Capturing the Spirit of the National Parks' Grand Circle
For nearly six months, we (okay...I) prepared a comprehensive itinerary touring the landscape of the American West through exploration of its National Park system. Frommers described a "Grand Circle" of Parks located within a loop north and east of the Grand Canyon, covering parts of northern Arizona, southern Utah, and parts of southern Colorado and New Mexico - located predominantly in an elevated region of the southwestern US called the Colorado Plateau.
It would be an ambitious trip - one single Dad with a teenager and preteen, covering two weeks and 3,000 miles in the summer heat through desert landscape. Memories of trips from my childhood bubbled up in my mind - six of us piled into our Chevy Bel Air station wagon, piled high with suitcases and camping gear. Broken air-conditioning. Tire blowout in the middle of the Arizona desert, coupled with a flat spare and my Dad having to thumb a ride from a stranger to help out his hot, stranded family. Visions of Chevy Chase as Clark Griswold in "National Lampoon's Vacation", accidentally dragging his family's pooch along an interstate on their long-distance road trip to the closed Wally World.
Only now it would be just me - responsible for everything. All the planning, all the driving, all the responsibility for ensuring every contingency was covered. Reservations - check. Car serviced - check. Detailed day by day itinerary - check (made a friend of mine laugh!) DVD player, books on tape, CDs, iPods, Nintendo DS, Books, etc. - check. Good attitudes - check.
We were out to create memories - and I'd heard of too many people who went through their lives without gazing over the vastness of the Grand Canyon. Not us. In the span of two weeks, we were going to see seven National Parks and two National Monuments, covering six States. Here we go!
Vegas & Hoover Dam
Vegas isn't much of a place for kids - despite what their advertising campaigns try to convey. As a grown man, I've grown numb to the proliferation of sexual, in-your-face messages so common in our culture, but which are amplified tenfold in places like this. It was clearly bothering my daughter from the moment we pulled into town. Kids see things as they are, and while I used the displays as an opportunity to talk with her about not judging others' choices, I can see how it would look through her eyes. It's ugly. And you can't escape the visual assault anywhere along the strip.
So we made the best of our time there, as a stopping point before heading into the "rock tour" of National Parks to the east. We hit all the majors on foot - New York New York, Venetian, Paris, Luxor and its Sphinx, etc. And, caught Cirque du Soleil's Mystere, which they really enjoyed.
Hoover Dam was a worthwhile stop - a great example of the human capacity to engineer its environment to populate the vast desert land of the southwest. In many ways, it tied well into the story told by the land itself in the days to come.
It's just one of those places you have to visit. I chose to stay at the North Rim, because it's physically closer to the rest of the Parks we would be seeing, because it's significantly less populated, and because at 8,000 feet, it was bound to be cooler than the 111 degrees we experienced in Vegas.
If you're staying at the North Rim, you're generally either camping or staying at the Grand Canyon Lodge, built in 1928, and perched near Bright Angel Point. We hiked, viewed and had breakfast right on the edge of the canyon, which was pretty spectacular. Of interest is that the North Kaibab Trail starts from there, and leads 14 miles down to the Colorado River below. Tacking on another seven miles gets you to the South Rim by Grand Canyon Village. If you were to drive from north to south, it would be about 220 miles, or 5 1/2 hours.
While passing a group on a mule ride, their guide mentioned there are trail runners who have made it from rim to rim in about 3 1/2 hours. The record for running from rim to rim and back again is seven hours and 58 minutes. My guys aren't much for hiking yet, so a couple mile hike down and up was plenty for them. I filed the idea in my mental bucket list; however, I now want to hike rim-to-rim at some point in my life!
Lake Powell and Monument Valley
The drive from the Grand Canyon North Rim to Page, Arizona was fairly short. So much so that I arrived in town at 11am, four hours earlier than the 3pm check-in time. This left us with some time on our hands, so we grabbed some brochures and sat in a McDonalds to plan. There are many options there, mostly related to boating, kayaking and other watersports. On the way into town, I had noticed a couple of pickup trucks carting people in the back to a place called Antelope Slot Canyons. I joked with the kids, "look, those people look like they're on the world's most crappy tourist trap!"
After making some calls, guess what we decided to do? The Antelope Slot Canyons consist of a passageway through Navajo sandstone rocks, made by the powerful force of flash floods. The water, which reaches from 15-20 feet by the estimate of the driftwood over our heads, carves this amazing landscape that I am deficient in words to describe. Getting there involved going to a tourist shop where we met our Navajo guides, who would take us - yes - in the back of their pickup, to our destination. It's one of those surrender moments. Since it's on Navajo land, you can only go there with a guide. As we jammed across a sandy landscape, I had to admit I was a little concerned we were going to roll, but both kids were great troopers, and the reward was well worth the effort. I highly recommend it!
Lake Powell itself was fine - though a bit of a disappointment. You can experience it's beauty in the photos you see online for free, since it costs $4-10,000 per week to rent a houseboat. I couldn't help thinking one might be a little bored by day 2.
From there, we cut across northern Arizona, through the Navajo National Monument (unremarkable except for fossilized dinosaur prints and views of ancient cliff dwellings), through Monument Valley (the place you see in the background of all the westerns), and settled in Mexican Hat, Utah, home of the Swingin' Steak (yes, I downed an awesome 18 oz prime rib!), before heading into week two of our tour...
