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Visit Utah - Itinerary For First Time Visitors - Bryce Canyon (western Utah) - Zion Canyon National Park - Bryce Canyon National Park

 

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Indescribable Utah: Nature’s Munificent Masterpiece

I live in Brussels, Belgium; however, I am a native of California. It used to be fun to watch the reaction of people here when I told them this. Their eyes would almost glaze over and they would sigh, “If I ever visit the United States, it will have to be California.” It used to be fun to watch this reaction. It isn’t any more, because I now feel like a traitor to my heritage. “If you ever visit the United States,” I now say, "there is better than California.”

Certainly, Joshua Tree, King’s Canyon, Sequoia, Yosemite and other natural splendors in California are well worth seeing. And Los Angeles (my hometown), San Diego, San Francisco, and Sacramento are exciting cities. However, what you will see in Utah will literally blow your mind.

Utah? Yes, Utah. Plus a little bit of Arizona and Nevada. But principally Utah. I didn’t come to this conclusion lightly. I was led to it several years by a Belgian friend who had recently returned from a vacation in the U.S. and was showing me his photos, particularly of Bryce Canyon (western Utah). They were blindingly beautiful. With a smile of knowing superiority, I chuckled a bit and said, “Look, I know something about photography. I know how such pictures can be arranged.” “I didn’t arrange them,” he replied. “In Bryce Canyon, all you have to do is close your eyes, point your camera anywhere. And this is what you get!”

I took him up on the challenge. A few months later, I went to visit family in Las Vegas, then rented a car and headed north into Utah. First stop after driving through the barren Nevada desert was Zion Canyon National Park. Exceedingly green, even exceedingly beautiful, but not exactly what I would call spectacular. Two hours further on, I saw Bryce Canyon National Park and simply didn’t believe my eyes. “This just can’t be!” I gasped. I spent the whole day exploring the place, still gasping and still not believing my eyes.

I have now seen Bryce Canyon seven times, and always with the same unalloyed amazement. I admit to having a particular weakness for the park’s indescribably tangerine-orange symphonies in stone, thousands of them—literally. But my reaction to Arches, Canyonlands, Capital Reef, and Natural Bridges national parks, all in Utah, come reasonably close.

If there is truly an enchanted land anywhere on earth, Utah must be it.

Now knowing the region reasonably well, I would like to propose an easy itinerary for first-time visitors, with some personal tips you probably won’t find in guidebooks. This will not be a fixed itinerary, except for the first few stops. Everyone has different interests, and time and money to spend on them. So beyond the absolutely key things to see and do, you will be on your own.

How to Win In Las Vegas

  • Start your vacation in Las Vegas. If you have never been there before, it is well worth seeing. If you have been there before, you will probably want to see it again, because it is constantly changing. Since it has become such a popular tourist attraction (just under 40 million visitors a year), Las Vegas is no longer the unbelievably cheap oasis it used to be. However, it is still very good value.

  • Plan to arrive on a weekday (Monday - Thursday). On the weekend, hotel prices can zoom to double and often triple what they are during the week (Friday, Saturday, and for some hotels, Sunday).

  • You can take full advantage at any time (weekdays and weekends) of LV’s lavish buffets for practically nothing. The different hotels ferociously compete with each other to put on the best possible spreads at the lowest possible prices. Why? The theory is, when you come into a hotel to eat, whatever they may lose by lavishly feeding you, they will more than recuperate by what you drop in the casino.

  • Avoid the trap. Enjoy the bargain in the buffet and keep you hands in your pockets as you pass through the casino. In most hotels, they only way to get to the buffet is through the casino, specifically to tempt you!

  • If you are going to gamble and think you can win, play poker. Avoid black jack, roulette, baccarat, and certainly the one-armed bandits (slot machines).

