When I hear the phrase gone ’til November, I think of the song in Wyclef Jean’s The Carnival. I love this album. My friends and I played it on repeat in our freshman year of college, and it’s a reminder of my late friend Aki, who used to sing the lyrics while dancing and bouncing around in my dorm room. I haven’t listened to it in a long time, but it still represents those crazy and beautiful years, and my first real experiences with freedom and independence.
I was away for most of October, first for work — at the Automattic annual grand meetup in Park City, Utah — and then on a two-week road trip with Nick through Utah and Arizona. I’ve traveled so much around the world in the past two decades. This trip has easily become my favorite.
I’m gone ’til November. I said this in my head, over and over, while driving on the road: zooming down an empty two-lane highway surrounded by massive red rocks and a landscape so surreal, so alien, that I repeatedly asked myself where I was.
I felt free for the first time in a while, genuinely excited about what I’d see around the next bend of the road, not able to think about anything else but what was in front of me.
It felt like a proper vacation.
I based our trip on this Visit Utah itinerary, with some adjustments and additions. Initially, I was unsure of the pace and thought I packed too much in two weeks, but looking back, I wouldn’t have changed anything. Ideally, I’d have added one or two days in Arizona, since we decided last-minute to skip the Grand Canyon.
A number of people I know explored many of these spots this year, and from what I’ve heard about the crowds and weather, our fall visit seems well-timed. The weather was bearable, with a mix of hot and sunny days, occasional overcast afternoons, and a few big storms. I loved seeing Utah’s landscape transform under a wet and volatile sky, but I also enjoyed feeling the desert sun. As expected, there were more visitors at Bryce and Zion National Parks, but overall, the parks, towns, and roads weren’t crowded. The busiest and most tourist-trekked part of the trip was at the end, in Sedona. I can imagine how miserable it gets in these places during the summer or school breaks, so I’m happy our time was smooth and pleasant.
Prelude: Park City, Utah
I’ve been to Park City twice, both times for work. I haven’t explored much of the area, but from strolling Main Street in the off-season, I can imagine how this place comes alive, especially in the winter and during Sundance. I’ve spent most of the time at the Canyons Resort with fellow Automatticians, working on projects, meeting colleagues I’ve not met in person, and spending time with some of the most talented, inspiring people in the world.
By next year, our company will have outgrown this resort, so it’s unlikely I’ll return to Park City in the fall, but I’m grateful for my time there, which introduced me to Utah. This road trip wouldn’t have happened otherwise.
Day 1: Arches National Park, Utah
Playlist selection: Greg Gaffin, Cold as the Clay
On Day 1 of our road trip, I took a shuttle from Park City to downtown Salt Lake City, and met Nick at a Hertz location at the Marriott, where we set off with our rental car, a silver Yaris. He hadn’t slept well, while I was running on a few hours of sleep after our company’s closing party the night before, so the first hours were rough. But once we passed through Provo, zoomed further away from civilization, and entered a beautiful rocky landscape, our sluggishness was replaced by excitement.
Several hours and 230 miles later, we reached our first official stop: Arches National Park, which is five miles north of Moab. The park has over 2,000 arches — the densest concentration of natural stone arches in the world.
This was our first real brush with Utah, and we were in awe.
Moab was our base for the first two nights. If you pass through it, I recommend the cottages at Three Dogs and a Moose, a block from downtown Moab’s main street. We stayed in Kenzie’s Cottage (fit for tiny house owners like us, I suppose!). The bedroom is tight, but the bathroom — the rainfall showerhead in particular — is quite luxurious.
Playlist selection: Garbage, Garbage
According to a legend, cowboys chased horses to Dead Horse Point, which acted as a natural corral. They then chose the horses they wanted and let the others go free; over time, some horses were left to die. The panoramic view, partially shown below, overlooks a bend in the Colorado River, as well as nearby Canyonlands National Park.
We spent the first part of Day 2 here, hiking a fairly flat trail along the rim from the visitor’s center to this famous viewpoint.
Canyonlands, about 40 minutes from Moab, is so surreal. As you view various canyons, carved over time by mighty rivers, you ask yourself: are we still on earth? After exploring Dead Horse Point State Park, we continued on to Canyonlands’ Island in the Sky district, where we stopped along numerous viewpoints. We arrived as a huge storm hit, and saw some of the canyons in a very different light (the Green River Overlook, pictured below, looked like a landscape from Mordor).
Canyonlands was one of my favorite parks because of its extraordinary landscapes, yet it also felt out of my reach — we didn’t physically trek into the canyons, nor did we have time to camp inside the park. I’d love to return and spend more time here.
Day 3: Monument Valley, Utah
We said goodbye to Moab and set off for Monument Valley, 146 miles south. When I was planning the trip, I almost cut Monument Valley from the itinerary, as it’s a bit out of the way for a single night.
But we couldn’t miss these views:
I’m glad we made our way down here. We explored the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park with a local guide, David, on a long and informative tour, and visited various mesas and buttes, restricted trails, several traditional hogans, and a village. It’s a beautiful, eerie, but also sad place. Nick was rather emotional during our stay, and I hope he has a chance to write about it.
The route from Monument Valley to Natural Bridges National Monument is a bit precarious — you drive up a steep, winding dirt road up a mountain. As with many of the roads we encountered, there was no barrier between us and the cliff.
