Touring the National Parks of the USA with Collette

States of wonder, States of awe

If you’re looking for a holiday with the wow factor, touring the USA’s National Parks will deliver, day after day, as Pat Richardson recalls.

How many of these are on your travel wish-list - the Grand Canyon, Salt Lake City, Yellowstone, Mount Rushmore? An escorted tour of America’s awesome National Parks ticks off all of them and more, with plenty of surprising sights in store. And every one will take your breath away - just as they did mine, when I made this unforgettable journey.

Sedona, Arizona by Derrick Mealiffe CC BY-SA 2.0 Wikimedia CommonsThat journey began in Scottsdale, Arizona where, after a long day’s travel, I was greeted with the velvet caress of warm evening air, and a ‘meet your fellow passengers’ dinner. On the next day’s drive to Sedona, the first surprise was everywhere evident: Arizona’s desert land is truly beautiful. And the second? How much a tall saguaro cactus - you’ve seen them in 100 Westerns;  tall with a single trunk and two or three ‘raised-arm’ branches - looks like a friendly local, waving you on your way! I found it hard not to wave back.

The desert town of Sedona is a vibrant arts community, set amid vivid red rocks, with names - such as ‘the bell’, ‘the nuns’ and a very convincing ‘Snoopy’ - that describe their strange and, yes, surprising, shapes. After a stop for lunch, we were back on the road heading for Lake Powell, another scenic wonder. The surprise? Although we saw only a tiny portion of this man-made lake, it’s huge, with 1,960 miles of coastline. Lake PowellThat’s more than the entire west coast of the continental USA! Next morning, a breakfast cruise gave us a close up view of the crystal-clear water and sinuous shoreline of faded pink and vermilion rock. We could have been on another planet. Certainly the producers of Planet of the Apes thought so, as some scenes for the 1968 movie were filmed here.

Back on our comfortable coach, we set off for our next destination. Nothing  you read, no picture you see, prepares you for the awesome scale and majesty of the Grand Canyon. And it is here that we begin to read the incredible story of how our planet’s surface was formed. It’s a story told by rock, and written by time. This canyon was gouged, over many millennia, by the Colorado River. As it cut down through 5,000 feet, successive layers of rock were revealed. The ‘youngest’ of these – the cap rock - was formed 260 million years ago, long before dinosaurs appeared. Each layer is clear and distinctive, and the sight is simply spectacular, especially at sunrise and sunset.

Grand CanyonThe old, old story continues in our next two National Parks, in Utah. First comes Bryce Canyon, where strange upright rocks known as Hoodoos - and believed by early people to be humans turned to stone - result from temperature variations. Daytime here can be as hot as 40C, but nights can bring frost, ice or even snow. This freeze-thaw cycle causes fractures, leading outer layers to break away. In Zion, the climate is less extreme, and the amazing red and white cliffs and rock formations are up close and personal, almost as if the ancient story is now a book and we are turning its pages as, with our guide’s help, we ‘read’ the patterns left thousands of years ago by flowing water, tides and tsunamis; and see where volcanoes or earthquakes sculpted warps, tilts and contortions.

Grand Teton National ParkThe next long drive takes us to Salt Lake City, a huge man-made metropolis, and a huge contrast to the scenic splendours on this awe-inspiring journey. After some very welcome R&R, we are off again, this time to Jackson Hole in Wyoming. Here, we can opt to go canoeing, river-rafting, hiking or horse-riding. As well, this being cowboy country, we enjoy a chuck-wagon dinner and an evening of cowboy entertainment. Yee-haw!

We drive through another National Park - Grand Teton - which encompasses the soaring Teton mountain range, on our way to the world’s first, established in 1872: Yellowstone. It is, we learn, a vast caldera torn by huge volcanic eruptions, 2 million, 1.3 million and 640,000 years ago. Beneath the surface, immense magmatic forces are still active, and can be seen in the array of mudpots and fumaroles, hot springs and geysers – including the famous Old Faithful - which seethe and suppurate like open wounds on the Earth’s surface. Mount RushmoreIt’s like being in a witch’s cauldron and yet, there is life here: we see herds of bison, elk, bighorn sheep, a few coyotes, and even glimpse a bear but not, alas, the recently re-introduced but elusive wolves.

After a stop at the unexpectedly fascinating Buffalo Bill Centre of the West in Cody, we have two more amazing rock formations to see: Mount Rushmore monument and the Crazy Horse Memorial. Although manmade, they are as unforgettable as any sights we’ve seen on this amazing tour.

More information

Pat travelled with Collette on this 'America’s National Parks and Denver' escorted tour. In 2017, the itinerary includes two days in Denver, Colorado.

For more information visit www.gocollette.com or call 0800 8048336.

Silver Travel Advisor recommends Collette.

