With a family across the Atlantic, Thanksgiving equals a travel weekend for me. After last year’s adventure to Big Bend, I met my travel buddy Carmen in Las Vegas this year. We quickly left Nevada behind to embark on a road trip through Arizona and Utah. What follows is an adventurous and packed 4-day itinerary through America’s Wild West.
Day 1: Grand Canyon National Park (AZ)
Our first night in Vegas was short and basic, with a more luxurious stay looming at the end of the trip. We set out for the Grand Canyon early on Thursday morning. Part of this road takes you past the iconic Route 66. In case you wouldn’t know, you’ll be kindly reminded by the dozens of signs and themed diners along the way.
Our trip was off to a great start when we walked into Rutherford’s family diner. We were starving when we got the heavenly question “Are you here for the free turkey dinner?”. Fifteen minutes later, we had a delicious, homestyle Thanksgiving dinner in front of us. Our Wild West road trip couldn’t have started more American.
Two hours later, we were standing at the rim of the Grand Canyon. We had to take the signs’ word for it, as the canyon was entirely covered in mist and rain. Luckily, El Tovar’s cosy cocktail lounge was waiting to give us shelter. Next to the big windows overlooking the canyon, we could spot a hint of blue sky at first sight.
A memorable sunset was rapidly approaching when the sky eventually cleared up. We took the Hermit Road Shuttle Bus to Mohave Point, walking back along the stunning Rim Trail to Hopi Point. The emerging sun shed the canyon in a beautiful light.
Thanks to the rainy afternoon, the crowds at Hopi Point were much smaller than usual. We would only come to realize how small the following morning at sunrise. Since our trip to Big Bend last year, we always make sure to keep some beers in the car. An incredible national park sunset just demands a toast. Our fingers freezing off was part of the deal.
Afterwards, we found ourselves back in El Tovar’s cocktail lounge. El Tovar is a legendary hotel and restaurant that has welcomed many famous guests, from Theodore Roosevelt to Paul McCartney. Every year, the restaurant hosts a renowned Thanksgiving dinner with no reservations and thus a bit of a wait. With its wooden walls and heartwarming cocktails, we could have waited all night in the cosy cocktail lounge.
On the menu were French classics, paired with a week-old Beaujolais. The rustic dining room with native American art scenes could have been the setting for Twin Peaks’ Great Northern Hotel.
The biggest challenge of the day still lay ahead. Our stay for the night was a tipi in the middle of nowhere, about 30 minutes outside of the park. Not only was the sky pitch black by now, it was also freezing outside – to be taken literally, with temperatures around -5 ºC. Thanks to our gracious AirBnb hosts, neither posed a problem. The road was well marked and the tipi stuffed with about ten sleeping bags.
Day 2: Grand Canyon, Antilope Canyon & Horseshoe Bend (AZ)
I would be lying if I said it was a comfortable night. Luckily, it was the perfect night to be uncomfortable: it made getting up at 5 AM much easier. We only had one chance to catch sunrise over the Grand Canyon and I wasn’t going to let it slip by. And so we found ourselves sitting in the car by 5:15, waiting for the windshield to defrost. Because of time constraints, we headed to Mather Point. Being one of the most accessible viewpoints, it also attracts the big crowds. Even the frost didn’t stop them, so be prepared to share or venture out deeper into the park.
After this breathtaking but freezing sunset, we were ready to hike ourselves warm. The Kaibab Rim Route Shuttle Bus dropped us off at South Kaibab Trailhead, the starting point for the namesake trail. If hiked until the Bright Angel Lodge campground, the trail is 14 miles two-way. We choose to hike the short but highly rewarding part to Cedar Ridge. The steep 1.5 mile descend comes with stunning 360º views of the Grand Canyon. Be prepared to “Ooh Aah” and feel like a tiny human in this mighty landscape.
I made it back to the trailhead in about two hours, from where we took the shuttle bus back to the visitor’s centre. After feeding my inner child by adding a national park Travel Stamp to my collection, we started driving east. The Desert View Drive leads to the east entrance of the park over a span of 22 miles, with several viewpoints along the way. The Desert View watchtower offers a final (or first) impressive overview of this natural wonder.
We had a rendez-vous with another Arizona treasure at 2:30 PM. Ever since it gained fame as a Windows wallpaper, Antilope Canyon is no longer a hidden treasure. The canyon can only be visited on a tour, booked through one of three main agencies. The tours sell out months in advance, especially for the prime viewing times. Around noon, the sun produces spectacular light beams in the canyon. The beams are only observable from March to October, but that didn’t make Thanksgiving weekend any less popular. I stalked the website of all three agencies for weeks until a spot finally opened up on Navajo Antelope Canyon.
What started as a relaxing drive out of the Grand Canyon, ended in a fast and the furious ride. I assumed our spot was guaranteed given the no-show fee, but nothing was less true. When I kindly advised the agency that we would arrive 43 instead of 45 minutes before the start of the tour, I was bluntly told that our spots would be passed on at exactly 1:45 PM. We had 15 minutes left to lose two on the road, and so we did. At exactly 1:45, we pulled up next to the trailer in a big dust cloud. I jumped out and ran to the front of the line, ignoring the vultures that were ready to take our spots. My face must have said it all, cause the cashier took my credit card without hesitation. Just minutes later, somebody started making a scene because they resold his partially paid tickets. That’s the beauty of a national park: shameless commercialization like this would never happen.
