Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Trip to Southern Utah's National Lands

We are planning to visit some national parks, monuments and untamed wilderness of Southern Utah and Northern Arizona this summer. I have never seen such awe-inspiring, other-worldly and at the same time formidable place. Those stratified red rocks, smoothed out tepee formations, emerging hoodoos, narrowing canyons, water carved rock bridges, occasional waterfalls, a patch of greenery within towering stand-stones are some things we do not get to see often. I believe, there is no place like Colorado plateau, such expanse with myriad of rock formations with geological, paleological and historical (native American) importance, anywhere in the world.

pic name
Amphitheater, Bryce Canyon Nat Park, UT
pic name
The Teepees, Petrified Forest Nat. Park, AZ

pic name
Finns, Arches Nat. Park, UT
pic name
Painted Desert, Petrified Forest Nat. Park, AZ

Colorado plateau expands over four US states- Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. It probably encompasses the highest concentration of national parks and other protected lands. See the list below.

We visited a few national parks in this area way back (2011)....when we were just learning the nuts and bolts of exploring the national parks. At that time we were so naive that we gave a day to explore some of these parks...looking back  we have come a long way. This time we plan to give more time to better explore each park..hopefully...even though we know seeing all is an illusive dream.

From east cost, we are flying-in and out of Las Vegas airport. So, our travel will be on a circular route. In 13 days, my "over ambitious" plan include exploring around 3 national parks, and around 3 or so national monuments and a couple of small state parks. Here is our tentative road route.

South Utah | My new trip on!

Hope to keep updating this with our upcoming adventures and experience!

View of Colorado river from Desert View, Grand Canyon Nat. Park, AZ


National parks and monument of Colorado Plateau:

  • National parks (from south to north to south clockwise):
Petrified Forest National Park, AZ
Grand Canyon National Park, AZ
Zion National Park, UT
BryceCanyon National Park, UT
Capitol Reef National Park, UT
Canyonlands National Park, UT
Arches National Park, UT
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, CO
Mesa Verde National Park, CO
Chaco Culture National Historical Park, NM

  • National Monuments (alphabetical):
Aztec Ruins National Monument, NM
Canyon De Chelly National Monument, AZ
Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, CO
Cedar Breaks National Monument, UT
Colorado National Monument, CO
Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, NV
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, UT
El Malpais National Monument, NM
El Morro National Monument, NM
Hovenweep National Monument, UT
Navajo National Monument, AZ
Natural Bridges National Monument, UT
Rainbow Bridge National Monument, UT
Sunset Crater National Monument, AZ
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, AZ
Walnut Canyon National Monument, AZ
Wupatki National Monument, AZ

Sunday, April 12, 2015


Our campsite at Colter Bay Campground, Grand Teton Nat Park
A typical, maintained campsite usually has 1. a fire pit, 2. picnic bench, 3. a cleared, flat area/sort of raised platform to setup your tent, and 4. space to park your vehicle. Bear proof storage and trash disposal units are offered in "bear county" (where black, grizzly or Kodiak bears are common). Some campgrounds have well demarcated individual campsite and at some places there are not distinguishable site boundaries.

Multiple campsites share restrooms + drinking water located centrally. Depending on the size of the campground and orientation of campgrounds, there may be multiple restrooms.

There might be an individual tap and or electric outlet for each campsite, which, however, are not found in most national parks. Campgrounds in state parks and in private RV parks usually provide those individual connections.

