The Surprising Sights and Gems of Utah & Nevada

Due to Covid and moving to Canada it has been far too long since I’ve been on a family holiday. After such a long time I was excited to explore the wilds of Southern Utah and Nevada with my parents. The primary goal of the trip was the Ironman World Championships (race report here) but it would also be so nice having some down time. I think they were quite looking forward to a holiday where they were encouraged to do nothing and just rest.

Tuesday

They arrived the day before to take the opportunity to explore Las Vegas. They decided to sleep and walk the strip at 8am rather than the evening. While not the traditional plan in Vegas it suited them perfectly as they got to see everything without the hassle of the crowds.

We connected at the airport, collected the hire car (a North American monstrosity to fit 3 and a bike) and set off for St George, Utah.

The first sign of the incredible scenery is the Virgin River Gorge. It cuts through the mountains to provide a route between Nevada and Utah (and Arizona at both ends). I don’t know what is more spectacular the entrance or the actual gorge. You can’t see its path through the mountains until you enter it but once in it does not disappoint!!

I don’t have a photo of the gorge, but this is the exit

Our first stay in St George was the Red Lion Hotel for one night before moving to the Inn on the Cliff. Booking had been challenging but I figured it would be more suitable for my parents. The main reason for mentioning the Red Lion Hotel is for its bath/hot tubs…

Yes, that’s a chandelier over the bath.

Wednesday

My main objectives for Wednesday were a warmup swim at Sandy Hollow (one of the top tourist attractions), register (where we collected restaurant recommendations) and bike/explore Snow Canyon. Southern Utah travel is dominated by Zion National Park, but some of the guidebooks and locals said Snow Canyon is the hidden gem.

  • Sandy Hollow swim went to plan. The water was ‘fresh’ but manageable.
  • Registration was easy and got two restaurant recommendations – Sakura, a hibachi grill, and the Cliffside Restaurant which was our hotels restaurant.
  • Snow Canyon is spectacular!

I took the time to ride it a couple of times while my parents drove up and down exploring before regrouping at a lookout to explore the rocks. The photos aren’t the best and 100% miss the size, impact and colouring of the rocks. Definitely a gem!

After this we drove the bike course which took us through Veyo where there is a famous pie shop. I was hoping for a chicken pie or similar but it was a fruit pie shop. A little disappointing as it was lunch but still excellent.

That evening we ate at the Cliffside Restaurant which has a spectacular view (as did our hotel rooms) overlooking St George. For the most part the food was very good but as was the recurring theme throughout the trip the portion sizes were enormous!

Thursday

The treat for Thursday was heading to Zion National Park, just over an hours drive from St George. Everyone raves about it, so we felt we had to at least check it out.

By the time we arrived at 9am the car park was almost full and there were people everywhere. We thought we had left quite early, but this was a pre sunrise kind of early place.

It is enormous in every way: the park, the scenery and the tourist set up. We had no idea what we were going to do. Most people were in waders (for canyoning) or serious hiking kit. We, particularly me and my dad, were not prepared. I had assumed it would be hot and it wasn’t. Between the three of us we probably had all the parts required for one person to visit the park.

There is a shuttle that runs the length of the park with drop offs at various points to see sights or do any number of hikes. This would have been fun, but we were tight on time and are notoriously bad tourists.

Instead, we did a hike close to the park information center. While I am sure the park has a lot of amazing sights the impressive thing is the size and rock formations. From the hike we did, these were perfectly evident, so I am not sure we missed much.

After our brief hike we drove up into the park to the tunnel that passes through the mountains. The drive was spectacular, and the tunnel is an engineering feat. It is at the top of the pass, 5000 feet above sea level, with ever more spectacular views. One word of warning is the tunnel traffic can get pretty bad which could lead to a long wait. We rode our luck though as the 2nd last car through one way and once out someone let us turnaround and cut in to then be the last car back through.

Following our whistle stop tour of Zion we returned to St George. Zion was very impressive/beautiful, and I am sure if you put the effort in there are some out of this world view points. However, in general the landscape of the whole region is pretty unique, Zion is just the cherry on top.

For dinner we tried the second recommendation, Sakura. It was a weird experience. We had hoped to get a seat at one of the grills, but this didn’t happen. The place was chaos with people coming/going and waiting. The decor was also very simple. Pretty much a bare room where they had put some grill/tables with limited decoration.

It wasn’t all bad. They had an interactive floor at the entrance of a fish tank which produced ripples when you stepped on it (its the small things in life). The food was good and somehow, we got a private dining room with a slidy door etc. which led to an enhanced dining experience.

It is very clear that while there are some good restaurants in St George, fine dining is somewhat limited!

Friday and Saturday

Taken up with the race which you can read about here.

Sunday

Post Ironman I was feeling very lazy and sore, so my parents banked some R&R by the pool. We were still on the look things to do but St George has its limits once you’ve seen a lot of rock/desert.