Mesa Verde National Park
I don't recall hearing of this park before adding it to the itinerary - literally, it was in the vicinity and from the pictures, looked cool. We were not disappointed - definitely one of the more interesting parks we visited.
A unique aspect of Mesa Verde is that the park's focus is not on its natural landscape, but on the series of ancient cliff dwellings built under massive outcroppings on the side of canyons, by the Anasazi ("ancients", or more specifically, the ancestral puebloans - who, it turns out were predecessors of the Hopi tribe) in approximately 1200 AD. In America, we don't have a lot of history that goes back 800 years. The dwellings weren't discovered until the latter 1800s, and made into a National Park by Teddy Roosevelt in 1906 to protect them from looters.
Particularly interesting is that you can climb in, around, and walk on these communities, through trails, tall ladders (some as high as 100 feet), squeeze through small enclosures, and traverse rocky trails, to get from one level to another, while listening to expert Rangers who educate visitors on the historical significance. Our inside joke for the rest of the trip, whenever we were discovering something new, whether listening to an astronomy presentation or careening across a desolate landscape, I'd lean over to the kids and ask them, "but what about the ancestral puebloans?"
Arches and Canyonlands National Parks
Next stop was in Moab, Utah, which I found to be a quaint, fun town tucked against the red rocks that comprise beautiful Arches National Park. Arches also lived up to its billing - acres of beautiful red, gravity-defying rock arches, created by nature's work with the sandstone, water and natural adhesives, on a salt bed beneath the surface. I'll leave it to Wikipedia to explain how they are formed - from a visitor's perspective, it felt like a combination of walking on Mars and yabba-dabba-doing the town of Bedrock from the Flintstone.
Landscape Arch - a thin 300 foot-long arch makes absolutely no sense from a gravitational perspective, and I can't imagine that it will stay up for long. In 2008, Wall Arch, a massive arch near the park entrance, suddenly and inexplicably collapsed overnight. Part of my motivation in seeing Arches was to ensure I had an opportunity before more fell. A highlight was our hike up to see Delicate Arch, the most photographed arch (see photo), and which is even more spectacular than the photos.
On our last day, we toured through the "Fiery Furnace", a maze of passages amongst red rock canyons, which entailed scaling along rocks, scooting on our butts and straddling both sides of steep crevasses. All in all, a fun and fascinating park.
Canyonlands is 30 miles away, and is like a smaller version of the Grand Canyon, particularly where the Colorado and Green Rivers meet. Beautiful scenery as well, including a tentative perilous walk atop beautiful Mesa Arch with my son.
Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks
From there, we traversed along central Utah on I70 to the Mesozoic Zion Canyon, which draws comparisons to the Yosemite Valley, the focal point of a trip together four years ago. Springdale, Utah is this park's version of Moab, with a series of attractive buildings, gift shops and lodging facilities. Zion draws another comparison to Yosemite in that you must take a shuttle to get into the depths of the park, and we definitely wanted to do that.
Specifically, the destination du jour was the Zion or Virgin River Narrows, which is a pathway that starts alongside the Virgin River, and eventually involves wading up the river through a narrow canyon route. This entailed a shuttle ride to the Temple of Sinawava which, with a name like that, you have to explore (apparently it refers to the Coyote God of the Paiute Indians).
One thing I hadn't yet mentioned is the number of European visitors on all of our park excursions - I just found it interesting to hear more French, Spanish and Italian than English speakers along most of our trip, not just Zion. It actually enriched the vacation experience by reminding me how interesting the area is from an international experience. It also reminded me that the dollar was probably week compared to the Euro - but hey, I prefer to look at the glass as half full!
Bryce Canyon National Park was the next day, and the highlight there are the existence of "hoodoos", which are distinctive sedimentary towers formed by the erosion of wind, water and ice. When standing on the side of the plateau looking down on the hoodoos, it looks like an audience, which is likely why its referred to as the Bryce Amphitheater. The best part of Bryce exploration was hiking down beside the massive hoodoos on the Navajo Loop trail where we were able to get lost in the rouge hues of the muddy structures.
The park was named after homesteader Ebenezer Bryce who reportedly responded, when asked about living amongst the hoodoos, "it's a hell of a place to lose a cow."
The trip home
As you might imagine, by the end of the trip, we were all pretty exhausted. The route home involved traversing southern Nevada, along the "Extraterrestrial Highway", most notable for alien-themed tourist traps, since it's close to Area 51, and for a nearly 200-mile stretch without a gas station. If you ever find yourself in Caliente, Nevada heading west, by the way, I highly recommend petrol!
Our last night was in Mammoth Lakes, which included a shuttle to Devil's Postpile National Monument. Interesting enough, but compared to what we'd seen along the Colorado Plateau, a bit anticlimactic. I'm not sure my daughter was buying the scientific explanation for the volcanic development of the hexogonal pilings on the side of cliff, but honestly, I think she'd just had enough conversations about rocks!
Great trip to take at any age regardless. It's one of those things so many people I know think about doing, but talk themselves out of because of the planning and travel time. All I can say is that my life, and the lives of my kids, are richer for having taken it - the 2010 National Park Tour!