May 02, 2012

The Scenic Road From Grand Canyon to Zion NP

To get from one amazing park to another we decided to take the scenic route. Basically, there is hwy 89 that crosses into Utah early on, and then cuts west through the Grand Staircase National Monument. If you take that highway to Zion National Park, you need to ensure that you meet the Mount Carmel Tunnel vehicle width requirements; otherwise you need to pay for a $15 escort to help you through. Since Lucy is a wide girl, and we didn't feel like coughing up $15 for a 1 mile tunnel ride, we decided to take the steeper and more scenic way, highway 89A. This route stays in Arizona for most of the drive, cuts through Kaibab National Forest, goes by the West Rim entrance to Grand Canyon, and then crosses into Utah just before you reach the Zion NP vicinity.

Before we hit the road we cleaned up at the Grand Canyon Mather campground showers. For $2 in coins, you get exactly 8 minutes to wash up! Thankfully the water comes out warm right away…On our way out we saw a couple of elk right by the road. Elk roam Grand Canyon park freely, so you have to abide by the 25 mile an hour speed limit unless you want a new ornament on your hood.

Elk roam the park freely
It just so happens that to get to highway 89A, you have to drive through the rest of Grand Canyon park, all the way east, going by the Grand View point and Desert View point. These are less visited sites at the park because they are so far away from the main Village. We stopped in at each, and I would say that unless you’re specifically headed this way, these sites are ok to skip on the itinerary. Desert View does have a neat old Watchtower that you can climb into, but again, not necessarily worth the almost 30 mile drive out of your way.

The Watchtower at Desert View in Grand Canyon
Once we left the park territory, we drove into Navajo land. The Navajo Nation has the largest Indian reservation in the US, and although most of their land is located in Arizona, they do participate in Daylight Savings. Once you turn to go north on highway 89 (it’s just 89 for a bit, then 89 and 89A split off from each other), it’s as if you’ve driven into the Painted Desert all over again (the Painted Desert from the Petrified Forest National Park). There are wonderful colors on the hills and mountains along the road; blues, greens, reds and purples just like in the park, but no fee to see them here.

Driving through Navajo Nation, Pained Desert views
After a while, red cliffs and bluffs start appearing in the landscape. When you take the turn off for 89A, the red bluffs is pretty much all you see for the next 40 miles. About 10 miles after the turn off, we came upon Marble Canyon, and crossed the Colorado River. The Colorado River also serves as the end of the Navajo land, so once again, we drove back into Pacific time.

Driving up to Marble Canyon
Just past the canyon, and for the next 30 miles, we drove along the Vermilion Cliffs. Turns out, vermilion is a fancy way to say red, and red they were. On one side of the road are these bright red cliffs, and on the other is a sweeping field of purple grass. Topped off with the bright blue sky, it was a pretty gorgeous picture.

The valley and the Vermilion Cliffs
We drove into Kaibab National Forest, and decided to find a place to stake out for the night. There are several forest roads that start just before Jacob’s Lake, and go until the western boarder of the forest, off of highway 89A. We picked road 205, on the left, about 2 miles east of Jacob’s Lake.
There is a trailhead for the Arizona trail on this road as well, so it makes for a great rest/recreation stop. The Arizona trail is the result of a visionary plan of Dale Shewalter, a trail that leads from the Mexican border to Utah, traversing all of Arizona.

Just after we parked our trailer and got situated, three men rode by on the trail on their mountain bikes. We flagged them down, and it turned out they were Mexicans, who had biked from the border, and were looking to complete the trail at the Utah border a dozen miles away. After dinner, we hiked the trail ourselves, about 1.5 miles into the forest. The night was very peaceful. Sky saw deer run by while watching the stars outside the trailer. I’m not going to lie though, it was a bit freaky being in the middle of nowhere, with no cellphone reception, and very few cars driving along 89A. In the morning, things looked much better again, and we laid around and read our books until lunch.

Our boondocking spot in Kaibab National Forest
Arizona trail off of road 205
We debated on staying one more day, but in the end decided to finish out our drive to Zion. The 150 mile drive was once again gorgeous (are we ever going to get tired of seeing pretty red rock?). At one point, you’re driving through a winding canyon, coming down steep slopes, and you round the bend, and in the desert, you spot an oasis. That’s the town of Hurricane. Its located right next to the Virgin River, so while its technically in the desert, the town itself is lush with green trees, grass and other vegetation we hadn't seen since we’d left the Grand Canyon.

Driving through Utah
We drove through Hurricane, then got on highway 9 east to pass through several small towns on our way to Springdale, the last town before Zion NP. One of the towns we passed was Virgin, population of 200 or so. I bet you can imagine what fun we had with that name. (What do you call folks that live in Virgin? Virgins?? How does the town of Virgin grow its population? With out-of-towners?? Would I become a Virgin if I moved here?...etc). It was amusing. Finally, we arrived at our destination, Springdale, Utah, the gateway to the park. This is a super cute little town that totally caters to the multitude of visitors to the park. Since we hadn’t heard back from our Couch Surfing host yet, and the local church had a sign that said No Overnight Parking, we decided to stay at the Zion Canyon RV Park. $40 lighter, but totally worth the gorgeous views (and convenient parking for the Zion park shuttle).

Springdale, UT
Tomorrow we explore the park!

See more picture of our drive here.

Happy Red Rock Driving,


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  1. Great travel adventure for the whole family vacation.

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  2. This is a perfect place for unforgettable sport adventures.

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  3. What a fantastic post! Thank you so much for taking us along.

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  4. Its amazing place everyone else being said..

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