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Gigantic natural architecture  

So many wonders are on this highway from Mexico to California - which has been followed by countless immigrants in search of a quick fortune - along the Grand Geological Staircase, which is formed by the Grand Canyon, the Zion canyon and Bryce Canyon!

From San Diego to San Francisco, we will visit some of the most impressive national parks in the United States, among the 59 that are found in the country that will celebrate their 100th anniversary this year.

None of the cowboys who filled our imagination in those American westerns were in sight. No Lucky Luke, no Lone Ranger! However, holding fast, the full-scale scenery won over our senses.

Grand Canyon (Arizona)  

To get there, we crossed the Mojave Desert. Surrounded by volcanic rock mountains and populated by kangaroo rats (that can survive on little water if any at all), lynx, coyotes, rattlesnakes, scorpions and tarantulas. The limits of this desert seem to be defined by a very peculiar plant growing in abundance, the Joshua Tree: a cactus that, from afar, looks like a little buddy flapping its many arms.

In the area, small mining cities grew by the hundreds before being abandoned. Calico, where we will stop, is one of them. Established in 1881 and empty by 1907, this Far West ghost town, which has been reconstituted with a saloon, general store and jail, was surrounded by 500 mines and a population of 3,500. The mines here were for silver and borax.

The Grand Canyon possesses 2 billion years of history and preserves numerous sea fossils and very ancient deserts. Covering 446 km, and 1.6 km deep, the Grand Canyon is one of the seven marvels of the world, culminating at 2,000 meters.

It all started when two tectonic plates collided. Then, sediment brought by water accumulated, forming layers and dunes that, with time, solidified into sandstone. 

But it was only five or six million years ago that the Grand Canyon was formed by the powerful Colorado River flowing its way across the plateau from the Rocky Mountains to the Gulf of California. The plateau was then fractured and, over a period of six to ten million years, the canyon deepened and created those eerie landscapes that we now look at.

Light and shade play on the layers, where we can read the movements of the water over millennia that created a magnificent show of broken spears and cliffs. Every layer of sediment in different colors – dark green, brown, pink, sand and white, darker at the bottom and lighter at the top - has been given a name according to its age (the Redwall Limestone dating back to 340 million years is the red/purple wide layer we can see around the middle of the walls).

What seems at first sight to be a hostile environment to life houses 1,750 species of plants and 538 animal species, including long horns, rattlesnakes, Albert’s and Kaibab squirrels, wild turkeys and mule deer. And one has to know that many native tribes lived in this overwhelming landscape for a while on the banks of the Colorado River, hunting and growing corn, pumpkin and beans, such as the Anasazis, the Pueblo’s ancestors, as well as the Navajos.

To explore, you can board or hop on a free shuttle year round on the Scenic Road along the South Rim, while the North Rim is only open from mid-May to mid-October. It is also possible to walk over 21 km on the South Rim Trail. Mule trips, raft trips and helicopter tours are also available, while more experienced hikers can enjoy canyon day hikes.

One lodge and a few camp grounds allow visitors to spend the night on site and even for a few days.

Monumental : Monument Valley

Fans of American Western and Sergio Leone movies will experience déjà vu all over again next to those impressive blocks standing in a light, where the intense heat creates an artistic blurred scenery, as shown in the large picture above!

Guided by Navajos, in a 4x4 we follow a gravel road winding between the immense – some climb up to 370 meters - red rocks for 27 km. Layer after layer, sediment, salt, and sand carried by the oceans, wind, rain and erosion all contribute to creating this incredible natural scenery.

200,000 Navajos, who call themselves “Dineh,” live on this immense protected site that they administer and that is part of their reservation. Consequently, Monument Valley is not a national park.

A Navajo family welcomes us for lunch with a BBQ (meat and bread cooked on a grill) in a shady corner of the valley. And one member of this family, our driver, a young man who earns a good living as a welder-fitter on skyscrapers elsewhere in the United States, tells us he comes back on a regular basis to the valley to lend a hand for his family. He also tells us of his intention to establish his family here on a piece of land that his grandfather had just given him. Proud Navajo, he also points out to us that Americans used the Navajo language as an undecipherable code during the Pacific war against the Japanese.

A stunning combination: Glen Canyon (Arizona and Utah)

It is a successful blend of a gigantic natural creations and human intervention.

Here, in the heart of a million acres of deserts and canyons, an artificial lake was created, thanks to a dam that domesticates the tumultuous waters of the Colorado River. Winding along cliffs for 298 km, Lake Powell is the second largest artificial lake in the country, reaching a depth of 170 meters at the dam. 