Camping requires completely different trip preparation. You have to think about many factors which usually do not come into play while staying within well developed, well connected areas i.e. securing meals, adapting to sudden weather changes, unpredictable phone/internet connectivity, shower availability etc.
a. Camping gear and paraphernalia: e.g. tent, tent footprint, canopy/shelter, headlamp, torch
b. Sleeping equipments: e.g. sleeping bag and/ pad/ bivy, pillow
c. Cooking tools e.g. portable stove, propane tank, utensils, cleaning material, cutlery
          d. Food items: ready to eat or raw items which you can cook in minutes, condiments, oil
                                  Energy bars, trail mix etc for when on hiking
e.Weather wise: clothes suitable to possible temperatures and sudden and extreme weather changes- winter/waterproof jackets, hats, gloves, sweaters, layers, lip balms, moisturizer for cold nights; poncho, umbrella for rain; breathable cloths, hat, sunglasses, sunscreen for high heat. 
f. Cleaning supplies: for you- toothpaste, body wash, shampoo etc, for utensils and for clothes in case needed. Not all the parks have laundry facility in or even near the park so you have to take enough clothes or plan to wash some yourself if needed. There are multipurpose, biodegradable liquid soaps available for all kinds of cleaning.
Importantly, not all parks have shower facilities at/near their campsites, so one have to manage accordingly- wash cloth, baby-wipes, sponging, or skip a bath. I found a nice video on How to Bathe while Camping from Howcast and a very helpful article on backcountry hygiene on LoweGear website (designated camp sites in parks have flushed toilets most of the times but in remote areas there might be pit toilets. Most of the remote parks will not have hot water. Parks with shower facilities do offer hot showers, for which you might have to pay and go to the shower facility which might be only one in the whole park, away from your camping area.
All visitor centers and campgrounds will have drinking water doubt. And, if not they will give ample warnings at visitor center or last location beyond which you will not get drinking water.
g. Camp fire items: log (always use log sold locally), fire starter, kindle, matchbox
h. Additional items we carry to enjoy the stay- DSLR Camera, hammock, folding chairs, cooler, games, mosquito repellent, additional pair of shoes.

Types of Camping
1. Front-country camping- which involves camping at developed and maintained campground facilities, which is described above. As suggested by its name, typically these campgrounds are situated around main features and facilities of the park, and connected with paved roads where vehicles can reach. So, it is very convenient in way that you can carry everything in you car to the site, unload and assemble. This will allow you to go in and out of the site with/without car for exploring the park or for any other task.
This is the type of camping we have been doing so far. 
2. Back-country camping- any wilderness area of the parks beyond paved roads and developed hiking trails is back-country. As it is away from paved road, you have to carry everything that you might need on your travel to back-country- tent, food, water, clothes, cleaning supplies etc. This is the fundamental difference between front and back-country camping and has huge practical implications i.e. type of backpack to use, amount and type of food, refilling water, number of clothes to carry, maintaining hygiene and overall amount of weight you can carry with you.
A park may have some demarcated camping locations or it might not, in which case, you can set up your tent anyplace- safe and, 200ft away from water source. There might be shelters to designate. There may be a fire-pit.There are no restrooms. Obviously there may not be a man-made water source, in which case you need to rely on natural water source. Due to this dependency, you need know your route and to have a plan to purify (by boiling/filtering/chemically) the water for long hikes. 
Pack-in, pack-out is the standard policy in backcountry. It is almost like living in a jungle, away from civilization except you have to carry your trash with you and depending on park's regulations it may include human waste and used toiletries.
I have only known Grand Canyon Nat. Park to have a developed campground in "back-country" i.e. below the rim level.  
People who set out to hike long trails like Appalachian, Pacific Crest spend many days- months in wilderness and do this sort of camping. 
3. Primitive camping- this type falls in between front and back-country camping. The campsites may be just a cleared area without individual water and electric, and without flushed toilets. Pit-toilets are usually available.

Reserving a campsite in National Parks and National Forests

Campgrounds in National Parks are managed by National Park Service. Most front-country campsites can be reserved through website. Most of the campsites are open year around (limited facility in winter). However, in summer, reservations are allowed and limited number of sites will be spared for walk-ins on first come, first serve basis.

I found a very good, informative website on National Forest Campgrounds. I have not visited this site before, but I am happy I found it. It will be very helpful in planning my next trip.

