The West’s Greatest Hits. In Just Four Days.
No American landscape is as iconic as the red-rock canyons, cliffs, and mesas of the Southwest. You could spend a lifetime exploring the region's eight national parks. But you could also tick off the highlights on a four-day road trip that starts and ends in that other American icon, Las Vegas. "This is a breakneck tour of the Southwest," says Will James, owner of Dreamland Safari Tours. "But if you've got only a few days, you can make it work."
Zion National Park
Zion's soaring sandstone formations can reduce you to tears, even if you never get out of the car. But you should, and the place to do it is Yankee Doodle Canyon, a mile-long, shoulder-width slot canyon just outside the park's border. It requires a 90-foot rappel, but Caleb Padgett, co-owner of Zion Mountain School, swears the half-day adventure is as easy as it gets. "The 12-year-olds do as well as their parents," he says. Stay east of the park, in Kanab, a Mormon outpost on the Colorado Plateau that served as the setting for old westerns, including Gunsmoke and The Lone Ranger.
The Wire Pass lies an hour east of Kanab, in the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument. The walkable slot canyon has impossibly shaped walls and Anasazi rock at two miles in; it's so narrow that even in the blanched white of high noon you'll be enveloped in cool shadows. Afterward, drive 40 miles southeast, over the Glen Canyon Dam, and crash in any of the cheap and plentiful chain motels in Page, Arizona.
"The more the water level drops, the more Glen Canyon returns to pre-dam conditions," says Clint Spahn, co-owner of Hidden Canyon Kayak. In other words, the West's ongoing drought is actually good news for kayaking on Lake Powell, where the long-flooded cliffs and side canyons are now visible for the first time in a generation. Hidden Canyon's full-day tour motors you on a pontoon boat loaded with kayaks six miles upriver to Labyrinth Canyon, one of the most dramatic rock amphitheaters left drowned behind the dam. From there you'll explore the lake from the peace and quiet of your own kayak.
The Grand Canyon
The canyon's South Rim, about two hours from Lake Powell, is a veritable zoo, so stop well before you reach the national park village at Desert View, just inside the eastern park boundary. In the 30 miles of empty road between Desert View and the village are 15 lookouts and picnic areas — some marked, some not — that offer views as stunning as South Rim's. "Park, walk 10 yards, and drop your jaw in private," says James. From there, it's an eight-hour haul back to Vegas. Fortunately it's a spectacular drive that takes you through Flagstaff, Arizona, a new foodie mecca; across the eastern edges of the Mojave Desert; and past the engineering marvel that is Hoover Dam.