As part of our continuing explorations of the American Southwest, we head to the natural wilderness and desert canyons of southern Utah. This region is a straightforward drive from Las Vegas and is home to some of the most remarkable scenery in North America. It's perfectly possible to get a taster of the area on a day trip from Sin City - and there are several companies offering such trips - but if you have access to a car we recommend taking two days or longer to appreciate the true diversity of the area...
Zion National Park
Plunging canyons, deep green forests, bright yellow cottonwood trees, cascading waterfalls and soaring pink sandstone cliffs draped with 'hanging gardens' of wildflowers: the sheer variety of terrain makes Zion one of the most awe-inspiring national parks in the USA.
The best base - both as a place to stay, and for explorations into the park - is the gateway town of Springdale just below the park's southern entrance and visitor centre. During peak season (April - October) shuttle buses run up and down the length of the park's centrepiece, Zion Canyon, making eight stops at various trailheads and landmarks on the way. The service is free (included in your park entrance fee) and you can jump on and off as often as you like. Outside of this period, you can drive your own vehicle.
Zion Canyon is the starting point for several short and longer walks of varying difficulty, making this the best option for daytrippers looking to get away from the roadside and into the wilderness. Even the shortest hike offers views that are simply overwhelming. We recommend the mostly flat two-mile round-trip Riverside Walk along the Virgin River to the mouth of the Narrows canyon; the lush and misty lower Emerald Pools trail which passes beneath two waterfalls, and the brief (half mile) but much steeper Weeping Rock, with its trickling streams of water drizzling onto hanging gardens of moss and fern. All of these can be extended into much longer and more challenging hikes for those with more time and stamina.
If you do have a car, continue east along the dizzying switchbacks of Zion Park Scenic Byway (Highway 9) as far as the Canyon Overlook trailhead, immediately after you emerge from the mile-long tunnel. This one-mile round-trip hike follows the ridge above Pine Creek and leads to one of Zion's most celestial views.
For further information on hiking, climbing, camping and other things to do in and around Zion NP, visit the Zion National Park website. The drive from Las Vegas to Springdale is around 2hrs 30mins, and you'll lose an hour as you cross from Pacific Time to Mountain Time at the Nevada/Utah state line.
Lake Powell and Page
Have more time? Continue to the Lake Powell region along Highway 89. This starkly beautiful drive skirts the Vermillion Cliffs of Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument - a colossal (we're talking 1.7 million acres) multi-hued sequence of terraced cliffs and canyons spanning eons of time. In about two hours, you'll reach the southern extremity of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Lake Powell, the man-made result of the flooding of Glen Canyon to build the Glen Canyon Dam in the early 1960s.
Long and wispy with dozens of canyon offshoots, Lake Powell stretches 186 miles from north to south. Although the vast majority of the lake sits within Utah, most recreational opportunities are centred around Wahweap Marina and the small town of Page, just over the border in Arizona. The area attracts more than two million visitors each year - an incredible number given the region's remoteness - and even with 1,800 miles of shoreline, more than the entire west coast of the USA, it can still be hard to find total solitude in peak season.
To sit and watch the sun go down as the shimmering lake fades from green-and-blue to orange-and-gold is to understand its allure in an instant. Despite being man-made, the rare combination of rugged sandstone plateau and life-giving water still seems like a mirage or a miracle, with the otherworldly light of the desert casting eerie reflections on the lake's surface. Depending on your preference for speed or serenity, the best way to experience all this is to get out on the water. Houseboat rentals are the most relaxing and require little effort; powerboats and waterskiing offer more of a thill. And you can't beat a kayak for venturing further into narrow side-arms than any motorised boat can reach.
Want something effortless? The best bet is a guided boat trip. The Rainbow Bridge tour covers some 50 miles of the lake and lasts about six hours, including a short hike to Rainbow Bridge National Monument - the largest known natural stone bridge in the world. The Antelope Canyon tour is a shorter but equally atmospheric journey through four miles of silent, twisty canyon, famous for its bottle green water and contrasting Navajo sandstone walls.
Other than Lake Powell itself, visiting the land-side of Antelope Canyon is one of the major reasons for a trip to Page. Located at Lake Powell Navajo Tribal Park on the Navajo Reservation, this much-photographed geological wonder is divided into Upper Antelope Canyon and Lower Antelope Canyon, with the former being accessible at ground level and the latter requiring some climbing along metal stairways and ladders.
