Like many across the world, we had a few vacations planned in 2020 that were cancelled because of Covid. A trip to the National Parks in Utah and Arizona was one of those trips, and now with the pandemic slowing down and the world slowly reopening we put it back on the books.
We flew out of Philadelphia directly to Phoenix without a hitch. When we hike or do vacations that don’t involve fancy culinary experiences, we try to pack light. This vacation only required one suitcase for the adults and one small hiking bag per child. Layers are pivotal, as the temperature this time of year was in the 90’s upon landing in Phoenix, but would dip to the low 30’s for many of the mornings in Utah . We went to Budget to pick up our FastPass rental car. This program is supposed to allow one to pick up their contract and key at a kiosk and be on their way in minutes. Instead, at this Phoenix location we had to stand in line for an hour, only to be told our car had yet to arrive. I was told I would have to wait and to step aside. The attendant was very rude which was a shame because when we used Budget at many other airports this was not our experience. We rented a Nissan Pathfinder so we had plenty of room and oomph for what the trip would require. We stopped at Topshelf Mexican Cantina for a bite on the way to Sedona as we were all hungry (many of us hangry!) and frustrated from our rental car experience. The meal had generous portions and definitely gave us a chance to regroup.
We then drove to Sedona with some stops along the way to take a few photos of the Red Rocks and some of the must-see spots like Bell Rock and Courthouse Butte on our way into town. We also took a spin into the Cocino National Forest Ranger Station to grab some views on the way into town. While the station was not open (it was late on a Saturday), there was still some great signage and good photo ops.
We stayed at the Hilton Sedona Resort at Bell Rock. The resort also has a beautiful golf course with stunning views of the surrounding landscape.
We booked a junior suite as the prices were affordable and it gave us more room to spread out. It had a small kitchenette and dining area, as well as 2 queen beds and a comfortable pull-out sofa. We had stayed here without kids 16 years before and were happy to see it had been well maintained over the years.
We dropped off our bags and headed to the pool for some relaxation.
One will quickly notice that all buildings in Sedona are no more than 2 stories and painted bland colors to blend in to the surrounding landscape. It was early to bed as we had a Pink Jeep tour planned the next day and were exhausted from our travels. The location of this hotel is great as it is just outside the main town, but in the years since we first visited, they have built a small shopping center at the entrance which includes a restaurant, an ice cream shop, a wine bar and other sundries.
We awoke bright and early with the 3 hour time change helping our teens not complain too much! We grabbed a quick breakfast to go before heading off to uptown Sedona for our Pink Jeep tour. We booked a combo tour that did both Scenic Rim Road and Broken Arrow Trail (the Pink Jeep signature tour). Both of these tours are rough and bumpy so those with bad backs, that get car sick easily, or that are looking for a smooth ride, should try one of their other several tours that are much easier on the bumps.
We boarded our Barbie jeep with our guide Lyndi (nicknamed Lyndiana Jones) for our adventure. We started with a 40 minute or so climb up the scenic rim through switchbacks, bumpy roads, and beautiful scenery until we stopped near Merry Go Round a Rock (a popular but remote site for weddings) for a few photos and to use the “treecilities” (our guide’s name for “going” in the woods).
Then it was back in the jeep for some more beautiful views and to take the short hop over to the 4 wheel drive paradise of the Broken Arrow trail. We did a few smaller rock climbs before stopping at Chicken Point for a few more photos. I cannot explain how beautiful the views were from not just here, but everywhere. Our jeep had broken its rear sway bar somewhere along the scenic rim so we called in for a new jeep. This bought us some more time to explore and enjoy this beautiful site and experience some of the Vortex energy that Sedona is known for.
We also saw the white line. This is a place where “crazy” mountain bikers come to literally ride their bikes on the edge of a mountain. I’m not sure I would hike it, much les ride a bike on it, but to each there own. (Supposedly there are YouTube videos you can find to see what we mean.) Unfortunately no one was riding it the day we were there. The Pink Jeep folks brought up a larger jeep and some cold waters for us to finish the trip. The mechanic who brought the new jeep up brought all they needed to fix the jeep right on the spot. What a great place to do some repair work. After leaving Chicken Point the real 4-wheeling began, with multiple climbs and descents — the best in my opinion being Devil’s Staircase (a several hundred feet descent down multiple “stairs” of rock at a near 40 degree angle).
After leaving the Broken Arrow trail we headed back to home base to say goodbye to our guide and grab some lunch downtown. There is a place called The Vault very close to the pink Jeep tour home base that has great food and amazing views from the patio. What a magnificent place to catch a bite and talk about how amazing the day had been already.
