The first signs of spring are upon us. Every day the sun feels a bit warmer and daylight stretches out a bit longer. Ski lifts have now shut off for the season and wet snow gives way to muddy trails. We love winter in Quebec – the snow has a way of transforming a landscape like no other, but every year around this time we get the urge to go. This year we dreamed of desert towers, long open roads and cool nights under the stars. As a landscape photographer, road tripping through the Southwest is a rite of passage, and this trip had been sitting at the back of my mind for some time.
And so soon enough we found ourselves touching down in Las Vegas and loading up the rental car with gear for the next few weeks. Tents, stove, jackets, and enough Clif Bars to last the trip. We’d be experiencing a variety of weather on the trip and made sure to come prepared. This year we set out with a different mindset. No fixed plan, only a map of the US National Parks, and a vague idea of what we’d like to see. The rest we could find out along the way.
We hit the road west for California, and arrived in Death Valley late in the evening, pulling into the Mesquite Sand dunes just as the sun was cresting over the horizon. A perfect stop to stretch your legs after the long day of travel. The first thing we noticed was just how vast this place really is. It’s funny how photos can never really do it justice. Sand dunes stretched on out for miles and we felt like ants as we scrambled up and down the sandy dunes by headlamp. A mile in the dunes is not a normal walking mile.
The next morning we continued our drive towards the Eastern Sierra. The small town of Lone Pine sits at the base of Mount Whitney. Best known for its climbing and iconic backdrops in countless western movies and ranch lands, the Alabama Hills are located right outside of town and are a fantastic destination for outdoor lovers. And the best part? It’s absolutely free to stay here. Finding your camp spot is half the fun. We drove for hours getting lost down sandy roads and vast boulder fields before finally settling on a little pull off nestled amongst the boulders. We spent the evening watching climbers make their way up the famous Shark Fin route. As the sun set behind Mount Whitney, we lit a fire and settled in for a cool night. The next few days were spent exploring the beautiful roads, hikes and arches nearby.
It was a great way to start our trip, but before long we had to pack up and say goodbye to California. Our next stop would be the Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada’s oldest state park. Valley of fire gets its name from the red sandstone formations scattered throughout its borders. When hit with the sunlight, the rocks light up in a magnificent blaze of colour. Classic hikes such as the fire wave trail take you traversing through the rocks. Keep an eye out for secret slot canyons as you make your way down the windy main road. A day here just wasn’t enough, but it wasn’t long before we were once again hitting the road, bound for the Utah border.
What can you say about Zion? There’s no park that truly exemplifies the Southwest more than Zion. Steep Navajo sandstone cliffs fall away to a valley floor carved out by the Virgin River. Zion is one of the US most popular parks, and because of this, a shuttle bus system is in place to take you from stop to stop. In our eagerness to get our first glimpses of Zion, we hopped on the bus to the Grotto trailhead station and decided to make the last minute trek up Angels Landing. Steep switchbacks quickly lead you up to the hillside to the scout’s lookout. By this time of day, the crowds had thinned making the traverse to the final summit much easier.
Here steps are cut into the rocks and chains are bolted into the trail to help ease your nerves. Steep cliffs fall away at either side giving you breathtaking views across the valley floor. This is not a hike for the faint of heart, but thankfully though Zion offers a ton of great options throughout the park for all levels. These include the Emerald Pools trail, Riverside walk, Canyon Overlook trail, and if weather permits, the Narrows a unique hike that takes you wading up the Virgin River in a brilliant slot canyon. We stayed in the South Campground, a fantastic location (just make sure to book in advance!). That night we fell asleep to gentle sounds of the Virgin River and the wind blowing against our tent as it made its way up the valley.
Bryce was next on our list. The drive took us north and soon the gentle rains turned into flurries, and it wasn’t long before we could make out patches of snow on the surrounding hillsides. Unfortunately for us, due to the dwindling snowpack, most of the trails below the rim were closed. Instead, we opted to make the trek along the rim trail between sunrise and sunset points. This is a relatively easy hike with fantastic views. Bryce is best known for its unique formations of Hoodoos, tall thin rock formations that form when a hard top layer of rock prevents the erosion of softer rock below.
Our next stop was Page Arizona. Located at the border of 3 timezones, Page is a great base for a number of classic Southwest adventures. Iconic views such as Horseshoe Bend and Antelope Canyon are only minutes out of town, the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley and Lake Powell make for perfect day trips, and countless lesser-known hidden gems can be found close by. We would recommend also making the short drive Kanab, and trying your luck at the daily permit lottery for The Wave. The drawing is located at the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Visitor Center at 9am every day and allows for an additional 10 permits to be issued on top of the online reservations. If you’re like us and are one of the many that don’t secure a permit, don’t fret! There are plenty of other great hikes around Kanab, including one of Utah’s largest slot canyons in “Buckskin Gulch.”
Our final stop for the trip brought us to the town of Moab in eastern Utah and home to the well-known Canyon Lands and Arches National Park. where we spent our last few days. Some hikes like the ones to Delicate or Sandstone Arch take you traversing across an otherworldly landscape while other views like the stunning Double Arch can be accessed from a short walk from your car. Arches took our breath away, and we made the most of our last few nights staying out late into the evening and watching the stars pass overhead. Every night we would slip into our sleeping bag exhausted, but smiling ear to ear.
Our time in the South West was coming to an end. As we made the long drive back to Las Vegas from Moab, we couldn’t help but begin scheming our next visit. We’d seen so much on this trip that it felt like a blur. It’s easy to see why the Southwest holds a special place in so many peoples heart. You can spend a lifetime here and not see it all. One thing I know for certain, this certainly won’t be our last trip to the Southwest.
* Jacket featured in photos is the Arc’teryx Women’s Norvan