I always viewed the US as a safe place, perhaps too safe in comparison to the wilds of trekking in Patagonia, cycling in China, hiking the Inca Trail or sailing down the Nile. However, I have always been intrigued by Route 66, Black Bear sightings, and the beautiful extremes of the US national parks. The lure of the national parks is what first brought me to experience the National Parks Walk tour, and I wasn't disappointed, with the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, and 3 of Utah's big-hitters (Zion, Bryce and Arches) on the cards.
Very early on, the vastness and variety of landscapes, people, cuisine and incredible scenery challenged my pre-conceptions about travelling in America. I suppose my views of the US were a mix of stereotypes created by media and movies over the years. It is fair to say I was completely wrong in my generalisations.
As this was a walking tour, the hiking trails were the obvious highlight, and in each national park there was a standard, moderate and challenging trail option. Having two tour leaders (as is standard on a walking tour) helped seamlessly split the group when required and I feel that people appreciated that freedom within a group tour.
First we climbed to the peak of Angels Landing in Zion national park for exceptional 360 degree views of the surrounding area, and stopped here for lunch to watch Turkey Vultures swoop through the air. We explored the valley at Bryce national park with its blood red coloured and snow-capped ornate hoodoos. Rising from the ground and carved through time, natural erosion and the wild elements have left this area like nothing you've seen before, and walking into the valley is like landing on the moon.
From here we marvelled at the sandstone arches inside Moab and Arches national parks. Carved naturally from the rock face, these sometimes free-standing structures cascade throughout the park revealing both the destructive and brilliant side to nature. I recommend this park to every keen traveller.
Next we followed Forrest Gump's running track deep into Monument Valley, iconic thanks to the likes of Tom Hanks and John Wayne. This incredible and vast red rich desert, home to the Navajo was our playground for our 4WD jeep tour and desert walk. Hearing the Navajo play the flute amongst complete silence was wonderful, where is a tape recorder when you need one?
Our last national park was perhaps the greatest of all, the Grand Canyon. Formed over millions of years of ice, rain, wind and erosion. The first sighting of the Grand Canyon will stay imprinted on my mind forever. A few words spring to mind; vast, endless, colourful, magical, and beautiful (and that is just from the viewpoint on the rim). It was not until we followed one of the trails that the canyon came alive and you get a true sense of its scale. We did a 7 hour hike down to Plateau Point which is one of the greatest and most rewarding walks I have done to date.
The tour ends in Las Vegas, pretty far from the wonders of the national parks but even for those who don't like to drink and gamble, Vegas is a must see and great for people-watching. The bright lights, incredible cars, over the top casinos and constant hum make this desert city an experience and a great way to finish the tour.
Although Grand American Adventures does offer this tour as a camping option, it's fair to say (with the exception of festivals) that my camping days are behind me. I appreciated the fact that after a long day walking, I could return to the comfort of my room, relax, soak in the jacuzzi, wash my clothes, talk at the bar about the day's events or walk around the area without the need for a taxi. I also liked the fact drive days were not too long, and we stopped at points of interest along the way.
The group ate together most evenings which I felt was a wonderful way to dissect the various trails and talk about what each one of us had seen. It really helped bond the group, and some of our group are even meeting again later in the year on a National Parks and Lodges tour.
The entire trip fulfilled everything I had expected and more. Having an amazing group, with professional and educated leaders was fantastic. But for me what stands out is it opened my eyes to a country so diverse it has inspired me to return again and again.