A must: a cruise on this lake winds between petrified sand dunes and grit stone cliffs with geological layers that are almost vertical, on which one can read the movement of the water and where light creates magnificent, abstract works of art.

Some canoeists and kayakers can be seen along with fishermen hoping to fill their boats with largemouth striped bass and rainbow trout, but the lake mostly serves as a water reserve for local agriculture while providing electrical power.

A jewel : Antelope Canyon (Arizona)

Extraordinary Antelope Canyon! A quite narrow one, in fact a geological fault where the walls are never far from one another. Sunrays that come in through the roof – if we can call it that – paint spellbinding effects on the walls, playing in the orange, pink and grey shades to create true works of art.

Once again, the Navajos guide us in this labyrinth of soft curves pointing at all the interesting angles and even help us with our camera settings to optimize the memories we will show to our friends and family.

A living sculpture: Zion National Park (Utah)

Zion stands like a canyon as we imagine one to be: immense, with cliffs surrounding us over 593 square km.

Zion is born from the water, a presence still flowing on the cliffs where waterfalls created slopes and gorges in an attempt to reach the Virgin River.

240 million years ago, mud, lime, sand and ash accumulated on soft layers on the bottom of the ocean. A few thousands years later, the site became the bottom of a lake where sand carried by the wind formed immense dunes that became sandstone with time. It took 13 million years for nature to sculpt the gorges of Zion and the Virgin River, with its huge floods, pursues this erosion without respite. Petrified wood, marine fossils and even traces of dinosaurs are imprisoned in the sandstone layers.

The bright red-orange color of the cliffs – a result of the presence of iron oxide – contrasts with the banks of the river where greenery presents diverse flora and fauna, where blue jays and hummingbirds fly among elks and mountain lions.

Its name Zion, “city of God,” comes from the Mormons who “discovered” it in 1860. A little late, wouldn’t you say?

But it seems that even though indigenous tribes knew about Zion - they came there to hunt mammoths and camels and even found an ideal environment for agriculture - the river “that makes rocks to fall from the sky” with violent floods and its torrential mountain spring, alternating with periods of drought, did not entice them to settle.

Zion also has 105 km of paths among summits named with religious names by the Mormons: Angels Landing, Great White Throne, and Three Patriarchs… open year-round.

Our personal favorite: Bryce Canyon (Utah)

To get to Bryce, we drive on a road that crosses a rather flat landscape covered with groves of wild sage. This is the region where the condor (the thunderbird), an endangered species and a symbol of strength for the natives, was reintroduced.

One stands astounded in front of this amphitheater of towering stalagmites of limestone that are spread like a petrified forest, forming radiant cliffs with finely chiseled sharp and pointed arrows, giant rocky pitons, shadow canyons and a rocky plateau.

Contrary to other sites, such as Monument Valley, Zion and Grand Canyon, erosion that created those forms is essentially due to the movement of the freeze/thaw circles and the most ancient rocks here are only 140 million years old. We could say that if the Grand Canyon represents the oldest page of history in the region, here the most recent one was written.

254 cm of snow and 200 days of freezing and thawing are registered annually in the region. Erosion continues year after year, achieving an ever-changing landscape. Here there is no river, and actually, strictly speaking, it is not a canyon.

Traces of native Anasazis who lived in Bryce in 1050 have been found. The 200- people community was one of the most important communities west of the Colorado at the time. A small museum traces their history with some interesting artifacts.

An 18-mile Scenic Drive allows for stops at 14 different scenic areas; Bryce Amphitheater Sunrise and Sunset is the most popular.


A quasi desert: Valley of Fire (Nevada)

A mountain range made of red sandstone formed during the age of dinosaurs, 150 million years ago, frames a valley where the ground is covered with burro bush, Tumble Wheels, brittlebush, creosote, agave and cacti in the middle of petrified trees, the 225 million year old remains of a forest.

In this valley, traces of occupation dating back to prehistory by tribes called the Basket Makers who hunted, fed and carried out religious ceremonies were found. Followed by the Anasazi, they left petroglyphs that date back 3,000 years. Some of them are in full view on a rock called the Atlatl Rock (Atlatl means a hunting weapon). However, since the rock is in no way protected, there are also false petroglyphs on it!

Red Rock Canyon (Nevada)

Petrified dunes form 65 million-year-old contrasting colored rocks, where scorpions, rattlesnakes, venomous spiders and coyotes live. According to belief, it was in the middle of all this where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid hid for a while. It is also where the filmmaker Quentin Tarantino set his latest movie in a snowy version of the site: The Hateful Eight.

