The quest: Eight national parks in eight days
Somewhere along the back roads of Utah the thought occurred to us that we'd bitten off more than we could chew.
Inspired by the Ken Burns public television series "The National Parks: America's Best Idea," the goal was to visit eight U.S. national parks in eight days.
By the time we'd checked five off the list, the restless crew in the back seat was about ready to head home.
But the annual pass for all national parks had already been purchased (at a reasonable cost of $80) and the remaining taxpayer-supported properties on the schedule were pretty much on the way back to the Midwest.
Honestly, they were a little bit out of the way, but to pass them by now would mean accepting defeat.
Three national parks in the final day, with temperatures hovering around 100 degrees, was a bit rushed. But in the end the goal was achieved.
The Burns series featured stories of people who had visited all, or a large number, of our nation's natural treasures.
As a couple, my wife and I had already visited 10 of the 58 national parks across the U.S. If we didn't start picking up the pace, we'd never get close to seeing them all.
A check of a new Rand McNally Atlas proved helpful. It appeared we could visit a large number of parks in a short period of time if we headed to Colorado, Arizona and Utah.
You hear warnings that reservations for lodging at places like the Grand Canyon, Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks must be made months (or even years) in advance.
By keeping an eye on the online reservation system, we were able to book accommodations at all of those locations within two weeks of our travel date.
For the weak at heart, that may be cutting it close when planning a long family vacation. We're proof that it can be done with a little patience.
And it improves your travel experience greatly, we found, if you stay right inside the park -- whether you stay in a lodge or pitch a tent.
To make the schedule work, we drove through the night to arrive at our first stop on a Friday morning.
Great Sand Dunes National Park isn't the most well known destination for travelers, but it certainly provided a unique view of huge sand piles.
After more than 17 hours of driving, we were thrilled to get out of the car.
When you drive toward the sand dunes, it doesn't look like much. But as you cross the pleasant stream that runs along the base of the dunes and gaze upon the view, it's quite something.
The kids had a great time sliding down the face of several steep dunes. Nearby, more prepared families took turns using a snowboard to fly down the sand.
Be careful on a hot day. Your feet can easily burn if you're not wearing shoes or sandals.
After a night in Durango, Col., a quick tour of Mesa Verde awaited us. This was one of the national parks I was anxious to see.
The drive to the top of the mesa provides some great views of the valley below. It does take some time to get to the top, however.
Take note: Arrive early to beat the crowds and to get your choice of guided walking tours at the most popular cliff dwellings. Try to take at least one of the guided tours. The park rangers provide a wealth of information about how the ancient dwellings were constructed and who lived there.
If you're on a schedule, you can easily take in a few of the sites within two or three hours.
By early afternoon, the car was back on the highway and headed to the Grand Canyon in Arizona.
Days 3 & 4
Two nights at the Grand Canyon is plenty, unless you want to hike down to the Colorado River and spend the night.
This national park is like no other, with incredible views that don't even seem real at times. We planned an early morning hike from the rim of the canyon in order to beat the afternoon heat. After two hours of hiking, we still hadn't reached the bottom, but we decided we'd seen enough. Several resting spots provided great scenery for hikers.
The hike back up is considerably tougher than the hike down. We felt sorry for the crowds of people who passed us by on our way up. The rising temperature was sure to take its toll on these later arrivers.
The Grand Canyon south rim is a great place to visit if you can avoid rush hour (from around 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily). At those times, the crowds can be annoying.
But when the crowds leave, it's easy to find secluded spots where you can enjoy nature and the quiet. Take the free shuttle bus to one of several stops along the south rim to catch a sunset if you spend the night at the canyon.
Next stop was Zion National Park in southern Utah, a good five hours away from the south rim. The east entrance into this park is perhaps one of the most dramatic sights you'll encounter.
A variety of rock formations give way to a one-mile long tunnel. When you exit the other side, you're surrounded by incredible beauty. This was clearly one of the highlights of the trip.
When we arrived, however, the heat was oppressive. We asked a ranger at the information desk when the heat subsides in the evening. He shook his head and said it would remain hot.
Thankfully he was wrong. Once the sun dropped below the surrounding mountains (which was quite early in the afternoon), hiking and other activities were pleasant.
We stayed in a rustic looking cabin with all the modern conveniences, where deer munched on grass nearby. The lodge restaurant, while pricey, offered a great meal and an incredible view to boot.
The next morning, in an effort to beat the heat, we hopped on the free shuttle bus. We got out at the final stop and hiked up to the trailhead for "The Narrows."
At that point, hikers have to grab a walking stick (many of which are collected for anyone to use) and navigate the rocky bottom of the river to enter the canyon. The river hike was unsteady at times, but was well worth the effort. Wear sturdy shoes that you don't mind getting wet.
Other shuttle stops provided hiking opportunities as well, but we couldn't let any moss grow under our feet. There was a schedule to keep.
We pulled into Bryce Canyon National Park and checked into a roomy and charming cabin with a wide front porch. The higher elevation on the rim gave us a break from the heat.
Bryce is a compact and impressive sight. Colorful spires reach skyward and the view goes on for miles.
A fairly strenuous hike into the canyon on a loop trail takes a little more than an hour. The trek down is a must, even in the afternoon sun.
Later that evening, a storm in the distance offered up a spectacular rainbow that crowned Bryce's glorious spires for well over an hour. The camera, however, failed to capture the moment.
Sunrise at Bryce is hyped by promotional materials. We found out it wasn't necessarily worth it to get up at 5:30 a.m. It was a pretty sight, but not one to lose any sleep over.
On tap: Three national parks in one day.
Capitol Reef National Park offers more impressive rock formations that can be viewed from the road. A state highway runs through a portion of the park, so some visitors don't even have to travel through a National Park Service gate to enter.
One stop of interest is the petroglyph drawings on the rock cliffs along Highway 24. There are drawings of animals and humans that date back hundreds of years, and there are several drawings of what look like alien beings.
Canyonlands National Park and Arches National Park are near each other and can easily be visited within a few hours.
One interesting stop at Canyonlands is the Upheaval Dome, which was possibly created by the impact of a meteor many years ago.
At Arches, the Delicate Arch gets all the attention. The rock formation is on Utah license plates, so it's hard not to at least take a peak.
Hiking up to that famous arch takes a while, but you can also see it from a distance thanks to a very short hike to a viewing point.
Other arches are equally, if not more, impressive, including the huge double arch. All told, there are some 2,000 natural arches within the boundaries of the park.
The Balanced Rock is a great stop for a photo. By the looks of it, that rock won't be up there for too much longer.
The long drive home. The trip through the mountains of Colorado was a beautiful end to a great trip. We bypassed a ninth national park (Rocky Mountain National Park) knowing that it was time to head back. Besides, our digital camera memory cards were nearly filled with snapshots of the trip.
By the time we hit Des Moines, the eyes had started to glaze over but we kept moving forward. We were in our beds by 4 a.m.
Don't miss some of the extra side trips along the way. We stopped at the Glen Canyon Dam and swam in Lake Powell on our way to Zion. It was a nice change of pace.
Also, the Four Corners monument (where you can stand in four states at once) was under construction when we drove by. We stopped anyway and found out that a huge flea market of authentic Native American arts and crafts operates daily at that location. The prices were more reasonable than items sold in the gift shops at the national parks.
For shoppers, downtown Durango, Col. has much to offer. It also appears to be quite the tourist town and could be a destination by itself.