Most parks require back-country hiking and staying permits, for which the procedure should be followed as mentioned on a park's website on For well-known parks and trails, it is hard to get even these permits at last minute. So, researching your destination well is necessary.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Planning a Trip II

~Deciding destination~

Based on your goal for the trip, now you can think about your travel destination. Now on, your decision on destination, travel and stay will be like an algorithm, influenced by multiple factors- big and small- and will require thinking back and forth multiple times, especially if you are planning to explore a national park.

With limited amount of vacation and budget, for us, reaching a final, well informed and optimal itinerary is time demanding process. For two to four weeks of long/road trips, I usually start to think about a possible itinerary two- three months in advance.

Important information to have on hand is

a. Duration
  •   how many days you have or can allot
b. Destination
  •  do you have a bucket list/priority list of places to visit?
  •  which places you can visit in available days for decided purpose?
  •  if you do not have such list, you can explore National Park Service website: to search parks around you or in a particular state or on you route. The site is great to get park specific information, especially park maps and hiking trail list/map which are not available in such detail on any other site. It is even hard to find printed version of these particular maps outside of park. Most of the time paved, drive-able roads situated inside the parks and all the park entrences are not shown in Google maps. So you would not know existence of a road passing through, connecting major roads outside the park till you study the park map given on the website. Park maps are absolutely essential in planning if you going to explore. You will definitely get a park map (printed version in a brochure form) when you visit the park- either at the entrance or at the visitor centers. These maps are usually free and, in my opinion, the best souvenirs.
I encounter this one issue often.For me, it is hard to corroborate and judge location and directions of places and roads given in the park map with the generic online road maps. My mind gets sluggish when it comes to assessing and matching scales of online park and road maps unless I print them and then compare.
c. Mode of travel
  • what is time and cost effective- driving or flying?
  • based on the number and location of destinations, you can map out if you will need multi-city   flight tickets and car rental according to that.
At this point you should have a tentative route of your travel ready. Once the lodging is decided you should have detail idea about how much time you have to explore the park.

d. Type of stay

      1. Within the parks
National parks, created to preserve and care for America's wilderness and environment, are not bound to provide any lodging, that way limiting human impact. However, many parks offer variable range of lodging options starting from back-country camping, primitive camping, RV-camping, cabins, inns and lodges. Most famous and large parks offer all these options but availability are limited especially in summer season. Most of these inns and lodges are historic and carry old country charm. They offer closest accommodation (i.e. within the park itself) and a unique perspective to the place. They are not designed for luxury but staying within the park is an enhanced experience. It saves time of commuting in and out and allows easy planning for hike/rest and activities like sunrise/sunset watching, and ranger programs. For these reasons, reservation at last sometimes even within 3-4 months before starting extremely hard to find. Limited walk-in campsites sites are often kept aside for RV-campers and occasionally available for inns and lodges. We have not tried back-country camping, it is a bit beyond my comfort zone, but I know that for some parks you also need to have a back-country permit in advance which may also go as fast as lodge rooms.
Old Faithful geyser and Inn, Yellowstone Nat Park, WY
Majority of parks situated in northern USA, although stay open throughout, close down their lodging/camping and some other visitor facilities in winter. You must check for closing/opening dates, weather trends, road closures, park maps, hiking trails, ranger-led activities and other important updates, instructions and suggestions before finalizing your plans and reservation  methods. Although we know that America is so vast and different areas of the country experience such a wide range of weather simultaneously, it comes as an epiphany that when most parks (e.g Yellowstone, Yosemite Nat Parks etc) start experiencing peak visitor rush, some other (e.g Death Valley Nat Park) are preparing to close for the season.
  •  Hotel/ Lodge/ Inn
Considering a small window of opportunity to stay inside a park and summer rush, it is advisable to reserve the accommodation well in advance (5 months or more) for next summer season or to be extremely lucky. We were lucky enough to get a reservation, although just for one night, in Old Faithful Inn at Yellowstone Nat Park a month or two before our trip, for rest of the stay we camped. However, we might have got a better room and longer stay at the inn if we had tried to reserve 6-7 months earlier. Reservation becomes available almost year in advance for most of these lodges. Majorities of these lodges/inns are managed by a concession company Xanterra which handles reservations also.
I would recommend watching 'Great Lodges of the National Parks' to get more information on history and architecture. After watching it, it will be hard to avoid lure of these lodges. Individual park webpage on will give more information on availability of lodge/inn and reservation procedure.
If staying at these historic hotels is on your (uncompromisable) wishlist, I would advise you to reserve even if you do not have any concrete itinerary planned. Once you get a desired reservation you can plan your itinerary around it. Usually, I first design an itinerary and then reserve accommodations accordingly. But, I so want to stay at Crater Lake lodge- in a room overlooking blue waters of the deepest lake of US that this year I have reserved a room even without any schedule or itinerary. Even then, I found almost all of the dates in summer for lake-view rooms were gone in early February itself.
Many Glacier Hotel, on the bank of Swiftcurrent lake, Glacier Nat Park, MT

