If you’re into space travel, you can experience the next best thing by hopping on a plane to Vegas, renting an SUV, and booking it around Utah / Arizona / Nevada. My boyfriend and I planned a 9 day backpacking trek that covered 1200 miles of slot canyons and red mountains through this area. It was one of the most other-wordly (and cheapest) trips of my life. Below is a a chronicle of our trip, including where we found free camping, where we showered (yes, I insisted on showering every few days), and a few key lessons we learned.
*I saved photos for the end of the post due to formatting issues, so scroll to the end to follow the Mars Loop in photos*
(1) Flight to Vegas.
We flew into Vegas on a Tuesday and rented a Jeep Patriot from the airport. The Patriot was amazing… We abused the hell out of it on rocky canyon roads, plus lived out of it for 9 days, and it never disappointed. I’d strongly recommend it, or a similar 4 wheel-drive vehicle. Another interesting option, if you don’t want to tent camp, is to rent a campervan from Escape or a similar dealer.
(2) Hoover Dam En Route to the Grand Canyon.
It was well worth a 45-60 minute delay on our way to the Grand Canyon to check out Hoover Dam. It’s right off the road (you’ll see the signs).
(3) Grand Canyon – South Rim (by mistake).
Our first planned stop was the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. We ended up at the South Rim, due to my excellent mapping skills. Pro Tip – If you stop at Hoover Dam, it will be easier to visit the South Rim (and GPS will likely try to map you there). South Rim Pros – There’s a great trail from top to bottom of the GC, the views are incredible, and you can camp off of US Forest Service dirt roads near the airport. South Rim Cons – It’s extremely crowded, and took us a few hours out of our way (next stop was The Wave in Kanab, UT).
(4) Glen Canyon / Lake Powell – Page, Arizona
We planned to go straight to Kanab post-Grand Canyon to try our luck in The Wave lottery. Due to our mapping mishaps, we hit Lake Powell / Glen Canyon first. We happened upon Wahweap campground around 11PM. It had paid showers, laundry, and open spots. We also found that you could camp without paying if you left before 7AM. We ended up staying there 2 nights since it always had open spots (we paid the second night), and we could shower. You’re right on Lake Powell, the views are incredible, and you’re within 1-1.5 hours driving distance of a number of incredible attractions, including: The Wave, Buckskin Gulch, Coyote Buttes, Horseshoe Bend, and Antelope Canyon.
Free camping off of 89. One of the most fun parts of the trip was the nightly treasure hunt for the best spot to park and camp. If you’re into this, you can camp off of any US Forest Service road, or anywhere off of 89, which runs through Utah and Arizona (and beyond). We found a few good spots up against the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, which spans this entire area.
(5) The Elusive Wave – Kanab, Utah
We came, we saw, we lost The Wave’s lottery. Color me not surprised… The Wave’s (Coyote Buttes North) lottery is located at the visitor center for Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument in Kanab. There were about 40 applications (so 90ish people total that were attempting to see The Wave), and 10 of the lucky ones got the passes. The lottery for Coyote Buttes North (The Wave) runs at 9AM, and the lottery for Coyote Buttes South runs at 9:30 or 10. For photos from a writer who got to see The Wave, check out this post.
(6) Buckskin Gulch / The Wave Trailhead – Kanab, Utah
Even if you don’t win the lottery, it’s still worth heading to The Wave’s trailhead to hike around, try to catch a glimpse of it from above, and check out Buckskin Gulch, an awesome slot canyon. We hiked this area twice: Once when we got quite lost following what turned out not to be a trail (however, we ended up seeing something that looked at lot like The Wave from above…), and again when we hiked Buckskin Gulch. A few key points…
- You’ll drive down 89 to a long dirt road called House Rock Valley Road. Buckskin Gulch and The Wave are on this road. You also can take a ‘shortcut’ across some canyon roads, like we did, however you will end up driving through a rocky canyon for about an hour or more (Google might say the detour will take 30 extra minutes. It will take much longer). It will likely tear up your vehicle, but it gives you some cool views of Coyote Buttes North. Other than 89, these roads are largely impassible when it rains.
- There are a number of things that look like trails (when it’s dry). Most of them aren’t… However, they are fun to hike and climb around on, but you won’t easily reconnect with the actual trails from them.
