Tour USA's National Parks from your sofa

Wondering what it's like to tour the US National Parks? The US National Park Service offers virtual tours of many of its amazing sites, just search for the park you want to find out more about. Yosemite in particular has great video and audio tours. Prefer to read about the experience? Writer Carl Jackson won a Visit USA UK award for his evocative feature ‘Canyon Country – Monumental Memories’ in the Birmingham Mail. The story follows his adventures as he visits some of the most spectacular landscapes in the USA, in Canyon Country. Chances are if you’ve watched a Western you will have seen the wonders of these places from a television screen, but Carl paints a really rich picture of these sensational landscapes with their impossible-looking rock structures.


You can read Carl’s award-winning story below. Catch his latest stories on the Birmingham Mail website here or on Facebook here and follow him on twitter here 

Monumental Memories


Carl Jackson gets all Clint Eastwood as he visits some of the planet’s most spectacular landscapes 


Everything is bigger in America isn’t it? The cars, the roads…. the plate sizes. But the Canyon Country of the southwest provides a whole new meaning to the word scale, enough to make even those larger-than-life characters of the US left feeling awe-struck.  I’m on one of Grand American Adventures’ brand-new tours and one that lives up to their name emphatically.  Monument Valley, straddling the Utah and Arizona border, delivers the first taste of spectacular scenery on this journey.

Chances are if you’ve watched a Western you will have seen the wonders of this place from a television screen. But up close they are another matter altogether. Towering buttes and spires rise out of the desert to form impossible-looking rock structures, many with suitably grand names such as King on His Throne.  Others less so like the Camel or as our native Indian guide Wayne refers to it the Upside down Snoopy.  You can either see the resemblances or you can’t, but you are staggered by their grandeur all the same as you rattle around the dusty roads on the back of an open top truck.  


The valley’s most iconic structures are the west and east mittens, named as such because… well they look like a pair of mittens. The visitor centre offers a perfect viewpoint to capture them in a camera-phone snap or obligatory selfie.  Make the effort to get there for sunrise and you’ll be rewarded with the dramatic sight of the morning rays glinting past the magnificent silhouettes to cast a warm glow on the ground beneath. 


But the most impressive aspect of this tribal park is that it remains the home of the Navajo, one of the largest native tribes in the United States. Wayne takes our truck off the beaten track deep into the reservation, showing us the likes of Ear of the Wind and Big Hogan – both bizarre hole-shaped openings in the rocks. At the latter he pulls out a hand-made drum and sings a traditional song which echoes around the naturally-formed sandstone alcove.  It’s a spiritual moment in this historical land. Juxtapose that with glamorous tales such as the time Clint Eastwood was hoisted on top of The Totem Pole – a precariously thin looking rock tower in the distance – for one of his many Westerns. 


Our evening was rounded off eating Navajo-made tacos in the tribe’s modest community centre.  From there it is onward to Moab, where thrills and more spectacular scenery await, but not before a brief detour into historic Bluff. There we learn the awe-inspiring journey of the pioneering Mormons who made the 200-mile trip from Escalante to establish the town of Bluff in the late 1800s. They famously blasted and chiselled the ‘Hole in the Rock’ so wagons and horses could make the treacherous 1,300-foot descent from the cliff tops to the Colorado River.  More than 200 families made it, with no deaths, while two babies were born on the gruelling expedition.  The tale certainly served as added motivation during my own challenging hikes to come.  


Speaking of which, Arches is the next destination and first national park on this intrepid road trip.  A 30-minute optional video at the visitor centre explains the science behind these strange creations. There are more than 2,000 of them across the land but unlike Monument Valley - where the main attractions are visible from the car park - you must earn the right to see the poster-boy formations here by taking on non-insignificant hikes. 


Our group, including two 74-year-chaps, head out on a leisurely two-hour trek up the three-mile slope to Delicate Arch – but it’s worth it. Eager photograph hunters look like ants standing beneath the 60-foot tall freestanding structure which sits in view of the snow-capped Le Sal Mountains. But don’t be fooled by its appearance on postcards; they don’t do anywhere near enough justice to the perilous drops which lie in wait either side of it. 


For less walking distance the aptly named ‘Devil’s Garden’ trail delivers equally spectacular arches, the most impressive of which is Landscape. At 306-foot it is the length of a football field and looks like a bridge built to traverse a mighty chasm.  But tragically it’s also one of the park’s most endangered formations.  A trail which once took visitors up and under it has been closed since 1991 when weathering caused the arch to shed 180 tonnes of its bulk which crashed down to the ground below. 