Following the 13-Mile Scenic Drive road by car easily covers Red Rock Canyon National Park. Many marked paths will please hikers and it is also possible to climb. All of these activities are of course strictly regulated; for example, climbers have to get a permit.

A blazing desert: Death Valley National Park (California and Nevada)

A vast zone with a diverse desert environment of sand dunes, badlands, valleys, canyons, salt flats and mountains, Death Valley is one of the largest parks in the U.S. with a million hectares (13,628 square km) in southeast California and Nevada.

The valley, whose plateau was created by numerous earthquakes and geological thrusts, is surrounded by a mountain range, testifying to a long geological transformation. However, the sediment created by the wind, the water and the volcanoes are so folded and broken that it is almost impossible to exactly recreate their history.

The heat makes the soil of the valley glow and we almost expect to see a mirage. In reality, it is the hottest, driest area in North America. Here, at Furnace Creek, the highest temperature in the world, 56.7 degrees Celsius, was recorded in 1913 (we were there when it was 39 and could not even imagine how we would have survived 50 degrees!). 

One large part of the valley is below sea level (-86 meters). Quite a contrast with the Grand Canyon, where we were at 2,000 meters in altitude!

900 species of plants have adapted to this dry environment, some of them with roots that dig more than 15 meters deep. We are told that spring transforms the desert into a vast and colorful garden. That may be the best time to visit.

The same goes for animals: 400 species, nocturnal in most cases - coyotes, pumas, lizards, bighorn sheep and wild burros. The latter were abandoned by miners, who used them to carry ore. They have multiplied to the point of becoming damaging to the environment due to their significant numbers.

If you are planning to drive through Death Valley, you must ensure that the car is in good condition, that the tank is full of gas and that you have an ample reserve of water. Service areas are scarce. 

Many remarkable scenic areas mark the road with changing landscapes depending on the light and the sun, such as Dante’s View, which offers a panoramic view of the valley and Zabriskie Point: an obligatory stop!

An oasis: Yosemite National Park (California)

Orchards of pistachios, nuts, almonds and wineries stretch as far as the eye can see. Here, grapes become wine, but are also famous in their dried version: Sunmaid grapes. You are definitely familiar with them!

After desert landscapes, we find ourselves in an exuberant green belt when crossing Fresno, the center of agricultural production in California.

Soon, we are approaching a valley covered by deep forests and prairies where we can hear streams twinkling over stone and the louder music of the impressive waterfalls dropping from the Sierra Nevada. Gigantic granite cliffs stand resolute in the middle of a forest of giant sequoia trees; pines and firs encircle a lush valley where the tranquil Merced River flows.

Here, glaciers have sculpted a harsh landscape with summits that have softened with time. We cannot miss one of the world’s largest granite summits, El Capitan, which peaks at 900 meters, as well as the Half Dome, an all white summit that attracts millions of climbers every year.

Excursions and explorations 

Most of those natural parks have set up hiking trails, and it is even possible to climb in some; at Red Rock, for example. Some have well-marked trails while others are left in a more wild state. However, one sure thing is you will need water, a lot of water while following those trails and you have to carefully follow all security tips. Doing so, you will be assured to walk from delight to wonderment!

It is also possible to fly over some sites, such as Grand Canyon and Lake Powell.

A striking contrast 

We broke up this park discovery with visits to a few important Californian cities. Those will be the subject of another article.

Back home

Immersed in the last book by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, I was touched by the following thought, which transported me back to this trip:

“Destination is less important then the abandon… Leaving has no other purpose than to indulge in the unknown, the unexpected, boundless opportunities, even the impossible. Leaving consists in loosing your grounding, control and the illusion to know and to dig into yourself a disposition to allow the exceptional to rise.”
(Translation by Euphoria)

And believe me, the exceptional rises in this memorable voyage!


Christiane Théberge

This trip was taken with a Voyages Traditours group.


Mojave Desert

Grand Canyon

Colorado river in the Grand Canyon

Monument Valley

Navajos encoders during the war

Glen Canyon and Lake Powell

Kayakists on Lake Powell

Antelope Canyon


Bryce Canyon

Bryce Canyon

Valley of Fire

Atlatl Rock, Valley of Fire

Petroglyphs, Valley of Fire

Red Rock Canyon

Death Valley

Death Valley 

Zabriskie Point

Fresno, California

Giant sequoia trees at Yosemite

El Capitan and Merced River at Yosemite

On the Merced River banks






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