What’s the difference? When you play poker, you are pitting your skill only against the others at the table. If you are sufficiently good, you can walk away with a bundle; the casino simply rents the space and couldn’t care less who wins and loses. However, if you play any these other games, you are playing “against the house”. The casino cares very much who wins and loses, you or them. So they fix things so that the loser will always be you. Always. Don’t believe it? There is no secret about it. Virtually every casino has signs shouting something like “We give you the best odds in town: 98%!” This is LV code that means ”For every 98 times you win, we win 100 times.”

Saying that the games are fixed doesn’t mean that the dice on the craps table are loaded or that the croupier has a secret button to control the spinning of the roulette wheel. It’s the rules that are fixed. In black jack, for example, the dealer first distributes two cards to each player, including himself. Anyone whose cards add up to 21 automatically wins; otherwise the winner is the person (or persons) who come closest to the magic number 21 without going over it. Imagine that your first two cards add up to 14, so you ask for another card. It is a 10, bringing your total to 24. You have gone over 21 (you have gone bust), so the dealer collects your bet. The dealer is always the last to play. Suppose he also goes bust. What happens? Nothing. He still keeps your bet. So even though the dealer loses, the casino still wins!

It is like this with all the other games where you play against the house. The rules are fixed to guarantee that sooner or later the casino will take your money.

Knowing that you are going to lose—get it firmly into your head that you are going to lose—the only reason for gambling is to have fun. If you enjoy playing black jack, craps, roulette, etc., go right ahead. But choose the lowest possible bet. You can have just as much fun losing $10 as you can losing $100, probably a lot more. If your objective is to win at these games, stay as far away from Vegas as you possible can. As the joke goes: How can you leave Las Vegas with a $1 million in your pocket? Easy. Arrive with $5 million.

First Stop: Zion Canyon
To get back to the real world, it’s time to move north to Utah. Foreign visitors should know that the American highway system is divided between federally financed highways and state financed highways. Both classes are usually high quality and easy to drive, with federal highways tending to be wider with more lanes.

 

Federal highways are shown on signs in the shape of a shield. There are two categories of federal highways, designated “Interstate” or “U.S.” plus a number. In conversation, the names are often abbreviated, so that Interstate 1 becomes I-1, Interstate 2 becomes I-2, etc. U.S. highways remain U.S. 1, U.S. 2, etc.

State highways are identified by the state’s name plus a number, and shown on signs depicting the state emblem. Utah, for example, is known as the “beehive state”, so its highways are show on signs in the form of a beehive. Within a state (because you know where you are), it is common practice to drop the state name and simply say Highway 1, Highway 2, Highway 3, etc.

You will leave Las Vegas by heading north Interstate15 (I-15). Once in Utah, turn off on Highway 9. Your first stop will be Zion Canyon, about 4 - 5 hours from LV, where you will probably want to spend the night.

How to Find Comfortable, Inexpensive Lodging

Should you book motels ahead before you leave LV? Absolutely not! One of the best things about touring the western national parks is the sense of freedom and spontaneity it can give you. You never know what is going to impress you the most, so you never know how long you may wish to stay anywhere. Booking ahead regiments you. So how can you be certain of finding a convenient and reasonably priced place to spend the night? Actually, it’s not that difficult.

  • Throughout the West there are motels galore, even in fairly remote areas. You can usually find a place to stay even in high season. The trick is to begin looking about 5 - 5:30 p.m. The choice is likely still to be plentiful and checking in no later than 6 p.m. gives you time to take a nap or a dip in the pool before going out to eat around 8 p.m. then returning to the motel about 10:30 - 11 p.m. for a relaxing night’s sleep.

  • However, don’t become blasé about finding a room. In Utah, the high season does not follow the late May - early September convention when children are not in school. In many places the high season extends into mid-October.

  • Don’t insist on being right at the entrance to the national parks. For example, the town of Springdale at the entrance to Zion Canyon has numerous motels. But prices are high and in high season you may struggle to find a room. Hurricane, a pleasant 35-minute drive from Zion, has many more motels, with prices about half those in Springdale, and a much broader selection of restaurants.

