Exploring the USA’s Wild West

Posted by Vanessa Berger on 17 September 2012

The Wild West of America has sat on my never ending bucket list for a while now. I mean who doesn’t want to see cowboys, cactuses and get blasted by heat in the desert at least once in their life?

Six months ago I moved to San Francisco with my partner and the trip became a reality. We booked a week’s camping tour with a small tour company, Bindlestiff Tours to avoid the stress of hiring a car, figuring out maps, driving long distances on the other side of the road and having to organise accommodation. It turned out to be the best way for us to do the trip- we were on a budget and the package was very reasonable, it was well-organised (all our accommodation and park entries were covered and we had a cheap kitty for food) and we were also lucky enough to have the flexibility to choose which hikes and activities we were most interested in, so our days were free to explore. Nights were spent huddling around campfires and exchanging stories about our days in the desert. Here’s a summary of the four incredible national parks we visited, as well as a quick look into our two days in viva Las Vegas.


Las Vegas

In short, if you haven’t visited Vegas, it’s everything you imagine about the place and more. After arriving at the airport at 10am we were promptly greeted by slot machines at our baggage claim area and stepped out into a usual desert summers day of 38 degrees Celsius. We stayed in a hotel on the ‘strip’ called the Luxor, an Egyptian themed palace and therefore shaped like a pyramid and guarded by a massive Sphinx at the entrance. The light that blasts out the top every night is so bright it can apparently be seen from space! They sure don’t mess around with the lighting in Vegas so those with an aversion to bright lights should bring glasses!

Every cloud has a silver lining in Vegas

Visitors flock to ‘Sin City’ throughout the year and are here for one of a few activities:

a) to get hitched – we saw at least four bridal parties, all getting ready to get married at one of the many wedding chapels that are dotted over the city. Some brides wear full bridal gowns (there’s a gown and suit rental shop in Vegas if it’s a last minute thing)

b) to get hammered – there were countless bachelorette and bachelor parties (think of the movie ‘The Hangover’) all with a purpose of drinking and partying the days and nights away (sometimes hard to tell the difference when you’re in a dim lit casinos!) They’re usually spotted next to the hotel pools after they’ve arisen at midday- drinking cocktails and then hitting the many nightclubs on the strip again at night- a ‘what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas’ kind of attitude!

c) to gamble – it was very interesting to see the diversity of gamblers in Vegas- young and old, male and female, rich and poor, American and foreign. Minimum table bets start at $10 and go well past $500. Needless to say it’s not that easy to win big in Vegas unless you have a huge wad of cash to begin with. A few Vegas hotels worth visiting include the Venetican which has its own gondola rides taking you past fake ‘Venetian scenes’ on their ‘canals’ – embrace the kitsch and you may enjoy it; the Paris Las Vegas Hotel proudly displays its own Eiffel Tower and Arc du Triumph and the Bellagio has an impressive fountain show at various times throughout the day. If you’re lucky enough to catch a show in Vegas there are plenty to choose from. They range from Circus dol Soleil, magicians and illusionists to exotic dancers. We watched ‘The Blue Man Group’ which I can highly recommend.

Wedding chapels in 'Fun City'!


Zion National Park, Utah

Leaving the bright lights and sweltering weather of Vegas behind was quite a relief- we were eager to escape the cramped busy city life and explore nature a bit. Utah is known in the US as a Mormon state and in the early days many farmers settled here after being lucky enough to find a place in the desert to grow food on level ground and next to a river. Humungous sandstone cliffs dominate the landscape and are displayed in an array of reds and pinks set against a bright blue sky. The cliffs, many of which are named after prominent Mormon leaders, are continuously moldered from the landscape through erosion forces like wind, rain and snow and are the main attraction of Zion National Park. This was the first stop on our South Western tour.

The dramatic cliffs in Zion

Our friendly (and slightly crazy) Kentucky-raised tour leader, Khriss was eager to get us right into nature and introduce us to the park. My partner and I chose to ignore the threatening thunder and lightning signs and got stuck into an hour long walk next to the river below some amazing looking cliffs. This is where we witnessed our first ‘flash flood’! Halfway through the walk it started pouring- honestly I’d never seen rain like this before (even in notorious Cape Town winters!). Fellow hikers were sprinting back and I suggested to our small group that we head back to shelter. My daring partner decided this was nonsense and that we should persevere onwards. Soaked, we carried on, making it to the end, but dodging some substantial puddles and practically swimming back in the mud to the parking lot. About a minute later we looked up and witnessed a monumental amount of water breaking through the mountain and cascading down the rock face which drastically increased the level of the river. The smell of mud and sound of the water was incredible to witness, but I’m very glad we made it back in time. There are some more serious hikes such as ‘The Narrows’, where hikers have gotten into some serious trouble when flash floods have occurred. It certainly was a surprise for us to see rain in the desert, let alone a flash flood!

