Tranquil trails and uncommon views greet off-season visitors on a national park vacation.
on July 9, 2021
I’m a certain kind of traveler. I like to research destinations and read books about the places I’m planning to visit. I study maps, both the old-fashioned paper variety that are just about impossible to refold and three-dimensional images on Google Maps. The preparation helps me have my bearings immediately upon arrival, and even know where to find the best hiking trails.
That was my strategy when my husband, Curt, and I decided to hit the road for two iconic Southwest national parks: Zion and Grand Canyon. Confession: I had never visited Zion and hadn’t seen the Grand Canyon in years, so our trip was long overdue. And while most people think of November and December as the off-season at these parks, we discovered that late autumn proved to be an ideal (and uncrowded) time to visit and explore some of the most beautiful terrain anywhere in the world.
Zion National Park
After leaving Denver, we stopped for a night in Grand Junction, Colorado and managed to play a morning round of golf before the drive to Zion—although it did mean we arrived after dark. No matter: It was still a perfect evening at Zion Lodge, the only hotel inside this beloved national park. We ordered delicious burgers from the lodge’s Red Rock Grill (which proved to be a favorite throughout the stay) and settled in by the fireplace in our adorable, woodsy cabin.
After all of my research, I had a sense of the amazing canyon view that we would wake up to. Even so, nothing fully prepared me for that first glimpse of Zion’s majesty. Curt was absolutely blown away by the red rock cliffs and formations that soared above Zion Canyon, as mule deer nibbled on grasses just steps away from our cabin’s porch.
The lodge put us right in the heart of the valley and we took advantage of the incomparable location to hike and explore on both gentle and more challenging park trails, marveling at the scale and grandeur of Zion’s sandstone geology. The weather was absolutely perfect, with billowing clouds moving across the bluest of blue skies, before a gentle afternoon drizzle added to the canyon’s beauty as the mists veiled the formations.
While we certainly came here for the scenery, we also became intrigued by Zion’s human and natural history. After going to see the towering waterfall at the Temple of Sinagua near the end of the road and stopping to take pictures of the Virgin River tumbling through the valley, we learned about Zion’s indigenous people and the park’s creation at the Human History Museum. Then it was on to the beautiful, sustainably designed Zion Visitor Center and a bit of shopping at the lodge’s gift shop.
The night was cold but as we walked back to our cabin from the grill, the clouds cleared to reveal a brilliant night sky filled with countless stars and framed by the silhouettes of the cliffs that edge the valley. The carefully deployed lighting at the lodge, designed to minimize light pollution, made it easy for us to identify constellations with an app on our phones, and I could certainly understand why Zion was recently designated an International Dark Sky Park by the International Dark-Sky Association.
After two nights at Zion, we enjoyed a final breakfast in the lodge, then packed up as a light snow began falling. Bound for the South Rim at Grand Canyon National Park, about 240 miles away, we took off early and followed Utah Highway 9’s 1.1-mile-long Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel, which runs straight through the red rock cliffs.
The weather held steady as we traveled through classic Southwest terrain on the drive along U.S. Highway 89—dubbed “The National Park Highway.” In just under two hours, we reached Page, Arizona and took a side trip to see Glen Canyon Dam, then stopped one more time at the overlook for the aptly named Horseshoe Bend on the Colorado River. Pushing south, we had spectacular views of the Painted Desert before the final approach to the Grand Canyon on Highway 64.
I was so excited to be back at the canyon that after entering the park, we quickly pulled off at the Desert View Watchtower, the stone landmark that famed architect Mary Colter designed in 1932 to resemble an Ancestral Puebloan tower. The building evoked the Southwest’s ancient past but as fascinated as I was by its intricate masonry and interior Hopi murals, there’s no taking your eye off the panorama that looks across the canyon, with glimpses of the Colorado River flowing a mile down.
Dusk was closing in, as was an approaching storm, when we checked into our room at the Thunderbird Lodge along the rim. The updated room offered glimpses of the canyon as the first snow flurries began to fall. Dinner was just a short stroll away at the 1905 El Tovar Hotel, the grandest of the Grand Canyon lodges. Walking into the log cabin-style lobby, where visitors sat by a crackling fireplace, I said to Curt, “Now this is what a national park should be.” Dinner was both elegant and relaxed as a team of attentive waiters treated us like royalty, from the arrival of a breadbasket that included the dining room’s signature cheese biscuits to the very last crumb of the homestyle apple streusel pie.
The next morning we awakened to a transformed Grand Canyon. Overnight, maybe four inches of snow had accumulated—just enough to etch every crevice of the red rock with white, but not so much that we couldn’t still take long walks along the rim. Elk ambled through the forest, the snow crunching softly beneath their hooves, and the whole scene was the very definition of a winter wonderland, Southwest style.
The skies eventually cleared and we spent the afternoon walking along the Rim Trail and stopping into some of Grand Canyon Village’s most notable landmarks designed by Colter. In the Bright Angel Lodge, we perused the exhibits in its history room and marveled at Colter’s Geologic Fireplace. She used stone found in the the canyon and then arranged the rock in the same exact geological sequence as the layers of the Grand Canyon itself. Then it was over to Hopi House, a beautiful 1905 building that Colter created to resemble an adobe pueblo, where we browsed an impressive selection of authentic Native American crafts. I couldn’t resist buying a small Navajo rug—the perfect keepsake from our journey through the Southwest and to two of America’s most iconic national parks.