Leaving Las Vegas | Going From Neon To Nature In The American West
Discovering an adventure paradise in southern Utah, just four hours drive from Sin City
I’ve been on the Las Vegas Strip for less than ten seconds before I see four women, naked save for diamante nipple-tassels and tiny thongs. They're posing for photographs with tourists, before asking for a not-so voluntary tip.
Dance music plays loudly. Initially, I assume, from the stereo of the many nearby sports cars that appear to be everywhere. Only after a short walk south on the Strip do I realise that the music isn’t coming from a car at all. It’s being pumped out into the street, seemingly from the ether.
From a distance, the vast hotel casinos that line the Las Vegas Strip glitter and shimmer in the bright sun, creating an enticing mirage in the middle of the desert. Up close, and at street level, they’re dizzying, 250 foot tall intimidating monoliths - save for the entrances that are designed to entice you in.
"Everyone appears to be getting drunk, already drunk, or high on what I can only assume is excitement and definitely not drugs"
Away from the entrance - and therefore the ability to separate visitors from their money - they are just towering, solid white walls, only interrupted by occasional posters for shows featuring young women, the likes of who I saw earlier, or young men wearing cowboy hats and thongs, but who look like they have little experience of herding cattle. Although, arguably, maybe that’s exactly what they do.
Outside, literally thousands of people walk slowly around on the Strip, clutching over-sized cans of American lager or brightly coloured frozen daiquiris in thin, five foot long, novelty plastic containers. The air is thick with the saccharine combination of sun-beaten tarmac, generously applied aftershave, and the vapour from a million e-cigarettes. Everyone appears to be getting drunk, already drunk, or high on what I can only assume is excitement, and definitely not amphetamines and cocaine. It’s 7.30pm on a Monday evening.
It’s like Freshers week for adults, but with cheap cider and innuendo-themed club nights replaced with the availability of anything you want, if you’re willing to pay the price for it. Vans drive past towing advertising hoardings offering the opportunity to have, what they claim to be, Las Vegas’ best looking women delivered direct to your hotel room. There are gigantic billboards advertising the chance to shoot guns, fly helicopters or a combination of the two. I’ve still only been in Las Vegas for 15 minutes and I find myself confused, and slightly intimidated.
It’s time for a drink.
Finding a drink in Las Vegas is like finding a spray-tan in Liverpool. However, what proves significantly harder is finding a bar that will sell you a beer while not encouraging you to gamble in some form or other. Getting to a casino bar involves walking past endless roulette tables and slot machines, and even then, there are gaming machines embedded in the actual bar themselves. Eventually, I opt for a sports bar that sold American lager in plastic cups. One beer later and it’s time for bed.
The next morning I head back to the airport to collect my rental car. It means a short walk south on the Strip again. It’s quieter than last night, but still busy. There are less people drinking, and more people jogging. Dance music still pumps out of, well, I don’t know where. One homeless man urinates in the street while another is curled away from the Strip, leaning up against one of the many towering walls, lighter in one hand, a glass pipe in the other. I notice people still pumping money into slot machines, some with suitcases next to them, presumably trying one last time to win big before traveling home to normality. Las Vegas, baby!
Driving out of Las Vegas is a little like the minutes immediately after an argument with a loved one. The noise, chaos, and mild fear that’s gone immediately before is suddenly replaced with a still, quiet limbo. As the casinos, crowds and round-the-clock music disappear, I find myself braced for it to suddenly emerge again until long after the Strip has disappeared in the rear view mirror.
On the road from Las Vegas into southern Utah and Bryce Canyon, I ponder what I’m really trying to discover. I’m staying within reach of Sin City, but want something entirely removed from it. I want peace, nature and, most of all, space. At this point, I’d have no idea how different southern Utah would be to Las Vegas. Or quite how much it would be the same.
The long nothingness of Nevada suddenly erupts into massive, otherworldly mountains of Utah. Just two hours from Las Vegas, and the road is flanked by imposing, fire red rocks. These give way to forests, then fields and plains, then rocks again. It’s a mesmerising pattern that continues until I pull into Snow Canyon State Park.
After stopping, I glance up from the map on my phone to the rearview mirror and notice a stranger approaching the car with some intent. It’s hard to tell if he genuinely looks like Old Man Marley from Home Alone, or if that’s just in my head. Either way, he’s getting closer, and I’m not entirely sure what I’m going to do when this inevitably goes south.
"A natural energy seemingly pours out of the environment here"
“I can see from your licence plate you’re a foreigner" drawls the stranger, spotting the rental car's California plates. A bellowing laugh follows a short pause, which does little to settle my nerves.
Despite my initial fear, the stranger was a Snow Canyon trail steward named Rich. Within minutes we’re both laughing, and he’s is suggesting local hikes and trails to take. His enthusiasm and love for his surrounding is obvious - something I’d later find out is not unique to Rich.