Our visit to Natural Bridges was relatively quick: we viewed two of the natural bridges — Kachina and Sipapu — from viewpoints along the park’s scenic drive, and then hiked down to the third bridge, Owachomo, which is the smallest and thinnest of the three.
Playlist selection: The Mars Volta, Deloused in the Comatorium
After our pitstop at Natural Bridges, we moved on to Capitol Reef, which is unlike the other parks we visited: more green and lush, covered in a variety of colors and full of orchards (planted by Mormon pioneers in the 1800s). The park is defined by the Waterpocket Fold, a step-like fold in the rock’s layers. We hiked the first few miles of the Fremont River Trail, which had lovely views of the park.
After our visit to Capitol Reef, we stayed in a room above the Chuckwagon General Store in Torrey, a small town near the park. On the morning of Day 5, we set off on Scenic Byway 12, through the towns of Boulder and Escalante, to Bryce Canyon National Park, home of the largest concentration of hoodoos (tall, skinny rock spires) in the world.
We hiked the three-and-a-half mile Navajo Loop and Queen’s Garden trail, beginning at Sunrise Point and ending at Sunset Point.
Spectacular. Jaw-dropping. Incredible. These are meaningless superlatives. There are no words.
Days 6-7: Zion National Park, Utah
Playlist selection: Mohsen Namjoo, Toranj
We were able to slow down a bit in Zion. We reserved a campsite at Watchman Campground for two nights, so we had time for several hikes. Being in and around flowing water was also a nice change from the previous parks. When we arrived, we went straight into Zion Canyon, to the Temple of Sinawava, to hike the Narrows. The following day, we hiked the Emerald Pools, Kayenta, and Grotto trails in the morning, and the riverside trail from Canyon Junction to the visitor center in the afternoon.
The Emerald Pools were underwhelming (in late October, they certainly aren’t emerald), but the hike itself is varied, while the Kayenta trail that rises above the Virgin River has an awesome view of it curving through the canyon. I’d love to return to Zion to go deeper into the Narrows — we arrived in the afternoon, and only hiked in for a few hours before we turned around to hike out.
Day 8: Horseshoe Bend, Arizona
Playlist selection: Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, Storytellers
After Zion, we said goodbye to Utah and followed route 89 to Page, Arizona, which was our base to explore Horseshoe Bend, Antelope Canyon, and the Colorado River for the next two days. Many of the small motels in Page were booked, but I found a spacious suite on 8th Avenue (known as the “Street of Little Motels”).
Horseshoe Bend is a few miles outside of Page and is exactly what you expect it to be: stunning. It was created by layers of Navajo sandstone, eroded by water over millions of years. One-thousand feet below, the Colorado River bends 270 degrees.
These famous slot canyons are about a 10-minute drive from Horseshoe Bend. There are a number of tours, and we went with Dixie Ellis, as recommended by Karen, a colleague. Photographers with proper cameras and tripods can take a slightly longer photography tour of the canyon; Nick and I don’t have fancy cameras, so we went on a regular tour, which lasted a bit over an hour and was more than decent. There were less than a dozen of us, and the other tour behind us kept their distance, so the experience was lovely and not anything like I’ve read it could be, especially during peak season.
No photograph of mine could capture the beauty of this place.
On our second day in Page, we booked a half-day rafting trip on the Colorado River through Colorado River Discovery. It’s a smooth journey on a motorized pontoon raft that begins at the Glen Canyon Dam and glides eight miles on the river to Horseshoe Bend. (You get a reverse perspective of Horseshoe Bend while on the raft, gazing 1,000 feet up as the people at the viewpoint look down.)
Days 10-11: Sedona, Arizona
Playlist selection: PJ Harvey; Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea
From Page, we continued south on 89 to Sedona, our final destination. Originally, we planned to visit the Grand Canyon on the way to Sedona, but the hour-plus detour west from the highway didn’t make sense since we wouldn’t be able to do a proper hike anyway. On one hand, it feels silly to drive through the area and not go to the Grand Canyon, but on the other, it felt wrong, even disrespectful, to rush it.
Ending in Sedona completed the journey nicely — it was wetter there than other stops on our trip, and the fertile forest ground of Oak Creek Canyon, where we hiked and stayed, offered a nice balance to the dry, rocky landscape of much of Utah. We stayed in Wild Rose, an adorable chalet cabin at The Canyon Wren, six miles from uptown Sedona and very close to Slide Rock State Park.
We slid down the 80-foot slippery rock chute at Slide Rock; hiked the gorgeous West Fork trail (with numerous creek crossings) in Coconino National Forest; went off-roading on the Broken Arrow Trail with Pink Jeep Tours during a storm; and hiked around Bell Rock in search of the vortex.
Day 12: To SFO, via Phoenix
Playlist selection: Blue Motion, Unquote, and Mr Sizef; Covered By the Dust
On the way from Sedona to Phoenix, we planned to stop at Arcosanti, an experimental town, but the tires of our beloved Yaris didn’t like the dirt road, so we turned around, just to be safe. I’m not even sure what we missed there, but I hope to return in the future.
I loved every moment of this trip, and I can’t believe it took me this long to visit this part of the US. Nick and I are convinced, more than ever, that we need to hit the road full-time to explore North America’s national parks. In a teardrop trailer, of course.
Photographs taken with a Canon G11 or iPhone 5s. More images on Instagram, if you’re interested.