Southwestern USA 2007
After trips to Alaska and Costa Rica, we decided to stay home in 2007, and explore the US Southwest. We decided to go in July, even though we all knew that it would be hot. None of us realized how hot it could really be, but we learned soon enough! We flew to Las Vegas on Midwest Airlines, and enjoyed the flight--especially the fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies we were given on each leg of the trip. We were able to see the Hoover Dam from the air as we approached Las Vegas.
Just a helpful note: We used two Moon Handbooks, Four Corners and Zion and Bryce, to plan our destinations as we went along. These guides offer all kinds of information about sites to visit, places to stay and to eat, and things to see. We found all of the suggestions to be excellent and up to date.
While in Las Vegas, we stayed at Circus Circus, and enjoyed their free circus acts and casino offerings each evening. During the day, we visited nearby Red Rock Canyon and Valley of Fire State Parks. Both offer good scenery and hiking.
Great Basin National Park
Located near Ely, Nevada, Great Basin is an excellent place to visit. Among the newest of the national parks, it is not well-known, and it is fairly remote, so it is not crowded. It is't for those folks who are affected by altitude, though, because much of it lies well above 7,000 feet in elevation. The park offers some spectacular hikes and a cavern to be explored. We went in search of bristlecone pines and the glacier. We managed to see both from a distance before the altitude finally got to us. We also discovered lovely glacier-fed Teresa lake with icy cold water to dip our feet into and primroses to photograph.
We stayed in Ely while we explored Great Basin. This is a delightful small town with an interesting history and very friendly people. We stayed at the Jailhouse Motel and Casino (www.jailhousecasino.com), and enjoyed it very much.
This is an interesting site. These caverns include some amazing rock formations, including stalactites, stalagmites, draperies, shields, and more. The Ranger-led tours are interesting and informative. This is well-worth enjoying. Beware, though, it's cold down in the caves, so dress accordingly.
We discovered this birding gem by chance one evening as we were returning from Great Basin to Ely. The lake is a wetland in the desert where a great variety of birds come to feed, rest, raise their young,and enjoy the water. This baby coot waits for its parent to bring a snack. We stopped at Comins Lake again the following morning on our way out, and spotted yellow headed blackbirds, more coots, and even a stilt.
Grand Canyon National Park
From Great Basin we headed south and west to the Grand Canyon' North Rim. We passed through Zion National Park, but didn't stop in order to keep our reservations at Jacob Lake Inn (www.jacoblakeinn.com) in Fredonia, Arizonia. This is a great place to stay, near enough to the National Park, right on the edge of Kaibab National Forest, and interesting in its own right. There is a man-made waterfall that draws many kinds of birds, and the Kaibab squirrell. The restaurant also serves very good food.
The North Rim
Most people head for the Canyon's South Rim, which makes the North Rim even more enjoyable. The views from Fire Point and all of the other overlooks are awesome in its strongest sense. In addition to the views, there are wild turkey, elk, ground squirrels, deer, and maybe even a condor (we didn't see any, though).
Our next stop was in Page, Arizona to see Antelope Canyon, a slot canyon that was formed from flash floods wearing away a petrified sand dune into waves of color. Photographing in the canyon was a challenge, but the results were amazing. In order to enter the canyon, you must be accompanied by a Native American guide. There are many guide services in Page, but we selected Antelope Canyon Tours (www.antelopecanyon.com), based in the Dam Plaza, and were 100% pleased with our choice.
A facility owned by the Navaho Nation, Monument Valley is an astonishing place. Its broad expanse holds huge rock formations that loom above the valley floor. The most famous of these formations are the Mittens, a pair of rock edifices that look, as their name implies, like two mittens. The rocks and the valley floor are colored deep sandstone red, and the sky is a bright blue dotted with white clouds. The whole place is amazingly photogenic. In fact, it has been used as the setting for several famous western movies over the years. For information, click on www.navajonationparks.org/htm/monumentvalley.htm.
I enjoyed all of the places we visited in the Southwest, but I loved Mesa Verde best. There was a sense at the Mesa that the people who once lived there loved it and left it, but also left something of themselves behind. We visited Cliff Palace, Step House, and Spruce Tree House, as well as following the Loop Road to view many other cliff dwellings. While some of the hikes are a little challenging, it is well worth it to visit these historic places. Cliff House is the most imposing, but Step House is the most accessible, as people actually get to enter some of the structures. We chickened out trying to get to Balcony House, but we definitely will go there on our next visit.
The Arches National Park
From Mesa Verde, we headed out to Moab, Utah to explore one of the most famous national parks. On the way, we discovered Wilson Arch right alongside the roadway, and climbed up its side. At Arches, the weather was really hot, making exploration difficult. We drove through the park and hiked up to a few arches, but we weren't able to see a lot of the park. We hope to go back to see all of those spots. We photographed Delicate Arch from a distance, but didn't chance the strenuous trail up to see it close up.
