The Grand Tour
Forming the National Park Service was easy. The hard part was making its remote Western treasures accessible to average Americans. That was a job Congress left to others. So who really built America’s great national parks? Here’s a hint: The job was jump-started on May 10, 1869 — at the “wedding of the rails” near Promontory, Utah, where Leland Stanford drove in the Golden Spike with a silver hammer to signal the railroad era.
In 1872, Northern Pacific (NP) Railroad paved the way by lobbying for the Yellowstone Park Act. Great Northern Railroad followed up with the development of Glacier National Park. Then came Santa Fe Railroad, building a 64-mile spur off its Arizona line in order to reach the Grand Canyon’s South Rim. But one major railroad came late to the party and outdid all the others. Union Pacific (UP), the railroad that had forged west from St. Joseph to the Golden Spike, developed what became the nation’s most popular national-park railroad tour.
In 1922, the UP presented a development plan to the National Park Service for a tour starting and ending in Cedar City, Utah. The tour would include Bryce Canyon, Zion, the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and Cedar Breaks National Monument. The UP would invest $5 million in roads and lodging, and would hire a remarkable architect, Gilbert Stanley Underwood, to build lodges for dining and relaxation, and deluxe cabins for overnight stays. A fleet of bright-yellow open-air buses would be purchased and hardy young drivers hired to take visitors through remote backroads and byways. Generous advertising would tell a Midwestern and Eastern public of the new national-park tours and the awaiting accommodations.
When Underwood’s lodges at Bryce and Zion opened in the summer of 1925, the response was enormous, and the label the UP gave its marketing miracle, “The Grand Tour,” stuck.
Paiute Indians believe Bryce Canyon was created by Coyote when he turned misbehaving “legend people” into pink pillars of stone. Ebeneezer Bryce, who was first to run cattle there, simply said it was “a hell of a place to lose a cow.”
But Bryce is not really a canyon; it’s a series of massive amphitheaters of fins and spires, pillars and castles, the largest of which is named Bryce Canyon. Each amphitheater freezes, thaws and is scalloped into Utah’s 9000-foot Paunsaugunt Plateau. At Bryce, you look down from the plateau’s rim, not up through canyon walls. Hoodoos, the park’s primary feature, are pinnacles, spires or just weirdly shaped rocks left standing by the forces of erosion.
At just more than 35,000 acres, Bryce is small and compact as Western parks go. As soon as it became a national park, the UP commissioned Underwood to begin construction of Bryce Canyon lodge, which had a main building for dining and socializing, and satellite cabins for sleeping. After a day spent sightseeing in UP’s eight-door yellow bus, guests relaxed and dined in Underwood’s rustic lodge, which was decked out with hickory furniture, native-log chandeliers and a large, stone-hearth fireplace, then retired to their cabins for the evening.
The 13 viewpoints along the park’s 38-mile (round-trip) scenic drive can be visited (if you’re in a hurry) in three hours. A voluntary shuttle system operates from two separate car parks, and ferries visitors to the park’s top viewpoints and trailheads.
For those with more time, Bryce Canyon is a day-hiking must. One word of caution, though: Don’t forget, as you jauntily descend from the rim, that what goes down must come up. The Paunsaugunt Plateau ranges from 7300 to 9100 feet in elevation, so take it easy and take your time. Watch for overexertion in kids and out-of-shape adults.
The park offers 60 miles of trails and 13 separate hikes, from easy half-mile rim strolls to the 8.5-mile Riggs Spring Loop. The Peek-a-boo Loop Trail into the Bryce Amphitheater is highly rated. For a special treat, plan your visit around the full moon and sign up (well in advance) for the ranger-led Moon Walk, a 1- to 2-mile hike into the canyon when moonlight makes the Bryce hoodoos even spookier. The park’s top-rated hike is the 5.5-mile Fairyland Trail, with a 1000-foot gain in elevation. The trail descends into Campbell Canyon and includes a side trail to Tower Arch.
Camping at Bryce Canyon’s two campgrounds (435/834-5322; nps.gov/brca) is strictly first-come, first-served. Be there by 10 a.m. or go elsewhere. The north campground, opposite the visitor’s center and close to the general store, is open year-round (107 sites in four loops — two for RVs and two for tents). The best hiking trails begin and end at Sunset Point, with Sunset Campground (101 sites — one loop for RVs, two for tents) being the closest to these trails.
CEDAR BREAKS TO ZION
Imagine a half-day, 130-mile drive where your elevation gain and loss is a roller coaster-like 11,000 feet. That’s exactly what you get if you make the trek from Bryce Canyon National Park to Zion National Park via Cedar Breaks National Monument. You descend on Highway 12 from the 9000-foot Paunsaugunt Plateau to the 7000-foot Sevier Valley and hamlets along U.S. 89, like Hatch. (Note to trout fishermen: Yes, the Sevier River and its tributary, Asay Creek, are as good as they look.) Then it’s a climb back up Highway 14 to the 10,000-foot Markagunt Plateau for a select choice of alternate Dixie National Forest campgrounds and the plateau’s gem, Cedar Breaks National Monument.