And that is the most poetic thing about the arches.  The same process that creates them is the very same which will one day destroy them. Solitary pillars are merely the haunting ghosts of broken arches.  To the right of Landscape a comparative baby arch, named Partition, can be spotted.  But to get up to it requires more scrambling than walking as the trail is upgraded to ‘difficult’.  And to go even further beyond - to the elusively hidden Double O arch - requires nerves of steel as you shimmy over a monumentally steep stone ‘fin’. Dare to look up and the view is spectacular.  If that wasn’t enough to put the adventure in Grand American Adventures, then the next day’s enterprise going deep into the Needles district of the Canyonlands National Park made sure.  We are taken on an extreme 4x4 ride through the landscape up and down 45-degree rock slopes.  Think of those Top Gear specials venturing into the likes of Bolivia or Africa where roads haven’t graced some parts and you will get the idea. 
Our brilliantly robust Lexus creaked and whined as it wrenched itself over the craggy terrain. It’s an exhilarating feeling to look out of the window knowing one false move could send you tumbling down a cliff, but we were in capable hands.  When the rollercoaster stopped we were able to take in the surroundings. 


Needles is utterly other-worldly. A setting fit for giants. It has a humbling impact on a mere sub-6ft tall human.   With house-sized rocks lay strewn about as if by violent explosion and tall spires named after the devil, it is a foreboding place.  The sight of an abandoned car, spotted two days earlier by our guide, is enough to cause alarm among park rangers. Every year this area claims the lives of those who underestimate it or do not prepare properly.  But it is a place to be respected rather than feared. Adding to the allure is the presence of incredibly well-preserved pictographs and petroglyphs, painted or carved by native Indians thousands of years ago.  


The Canyonlands are not without their own splendid vistas either.  The Confluence - where the Colorado and Green river become one - and the epically-titled Island in the Sky are not to be missed, especially if you have mastered the panoramic feature on your smartphone by now.  No-one should leave Moab without checking out the extra activities on offer, ranging from a serene float ride along the Colorado River to canyoneering.  The Rock Shop is also a must for anyone looking to pick up an unusual souvenir, like say a dinosaur femur. 


The last leg of the tour takes in Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado.  It’s enough to take your breath away, literally so given you are driving through the clouds more than 8,000 feet above sea level.  It is home to the incredible cliff dwellings built in the alcoves by the Ancestral Pueblo people around 800 years ago.  The jewel in the crown is Cliff Palace which to this day remains remarkably intact.   It took three quarters of a century to construct, features around 150 rooms and was once inhabited by around 100 people.  Yet historians are still not quite sure why they ever left. 


The six-day trip is bookended by the charming mining town of Durango. You’ll likely wake up to the sound of steam trains and be greeted by the sight of locals strolling around in denim jeans, leather jackets and cowboy hats.  Cradled by Perins Peak and Smelter Mountain in the background it has plenty of boutique restaurants, galleries and sports bars where you can catch a bit of baseball or American Football. Don’t expect to see any ‘soccer’ on though.  It would be remiss not mention the luxurious hotels and lodges available as well. 


Durango’s General Palmer is of an exquisite Victorian design, while at Goulding’s Lodge you can soak up the spirit of Monument Valley from your balcony and even catch a Western to really get in the mood.  But Red Cliffs Lodge in Moab must be the highlight, sitting next to the Colorado River. 


As for the food? Well it’s America, you certainly won’t go wrong with burgers and steaks but there are plenty of other dishes to choose from including vegetarian options as well. And boy do they love a gift shop. I couldn’t resist picking up a native Indian tomahawk.  For $14 I seriously doubt it’s authentic, but my word does it look cool. One trader appeared surprised to learn I was a journalist preparing a travel feature.  He didn’t think there was “anything worth writing about”.  I whole-heartedly disagree, but even if that were true the astounding natural pictures awaiting in the American southwest are worth thousands of words. 

Need to Know


Carl Jackson visited Canyon Country as a guest of Grand American Adventures.  Small group adventure specialist for 35-65-year olds, offer a six day Canyon Country In-Depth tour from £2,659 per person. Price includes five nights’ accommodation (five hotel nights), five breakfasts, three dinners, activities as detailed in itinerary, a professional tour leader and private transportation throughout with free Wi-Fi (maximum five users at one time). Maximum group size 13. To book visit or call 0333 003 8245


Posted on: 17/03/2020

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