After lunch we headed up north of town to Slide Rock State Park. This is a state park, but make sure you mention you have a National Park Pass so you don’t have to pay for parking. Slide Rock is a natural water slide with multiple pools along a river that allow for some fun in the sun. It was not too crowded the day we went but one can tell by the size of the parking lot that late comers may be turned away on a busy day. I think this is a must do for anyone who is a kid at heart, but be warned, at least in April, the water is cold so its best to just do it and then keep doing it till you get your fill as getting “used to the water” is brutal the first time. We all went 4-6 times in a row then warmed up on the shoreline in the sun. There is also a story of the person who settled the area with an apple orchard and has old farm equipment buildings and bathrooms so its more than just a slide. What cool place!
After warming up and drying off with our small absorbent and quick drying travel towels it was off to Grasshopper Point for some cliff jumping. This is a National Park frequented by the locals and the walk down to the river and jumping spot is less than .25 miles and well worth it if you like some adventure. The parents stayed ashore and took video of the kids jumping from the highest spot we would recommend (the youngest touched bottom from the upper level). There are bathroom facilities here as well, but it is clearly a spot the locals love as there were 100 people spread along the rocky shoreline eating and enjoying themselves.
After a number of natural thrills, we headed down the road to the Mesa Airport loop to hike to another summit and vortex area. There is a smaller lower parking lot right by the vortex but it is often full. One can drive up to the airport (you heard that right there is a private airport on top of a mesa) to park for 3 dollars. The pass is good all day and many return or show up near sunset as it is supposedly the best sunset spot in all of Arizona. We parked up top as the lower lot was full and walked across the street to the scenic overlook. After snapping a few gorgeous photos of the valley and Sedona we headed down the .6-mile hiking path to the vortex.
It is quite rocky so for folks who are unsteady on their feet, maybe drop them off at the lower lot and park at the top and hike down to them. The hike is gradual but like all things in life, what goes down must come back up, so save some energy for the short, but uphill, climb back to the car.
The summit of the vortex is very doable for most as there are natural stairs most of the way and a metal railing the rest of the way to the top. At the top it is fairly flat but has a steep drop off in most areas so watch little kids and pets. (Our eldest saved a pup from going over the edge when the owner wasn’t looking!) We, along with several others, took some time here to meditate and contemplate in what is one of the most beautiful surroundings I have experienced.
After hiking back up to the car we decided to make one more stop at the Church of the Holy Cross. It was funded by Marguerite Brunswig Staude and completed in 1956. It is an amazing place where one, regardless of religion, will find themselves feeling closer to “god and nature”. Definitely worth a stop and even more meaningful on Good Friday. After a long day of exploring, we stopped for an ice cream on the way to the hotel and then hit the hay early knowing we had another long but enjoyable day ahead of us.
We were up early again to pack up and head out towards the Grand Canyon and eventually land in Monument Valley at Goulding’s Lodge. Before we laid our heads on the pillow though, we had some amazing adventures in store.
As we headed out of Sedona on the way towards Flagstaff we paused to take some photos of the beautiful bridge spanning Oak Creek Valley. There is a small parking area that is quite full most of the day but at 7am it was empty so we could take a quick photo and with a short walk down a few steps, get a view of the sunlit valley.
After the photos we headed up towards Flagstaff but decided instead of exploring downtown Flagstaff to take 40 west out to Williams to explore one of the few places with the original Route 66 intact. This is also a place where one can drive north towards the south rim of the Grand Canyon so it fit our plans perfectly. Williams was a quaint, old-style town that felt like stepping back in time. There were a few gas stations, numerous diners and stores with Route 66 paraphernalia, and some places to explore. You can also board a train here to the Grand Canyon. We ate at Anna’s Place Grand Canyon Café where the food was fantastic. It was originally a brothel but is now a cute diner with excellent food.
After fueling up for the day it was time to make our way to the South Rim. We again relied upon the Gypsy Guide to help us maximize our time and also learn about many of the stops along the way. We made stops at Mather Point, Yavapai Point, the Hopi House, El Tovar Hotel, and drove the Village Circle before heading out the Desert View Drive toward the east entrance of the park. As you can see from some of our photos, it was a really windy (and that’s an understatement) day!
Along the way we stopped at Duck on a Rock, Grandview Point, and Moran Point before exiting the park on our way to our next adventure in Antelope Valley.