The sun graced us with its presence the next morning and we used the opportunity to partake in another challenge- this time not water, but height wise! Khriss took my partner and I on a legendary hike, ‘Angels Landing’ – named so because you end up being so high up that only Angels would be clever enough to hang around these parts! The five hour or so walk takes you up an extremely steep climb culminating along a narrow rocky ridge with scary drop-offs over both sides. Similar to Cape Town’s Lions Head climb there are chains and ropes involved, but this seems to be on another level! Luckily it’s a round-trip, so for those too scared to continue there’s a lookout point where you can stop and appreciate the view while the rest of your team completes the final portion of the hike. We took the last adrenalin-pumping part very slowly- trying not too look over the edge, but at the same time wanting to appreciate the spectacular views. The final peak is 1763m high and believe me you really feel it-just a slight breeze could send you off the edge! (not quite, but still!) Dramatic views are a well-deserved reward for making it to the end. It’s a great spot for a snack break, but watch out for cheeky little chipmunks who try get into your backpacks searching for food.

View from the top of the Angels Landing hike at Zion

Many American national parks offer free shuttle buses which take visitors along a network of routes within the parks, dropping you off at starting points of hikes or simply to viewing spots to take in the scenery. You don’t have to worry about the hassle of parking and it’s a great way to see a lot of the park if you have limited time. They’re usually free, run throughout most of the year and if you’re in Zion the buses travel to Springdale, the nearest town so you can do a spot of shopping or enjoy a meal.

Hiking is not the only way to see Zion- tubing is another popular activity along the Virgin river. There are various spots around Springdale where you can sign up for a trip or simply hire a tube. Unfortunately we ran out of time and so unfortunately didn’t get to try it out!

Zion National Park info

• Visit the park website to see the best times of the year to visit Zion. In the winter, the landscape transforms into a snowy wonderland which of course offers a completely different experience. However, it does make certain parts harder to get to.
Park Entrance: $12 entrance to the park (valid for 7 days)
Camping: We stayed at Zion Canyon Camp which is very close to the park and costs $30 per camp site per night. They have pay showers, BBQ/braai areas, good restroom facilities, a pool and laundry facilities.


Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Arriving at Bryce Canyon in Utah is honestly like arriving on another planet. I’ve never seen anything quite like it in my life. Imagine a landscape covered with the most crazy looking natural structures, all creating a series of slot canyons, windows, fins and spires called “hoodoos”. The structures (like Zion) have been created through forces of erosion, such as ‘frost-wedging’ and the force of powerful rainwater hitting the limestone. The landscape seems to go on forever and every angle along the rim of the vast amphitheatre offers a different view down below. Spot a hawk flying down into the canyon or a deer eating some greenery along the path.

The brilliant orange of the rocks at Bryce Canyon

The rim trail is a very easy going walk and the perfect way to experience the majestic nature of the area. There are various hikes you can do into the amphitheatre itself- but these are best done in the morning before the afternoon thunderstorms arrive! We were lucky enough to do part of an amazing descent into the bright orange rock- the Navajo trail. The climb down is pretty easy, (sturdy shoes are advantageous) but make sure to leave enough time to get out as it’s quite a steep ascent. Once you’re down in the canyon it feels magical to be surrounded by such intense orange colours of the rocks and for a second I felt like I was on another planet like Mars.

Views like we're on another planet at Bryce Canyon

Information on the park: 

• Park entrance: $12 a person. Visit their website for more information.
• Camping: We stayed at Ruby’s Camp. It costs $30 a night for a camping site, is close to the park’s free shuttle service stop and has nice shaded areas to camp beneath pine trees. There’s also a pool, jacuzzi and free showers.


Monument Valley Navajo National Park

Monument Valley is so close to the border of both Utah and Arizona it could be in either state, yet at the same time somehow feels partly removed from the US. We were really excited to visit this park as it’s a Navajo American Indian reservation and therefore a chance to see a completely different side to the America we’d been brought up to know and recognise. There are many Indian reservations across the United States, but the Navajo tribe is one of the largest (after the Cherokee). Monument Valley itself is most recognisable from ‘Western’ movies, and dozens of scenes from famous movies since the 1930’s have been shot here. The landscape is again so different from anything we’ve ever seen- the enormous rock formations rising out of dusty red desert hills are a sight to behold.

Our first glimpse of Monument Valley on the road

Arriving in the early evening seemed to be perfect timing as the late afternoon light reflected off the rocks. Our tour included a jeep tour of the reservation taking us on a bumpy journey to areas that are otherwise restricted to private vehicles. Patrick, our friendly Navajo guide grew up on the surrounding reservation area and told us that some of his cousins were extras in the famous movie ‘Back to the future’ that was filmed in the valley. Once again, erosion had a large part to play in the creation of Monument Valley- material eroded from the Rocky Mountains and was deposited and transformed into sandstone. This, along with a geological uplift, caused the surface to bulge and crack. The erosion forces continue to transform the land into different shapes, creating new gullies and canyons. Observing the ‘buttes’, ‘spires’ and ‘mesas’ is a similar experience to making shapes out of cloud formations- some of them you need to use your imagination for and some seem to be carved out as an elephant or person!

