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By Alex McClintock (Twitter: @axmcc)

Word to the wise: if you’re a relatively inexperienced hiker, don’t start your 12-day hiking trip with a 19-mile trail. Definitely don’t hike said trail on a 91-degree day. Am I talking from experience? You bet. My girlfriend Sarah and I decided we liked the idea of being hikers and figured going on a hiking trip from Las Vegas to Denver in an Escape campervan was a good place to begin.

1. West Rim Trail, Zion National Park, Utah

Maybe we bit off a little more than we could chew with Zion’s West Rim Trail, though. We could barely walk by the time we finished. We couldn’t walk the day after.

West Rim Trail Zion National Park Utah

But getting to see a perfect cross-section of one of America’s most spectacular national parks during the 3,600-foot descent? It was worth it. Also, they have unlimited refills of Powerade at the Grotto Visitors Center where the trail ends. You bet I’m talking from experience on that one as well.

2. Kaibab Trail, North Rim, Grand Canyon National Park

The other benefit of starting with such a monster day hike was that it got us in great shape for the trails that followed. Next up was the Kaibab Trail at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, a few hours east of Zion through the ochre-coloured desert.

North Kaibab Trail Grand Canyon National Park

The North Rim is higher altitude, colder and so much quieter than the South. As we drove from our campsite (Demotte, just outside the park entrance) to the trailhead through pine forests and meadows, a herd of jet black bison slowly made their way across the road. We were the only people in sight.

That wasn’t the case once we got to the North Kaibab Trail, which was busy with hikers and mule tours, despite the 95-degree heat. The trail is essentially a never-ending series of red dirt switchbacks, plunging into the canyon at as steep an angle as a human (or mule) can handle. You can see why it attracts the crowds though, the views are spectacular.

3. Supai Tunnel, Grand Canyon National Park

Due to the condition of our legs post-Zion, we only hiked down to the Supai Tunnel (2.4 miles return, plus one or two to the visitor’s centre), but that was enough given the steep grade of the path and the heat. Suffice to say, I’m glad I wasn’t born a mule.

Monument Valley Horse

4. Wildcat Trail, Monument Valley

We headed to Monument Valley and parked our van in the blasting desert wind. At sunset, a herd of mustangs walked silently through our campground and out into the open space beyond. We got up at 5 am the next day and followed suit: the four-mile Wildcat Trail is the only self-guided trail open to the public in the Tribal Park, and we were the only people on it.

Monument Valley Sunset

Everyone else missed out. We got to see the shifting colours of the giant monoliths up close and were taken by surprise as a Lynx skittered across the sand ahead of us. By the time we were finished at 6:30, it was already too hot to hike.

5. Crystal Creek Trail, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado

Our original plan had been to hit Durango and camp at the Blue Lakes trailhead before heading over the Rockies, but a huge wildfire meant we had to change plans and head slightly further north. Instead, we camped on the edge of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park and hiked the Crystal Creek Trail in the morning. It was our first glimpse of alpine scenery, and what an introduction. Though it was a little shorter than the advertised 3.2 miles, we weren’t complaining. The trail follows a wildflower-lined ridge through an aspen grove and out onto a spectacular lookout on the canyon rim. Again, we were the only people on the trail.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison Hiking

That certainly could not be said for the road out to Crystal, perhaps the most Instagrammed ghost town in America, 80 or so miles up the road. The nine-mile track is open to ATVs and jeeps, and there are plenty of hikers, but it doesn’t take away from the charm of the snow-capped mountains above and bubbling creek beside. And yes, I got the shot.

Crystal Mill Hike Colorado

6. Carbonate Creek Trail, Marble, Colorado

Carbonate Creek Trail, a seven-mile dirt track that heads out of the picture postcard town of Marble, offers similar views. I have to admit we didn’t go all the way up: the snowmelt had the creek running pretty fast. Wearing Nikes rather than hiking boots, we decided that discretion was the better part of valour.

Nike Hiking Shoes

7. Sourdough Trail, Boulder, Colorado

One more driving day down the road, we stayed at the beautiful Olive Ridge Campground North West of Boulder and picked the curiously named Sourdough Trail out of a national forest information brochure on the basis that it was long and hard. Unfortunately, it was only long, and rather boring: 11 miles of slight uphills and downhills with no views, wildflowers or wildlife to speak of.

Luckily we met a sweet old couple from Boulder in the parking lot, who insisted we had to do hike the Loch Lake Trail in the Rocky Mountain National Park. “You’re crazy if you come to Colorado and don’t go up to the park,” said the old man quietly.

Ute Trail Loch Lake Rocky Mountain National Park

8. Ute Trail to Loch Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

So, on our last day with the van, we did. Despite having seen plenty of mountains, nothing could prepare us for the spectacular scenery of the National Park. Driving Trail Ridge Road, one of the highest altitude roads in the country, was a blast. We stopped and did a mile or two of the Ute Trail before heading back down and starting on Loch Lake. The trail was rammed with hikers and sightseers at the outset, but the further up we went, the fewer people there were.

By the time we got to the alpine lake at the top, there was hardly anyone else around. It was one of the highlights of the trip, and still surrounded by snow in mid-June. But the biggest highlight? That was the shower in Denver after 12 days of hiking and baby wipe showers.

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