  • Also, don’t automatically head for a brand-name motel. As the major motel chains continue to spread their tentacles across the country (Motel 6, Super 8, Ramada, Holiday Inn, Best Western, etc.), locally owned motels are fighting for their lives. You can benefit from this.

For example, my wife and I rolled into a village looking for a place to stay. We were particularly eager to go for a swim. The first sight we saw was a name-brand motel. It had a pool, but it wasn’t heated. We were in the late autumn, so the water temperature was tolerable but not really inviting. I asked the price of a double room. It was $79. “That’s a bit beyond our budget,” I said. “Oh, that’s on the ground floor. If you go up a floor, it’s $59.” That was more to our budget, but since it was just after 5 p.m., I said we would look around first, and maybe come back later. About 2 kilometers down the road, we saw a local motel. It was less spiffy because it was not brand new, but it appeared to be well-kempt. I asked the price: $42. The room was more than acceptable, but the best part was that it had a heated indoor pool! After luxuriating for an hour or so in the caressingly warm water, we went out for a delicious meal in a nearby restaurant recommended by the motel owner. All in all a delightful—and money-saving—experience.

For foreigners not familiar with the traveling in the U.S., you should know that most motels do not serve breakfast. This is why a number of local restaurants (called coffee shops) will be open, often from 6 a.m., where you can chose whatever you want to start the day—eggs, bacon, waffles, pancakes, steak, oatmeal, etc. You may not wish such a lavish breakfast every day, but you should not disdain the idea. A hearty coffee shop breakfast is very much a part of the American travel experience.

On to Bryce Canyon
About 1½ hours away from Zion Canyon is Bryce Canyon. You will leave Zion Canyon on Highway 9, then turn north on U.S. 89. Where U.S. 89 intersects with Highway 12, you must turn right for about 35 minutes to the park’s entrance.

For lodging you have two choices. All along Highway 12 you will find motels, whose prices rise the closer you get to the park. They have another disadvantage. They are rather isolated, so you are almost obliged to eat where you decide to sleep.

The other possibility will cost less and give you greater freedom. About 5 minutes beyond the junction of U.S. 89 and Highway12, you will find Panguitch. This town has a plentiful supply of motels, a number of restaurants, a supermarket and other shopping opportunities. Count on spending two days in Bryce Canyon, and possibly three if you simply can't tear yourself away, before going on to your next destination. So book your motel accordingly.

When you decide to move on, resist the temptation to return to the interstate for a quick trip to Canyonlands and Arches in eastern Utah. This is about a 4-5 hour drive from Panguitch along a comfortable, high-speed superhighway. The problem is, you see practically nothing of interest along the way.

Rather, take Highway 12 back past Bryce Canyon towards Capital Reef National Park. Highway 12, one of the most scenic routes in the U.S., will offer you sights as remarkable as any you will see in the parks themselves. The temptation to stop frequently to take pictures will be overwhelming.

Stopping at Capital Reef: A Capital Question
Should you actually stop at Capital Reef?

Everything depends on how much time you have available. Like all the national parks, Capital Reef is splendid. But to my mind, it is one of the least spectacular (there are there degrees of spectacular).

The best thing is to follow Highway12 to Torrey, which is just outside of Capital Reef, and check in some place. There are plenty of motels and some local restaurants. By leaving Panguitch by 9 a.m., you can arrive in Torrey in plenty of time to see part of Capital Reef that day. The next day you return for a second look, then in the afternoon move on towards Arches and Canyonlands.

Highway 24, which leads from Capital Reef towards Arches and Canyonlands, has many attractive sights along the way. So keep your camera ready and don’t hurry. Highway 24 joins the I-70 at a place called Green River. You will still be about an hour’s drive from Moab, the local metropole and the so-called “Gateway to Arches and Canyonlands”. However, unless you have a particular reason for going to Moab, don’t.