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Other Members' Thoughts - 5 Comment(s)

  • PatRichardson
    5 days ago
    Hello Wasatch retirees,

    I read your comments on my National Parks Tour article with interest, and agree that there are other ways to explore these awesome sights. (I also agree that the highlight sight is Zion National Park.) However, I don't entirely agree that - for UK visitors - the best way is to rent a car and explore yourselves.

    Taking a coach tour has a number of advantages: not least the fact that with expert guidance you learn more about and so better appreciate what you are seeing. As well, travel arrangements are all made by the tour operator, so you can just sit back and enjoy it. That also applies to not driving on unfamiliar roads and (for Brits) the 'wrong' side, which can be stressful. With someone else at the wheel you can devote all your time to seeing the sights - and after all, this is a holiday!

    With regard to the Grand Canyon, we arrived in good time to see the sunset and also watch it rise the next day - two breathtaking sights. And I personally would happily tolerate having sun in my eyes (and wearing sunglasses) if it meant I was on the less-developed side of this great place. Natural wonders are never enhanced by the presence of crowds of people.

    Yes, Salt Lake City's sprawl will impress British and European visitors, as you say, but somewhere that, in your view, isn't 'even a minor tourist attraction' can still be fascinating place to visit, and I found spending time in this city rewarding. The Great Salt Lake was an awesome sight, I found some of the residential areas very attractive and was thrilled to catch a rehearsal of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir during my time there. And on the journey toward the city, our tour guide told us the fascinating story behind this Mormon stronghold's birth and development. Getting there, in person, was a powerful finale to that - one that packed more of a punch than reading the remarkable story in a guidebook, or watching a film (which we did, on our coach) ever could be.

    Finally, whilst it is true that for some visitors elevations do matter, tour operators provide this information so that those who can't or shouldn't travel to them will know not to. My body can handle a 5,000-foot change in elevation, but I wasn't brave enough to even contemplate hiking down to the floor of the Grand Canyon, let alone descending on the back of a donkey!! Each to his, or her, own.

    Thank you for reading my article, and for sharing your comments and tips.
  • WASATCH
    6 days ago
    The North Rim of the Grand Canyon is less crowded than the south rim and the canyon is 1,000ft deeper on the north, but, with clouds rare, most of the day you are facing the sun which hampers the view. Be sure to look at sunrise and sunset when you can get the sun behind you.

    2 days in Salt Lake City (a 40 minute drive from our house) is 2 days too long. SLC is not even a minor tourist attraction except that Europeans have likely never seen a city that sprawls so much-- the urban area is 120 miles long.

    If you are inclined to use some of your spare time to take a hike down into the Grand Canyon or Bryce, keep in mind that you are starting a 8,000 ft above sea level. Coming back up will be a struggle. Advantage: Zion where you visit the canyon floor (3,000 ft altitude).

    Jackson Hole & Tetons-- valley floor is 6,000ft; Yellowstone, 8,000 ft.

    We retired 20 years ago and moved into the heart of this area. Everyplace the tour visited except Mt Rushmore is within a one day drive of our house, and we have done a lot of touring from which lessons emerge: don't take a bus (coach) tour. Rent a car & drive yourself so you have time to explore. Then you will run out of time and will plan a return. After years of exploring the region, we say without a doubt that Zion National Park is the high point.
  • PatRichardson
    6 months ago
    Lottie - I am so sorry to have taken this long to respond - my laptop fell ill and I now have a new one. Although this tour covered a lot of ground, Collette paced it very well and it never felt like a marathon. We stayed in a different hotel for each of the first four nights - Scottsdale first, then at Lake Powell, then on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon (less developed than the South Rim) and then in Zion Park. We drove to Salt Lake City on Day 5 and stayed there for two nights; then on to Jackson Hole in Wyoming where we stayed two more nights, Then came an overnight stay in Yellowstone, a short walk from Old Faithful - which performed faithfully, right on schedule. Next came our only full day of travel, surprising as that may sound, topped off with an overnight stay in Sheridan;then we set off for Crazy Horse and Mount Rushmore Monuments, and stayed one night in a Lodge, from the grounds of which we could see Mount Rushmore. Next day had us heading for the airport and home.
    We did spend quite a lot of the time on the road, but always with scenery to see, and stops for meals, sightseeing, attractions and what the Americans coyly call 'comfort' (ie loos!) plus our coach was very comfortable. There's a lot to see in the US of A and you won't see much if you don't hit the road.
    This year, the tour itinerary is slightly different but will still cover many, many miles. Believe me Lottie, every one of them is worth it - this is a truly awesome and unforgettable trip.
  • Lottie
    7 months ago
    This sounds like a none stop tour. How many days in total to cover this ground, Pat? How many overnight stops did you have? I have been to the Grand Canyon and know how much ground you cover to get there. Well worth it and this trip sounds very interesting too.
  • JustRetiring
    9 months ago
    Wow, what an inspiring review of an interesting part of the world. Thanks, Pat. And it sounds as though Collette have done a great job of combing natural wonders with very human diversions?