Travel

Into the wild: road tripping through America's national parks

America has just 63 officially designated national parks but more than 20 different types of protected sites, including historic battlegrounds, parkways, reserves and lakefronts.

Citro writer Margaret McKay travelled across north-western America’s national parks in a rented car to take in the majestic canyons of Zion National Park, surreal landscapes of Bryce Canyon and Yellowstone and beyond, encountering wildlife, jewels and ancient dwellings.

By Margaret McKay  

“We were excited to start our road trip to the USA’s north-west national parks. We head out from Las Vegas after staying a few days with friends in their beautiful home on the outskirts of the city, smack bang in the Nevada desert.

Despite the scorching dry heat and mini dust devils, we say our goodbyes and set off in our rented SUV, noting the odometer reading. 

It’s late September, and we have 4 weeks to achieve so much. It’s also active bear time when they’re stuffing themselves in preparation for winter hibernation. There will be no camping under the stars for us. 

Beware of the bear- these signs warn visitors of how ward off bear attacks. While it's unlikely, it's still good to know

Zion National Park –– Our first Utah destination is a 24-kilometre long, 800m-deep gorge, carved out over millions of years by the Virgin River. Rising from the canyon floor, the rugged Navajo sandstone and quartz walls carry stunning patterns and colours.

In contrast, the lush green canyon floor is practically moving with small rock squirrels, each stopping to give us the once over, twitch its whiskers, and then hurry along.

Zion National Park offers a variety of hiking trails, ranging from easy walks to strenuous off-the-beaten-track adventures.

Bryce Canyon –– Two hours later we arrive at the extraordinary Bryce Canyon. At 2700m above sea level, the air is thinner than we’re used to, we’re puffing as we walk.

The landscape stretching before us also takes our breath away – a vast amphitheatre of giant rock statues (hoodoos) formed by erosion. Nature’s ridiculously incredible artistry has painted the hoodoos vibrant red and orange, with here and there a white column for perfect contrast.

Bryce Canyon has the largest collection of Hoodoos on earth

The Grand Teton National Park Wyoming is next on our itinerary. The word extraordinary is becoming rather overused as every corner turned presents picture perfect majestic snow-capped jagged peaks and autumn splendour mirrored in alpine lakes.

The Grand Tetons rose after a series of seismic disasters (earthquakes) spanning over 13 million years

The moose, elk, deer, and grizzly bears are plentiful and seem oblivious to the glorious scenes before them.

Moose are the largest of the deer species. They can stand up to 7 feet tall and weigh over 700kg

Yellowstone, a UNESCO site, straddles 3 states: Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. Famous for its geysers, hot springs, mud pots, fumaroles, and a massive and active volcanic crater (caldera), and of course, Old Faithful, a geyser spouting water high into the air every 35 to 120 minutes.

I know from my childhood that Yogi Bear loves Yellowstone, as clearly do his many furry friends, a herd of around 5000 massive bison. 

Yellowstone is the only place where bison have lived since prehistoric times

As though on cue, flurries of snow smack our windscreen as we approach Glacier National Park in Montana. Only 25 active glaciers remain of the 150 first recorded. We see mountain goats, bighorn sheep, moose and elk, but the famous wolves and lynx are in hiding, perhaps watching us from a discreet distance. We depart as the most amazing sunset paints the sky.  

Mountain goats are the official symbol of the park due to their prevalence and perseverance in the area

The Black Hills National Forest and Badlands has long been on my bucket list, in particular, Little Big Horn, where the Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho fought to retain their way of life, and where Custer made his famous last stand. Respect and sadness overwhelm me as I gaze upon the gravesites bearing such familiar names as Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.

The Battle of the Little Bighorn, (June 25, 1876) between federal troops and Northern Plains Indians

Leave we must, as we’re also bound for Mount Rushmore, to see the heads of Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln carved into the mountain. Although an incredible feat of sculpture, my heart and head are still back at our last stop.

Mount Rushmore was originally created as a way to attract visitors to the state. It worked-about 3 million tourists visit every year

 Travelling south-west, we stop at Cheyanne before making our planned overnight at Fort Collins, north of Denver, Colorado. Tomorrow will find us in cowboy country. 

Arches National Park (Utah), Canyonlands National Park (Utah), Mesa Verde National Park (Colorado), and Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park (Arizona), are within a 500km range. We stay at Moab the first night, and plan on Mexican Hat for our next overnight.

All these areas carry some similarities with their iron oxide rich sandstone arches, pinnacles, balancing rocks, canyons, mesas, buttes, and roadside traders selling stunning turquoise jewellery and artifacts. It is the landscape through which the good cowboys chased the baddies in our childhood movies.

Turquoise jewellery and artifacts vendors roadside.

The ancient Pueblos (550 to1200s) created intricate dwellings within the crevices and cliffs of Mesa Verde, with some of the relics still visible.

Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde’s largest cliff dwelling (NPS/Sandy Groves)

The south rim of the Grand Canyon is our final national parks destination. Measuring 445 kilometres long, up to 29 kilometres wide, and over a kilometre deep, it’s one of the biggest canyons in the world, only possible to take in completely from a rocketship about 35 kilometres above the Earth.

 

The Grand Canyon has its own weather- temperatures vary significantly throughout due to changing altitudes and precipitation.

Finally, we’re at LAX returning our hire car – total distance travelled was just over 7000km.

We’ve met thoroughly friendly and often unique people. Old and young cowboys standing side-by-side with proud first nations people … a scene I find utterly moving.

Next stop: our home among the gumtrees.

Citro travel tip

Most US national parks have lodges you can stay in, that put you right in the heart of the action. Pack light but also practical gear like headlamps (which are lighter than torches), a comfortable backpack for hiking and perhaps some binoculars to take in the expansive views.

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