Considerably smaller than Moab, Green River has a wide selection of motels and four or five restaurants. On average, you will find the motels about 20 - 25% cheaper in Green River and you should have little trouble finding one, whereas in Moab, depending on the season and the time you get there, you may have to look around a bit. Both North Canyonlands (known as “The Island in the Sky”) and Arches are only about an hour’s drive from Green River.

Before you read any further, I should warn you this itinerary does not include the world famous Grand Canyon. There is a good reason for this. North Canyonlands has a section right near the entrance that looks very much like the Grand Canyon. If you have never seen the Grand Canyon, Canyonlands offers a convincing substitute. And you will not need to spend two precious days to go see the real thing!

South Canyonlands
Your next stop will be South Canyonlands (also known as “The Needles”), which is about a two-hour drive from Green River and a one-hour drive from Moab. But don’t hurry. The road that leads from Moab to South Canyonlands offers a number of photo opportunities.

You will probably want to stay in Monticello. This town is much smaller than Moab, more like Green River, with a reasonable assortment of motels and restaurants. Be certain to ask directions to the Mormon Temple, a few streets off the main road but well worth the detour.

If you leave Green River or Moab by 9 a.m., you should arrive in Monticello before noon. The entrance to South Canyonlands is several kilometers before you arrive in Monticello, so you might want to spend a few hours in the park first. This way, you can then decide whether or not you want to return the park the next morning or immediately move on.

Natural Bridges and a Breathtaking Overlook
When you leave Monticello, head south on U.S. 191 towards Blanding and the junction with Highway 95, then turn west. Here you will find two sights seldom mentioned in travel guides. The first is Natural Bridges National Monument. Like Capital Reef, it is less spectacular than some other attractions, but well worth the visit.

A few kilometers from Natural Bridges, turn south on Highway 261 to one of the most awesome sights you will ever see. The road seems to abruptly end at a sheer cliff that drops several hundred meters towards Monument Valley, but gives the impression of diving straight to the centre of the Earth.

The road does not actually end here, but descends the cliff to the plain below. You may be reluctant to make this apparently perilous journey on a gravel road. However, there are long, slow switchbacks all the way down, making the descent easier than it may look. But what about getting back up again? Don’t worry. Once at the bottom you can drive along Highway 163 back to U.S. 191 and a gentle rise back towards Blanding.

This will be a decision point. You can now head east about 130 kilometers to Mesa Verde, with spectacular scenery and the remains of Indian cliff dwellings. Or you can head south into Moment Valley, the Petrified Forest and the Painted Desert. However, if you are now beginning to doubt that what you saw at Bryce Canyon was real (I have seen it seven time and I still have doubts), you can take Highway 95 beck towards Capital Reef. Highway 95 is every bit as interesting and photogenic as is Highway 24 between Capital Reef and Green River.

After leaving Bryce Canyon for the second time, you may be looking for an interesting, inexpensive place for R & R (rest and relaxation). Stop in Mesquite. This is the last gambling oasis in Nevada before crossing into Arizona and Utah. Still a small town (but rapidly growing), Mesquite has only a handful of big casino hotels, which in their own way rival many in Las Vegas at about half the price.

As you head down the I-15 back towards LV, swing off for 2-3 hours in The Valley of Fire, a Nevada state park well worth the detour. Another possibility. If time permits, take the I-15 straight through LV towards Laughlin, about 1½ hours south. Laughlin is the last gambling oasis on Nevada’s southern border.

There are several advantages to spending a couple of days there.

1. To get to Laughlin, you must pass by Hoover (Bolder) Dam and Lake Mead, both worth a look-see.
2. Laughlin is on the Colorado River, so if you like water sports, you will be very much in your element.
3. The river is the border with Arizona and California, so if you have never been to California and insist on setting foot in the Golden State, it is just a few minutes away.
4. Because Laughlin, like Mesquite, is not a highly publicized tourist attraction, its hotels are very much less expensive than those Las Vegas. You will especially appreciate the difference on the weekend, when a $60 hotel in LV can easily go to $140-170, whereas an equivalent hotel in Laughlin at $35 may move up to $70-85.

