Our Bucket List trip to the Grand Canyon and southern Utah

My professional work has allowed me to travel much of the world, including to some extraordinarily compelling and difficult-to-access places. But I’ve been less well traveled within the US. One trip on my Bucket List has been the Grand Canyon  and southern Utah. I really wanted to experience it while still relatively mobile. So this Christmas, our family gift to one another was a trip out West.

It was even more spectacular than I imagined.

We rented an SUV in Phoenix and started off in Sedona; the red rock cliffs were beautiful, and I managed a 2-3 mile hike on up-and-down and uneven terrain in Red Rock State Park. Then came the bad weather – a major snowstorm that hit north of us, burying Flagstaff, the Grand Canyon, and most of the high altitude locations in southern Utah with anywhere from 4 to 12 or more inches of snow. We made our way through the snow to Flagstaff, and then the Grand Canyon. The roads were ok and though the view at the Grand Canyon was very limited when we first arrived, the snowfall made for beautiful landscape and appeared to scare off many tourists, as the park was not crowded. Thanks to a Christmas gift from my brother and sister in law, we stayed at the historic El Tovar lodge right at the edge of the canyon. The next day, the clouds and snow gave way to clear skies and we were treated to spectacular views in a cold, winter wonderland.

And the mind-blowing landscapes of the West continued, as we traveled to Monument Valley, Arches National Park, Capital Reef, the unbelievable route 12 up and over Boulder Mountain, Bryce Canyon, and Zion national park. All of the locations featured otherworldly combinations of impossible rock formations with soft, deep snowcaps.  We thought after a few days we’d get bored; but each new park brought more amazement. Except for Zion, which was crowded, the other parks were lightly populated with travelers, thanks to the snow, and in many cases we were alone gazing at eye-popping views.  We hiked for moderate distances at every park; the kids would hike at a normal pace and then wait for me to catch up, with Karin walking with me.  I used walking poles and that helped on the slippery snow and ice, but even so I still slipped and fell several times. The snow made for soft and harmless landings. Each time, my supportive family rushed to me and laughed uncontrollably at my “slow motion” falls before helping me to my feet…

We ended the trip in Las Vegas, where my sister and brother-in-law treated us to tickets to the Cirque du Soleil “O” performance, which was amazing.

When we first planned the trip, it was a calculated risk. It’s always hard to know if ALS symptoms will worsen quickly over the course of several months. I was prepared to have to stay in the car while my family hiked. But my legs held up fine and I was able to hoof it to everything I hoped to see, just slowly.  I’m a bit tired now, but am very, very glad we were able to pull off this trip.


Author: Ken Menkhaus

Professor of Political Science at Davidson College. Specialist on Somalia and the Horn of Africa. Interests include development, statebuilding, informal governance systems, peace and conflict studies, and political Islam. I also teach on philanthropy and the non-profit sector.

3 thoughts on “Our Bucket List trip to the Grand Canyon and southern Utah”

  1. Wonderful trip Ken. Happy you got out to the West (although you missed the mighty sequoias of Yosemite and the mighty redwoods north of San Francisco (where you will always have a place to stay)… but given what you did see, amazing enough! Liz and I went to the Grand Canyon for the first time in 2019 as well. We went with Interpeace alumni Anne Moltes (France), Ana Glenda Tager (Guatemala), Anupah Makoond (Mauritius) and Ariane Inkesha (Rwanda)… needless to say, it was as amazing to be with that group as it was to see the beautiful Grand Canyon. Must have been spectacular seeing it covered in snow! Wishing you and your lovely family a wonderful 2020!


  2. What a fabulous and unforgettable adventure! I’m so glad that the snow and your loved ones were there to cushion the falls. Peace and health in the New Year!


  3. Ken, Awesome you made the trip! Sounds like the snow had its advantages. Reading about your adventure inspires me to keep having my own.


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