Thursday, March 28, 2013

Slipping Along the Rim of the Grand Canyon

This Christmas was my first working for a school and the first time in a long time that I had a true Winter Break. I worked for years in retail and had come to dread the Christmas season since, for me, it meant longer hours, angrier customers, and family dinners I'd have to miss. This year, however, I had two full weeks off and I meant to fill it with as much sleep, travel, family, and board games as I possibly could.

So I filled my belly with delicious home-cooked meals and spent my afternoons playing Settlers of Catan and StarFluxx. And a few days before New Year's, Erinn and I took off for the Grand Canyon.

As usual, some of the details of our plan fell through, but the important parts went smoothly. We packed our itinerary full of National Parks, National Forests, National Monuments and the like, but the snow closed roads and hiking trails, forcing us to change our plans a little.

While we would have liked to see everything on our list, time was also against us, so skipping a few places due to snow worked out quite well. Instead of rushing from place to place, we were able to spend a lot more time at the Grand Canyon. We also spent more time in Flagstaff, which turned out to be quite beautiful and very accommodating to our specific diet.

Here are a few places we didn't get to see, due to inclement weather:
Meteor Crater
Walnut Canyon National Monument
Wupatki National Monument
Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument
Desert View Watchtower

But we still got to see a lot, especially for such a short weekend packed with so many miles.

Our first mistake was made even before we left town. For whatever reason, we just couldn't sleep the night before and were up until 2am. Nevertheless, we got out of bed before dawn and left town on minimal sleep. When we stopped for gas in Tehachapi, it was a shiver-inducing 18 degrees outside, giving us a peek at the weather to come in Flagstaff.

Our first stop was to be in Kingman, AZ for a quick bite to eat at the Cracker Barrel, throwing all good eating habits out the window for a bite of wheat and dairy-covered Chicken Fried Chicken, but apparently everyone likes to eat lunch at the same time, so we skipped the wait and ate somewhere else.

As we left Kingman we entered the Arizona high desert plateau. There are a few mountains and hills here and there, but mostly flat land with trees spotting the landscape. With all this flat land and only a few hills to block your view, Humphrey's Peak can be seen from 80 miles out. We still had 86 miles before we were to reach flagstaff when we saw the top of the mountain, which is Arizona's highest peak.

We had planned on seeing both Walnut Canyon National Monument and Meteor Crater before settling down in Flagstaff for the night, but we had forgotten about the change in time zones and were behind an hour. We wouldn't make it to Meteor Crater in time and we would barely make it to Walnut Canyon. That, and Walnut Canyon's main trail was closed because of snow, so we went to Flagstaff and drove around the town, stopping for a bit to walk around downtown long enough to freeze our toes off in the snow. The snow was beautiful and Flagstaff's downtown is charming. At one point we drove up to Lowell Observatory and threw snowballs at each other and looked out onto the city below us. There were kids sledding and smoke rising from chimneys and it was all so different from the life we know in Bakersfield.

We ate that night at a healthy and very accommodating restaurant called Picazzo's Organic Italian Kitchen, which emphasized its gluten-free options and would add spinach to any pizza for no charge just to encourage healthfulness. We got a pizza and a bowl of pasta with veggies and sausage and it was just about the best meal we've ever had at a restaurant. Most places, like BJ's or Outback Steakhouse have gluten-free and dairy-free options, but you never know if someone popped a slab of butter on top of your steak so it's nice to go to a restaurant that's dedicated to providing allergy-conscious food.

The next morning we defrosted our car and left for the Grand Canyon. While it's a couple hours' drive from Flagstaff, the trip seemed quick and we were soon skidding around the icy parking lot, trying to find a spot to park. Our plan that day had been to see Desert Watchtower and then head south to Wupatki and Sunset Crater, but snow closed those roads, so we took our time wandering around the Grand Canyon.

I had been to the Grand Canyon once, many years before, and I remembered it being truly awe inspiring. The view is just too much to take in and no single picture can capture what you're seeing. So I was excited to take Erinn with me this time, to experience the Grand Canyon with her, this being her first time. We started at Mather Point and worked our way westward to the rest of the Grand Canyon Village.

