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TRAVEL FEATURE

Outdoors Adventures in the Four Corners


April 19, 2004

The view from Spider Look Overlook reveals the epic red-rock grandeur of Canyon de Chelly National Monument.

The thousands of bizarre hoodoos (rock formations) at Bryce Canyon National Park have been carved by eons of ice, water, and wind erosion.
Photos: Andrew Collins


The Little Black Book

  • Durango Area Tourism Office - (970-247-0312 or 800-525-8855)
  • Farmington Convention and Visitors Bureau - 505-326-7602 or 800-448-1240
  • Flagstaff Convention and Visitors Bureau - 928-774-9541 or 800-842-7293
  • Grand County Travel Council (Moab) - 435-259-1370, 435-259-8825, or 800-635-6622
  • Holbrook Chamber of Commerce - 928-524-6558 or 800-524-2459
  • The National Park Website
  • Navajo Nation Tourism Office - 928-871-7371
  • Page/Lake Powell Chamber of Commerce - 928-645-2741
  • Zion Canyon Visitors Bureau - 888-518-7070
  • 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.

    The Itinerary

    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 Canyonlands.

  • 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 National Monument.

  • 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 jaunt.
  • 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, and grays.

    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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