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First was Black Canyon of the Gunnison, about 15 miles northeast of Montrose, CO. Approaching from the east on Highway 50, you can see the canyon start to grow at the western end of the Blue Mesa Reservoir. Much of the park was closed off, still covered in snow, so I only spent a couple hours sampling the scenic overlooks accessible from the main road.
Heading into Utah, the next stop was Arches National Park. I actually was able to hike some short trails through this area's incredible landscape. I plan to return to see the rest and to take advantage of the cool little town of Moab, which is brimming with outdoor adventure activities just south of the park.
There's only one word to describe Zion National Park in southwest Utah: dramatic. In truth, I only wandered into the park accidentally after making a wrong turn. But what a great mistake that was. It was early morning, so the sun was casting spectacular shadows on the massive colored rock formations. Though car-bound, I found the steep, winding roads to be thrilling.
Of course, I couldn't make this tour without stopping at the Grand Canyon. Wonderfully desolate Highway 89 from Zion into Arizona whetted my appetite, and the canyon itself certainly didn't disappoint. I wanted to hit Flagstaff before dark, so I didn't take the time to do more than drive the park's Southern Rim Road and stop at the crowded overlooks. Still, very impressive.
Northern Arizona surprised me with all its short, stubby pine trees, cool temperatures, and lingering snow. However, after a series of crazy descending switchbacks on Highway 89 south of Flagstaff, the landscape magically changed into the hot desert you tend to associate with the state. The touristy town of Sedona and its orange-rock backdrop were there to greet me.
The final stop on my whirlwind tour was White Sands National Monument, 50 miles northeast of Las Cruces, NM. Though less impressive than the national parks, the area's terrain was quite unique, and I got a kick out of watching all the kids sliding down the white dunes on sleds. The surrounding White Sands Missile Range injected a bit of adrenaline into the visit.
I've always felt an affinity for the American West, and this trip only heightened it. I'll be back.