Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Zion National Park: Beauty in Utah, pt. 1

by James Walker

Day 2 - Wednesday, June 20th, 2012

The southern tip of Nevada isn't what I would describe as beautiful. And it's hot. Usually it's really hot and the morning of June 20th was no exception. The first night of our trip was full of anticipation, but without any real excitement. We had made good time so far, but into a city neither of us cared for and we were eager to get to sleep so we could hit the road. So there we were, really bursting at the chance to get into Utah and see something amazing, but we were stuck in Las Vegas for the night.

The drive from Las Vegas to Zion is a relatively quick 3 hours. One of the cool parts of this drive is going through that little bit of Arizona as you head into the southwestern corner of Utah. Between Mesquite, NV and St. George, UT the I-15 highway goes through a bit of a canyon or gulch and the rock is red and jagged (video). The highway runs along the Virgin River, the same river that runs through Zion National Park, which we were headed to. The river here is slow, but pretty, and sets a contrast against the hot, red rock and the blue sky. But the drive is short and soon we were in Utah, passing through the town of St. George and switching highways to head into Zion itself.

The entrance to the park is right next to the Visitor's Center, which is also right next to the primary parking lot. June is tourist season and we were advised to find parking outside the park in the neighboring city of Springdale, but we got lucky and found a spot in the parking lot. However, one thing we hadn't counted on was leaving our propane tanks in a hot car all day. We worried about this for a while, but decided to throw the tanks into a collapsible cooler with a bit of ice to keep it cool. We figured it'd be better to have cold tanks than exploding tanks! After settling that, we jumped on one of the park's free shuttles and started our tour of the park.

The views start immediately upon entering the park; even from the parking lot we could see some of the prominent features of Zion. Being able to ride a shuttle was great because neither of us had to drive and we could both enjoy poking our heads out the window without being distracted by the road. At this point we had to start thinking about what we wanted to do while here in the park.

While we (and by we, I really mean Erinn) had planned out the big parts of our trip, we hadn't planned out the specifics, so when we got to Zion we didn't have a set itinerary. The attendant at the entrance had given us a packet and a map for the park so we picked out a place that sounded nice to stop at and went from there. We decided to stop at Zion Lodge, which is around the center of the shuttle loop through Zion Canyon.

Before we got to Zion, we had been considering a more ambitious hike up to Angel's Landing. This is a 5 mile round-trip, very strenuous hike which goes up a couple thousand feet to a beautiful lookout point. It all sounded amazing before the trip, but when we stepped into the hot weather of southern Utah in June, we decided to take it a easy and opted for a hike to the Emerald Pools. This trailhead can be accessed from the Zion Lodge shuttle stop and leads across the road, across a bridge over the Virgin River, and up just a bit into the walls of Zion Canyon. It's an easy hike, mostly on a paved road, and it led us to a beautiful trickling waterfall (video) that flows into the Lower Emerald Pool. We would have gone further on the trail, but it was closed for construction. The middle and upper pools look beautiful in pictures and I'm a bit bummed we couldn't see them this trip, but I'm sure we'll get there next time.

One nice surprise at Zion was that at various locations throughout the park there were "water refill stations" where you could easily pop your water bottle under a faucet and get some fresh water. We had packed lots of water, but we still went through it faster than we had anticipated and it was nice being able to fill up throughout the day.

After our trek up to the Emerald Pools we got back on the shuttle and continued our tour up the canyon. There are many stops along this route and even more hikes accessible from each stop, but we took the shuttle to the very top of the canyon and got off at the Temple of Sinewava. Here we took another easy hike on a trail called Riverside Walk which is known as the gateway to The Narrows. At this point, I think we were both drained from the heat, but we were pushing each other to go further and see more Zion. The walk to the beginning of The Narrows isn't much longer than a mile, but the sun was zapping our energy and it seemed to take quite a while, but we would hit a nice stretch of shade and remember how beautiful everything was. One of the cool features of this area were the hanging gardens along the canyon walls. Water flows constantly down the walls of the canyon and at certain points where there is an outcropping or ledge some plants will grow, creating this wet, green garden on top of hot, red rock. It's pretty and they're all over Zion, but you can see them up close here on your walk to The Narrows.

The name for The Narrows is pretty obvious; this is the top of the canyon where the walls get very close and the passage gets more and more narrow. Also, you may have seen pictures of The Narrows without knowing what it was. It's a beautiful area where the close canyon walls have been carved out by wind and water and have this very smooth, curved look. The hike through The Narrows is actually a hike through the Virgin River with you wading through water up to your stomach. It's a lot of fun, especially after hiking around in 100 degree heat all day, but we hadn't planned for getting wet so we had to turn around when the water reached our knees. I think we would have been fine getting our clothes wet, but we both had phones and cameras on us and we didn't want to risk damaging them. So there's another hike for next time and a reminder that it might be a good idea to bring a bag or something to protect your electronics from water. We had a lot of fun, though, and we treated this whole trip as a learning experience. For example, on the way back from The Narrows, I saw a bunch of long, sturdy hiking sticks leaning up against a wall that people had been using to keep their balance while wading through the river. Over time, people had collected them, used them, and left them for future adventurers of The Narrows. Note to self: be observant. Erinn and I had been using each other for balance along the slippery rocks even in the shallower areas when we could have been using some big, heavy walking sticks. At this point, we were both worn out and although it was already late afternoon, we hadn't had lunch, so we got on another shuttle and headed back to our car.

