The pandemic may have forced travel around the globe to stall, but here in the U.S., with a little patience and flexibility, you can discover a world of beauty and solitude in our very own National Parks.
Our National Parks are seeing record numbers of visitors this year, but as the end of summer approaches those numbers are dropping off as families return to work and school. The fall months ahead offer a less crowded time of the year to consider a visit, and September provides cooler temperatures in the desert while the Aspen trees begin their transformation to a golden yellow beauty. Another benefit is that airlines are also less crowded and offer cheaper fares to many places around the country making, dare I say, flying a joy comparatively!
I recently returned from a hiking and stargazing trip through three of our National Parks, with several State Parks, and National Monuments in between the main events. The National Parks included: Great Basin, NV, Bryce Canyon, UT, and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, AZ.
Our flight from Pittsburgh to Salt Lake City was rerouted through Atlanta, but we never felt that rush or encountered any long lines or the crowded terminals usually associated with summer travel. We flew with Delta, on an aircraft that was immaculately cleaned. As with all Delta flights currently, the middle seats were left open for social distancing. I felt more comfortable flying today than ever before because of all the new policies and procedures put in place.
Once in Utah, we picked up our rental car, loaded up on snacks for the trip at a local market, and headed westward to Ely, NV via the Bonneville Flats in the Great Salt Lake, for a photo-op of this unique destination. Ely, is a quaint little town in northeast Nevada, only an hour drive from the entrance to Great Basin National Park would be our first overnight. Normally Great Basin is not a crowded park due to its isolated location. For us, it was even more peaceful thanks to our early start and reduced crowds as a result of the pandemic. The Park is renowned for its Bristlecone Pine tree which is the oldest living organism on the planet. There is a grove of Bristlecone Pine trees here that are more than 4,000 years old. The trees in this grove are even older than the Giants of Sequoia and the Redwoods in California! You have the option to make the hike to the grove as easy or challenging as you wish. A couple miles round trip from the parking lot allows you to see the Bristlecones up close. If you are able to continue hiking an additional few miles will take you via some gorgeous small alpine lakes on the way. As you continue on your journey through the beautiful alpine forest with 13,000 foot Wheeler Peak in the background is the best way to get there. If you have the time and are used to walking four or five miles you can add on of yet another mile after the Grove takes you to the base of a small glacier at the base of Wheeler Peak. Wheeler Peak is a superb hike for active adventurers who are prepared for changes in elevation and weather who would like to see the view of the Basin from above. Near the Park entrance spelunkers can explore Lehman Caves, another fascinating not-to-miss highlighting the remoteness of the Great Basin. Another highlight of visiting this park is the exceptional dark sky astronomy programs offered by the National Park service.
The striking red and brown colors of the hoodoos (a column or pinnacle of weathered rock) in Bryce are accented by the green of fir trees and endless blue skies overhead. Bryce is a hiker’s paradise. There are several trails for all levels (easy, moderate, and difficult) but if you only have one day to hike, the Figure 8 ranges in intensity which includes Wall Street, Peek-a-Boo Loop, and the Queen’s Garden, and is an incredible way to immerse yourself in the wonders of Bryce Canyon. This is a great full-day hike for a seasoned hiker. However if you would like an easier half day hike, you can opt to hike from the rim to the Queen’s Garden. In only a few short miles round trip, you find yourself immersed in the red and gold of the best Bryce Canyon has to offer. If hiking still isn’t for you, you can enjoy mule rides that will take you into the world below the rim, so you too can feel the beauty of this incredible park. An easy self-drive or NPS shuttle ride will stop at various scenic overlooks on the park’s 24-mile access road as well. Bryce is also known as a Dark Sky location and will not disappoint! The Milky Way is visible with the naked eye. With a decent camera, you can capture images even deeper than your field of vision!
With several local state parks visited after Bryce, we made our way to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. 1,000 feet higher than the South Rim and five hours drive to get there, the North Rim is generally much less crowded than the south rim. And, with the current restrictions at the North Rim Lodge restricting the number of guests, it seemed as though we had the place to ourselves!
To complete our trip, we set out in the morning on a short half-mile rim hike to say goodbye and begin the four and a half hour drive to Las Vegas for what originally was to be a Sting Concert at Caesar’s Palace. Even though it was canceled, and with a little flexibility, we found an interesting side trip to Pipe Springs National Monument, then enjoyed a great steak dinner in Vegas before flying home the next morning.
No matter your level of fitness or adventure-seeking desire, the National Parks and Monuments have something to offer everyone. Whether you searching for an adventure away from everyday life, or looking to appreciate family time surrounded by stunning nature and solitude, mixed with endless excellent photographic opportunities, there has never been a better time to visit America’s Best Idea, our National Parks.