It was amazing. The red rock and green trees complemented by snow scattered throughout the canyon was beautiful. We slipped and slid to the viewpoints along the rim trail and snapped a few pictures. Once, I was walking behind a couple and the man ahead of me slipped on the ice, almost falling down. I laughed to myself for a moment before I started slipping, barely catching my balance. We had hiking boots on, but these trails were covered in icy snow and we might as well have been wearing slippers.

There's a shuttle that runs around the Grand Canyon Village area, making it easy to jump from the visitor's center to the Village, but that day we only made it half way. The Grand Canyon Train had broken down, shutting down the shuttle service, forcing us off about a mile from the Village. But this just meant we would have to walk along the rim of the canyon, which is what we were there to see anyway.

At the Village, we stopped at the El Tovar Lodge, ate a hot dog at a deli, and took in the view at Kolb Studio before heading back to our car. That night we ate Chipotle and slept soundly.

The next morning, we woke up early to watch the sunrise from Lowell Observatory and although it was obscured by clouds, the sunrise was beautiful. From Flagstaff we drove south toward Sedona on Highway 89A passing Slide Rock State Park and lots of beautiful pine trees. Sedona itself is like a town out of a movie, the buildings charming and these amazing red rock formations surrounding it. There's a nice small-town feel to the place and there are pink jeeps-for-hire everywhere just dying to take you out on a tour of the area. There's a trail that leads to a rock formation called Devil's Bridge that looks very cool, but we were just too pressed for time to hike the 3-mile round-trip to go see it.

So we moved on to Montezuma's Castle, which is a huge house built into the side of a cliff outside Camp Verde, AZ. The building is impressive and has been around since about 700AD.

We finished off our drive with a stop in Prescott to see Whiskey Row and finally got our Chicken Fried Chicken at Cracker Barrel in Kingman before getting to our hotel in Henderson, NV. Lots and lots of driving through Arizona.

Since we started 2012 in Las Vegas, we thought it would be fun to finish it there, too. We stayed that night at Sunset Station Hotel and Casino and gambled a few bucks here and there, hoping our luck would bring us lots of money, but settling for the free drinks as consolation.

The next morning we drove slowly back home and spent New Year's Eve with our friends, playing

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Caves in Avila, Parking Lots in San Luis Obispo

This weekend we took a trip to our usual beach getaway, Morro Bay. It's quiet and beautiful and the hotels usually aren't too expensive. Target is about 20 minutes away in San Luis Obispo, but for a weekend getaway, that just fine. Lots of tasty food can be found on Embarcadero Road and there's an Albertsons around the corner for groceries.

Mostly we just relaxed, ate BBQ at Main Street Grill in Cambria, and walked the beach a bit. The workweek is long and it's nice to sit back and enjoy the ocean breeze.

There are so many hikes in the Central Coast area. About a year ago, we hiked to the top of Bishop Peak and since then we've been roaming around San Luis Obispo County, looking for other trails to do. This time we had our sights set on Reservoir Canyon Trail, but by the time we got to the trailhead, the parking lot was packed tight. A bit aggravated by the teensy parking lot for the most popular hiking destination in San Luis Obispo, we decided to save it for another day and found another hike in Avila, this one much shorter and with a bigger parking lot.

The trailhead can be found at the end of Cave Landing Road, right off the main drive to Avila Beach from the 101. There were lots of people already there, but we still found decent parking and roamed around the area. Trails go up and down and left and right, all over the hillside. One went to the top of the hill, which was covered in wildflowers and another went down to the water. We took a trail that led to the point where the rocks jutted out over the ocean, then took another that led to a cave.

None of these trails were particularly long, but it was a beautiful day with nice weather. It was good to just walk around and smell the ocean and wildflowers. From the rocks, we could see the beaches of Pismo and from the trailhead we could see Avila. It was a nice place to be.

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