When traveling through places with a lot of tourists, it's always fun to watch people and the shuttle back to the parking lot had a lot of people to watch. One was a three year old kid sitting with his parents. They were Asian and didn't speak much English and the kid was adorable. He had a toy phone and people around him kept pulling out their cell phones, pretending to call him and he was eating up all the attention. He was happy and having a good time and he made the long ride back seem pretty short. Eventually we got to the parking lot, made some sandwiches, and drove to Cedar City where we stayed at a KOA for the night.

I think both of us were excited and exhausted from our first day. We got to our campsite relatively early and made some sausages and squash, which became a staple for dinners on our trip, and went to bed. The only bad part about the whole day was that this particular KOA was on a very busy street and it was really hard to get any sleep. Even late at night, a huge truck would drive by every thirty seconds or so and pull you out of whatever sleep you had managed to get. I love the convenience of KOAs, but they're not always so friendly to the tent crowd. But as it was, we'd had a very successful first day of our Grand Adventure and we couldn't wait for more.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Leaving Vegas for Utah

by James Walker

Day 1 - Tuesday, June 19th, 2012

So far my discussions about our trip across (parts of) America has been light on specifics and more about my longing for travel. I could talk for days and days about how I'd love to be on the road or walking down the street of some far-off city, but this blog is supposed to be a log of my past exploits, so I'll fill in a few details.

Our trip originally came from an idea of Erinn's that we could drive across the United States and see something like 20 states. We would have gone all the way from the west coast to the east coast and back, driving about 6,000 miles. It would have been crazy, so we scaled it back and ended up with just 5 or so states, most of them new to both of us. Officially we passed through California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, and Idaho, but the substance of our trip was mainly just Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, and South Dakota.

On paper, our trip looked like this:

View Larger Map

That would have put us at 2,585 miles, but all the sightseeing, detours, and wandering gave us right around 3,700 miles. It was quite a lot of driving for just 12 days, but we made it work and we had a great time. I've been on many drives down I-5 to southern California where I've gotten sleepy and bored and needed someone next to me to keep me awake, but there was so much to see on this 3,700 mile drive that we rarely got sleepy and never got bored. One of my favorite drives was the drive on I-70 through Utah and into Colorado. The landscape itself was so dramatic and in just a single day's drive it changed so often that I couldn't have fallen asleep if I wanted to. I felt like to sleep would be to miss the very thing I was here to see on this trip. From the beautiful countryside of the valley at the beginning of I-70 to the dramatic bluffs and canyons in the middle to the beginnings of the Rockies on the western side of Colorado, I was taken in by the beauty and variety of the land.

And this was all in the first few days of our trip.

We begin, as I said before, in Las Vegas. It was hot when we drove in that night at 10pm and it was already getting hot the next morning when we left at 8am. There's not much to see in this neon city except big buildings and slot machines so while we appreciated the inexpensive-yet-luxurious Orleans Hotel, we were happy to leave it behind (for now).

We left Nevada, drove through a corner of Arizona, and wandered into Utah.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Grand American Camping Adventure: A Look Back

The very first picture of our trip. Headed to Las Vegas
We were gone for roughly 12 days and in some ways it seemed so much longer than that. In other ways it seemed much too short.  On our trip we visited national parks, big cities, small cities, and everything in between. Every moment seemed packed with adventure even when we were just driving across an empty valley with hardly much more than a few barns and windmills. It was amazing. Erinn and I keep wishing we could pick up a little silver bullet trailer and stay on the road indefinitely.

The week that we've been back has been full of its own surprises, mostly good, but it has been tough getting used to the daily grind after being so fully swept off our feet by our travels. Someone asked me recently how my trip was and I responded by saying "It was great. Now I'm just getting used to being home again." As quickly as our trip went by and as short as 12 days really is, it sometimes felt like we had been gone for months. Life at home has a very different rhythm from life on the road.

The truth is that we were pretty tired after our trip. The long days driving do take their toll on you and I was looking forward to having some time to recoup. But as soon as we had unpacked, we both wanted to pack it all up again and head out on the road.

We both started and ended our trip in Las Vegas, mostly because nice hotels are cheap and it was close to where we were headed to/coming from. That first night we were anxious and excited and couldn't wait to get moving. The last night we were holding on tight to the very last hours of our vacation. Really I don't think either of us even viewed our trip as a vacation. I saw it as an opportunity to see states I had never seen before and spend time with my best friend.

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