From the towering peaks of Zion National Park to the dusty caverns of Antelope Canyon, find out what makes the wild west truly untamed.
Fiery red-stone cliffs, dramatic valleys, canyon lands that stretch as far as the eye can see: driving the American Southwest is an adventure straight off the Hollywood movie screen. The region’s distinct topography has long been the backdrop for famed movies like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Beyond the glitz and glam, wide open roads through southern Utah and northern Arizona lead to some of the country’s most iconic sites like Zion National Park, Horseshoe Bend, and Antelope Canyon. Fall is the most auspicious season to visit the region as crowds dissipate and the blistering summer heat gives way to cooler autumnal conditions. So lace up your hiking boots, hop behind the wheel, and get ready to navigate the Wild West.
St. George & Beyond
Kicking off a westward journey along America’s Sun Belt, St George is the first sign of civilization you’ll encounter when coming from Nevada.
Also, known as Utah’s Dixie, this southwestern darling is also a Mecca for regional outdoor adventure. Here along Interstate 15, the Mojave Desert, the Colorado Plateau, and the Great Basin converge creating a trifecta of colourful and arid environments. Mountain biking trails with eclectic names like Gooseberry Mesa and Barrel Roll abound as do swatches of wide open space for riding ATVs like Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park.
The area’s other-worldly landscape may feel like Martian terrain, until you stumble upon St George’s historic centre punctuated by quaint antique shops, storefronts selling Navajo artistry, and all-American diners.
Veering north, a short detour to Snow Canyon State Park guarantees sweeping vistas featuring an eye-catching palette of red mountains and white hills that clash with black lava. It’s the ideal setting to practise your landscape photography skills before hopping back into the car and continuing west.
Zion: Utah’s Original National Park
Cruising along State Route 9, you’ll spot popular watering holes like Quail Creek State Park and Sand Hollow State Park. Press onward through canyon country until you reach Zion National Park: Utah’s first official National Park. At the entrance, you’ll pick up a recreational use pass that’s valid for 7 days. Parking beyond the entry is limited, but the free shuttle from the adjacent Springdale brings an element of ease to its accessibility.
Once inside, if marvelling at Zion’s vast wonders from below doesn’t leave you breathless, one of its most popular hikes — Observation Point Trail — will surely take your breath away, for many reasons. The strenuous 8-mile climb scales some steep and rugged terrain that’ll have you pausing to “look at the view” while you give your pumping heart and burning calves a rest. The feat might be taxing, but a birds-eye-view of the dramatic Echo Canyon awaits those who endure the full ascent. Plus, it’s not nearly as challenging as Angels Landing: it boasts sections of chain-assisted rock scrambling along sheer cliff edges.
After a day of exploring the park, when it’s time to turn in for the night, head to Under Canvas Zion for an evening of glamorous camping under the stars. The glamping destination’s 196-acres border Zion National Park, so you can tuck yourself into one of its luxurious canvas tents and wake up to see the sunrise over the mountains. It’s the ideal setting for kicking back beside the firepit, roasting marshmallows, and making a S’more.
Sleeping in the wilderness doesn’t mean forgoing your creature comforts, though. The tents are outfitted with king-sized beds, plush linens, and hot showers. The show-stopper? The Stargazer tent, which features a viewing window above the bed, so you can watch the galaxy as you drift off to sleep. Just don’t forget to swing by the on-site restaurant and bar Embers for a nightcap.
Onward to Arizona
After breakfast, continue west along the highways that weave between Utah and Arizona. The lengthiest stint of the drive passes through arid, flat territory, but the marvels that await are worth the trek. Besides, long drives to reach storybook sites are characteristic of this part of the country.
While passing popular swimming and boating destination Lake Powell, you might feel tempted to cool off with an afternoon dip in the nation’s second largest manmade lake. It’s monicker bears the name of explorer and Civil War veteran John Wesley Powell, who led a wooden boat excursion through the Grand Canyon.
Otherwise, head straight for Horseshoe Bend. The iconic landmark was formed over millions of years by an encircling swath of the Colorado River that eroded the sandstone to its current state as an entrenched meander. Steer clear of the edge: the rim plunges 1,000 feet to the river below.
Just beyond Horseshoe Bend, you’ll come to Antelope Canyon. The secret about the glowing amber slot canyon has surely gotten out, but that doesn’t make witnessing the spiralling walls and vibrant sunbeams any less magical.
By the end of the day, it’s time to cross back over the Utah border and settle in at Amangiri: an opulent oasis in Canyon Point. At the five-star resort, minimalistic suites invoke neutral desert tones and offer uninhibited views of the dunes, plateaus, and mesas. Taking in the serenity is best enjoyed on your individual roof terrace or private plunge pool.
For adventure-inclined visitors, Amangiri can organize excursions like early-morning air balloon rides, kayaking Lake Powell, and horseback ride on the wild frontier. On-site, the yoga pavilion features views of the mesa, and its full moon yoga class is taught outside under the light of the moon.
For those looking to unwind and explore the healing traditions of the Navajo, Amangiri offers a sumptuous spa menu and a water pavilion outfitted with a sauna, steam room, and cold plunge pool, not to mention a pool with desert views.
Don’t get too comfortable. As early pioneers of America’s Wild West found, just when you think you’ve traversed the entirety of this dazzling landscape, there’s still more to explore. Or at least that’s how the west was won. ◼
© This article was first published in Oct-Nov 2019 edition of World Travel Magazine.