“Johnson Canyon is a nice short hike. You can go up to Scotts Cave. It’s a little bit longer, but an interesting hike" he tells me with the wide-eyed expression of a kid at Christmas. “We’ve got lava tubes!" he adds with the kind of gasp that suggests he almost forgot to mention them. “They’re really cool!"
In fact, his childlike joy only seems to drop when I mention that, after three nights in Utah, I’d be heading back to Las Vegas to fly home. “Oh. Okay." The disappointment is audible in Rich’s voice before he quickly shifts the attention back to Snow Canyon.
“Do you know about the petroglyphs in the area? Oh wow. We’ve got some really cool petroglyphs here. It’s not a terribly difficult hike to get to them." If Rich had a tail, it would be wagging. His warmth and enthusiasm is infectious. And it’s not in the hope of a tip, it’s not service with a smile. It seems to be the energy he gets from his surroundings.
Eventually, Rich bounds away, and I drive in the other direction, through Snow Canyon Park, stopping to explore. Before long the massive walls of Jenny’s Canyon tower high above as I walk deeper and deeper into it. Daylight is just a scratch in the darkness above, as the rock around me is dizzyingly high.
The next morning begins early and with an unusual freshness. I tell myself it’s the natural energy that seemingly pours out of the environment here, but Utah’s strict alcohol licensing laws may also be a factor.
As the journey continues towards Bryce Canyon, the sheer otherworldliness of the surroundings gets increasingly, well, otherworldly. On the way, I stop at Red Canyon with it’s gigantic rusty rocks that line the road on either side, broken up by patches of green trees. Two arches of rock reach over the road, like arms trying to rip the tarmac from the floor. It’s a psychedelic experience - a completely natural splash of colours and vivid imagery.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid once roamed this area, back when the west was wild, often hiding out for days at a time in a hut along what is now imaginatively called the Cassidy Trail. I can’t help but think that, with such wild imagery and views around me, mixed with the exciting brush of criminal history, this place feels like everything Las Vegas tries so hard to convince you it is.
As noon approached, I’m back on the road, heading along Scenic Byway 12 to Kodachrome Basin State Park. At over 2000 acres, it’s a huge expanse of canyons and plains, disrupted by over 60 burnt orange stone spires that reach up towards the sky from the ground, some reaching 52 metres in the air.
So taken with the beauty and vivid colours of the area when they explored it in 1949, the US National Geographic Society named the park Kodachrome Flat, after the then relatively new range of Kodak film they used. It was later changed to the more literal Chimney Rock State Park, before National Geographic successfully had the name returned to Kodachrome Basin State Park.
"The three state parks we have in Bryce rival national parks in other states"
Pulling into the carpark of the visitors centre, I’m greeted by Park Manager, Jon Wikan. He talks through the history of Kodachrome, the name changes, the geology, and the slightly terrifying natural inhabitants , including cougars, coyotes and rattlesnakes. When I ask him for recommendations for trails, he comes across as somebody who’s completely in love with this amazing, natural playground.
I ask Wikan – who lives in the state park itself – what he does when he wants a break from it all. Confusion at the notion of not being in the park is briefly written across his face until he replies, “Well, I go and visit other national parks." I stifle an unfair chuckle. Wikan's adoration for his environment is obvious.
I confess that, after my brief stay in the area, I’m heading back to Las Vegas. “Las Vegas?" he retorts in a tone with far less disgust that I’d imagined, “On your way in, check out Valley Of Fire State Park. It’s got some really good terrain.
I leave Park Manager Wikan and continue exploring the park he clearly loves. Now well into the afternoon, I head to the two-mile Grand Parade Trail, wandering between the huge red chimneys and petrified trees, listening for wildlife rustling in the arid bushes, and really hoping not to hear those rattlesnakes.
That evening I head back on myself to Bryce Canyon to meet local resident and history buff Falyn Owens for dinner in a suitable wild west-feeling roadside restaurant. I want to know what she thinks makes this part of Utah so special.
“Honestly, I don't think there is any place like it anywhere." replies Falyn with gushing enthusiasm “Around every turn, there's something different. There's the red rocks of Bryce, the forest, the desert... "
"People relocate here because of the energy, and the peacefulness"
Just like everybody I’ve spoken to since leaving Las Vegas and crossing into Utah, Falyn’s enthusiasm for her environment is boundless, and infectious. I try to hide what I’m sure is wide-eyed wonder on my face. With things going so well, I can’t help but see if mention of my Las Vegas origins changes the tone. Still smiling, Owens shifts to what appears to be a more diplomatic approach. “Vegas is iconic," she admits, “ and everyone wants to do the Vegas thing at least once. Most people fly into Vegas for Bryce Canyon. It's actually our biggest gateway city. We call it Neon to Nature!"
