Indescribable Utah: Nature’s Munificent
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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!
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 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.
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
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
3. Metric – American conversions If you are used to the metric
system, you may find American measures confusing. Here are some
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 [email protected]
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