We headed out toward Page for our slot canyon adventure with Ligai si Anii Tours. Before we discuss this wonderful adventure let me first give you a few tips: (1) we did this tour on the spur of the moment and really lucked out getting a reservation. Because the canyons are on a Navajo Reservation, you need to have pre-booked your tours. Many of them were sold out and sell out very early, especially if you actually want to go down into the base of the canyons. (2) Watch out for time zone changes! We had a 3 o’clock tour and thought we had left plenty of time but when we put the trip in Google it had us getting there an hour later than we planned. We high tailed it down the road skipping a couple stops along the Devil’s Overlook road to get there “on time”. When we arrived we were over an hour early. Turns out your phone may try and use Utah time for the Reservation as it’s very close to Utah, but they used Page, Arizona time. Just an important thing to consider when booking an adventure – make sure to clarify what time zone they use.
The people at the tour company were fantastic and were able to put us on a 2:00 tour so we could avoid sitting in the car for an hour in the wind. (More on the wind later.) The tour company supplied us with bottles of water, which we desperately needed as although we all took refillable bottles with us and refilled several times, the elevation and dry air and exertion really sucks the water out of you. The first part of the journey was a ride out to the canyon over scrub plains. When we arrived it didn’t look that special, but once we descended, we saw the skinny entrance to what was a thing of natural beauty.
Our Navajo guide was fantastic! He explained the development of the canyons as well as the ways that the native peoples used the land. He also explained what plants they use for medicinal and special purposes as we walked by many on our way to the next slot canyon. Both canyons were created in a similar way, but each had its own unique beauty. There was just something peaceful and spiritual about standing in one of nature’s marvels with the sun and sky visible through the slit in the ceiling. After an hour or so of exploring we headed back to the car. It had been windy when we left the Grand Canyon but the wind had picked up substantially to 50mph gusts. We all remarked how we felt like we were on Tatooine or Dune from the famous sci-fi movies because dust was blowing so hard everywhere that you had to cover your eyes and keep your mouth closed. This was but a prelude for things to come.
After using the facilities and thanking our guide again we were off to Goulding’s Lodge our home for the night. We stopped at a general store along the way for some drinks, water, fuel and a few snacks but we were all waiting for Dorothy to go by in her house on the way to Oz. (A quick tip – if you see a gas station or convenience store – stop. They are few and far between in this part of the country.) The drive to Goulding’s was a first for me as I have driven in driving rain, snow squalls, and blizzard-like conditions but sand and dust blowing so hard you had almost zero visibility for periods was a new one for me. It was truly an other-worldly experience.
We finally arrived safe and sound, but full of red dust at Goulding’s where we grabbed a quick bite to eat at the hotel’s restaurant. Several of us ate the Navajo Taco which was huge and amazing especially after such a long day. Then we headed to our villa in the shadow of Monument Valley. If we hadn’t had so much dust, I am sure the view from our porch would have been spectacular. We all took showers that made the water run red from dust and hit the hay early after another enjoyable day.
We were up early to grab some breakfast and groceries at the Goulding’s Grocer (which by the way was convenient and very affordable) before heading out to explore the marvelous Monument Valley. We had initially booked a tour with Monument Valley Safaris but decided to cancel since the weather did not look particularly favorable. The company explained what the conditions would be like (cold and windy) and offered us a full refund which I felt was very fair. We had to make a game time decision and decided to drive the loop ourselves as on the horizon appeared to be another dust storm coming directly towards the valley.
A little more about Monument Valley. We stayed at Goulding’s which is just a 5 minute drive from the visitor’s center where the tours meet before heading out. Admission is 20 dollars for a car of 4 and is good for two days. The visitor’s center has nice bathrooms and a large gift shop to explore. We headed down the valley drive and stopped to take photos of the different rock formations as large snowflakes fell on the car. The visibility wasn’t great to start but miraculously halfway around the drive, instead of a massive dust storm, blue skies and sunshine prevailed making the rest of the drive beautiful. We stopped at a Navajo arts seller at the Mittens Vista and purchased a few bracelets.
All in all, we were happy to have saved the money and time as we saw nearly the entire park, except a few special areas only the tour can go to, and it allowed us enough time to head out to the Four Corners which was a bonus destination we had decided to skip for time purposes. Though we were sad to have not heard the stories of how the people use the area I feel a tour may not be as worthwhile here as at other areas.
Four Corners is the place where the borders of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado all meet. It like Monument Valley in that it is part of the Navajo Park area so the National Park pass isn’t good here either. It is 5 dollars per person. We were glad to visit, but it is really just a monument where the states meet with a few vendors and only needs about 20 minutes to explore. (But is quite a drive out of the way to get there.)
All in all, It was a wonderful first 4 days and we couldn’t wait to start the next leg of the trip exploring Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.