The tour covered Upper Antilope Canyon, made up of wavy red walls that are brought to life by sunlight. Our excellent tour guide gave us a personalized photography lesson, happily switching from iPhone settings to my Canon SLR camera. The Albanian want-to-be model that was desperately looking for a light beam definitely added to the experience.
By the time we finished our tour around 4 PM, another one was about to start. I seriously doubt they saw much, as the sun was rapidly setting. I wouldn’t recommend a tour after 2:30 PM in late fall. Even on our tour the light was no longer optimal, but the fun part was experimenting with my camera settings and finding good angles. Regardless of the date, time and crowds, Antilope Canyon is a unique and beautiful place.
We were catching the sunset at Horseshoe Bend, a rock formation shaped as such. Horseshoe Bend is freely accessible and hence extremely crowded. We found ourselves jostling for a spot where pictures didn’t include 25 extended selfie arms. The hordes of people took away part of the charm, but Horseshoe Bend remains a beauty.
After two hours on pitch-black roads, blindsided by high beam headlights while dodging deers, we arrived at what looked like an upscale sixties motel. The best part of the Best Western East Zion Thunderbird Lodge was the on site diner. Nothing beats burgers and beers in leggings.
Day 3: Bryce & Zion National Park (UT)
We picked this hotel for its convenient location between Bryce and Zion National Park. With only one day to discover both parks, we hit the road at the break of dawn. Luckily, Mr. Quaker thought of a solution for every type of morning.
My expectations of Bryce were far exceeded as soon as we stepped out of the car. Sunset Point offered a stunning introduction to the park’s famous hoodoos.
hoodoo: a natural column of rock in western North America often in fantastic form
We walked to Sunrise Point, where the popular Queen’s Garden Trail begins. The latter can be combined with the Navajo Loop Trail to end back at Sunset Point in a modest 2.5 miles. The hike brings you up close with famous hoodoos such as Queen Victoria and Thor’s Hammer.
If you choose to hike up along the Wall Street section of Navajo Loop, a set of steep and spectacular switchbacks awaits. The narrow slot closes during the winter months, but was still open during Thanksgiving weekend.
By the time we finished hiking, the tourist busses had arrived. After two near misses with a selfie stick, we drove off to Inspiration Point. This spot triggers many inspired yoga-pose pictures.
Getting close to our hoodoo saturation point, we said goodbye to Bryce Canyon National Park from Bryce viewpoint. Beautiful as it may be, half a day in Bryce Canyon was satisfactory.
By 2 PM, Bryce’s hoodoos had made way for Zion’s impressive cliffs. I was determined to hike the Observation Point Trail, not discouraged by the 4-6 hours indicated duration. Carmen happily opted out and dropped me at the Canyon Overlook shuttle bus stop. The Weeping Rock trailhead can only be reached by a ride on the educating shuttle bus. The trail winds up non stop for four miles to Observation Point, gaining 640 meters in elevation. On the way to the top, you rise above the famous Angel’s Landing trail.
Observation Point is better suited for the faint hearted, with a path that remains four feet wide at all time. I made it to the top in an hour and a half, well in time for sunset. The view is so incredibly impressive, I spent over an hour soaking it up.
The trail starts all the way down next to the river. Not a bad Saturday afternoon workout.
Surprisingly, the way down took me about as long as the way up. By now the sun was setting and bathing the valley in an extraordinary light, which asked for another picture around every corner. The pitch-black sky slowed me down on the second part of the hike. Although the fear of wild animals kept me going at a steady pace.
When I made it down, the shuttle bus was waiting to take me back to the visitor’s centre. On the three-hour drive that followed, we exchanged high cliffs for high rises.
After three days in nature, Las Vegas can be slightly overwhelming. That’s probably why we didn’t make it outside of the Paris Hotel Las Vegas the first night. We strolled the streets of Paris, had some sushi and called it a day with a glass of champagne in Montmartre.
Day 4: Las Vegas (NV)
One day was all we had to savor Las Vegas’ extravaganza. We soon learned that was all we needed and more. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Sunday started with mimosas. A bottomless mimosa fountain, right on the Vegas strip with a view of Bellagio’s famous fountains.
After brunch in Alexxa’s Bar, we moved up one story to the Paris Hotel’s beer garden. The beers are served with excellent views of the Strip.
We were easy targets for the Vegas hotel business. Almost 20 hours in Vegas and we still hadn’t left our hotel. The hotels are designed to keep you inside for days, providing everything from a variety of bars and restaurants to shops and even fake blue skies.
Time had come to go out and explore, as I wasn’t planning on returning to Vegas any time soon. We started at the south end of the Strip and walked our way back up. First stop was Vegas’ iconic “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign.
For a prime view of the Strip, we headed to the Foundation Room. Perched on the 63rd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel, it’s the number one spot to soak up Vegas’ neon craze.
Dinner was served with a side of slot machines in the New York, New York. Watching the same people push the button over and over again throughout our meal, took away all desire I had left to gamble.
We stayed in the New York atmosphere, with rooftop views and cocktails that break the bank. Just like the views, the cocktails are taken to the next level at Waldorf Astoria’s Skybar. The creative combinations are served with a splash of Vegas history.
Three states and three national parks later, we flew back to Texas. Vegas’ neon lights were hard to shake off, but it was the Wild West’s natural beauty that was seared into our brains.