Walking the West: Time on the Trails in America’s Canyon Lands

The landscape beneath the wings of the plane transforms in impossible ways as we fly from East to West: hills blanketed with trees become farm fields, square and parallel with one another; farm fields become mountains that stretch high and wide; and snowcapped peaks become golden desert, dusty with the occasional strips of straight roads. In a few quick hours, my country has grown to a size I’d never imagined, and my mind is spinning with all the possibilities this week can bring.

After we land, the landscapes pass more slowly. The speed limits on this side of the country would upset east coast traffic control, but here it hardly feels like we’re moving. We’re headed first to the Grand Canyon. Between turn signals, I am interested in the sand and in the stacks of rock that have grown into mountains. I check for tumbleweed along the road.

When we arrive, I feel the ground has been ripped out from under me, and my breath is lost — caught in the endless air that sits above these wide canyons. The thin vein of the Colorado has dug itself deep into the chalky brown earth, and pretends innocence in its distance. To me, it is soundless and still, but it made this massive Canyon—it is still making this massive Canyon. The trees lean in to watch as I do—curiously, and cautiously—and the layers in the landscape play with my imagination, transforming the natural structures into two dimensions, and then four, never settling for three.
That night I watch the sun sink beyond the canyon walls, and despite the darkness, I can feel the depth of the canyon still—it echoes in my mind.

Our next adventure lies to the North; Zion is home to a younger canyon shaped by the more docile Virgin river.

Mature mule deers munch unabashedly along the red rock roads in Zion; their antlers catch on the wiry grass that grows tall on the banks of the Virgin river, and they are shaded from the sun by the tall slabs of rock that stretch vertically into the sky. There is snow on the highest slabs, leftover from the previous night and protected from the heat of the morning by altitude alone. My face is glued to my viewfinder, but even the wide lens of my camera can’t wrap around all of the beauty.
Zion is enormous, and it feels as though we’ve spent the entire day only touching on the surface of wonders in the park. There are acres upon acres more to see, but we must keep moving. We follow the red road out of Zion, and I strain my neck as I watch the enormous red rock faces fade in the rear window. Red is a common theme out West, and to the northeast, Bryce Canyon is no exception.

Red spires of hoodoos seem to rise like living statues from the canyon floor in Bryce, and for reprieve from the color, my eyes fall to the blue spruce and ponderosa pine that grow here. Their needles collect in the flat surfaces they find and the sun dries them out to match the red of the surrounding environment. The mountain chickadees flit about collecting these. From our vantage point on the rim, the natural amphitheater is a maze; paths weave in and out of natural arches, behind towering hoodoos, and around massive clay walls. When we descend, the trails are silent save for my footsteps, announcing my presence in this curious world. Red clay crunches beneath my boots, and the park holds its breath around me. I press on. I could happily get lost here.

We’re not meant to stay though. After sunset, we pack into the car and drive once more.
Kolob Canyon is the lesser-known region of Zion National Park and is home to stunning sandstone structures and trails that wind deep into the iconic Western landscape. It is cool along the trail we’ve chosen, only a small patch of sun washes in and out through the vaporous clouds that sit a hundred feet over our heads. A cool breeze snakes through the dense trees, and long blue shadows dance on the red walls that look slick with eternal moisture. The babble of a stream ebbs and flows with our proximity, and it is a challenge along the crossings to keep our feet dry. We have been hiking all day and have barely touched the backcountry when we reach a deep and black cavern, and it swallows my brother in its depth.

Out here immersed in nature, I am reminded with every step how small I am and how big my voice can be for these places. There is a new purpose brewing inside of me, and a new passion for the nature of this world. And while I feel encouraged to explore, I feel impassioned to protect. When the time comes, I reluctantly board my flight home, daydreaming the whole way. After this trip, there is one thing for certain: I will be back.

Discover for yourself the inspiring splendor of the American West on National Geographic Expeditions’ Grand Canyon, Bryce, and Zion National Parks trip.