An amazing discovery of the mystery and awesomeness of the Colorado Plateau created by nature billions of years ago… stunning canyons, buttes, vibrant colours and many hidden secrets of the natural beauty of the American Southwest.
Las Vegas, Valley of Fire, Zion Park and Kanab:
Many non- Americans are fascinated by the American Interstate Highway not only because of the impressive modern engineering marvel that it is but also the fact that it was a catalyst for economic progress and changes in American cultural expression. In fact it was President Dwight Eisenhower, 34th president of the USA who made it his mission to have the major arteries of America built and improved for security reasons. He signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, which initiated the largest public works program in American history. Since then the longest and most modern system of highways in the world brought America closer together but paradoxically also widened its differences in culture and living conditions.
The highway was also a result of America’s car culture, thanks to the introduction of Henry Ford’s ‘Model T’ in 1908. To underline this phenomenon, in recent times it is estimated that the USA has over 250 million cars and trucks plying the roads and sophisticated interstate network either for work, play and adventure. It is this ‘mythical romance’ attributed to the American highway system that brought us back to our wish list of exploring America by car. So when a planned surprise visit to our son in Vancouver didn’t happen, my Yankeephile husband thought it wasn’t a big deal. We would still go to North America and explore the region that is considered one of the most beautiful in the USA and the world… and this time, by car. The drive would roughly cover the Colorado Plateaus, which is actually the physiographic province that comprises southwestern United States, the southeastern half of Utah, the extreme western and southwestern parts of Colorado, northwestern New Mexico, and the northern half of Arizona.
It was the perfect excuse to realise his ‘wish’ to hire and drive the quintessential American Cadillac. With this in mind we flew to LAX then on to Las Vegas where we spent a couple of days to get over the jet lag, re-visit ‘ The Strip’ and pick up the hired caddy. It was also a chance to check out Rick Harrison and his mates at the world famous Gold and Silver Pawnshop, located in the ‘seedy’ side of town.
Las Vegas in the Mojave Desert is the most populous city in Nevada with 583,756 inhabitants. Vegas is known though for its glitzy ‘strip’, gambling casinos and resorts. In 2015, it welcomed 42,312,216 visitors, 16% of which were from overseas and reported gambling revenue of US$6.3 Billion. Impressive? Perhaps, but a few months before our visit to Las Vegas, we were in Macau, also known as the Las Vegas of Asia. This small peninsula in China reported gambling revenue of 360 billion patacas or US$45 billion in the year 2013. This clearly makes this tiny enclave in the Chinese territories the undisputed winner in the gambling industry. More recently though, there was a dramatic decline in earnings due to a crackdown from the Chinese government on corruption associated with the industry and a ban on smoking in the casinos. But back to Vegas…
We took our sons to see the Grand Canyon when they were young in tandem with stops in LA to visit family and Disneyland. Las Vegas was our base enroute to attractions nearby. At the time, we witnessed the makeover of the city to be equally family friendly and not just a destination for conventions, gambling and all sorts of hedonistic pursuits associated with gambling. Back then ‘The Strip’ was already interesting, its bright neon lights providing an aura of glamour and magic to visitors who wandered around.
For this visit without kids, we explored the newer hotels and resorts that have mushroomed through the years. Over the 2 evenings, we delighted ourselves with the bright lights along ‘The Strip’ and sampled a few of Las Vegas’ bars and restaurants. Like most destinations that rely on tourists’ dollars, cuisine from all over the world was available and cocktails of various influences aplenty. While we had no gastronomic expectations on this road trip, we thoroughly enjoyed the meals in Vegas.
On our third day in America and having regained our equilibrium, it was time to leave Las Vegas and pick the infamous ‘Caddy’ on my husband’s ‘bucket list.’ We had a schedule to follow for the next 12 days. Roughly we were to follow this route, encompassing what many refer to as the Grand Circle and beyond:
Las Vegas to Valley of Fire to Zion Park to Kanab(our base for 4 nights) where we were to explore Bryce Canyon, North Rim Grand Canyon Coral Sand Dunes, Grand Escalante; and then move on to Lake Powell ( Page, Arizona), Monument Valley, Bluff, Cortez-Mesa Verde , Santa Fe, Flagstaff for the South Grand Canyon and Sedona. The last leg was to slowly drive back to California to visit family. This ‘road trip’ would roughly cover almost 2,000 miles.
In mapping out this itinerary, we were really keen to see Lake Powell and Horseshoe Bend in East Grand Canyon. Inspired by Stephen Fry (British actor, writer, comic, author and TV host) we wanted to visit and explore what he called the True West; episode 5 of the six part BBC series ‘ Stephen Fry in America’. This fascinating 2008 program in which he travelled all 50 states of America driving his black London Cab featured the magnificent mesas and buttes of Arizona and New Mexico and the spectacular beauty of Lake Powell. The series by the way is so interesting; it should be compulsory viewing for both American and non- American audience.
