The Grand Staircase – from Tuba City to Zion Canyon

So, where were we?? Oh, that’s right… caught in a snowstorm in the middle of the Arizona plains:


As i hinted in my last post, the drive from Monument Valley to Zion National Park suddenly became a wee bit scary, and unless we reacted quickly it looked like we might have to spend the night in our car by the side of the road, only to wake up buried in snow in the middle of nowhere, or resolve to knock on a door at that pretty creepy ghost town we found while looking for a petrol station…

So, what was it going to be? We really had our hearts set on arriving at Zion that very night, so we could spend the night after that at the unreal Bryce Canyon. But we were still about 100 km from the next big town, and the tiny ghost town I mentioned (Shonto, AZ (population 586) – zoom out on the map to get an idea of the middle-of-nowhereness of the place!) didn’t give off a particularly welcoming vibe. Interestingly enough, Shonto is Navajo for “Sunshine Springs” – the irony is not lost on me.

Weighing up our options, we agreed that the weather behind us had been milder, and there had been some signs of civilisation around, so we halfheartedly decided to turn back towards Tuba City – the detour was taking us more than 100 km out of our way, but we had no idea what lay ahead if we continued north, and no way of finding out.

We arrived at Tuba City, tired, stressed, hungry and annoyed – we knew the detour meant we’d have to skip the visit to Bryce Canyon (the drive to Zion on the next day would sort of make up for that, but we didn’t know that yet :-) ).  Tuba City is a Navajo town, but adjacent to it is the village of Moenkopi, of the Hopi tribe. The Moenkopi Legacy Inn is designed to look like a Hopi village, and managed by the tribe – and that’s where we found a warm and comfortable bed for the night.


Interesting side info: Hopi tribe regulations prohibit any alcohol consumption on tribe land, including the hotel, and it was made clear to us that we’d have to pay a severe fine if we were caught drinking on the premises. But we were tired, disappointed and cold, and were really looking forward to unwinding with some of the nice wine we had in our personal supplies. So we snuck it in with our overnight bags and thought we’d be discreet about it. But those who know me might know that me and glasses of wine don’t get along so well together. So of course i managed to spill my glass all over the bed, and spent about half an hour trying to wash the smell off the sheets :-) (we didn’t get caught).

Another interesting side note: the Hopi tribe apparently has some kind of rather confusing arrangement as to the time zone it’s on (check it out here. i still can’t quite figure it out).  The result is that we woke up at what we thought was 8 o’clock and happily went down for breakfast, only to find out it was actually 11, we’d missed breakfast and we were a few hours behind on our day’s driving schedule. So, delayed and confused, but also well rested and sort of amused, we set off on our way to Zion National Park.

The drive took us up the amazing Grand Staircase of the Colorado Plateau.  We drove along US Route 89 (UPDATE: just found out that Route 89 actually recently collapsed due to strange geological phenomena!), up the mountains where traces of last night’s snowstorm were still visible:



…then we drove through a passage in the snowy red rocks towards the plains again.



We listened to this while we were crossing the mountains (thank you Chris’ friend Mike!), until finally we could see Lake Powell on the horizon. The lake is actually another water reservoir created by a dam on the Colorado River. We were getting closer to Page, AZ where we’d cross the river and head once again into Utah.


We drove past Page, and suddenly Chris spotted a sign pointing towards a viewpoint by the side of the road. We were about halfway there, so we figured it was as good a time as any for a break. We didn’t really know where we were and what was around us, but we pulled over and took the little sandy path leading off the road into the red rocks.


We had no idea what was coming – and once again we were blown away by the sight of another canyon:



We’d accidentally discovered Glen Canyon – a lesser-known but incredibly beautiful canyon on the Colorado River. It’s actually within the stunning Vermilion Cliffs area (check out these photos!), on the second step up the Grand Staircase. We were fascinated by the brick-colored rocks, sculpted into waves swirling leisurely around us – it felt like we were walking in a sea of red rock. And the coolest thing was the little clifftop beach we discovered a little bit further down the path:

glen canyon-ts

It was isolated and beautiful. A perfect spot for a picnic and a quiet romantic evening! Unfortunately we still had things to do, places to be – so hanging around on that lovely martian-looking beach till sundown was not an option. We decided to get back on our way (but i got a feeling that this little hidden beach would remain one of my favourite spots on the trip). We crossed the Colorado River once again, this time on the Glen Canyon bridge (you can see it in the picture, right in front of the dam).


We drove along Lake Powell for a bit – like Lake Mead, this reservoir too looks and feels a little bit like a strange, unfamiliar moonscape (which is probably why this movie was shot there!).

lake_powell (2)

And about 10 km further down the road, we were back into Utah – hello again, endlessly straight roads. We’d missed you.





We cruised along these Utah roads, watching as the rocks around us slowly changed colour – from white to the familiar Utah red. We were getting closer to Zion!


Our last stop before entering the mountains once again was the little town of Kanab, UT – we stopped there for petrol and a cup of coffee before heading into the park. The town, resting smugly at the foot of a series of vermilion rocks, is apparently also known as Little Hollywood, since tons of western movies were shot there.


After a short break in the shadow of all that cinematic history, we left quaint little frontier town Kanab and took another step up the Grand Staircase – leaving the Vermilion Cliffs behind, we crossed the White Cliffs area and headed into the Grey Cliffs. Zion National Park, here we come!

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