Furnace Creek Inn, Death Valley Nat Park, CA
  • Cabins/ Chalets
Many large national parks also have smaller, specialized accommodations like cabins and chalets. Just like lodges they are offered directly or through a concessionaire or occasionally through private companies. Some of these require hiking for quite a distance to reach there. Glacier national park has a couple of such, well-known chalets- Sperry, and Granite park which provide unparalleled vista at the heart of the park. They open only in summer seasons and by the fact that they are remote, groceries, fuel and other items to run the facilities are supplied on horses. 
Granite Park Chalet, Glacier Nat. Park, MT
  • Camping
Camping is an adventure, well not as intense as kayaking through Colorado or rock-climbing the El Capitan or summeting Mt. Rainier or hiking Pacific Crest/Apalachian trail, but it is, for people who are new to the idea of unaided stay and self planned exploration. For me it is an adventure.  
Our tent at Colter Bay Campground, Grand Teton Nat Park, WY
Camping is like initial stages of love- starts with a bit of hesitation, fear of heartbreak, anticipation of sweet moments but once you enter into it fully, euphoria takes over. Thought of sleeping just surrounded by a thin layer of polyester material in wilderness, in dark, is crazy...crazy adventurous?!! Coming from India, I had no idea parks here facilitate camping and I can manage it by purchasing tools (oh...and from so many options for individual need) myself. I am amazed at technology, product designing and huge market specifically for each sports, recreational activities.
Most camping reservations withing the parks are available through This site also provides reservation platform for picnic shelters, permits and tours.
 More on camping is posted here.
  •  Recreational Vehicle- RV campintg
RV is a motor vehicle or trailer which contains essential facilities and living area like a home. In India, we call it Caravan. When I saw American RVs initially, I was amazed at how well they were designed to accommodate so many facilities in a small area. Wherever we are on the road, we wish, we had an RV. With it you are completely free from worries to find accommodation ever again. You can also manage cooking/ preparing your food. However, some drawbacks, we think, are fuel efficiency and accessibility to remote/high altitude areas which often prohibit a large vehicle like an RV to drive up on narrow, windy roads. I feel, RV is for the time when you want to stay and relax at one place for longer time. A person like me, who creates a long list of places to see and activities to do would like swiftness of a car.

      2. Outside the parks
In a peak season, it is equally hard to find lodging in hotels/inns within nearest areas outside of a national park entrances.
Besides these commercial hotels, motels etc which one can reserve through common travel websites, one can also camp in privately owned RV-campsites. Among a couple of such nationwide RV-campsite providers, we have stayed at KOA's sites during our road-trip. Their network is convenient enough while you are travelling on highways and need a campsite for a night or two. We have found that, they are often not situated very near to the national parks and require as much or more commuting to and from the park as an nearby outside hotel accommodation. In these instances, staying at KOA may not be an time effective option. Additionally, their locations on highways are most frequently near railway tracks and sometimes crowded and noisy. Unlike, those within the most national parks, these campgrounds provide shower and coin operated laundry facilities.

It is advisable to keep looking for flight and lodging options simultaneously to avoid trip scheduling issues.