If Bryce Canyon or Zion are full — or too far out of the way for you — Cedar Breaks and Dixie’s Duck Creek and Navajo Lake campgrounds are wonderful alternatives. Cedar Breaks (also built by the UP Railroad) is a “mini Bryce” — a vast coliseum of salmon-pink hoodoos more than 2000 feet deep and 3 miles wide. The area is also home to the bristlecone pine, a scraggly, shrewish looking evergreen that precariously clings to rocky footholds at or near timberline, and which are judged by scientists to be the oldest living things on the planet.
Cedar Breaks (435/586-9451; nps.gov/cebr) has a cozy 30-site campground with water, restrooms, tables and grills. The Dixie National Forest’s (435/865-3700; fs.fed.us/dxnf) nearby Duck Creek offers 96 single-family units (water, toilets, table, fire-ring and trailer dump station). Navajo Lake is smaller with 17 single-family unit campsites (RVs to 24 feet) and 11 walk-in tent units.
Zion is “grandpa” to Utah’s five national parks. Inhabited for millennia by Native Americans, it was first seen by settlers in 1858, when Paiute Indians gave a tour to Nephi Johnson, who was seeking arable farmland for Brigham Young. Western explorer John Wesley Powell advocated protection for the region after he surveyed the area in 1872. In 1909, with a name suggested by Powell, the area was set aside as Mukuntuweap National Monument (Mukuntuweap is Paiute for “straight river”). In 1919 the monument became a national park with a name change more to Mormon liking: Zion — the Hebrew word for refuge.
Again, following UP guidelines, Underwood designed a lodge-and-cabin setting that blended into the natural environment, with spectacular views as close as the front lawn. Native sandstone from nearby quarries, and timber cut on the canyon rim and lowered by cable to the lodge construction site were primary building materials. Deluxe cabins offered wicker writing desks, stone fireplaces and the greatest of all luxuries — hot and cold running water.
In 1966, Underwood’s creation was destroyed by fire. Only the lodge’s massive stone fireplace was left standing; guest cabins away from the lodge were saved. In 1992, a remodeled lodge was built that features many of Underwood’s designs.
Of the UP’s Grand Tour parks, Zion is the most difficult to define. Where Bryce is delicate, Zion is massive, but not in the same way as the Grand Canyon. Zion is more like a red-rock Yosemite, with Yosemite’s wonders and Yosemite’s issues. Zion was carved by river action — in this case, the Virgin River is the primary sculptor. Zion is a large park of huge elevation change and great scenic variety — most that sadly goes unseen and unvisited. While annual visitation is high (Yosemite has 3.5 million visitors each year; Zion has 2.5 million), it is all concentrated in a small area, so a shuttle system is used to deal with peak-season traffic.
While the car ban may seem a hassle, Zion’s shuttles have been a gifted solution to burgeoning congestion. Fully accessible shuttle buses run in two loops from 6:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., as often as every six minutes. Each bus can carry two bicycles with room for packs, coolers and strollers (no pets). One loop makes nine stops at main canyon interest points; a second makes six stops in the town of Springdale.
Parking from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. is available at the visitor’s center, but savvy travelers will leave their vehicles at car parks in Springdale and ride the shuttle into the park. Either way, the newly remodeled visitor’s center — the start of the Zion Canyon shuttle loop — is a must. The exhibits and audio-visual presentations will help you plan your visit.
Most first-time Zion National Park (435/772-3256; nps.gov/zion) campers should head for Watchman (reservations required), Zion’s best campground. Watchman’s 170 well-spaced sites include electrical hookups, and the abundant number of trees on the site provide welcome summer shade. South Campground (180 sites) is first-come, first-served, and fills up by 11 a.m. Both campgrounds are close to Springdale, where all services are available.
Adventurous campers seeking real backcountry should try the tiny, six-site, first-come, first-served Lava Point (maximum RV size is 19 feet). Lava Point is accessible via a 22-mile drive on Kolob Road leaving State Route 9 from Virgin, or a 20-mile drive from the Kanara Mountain Road exit off I-15, just 8 miles south of Cedar City. It is a primitive (no water) campground with tables, pit toilets and fire-rings. High on the Kolob Plateau, Lava Point is just this side of 8000 feet high — more than 4000 feet higher than the warmer, main canyon campgrounds.
In its list of top hikes in the desert Southwest, onedayhikes.com ranks two Zion treks in its top 10. From pleasant, main canyon strolls to multiday expeditions, Zion is — as its Hebrew name implies — a magnificent refuge.
