Active Travels through California and Utah National Parks

Well, it has been a while... and lets face it, while we are pretending normal has returned, we are still not back to actual normal. Although, we are gearing up for a first flight in about 3 years... What a difference a virus makes.

Here are some of our travels including tips, sights and other fun things.

Lasson National Park - Volcanoes!!

This really was one of our first trips after a full year of Covid-19. We decided to visit an old favorite and then some. Our trip to Lassen started in mid June, and to our surprise, some of the trails like Bumpass Hell were just about open. There was still quite a bit of snow on the paths and ground. So check ahead and don't miss out on these. 

We stayed at Drakesbad Guest Ranch, which is in the south side of the park. Drakesbad is special to us and many people... check it out. We are just keeping our fingers crossed that it survived the wild fires that hit the area the same year we were there.

A drink at Drakesbad

If you stay at Drakesbad you are at least an hour away from the southwest park entrance, so keep that in mind. But you are close to so much. Some thing to go and see are the lakes. We took our kayaks and paddled around Juniper Lake. It is a rough road, but you will find a pristine alpine lake, often with no one else on or in it... It is spectacular. Of course, most people will kayak on Manzanita Lake, which has an amazing view of Mount Lassen. I would recommend doing that on the way home. Arrive a little early, park, picnic (bring sandwiches), and then go kayak. After a most scenic kayak time, drive to wherever you need to go that day.

We didn't stop here, but it is apparently fun: Lava Tubes. Just when you exit the park and drive up north or a right turn from Lake Manzanita (89) onto 44, look for the town of Old Station. Here where 44 turns into 89 again, keep a lookout for "Subway Cave Lava Tubes".

One of our favorites, we finally actually did walk up, is Cinder Cone - this is the trail head location. It is a bit of a trek up. And I mean, this is tough. This thing is steep. But even while walking up, you have amazing views. Below, Mount Lassen is peaking at you in the distance.


Walking up Cinder Cone

To drive to Cinder Cone from Drakesbad you drive around the entire park. Budget at least 90 minutes to drive, and another 3-4 hours around Cinder Cone. Butte Lake can be kayak-ed as well. We opted to sit at the lake and do a picnic after our hike up to the Cinder Cone.

While at Drakesbad we did the fun Drakesbad things: hike around, horseback rides and more. But we also got to hang out at the restaurant and enjoy the food, sit around the camp fire, play games in the lodge.

Waterfalls

Next up, we drove up 44 and passed the Lave Tubes, turned left onto 299 and stayed a few days near Montgomery Creek. We were looking for a place that was in the middle of a couple of water experiences, with of course waterfalls.

The first waterfall we visited is the most famous one in that area: Burney Falls. If you go, do not go in the weekend... The falls are in McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park (so, yes, you do pay an entry fee), and it has a number of boat ramps, it has a camp ground  and more. And it does get busy.

We drove all the way to Burney Creek Pier. It is essentially as far away from the falls as you can get. Since we were early, we parked there. Then hiked to the falls along the pleasantly shaded path to the falls. Once we did the falls, we hiked back, and settled for a swim and kayaking on Lake Britton. The pier has a nice little beach, with a swimming area. Great fun, and we did spend a large part of the day here. The falls are amazing btw! And yes, this is one to go and see! But it gets better...

After this fall, we saw some small ones, but then we did find the motherlode! We decided that Potem Creek Falls looks really good, and it does. 


The drive is a bit long, and it is sand and dust in summer. Once you get close to the falls, drive slowly or you will miss the bend and the "parking". Parking is a tiny spot on the left of the road when coming from 299.

Once parked, follow the trail and you will be rewarded. Settle in, bring a picnic lunch and swim in water hole. Go under the falls, behind the falls and just enjoy the water. 

The hike down is a bit steep and the last bit is over rocks, a bit of clambering and all. It seems to be relatively quiet - but this was during Covid - and we often were the only ones in the water.

Highly recommended, even better than Burney Falls, or maybe, different?

Canyons

About 9 months later, we did another fun trip. This time we were off to Utah, and we used our National Park pass to the max, visiting Zion, Bryce, and an underrated one, Escalante.

Travel like Just Been There

7 days in Utah's National parks can look like this:

  • Day 1 - Travel and arrive in Duck Creek Village (our VRBO was here)
  • Day 2 - Day trip to Bryce Canyon
  • Day 3 - Zion day 1 - Casual exploration
  • Day 4 - Zion day 2 - Angels Landing
  • Day 5 - Escalante National Monument - the Slot Canyons!
  • Day 6 - Zion day 3 - The Narrows!
  • Day 7 - Travel back home

Why Duck Creek Village? It had a house on VRBO that was nice, affordable and holds 8 of us (2 families). It is centrally located and close to all three parks. Just one thing, it is at 10,000 ft (about 3km) above sea level. Why does that matter, well, if you go, like us in late March, expect snow!

