are visited on the tour.
“Mountains complement desert as desert complements city, as wilderness complements and completes civilization.” — Edward Abbey