USA National Parks: West is Best

Silver Travel writer Solange Hando discovers the awesome scenery of the American West on a Titan tour.

Tingling in anticipation, we travelled from mountains and lakes to deserts and canyons, exploring eight National Parks with unique attractions.

Starting in the snow-capped Rockies, we meandered through five States before reaching the iconic Grand Canyon in Arizona. That was over 3000 miles, and every bend of the road was worth it.

High mountains to the Devil’s Tower

Rockies National Park in Colorado

Overnight in Denver and we were off, up steep forested slopes until we hit snow right across the road. It was springtime in Colorado but at 10,000 feet, there was ice and snow all around and as we gazed at the eternal range, Longs Peak, the highest point, took our breath away.

High altitude and blistering wind, we did not linger and on the way back to warmer climes, we looked out for elks, pronghorn antelopes and bighorn sheep though the bears kept out of sight. Later we relaxed in the pretty mountain resort of Estes Park but still dreamed of the 154 lakes, over 40 peaks and 300 miles of trails glistening high above in the National Park.

Historic wonders

We continued into Wyoming to see the National Landmark preserving some old wagon ruts on the Oregon Trail. Out there in the breeze, tales of struggling settlers and families sent shivers down my spine while not far away, Fort Laramie recalled the first treaty signed in 1851 between Native Americans and the Federal Government. Then across the border in South Dakota, Mount Rushmore swept me off my feet with the colossal sculpture of four presidents, created as a shrine to democracy. It’s a busy place but views along the presidential trail are magnificent.

The Devil’s Tower

Shaped by ground erosion over millions of years, this natural ‘butte’ rises in the Black Hills, a lonely sentinel guarding the dark pine-covered land. For the Sioux, this was a gift from the Great Spirit to protect them from the bears. We wandered around the base, listening to the birds as native flags fluttered in the trees. Featured in ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’, it felt like nowhere else on earth.

Wyoming’s stunning National Parks                    

Yellowstone, the Supervolcano

Almost entirely set in Wyoming, and with an average altitude of 8,000 feet, this is one of the world’s largest and most active calderas, claiming the widest range of geothermal features.

That was my sort of place and my enthusiasm never stopped. First it was the Artist Point, with its incredibly colourful canyon and tumbling waterfall (one of 290), the bubbling Dragon’s Mouth, mud pots, steam drifting across the land and the Old Faithful geyser popping up every 90 minutes, ours predicted 13.01, right on time!

My favourite spots were the frozen Yellowstone Lake, ice piled up along the shore (130 miles around) and the Grand Prismatic Spring, the best in the world, they say, with the most vibrant colours.

Grand Tetons, peaks and lake

Next day, it was only a short drive to the Tetons. Mirrored in the luminous Jackson Lake, the whole mountain was just like a painting, stretching 45 miles around Grand Teton, the highest peak, close to 14,000 feet. We picnicked by the lake, spotted a moose in the willows and clambered up the hill for wonderful views.

We spent the night in Jackon Hole, a stylish traditional resort with antlers archways around the park and a lovely little chapel out of town, framing the peaks.                

Amazing Utah, top of the list in National Parks                            

Arches and Canyonlands           

Red rocks, soaring peaks, over 2,000 sandstone arches, Utah greeted us with the Arches National Park, ‘wow’ every step of the way. Here the ‘Balanced Rock’, there an elephant shape, the ‘Three Gossips’, the ‘Delicate Arch’ and other ‘windows’ we could climb through while in the distance a snow-capped mountain range rose above the burning desert.

The following day, nearby Canyonlands called us to its own National Park on the high Colorado desert, sprinkled with prickly pear and sacred juniper. Island in the Sky, Needles, Mesa Arch, Shafer Canyon, I felt as excited as a child while far below the Green River relentlessly carved its way towards the Colorado river. Later it was safari time and in the Upper Onion Creek, we splashed through the streams, bumping through unspoilt but tortured land.

That night a full moon rose above the mountains and somewhere in the dark, a flute echoed under the stars.

Bryce and Zion                  

A fair drive to the west, Bryce Canyon hit us in disbelief, such a vast amphitheatre of vertiginous drops and scary pinnacles, flaming red or ghostly white, magic ‘hoodoos’, they call them, ready to swallow you up at the slightest slip. We strolled along the rim, at around 8,000 feet, from Bryce and Inspiration Points to Fairyland. The landscape extended 100 miles in places but I was fully mesmerised by the world at my feet, so dramatic yet incredibly beautiful. One day I will be back and watch the sunrise over the mighty hoodoos.

Next morning a one and a half mile long tunnel took us to Zion and the free shuttle bus leading to trekking areas, from the easy ‘Weeping Rock’ to the challenging ‘Angel’s Landing’. My choice was a peaceful up and down walk through the trees with glimpses of the Virgin River down in the valley. Peaks rose up to the sky, some 200 million years old, and I enjoyed the flowers along the path, golden columbine, red cacti and more.

Stepping to the brink in Arizona           

The Grand Canyon       

“It fills me with awe”, said President Roosevelt, “it is beyond comparison, beyond description”. And so it is when you see it in real life, a natural wonder stretching beyond imagination, 277 miles long and up to 18 wide.

Even in the helicopter I could not see it all yet from the south rim to the epic north, the panorama blew me away, huge staggering rocks, reflecting myriad minerals, and far below the Colorado winding its way through it all. I imagined the mule track, the waterfalls, the last Indigenous village tucked out of sight.

Back on earth, the Angel’s trail had many outstanding viewpoints on the very edge of the rim (take care). We watched a hummingbird, a redhead tanager and marvelled at the trees clinging to the wilderness, the carmine thistle and sunflower-like brittlebush. After millions of years, the Grand Canyon continues to spread and life goes on…

This was my first visit to this stupendous area and the loop from Denver to Phoenix covered all we expected and more, such as Salt Lake City or the Red Rocks of Sedona. Expect long drives and busy days but regular breaks allow you to relax, buy a few gifts and take photographs along the way.

Next Steps

Solange Hando travelled with Titan on the 18-day escorted tour across ‘Awe-Inspiring National Parks’ in Western USA. Find out more and book through Silver Travel Advisor on 0800 412 5678.

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Solange Hando

Award-winning travel writer & member of BGTW

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