Other movies that have been filmed here include Wild West, Stagecoach (with John Wayne), Forrest Gump and Mission Impossible II. We stopped off at a few Navajo trading posts where you can buy traditional authentic turquoise jewellery from locals – the pieces are stunning and reasonably priced. We finished off our one and a half hour tour with a tasty traditional Navajo taco – the dish includes a traditionally made blue corn fry bread which is topped with plenty of goodies including ground meat, cheese, chillies, sour cream and tomatoes. In true American style the serving was so huge I could only finish half of my ‘petite’ version!

Stunning early evening light at Monument Valley

Information on the park:
Park entrance: $5 for individual entrance. Vist the park website for more info.
• Camping: We stayed at Goulding’s Camp, set about 9,5km from the Monument Valley Park entrance. The camp site is set amongst brilliant red rocks and has pool access, a convenience store and BBQ/Braai and campfire facilities. Rates were not available at the time so contact the camp for more information.
• Jeep tours: These run from the park parking lot all day and cost roughly $50 per person. They can be booked through the park website.


Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

The grand finale of our trip was of course the Grand Canyon. After being blown away by the places we had already visited, we couldn’t imagine how the scenery could be improved on, but it was. The Grand Canyon is so incredibly large (446km long and 29km wide) that we were only able to visit the South Rim which in itself is bigger than we ever imagined. It has to be one of the most popular parks in the States and hence has over six million visitors on average a year. Over 373 species of birds live in the park and there are plenty of other creatures to see (deer, elk, squirrels, lizards, chipmunks, etc). The South Rim (2134m above sea level) is the most visited area of the park as it is the most accessible part and is open all year. There are also free shuttle buses that take you all the way from Desert Rose (on the South East rim) stopping at various points on the way to Hermit’s Point in the South West. Each stop off shows off another gorgeous view into and across the Canyon. The Colorado river that runs through the canyon below really does seem worlds away. Bikes are also available to hire to use along the rim trail.

The Grand Canyon in all it's grandeur

We were lucky enough to experience both a sunset and sunrise at the canyon and I really appreciated how the light slowly changed the colours of the canyon from various shades of green to browns and pinks throughout the day. Hiking in the canyon is extremely diverse- while there are easier walks around the rim, the more intense trails take you down into the canyon and can be quite dangerous. Day temperatures in summer peak at above 42 degrees Celsius and unfortunately the only way to get back out of the canyon is to climb out extremely steep paths. There are warning signs all over the park, clearly stating ‘What goes down, must come back out’ and adequate water and food consumption are very important to a successful hiking experience. The rangers strongly advise against hiking to the river and back in one day and the reality is that many people have been seriously injured (if not fatally) on hikes in the canyon. Temperatures drop drastically in the evening and if you don’t follow a trail you can get seriously lost.

We were practical in our approach to hiking and decided that the 4.8km round trip taking you down part of the Bright Angel trail was enough for us to handle. We set off early after sunrise (before the extreme heat) and managed to see some lovely scenery looking up and down the canyon. The trip back up to the rim via a series of endless switchbacks was pretty strenuous and took us at least double the time that it took to get down. Panting and sweating we passed a few silly hikers who were only starting the hike at 11am, the hottest part of the day!

Sunset at the Grand Canyon is an opportunity not to be missed

Another popular activity in the Canyon is white water rafting. However, it seems to be so in demand that the park advises visitors to book a rafting trip up to two years in advance- we’ll be sure to keep this in mind in the future if we are lucky enough to return! There are a few camping sites and accommodation options at the bottom of the canyon for overnight hikers and rafters.

An unavoidable aspect of visiting the canyon is preparing yourself for the incredibly large number of tourists visiting- the popular viewing spots are always packed and so if you’d prefer a quieter experience walk along the trail to areas where buses don’t seem to stop all the time.
Information on the Grand Canyon National Park
• Park entrance: $25 per private vehicle. $12 individual entry (seven day admission)
• Camping accommodation: We stayed at Mather Campground which is right inside the park. It’s close to a free bus shuttle for the park, the Visitor Centre (which has a lot of handy info), restaurants and trailheads. There are pay showers ($2 a shower), laundry and decent restroom facilities. It costs $18 for a camping site (max 6 people). Visit the park website more info.


Bindlestiff Tours

If you enjoy meeting and travelling with other like-minded enthusiastic travellers and would prefer to do the trip through a tour, Bindlestiff Tours offer a variety of options for trips to the South West. Our guide, Khriss and his partner Rachel who run the company are highly experienced, knowledgeable and friendly tour guides and full of energy.

The cost of the trip we did ranges from about $800-$900 and does not include gratuities, extra activities and a food kitty contribution of $70 per person for the week.

Fore more information on our seven-day tour and other similar options visit their website.



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