A few years ago, my family appointed me Summer Camp Director.
It's a dubious honor. My duties are to initiate, research, and plan an annual vacation that will satisfy the various parties involved (namely, my husband, 12-year-old daughter, eight-year-old son, and, of course, me). I am always graded—on a scale of 1 to 10—on the task. Shopping opportunities and Jacuzzis generally score high; long car rides, arduous hikes, and the absence of modern amenities, such as televisions, can lead to serious point deductions from the kids.
So it was with trepidation that I led my troop on a late-August trip across some 500 miles of southern Utah's desert lands. As Easterners, we expected a spectacular change of scenery. I was hoping that 10 days of novel exploits would expand our horizons as well.
A solid strategy was key. We would vary our activities daily, stay at each of our destinations for a minimum of two nights, and not drive more than two hours without a break of some sort (stopping at scenic overlooks did not qualify; funky Western diners did). To ensure diversity, I plotted a route, beginning in Salt Lake City and ending in Las Vegas, that would eliminate the need to loop back.
We covered the greater distances by car and used other modes of transportation for shorter excursions. On a four-day expedition intoGrand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (accompanied by guides and packhorses), we trekked across peppermint-striped slickrock, squeezed through slot canyons, and dived into freshwater pools set in folds of Navajo sandstone.
Outside the tiny town of Boulder, we rode with cowboys and rounded up cattle in alpine territory. In Bryce Canyon we wandered among limestone spires. And in Vegas, we toured the skyscrapers of New York-New York Hotel & Casino upside down on the Manhattan Express roller coaster. At trip's end, this Camp Director had accumulated so many bonus points, it was hard to keep count. I may have to retire early, while I'm still ahead.
DAY 1 Salt Lake City to Boulder, Utah 252 miles
Start out on Interstate 15; after about 45 minutes get on Highway 28 in Nephi. In Salina, pick up Highway 89 south to Sigurd; then follow Highway 24 to Torrey, where it turns into Highway 12—and hang on. Sharp switchbacks yield views of aspen forests, slickrock canyons, and red-rock cliffs. Spend the night at Boulder Mountain Ranch (3269 W. Hell's Backbone Rd.; 435/335-7480; www.boulderutah.com/bmr; doubles from $55), a working cattle farm. If you don't arrive in time to help wrangle the herd, don't worry; you'll soon be back.
DAYS 2-5 Boulder to Spencer Flat 24 miles
Hook up with Escalante Canyon Outfitters (888/326-4453; www.ecohike.com; four-day trips $770 per person; 10% discounts for groups of four or more), which offers guides, tents, and mighty fine cooking—chicken piccata, apple crisp—to campers of all ages (babies in backpacks welcome; older children should be enthusiastic hikers). Drive to Spencer Flat, in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and load gear onto packhorses. Hike 3 1/2 miles to base camp. Spend the next four days wading the Escalante River, discovering petroglyphs, clambering up petrified sand dunes, baking brownies in a propane-powered oven, and sleeping in tents fanned by cottonwoods. Pack your fleece—the temperature can drop to the low fifties at night.
DAYS 5-6 Back to Boulder Mountain Ranch 24 miles
Ride in the Dixie National Forest and help herd the cows up the mountain before the sun goes down.
DAY 7 Boulder to Tropic 67 miles
A highlight of today's drive on Highway 12 is a hair-raising section called the Hogsback, a two-mile stretch across a ridge of slickrock. Break for burgers at Cowboy Blues in Escalante (530 W. Main St.; 435/826-4577). Stay at the Stone Canyon Inn (1220 W. Stone Canyon Lane, Tropic; 866/489-4680; www.stonecanyoninn.com; doubles from $139), a B&B with cathedral ceilings, big bouncy beds,luxurious baths, and an ample collection of kids' videos—you may want to stay put for more than a night.
DAY 8 Bryce Canyon National Park 11 miles west of Tropic
Park at Sunrise Point and devote the day to a 5 1/2-mile hike in Bryce Canyon. Take the Peekaboo Loop for an amazing journey through the hoodoos, rocks eroded into spindles that range from pale yellow to deep red. Your reward: grilled sirloin and hot-fudge sundaes at Doug's Hoo Doo's Restaurant (141 N. Main St., Tropic; 435/679-8632; dinner for four $50).
DAY 9 Tropic to Las Vegas 253 miles
Continue on Highway 12, but split up the drive with a short hike on the Arches Trail in Losee Canyon (18 miles past Bryce). At the end of Highway 12 take Highway 89 to Highway 9 for a drive through Zion National Park. Once you're in Vegas (172 miles from Zion), check into the Bellagio (3600 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 888/987-6667; www.bellagio.com; doubles from $159); it has dancing fountains and four pools. As you head for a dip, jasmine-covered archways mist you with water.
DAY 10 Las Vegas
Spend the day cruising the Strip—don't miss the roller coaster and video arcades at the New York-New York Hotel. See the Cirque du Soleil spectacular, O, at the Bellagio. And, parents, try your luck at the slot machines and roulette wheels—your gamble on this trip just might pay off in more ways than one.