Duck Creek Village
Snow, end of March in Duck Creek Village

Bryce Canyon

About an hour or so is Bryce. Stop one and we were lucky as we had snow in Duck Creek so was Bryce still covered with a dusting of snow in the shaded areas. But we had a beautiful day and did a hike around the cracks and hoodoos...

Bryce Canyon
Hoodoos

While in Bryce, and plan to arrive early and bring some snacks (more on food later) and plenty water, we did the hike between sunrise and sunset points. We parked at the lots around the The Lodge at Bryce, and then walked down the trail from Sunrise point, looped around and did the switchbacks up to Sunset point.

Bryce - Switchbacks
Going up the switch backs

It is a steep uphill, but if you take your time it is actually a very nice hike. Note that Bryce is the one to take lots of pictures... After this, we did the drive around, and drove the paved road, all the way to Rainbow Point, making easy stops along the way. 

Tip: if you arrive early, do the hike and the drive all the way to Rainbow point, without stopping! On your way back stop at the points you want to. You'll have fewer people at the end and gradually will see more people, but at least you are not with the same large crowd at every stop.

For food, well, you bring your own, or you will likely stop at one of the Ruby's... in Bryce Canyon City, especially if you end up in Bryce on Sunday...

Tip: if you go on Sunday, look ahead for food. We found a ton of places closed on Sunday.

Zion

Where Bryce is pretty and photogenic, Zion is exciting and a bit rough. Ever so beautiful, but very different in color and scale and just everything. While you can do a ton of hikes in Bryce, Zion has a few famous ones to tick off that old bucket list...

First - Angels Landing

We did most of it, (not the crazy bit)  before the permit system went into place. Permits are now - I think - required for the last bit when you go up along the ropes/cables and do the saddle and end up on the actual landing.

Zion National Park
Switchbacks up to Angels Landing

Some of our group went all the way, we did the hike up to the plateau and then the first bit of cables. It is a zoo. People going up, as many going down, no patience, and then some sensible folks directing traffic to avoid more craziness. Hopefully the permits regulate this somewhat.

Second - The Narrows

Our favorite! Hands down the most exciting one! Can I rave more? Nope... this is it people.

Zion - the Narrows
The Narrows

Here is our guide to the Narrows - and what most people do:

  • Check the flow rates on the website - if you are all adults, you can go with higher flow rates. Kids under 12, just keep it save and don't go with high flow rates. It will not be fun for you or the kids
  • Book ahead with one of the tour operators and check with them on flow rates as well, we did this with Zion Guru in Springdale. Great gear and lots of parking to leave your car!
  • Gear up - even if it is sunny and warm, that water is not. It will be waste high or more and you will slip... part of the fun, but not in shorts and t-shirt with 5-8 degree Celsius water. Plus the gear and stick make you look like a pro!! Lots of people will want to talk to you - the heroes of the narrows!
  • Bring a Go Pro or stick that phone in a water proof pouch. Again, you and your phone will get wet!
  • Bring snacks - nothing is better than sitting down deep in the narrows and munch on some sweets and a sugary drink
  • Don't forget to once in a while just look around you, seriously... you will be busy clambering, trying to stay dry, it is easy to forget to look around!
  • Have fun!

We had a ton of fun, everyone got wet (at least at bit), but it is an experience that is really one for the books.

Tip: End of March will typically have a lot of snow melt and runoff making the Narrows reach some pretty high flow rates. In summer, a lot less water is flowing...

Grand Staircase - Escalante National Monument

We were way to late to reserve Antelope Canyon, which only has guided tours these days. Bummed us out, but then we found out that Escalante has some do it yourself slot canyons... and in hindsight, a much cooler adventure!

First, the drive from Bryce into Escalante is amazing. The scenery is just spectacular, and that by itself is worth the trip. Stop at the Escalante Interagency Visitor Center - it is very well done and has information on all the things to see and do.

Peek-a-boo slot canyon
Peek-a-boo

From there we drove into the dessert - literally - to then hike to Peek-a-boo and Spooky slot canyons. To get here, drive from the Visitor Center to the Upper Dry Fork Trailhead. The road is not paved, bumpy and dusty. But completely worth it.

From their, follow the small rock stacks to the slot canyons. You hit Peek-a-boo first and go one-way from the entrance to Peek-a-boo through the Spooky one back around.

Spooky Slot Canyon
Down the Rope

The entrance to Peek-a-boo is a climb up! Clamber up and then you are in a different world. 

Tip: At the trailhead, next to the bathrooms, you will see a sign. It asks you to make sure you can squeeze through the bars. If you cannot, do NOT go down the canyons. You will not be able to make it through and going back is really not an option...

For us, this was probably the number 1 thing we did on this trip, even more fun then the Narrows. So if you are around, do the drive, do the slot canyons. And if you have more time (we did not) there is a ton more to see and do in Escalante. 

That's all for now. If you go, enjoy Utah and the canyons. It is amazing place to do an active vacation and do not miss Escalante!

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