Unless wading is required (see Zion Narrows), plan on wearing sturdy footwear, a hat, sunscreen and sunglasses. Most importantly, carry water — a gallon per person per day is the desert standard. For beginners (or kids), any of the nine main-canyon hikes rated from easy to moderate can be completed in less than three hours. Adventurous day-hikers able to handle more strenuous conditions might choose from these Zion classics:
Kolob Arch — From the Book of Mormon for “next to the throne of God,” Kolob is in Zion’s northwest section, and is 17 miles south of Cedar City. Begin the hike to the arch at Lee’s Pass trailhead, which is 3.5 miles from the visitor’s center on the Kolob Canyons Road. The trail follows Timber and then La Verkin creeks, and ends at what is one of the world’s largest freestanding arches. It’s 14 miles round trip. Hot in the summer, the hike is best in the spring or fall.
Angel’s Landing — This superb, main-canyon hike begins at the Grotto picnic area. Only a 5-mile round trip with a view overlooking the main canyon, the hike is rated strenuous because of its 1500-foot elevation gain through numerous switchbacks along steep cliffs. The last half-mile is the steepest and scariest. The final hundred yards are equipped with chains to help hikers reach Angel’s Landing. The Narrows — This is Zion’s best and most famous hike. Wet, but wonderful, with no set trail and little elevation change, this family wading adventure swallows hikers into the canyon of the Virgin River. Only 20 feet wide in some places, it seems as if hikers can almost touch each 1500-foot-high wall with outstretched arms.
In years past, the only way to do the Narrows was to hike downstream from Chamberlain’s Ranch, a 10-hour hike requiring an overnight camp. Today, the Narrows is accessible by hiking upstream from the end of Riverside Walk. Thus, a Narrows trip can last for as long as you wish, from an hour to a day or even longer.
Be sure to check weather reports before entering the Narrows. Anyone who has witnessed a flash flood will know why.
The Arizona Strip, which is the chunk of land south of Utah and north of the Colorado River, is about the size of New Jersey. Cut off from the rest of Arizona by nothing less than the Grand Canyon, the strip has just one two-lane highway and has among the lowest population densities of the Lower 48. This physical isolation explains a remarkable fact about the Grand Canyon’s best rim.
Grand Canyon National Park (928/638-7888; nps.gov/grca) ranks second in national park visitation — only Great Smoky Mountains sees more annual visitors. Yet, of the roughly 4 million people who annually visit the Grand Canyon, less than one in 10 ever stands on the North Rim. Of the three parks in the Union Pacific’s Grand Tour, the Grand Canyon North Rim ranks last in annual visitation (330,000), with Zion at 2.5 million and Bryce Canyon at 1.5 million.
The original Grand Canyon Lodge was destroyed by fire. What Underwood built in 1937 in its stead is now a North Rim national historic landmark. Its rustic construction, limestone walls and timbered ceilings are at one with the North Rim’s peace and beauty. Staying true to the UP’s lodge-and-cabin concept, the Grand Canyon Lodge has a magnificent lobby and excellent dining, surrounded by more than 150 cabins.
From the Zion/Springdale area, the North Rim is about a two-and-a-half-hour drive. Take Highway 9 east to U.S. 89 and head south. At Kanab, take 89A south to Highway 67 and Jacob Lake in the Kaibab National Forest. From Jacob Lake, continue on 67 into Grand Canyon National Park.
The North Rim Campground (75 sites, no RV hookups) opens in mid-May and closes in October. Reservations can be made up to five months in advance (800/365-2267; reservations.nps.gov). Two nearby forest-service campgrounds are outside of the park — DeMotte Park Campground (23 sites) and Jacob Lake Campground (53 sites). In the remote Kaibab, you can also pull off the road and camp anywhere more than one-quarter mile from a road or a water source.
Like tiny Lava Point on Zion’s remote Kolob, the Grand Canyon North Rim has its special place, too — an area known as Toroweap. Take the Sunshine Route (BLM road number 109), leaving Highway 389 just west of Fredonia. Travel 61 miles along the graded, sometimes dusty, secondary road to reach the first-come, first-served, 11-unit, primitive campground at Toroweap (tables, grills, pit toilets, no water). Then relax and enjoy one of the Grand Canyon’s best treats — a sheer, 3000-foot drop to the Colorado River below where the world-famous Lava Falls Rapid can be easily seen and heard.
There are nine well-maintained North Rim trails. Most are relatively easy rim walks or day-hikes. The North Kaibab Trail — not a day-hike — is the only maintained trail into the canyon from the North Rim. Kaibab is 14 miles from trailhead to its terminus at Bright Angel Campground and the Colorado River — and is definitely not for the faint of heart.
A LEGACY REMAINS
The creation of the interstate highway system that crisscrosses America ended the golden age of railroads and their national park promotions. The legacy Union Pacific built lives on in its museum in Council Bluffs, Iowa (visiting hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday), and the sense of awe and wonder that people experience when visiting these national parks remains as potent as ever. Today, visitors arrive in the parks driving automobiles and RVs, and for those who have done it, there is no doubt the UP was right — this is the Grand Tour.