The beams of sunlight that pierce the canyon's floor are more common in the Upper Canyon, but only visible between early spring and late summer when the sun is high in the sky. Photographing inside the canyon requires real skill (and definitely a tripod) due to low light levels and constantly moving crowds, but there are special photography tours if you're serious about getting good shots.
As the canyon is part of the Navajo Nation, all tours must be accompanied by an authorised guide. Led by Chief Tsosie and his guides, Antelope Slot Canyon Tours offer trips (including a 2hr 30min photography tour) at different times of day, to take advantage of the changing colours and light.
The other highlight of a trip to Page is the half-mile hike to the overlook above Horseshoe Bend, a u-shaped curve in the Colorado River about five miles south of the Glen Canyon Dam. Drive out of town on Highway 89 for about four miles, and you'll see a sign and car park on your right. The route is short, but the terrain is very sandy and rocky so wear decent walking shoes. There's also no railing or fencing of any description and it's a long way down - 1,000 feet to be precise. You'll need to get fairly close to the edge if you want to capture the full curve of the river in your photos (you'll also need a wide-angle lens) but bear in mind that this is sandstone, and therefore extremely fragile. Avoid any overhanging rocks and lie on your stomach for an extra sense of security!
Where to stay
Other than Zion Lodge - the only accommodation in the park itself - the town of Springdale is the obvious choice when visiting Zion National Park. Springdale is essentially one long street winding through the Virgin River valley, set against a mountain backdrop so stunning you'll be slack-jawed with wonder. Good quality hotels, motels, B&Bs and cabins are set back from the road, with galleries, coffee shops and bookstores housed in little wooden buildings alongside. Granted, this is a tourist town, but it has genuine character and a buzzy, small-town vibe. We stayed at Majestic View Lodge - an understatement of the highest degree - which has 69 large rooms all with balcony or private patio, a large restaurant, swimming pool, hot tub and its own wildlife museum. There's even a microbrewery in the basement. Doubles start from $79 and there's not a bad room in the house.
Despite being surrounded by some of the most remarkable scenery in the county, Page itself is not a particularly attractive town, though its location makes it the obvious choice for visiting Lake Powell and Antelope Canyon.
That said, a solid choice away from the fast-food joints and budget motels is the Lake Powell Resort, a large, modern property at Wahweap Marina six miles further north. The hotel sits among spacious grounds just above the waterfront, so be sure to ask for a west facing room for incredible sunset views. The accommodation wings are rather functional looking, but rooms are large, bright and comfortable with big balconies. And as the resort is managed by the park service, you can organise all your activities from here too. Doubles from $88.
Canyon Point desert
If you're looking for unadulterated luxury in a design and setting unlike anything else for hundreds of miles, one hotel in the area stands completely on its own - if you can find it. The modernist marvel that is Amangiri lies deep within 600 acres of pristine desert in Canyon Point, Utah, beneath towering wind-whipped rock formations and mesas. This extraordinary property just 25 minutes from Page blends almost invisibly into the surroundings, its clean lines and angles masterfully juxtaposed against the landscape in a way that appears utterly seamless.
Fanning out horizontally from the central pavilion are 34 enormous suites, all with cinematically-framed views and total privacy, though if you're feeling sociable the pavilion doubles up as restaurant, living room, library and gallery and you'll be encouraged to treat them all like home. Centre stage is the exceptional swimming pool which wraps around a natural rocky outcrop to a hot tub at the base of the rock wall, though it's the 25,000 square feet Aman Spa that exerts the biggest pull on weary post-hike bodies and desert-parched skin. This is surely the closest the desert gets to heaven, though it comes at a price. Double rooms start at $1,100 per night.
For more information on Zion National Park and Southern Utah visit the official tourist website at www.visitutah.com and for further details on the Page area, including Lake Powell and Antelope Canyon, visit www.visitpagearizona.com
Virgin Atlantic operates a daily flight to Las Vegas from London Gatwick.
Header photo of Zion National Park © snowpeak
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About the author: MaxineMaxine Sheppard
Maxine is the editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.