We usually plan our trips well in advance. However, this holiday rushed up and caught us unprepared: we only had a week to spare and made the decision to explore Southern Utah/Northern Arizona...based on the thin criteria, that John wanted to see where they filmed all those old cowboy movies and this coincided with Lynda's current interest at the time in Tony Hillerman novels. Not deep thinking but it worked out.
Then the week was suddenly on us. We booked a cheap flight to LA, rented a car, and headed out somewhere in the direction of Utah. Not as much walking as we would have liked, but we saw a good mix of "must-see" destinations and made enough exploratory side trips to feel that we hadn't been mere tourist-followers. The scenery was better than we'd imagined.
Took this from the highway as we drove through Zion
Flew into LA and were into Barstow for a first night in a motel. Got up early the next day, skipped Vegas, and drove directly into Southwest Utah. Our route took us through Zion National Park which we saw only from the highway but it was splendid introduction to the week ahead. but there are some here
We pulled into the small town the other side of Bryce Canyon that evening ... and froze! We’d expected good weather in this first week in May, but hadn't factored in that we would be 7,000 feet above sea level. To bring the point home, the universe sent light snow that evening and we were glad to have heaters in our cabins.
We rose early next day and made immediately for the park not knowing what to expect. Once into the park the road wandered for several kilometers through open pine forest but we couldn't get a glimpse of anything interesting until we emerged into an area where we could park the car. We walked out to the rim and now had a view! Bryce “Canyon” is a line of sandstone cliffs. Over thousands of years, the wind has eroded the cliff material, cutting chasms back a hundred meters and leaving a variety of spires, columns and “hoodoos”—sculpted spires of harder sandstone almost as tall as the cliffs.
Lyn, looking down into the canyon, from just below the rim
Hiking thehoodoos. Note gnome in foreground.
The rim is about 800' above us
The Rim Trail runs for about 15Km along the top edge of the cliff, and we found hike down onto the floor of the valley, a descent of about 800ft. From there, we spent an excellent few hours hiking a variety of trails that threaded between and even over the hoodoos.
We checked the maps for our return route and opted eventually for a longish trail leading to an ascent back up to the rim at Bryce Point Lookout, about 5Km away. This would also provide a scenic return hike along the rim. The trail was a pleasant wander through a procession of hoodoos and corridors, but when we got to the bottom of the ascent, we found our path blocked by “No Exit” signs! Damn silly place to put the signs: now we'd gone too far to turn back so we skirted the signs (unfortunately within full view of the crowd of people at the lookout right above us). Then we found why the signs were there: snow and mudslides across our path. Luckily, we managed to scramble around and over the obstacles without too much difficulty, and clambered up to Bryce Point. From there we hiked back 5Km along the Rim Trail to the car. The Rim Trail really is on the rim. It seems odd that in this increasingly litiginous and hyper safety-conscious society, we were following kids and tourists stumbling along a trail that often passed within a foot of an unprotected 100 foot drop! Fabulous views all the way though.
Beautiful river walk to waterfall
Waterfall at the end of the river hike
For the next few days, we took on some smaller hikes and visits in the area:
Monument Valley-commercial picture
We estimated the drive to Mexican Hat would be five hours but in case the road was slow, left around noon on the fifth day for Arizona.
We couldn’t get over how beautiful this drive was. Every mile seemed to unfold new vistas and exotic rock formations that changed constantly.
An odd feature in this lonely landscape was that the only traffic we'd see, every twenty minutes or so, would be large black UPS trucks. America still shops from catalogues.
We stopped in Three Bridges National Park to look at three of the world’s largest natural (rock) bridges. The wind and rivers have carved through a rock leaving these arches—some of them 100 meters across.
From Three Bridges, We took a side road, heading to Mexican Hat. For a while, this was a relatively featureless road across comparatively dull flatland; we then drove through a low gap...and found ourselves staring down a precipitous drop! The flat plateau we had been driving just ended abruptly and the world simply continued on another 2,000 feet below. The road down the cliff face gave us a splendid views of several car-wrecks below (no need for "slow down!" signs) and our drive then continued along the bottom of this cliff where plateau-meets-plain for about 100Km or so.