The whole area around Moab has plenty of things to see and do, especially petroglyphs and Dead Horse Point, a terrific state park with amazing vistas of the Colorado River. The Point is the site of Thelma and Louise's drive off the cliff. Moab itself is an interesting little town with lots of quaint shops and OK food. We stayed at River Canyon Lodge (www.rivercanyonlodge.com), a very nice facility with a good pool and a hot tub (which wasn't hot but had a great current).
Petroglyphs and Petrographs
This seems like a good time to mention the prehistoric rock art that you can discover all over this area. We went to a good number of the rock art sites, many of them near Moab. Most notable was Sego Canyon, where both forms of art can be seen. The cliff faces contain images that are thousands of years old--and a few that are only decades old. Another site is Newspaper Rock, which is located near the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. The works at this site cover about 2,000 years of human habitation in the area. In addition, you can drive out Highway 279 (aka Potash Road) and view some excellent examples. There is a bear that I am especially fond here.
Goblin Valley State Park
The goblins are sandstone structures created by millennia of weathering by wind, water, and ice. Their whimsical shapes are reminiscent of such fantasy creatures as gnomes, smurfs, and the mushroom dancers in Disney's Fantasia. We had a picnic in the pavillion that overlooks the valley, and then we danced with the goblins for awhile, walking among them and even on them, exploring the floor of this strange valley with the looming cliffs that protect it. Goblin Valley is a must-see place despite its being a little off the beaten path!
This was my second favorite spot on our tour. I love hoodoos! They are taller, skinnier, more splendid versions of goblins in brighter colors. The park offers lots of hiking trails down among the hoodoos and along the cliff rim. We especially enjoyed Bristlecone Pine Trail and the Mossy Cave walk. Rangers offered a great night talk about the night skies and then some time spent with telescopes viewing stars from this very dark area.
We wanted to photograph sunset and sunrise over the hoodoos, but found that while sunrise is great, sunset is a dud. Instead we went to the ranger-recommended Red Canyon. We found more goblins and some lovely vistas to photograph.
Our lodgings were at Bryce Canyon Resort, a facility we do not recommend unless price is a real issue for you. The rooms were adequate--we figured we would only be in them for short periods, so it would be OK--but the pool and hot tub were not well-kept and the restaurant facility was sub-par. I had an experience with food poisoning, probably from the sausage gravy at breakfast.
Another great part of Bryce were the birds. A group of ravens begged for food at one overlook, and some Clark's nutcrackers hopped about in the trees of the parking lot for Bristlecone Pine Trail. We also sighted a dwarf nuthatch and stellar's jays. Deer were plentiful and often caused traffic jams when people noticed them along the road.
Zion National Park
To visit Zion, we chose to stay in the Motel 6 in St. George. While certainly not luxury accommodations, the rooms wre clean, the pool was nice, and it was convenient to get to Zion from there. Don't bother with the complimentary breakfast, though.
Zion is an amazing place! First, it is very large in size. Second, the scenery is superb, as are the park facilities. Third, it offers activities for everyone. We loved the bus service once we got used to it, and liked the fact that we could hop on and off at will. Our favorite part of the time at Zion was hiking up the Narrows. The far end of the canyon was closed off at the time we were there because of a fire that was burning in the Park. I only made it about two-thirds as far as everyone else, but enjoyed the trek. It was a little scary when a thunderstorm blew up as we headed back. Bill joked that it took me only half the time to get back that it took me to go up the Narrows. I will admit to being a little frightened at the prospect of a flash flood in that deep, narrow place! Whatever you do, don't try this hike without proper gear. There are several places to rent the necessary boots and sticks, but whichever you choose, just do it! Otherwise you risk pain, injury, and an over-all bad time. An excellent outfitter is Zion Adventure Company (www.zionadventures.com). They rent you the gear, show a very good introductory video, and answer all your questions patiently and fully.
Highlights of our visit to Zion included some persistent rock squirrels along the River Walk, a deer in velvet grazing in the forest below us at Weeping Rock, the beautiful hanging gardens of Zion, discovering rare and unusual things like the golden columbine pictured above, and the spectacularly beautiful canyon itself.
Zion National Park is an excellent destination if you are out park-hopping in the Southwest. It has something to offer just about everyone.
St. George Area
We stayed in St. George for an extra day and explored a couple of other interesting spots nearby. One was the St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site (www.sgcity.org/dinotrax). This facility contains parts of a fossilized dinosaur trackway and includes fossils of skin impressions and swim trackways along with the footprints. It is interesting and educational for everyone, as well fascinating to anyone who loves dinosaurs. The other was Snow Canyon State Park. This park offers views of an extinct volcano, lava flows, and a delightful small slot canyon called Jenny's Cave. I wouldn't make the trip to St. George just to see either of these sites, but if you're already there and have time, they are worth a visit.
Our trip ended back in Las Vegas. It was an experience we will never forget, and one that we hope to repeat again in the future.