There was one recommended thing left, the Red Hills Desert Garden. It was close, required limited walking and we had time to kill so off we went.

It was actually surprisingly interesting. It’s a city-maintained garden featuring all sorts of desert plants, a little river and even fish which are exclusive to the region. Throughout the park they were emphasising the importance of water maintenance in an arid region and educating on landscaping in such a harsh environment.

On Sunday’s most restaurants are closed so we drove into town for a pizza. The less we say about that the better! But a good time to touch on alcohol. You are only able to order drinks if accompanied by food which made a post race beer a slightly challenging exercise. A very strange comparison when Las Vegas is not far away and the complete opposite.

Monday

We were all flying out in the evening so had to find something to do with our day. The Grand Canyon was floated but was a bit too far. In the end we settled for returning via a back country route and visiting the Hoover Dam. And what a great decision this turned out to be.

We started out west and took the old I-91 back into Arizona and down to Nevada. I don’t have any pictures of this part of the trip bit it’s impossible to describe the size and barrenness of this landscape. Throughout the entire trip I was in awe of the emptiness and ruggedness of the landscape as far as you can see in every direction. Looking at the terrain it seems almost impossible that people were able to travel this region without roads in wagons. Walking across the terrain would have been hard enough!

Our journey continued south until we detoured off through Moapa valley, past the Valley of Fire State Park and into the Lake Mead Recreational Area. Sadly, this is not just a day trip, so we had to make decisions knowing we were missing certain things.

Having driven along the lake for a while I followed a hunch and we turned off down towards Echo Bay to explore. As we got closer the level of water drop caused by the 20-year drought really started to hit home. You can’t miss it as it’s as clear as day on the rocks. The slipway for launching had been extended again and again. A kayaking fisherman we met told us it was so low it was being closed the following Wednesday. It was particularly bad as since February they had let out close to 10m of water to support Las Vegas, Arizona and California.

We were all pretty speechless at the visual impact of the drought. It seems nothing in this region done by half measures. Before we left, I took the opportunity for a wade in Lake Mead. It seemed like an I’ve been in there kind of moment!

Eventually, we continued onwards towards the Hoover Dam. Around this point we noticed the entire road was lined with a 1ft high fence that looked pretty solid. We hadn’t the foggiest what it was for as any animal we could think of would easily be able to jump it. At the Hoover Dam Information Center, we discovered it was for the desert tortoise. Amazing! There are 100’s if not 1000’s miles of fencing to protect a tortoise!!!

Wildlife throughout the trip had been scarce. On our drive we saw a herd of Mule deer and one funny running bird. Typically though, it wasn’t in any of the many bird books we had. At the same information center, we found out it was a roadrunner.

We passed many amazing viewpoints, stopping at some, all the while being reminded how low the lake was by the water marks on the rock. Later in the day I read a news report they were starting to find bodies in the lake from decades old murders. It really highlights the issues of the drought. The drought is not caused by global warming, they are common, but it is the worst natural drought in over 1000 years. This combined with the exacerbating affects of global warming are leading the Southwestern states into a disaster. If the lake runs out who knows what will happen to this region. As of August 2021, the lake was at 35% capacity and the downstream states are continuing to see their water allowances cut. It is predicted the lake will never return to its original level given the significantly higher demands on water from these 3 states.

Next up on the road trip came the Hoover Dam. I had read about it but beyond the historical significance my knowledge was limited. The dam is immense. Unfortunately, given the water level drop the water line on the rocks is probably as equally impressive. We drove and walked across it being the best tourists we could. Taking our photos, joining everyone staring in awe at the height and water level difference and I even managed to spot a fish (yes, I’m always on the lookout!). It is a sight I am very glad we took the time to come and see. A big part of US history, an incredible engineering feat and the lifeline to the Southwest US.

Our time had run out and it was time for the airport. The plan had been to return to a picnic spot and look for some bighorn sheep but yours truly took a wrong turn and we ended up on the interstate. As a result, our trips’ final picnic spot in the desert was not the most scenic (we had had a few crackers), next to the highway and a solar farm, but we were content. What started out as a delayal of a trip to the airport had turned in to a fascinating day of sight seeing and education on the region.

As my mum said she was happy she had visited the area as otherwise she probably would have never seen and explored this landscape. Utah/Nevada had provided something very different. I also hope it was a relaxing holiday, apart from chasing me around an Ironman, and provided them with some downtime ahead of their endlessly hectic summer.

For me I had had enough desert for a while and would be returning to rainy, cool Vancouver with some excellent new memories, knowledge and appreciation for explorers/travellers from a time before cars. I have always thought how fun it would be to have lived in the world of explorers before travel was easy, but boy would it have been a harsh lifestyle here!

Next up for me is Ironman 70.3 Victoria in a few weeks. If that goes to plan I could well be back in October for the Ironman 70.3 World Championships. Only time will tell….

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