November 2 – For two retired women, visiting five National Parks (plus Monument Valley) in 10 days was probably a bit ambitious. Now that the trip is over, we have some insights:

Our favorite parks were Bryce Canyon, Zion and Arches – close but roughly in that order. A revised itinerary would probably omit Canyonlands and Capitol Reef and spend more time exploring the other three. We did spend two nights in Moab (Arches, Canyonlands) and two nights in Springdale (Zion), but only one night at Bryce Canyon – our agreed-upon favorite, even though I punched Sue in the face there.

National Parks make us happy.

I feel guilty even suggesting that Canyonlands and Capitol Reef are somehow lesser parks. In fact, it is Canyonlands’ vastness (there are three different sections to it, at significant distances from one another) that made it difficult to claim we had actually been there. Unless you are off-roading or hiking in the backcountry, or planning an extended camping trip, you will see only an infinitesimal fraction of Canyonlands.

As mentioned, the drive up from Monument Valley tired us out by the time we got to Capitol Reef National Park. It’s a beautiful setting along the Fremont River, with some unique geology and interesting Mormon history, but you could say that about a lot of southern Utah. We did not do any hiking there.

Monument Valley is an outlier. Our hotel there was actually in Arizona. We are both glad we went, but it did add a few hundred miles (and more unforgettable scenery) to the trip. I would still only stay one night. Goosenecks State Park near Mexican Hat was a jaw-dropping scenic side trip.

I personally was fascinated by the scale and beauty of the 2-million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, especially in light of the current political controversy over its history, size and use. Its main attraction is remote backcountry hiking and canyoneering, though, and that is not what we came to do.

We stayed in 8 different hotels, including the airport hotel on either end. We rented a Jeep Renegade from Enterprise, my favorite car rental company, and were upgraded to a loaded Grand Cherokee. We put about 1,400 miles and a lot of Moab red dirt on it. Because I had been to Salt Lake City four times before, we drove straight from the airport to Price, halfway between Salt Lake City and Moab. However, if you have not been there, Salt Lake is definitely worth a day or two; the Mormon Tabernacle Choir rehearses on Thursday nights when in town.

We bought a $3 Styrofoam cooler and filled it with lunchmeat, cheese, hummus and beer. We had bread, crackers, pretzels and protein bars. We don’t like to eat a big dinner at night, so this saved us money and calories and enabled us to enjoy picnics at Bryce Canyon and Goosenecks State Park, and to have something to eat when the pickings were slim.

There were originally supposed to be four of us on this trip. First, one woman dropped out, then the second pulled out a week before the trip. So we were down to Sue and me, who have traveled together for 32 years. In retrospect, I can’t imagine sharing any of these hotel rooms with one or two other women.

I don’t like to do “bus tour” versions of places, especially National Parks. I like to feel that I have been there, soaked it in, understood its history, geology or whatever else makes it special, and hiked its trails. So while we can now say we have visited Utah’s “Mighty Five,” we probably should have set out to really experience, in more depth, the “Big Three.”

Resources and costs

This atlas was invaluable.

Planning the trip, and learning about the places we are headed, is a big part of the enjoyment for me. I immediately bought the DeLorme Utah Atlas and Gazeteer, which includes amazingly detailed, large-format maps. Especially if you are not taking a tour, you need to do some advanced research and reading or you will miss a lot.

I maintained a Utah Pinterest page, displayed on this blog, and added photos and information about parks, geology, hikes, and even hiking shoes and other equipment. I watched YouTube  videos on everything from mountain bike form to GoPro encounters with individual trails and roads to help us determine where to go and how to get there. Sue watched videos on how to pack and managed to get all her clothes for an 11-day trip into a carry-on – and her clothes were not wrinkled at all.

The National Park Service websites on each venue were very helpful, and I was able to print handouts on trails with easy, moderate and strenuous ratings. Sue has the senior pass, which saved us hundreds of dollars on entrance fees.

Sue added up all the receipts this morning and the trip cost less than $3,500 for both of us – air fare, accommodations, checked luggage, 4×4 tour, groceries, rental car, gas, food. Everything.