Outdoors Adventures in the Four Corners
April 19, 2004
If you've been suffering from gray-weather blues lately, or you're stressed
out because you live somewhere densely populated and traffic-ridden, a road
trip to America's Four Corners region may be just what you need. Don't let
skyrocketing gas prices sour you on this trip; even during the summer high
season, it's possible to visit this area - which takes in northeastern
Arizona, southeastern Utah, southwestern Colorado, and northwestern New
Mexico - without spending a ton of money. The payoff is viewing - and hiking
through - spectacular vistas of red-rock canyons, ponderosa-studded forests,
and brilliantly painted deserts.
In the best of all worlds, you would give yourself two weeks or more to get
a full sense of the area, but you can definitely see the most memorable
sights in a little over a week. The itinerary described here is intended for
a 10-day trip, figuring that you fly into the area on a Friday night and fly
back home again at the end of the following weekend.
The most convenient city to fly into is Phoenix, a hub of both Southwest and
America West airlines; it's a little under two hours by car from Flagstaff,
which is where our tour commences. But you could also approach this trip
from Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, or Albuquerque, which are all within three
hours of different points along the drive.
This is a fairly conservative part of the country, although within the parks
themselves and most of the touristy towns near them (Flagstaff, Moab,
Durango), more progressive attitudes prevail. Because this area is
relatively close to gay-popular destinations like Santa Fe, Aspen, and
Sedona, just about all of the major stops along this itinerary draw their
fair share of same-sex couples. Singles take note, however: This area that
encompasses roughly 70,000 square miles has no gay bars and few
opportunities for meeting like souls.
Keep in mind that this trip requires a lot of driving; you can expect to
cover roughly 2,000 miles during the 10-day adventure. But, as the old
cliche goes, getting there is half the fun, and most of the route is along
rural two-lane highways that pass by stunning vistas.
Here's a quick rundown of the route, including which towns or national parks
are best for overnights. Because time is tight, you're only going to be able
to spend a few hours in some of the national parks along the way; but even
in these places, you'll have the chance to stop at some viewpoints and visit
the park information centers. At the end of the trip, you'll have a good
sense of which parks and towns along this route most caught your fancy, and
you can return for a longer visit.
Day 1 (150 miles): Arrive in Phoenix and drive directly to Flagstaff, where
you spend your first night.
Days 2 and 3 (75 miles): Drive to the South Rim of Grand Canyon National
Park, explore the park, and spend two nights.
Day 4 (275 miles): Drive to Zion National Park, stopping off at Glen Canyon
National Recreation Area, in Page, along the way.
Days 5 and 6 (300 miles): Drive to Moab, Utah. This is the longest day of
the trip, so get up at the crack of dawn or you'll have little time to stop
at the national parks along the way, which include Bryce, Grand
Staircase-Escalante, and Capitol Reef. In Moab for two nights, you'll have
time to explore Arches National Park and also get a quick peek at
Day 7 (175 miles): Drive to Durango, Colo., stopping at Mesa Verde National
Park for a good bit of the day.
Day 8 (50 miles): Drive to Farmington, N.M., stopping at Aztec Ruins
Day 9 (150 miles): Drive to Chinle, Ariz., passing by the Four Corners
monument, and arriving in Chinle early enough to spend a little time
exploring Canyon de Chelly National Monument.
Day 10 (375 miles): This is your fly-home day, meaning you have to allow
enough time to drive all the way back from Chinle to Phoenix (about a
six-hour drive, although mostly along interstates with beautiful scenery,
very little traffic, and 75 mph speed limits). It can be done, especially if
you're able to book a fairly late flight. A better option is to take your
time, maybe even spend a little more time at Canyon de Chelly, drive through
Petrified Forest National Park (which is en route), and then spend your
final night at a motel near or in Phoenix.
The Must-See Sights
There's so much to see in every park or town along this route. You can't see
everything, and you're likely to drive yourself batty if you don't stick to
the highlights. Even then, be sure to give yourself pockets of free time for
snooping around galleries and souvenir shops, taking a few spontaneous
hikes, or catching a short film inside one of the national-park visitor
centers. Some of the towns in this region have excellent, if limited,
restaurant scenes, too - best bets for relatively sophisticated dining are
Flagstaff, Springdale (near Zion), Moab, and Durango.
Here are 10 things you should definitely set aside time for during this
1. At the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, reserve three hours to hike at
least a short way into the canyon along the Bright Angel Trail. There's a
rest area after 1.5 miles, at which point you can head back to the rim.
Watch for the once-nearly extinct California condors that often circle above
the trail. Also, it's absolutely worth booking a room at the South Rim's
famous El Tovar Hotel, which dates to 1905, although you'll have to make
reservations at least four months ahead.
2. On the drive up to Zion, stop in Page, Ariz., and take the tour of Glen
Canyon Dam, overlooking Lake Powell.
3. In Zion, set aside an hour for the short but extremely rewarding Canyon
Overlook Trail, one of the few spots in this vast terrain of rock monoliths
and deep ravines where you're up high looking down across the valley.
4. En route from Zion to Moab, stop for at least three hours in Bryce Canyon
National Park and plan to drive the entire park road, stopping at every
overlook to behold the fantastic hoodoos (local lingo for the area's
geological formations) and rock spires; in summer, when traffic can be
intense, consider using the park's excellent shuttle system.
5. At Arches National Park, plan a 3-mile (round-trip) sunset hike to
Delicate Arch, which turns flaming red-orange as the sinking sun catches
it - it's an amazing photo op.
6. When you stop in Mesa Verde National Park en route to Durango, set aside
three hours in the afternoon to take the Balcony House Half-Day Tour (costs
about $40 per person), which departs at 1 p.m. from the visitors center.
This tour gains you access to some of the park's most fascinating
archaeological ruins, and the guides who lead these tours are outstanding.
7. Durango presents you with the chance to take a hair-raising ride along
the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, which chugs up into the
jagged, snowcapped San Juan Mountains.
8. Plan a quick, hour-long tour through the ruins in Aztec, N.M. - this is
an easy alternative to visiting New Mexico's most comprehensive ancient
ruin, at Chaco, which you won't have time to do on this tour.
9. In Canyon de Chelly, there are two main canyon-rim drives - opt for the
South Rim Drive, which offers the most brilliant views. Definitely plan to
stop for a bit at the very end of this loop drive, where a short trail leads
to the Spider Rock Overlook.
10. On your last day, as you drive through Petrified Forest National Park,
set aside a couple of hours to take the somewhat steep 1-mile Blue Mesa loop
trail, which meanders through lunarlike badlands painted in reds, yellows,
If you can manage to hit all 10 of these high points during your journey
through the Four Corners region, consider yourself lucky - you will have
laid eyes on some of the most breathtaking and memorable sights in North
America. In fact, nowhere else in the world can you find most of this
scenery, from the mesmerizing spiky rock spires of Bryce Canyon to the
impossibly bizarre red-rock arches of Moab. You may never look at America
the same way again.
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