Monument Valley-various shots
We drove into Mexican Hat late in the day. The town isn't much bigger than a restaurant, a motel and a gas station, which is all we needed. We ate at the restaurant, slept at the motel, and filled up with gas, so everyone was very friendly towards us.
The following morning, our destination was the famed Monument Valley. It was a bright sunny day but crackling cold: the temperature must have been zero.
If you've seen the postcards, you can spot the familiar outline of Monument Valley for miles as you approach. However as we drove in towards the entrance we were surprised to see only group of makeshift stalls for crafts and guides, which were just beginning to open up as we approached. I suppose we were expecting a big federal building with rangers guiding tours, hikes etc etc. However, this is Indian land and Navaho indians run the tourist attractions to make whatever they can from it. Having neither the resources of the feds, nor the largesse to give anything away, they run a freemarket, downscale show. This could open the door for the kind of hustle and pressure but the people we spoke to were friendly, easygoing, and helpful.
We skipped the guided hike. The (unsubsidized) cost was as steep as the trail looked, but it was the cold we were unprepared for. So we opted instead to drive the road route through the valley in our heated car and just take a few photos. We missed out on hearing the history and geology of the area but maybe next time.
That evening we got to Falkland, Arizona, found a motel and headed out for a bite and a beer at a local bar. The music and atmosphere was stolidly American Country Western and, as clear up any doubts, a couple of 80 year old dudes were out there on the dance floor steering a couple of 20 year old gals around, also in full cowboy regalia, in wooden obedience to a steady beat.
We rose early in Falkland, and headed out on the three hour drive to Grand Canyon village. The road traverses the same flat sagebrush country that we’ve already seen a lot of in North Arizona, and it’s dull. The trees start to thicken as we approach Grand Canyon village, which, we gather, is on the edge of the canyon. We arrive around ten in the morning, park, and head for the main tourist center but we still can’t really see—you know—the Canyon thing. Try to find rooms; there’s nothing available. We decide to take in a hike and come back later in the day to inquire.
We look through brochures, and opting for the “Bright Angel Trail”, board a bus to our destination. When it arrives at Bright Angel Point, we rush out to the edge...and see the Canyon: Wow! It’s huge!
The dimensions of the canyon are outlandish. Standing on the South Rim, we're 7,000 feet about sea level—higher than most of the ski mountains in British Columbia and at twice the height of the highest point in England. And we’re not on a peak but standing on the edge of a high plain and looking down a huge rent in it. The North rim of the Canyon, visible in the distance, is 10 miles away and yet another 2,000 feet up.
The floor of the Canyon is a vertical mile below us. We’ve been warned not to attempt the hike all the way down and back in one day (about 20 miles round trip) so we settle for about two thirds of this. The Canyon looks like the diagram on the right in cross section. In the photos above and below you can see the lip of the dark “canyon within the canyon” (the last 1500’ vertical) as a dark fold in the green plateau in the middle. The lip of this inner canyon is our destination for lunch, only 3500' below us and about 9km away. In the photo, you can just make out the other side of the canyon against the sliver of blue sky at the very top of the picture.
We start down the trail with half a dozen others and immediately meet a mule train coming up. Mule etiquette (and discretion) dictates that we stand aside to let them pass. They’re bringing people up from the lodge at the bottom.
About 1/3 of the way down. Looking along the ridge that juts out from the main wall almost to the lip
From the lip, the last 1500', with the Colorado River barely visible below
After we’ve hiked four miles, we're almost at our lunch point and. These are stinking hot desert conditions, yet we keep finding occasional muddy puddles in the trail. It isn't rain; it’s the mules who seem to urinate in a kind of group ritual, the odour rising from both wet and unexpectedly dry ground.
We're finally down off the canyon wall and hike the last kilometer or so across the middle plateau on dry dusty ground, and following the steps of the trail over the lip of the central gorge, we find a rock with a bit of shade to have our sandwiches. We're high on the wall of the inner canyon, with a view of the Colorado River 1500 feet below us, snaking its way through a green canyon floor. We can make out one of the lodges and watch a helicopter plying back and forth, moving—well something—from here to there. An occasional hiker grinds their way up towards us.