Our rented Cadillac was not as exotic as Fry’s London Cab but my husband couldn’t wait to try out his rented ‘toy’. As soon as we were satisfied that the GPS and everything else in the Cadillac worked, we hit the road using route I-15 N to make our way to our first stop, the Valley of Fire State Park about 50 miles (80 km) northeast of Las Vegas. Considered the oldest state park in Nevada, USA, Valley of Fire covers an area of about 36,000 acres of red and crimson sand and rocks.
On arrival, the sight of red sandstone formations, rocks of various shapes and sizes, greeted us. Over 150 million years ago, Mother Nature crafted the odd shaped rock formations through a shift in the earth’s crust, faulting and also effect of erosion by wind and water. It was a virtual ‘sea of red’ of fossilised sandstone and sand dunes in the middle of the dessert interrupted only by vegetation of cactus, yucca, mesquite tree, prickly pear and beaver tail.
From Valley of Fire, we continued northeast to southwestern Utah and stopped at the town of Springdale within the Zion Park. This Utah Park formed 250 million years ago is right along the edge of the Colorado Plateau. Armed with a map and information obtained from the Visitor Centre (located at the South entrance of the park in Springdale) we hopped on the free shuttle in Springdale for a drive up Zion Canyon and to catch glimpses of the park’s highlights. Zion Park is accessible to many visitors and attracts approximately 3 million visitors each year.
The breath taking natural beauty of the 2 parks we just visited was a refreshing change to the bright lights of Las Vegas. Soaking in the wondrous splendour of these geological formations, we slowly drove to Kanab where we stayed for four nights. Kanab is the ideal base for those who want to explore southhwestern America’s park heartland due to its central location to major places of interest. On our ‘must see’ list nearby were the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park (very close to Kanab), Zion Park of course, and the Vermillon Cliffs National Monument( in Arizona but so close to Kanab and located south of the Utah and Arizona border). After the four-day stop, we would make our way to Page and Lake Powell.
Kanab is situated on the western Colorado Plateau in the county seat of Kane in South Utah, just north of the Arizona border. Long before the Mormons came, Native Americans settled Kanab for thousands of years. Then in 1776, the Spanish explorers led by Franciscan missionary Silvestre ‘lez de Escalante discovered the region. About 100 years later, the Mormon pioneers followed the Spaniards in waves of migration between 1850 and 1870. However, the more interesting transient occupants were from tinsel town. In the early 1920’s, 40’s and 50’s, location scouters of Hollywood favoured the authentic natural Western Frontier setting of the Kanab area for Western movies. Consequently, more than 100 movies and TV shows were filmed in Kanab with the likes of John Wayne starring on ‘Stagecoach’ , Robert Taylor in ‘Billy the Kid’, Clint Eastwood in The ‘Outlaw Josey Wales’ and many more, filming in the region thus making Kanab earn the moniker of ‘Little Hollywood’ .
Driving all day works up quite a thirst. On arrival at our lodging, the first thing we were hankering for was a nice cold alcoholic beverage. Knowing my husband’s ‘cocktail hour’ habit, I knew he was looking forward to a cold drink. “A cold beer would really go down well” …he would say; but surprise, surpise! Not a bar or pub as we know it in Australia was in sight. Our friendly hotel receptionist informed us that liquor laws in the state of Utah is a bit different from the rest of America. We later found out that this was an understatement. In fact the liquor law in Utah is quite restricted…to say the least. It is, in our opinion, heavily regulated and a bit complex. It sets a limit of 3.2 percent alcohol by weight (4 percent by volume) in beer sold at supermarkets or convenience stores and higher alcohol content beer are only available in bottles or something to that effect. Cocktails also have a pre-determined limit to the proportion and amount of alcohol that can be used with mixers while all types of liquor including wine and strong beer can be purchased only at state run stores that have very limited trading times. One can have alcoholic beverages at restaurants that have licenses to serve these drinks but food must be on the table first. By the time we worked out how and where we could have our aperitif, we gave up on the ‘pub search’ and headed straight to the restaurant recommended by everyone to try; the Rocking V Café . This was a pleasant dining experience despite the wait for our wine and beer (remember we had to have the meal on the table first). As I said, we designed this trip to discover the natural beauty of south-western America and didn’t harbour exigent culinary standards but some of the restaurants specially the Rocking V Café were satisfying discoveries. For four evenings, we tried some of the eclectic mix of dining establishments at Kanab. Mexican at Escobar’s ( NO Margaritas and tequilas though to my dismay) Chinese at Luo’s Café and in fact on our last evening in Kanab, we uncovered a ‘western themed’ saloon restaurant with a full service bar. Their unique selling proposition (USP)? “ Iron Horse Restaurant and Saloon- Kanab’s only full service bar where you can drink without having to eat. “ Now, why didn’t we find this place earlier on?
On our stroll back to the lodge, we saw an outdoor advertising billboard for family dining with a message that said:
“Were history and culture meet ” …
Let’s see if you can spot the error.
The next day, after a full breakfast at the rustic and well-situated Canyons Lodge, we drove off and made our way to Bryce Canyon National Park.