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In my last column, I had written about our family trip to the southwestern US, and in particular, southern Utah, taken in 1999. I stopped the last column just before we had arrived in Bryce Canyon National Park, after describing one of the great drives in the United States, Utah Highway 12 through the Grand Escalante Staircase National Monument.

Bryce Canyon is like no other park, simply because the landscape is so bizarre and fantastic that there could truly only be one place like this in the world. Erosion has created a vast wonderland of multi-colored rock formations called "Hoo-doos". They are easily viewed from several great drives within the park, but the highlight of a trip to this park is taking a hike down into the hoo-doos. A view from above just doesn't give justice to how large they are, and how amazing it is that Mother Nature has crafted this place through water, wind, and time. The hike is easy, winding in and out of the hoodoo canyons, though on our trip back up out of the hoo-doos, we were caught in a wild thunderstorm that totally drenched all of us. However, given that it was 80 degrees, and a lot of other people were hiking along with us, it turned out to be a great part of the adventure.

We stayed at a place just outside the park, called Bryce Canyon Pines, which was a classic old motel, where you park your car just outside your room.

However, the rooms are clean and comfortable, they have a covered pool, and a restaurant with great, basic, comfort food. By staying here, we avoided the huge crowds that pour into the main junction just outside the park. You can also stay in a nice lodge within the park, if you are lucky enough to make reservations through the National Park Service.

Our next stop was Zion National Park, located in the southwestern corner of Utah. Zion is beautiful in its own special, massive, magnificent way, with towering red and pink colored mountains and cliffs dominating the views. Zion is another park easily traversed by car, but we took two memorable hikes that we thoroughly enjoyed. One was a short, uphill hike to a waterfall that gave us a nice view of the Zion valley below. The other was the best hike of the vacation, and totally unexpected. At the end of Zion is a place called The Narrows. It is a series of switchback canyons that get narrower and narrower the further in you travel. If there has been a thunderstorm, you cannot safely hike in there because of the propensity for flash floods. However, if the weather is good, this is a phenomenal hike. It starts with an easy one mile flat walk to the beginning of The Narrows. From here, the hike really begins. The trail goes right back through the Narrows, and alternately is located on a decent dirt trail, or right on through the river itself. That's right, half the hike is in water up to your belly button, but the water temperature is fine, and the walk is spectacular. The cliffs rise way up on either side of you, you must wear tennis shoes or some other foot cover that allows you to traverse the rocky river bottom, and you should take one of the walking sticks that are piled up at the trailhead.

We hiked several miles back, until we came to a huge pool of water into which a lot of people were diving or jumping. Interestingly, the majority of these individuals were Europeans. It seems Utah is a major destination for the people of Europe when traveling to the US. Sadly, most Americans never make it to Utah, and therefore have no idea that it is one of the world's most beautiful and spectacular areas.

We stayed just outside the park in Springvale, Utah, at a great little motel called the Bumbleberry Inn. It was new, had a great pool, and was perfectly located for Zion. We found the Bumbleberry in the AAA Tour Book, and we got a great discount for being AAA members. Really, for the price, AAA can't be beat, if only for the free maps and decent discounts on food and lodging.

From Zion, we traveled along a beautiful road into Arizona, and headed for the Grand Canyon, which is only a few hours away. Nothing can prepare you for the sight of this awesome, almost holy shrine. There is no place like this in the world, and I don't care how spectacular the scenery was up until the Canyon, this was the icing on the cake. One mile down and miles across to the other side, with ever changing colors on the walls of the canyon depending upon the time of day; this is nature's greatest wonder. And we were able to take it in from the less crowded and better side of the Canyon: the north rim. The real treat here is the Grand Canyon Lodge and cabins. The Lodge is perhaps the greatest of all the National Park lodges, and is built right on the edge of the canyon. Not only are the views absolutely spectacular, but the Lodge has a first class, rustic yet elegant restaurant serving up amazingly great food for the price with wonderful views of the Canyon.

We stayed in one of the many cabins nearby the Lodge, which had two beds for the boys in one end, with a queen bed in the other end, and a nice shower between. Perfect for us. We had booked a mule ride several months in advance, along with the cabin reservations, and took a ? day ride to the rim of the canyon. It was great fun for all of us. For those with more time and an adventurous soul, you can ride to the bottom of the canyon and back, spending the night at the bottom. As I recall, the name of the outfit was easily found on the internet, and we rode the Uncle Tom trail. There are several wonderful hikes all over the Park, depending upon your stamina and desire to get down into the canyon a bit. We took several hikes, and enjoyed them all. Remember: stay at the Grand Canyon Lodge on the North Rim. It is far less visited than the South Rim, which is the main access for California and Arizona. And make reservations well in advance. This is one of those places to plan your trip around.

From here, we decided to blow the dust off, and headed for Las Vegas for a couple of days. We stayed at the MGM Grand Hotel, which is the best place for families. MGM has a 10 acre water park, complete with many pools and a river with a current that will gently push you all around the perimeter of the park. In addition, there is an amusement park right on the complex, with roller coasters and other fun rides. My wife and I aren't big gamblers, so we pulled a few slots, and played a little blackjack for a couple of hours one evening while the kids watched a movie in the hotel room. This was a nice change of pace, though I can take Las Vegas only in small doses. Two nights was perfect; the kids got to see the sights, and we recuperated at the water park almost all day long. Las Vegas is an amazing place; the resorts are absolutely huge; and the place never sleeps.

From here, we traveled back to Arizona, to Page, which is on the edge of a manmade lake known as Lake Powell. Some say that the canyons flooded by this giant reservoir ( over a hundred miles or more in length ) were close in beauty to the Grand Canyon. What you have is a major lake in the middle of the desert, with huge mountains rising right out of the water, and large numbers of fiord like areas to explore throughout the lake area. Many people do this by renting a houseboat for a week with friends. They rent a ski-doo or bring their own toys, and tow it behind the boat. This allows them to explore the entire lake for an extended period of time, which I hear is a wonderful trip. However, we were one day visitors, so we rented a speed boat at approximately $150.00 for the day, a steep price but well worth it. We headed off into the canyons, tubed on the lake, had lunch sitting on a beach in one of the many fiords, and generally saw only a small part of this amazing desert oasis. You can stay in one of many motels throughout Page, and while I believe you can get a boat without much trouble, it pays to make a reservation. We were glad we did.

From here, we headed to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to stay at a friend's home. This is a beautiful, artsy city, but not that great of an attraction for the kids. We had fun in the downtown shopping area in old Santa Fe, but were ready to move on after a day and a half.

We had planned to travel to Durango, Colorado, and see Mesa Verde National Park, and then drive on home from there, but we ran out of time, and drove straight back to Ft. Wayne in one 22 hour jaunt from Santa Fe. Not recommended. Melissa and I were so tired we were nearly hallucinating at some points, and driving through the Ozarks in Missouri, it rained so hard you could hardly see the front of the van. In fact, it rained that way all the way from the Ozarks to the middle of Illinois! But we made it back in one piece, and with a lifetime of memories.

This was a perfect family trip, and I recommend it to anyone who can take two weeks to truly enjoy this unique area. There is honestly no more beautiful landscape anywhere in this country, and that includes Alaska.

In the future, I'll take the time to write about this year's trip, to Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, as well as the many beautiful adjacent areas to its north, south, and east.


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