Guest blogger Tony Herbert embarks upon the final leg of his tailor made American road trip, visiting the vast Bryce Canyon and the russet red sandstone landscapes of Zion, Utah.
The last leg
We're on the final leg of what has been an almost unreal experience, and this morning, we open the door to the sound of the rushing rapids of the Colorado River and the view of the red cliffs looming dramatically above. I'm sad to leave, but we are setting off on our way to one of our final destinations, Bryce Canyon.
On the drive, the desolate countryside begins to give way after a village called Hanksville, and we begin to find ourselves surrounded by dramatically different scenery. Forests of cottonwood trees emerge as we enter the valley of the Fremont River. The trees have a golden glow that contrasts vividly against the russet red of the cliffs. There's much more variety in the colours of the landscape, too: often, the cliffs are a deep terracotta red, with layers of white and cherry beneath, but now, they're interspersed by gloomy valleys of dark black rock.
In pursuit of lunch, we drive over the substantial Boulder Mountain. This incline is a complete surprise, as US road maps don't do contours (though neither do ours, I suppose). We climb on a winding road to over 11,000 feet - higher than most Alpine ski resorts - and enjoy magnificent panoramic views.
When we reach Boulder, we head to Hell's Backbone Grill, which is a real discovery. It's a restaurant in a beautiful cabin and is run by a couple who are a mixture of Mormon and Buddhist (I'm not exactly sure how this works). The food has been rated by all sorts of magazines and Zagat, and we bought the T-shirt and - I'm afraid - the cap to remember it by.
On the road again, we start on a mildly terrifying road that runs along a rocky spine with deep drops on either side. It's called either the Hogsback Ridge or the Devil's Backbone. Either seems appropriate.
Later, we arrive at the Bryce Canyon Lodge, the only hotel in the park itself. It still has a rustic charm, with the all-pervading smell of the log fire burning away in the lobby. Dinner operates in an old-fashioned, no-nonsense way and is controlled by a small bald man with thin-rimmed spectacles and a neat moustache who hands you a pager and tells you firmly that there'll probably be a 30 minute wait. His estimates, fortunately, are pessimistic, but what you can't do is wait in the bar. Mormon tradition is observed by lack of a bar - drinks are only served with food, and even then, it's only wine or beer - no naughty spirits.
Bryce Canyon is not actually a canyon at all: it's the edge of a vast plateau, created many millions of years ago. It's been eroding gradually ever since, forming the bizarre structures known as 'hoodoos' that Bryce is famous for. One ranger quipped that it should really be called Bryce Eroding Plateau National Park, but admitted that it lacked a certain oomph and pizzazz. The sheer size of it all makes it even more impressive than anything imaginable.
Zion, unlike Bryce, is actually a real canyon, carved out of red sandstone by the Virgin River. We've already seen the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Arches, Bryce. So what does Zion add? It's different again: cliffs and rocks tower above us like vast walls, eroded into mountains of smooth red rock. Much of it is so narrow it's suitable only for hikers.
A lot of fellow travellers we came across were doing much the same tour, but in the reverse direction. Maybe the plan was to leave the best till last, with the Grand Canyon as the grand finale?
Initially, I thought their approach might be better. 'Won't the other places seem like a series of anti-climaxes?' I asked myself. But they don't. Each is amazing in it's own way - so I think Olga, our Original Travel consultant, got it just right.
Read all of guest blogger Tony Herbert's blog series on his tailor made American road trip:
Arches National Park
The Grand Canyon
His trip was arranged by OT consultant Olga.
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