Of course, after lunch we have to turn around and head back up, with a 3500 ft climb ahead of us and a bit of pressure to return before 4:00pm to get our room. For some reason, the climb up seems easier (perhaps because our downhill muscles aren’t in as good shape). I (John) hike ahead and try to make our 4pm deadline for checking in on room cancellations. No luck on rooms overlooking the canyon, however there are vacancies at the Moqui Lodge which is only five minutes drive from the main centre. Writing this, I seem to recall that dinner was dreadful but it may have been beer and pretzels.
In the morning, we shuffle across the parking lot to the Moqui main building and have an excellent buffet breakfast, considering it is on the house. Pack our gear for the penultimate time and head out to the Bright Angel lodge. It wasn’t great spending $120 for a so-so room but it is a relief not to drive 100 miles from Falkland to begin the activities.
We've signed up for a couple of the morning ranger sessions. First is an excellent walk along the North rim of the canyon, where the ranger explains the geological layers that make up the canyon as a prelude to looking for fossils. The suggestion is that the edge of the canyon where we’re standing was once about a thousand feet below an ocean floor (note: below the floor, not the surface). Now at this point we’re 7,000 feet above sea level so we’re all beginning to wonder about science, but the ranger takes us over to some nearby rocks and shows us a variety of clam, sponge and coral fossils embedded in the rocks under our feet. So apparently, a collision of tectonic plates pushed the plate we're standing on about two miles up into the air. Spooky.
An hour or so later, we take in another ranger talk about the animals, plants and people who live in the canyon. The talks are short and summarized but they give body to the strange extra dimension of the place.
By 1 o’clock, it’s time to hit the road and we begin the long drive back to LA. After the impressive scenery we've seen, the next few hours through Arizona, Nevada and then into Southern California are tame. We're off the tourist routes so things are a bit different: small towns really are small towns, with nothing much more than a few houses and a gas station every fifty miles, and nothing much in between except desert and sage. We make it to Barstow by about nine o’clock. We’ve driven 350 miles in a day.
We've spent most of our trip so far trying to find the heating in our hotel rooms but we wake up in Barstow to the noise of air conditioning, and outside it is actually sunny and hot! Lyn wanted outlet stores and at breakfast our waitress directs us to a large mall just on the edge of town. This is wierd: we're in a regular shopping mall with air-conditioned stores and a McDonalds across the road, but the whole mall is an oasis, with only desert beyond the walls on all sides. Couldn’t find much in the way of bargains so we had a little lunch and headed out to LA at about 1:45 pm.
We blow down out of the hills from Barstow and within half an hour we’re in the thick of LA commuting: five lanes of solid traffic travelling at 80 miles an hour into town on a hot afternoon. There’s a hold up because of an accident around Pasadena. Just past this, even though we’re doing twenty miles an hour faster than the posted speed limit, a motorcycle whizzes between our car and the one in the lane next to us and within about five minutes is a mile up the road, still zipping in and out. Guess the drugs hadn't worn off. Soon though we’re through the centre of town and heading out to the beaches. We make Santa Monica pier by about 3:30, have an ice cream and a beer and take a walk along the beach.
It’s afternoon. There’s quite a few people about. The shoreline disappears into a kind of mist about quarter of a mile away, so the whole scene has that dreamy look you’d expect around LA. We amble up the beachwalk where the crazies used to roller-blade backwards, play drums and smoke dope. Now the straights have moved in and cleaned it up: all families and nice houses; no wierdos. Pity in some ways.
Just before six, we walk back to the car and grope our way towards Inglewood. We got lost once but manage to circle back to Manchester and find our way into the Alamo rental car lot. The spanking new Chev they gave us last week is now covered in dirt, filled with lunch crumbs, and has 2,000 more miles on the clock. There's a bit of a line in front but some dude waves us forward and while we’re getting the bags out of the trunk and chatting with him, he looks inside for about two seconds, waves a bar code reader over our windshield and hands me a piece of paper that looks like the kind of receipt you get when you buy a newspaper. I ask him what we do now. He says “Just go home sir, you’re all finished here”! Ten minutes later, the free shuttle bus drops us off at the airport. Now that’s a check-in!
More technology bliss (compared with the 60's at least): I phone Blake in Vancouver on my cell phone from LA airport and leave a message on his pager. Two minutes later he calls me back and we confirm that he’s going to pick us up later. It’s freezing cold when we land in Vancouver about 1am. Blake’s late but eventually finds us and we head home, our holiday over.