Canyons & Cultures of the Southwest

With my wife Lori and a colorful rented campervan, I explored the deep canyons, wide open vistas, and rich traditions included on our upcoming tour, Canyons and Cultures of the Southwest. Through the land of the Navajo, Hopi, Ute, and other Native American cultures, we developed a new understanding and appreciation for this incredible region. To view all photos from each day, click the blue bolded text that notes designated photos.

Day 1: Arrive

With a morning flight to Las Vegas we were on our way and ready to be introduced to our home for the next week, a colorful campervan that screams, “road trip!” Leaving the bright lights of Las Vegas behind, the afternoon drive took us through the narrow passes of the Virgin River Gorge, across Southern Utah, and into Page, AZ along the border of Navajo Nation. Page is a hub for so much to see and do in the Southwest, and after a quick glimpse of Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell we found our campsite, turning in for the evening but excited for the adventures tomorrow would bring.

Day 2: Page's Wonders

Not waiting for the sun, we were anxious to get the day started. Our first destination: Horseshoe Bend - a highlight I’m excited to add to the tour in September. Here, a short and easy hike leads to an incredible payoff. The viewpoint rises to over 1,000 feet above the Colorado River as it winds its way through the steep canyon, turning from an eastward flow to westward with one sharp turn. Horseshoe Bend has become one of the most famous images of Arizona, and a picture you’ll love to share with others as you talk about your travels.

Also in Page, the Powell Museum helped us learn about the journey of the incredible John Wesley Powell, the 1-armed explorer determined to survey the course of the Colorado, even through its more treacherous terrain. A lunch next door at Grand Canyon Brewery allowed us to test the food our group would be having this fall (it was so good we would eat there again before the end of the trip!).

A true highlight of our journey awaited us next at Upper Antelope Canyon. After meeting the guides in Page, we boarded shuttles for a bumpy ride into Navajo Nation amidst the endless array of buttes, mesas, and canyons. We pulled up to a rather unsuspecting spot, something that would be easy to walk right past if you didn’t know where to look. But what lies within this simple crack in the earth is truly stunning - smooth polished walls that twist and turn in synchronized fashion, playing with the light from above, giving each step a new view. As the guided walk meanders through the narrow passage, you feel as if you are truly in one of nature’s most special creations. Antelope Canyon, in essence, is perfection in nature. Every groove in the wall and every shape it creates seems carefully considered by the water that sculpted it. No human hands could’ve created its equal.

The guides, filled with knowledge about the canyon’s formation and history, also possess the special skill of making sure you capture the perfect shots. This could even be considered a photo tour, as guides lead you to the perfect angles, and even suggest settings on your phone that allow for the perfect shot. After a little more than an hour in the canyon walking slowly on the flat surface, we exit the canyon using ramps and stairs that bring us back to our vehicle. While this tour shouldn’t be considered strenuous, it also isn’t for those that need assistance when walking or who struggle with stairs. For those that come along, Antelope Canyon will remain with you long after you leave. Fortunately, we still had much to experience as we continued east towards our next destination in Navajo Nation, Monument Valley.


Day 3: Monument Valley

A perfect campsite put us in a great position to see a clear sunrise among the iconic monoliths of Monument Valley. An overnight storm had brought in some colder weather, but we weren’t going to let that spoil our day in this incredible area. Just as the group will do in September, we toured the valley in open-air 4-wheel-drive vehicles with Navajo guides for the most intimate and authentic experience you could ask for. Our guides told us about the Ancient Pueblo (Anasazi) that inhabited the area before the Navajo, and how their ancestors found a way to cultivate this arid land. Even today, 30 families live in the protected area and follow the ways of traditional Navajo culture. While most people know the famous landscape of Monument Valley (or Tsé Bii' Ndzisgaii in Navajo) from pictures or scenes in movies like Stagecoach or Forrest Gump, our tour shows there is much more to this area than breathtaking scenery.

Our journey took us deeper into Navajo Nation as we passed the famous Mexican Hat Rock and arrived in Bluff, UT for a stop in Bears Ears National Monument. Speaking with a ranger, we learned how representatives from the Hopi, Navajo, Ute, and Zuni tribes successfully lobbied for the protection of the area due to its significance in their cultures, and how this coalition is helping manage the monument. Our tour in September will learn about and experience this National Monument first hand with a presentation at the Bears Ears Education Center.


Day 4: Desert Towns

Our next stop took us to the border of two reservations, where Hopi and Navajo Nations sit on opposite sides of the road and in different time zones. In Moenkopi (Hopi) we visited Legacy Inn & Suites, a beautiful hotel where our group will be staying while learning about Hopi Culture. Across the street in Tuba City (Navajo) we visited the Explore Navajo Museum, which features an exhibit about the famous Code Talker program from World War II. Then it was off to one of my favorite towns in the Southwest, Kanab, UT, where our group will be staying 2 nights in September.

Kanab is known as “Little Hollywood,” for its role in popular Western cinema. Their “walk of fame” shows the names and pictures of movie stars that passed through, including John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Ronald Reagan, and more. Kanab is also home to great local restaurants like the Iron Horse Saloon, Houston’s Trails End, and Peekabo Canyon Grill. But perhaps most importantly, Kanab is a hub for many great outdoor regions, like Grand Canyon North Rim, Zion National Park, and Grand Staircase-Escalante. After an enjoyable afternoon in this classic town, it was Zion calling our name for another adventure.


Day 5: Zion National Park

In a life filled with National Park visits, Zion holds the distinction of the park I’ve visited more than any other. It’s also the first park I visited with my wife (then girlfriend) Lori. But there is no sense waiting for the day I tire of the towering red cliffs, hanging gardens, and peaceful yet urgent flow of the Virgin River. For the Southern Paiute, Zion was “Mukuntuweap” or “straight canyon.” And, unlike the Grand Canyon, the beauty of Zion is viewed from the bottom, looking up at the 2,000 foot cliffs on all sides. While Zion is one of most visited parks in the U.S., finding solitude along the river trail is never hard, and navigating the easy shuttle system gives you access to every part of the canyon. In September, our expert guide will educate passengers about the park, and provide information about how to best enjoy some free time to explore.

After lunch at the lodge restaurant and taking in the beauty of several short trails, we were due back in Las Vegas for our flight home. Despite having traveled through the Southwest on many occasions, I felt as if I had seen it through a new lens. Embracing the culture and traditions of the Navajo, Hopi, Pueblo, and Ute allowed me to appreciate the landscapes as a living thing; not simply sites to be seen but a land to share and respect.


Additional Information:

As a result of my trip through this itinerary, we’ve been able to add many exciting features that were previously unannounced. This list includes the stop at Horseshoe Bend, visiting the Powell Museum, and the presentation at Bears Ears National Monument. Our tour in September also includes many highlights that I was not able to squeeze into my trip, including a trip to North Rim of the Grand Canyon, a guided tour of Mesa Verde National Park, a visit to the Ute Indian Museum, and a morning in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.


Caleb Lawson is the Operations Manager for Sunrise Tours, as well as a Tour Director for both Sunrise and Country Travel Discoveries. All photos by Caleb Lawson.

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