Final Tips for Foreign Visitors

The United States tends to “march to a different drummer”. Things there are done differently. You have already noticed that rooms in hotels and motels generally do not include breakfast, which is quite different from the practice in many other countries. Here are a few other things to watch out for.

1. Posted vs. Final Prices Local and state taxes are almost never shown in posted prices, so the price you see is almost never the price you pay. This is true in hotels, motels, restaurants, department stores, etc. For example, if a motel shows $55 a night for a double room, the final price is likely to be around $61.

Why do they do things this way? The idea is that if people don’t know what they are paying in taxes, they don’t know when to get properly angry about them. Gasoline (commonly called “gas”) is an exception; the posted price is the final price.

2. Tipping “Service” in restaurants is almost never included in the price. The customer is expected to add this voluntarily as a tip. Normally, the tip should be about 18% of the bill (in a restaurant known as the “check”). It is traditional to leave the tip in cash on the table. However, if you pay by credit card, you can add it directly. Many people chose to do both, i.e. pay with a card but leave cash on the table. Whatever you do, don’t forget the tip. Restaurant workers generally get a minimal wage, so they depend on their tips for their livelihood. Not tipping is equivalent to stealing.

3. Metric – American conversions
If you are used to the metric system, you may find American measures confusing. Here are some easy approximations.

A. Weights
1 pound (1 lb) = 0.45 kilo. To convert pounds to kilos, divide by 2, then subtract 1/10. Example: Convert 6 lb to kilos. 6 / 2 - 0.3 (1/10 of 3) = 3 - 0.3 = 2.7 kg

For smaller weights such as in a restaurant: 1 pound = 16 ounces, written 1lb = 16 oz. So an 8 oz steak is 1/2 of 450 g = 225 g, a 12 oz steak is 3/4 of 450 = 340 g.

B. Distance
Some areas in the U.S. show distance in both miles and kilometers, but such places are rare, so you will have to use miles. 1 mile = 1.6 km. For a good approximation, add half of the mile distance, then add 1/10 to get kilometers.
Example: Convert 70 miles to kilometers. 70 + 35 (1/2 of 70) + 7 (1/10 of 70) = 70 + 35 + 7 = 112 km.

C. Temperature

Fahrenheit to Celsius: subtract 30, divide by two, then add 1/10.
Example: Convert 88° F to Celsius. 88° F - 30 = 58, divided 2 = 29. Now add 1/10 of 29.to give 29 + 2.9 = 31.9° C.

Celsius to Fahrenheit: multiply by 2, add 30, then subtract 1/10.
Example: Convert 32° C to Fahrenheit. 32° C x 2 = 64, plus 30 = 94, subtract 3.2 (1/10 of 32) = 90.8° F.

D. Prices
Approximating prices is tricky because exchange rates constantly vary. Assume 1 euro = 1.3 dollars. Divide the dollar price by 2, then add back half.
Example: Convert 24 dollars to euros. 24 divide by 2 + 6 (half of 12) = 12 + 6 = 18 euros.

Have a great trip. And be prepared to come back. Because once you have been to Utah, it’s truly hard to stay away. For me, it is impossible.

Contributing Traveller  Philip Yaffe

Editor’s Note: Philip Yaffe is a former reporter/feature writer with The Wall Street Journal and a marketing communication consultant. He currently teaches a course in good writing and good speaking in Brussels, Belgium. In the “I” of the Storm: the Simple Secrets of Writing & Speaking (Almost) like A Professional, his recently published book, is available from Story Publishers in Ghent, Belgium (storypublishers.be) and Amazon (amazon.com). For further information, contact: Philip Yaffe, 61, avenue des Noisetiers B-1170 Brussels, Belgium Tel: 32 (0)2 660 0405 phil.yaffe@yahoo.com

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