Four seasons, four stunning national parks
By Alex Pulaski,
Alex Pulaski for The Washington Post
If ever there stood a testament to the resurgent popularity of America’s national parks, it might be found in the two-hour-long spring break line of vehicles stretching outside the Grand Canyon’s South Rim entrance.
For all the doors it has closed, covid-19 has simultaneously thrown open our windows to the outdoors. My wife, Mica, and I joined the throngs over the past 12 months, visiting eight national parks, including four treasures of the West, across four seasons.
Collectively millions of years in the making, the parks each feature at least one iconic lodge that opened roughly a century ago. We explored summer in Yellowstone, fall in Zion, winter in Death Valley and spring in the Grand Canyon.
Although national park visitation fell by 28 percent overall in 2020 largely because of spring pandemic-related closures, from July onward the reverse held true. For example, July-October visitor numbers set records at Yellowstone and the Great Smoky Mountains.
The pandemic placed park newcomers, us included, upon paths previously unconsidered. Near the top of the Angels Landing trail in Utah’s Zion National Park, we stopped to talk with Eric Hartness, 55, of Half Moon Bay, Calif.
“This is the first time I’ve done anything like this,” he told me. “I’d never been to Zion, never been to the Grand Canyon, never been to Bryce Canyon. And I didn’t know covid-19 was going to last this long.”
None of us did. Despite the increasing reach of vaccinations, travel uncertainties continue to swirl as a result of varying infection rates, regional masking differences and variant worries. All indications are that this year, like 2020, we will turn to our national parks as a way of escaping the pandemic.
Alex Pulaski for The Washington Post
The thundering falls of the Yellowstone River in Yellowstone National Park.
Yellowstone in summer: Planning helps escape crowds
The country’s first national park, a wonder of geothermic activity established in 1872, is open year-round. It’s bitterly cold in winter, but the summer offers an incredible array of wildlife.
(Do not, as we once did, make the mistake of visiting Yellowstone without stopping at neighboring Grand Teton National Park. The views of rocky peaks and wildlife — we saw moose, a fox and a mother grizzly with four cubs — are exceptional.)
Mix Yellowstone’s critters with snow-capped mountains, thundering waterfalls and bubbling geysers and you get . . . well, pretty darn crowded.
Crowds abated significantly after the park reopened in May 2020, but they returned with a vengeance by midsummer. To avoid eruptions of your own, I would strongly suggest studying a park map and allowing enough time (four days to a week) to enjoy all that Yellowstone has to offer.
The park is so big — more than 3,400 square miles, mostly in Wyoming — that carving out a piece for yourself (or nearly so) can still be done. Try stopping at the Gibbon Falls picnic area or making the five-mile round trip to Fairy Falls, or leave behind the Artist Point crowd for the six-mile round-trip hike along the scenic Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone’s rim to Ribbon Lake.
June 2020 found us in Yellowstone for our second successive summer. During a visit in 2019, we scouted for wildlife under the able tutelage of Doug Hilborn, who typically leads about 100 summer photo safaris in the park. The excursions were suspended by the pandemic in 2020 but are possible for this year.
We also fished for cutthroat trout on Yellowstone Lake, where guide Jessie King helped us spot bald eagles and land a three-pound cutthroat trout (the native fish have to be released). On the way out from the marina, she pointed to the majestic yellow outline of the Lake Yellowstone Hotel, a national historic landmark dating to 1891.
“It’s like our lighthouse for the lake,” King said.
Indeed, with its period furnishings, gleaming wood floors and lakeside setting, the Lake Yellowstone Hotel is a beacon of sorts. It lures guests across the years.
After a leisurely dinner in the hotel’s dining room, find a seat in the expansive Sunroom. There, the Lake String Quartet meanders from Bach to Scott Joplin to the Beatles’ “When I’m Sixty-Four.”
Timeless, just like the view of Yellowstone Lake through the big picture windows.
Alex Pulaski for The Washington Post
Hardy hikers who brave the Angels Landing trail in Zion National Park are rewarded with a majestic view from the top.
Zion in fall: A hiker’s paradise in red and gold
Utah’s first national park owes its name and that of many of its natural features to Mormon pioneers (as well as a later Methodist preacher named Frederick Vining Fisher). For hikers, this is about as close to paradise as it gets, with trails from easy to bucket list, all packed into a narrow canyon gouged by the Virgin River.
Like Yellowstone, Zion has a sister park nearby (Bryce Canyon, about a two-hour drive) that is well worth the detour.
Zion was new to us, and we began our exploration aboard electric-assist bikes from Zion Adventure Co. Because private vehicles are prohibited during peak months on the six-mile-long Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, biking presents an attractive alternative to the park shuttles.
We stopped our bikes long enough to take in the roughly three-mile hike to the Emerald Pools — the lower pool in particular is spectacular, set in a bowl with falls cascading over the rim.
Exhausted, we sacked out early that night at Zion Lodge, the rustic and unassuming structure built nearly a century ago. It was destroyed by fire in 1966, rebuilt quickly and later restored, accentuated by heavy Mission-style furniture, historic photos, and modern conveniences such as in-room mini-fridges and microwaves.
On successive days, we had planned two epic hikes: the first, the Narrows, accompanied by a guide, and the second, Angels Landing, on our own.
On the van drive to the Narrows, guide Bill Westerhoff with Zion Adventure Co. pointed out trails closed by landslides and the reddish-brown hues of iron oxide permeating the sheer sandstone faces.
“In a national park built by erosion, the erosion never stops,” he said. “Zion is essentially rusting from the top down.”