I try to hide my disappointment at realising this particular adventure is maybe not as original as I once thought. I broach the strange, peaceful energy that there seems to be in the area. “I think people relocate here because of that energy, and that peacefulness that it brings. A lot of people like to get out into the desert area just because of that."
“Bryce is the hook - the three state parks we have rival national parks in other states - but we have so many hidden gems. The Thunder Mountain trail is very popular for mountain biking. Disney has a ride called Thunder Mountain that's actually based on that trail. Canyoneering, horseback riding, we've hosted the Tour de Utah in the past…"
Before we part ways, Falyn recommends a few hiking trails to try, including Lower Calf Creek Falls in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which is apparently a must.
It’s the morning of my last full day in Utah and, again, I’m awake with an energy and freshness I’m not usually accustomed to, especially prior to coffee. I drive down to Bryce Canyon National Park. One of the Mighty 5 National Parks, no less. This natural, orange and red theatre is home to hoodoo’s: long spires of rock that point skywards, the product of millions of years of geological magic and weather erosion.
There are over 50 miles of hikeable trails, twisting and turning like veins through the network of hoodoos and other geological anomalies. However, the words of Falyn are still ringing in my ears, and the pull of Lower Calf Creek Falls proves irresistible.
From Scenic Byway 12, the pink, orange, and white rock formation that staggers up to the sky giving Grand Staircase it’s name is clear. It looks like it’s specifically designed for some deity, or a giant to use to ascend into the heavens. I’m around a four hour drive from Las Vegas, but it seems like a million years away.
I arrive at the trailhead for Lower Calf Creek Falls. Jon Wikan had told me it was an easy hike. The sign at the start of the trail said it was an easy hike. Scrambling up the side of a sandstone boulder, 20 minutes in suggested that my definition of easy differed from that of other people. The variable terrain, switching from deep soft sand, to hard rock, to small climbs was enough to eat the hours away. Being sunk deep into the gorge that makes up a lot of the trail felt slightly intimidating, but also strangely affirming, in the same way that being in the ocean, or at the top of a mountain can.
Some hours later, I find the reward for my excursion; a 65 metre high waterfall. The rock behind it shines with a thousand different colours, the afternoon sun constantly changing it like a giant kaleidoscope. I spend a few minutes there, which feel genuinely special.
These falls somehow sum up the entire Bryce Canyon area. Intimidatingly powerful, yet calm. Vast, yet intimate. Awash with incredible, psychedelic pallet that no photograph can ever do justice.
I head back to the car where, en route, a hiker stops and asks if I’ve seen any cougars on the trail. She seems disappointed when I say no, adding that they’re quite common in the area. My pace quickened.
After a final night in Bryce Canyon, I find myself back on the road, headed towards Las Vegas, the town I’d been so keen to escape. I wanted to find somewhere that offered the opposite of Sin City, but stay within reasonable reach. In Bryce Canyon I certainly found that.
Gone were the crowds of slow moving, slot-machine devotees. Hell, for the most part, gone were people all together. There was no facade of service with a smile. The bluff and puff of showmanship was absent. Bryce Canyon offers the kind of space and tranquility that’s simply unimaginable when standing four hours away on the Las Vegas Strip. The two places couldn’t be more different. I was prepared for that. What I didn’t expect was to find that they were also kind of the same.
Looking up at those Las Vegas casinos is much like standing at the base of a hoodoo, or in a slot canyon, looking up at the tiny slither of sky above. Both places can easily confound and bewilder visitors, with their sheer size and vast array of options. Las Vegas has a kind of sickly, synthetic conveyor-belt energy to it. Bryce Canyon has a more holistic, natural pulse that seems to seep into your skin.
Hours pass and eventually Las Vegas appears on the horizon. My eyes are fixed on the glistening, shimmering mirage in the desert ahead, but my heart is still a few hours behind, among the fire red rocks, and the peace and quiet of Bryce Canyon.
Norwegian fly a winter service from London Gatwick to Las Vegas using brand new Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft, with a choice of Premium or Economy cabins.
Economy fares start from £200 one way, £350 return. For more information see the Norwegian website.
Bon Voyage offer a seven night stay in Utah, flying from London Gatwick to Las Vegas with Norwegian from £1095 per person, based on two people traveling. The price included the above mentioned flights, three nights B&B at Inn on the Cliff, St. George, three nights room only at Bryce Canyon Grand Hotel and one night room only at the Canyon’s Boutique Hotel in Kanab. The price is valid for travel between November 2018 and March 2019
From Las Vegas, Bryce Canyon is about a four hour drive north-east along Interstate 15, via a 50 mile stretch of Arizona and on to the infinitely photogrenic Scenic Byway 12. We used Rhino Car Hire to rent an SUV. A seven day car rental starts from £190. For more information see RhinoCarHire.com
For more information about Bryce Canyon Country and Utah, see visitutah.com
Read the rest of the 'Remote' issue here