- It’s costs $7 for a permit to go to Buckskin Gulch for the day. It’s an awesome slot canyon (the longest in the US)
(7) Horseshoe Bend – Page, Arizona
On our way back from The Wave / Buckskin Gulch, we quickly drove to the other side of Glen Canyon to check out Horseshoe Bend. It’s a 10 minute walk from the parking lot, and the views are terrifyingly beautiful. Similar to the Grand Canyon, you walk right up to the edge of a sheer drop off hundreds of feet high. From the main vantage point, you see camping spots for those able to obtain backcountry permits in this area.
(8) Antelope Canyon – Page, Arizona
I expected the least from Antelope Canyon, yet it was my favorite part of the trip. Antelope Canyon is a slot canyon that’s broken into two portions: Upper (‘the Crack’) and Lower (‘the Corkscrew’). You can access it by tour or by kayaking into it. We opted for the latter. We rented a kayak from Antelope Point and paddled a few miles to the entrance of (I believe) Upper Antelope Canyon. It was stunning – miles of uninterrupted, martian-like landscape. We saw nearly no one and were free to explore as long as we wanted since we didn’t go with a guided tour. This is a must-see if you’re in this region.
(9) Bryce Canyon National Park – Utah
Bryce is the lost city of Atlantis found… The main amphitheater containing thousands of hoodoos (odd-shaped rock pillars that were formed over many years by erosion) is one of the most alien things I’ve ever seen. We only had one power day in Bryce before we headed to Zion, plus it was Memorial Day weekend and exceptionally crowded, so we didn’t do anything too far off the beaten path. However, we did find amazing truck camping sites on a long, winding US Forest Service road within the park. There were miles of camp spots – ranging from ones that were less exposed and closer to the hoodoos (pictured below), to those located high atop peaks overlooking the stunning pink and white mountain ranges (also pictured below). And, for others who need to shower once in awhile, there’s a campground run by the National Park Service right inside an entrance (and close to the aforementioned USFS road) with paid showers. (If you’d like to reach out to Bryce Canyon directly for more info, please contact them here).
(10) Zion National Park – Utah
Surprisingly, Zion was my least favorite stop on the trip. This may have been due to the crowds and that we had to be bussed around (and wait for an hour in line for each bus) to get from the entrance side of the park to the hiking areas (also, we went on Memorial Day weekend, which I wouldn’t recommend doing…). That said, there are a number of amazing experiences in Zion, so it’s well worth seeing.
On day 1, we hiked / scrambled up Angel’s Landing. The views are insane, and it is one of the most famous and thrilling hikes in the national park system. The hike to the peak took us 2 to 3 hours, when it should have only taken 1, due to the sheer number of people attempting to scramble up chains on a narrow cliff. It was a bit terrifying because lots of people who had no business attempting the hike were heading up, and you had to hug the cliff ledge to let others past on the chains somewhat frequently. Was the view worth it? You can decide for yourself from the photos below. If you are going to attempt the hike, it’s best to arrive and start before 8 or 9 AM. This will help you avoid the big crowds.
On day 2, we hiked and floated the famous Zion Narrows, and it was pretty amazing. We rented dry suits and a giant walking stick, which I found essential to the experience since the water was 50 degrees and you walked upstream in small rapids. The dry suits also are buoyant, so after you hike as far as you desire to go upstream, you can use them to float through the rapids, which is really fun.
Tip – Try to get a Subway permit. We didn’t know it existed, but it looks amazing. However, it seems the permits are nearly as difficult to obtain as those for The Wave, so plan for it in advance. We (obviously) weren’t able to obtain a permit.
Entrances & Truck Camping – One of my favorite parts of Zion was the trip down (you guessed it) highway 89 through the east side entrance that traversed a 1.1 mile tunnel and the Zion Scenic Drive. Be sure to pay attention during this because you will drive by some of the coolest scenery in the park. We truck camped one night in Zion. We stayed near Kolob Canyon Entrance, which (I believe) is the entrance and road you use to access The Subway. It was hands down my favorite camping spot. We were up against ancient, crumbling mini-cliffs on one side, and had a vast view of all of Zion on the other side. See for yourself in the photos below…
Paid Showers – We found paid showers in Zion Mountain School on the main drag of the Zion resort town.
(11) Red Rock Canyon & Vegas Pools – Las Vegas, Nevada
If you can tag 24 hours in Vegas onto the end of your trip, it’s well worth it. We found a good deal (since it was off season for Vegas) on Red Rock Resort. We spent our final 20ish hours swimming, drinking, and checking our Red Rock Canyon (which has some excellent climbing spots) before hopping on a plane to come back.
Mars Loop in Photos.