The Narrows hike encompasses roughly six miles to the aptly named Wall Street (sheer walls of orange-red sandstone) and back, much of it a slog through the rock-strewn bed of the Virgin River in calf-deep, 48-degree water (depth and temperatures vary by season and rainfall).
We emerged wowed but unscathed, with a palpable mixture of anticipation and dread for the hike we had saved for our last day: Angels Landing. It’s a steep five-mile round-trip hike over winding paved path with nearly 1,500 feet in elevation gain. The last half-mile, which after a series of switchbacks arrives at Scout Lookout, can be harrowing and has been the site of fatal accidents.
The single-file stretches are marked by sturdy chains for handholds on one side and steep drop-offs on the other. To my surprise, I saw every age from 12 to 70-plus braving the final stretch, which I would characterize as difficult but not frightening.
I watched as one hiker, after proclaiming the last stretch as “madness,” proceeded to sit down on a ledge, legs dangling into sheer air.
I’m not exactly sure how she felt, perched on the edge. But I can tell you that the adrenaline rush of standing atop Angels Landing, taking in the view of Zion Canyon, feels perilously close to heaven.
Alex Pulaski for The Washington Post
The Badlands as seen from Death Valley’s Zabriskie Point in California.
Death Valley in winter: A land of extremes
Our first glimpse of Death Valley came from atop Dante’s View, the 5,476-foot-high perch on Coffin Peak. From there it was pretty much all downhill, all the way to Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the Lower 48 states at 282 feet below sea level.
Death Valley makes much of its extremes: the hottest, driest, lowest spot in North America. It’s also the biggest national park in the Lower 48 (Alaska has four that are larger) at more than 5,200 square miles.
That sounds intimidating, but many of the most worthwhile sites can be taken in during a couple of morning outings, among them the Badwater Basin salt flat, hikes at Golden Canyon or Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, a scenic drive past Artists Palette, sunrise at the Zabriskie Point badlands or a visit to the jagged rock salt wasteland of the Devils Golf Course.
If a round with the devil sounds uninviting, spend a morning chasing golf balls around the Furnace Creek Golf Course at Death Valley. The course is set in an oasis of greenery, as are major services including the striking Inn at Death Valley.
Nearly a century old, the graceful hacienda-style resort underwent an extensive renovation in 2018. With its colorful tile, exposed wood beams, whitewashed walls, swaying palm trees, spring-fed garden and bubbling fountains, the inn stands among the country’s most luxurious national park lodgings.
The inn’s dining room recently reopened. We watched the sunset from the dining room’s patio over a dinner of endive salad and tender filet mignon and asparagus spears.
The inn’s spa, the Wellness Sanctuary, is small but extraordinary. My wife and I indulged in a multipart treatment (exfoliation, body wrap, massage and more) at the hands of massage therapists Heather Williams and Megan McAlonis.
About the time we were groggily searching for adequate words of thanks, I told Williams that I had almost nodded off.
“Actually, you did,” she corrected. “More than once. That’s always a high compliment.”
We spent our last morning on a guided tour of Titus Canyon with Farabee’s Jeep Rentals. Guide Jerry Hahn squired us through the ghost town of Rhyolite, past the tailings of gold and lead mines, over bumpy mining roads, and finally into the twisty curves of Titus Canyon.
Emerging from the canyon, Hahn pointed to the bare brown earth stretching for miles, the product of a dry fall and winter.
“Normally this time of year we’d have a lot of flowers, but we need the fall rains,” he said. “When that happens, it’s a sea of golden flowers all the way to the mountains — just fantastic.”
Alex Pulaski for The Washington Post
Crowds gather for the view at the popular Mather Point along the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.
Grand Canyon in spring: Vistas and vastness
Maybe the Grand Canyon is just too . . . grand. Or maybe my attention span is simply too short. But in two previous visits to the South Rim, we had raced through the Arizona desert, thrown open our car doors to a furnace-like summer heat and marveled at the view.
Then drove away a half-hour later.
Turns out we are not altogether different from the average Grand Canyon visitor, which the park service estimates spends just a few hours here. We discovered during a spring visit that the canyon is a lot more welcoming at 65 degrees than it is in summer at 105.
After a morning stop for the wide-angle view of the canyon and slices of the Colorado River at Mather Point, we boarded bikes for a guided tour along Hermit Road with Bright Angel Bicycles. Guide Calib Rice allowed frequent stops to take in the view and talk about the geology, wildlife, plants and natural history.
Later that day, we hiked Bright Angel Trail, gingerly picking our way past a handful of icy spots. The next day found us back in the saddle, this time aboard mules for a two-hour view ride along the rim near Yaki Point.
During a Grand Canyon stop in May 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt waxed poetic about the canyon view, as well as the need to protect the area.
“I could not choose words that would convey . . . to any outsider what the canyon is,” he said. “I want to ask you to do one thing in connection with it in your own interest, and in the interest of the country — to keep this great wonder of nature as it now is.”
Roosevelt would hardly recognize the place today, especially with the historic El Tovar Hotel perched a few dozen feet from the rim. The lovely hotel is surrounded by neighboring structures — notably the marvelous designs of architect Mary Colter.
The balcony view from the El Tovar’s Mary Colter Suite is awe-inspiring, as is a leisurely sunset dinner in the hotel dining room.
Colter’s designs and use of stone in harmony with the natural surroundings are sublime — none more so than one of our last stops, the Desert View Watchtower, a 23-mile drive east from Grand Canyon Village.
We woke up our last morning and looked out on a curtain of white. A heavy snow had rendered the canyon invisible, even from the rim walkway. I closed my eyes and let the colors seep in through memory — red, orange, green and gold, all the way to the horizon.
Pulaski is a writer based in Portland, Ore.
Please NotePotential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.
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