Scenic USA - Utah-Arizona
The Grand Circle
|Photos by Marty Straub, Rob Jones and Ben Prepelka
One of the largest clusters of national and state park sites are spread across the southern region of Utah, forming a large portion of the famous Grand Circle. When the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley and Mesa Verde are added into the circle, you have the ultimate Southwest vacation. The Grand Circle also surrounds over two million acres of a rugged and remote canyonlands, namely the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Glen Canyon Recreation Area. While it's is possible to see a few of the highlights in most of the major park sites in a week, it's is often recommended to plan for an extended stay of at least two weeks.
Because the grand tour takes in three states, sightseers may pick up the Circle in multiple places. Heading west on I-70 from either Denver or Grand Junction, Colorado, may offer a logical starting point. Just south of Cisco, Utah's Route 128 and the Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway create a great introduction to the Grand Circle. After arriving at Moab, travelers find everything here is on a grand scale, beginning with Grandview Point at the confluence of the Colorado and Green rivers. This is Canyonland National Park, Island in the Sky District, where countless landmarks have everyone wishing they had more time. Arches National Park is nearby, where over 2000 natural sandstone arches keep visitors in a state of awe.
Heading south on U.S. Route 191, travelers will pass a few roadside attractions on way to the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. After enjoying sights at several Needles overlooks, the Circle tour heads westward to Natural Bridges National Monument, passing the intriguing Valley of the Gods. Utah Route 95 leads to Hanksville, passing through the lower portions of San Rafael Swell and Goblin Valley State Park. The next national park on this grand byway tour is Capitol Reef. Its unusual name combines the natural landmark Capitol Dome and a 100-mile long ridge called a reef, the Waterpocket Fold. Pressed for time, hurried sightseers may have to forgo a wild ride down the Fold by way of Burr Trail Road, but other park attractions at historic Fruita may be just as rewarding.
Getting to Bryce Canyon National Park may be one of the most exciting sections of the Circle. Here visitors will drive through the Escalante Canyons and over a white-knuckle ride on the Hogback. This is as close to the most rugged territory of the Grand Staircase that you can see from the highway. Just ahead at Tropic, Bryce Canyon's fairyland of eerie hoodoos will leave a lasting impression on any sightseer, as nothing will compare to the beautiful colors of this large scale amphitheater.
After driving through Red Canyon, visitors will head to Zion National Park, the western most point of the Circle. Zion Canyon is perhaps one of the most popular stops on the Circle, second only to the Grand Canyon which lies just across the border in Arizona. Here at the Grand Canyon, Grand Circle travelers will agree that no photographs can truly capture the grandeur or magnificence of the Canyon. North Rim ... South Rim, only a few of the previous national parks in Utah will prepare for this incredible masterpiece of nature.
After a look at one of the world's greatest geological spectacles, many Grand Circle visitors may conclude their journey with a flight home out of nearby Las Vegas. Other luckier travelers may continue eastward to Monument Valley and Mesa Verde in Colorado.
The $80 National Parks Pass may be a bargain for this trip if you plan to stop at all the national parks in the Circle, which vary in price from $5 to $25 per vehicle. For seniors over 62, a lifetime National Parks Pass is just $10 and may be purchased at major park sites. Lodging at most cities and towns near the major parks will fill up fast during peak season. Either make reservations early in the day, rely on good luck or book in advance (requiring a great deal of pre-planning). During late September and early October, when the Southwest heat begins to diminish, lodging is a little easier to find and pleasant temps are a plus. Just over 1000 miles in length, there's no doubt this trip will live up to its name ... The Grand Circle!
Other Grand Circle Points of Interest
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